When I was a kid there was a sheep farm down the road from my house, and I always wanted to cross over the fence and be with the sheep. I lived in what might be called the boondocks, and I loved it. In the fall, herds of deer would race through our backyard and in the winter we drove snowy roads flanked by trees laced with ice that glinted in the sun. Our roads wound through fields of corn that at the end of a wet and dewy summer grew taller than our car, and at the end of the day, we drove past the sheep farm with its red barns into our neighborhood and up a long driveway through our own private forest.
I am a long way from that quiet world right now surrounded by cars and people and buildings that reach to the sky on all sides, but the rhythm and sounds of a life full of growing things are never very far from my heart. Thomas Wolfe said that you can’t go home again, and I suspect that this is probably true, but I think that we all carry a little bit of home with us wherever we go. I carried the love of the rural with me to LA in the form of a spinning wheel and a stash of downy fiber from sheep and alpaca that live close to where I used to. While I have never been fortunate enough to live on my own farm, I have been blessed to be able to bring a little bit of the farm into my urban world, and on a bad day, there is nothing like grabbing a clump of lofty wool and creating a strand of yarn that dances over my wheel.
I have found too that wherever I go, there is a community of people who share my love of sheep and wool and the rural. Even here in southern California, there are people who spin wool, and I love the juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern. What is more real than creating yarn out of fiber that was shorn from a living creature, freely given and ready to grow back, and then taking that yarn and knitting or weaving it together into things that we wear and use and interact with on a daily basis? It is as old as time, when people used spinning rocks to turn fiber into string, and today we do it in much the same way, gathering fibers together and creating twisted strands with a wheel.
But before the wool gets to me, it is grown on beautiful creatures just like the ones that I used to admire across the fence near my childhood home. And I find it even more amazing that in this modern world there are still people who spend their lives tending to flocks of sheep and goats and other fibery creatures. My friend Natalie is one of these people, a shepherdess who has flocks of sheep and goats in the desert of California. The word shepherdess still makes me giggle a little when I say it because it seems so old. I imagine someone dressed in robes on a hill counting the stars in the sky as they hold a crook in their hand and sheep sleep peacefully under a tree in the night air. An occupation as old as fiber itself, and yet this life of gathering and tending and caring for animals is one that is far too often overlooked in the midst of a world seemingly defined by commercialization and mass production.
Despite its roots in days gone by, this occupation should not be overlooked. It is messy and hard and requires strength of both body and spirit. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and life affirming. It is engaging in the process of creation, and it also requires that you give of yourself to the whims of nature, a reality that can be both tender and harsh. It is old. It is modern. And it is very, very real.
I had the privilege of spending a day at Natalie’s farm, Namaste Farms, a few months ago, and there in the middle of the dusty roads and grass covered pens, I saw a woman who was strong and spirited engaging with life in a way that was beautiful . She was caring for her sheep and goats with a realistic perspective that brought together farming, a sense of business, and a passion for her animals. With a measured hand, Natalie sheared a sheep relieving it of its fleece. She was tough and tender, doing what needed to be done in a way that showed concern for the beings in her care. To watch someone so knowledgeable gather up herds of sheep, felt like going back in time to a place that I had only imagined still existed. With her faithful dogs, she called out commands and the sheep clustered together until she selected one and showed us the amazing fleece that she has given her life to cultivating.
As I sit in a coffee shop that is appropriately clean and sterile, I take comfort in the fact that only a little way down the road from me, Natalie’s farm is full of all the right kinds of dirt where sheep are thriving and growing beautiful locks of wool that will someday make their way to me. It is that down to earthness that we need in our world. A reminder that life is often hidden in the earth around us waiting for us to reach in and find it.
I believe that there is something of the rural in all of us. Even those of us who live in between big tall buildings have lives that are rooted in places outside of our cities. Places where cattle feed and flowers grow, where the process of life goes on with a measured tenacity. Where our food and fiber are cultivated just beyond our view. And while many of us engage with the world in beautiful ways by growing flowers and vegetables or even tending to the animals so dear to us, I think that we are richer if we take the time to look at and remember the world of the farmer in the middle of all this modern.
Natalie’s farm is currently the subject of a new TV show called Shear Madness, a wild ride that showcases life on a fiber farm in southern California. With grace and a little bit of the delightfully crazy, Natalie shows us all that being a shepherdess is still a very real and wonderful life. And with ups and downs like the rest of us, she negotiates the challenges and joys that come when we reach into the world around us and attempt to pull out life.
If you need a little more real in your life, head on over to Nat Geo Wildand take a look at what Natalie is doing. If you’re like me, you may wish you had a dozen sheep clustered around you, or when the dirt settles, you may be very glad that those amazing creatures are not yours. But in any event, I’m pretty sure that peering into the life of a modern day shepherdess will be informative, memorable, and even, dare I say, exciting. And if you watch the upcoming show this Saturday, there is a chance that there may be a glimpse of yours truly. I don’t know for sure, but just maybe.
Natalie and her farm, Namaste Farms, can be found online at www.namastefarms.com