Remember the Reddleman

Nov. 24 2015
From the Farm

As a species, we’ve figured out Location: Here is right here, and There is over there. We’ve even identified some place which is Neither Here nor There.


But however clear Location is, Time is not so clear: we understand Now, andThen, too, but surely some parts of Now existed in Then—else it wouldn’t have turned out the way it is Now—and there are many parts of Then in what we sense as Now. Ask an Archaeologist. Ask a farmer.


The Reddleman was Diggory Venn. He travelled about Hardy’s Wessex selling reddle to stockmen who would rub it on the briskets of their breeding rams, and bulls too, maybe, so that they could see which ewes had been bred,and when, because the reddle would smear off onto the lower back of the ewe. Nowadays shepherds can use a harness which holds a crayon on the ram’s brisket—yellow, green, and blue are available in addition to red—and reddle itself is still available, also in different colors. So rather than wait the hundred days or so before the pregnancy becomes apparent, one can know which ewes were bred and which were not. It will not yet be clear whether the ewes were “settled”, but we will know whether the ram was working. And if there are no red smears, maybe it’s time for him to be retired. The book is Return of the Native.


We don’t use reddle in our breeding program, because we handpick the ewes to be bred (ten, this year), we monitor the health of our rams, and we turn the ram in late in the season so that his potency is not affected by heat. Of course we consider his offspring from last April. And we watch to see that he’s working.

He is.

Perhaps most important for us, on the prairie, 2015, is the fact that it’s not a matter of our survival. We’ll still have plenty of wool.


Our ancestors, one at a time, put their understanding and their skills to work on what they had and, over time, put all this together: the curiosity, the need to know, the availability of red stuff, the availability of fluid to mix with the red stuff, the ability to catch and smear a ram and then do it again when he would rather be doing other things. In this small corner of animal husbandry we can see those people, how they thought and what they came up with.

Virgil thought that “Jupiter ordained that ‘the way should not be easy’” in order to give rise to human ingenuity, and then, in due course, the development of the skills we need to take care of ourselves. I’m relying here on David Ferry’s admirable translation of The Georgics.

So I suggest that as we pause to give thanks, we consider that morning long ago when someone is holding on to a straining buck and another with a handful of red goo is starting to smear it on. I can hear her now: I sure hope this works, she says.

It did. Thanks.


Copyright Jerry Wigglesworth, 2015