The tipoff came when our vet said “of course, your dogs know your flock better than you do.” She was talking about Flora and Tibbie, five or six years total with us – Puppy Fife was not here yet – and some sixty ewes, rams, wethers, and lambs who were no older than five years: All of whom spend All of their time together. But we are Human, and we got Competitive. It rankled.
I have to say that we know that Nature does not accept competition. If you choose to compete with Nature, you will lose and the only question will be how badly. Nature gives, and takes away. But still: we shear them, we help them give birth, we monitor their parasite levels, we watch them eat, we put them out in the morning and bring them in, to safety, in the evening. We see who limps, we are analytical, we have numbers, written down, about many aspects of all this.
The dogs do all that too, but they don’t write the numbers down. They don’t have to. The relationship they all have is the relationship of the herd, and we are only occasional participants. So the dogs know who stepped on a thorn or a piece of flint – these are the Flint Hills – and who is always at the front, and why they’re at the back. And the sheep know which dog is out of sorts, and who is sleepiest, and why they should let the dogs go first if something comes in on the breeze that doesn’t smell right. And what the barks mean, whether they are summonses or warnings or greetings.
But every once in a while, we are absolutely in their midst, off our hind legs, way past verbal, and vulnerable. It happens when we have become someone’s mother and a relationship has formed, not merely in our minds, but in the mind of this other mammal. We become a source of milk, regular, dependable, fair weather and foul. We remain there after the milk getting part of life passes.
So Bottle – 0008 on her ear tag – four years old, an orphan at the beginning of her life – Bottle comes up from time to time, pauses, and touches us with her muzzle. Her lamb comes too, but the relationship her mother has is not hers. “Hello, Bottle” we say. If feels very inadequate.
And Jock. It took five hours of rubbing with warmed cloths in front of a wood stove to keep him from freezing last March. He didn’t – couldn’t – walk for two days, not until he got onto grass. Jock is always first at the gate, and he often will linger as the others pass by, awaiting a touch and a word. “Hello, Jock” we say. It feels very inadequate.
Evenings, when the dogs and the ewe/lamb flock are at the gate waiting to come back into their night quarters, Flora and Tibble and Fife are right there. Flora expects to come first. If Jock forgets himself and gets in Flora’s way, she lets him know: “rrrrrr”, she says, at the back of her throat. And he gets out of her way. He knows that Flora means business.
Does any of this make our product – wool – any more abundant, any more useful, any more valuable? Why are we even asking?