Sheep Shearing for City Slickers

Right after graduating college in 2004, I took a job as a daily newspaper reporter in a very small town in Central California. Hollister was hardly cosmopolitan, and the above-the-garage unit I lived in on a local family’s property was not exactly centrally located: My roommate and I would have to run out to the main road to flag down the pizza delivery guy at night. I’d wake up most mornings to the sound of mooing outside my window. I lasted about seven months before picking up and moving to New York City, telling my editor something along the lines of “I’m sorry, I just can’t live any longer in a place with cows outside my window.”

So my parents found it absolutely hilarious when I sent them pictures of the view from my first post-Asia residence in back in New Zealand.

View from my cottage window on the farm.

“You do realize you’ve ended right back up with cows in the backyard, right?” my mother immediately pointed out.

Well, yes, I did. And I’ll admit, spending a week WWOOFing after living the last 10 years in Boston and New York City, after spending the last three months on hectic city streets and buses and motorcycles, was a bit of an odd choice. But you know what? When you’re sitting on a beach in southern Thailand, trying to figure out how you can possibly start looking for a new “real job” back in a foreign country you haven’t seen in three months, your definition of “normal” gets a little out of whack. Suddenly doctoring up my CV for office jobs in Auckland or Wellington sounded crazy; spending a week chopping firewood and driving tractors felt like a much saner choice.

And so, I went all Eva Gabor. I carefully rolled up all those new office-appropriate clothes I’d bought and wedged them into the very bottom of my pack, pulling the tattered, the stained, the weather-resistant pieces up to the top where they’d be easily accessible. I got a ride to the Coromandel Peninsula. And I got to work atop rolling green hills overlooking the Pacific.

This is normal, right?

Let’s pause here for a moment to talk about exactly what “WWOOFing” is. WWOOF stands for “willing workers on organic farms.” The organization brings together a network of farmers who need help on their properties and people eager to learn more about organic principles and the great outdoors. Also, tourists with more time than money: the farms’ owners provide food and accommodation in exchange for a few hours of work per day from each WWOOFer.

This often means you’ll be weeding vegetable patches, mending fences, harvesting kiwifruit or wine grapes or olives, clearing brush or helping with ominous-sounding composting projects. For me, it meant planting trees, learning to drive a tractor, and stacking firewood. And, on my very first day, it meant I’d be moving cattle.

Let me be clear, here: prior to arriving on this farm, I’d never so much as patted a cow lovingly on the head. About all I knew about cattle was that I didn’t want to eat them. I had no idea how to get 200 of them to follow me out of the pasture they’d broken into, down a hillside, across a stream, up another hill, and back into the pasture they were supposed to occupy. This seemed like pretty expert territory.

Have I mentioned there were a lot – a LOT – of cows?

And indeed, it may have been. But here’s the prep talk the farmer gave my fellow WWOOFer, Iva, and me before sending us into the pasture:

“Don’t get in front of a heifer when she’s heading downhill: that’s a lot of momentum, and you don’t want to get trampled by a cow who can’t stop.”

And that’s pretty much it. He told us to stick close to Keith, his longtime farm-hand, and set us loose. Keith called out to a few cows, clapped his hands, and took off running; a few of the cows followed him and I sprinted off to keep up. Soon, all 200 cattle were hot on our tail.

Have you ever seen a movie where there’s some sort of mythological beast or medieval army on horseback in vengeful pursuit of the hero? Have you noticed how the protagonist’s always tumbling down a hillside, slapping pine branches out of his face, scrambling in the mud in terror as the heavy breathing and pounding hoof-beats of his pursuers grow louder and louder all around him? I think whoever writes those scenes must have once tried to lead a fleet of cattle from point A to point B.

As these huge things barreled towards me with shocking speed, I was ducking through gaps in trees barely big enough for a human female — let alone animals the size of Volkswagons. But they somehow made it through after me. I was tracing wild circles with my arms as I attempted to keep branches out of my eyes —  but the needles scratched and smacked me anyway. I kept looking behind me and noting with terror that, Dear God, somehow five cows had appeard directly behind me atop a 45-degree slope, and none of them seemed to have more than one hoof on the ground at any given time. You’d better believe I stuck close to Keith like he was my mom dropping off on the first day of kindergarten.

Speaking of things I probably shouldn’t be allowed to do…

Surviving a loosely organized cattle stampede, it turns out, must be a huge confidence booster. I know this because the day after somehow managing to not die under 800 galloping hooves, I started asking the owner of the farm when the last time was that the property’s lone sheep had been sheared. This won’t strike you as an unusual question, even coming from a city slicker like me, when you see the sheep in question. This thing looked more like Bob Marley than Mary’s little lamb.

Baaaaah-b Marley! (This isn’t the last of the sheep jokes you’ll be seeing in this post. I apologize in advance)

The owner thought about it for a minute before replying, “Gee, I dunno — must be a couple of years, at least.” Sheep in New Zealand, for the record, are typically sheared at least annually. But this guy had been given ample opportunity to grow out his dreads, soaking up rain and mud and excrement the process. And for some reason, my two fellow WWOOFers and I all agreed that we were just the trio to clean up his look.

Our supervising farmer was surprisingly game, and went to town early one morning to procure an ancient pair of clippers. They looked a bit like the comically over-sized scissors used at ribbon-cutting ceremonies, but with fist-sized iron loops for handholds and butcher-knife-shaped blades on the ends.

Rustlin’ sheep. (Does this qualify as “rustling”? It seems like it should.) That’s me in the gray jeans and black hoodie.

Unfortunately, the blades’ resemblance to instruments of death was not lost on the sheep, which immediately assumed that being caught would result in its untimely end. The sheep quickly wriggled itself in amongst the farm’s population of highland cattle — enormous things known for their gnarly, Where the Wild Things Are-esque horns — as we ran around the pasture, long sticks in hand to expand our “reach,” trying to separate it out from the pack. This continued for about ten minutes, accompanied by the circus music playing in my head, until finally our farmer took a flying leap and managed to somehow tackle our overly fluffy friend.

I realize this sheep does not exactly look alive. But trust me, it is.

The truly amazing thing was how quickly the sheep stopped struggling once we’d pinned it down. It was as if it had instantly accepted defeat: “All right, good show, I’m tapping out.” There was no fighting, no resistance. It just lay there on the wet ground, allowed us to drag it to a nearby shed, let us sit it up on its haunches like a baby. It did kick at us occasionally as we clipped away, crudely, unevenly, at its overcoat-length mass of wool; we gripped our hands tightly around its legs and cooed calming affirmations into its eyes, which were quickly disappearing under the pounds and pounds of wool falling to the ground. There was so much wool coming off that I was actually able to make a comfortable pad to kneel on out of the half-attached pelt; it was so thick and wet that you could hear the sheep’s muffled and annoyed breathing under the thicket of the stuff draped over its face.

More sheep humor: Where do sheep go for a haircut? To the baaaah baaaah shop!

All told, it took the four of us about two hours to rid the poor thing of its excess weight. We hacked away through rain-soaked clumps, mud-caked globs, and dangling bits of extremely discolored wool that we declined to handle without gloves. Finally, we ended up with this:

This, if you’re wondering, is far, far more wool than is supposed to come off of a single sheep.

And the sheep ended up with this:

Fortunately for the sheep, asymmetrical bobs are very in right now.

I’ve left the farm since, and am ensconced once again in a capital city with public transportation and shopping streets and elegant architecture. But now I’m wondering if I can find a way to incorporate cattle rustlin’ and sheep shearin’ into my CV. There’s a lot to be said for office experience in big-city high-rises. But there may be just as much to be learned from literally chasing a problem down, tackling it, and setting to work.

Now with video documentation!


6 thoughts on “Sheep Shearing for City Slickers

  1. I think it wise that you only tell me about your hair- and wool- and hoof-raising adventures AFTER the fact–it keeps my motherly anxiety low and my reading pleasure high! (And I hope that recently sheared sheep gets trimmed up proper sometime soon. Kinda reminds me of the whack job I did on your dad’s ponytail when he was 18!)

    • Luckily, my own desire to not get kicked in the face by a farm animal is equal to or greater than your desire for me to… not get kicked in the face by a farm animal 🙂

  2. hahaha i LOVE the after photo of the sheep :). i bet he feels so liberated! and i also heart the picture of you rustlin’. another skype date very soon! xoxo

    • Xtina, there is actually a video of me attempting to rustle, and it is pretty hysterical. I hope to show it to you one day over truffled pasta at Bacci & Abracci! Miss you!

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