Reclaiming Our Land and Childhood Dreams

Sheep farming was Richard Gilbert's childhood dream, so when his family relocated to Ohio he set to reclaiming land of his own.

Sheep farm

After losing the farm of his boyhood, Richard Gilbert sets his mind to reclaiming land in order to live out the childhood dream of having a sheep farm.

Photo by Fotolia/Hoda Bogdan

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After moving to Appalachian Ohio, Richard Gilbert struggles to successfully fulfill childhood dreams of farming. Shepherd (Michigan State University Press, 2014) details his journey through the practical difficulties of family scale sustainable farming to becoming a seasoned breeder and agrarian. In the following excerpt from the prologue Gilbert shares his desire to reclaim the land lost in his boyhood, and the mysterious problems that come with lambing season.

Childhood dreams cast long shadows into a life. As if the strong feelings they stir prove their validity, dreams propel the dreamer through an indifferent world. Which explains how I, a guy who grew up in a Florida beach town, find myself crouched beside a suffering sheep in an Appalachian pasture.

“Richard, I think you should call the vet,” says my wife. Kathy and I flank the ewe’s prostrate body.

Our third lambing has just begun this spring of 2001, and Red is in trouble. I’d found the little ewe in distress and had urged her up and nudged her inside an old shed, where she’d collapsed and resumed straining, panting as if in labor. But nothing happens; no lambs, hour after hour.

Kathy knows I’m reluctant to seek paid help. We’re on a tight budget and I’m trying to be a practical farmer, even if still part-time: commercial shepherds do their own veterinary work, or they simply shoot and compost ailing ewes. Profit margins, razor thin, can’t support farm calls.

But Red, small and fine-boned, white with a roan patch on her neck, is a special case. She emerged four years ago from the anonymity of our new flock, fifteen rambunctious ewe lambs, by insisting on making herself our pet, surprising us and astonishing her wild flockmates. During a disastrous renovation of our farmhouse that summer—we maxed out our credit cards, spent our kids’ college savings, and borrowed against our retirement accounts—she’d sidle up every afternoon to be petted. As our other sheep stared at her in wide-eyed horror, Red mooned up at us with trusting eyes, charming us and lightening our cares.

So I relent and call Maggie Swenson this Sunday afternoon. She arrives as heavy shadows from hickory and locust trees fall across the pasture. Maggie announces after a quick check that Red’s cervix isn’t dilated, and then she sits back with a puzzled frown on her elfin face. Red sure appears to be in labor. I mention ringwomb, when a pregnant ewe comes to full term yet fails to dilate for delivery, which I’ve heard about in an e-mail listserv for shepherds.

“Could be,” Maggie says doubtfully, her short gray hair luminous in the shed’s deepening gloom. I wonder if ringwomb is even a recognized sheep ailment—there are so many, and I can’t find it in my reference books—or just more gossip from my virtual colleagues, who keep me fretting about the endless woes that sheep are heir to.

“Should we load her up and bring her in?” I ask.

“I don’t see what good it’ll do to bring her in.”

Maggie seems to be writing Red off, though she’s too kind to say anything so harsh, and her attitude puzzles me as much as Red’s condition does. Where’s the help I’m paying for? “If she hasn’t delivered by tomorrow,” I say, “maybe I should bring her in for a C-section.”

Maggie nods. “Call first,” she says. Then she shows us how to massage Red’s cervix, which Kathy does for an hour without result, and we return to our house and our children in the mild April darkness.

My father lost our farm in Georgia when I was six, and I grew up in Florida fantasizing about reclaiming our land. Decades later, when Kathy’s job took us here, to a place where we could buy a working farm, my boyhood dream resurfaced and carried me away.

I’d said I wanted an adventure when we moved to this beautiful backwater, Appalachian Ohio, from our comfy house in prosperous suburban Indiana, yet the first thing I learned was that I didn’t like starting over in a new place; it was hard, and didn’t suit my need for stability. As a local acquaintance jokes about such matters, “It weren’t easy.” In early middle age, Kathy and I had returned to Ohio with two young children—not to the state’s busy capital where we’d met in graduate school fifteen years before, but to Athens, a battered brick enclave in the state’s remote southeastern corner. We were shocked. Athens seemed to have more in common with a village in dusty western Kansas than it did with long-domesticated Ohio, a state of orderly farms, dotted with big industrial cities. Just before moving I had learned that Ohio had an Appalachian region, and upon arrival saw what that meant: poor, tired towns; roadsides choked with litter; the land abused for decades by extractive industries—coal mining, timber cutting, natural gas drilling; the growing of erosive row crops like corn. I was horrified that we’d traded our stable, affluent world for this pinched place.

We’d moved only six hours east from Indiana, but had come so far. We couldn’t know how far we had to go. We hadn’t expected to find such stark regional differences. We’d accepted the myth that America has been homogenized, scrubbed clean of warty local distinctions by affluence, by shared television shows, and by broadcasters whose bland voices erode the patterns of proudly regional speech. Part of me was thrilled to discover there are still places in America, and for all its poverty and isolation it was the most beautiful landscape I’d ever seen. In Ohio’s hill country, a wrinkled shirttail dangling untucked above West Virginia, everything felt different: the layered woods, the light flashing off pebbled creeks, the wind in the trees, the wild phlox that bloomed pink beside shaded roadsides late in May.

All we needed to make my dream come true, I’d vowed to myself after our exhausting relocation, was our own land. I pictured cattle lowing across a drowsy green valley in the sun-heavy afternoon, a red banty hen clucking in the barnyard dust. What I hadn’t known as a daydreaming kid in Florida, and couldn’t foresee as a neophyte agrarian in Athens buying land and livestock, was that my Eden could be so very complicated. All I knew, though I wasn’t sure why, was that I had to act on my desire at last.

On Monday, as I drive across the road to where Red is confined, I hope to find her nursing twins, or maybe triplets. I’ll turn her out into the bright sunshine with her lambs and she’ll graze the shiny spring grass.

Stranger things have happened. In our first lambing, everything went wrong: ewes rejected lambs, two ewes died, and we had to pull a lamb that had expired in the womb. Last year there had been only one big problem, but a doozie, unheard of in a mature sheep. During the strain of late pregnancy, a ewe suffered a rectal prolapse, meaning her rectum fell out; it hung down like the trunk of a baby elephant and I had to shove it back in—four times. I concluded that severe genetic faults afflicted most of our ewes. Now Red is down. For the hundredth time I curse her lackadaisical breeder. And guiltily remember my excitement when I bought our first ewe lambs at such a bargain price, only $100 each.

I park and march uphill to the shed. Red lies where Kathy and I left her last night, and I kneel on the hay beside her. Both of her sides bulge with the splayed saddlebags appearance of a ewe hugely swollen in late pregnancy. Her eyes tightly closed, she saws her outstretched neck from side to side as if trying to get the right angle, to find some comfort. She grinds her teeth in pain. She moans, a human sound, and moves her head upward, lost inside her struggle.

“Oh, girl,” I say. Poor Red. I can’t maintain a farmer’s resignation—I’ll have to get Maggie to try surgery.

As I return home to give her a call, I remember what Kathy said as I left our farmhouse this morning: “If you decide to take Red to the vet, don’t try to load her by yourself. Ask Sam to help you.” Our neighbor Sam is always eager to help—true. A retired handyman for the university where Kathy and I work, he takes an avid interest in my activities. But I don’t want to get started with him, not yet, not so early in the farming year. I need to lamb alone. The ewes know me, I tell myself, and I don’t want them spooked by a stranger—anyone they don’t see daily. In truth, I can’t face goodhearted Sam’s constant questions, which would be as maddening as gnats around my eyes during this latest, mystifying crisis.

As I drive my pickup truck back up our driveway, I feel again like such an amateur. I’ve set so much in motion that’s beyond my control. Yet when things go right, I know, lambing season is almost unbearably exciting. My pocket lambing notebooks, cheap spiral-bound Oxford booklets from Wal-Mart’s shelves, capture, as if enchanted, its chaos, drama, and abundant living gifts. Even now, years later, I can turn their dog-eared pages—smudged by dew and birth fluids, smeared with blood and dirt—and hear lambs crying and their mothers baaing and see a ewe licking her newborns in the sun. The chunky notebooks contain data: birth dates, weights, tag numbers. And scrawled exhortations: Great mother! or Cull this ewe! My records affirm that Red was a calm, patient mother in her first two lambings. She never fled from me, dragging her panicked newborns behind, or lost them, upsetting other ewes by baaing her way through the flock looking for them.

I park at our house, call the veterinary office, and try to figure out how to load Red. Although her breeding weight is only about 115 pounds, she probably weighs an additional twenty-five at full term. As svelte as a gazelle, she doesn’t look 140 pounds, even bloated by pregnancy. Small-boned myself, I weigh about 165. Although my legs are strong, my upper body isn’t, and at age forty-six, there’s no doubt I’ve inherited Dad’s bad back, which leaves me sore and creaky after a hard weekend of farm projects and sometimes lays me low with painful spasms.

I know to be careful, to lift with my legs. I’ll get Red to town with a short lift into our big two-wheeled garden cart and then another into the bed of my truck. As I roll the cart to my pickup, I suppress an image of Red panicking and thrashing in my arms, her flinty hooves spearing my stomach as her iron-hard head clobbers my face. Our fifty new ewes regard me warily from the pasture beside our house. In March I bought them in a flock dispersal, a great chance to expand with a strong new bloodline, but now I’m feeling overwhelmed, with new chores and new worries about having enough grass and hay to feed two flocks totaling one hundred ewes. Since getting the new sheep, I’ve found myself chewing my fingernails as I drive to my day job each morning.

I’ve taken two weeks of vacation for lambing, starting today, and have plenty of time for tending ewes, delivering lambs, and handling the odd emergency. Yet my vague but persistent fears visit me, magnifying Red’s emergency. My busyness and the greedy project I’ve hurled myself into have devoured my spare time. I feel guilty for neglecting Kathy and our children, and I know my coworkers think I’m crazy. And what do I really know about farming, anyway? Practically nothing. After Dad sold our Georgia farm, I grew up a block from the Atlantic Ocean; the only sheep for a hundred miles was pictured in grainy black and white in one of Dad’s ancient textbooks. As I heave the cart aboard my truck, anxiety spikes through me.

A decade later, a friend will ask me about our Appalachian adventure: “Was your experience typical? As a beginning farmer? All the problems?” I’ll wonder what she really wants to know. About our house disaster? The puzzling birthing problems in our first flock? The vile disease that surfaced in our second? Being caught between feuding neighbors? My injuries? My emotions? Me?

With a guilty pang, I pass Sam’s tidy house for the third time this morning, the wheels of my upended cart spinning slowly in the bed of my truck. I wish I didn’t have to deal with this crisis, although by now I know that something is always going wrong on a livestock farm.

But God, now Red. This feels so cruelly wrong, so upsetting. So lonely.

“Ask Sam to help you,” Kathy had said.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Shepherd: A Memoir by Richard Gilbert and published by Michigan State University Press, 2014.