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.

  • 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
  • “Shepherd,” by Richard Gilbert, is one man’s realization of a childhood dream and the complexities of sheep farming.
    Cover courtesy Michigan State University Press

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.

4/28/2014 8:07:31 AM

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. For starters is the mastery of the braided story with shifts of scene and theme with gorgeous descriptions at every turn, and his ear for dialogue which is loving and respectful, but with vivid color and full of gentle humor. But at the center all of it is Gilbert’s extraordinary voice as a writer. There is no persona here; this book is the story about a real person who authentically immerses himself completely and intimately into everything—the weather, vegetation, his beloved sheep, and the lives of the people in a poor Appalachian community. At one level, there is the haunting redemption of a distant father’s paradise lost weaving through the background. There is the lifetime naturalist, who knows the identity and history of all the vegetation he encounters, the seasoned newspaper reporter for whom it is second nature to bag someone’s story in a heartbeat, and a genuine curiosity about everything and everybody he encounters. Most of all is the courage of his honesty. If for not for the sheer pleasure of its artistry, read this book to find out what honesty is, because you can’t sit down and make that up: you either have it or you don’t, and Richard Gilbert possesses that rarest of gifts.

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