Farms aren’t my thing, but I really wish they were. To quote my favorite chick flick, Titanic, I’ve always been “more of an indoor girl.” I’ve spent my adult life as a city dweller, and for the last eight years, I’ve been completely backyard-less. So the idea of having acres and acres of fresh vegetables, flowers and livestock to call my own is appealing, even though I don’t know the first thing about owning a farm. This week, I got my farming education from Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep & Enough Wool to Save the Planet, a warm and fuzzy memoir by author and farmer, Catherine Friend.
Friend never had aspirations of owning a farm. But when her partner Melissa reveals her dream of becoming a farmer, Friend agrees to give farm life a shot. Melissa takes charge of the fifty sheep and a handful of steers, llamas, and ducks on their farm in Minnesota, while Friend is content to remain the Backup Farmer. But as Sheepish proves, even Backup Farmers have bags and bags of wooly wisdom to share.
Friend has written two other farm-related memoirs, so Sheepish focuses mostly on the sheep, and “the middles”—the fifteen-year mark of her farming career, as well as the middle of her relationship with Melissa. “We rarely pay attention to middles,” Friend writes. “Perhaps we ignore them because they’re problematic. The middles of our beds often sag. The middles of our bodies sag. The middle of a long story told by your brother-in-law is likely to sag, and so you’ll need another beer to stay focused. Everyone needs a reason to keep going when they’re in the middle.”
Despite her challenges on the farm and in her personal life, Friend’s quirky sense of humor is the thick yarn that knits Sheepish together. The chapters are brief and anecdotal— usually only two or three pages long. They cover topics like shearing sheep, Friend’s crankiness, sheep sex, and those weirdos who spin, knit and weave wool as a hobby. But as the author learns to appreciate her sheep, she transforms into a self-professed “fiber freak,” too. When Friend catches herself hoisting her foot on top of a checkout counter to show the cashier the wool socks she knitted, she knows she’s become one of them. But the author doesn’t give in to her embarrassment and shove the socks in the closet. Instead, she embraces her new passion for knitting and proudly wears her woolly socks wherever she goes. And the best thing of all about wool socks, Friend points out, is that the fuzzy material wicks away moisture, so she can wear them for days at a time and they won’t get smelly.
Sheepish is mostly a memoir, but the author works in some fascinating statistics and historical details about sheep, too. I have to admit, I think sheep are cute, but I’ve never thought much about their origins. Did you know, for example, that Marino sheep were quarantined in Spain because their wool was so valuable Spanish leaders didn’t want anyone else to have them? In 1793, a Bostonian named William Foster smuggled three Marinos out of Spain and gave them to a friend in the United States for safekeeping, Friend informs us. But this arrangement didn’t work out so well—due to a lack of communication, the Marinos, which were worth $1,000 a piece, were butchered and eaten by accident.
According to Friend, sheep aren’t only a part of our history—they’re good for the environment, too. While some environmentalists claim that livestock are responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions, this is probably not the case at small, pasture-based farms. When livestock are mass-produced and sold only as meat, the manure builds up, creating a strain on the environment. But when flocks of sheep munch on grass at smaller, independently owned farms, the sheep may actually help reduce carbon and erosion. “Sheep have been a good idea for 10,000 years, and they remain so because sheep (and goats) are the planet’s self-propelled lawn mowers,” Friend writes.
Although Friend and Melissa have been happily running their farm for fifteen years, not everything is always hunky-dory. When Melissa must have two back-to-back surgeries, Friend is promoted from Backup Farmer to Lead Farmer. And although she has enough experience to take charge, the farm is simultaneously hit with a string of bad luck. When a ram escapes from his pen and impregnates half of the flock too early, the women have an important decision to make: Will they take on more than they can handle and go through with the dangerous winter deliveries, or give up and sell the pregnant ewes? Unfortunately, the bad luck doesn’t end there, and hard times lead to a temporary farming hiatus for Friend and Melissa. As the women must say goodbye to nearly all of their beloved animals, I couldn’t help but get a little teary—the last thing I’d expect while reading a book about sheep.
But perhaps most touching of all is Friend’s commitment to Melissa’s dream of owning a farm, even when the farm’s chance of survival seems bleak. During daily chores, Friend complains, frets and lets Melissa take the brunt of the work, but when the farm is under stress, the author maintains a calm, level head. She’s clearly someone you’d want to have in a bind—even under pressure, Friend makes wise, informed decisions. Although it might have been easier to throw up her hands and sell all of the animals, Friend’s love for Melissa and her sheep shine through.
Through all the stress of middle age and the awkward middle period on the farm, Friend, who is frequently described in Sheepish as “cranky,” doesn’t give herself enough credit. Although farming began as only Melissa’s dream, it’s clearly become a way of life for both women. Sheep have woven themselves into the fabric of Friend’s middle years, and whether she likes it or not, she’s committed to them. And if you still don’t believe me, get this: She even owns a pair of wool underwear.
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.