Our young granddaughter was here for part of lambing season this year. She wondered why we had to do chores so often. In the summer, we just tend the sheep once a day. This time of year, we may be checking every few hours. But she was game to try (usually) and we settled into a nice routine of checking on lambs, refilling water buckets, and offering hay and grain.
Then, near the end of her visit, there was a glorious sunny day. We were out checking the hill for newborn babies, when she said “Gaga, let’s just sit down here and watch.” There is a big outcropping of ledge in that part of the pasture, so we sat on the sun warmed rocks. She lay back and said “I am sky gazing, you do it too.” Her aunt and I dutifully laid back and looked at the clouds slowly wafting by. Sitting up again, she said “Now we are sheep gazing.”
After 40 odd years of raising sheep, I realized that most of the time I am just looking at them to figure out if they need anything. Watching lambs frolic while their mothers eat is an evening pleasure but just sitting quietly and gazing at the ewes had seldom held the same enchantment. This brilliant afternoon, gazing through her young eyes, we all felt a piece of something bigger and very beautiful.
I seldom pay attention to the ledge we were sitting on, except to avoid walking on it when the rocks are icy or slippery. That afternoon, it became a natural wonder. We looked at the patterns, tried walking or sliding down the steep places, pondered if the groundhogs could tunnel beneath, reveled in the warmth. I watched warily as she tackled the steeper places, worried that she might fall and get seriously hurt. But she seemed to have a natural sense of caution, and only asked for a hand once or twice.
When I think about what is happening to our beautiful country, where violence and extremism seem closer and closer to unraveling our sense of peace and caring, I often feel that I must do something Right Now. I am watching and listening for what needs to be done.Taking the time to just sit and observe seemed a senseless luxury when the need for action was urgent. But that afternoon of sheep gazing on the sun-warmed ledge, has reminded me how important it is to really look at, listen to, and appreciate our world.
Thirty years ago this granddaughter’s mother taught me a lesson that has lasted to this day. We were walking in the city and someone asked me if I had any spare change. I said no and walked on. Anais said, “Mom, you have money, why didn’t you give him some?” I went into a lengthy explanation, which she wasn’t buying. We came up with the idea of filling our pockets with a certain amount of change. This we could give out when asked, and when it was gone could say no without a sense of guilt.
So I have taken in the past few months to engaging in those actions that are either recommended by the larger Quaker world or by my close friends, and not feeling guilty about the many other possible actions that I’m not taking. What I had forgotten is how important it is to sheep gaze, to look at the wonders of our world and our lives so that we are grounded in the why’s of activism.
Cheryl Mitchell is president of Treleven, a retreat and learning program located on her family's sheep farm in Addison County. She does freelance consulting on issues related to children, families, social policy and farm to community work.