Last weekend, as we zoomed from a frigid start around 0 degrees Saturday morning to a springlike sunny 50s on Sunday afternoon, I took the opportunity to enjoy tea, biscuits, and lovely walk in his back field with my across-the-street neighbor, Adam, and his and Annette’s dog, Pearl. I knew the weather was just a delicious tease, and that we would be back in deep winter again for a good while before the real deal was upon us. But it was enough to evoke for me the hunger for spring Peter used to express about this time of year, when he began complaining of “cabin fever” and accordingly started planning our annual April jaunt to New Orleans.
From the high ground on the walk back from the south border of Adam and Annette’s property I got an unaccustomed distant view of our barn and the field running from there down to the road. There, calmly, in the mid-afternoon sun, our entire sheep herd, large dots at that distance, appeared to be sauntering slowly back toward the barn from the roadside manger on Lasher Avenue where they had been munching hay and the remaining skeletons of discarded Christmas trees. Generally, left on their own, the movement of the herd is a very slow motion kind of event. In an open field full of grass, the herd reminds me of an amoeba or bit of protoplasm, irregularly shaped. They lurch fitfully in one direction or another, guided by some unspoken signals they convey to one another. Although the herd has some clear leaders, the mechanism by which they decide to shift from side to side or take unexpected turns is not fully apparent.
Last Sunday, when there was still six inches of snow on the ground, the movement was more orderly, single file, up the path they had created to get from the barn to the road without getting their feet unduly wet. But they always move at a pace that allows older and lamer sheep to stay with the group.
I was struck by the contrast between the herd’s sauntering pace Sunday afternoon and what I had witnessed just that morning at chores. Then, too, there was a substantial group down by the manger at the road. As Troy and I stocked the hay in the barn and annex mangers and set up their grain treat bowls, many, alerted by our noises and closing of the barn doors, realized what we were doing, and made their way up to gather outside the barn doors, ready to thunder in and get as much grain as they could when we reopened the barn. But a few lambs were so absorbed with whatever they were doing that they had not gotten the message.
When we rolled open the doors and the excited baas of the herd reached a crescendo, the ears of young lambs down by the road perked up, and when they realized they were alone down there they charged at lightning speed back up toward the barn, bleating most of the way. In their case, their urgent movement was clearly not for the grain. At that age, they generally are muscled aside at grain time and they only develop the grain habit over months. It was rather the separation from the herd and particularly from their mothers that impelled their mad dash to rejoin the group. The sorts of bleats they emitted betrayed their motives.
Both the slow movement of the herd that usually allows stragglers to stay with the group and the mad dash of the lambs when separated express the importance to sheep of the group staying together.
Sheep have long been symbols of extreme group think. People are described as sheep like when they appear to be unthinkingly following some invisible diktat that comes from their membership in a group. People of my political persuasion often dismiss MAGA-hat wearing Trump supporters this way. A friend of mine of decidedly more conservative bent told me that the white-garbed women at the State of the Union address last week evoked in his mind the wearers of Mao jackets during the Chinese cultural revolution. That comment in turn provoked another friend, from a far leftier perspective, to wonder why my conservative friend didn’t have a similar impression of the sea of blue-suited men in the chamber. When we view any group from the outside, and assume their similarity to a herd of sheep, we obscure the mix of personal thoughts, motives and emotions that go into making oneself part of the group and determines the group’s movement, and all the individually distinct ways people express their membership in the group.
Speaking as a human, with at least some understanding of my own needs, I’d say that flocking behavior, a sense of interaction within whatever group one defines oneself as belonging to, is nearly as fundamental to us as a species as it is to sheep.
Peter’s winter cabin fever was not simply about the weather. In his mind it translated into a need to gather periodically at an event like French Quarter Festival with thousands of fellow creatures engaged in the same social rituals and rhythmic movements. The addiction I share with so many others to communicate throughout the day via text and email is another expression of the fundamental social urge. The purpose of those communications rarely has to do with their putative subject matter. Rather, the purpose is to express and confirm the existence of a personal connection which I apparently feel needs confirmation. Viewed this way, the inanity of so much communication on Facebook and other social media is not be lamented, as the social purpose it serves has nothing much to do with its content.
Surely there can be ugly aspects to the grouping instinct. Sheep, despite family allegiances, occasional instances of head-butting rivalries, and other divisions, seem to be most desperate to be part of the herd writ large, not any particular faction within. Humans, in contrast, appear to have an inherent impulse to define subgroups, and to express social solidarity with the subgroup in opposition to others. How else to explain the apparent pervasiveness of blackface in the history of white male Virginia politicians? Doesn’t it represent the impulse of members of one group to justify their privileged positions by demonstrating how much they are not members of the excluded “other” group?
Nonetheless, whatever conflict, hierarchy, and tension inheres in the relationship, we humans need to be part of a group. Numerous sociological studies confirm that social isolation shortens lives. Solitary confinement is the most draconian punishment short of death because it so definitively denies satisfaction of a fundamental human need. When we describe people who appear to us to be guided principally by the dictates of their group membership, maybe rather than describing them as sheep-like we ought to just call them human.
WHAT’S NEW THIS WEEK.
TROY AND VICTORIA WENT TO A SEED SWAP AND A BEEKEEPERS MEETING THIS WEEK. LOOK FORWARD TO SOME PRODUCTS OF LOCAL HEIRLOOM SEEDS THIS THIS WEEK’S OFFERINGS
FROM LAST FALL’S GARDEN HARVEST:
FROZEN SQUASH (SHREDDED, TROMBONCINO), GREAT FOR FRITTERS, $2/LB.
EGGS: Back in full production. We can handle all your orders. $5/doz
MEATS: We keep some on hand, but it helps to order ahead in case we need to retrieve from our stash in the big commercial freezer
GEESE: One remaining, about 8.5 lbs. $10/lb.
TURKEYS: A few small ones left over and frozen $11/lb .
GUINEA FOWL, frozen $7/lb (half the price of the Union Sq. Farmers Market). These are excellent 3 lb. or so birds.
ROASTING CHICKENS – Freedom Rangers, $6/lb, range of sizes, mostly in the 4 to 5 lb. range
LAMB: Loin chops at $14 a pound, riblets $8/lb, rib rack roasts $14/lb, small leg roasts $14/lb, We will soon replenish our lamb supply as it’s time for several to go to market.
PORK: Loin pork chops, $12/lb (2 to a pack, btwn 1 and 1.5 lbs), Jowl (roughly 2 to 3 lbs each), $12/lb,
Spare ribs and country ribs $7/lb
baby back ribs $8/lb
fresh ham roasts (2 to 3 lbs), $12/lb
picnic or Boston butt roasts (roughly 2 lbs) $12/lb
smoked bacon, $12/lb
ground pork $7/lb
the last of our diminishing stash
Sirloin steaks, $14/lb.
kidney, heart etc. $1/lb
DUCKS: Last year we did Pekin ducks. The males are not so different in size from the females, and these are nice meaty birds, most between 5 and 7 lbs. Also $7/lb. We have to retrieve these from the big freezer, so please order a week ahead.
Email us your order at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Regular pickup times are Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., other days by arrangement. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call at 518-537-3815 or email.