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Shepherd: A Memoir

Richard Gilbert
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 318
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Upon moving to Appalachian Ohio with their two small children, Richard Gilbert and his wife are thrilled to learn there still are places in America that haven't been homogenized. But their excitement over the region's beauty and quirky character turns to culture shock as they try to put down roots far from their busy professional jobs in town. They struggle to rebuild a farmhouse, and Gilbert gets conned buying equipment and sheep-a ewe with an "outie" belly button turns out to be a neutered male, and mysterious illnesses plague the flock. Haunted by his father's loss of his boyhood farm, Gilbert likewise struggles to earn money in agriculture. Finally an unlikely teacher shows him how to raise hardy sheep-a remarkable ewe named Freckles whose mothering ability epitomizes her species' hidden beauty. Discovering as much about himself as he does these gentle animals, Gilbert becomes a seasoned agrarian and a respected livestock breeder. He makes peace with his romantic dream, his father, and himself.Shepherd, a story both personal and emblematic, captures the mythic pull and the practical difficulty of family scale sustainable farming.

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-407-1
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Zoology, Botany & Plant Sciences, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
    (pp. 1-6)

    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...


      (pp. 9-26)

      Kathy had found the farm yesterday, in the gentle snowfall of our first Appalachian winter. Now she drove me to her discovery. Before we were out of town, I peppered her with questions and steeled myself for disappointment.

      It was December 1996, five months since we’d moved from Bloomington, Indiana, to Athens, Ohio. Five hard months of searching for a farm—either the houses or the land, or both, had been wrecks. One of Kathy’s secretaries, who’d grown up outside Athens, had told her that a farm would be auctioned to settle an estate. Immediately Kathy had been hopeful: a...

      (pp. 27-46)

      That first winter, friends back in Indiana would warn us when our former Hoosier hometown had been thrashed by wind and water and snow. “Watch out,” they’d say, “there’s a bad storm coming your way.” On television the Weather Channel’s radar confirmed this. A grainy mass of swirls was leaving southern Indiana and was bound for southern Ohio, coming right at us. But Appalachia’s uplifted terrain pushed back against fronts driven by winds from the south and west, and urged tempests along an easier path. Just before hitting us, storms would turn north and punch Columbus. I pictured the heavy...

      (pp. 47-64)

      I arrived one mild afternoon to tend our chickens at Willy’s and found my rolling hen house empty. Buff feathers littered the grass.

      Willy came out of his blue house. “A dog got in,” he said. “It went in over the top and busted through the wire.” He put his good hand on the wire portion of the roof, and I saw where he’d stapled the wire carefully back to a brace. Willy’s German shepherd slunk around the corner of his house, glanced at me, and disappeared beneath. Willy said, “I’m sure it was her. She’s a sneaky damn thing.”...


      (pp. 67-86)

      Claire and Tom and I sat at the picnic table beside the cabin, eating bagels. He had cream cheese on his cheeks and hands, and there weren’t any napkins. Never mind; we were homesteaders. Real landowners anyway, and half frozen. We’d spent the night in the chilly cabin, and Kathy, who’d slept in town, had brought us breakfast. It was a glorious late-April morning, sun-spangled, drying, bathed in birdsong. I luxuriated in the sun and gratefully held a cup of coffee.

      We heard the crunch of tires on gravel and saw a black Jeep pull into the farmyard below; it...

      (pp. 87-106)

      Weary of my endless work clearing fence lines of multiflora rose, I drove my truck to a pasture walk on a warm Friday morning that August. The farm, west of town, recently had been purchased by a young couple planning to start a dairy. About eight of us showed up to give tips on fencing and opinions on the state of their pastures. As a neophyte myself, I didn’t have any advice to offer, but hoped instead to learn.

      The host couple had moved down from Columbus, where they’d studied animal husbandry at Ohio State and then worked and saved...

      (pp. 107-126)

      I wanted to rename the farm. “Lost Valley” described the bottom ground now submerged beneath Lake Snowden. And people in this region of hills and hollows had called countless farms Lost Valley or Hidden Valley. The farm itselfwashidden, even secretive, despite the tree disaster and the curiosity we’d aroused, but I wanted a name that meant something tome.

      As a boy, I’d loved naming animals. At the age of five, living at Stage Road Ranch, I called my blue parakeet Hattie; I have no idea where the name originated, yet it still sounds perfect. A laying hen...

      (pp. 127-144)

      By February we’d spent countless hours and several thousand dollars planning a house, tearing down the cabin at Mossy Dell, and preparing the site. First we’d developed a floor plan with a national company that sold custom kit homes, airy timber-framed structures, before backing out over the cost. Then we’d worked with a local builder, who tried to approximate the timber frame’s floor plan on his computer, but created a stark rectangular box. Finally we’d hired a local architect to draw a house fitted to the sloping site. At last we clutched blueprints and were ready to get bids from...

      (pp. 145-162)

      On a fine day in early June, Claire and I were driving back to Ohio over Maryland’s western mountains. Fifteen ewe lambs stood behind us in the truck’s bed, under a blue aluminum topper, a new $500 investment that transformed my pickup into an animal transport. The lambs were mostly white, some with black spots across the nose, and one was reddish brown.

      “How about Cream?” Claire asked, trying out names based on colors and ice cream flavors.

      “Sounds good,” I said.

      “Chocolate for the brown one.”


      I worried about our climb of Maryland’s Sideling Hill, 1,269 feet high...

      (pp. 163-180)

      The July evening before our scheduled closing, Fred telephoned and told me that a thief had come in the night and stolen the two huge black lion statues that guarded his driveway. “I’ve reported it to the sheriff,” he said. I was relieved by this obvious lie. How could I have gotten rid of those pretentious eyesores? “Thanks for letting me know,” I said, and got off the phone. Interacting with him in person again concerned me because by then it was hard just looking at his long bloodhound’s face and hooded eyes.

      In a neighboring town the next afternoon,...


      (pp. 183-200)

      In early April, a little over a week until lambing, when I moved the flock to fresh grass one afternoon I noticed a small ewe with scours, the farmer’s term for loose bowels. Like all stockmen, I was becoming a butt and poop inspector, forever worrying about the consistency of the manure issuing from my animals. These scours were black, not greenish like the sort of digestive upset I could imagine from spring grass. The ewe didn’t graze, just lowered her head and let the grass brush her muzzle. Going off feed is another bad sign. An animal that refuses...

      (pp. 201-218)

      In late June, Kathy left for Hong Kong, where she was teaching a class to help pay off our house debts. I’d assured her that pond work and water lines would be subsidized for at least half their costs by the federal government under conservation and grazing-incentive programs. In truth I was hazy about what I was getting us into financially, because Daniel cost about $1,000 a day, and he’d said the job might take three days. I hoped that, with the federal help, I’d have to pay him at most $1,500—a small fortune to us by then. I...

      (pp. 219-236)

      I’d first noticed Cream’s problem in late gestation, just before our second lambing began in April 2000, when her anus bulged like a bright red ball. Now, several days after she’d lambed, her rectum protruded and hung down like the trunk of a baby elephant. She’d suffered a rectal prolapse. After last year’s lambing, I knew to expect anything, but this was a rare malady.

      Sometimes the rectum prolapses in overfed feedlot lambs, especially those with closely docked tails and respiratory ills that cause hard coughing. But it’s unheard of in mature sheep. And Cream wasn’t even docked. Like all...

      (pp. 237-254)

      A month before our third lambing at Mossy Dell, Glen Fletcher called and said he’d decided to move to Montana, buy a piece of land, and build a cabin. “Maybe I’ll get a job on a ranch,” he said. “Fish in the summer, hunt elk in the fall. Dodge grizzly bears till the snow flies.”

      “Really?” I was shocked—Glen was such a farmer, such a shepherd—and I felt, at the same time, a twinge of envy. Hunting and gathering and helping someone with chores seemed so easy and peaceful compared with running a farm.

      “Yeah,” Glen said. “Hank...


      (pp. 257-276)

      One afternoon a week before Thanksgiving, a month after I’d moved the sheep from Mossy Dell, Mom called me at the office from our house with news to report: “A man was just here asking for you. He wanted to check that you let him hunt, because your neighbor is upset.”

      “What was he driving?”

      “A big green truck.”

      “He lives on the other side of Lake Snowden. I said he could hunt deer at Mossy Dell.”

      Our upset neighbor had to be my irascible barber, Ernie. It didn’t take much to rile Ernie, but why would he care if...

      (pp. 277-296)

      Long ago I’d stopped talking of building a new house at the valley farm and selling the hilltop. We didn’t have the physical or emotional reserves to remount that rollercoaster, money concerns aside. We’d become averse to disruption. Our house, new from the ground up, reflected Fred’s legacy in the form of a wet basement. But it was home. And it didn’t appear that I’d ever run sheep on both places; I didn’t have the energy for it, and feared getting hurt again. Other than arranging hay cuts on the roadside field, I’d hardly visited Mossy Dell in two and...

      (pp. 297-314)

      So what indeed, Mom.I see your point now about selling Mossy Dell. Not such a big deal. There are endless dreams, so pick another or give an old one a new twist. That’s what Dad always did, forever reinvent himself, a jazzed beginner chasing a glorious new dream.

      And yet for me, Mossy Dell’s loss—for that’s how I couldn’t help but see it, as a loss—was a sea change, anotherbeforeandafter. Like when Dad sold Stage Road Ranch and overnight we found ourselves living in a Florida beach town freshly scraped from palmetto thickets.


    (pp. 315-324)

    This April morning is so mild, the spring so tenderly advancing, that I’m surprised the forested hills remain bare. The naked trees, rising above lush pastures and weathered crop fields, are the dry mousy color of deer. Over the gray-brown domes of the woods there’s a golden-green haze: budding leaves. In field borders and woodland edges, brush is in full leaf; the multiflora roses glow lime green. In lawns, growing fast now and clumpy, whips of forsythia arch in ecstatic yellow sprays. The breeze smells of cut grass and gasoline: someone has mowed. The airy white blossoms of pear trees...

    (pp. 325-326)
    (pp. 327-327)
    (pp. 328-328)