Thursday, October 17, 2013
The Land Of My Soul
It was a crisp 16 degrees when we set out, the headlights of the truck shining on the black ice coating the roadway, with the soft fog buffering the white glare of the freshly fallen snow blanketing the landscape. It was slow going pulling the empty stock trailer so it wouldn't fishtail on the slick pavement, but an hour later, we turned off the highway onto a dirt flat overlooking the Big Sandy River, and were quickly swallowed into the frenzy of activity in the first morning light.
A set of portable pens the size of a basketball court had been erected the day before, and sat empty in preparation for the work ahead. A variety of muddy pickup trucks and stock trailers were parked nearby, out of the way of the semi tractor-trailers lined up to begin loading. Emerging from these vehicles or sitting astride horses were more than a dozen people of various nationalities - sheep herders from Ecuador, Nepal, Peru, and Mexico - Basque sheepman, truck drivers and a lamb buyer from neighboring Idaho, a local veterinarian, and state brand inspector. It was shipping day, time to ship the year's lamb crop to market. Rain and snow in the few days prior had prohibited us from sorting the sheep beforehand, so the herds had been combined and would come into the corral in one large bunch, with the sorting to occur at a series of gates off the alleyway leading to the loading chute. The sheep would enter the alleyway, with two sorting gates allowing older cull ewes to be separated into a second pen, and our herd to be cut into a third, with the main ewe herd proceeding down the alleyway and back out into the sagebrush, while market lambs would take a right turn and head up the loading chute into the waiting semis.
We waited in the cool morning air, shaking hands and visiting among the group, and petting the herding dogs when they approached in greeting, while the herders went to retrieve the herd. The dim morning light struggled to peek through the heavy overcast skies, but when the bunch of 8,000 head of ewes and lambs crested the ridge to the east and began flowing down the hillside, the sight was breathtakingly beautiful. Each of the sheep combined with the others so the herd seemed as one fluid movement, covering the landscape between the pens and the ridge in graceful unison, with their thousands of hooves making only a muted muffle as they shuffled through the snow. There were nearly two dozen guardian dogs amid the herd and around it in every direction - soldiers on the move, prepared for battle. Five of the guardians stayed ahead, scouting for danger as the herd moved forward. As the herd came closer, herders joined in on foot or horseback to continue to propel the flock in its forward movement.
The herd came to a halt just before the entrance to the pens, with the lead sheep pausing, heads up and erect, inspecting the layout before being escorted in by their canine guardians. The herd surged and moved through the open gate as a wave of water over a riffle, filling the pen in a matter of minutes.
The men stationed themselves from the loading chute, along the gates and alleyway, and throughout the large pen to keep the herd always moving forward. They laughed, hollered, whistled, cussed, and told stories, working hard all the while. They would work from dawn to nearly darkness, coming and going as duties demanded.
As they worked, I took photos and greeted many of the guardian and herding dogs that came through. I could only spend a few hours at the pens before I had to hit the road for a previous commitment on the other side of the state. As I turned to leave, I decided to take one last walk around the outside of the herd. I called "hey girls, morning girls," as I walked, and as I made the last turn of the curved pen, a distinct voice arose from that of the others. I looked in that direction and was thrilled to see Assistant Sheep, the lead sheep of our small herd, as she raced to the fence to greet me, raising her nose to mine as we touched heads in greeting.
When the semis were filled, a caravan of trucks would backtrack 15 miles south, to weigh the trucks on a certified scale. The weighs would be calculated with the negotiated sales price agreed to weeks before, and a telephone call would have the money wired from the buyer's account to the seller's before the trucks would be allowed to leave. The veterinarian had looked over the entire loading process, as had the brand inspector, and they leaned on the hoods of their trucks doing paperwork to certify the health of the animals and transfer ownership.
By the time I drove back through the rangeland, darkness hid its wonders, but I knew that under that starry sky, herds were bedded with their guardians and herders, waiting for that first light to begin making their way south to the desert for winter grazing. And as I turned my truck into our driveway, I turned the wheel so the headlights swung across the pen below the house, where I could see my sleeping herd, resting from their day's journey home.
Those who know me well know I call this sagebrush rangeland the land of my soul. Today my soul was nourished, and my heart was filled by the simple beauty of these animals and humans who share their lives in this great land.