Thursday, September 20, 2018

I hope the ewes heard me

‘I got the fence by the cowshed finished and couldn’t help yelling in triumph. Getting it done at last felt fantastic. I hope none of the real farmers heard me. I hope no one heard me. Then again, I hope the ewes heard me. They could do with something to think about.’ This is from a delightful diary, published today by Quercus, charting the daily practice and the metaphysical delights of sheep farming. Written by Axel Lindén, a Swedish literary graduate who decided in 2014 to drop his doctoral studies in favour of a simpler life, On Sheep is heralded by the publisher as ‘a sensitive and entertaining meditation on the small wonders in our world.’

Axel Lindén was born in 1972, studied literature at Uppsala University, and was teaching in Stockholm when, it seems, he was hit by an early mid-life crisis. In his introduction to On Sheep, he explains how he became increasingly aware of potential global environmental crises. He drew the conclusion - ‘a bit hastily’ he notes in retrospect - that ‘the only way to seriously tackle the threat to the climate and global injustice while also making sure of the bare necessities when it all came tumbling down was to start growing our own food and chopping our own wood. And getting some sheep.’ 

As it happened, his parents, who owned a farm in southern Sweden, were wanting to retire, and so he (and presumably his wife, though she is not mentioned explicitly in the intro) decided the family would move out of the city to take over part of their farm. And so, by mid-2014, Lindén found himself focussing on being a sheep farmer (although exactly how this came about is not clear - there’s very little biographical or contextual detail with the diary).

On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd contains extracts from Lindén’s diary from July 2014 through until October 2016. The published extracts are sometimes daily though with many gaps, and they vary in length from one line to half a page or so. 
Lindén develops an interesting relationship with the sheep, which he sometimes personifies. For example, when he falls ill with pneumonia he notes how the sheep could have escaped if they’d tried running off. He writes about how the ewes don’t have names (unlike the rams who have a duty to perform as individuals) but they do have numbers (because, he says, they are first and foremost flock not individuals). Nevertheless, he uses these numbers rather affectionately. There’s one ewe, for example, ‘as calm as an old pine tree. That’s number 018; she’s always been particularly sociable.’

The diarist’s prime concern, initially, seems to be to record the practical details of his new life, his responsibilities towards the sheep, and his need to make a living from them. In time, he develops an appreciation of the spiritual and emotional value of manual labour, caring for other living things, and staying connected to the earth, and he finds himself meditating on more philosophical and existential matters. Eventually, however, he finds he cannot stop thinking about the sheep as anything other than a source of income, and all the back-to-earth novelty starts to fade. In one of the last diary entries, he writes simply: ‘The uncomplicated sense of being a shepherd and immersed in the life of the sheep lacks vitality now.’

On Sheep, as translated by Frank Perry from the original Swedish Fårdagboken, is published on 20 September 2018 by Quercus. And, with thanks to Quercus, here are several extracts from the book.

30 August 2014
‘I’ve done almost nothing today with the little woolly’uns. I have been thinking about them though. I checked on the water for the ewes. I even went and stood in the middle of the flock to help them stay used to a human presence and to keep the relationship going. Trust is a perishable commodity, in life and in the sheep biz.’

2 October 2014
‘I got the fence by the cowshed finished and couldn’t help yelling in triumph. Getting it done at last felt fantastic. I hope none of the real farmers heard me. I hope no one heard me. Then again, I hope the ewes heard me. They could do with something to think about. Though they’re doing well enough, just trudging along must get a bit tedious. Imagine if all you had to worry about were your most basic needs. Am I hungry? Thirsty? Am I feeling cold? It’d be enough to drive you crazy. Or leave you feeling completely calm.’

2 December 2014
‘Sometimes, like today, prising the silage out of the bale is all but impossible. Somehow the tufts of grass manage to weave themselves inextricably together. I keep at it and get sweaty. And angry. We’re supposed to work collectively on this farm of ours, that’s the whole idea, though clearly it doesn’t apply to everyone. I’m the only one doing any work, I think bitterly. I don’t get worked up normally but an unexpected rage starts bubbling up inside when I have to labour hard enough to be out of breath. It is cathartic.’

22 December 2014
‘The sick ewe appears to be recovering. She’s grazing along with the others. Her name is 195. Using numbers might seem a bit impersonal but it feels appropriate nonetheless. Sheep are flock first and foremost and not individuals. We only use real names for the stud rams. Not because we have more respect for them but because for a brief period they have a duty to perform as individuals.’

10 April 2015
‘A couple of the mums - we call them ‘mums’ when they’ve just had lambs - keep shoving their lambs away so they can’t get at the teat. We have to hold these mums still a couple of times a day. I was absolutely furious with them at first but now I’ve come to terms with the fact that they’re just being sheep. You can’t identify with these animals. They are utterly unlike us.’

20 August 2015
‘Someone asked me what sheep smell like. I don’t really know, never thought about it. That will be up to the beholder’s . . . nose. The ewes have a gland right next to their teats. It looks like a suppurating wound, which makes finding out what it smells like pretty off-putting. The gland helps guide the newborn lamb, presumably by scent alone. My family often say I smell of sheep when I’ve been shearing them. I think the smell is like that of a well-worn sweater, still bearable, but in need of a wash.’

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