The Day The Sheep Shearers Came

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You need not go far in my home state of Vermont to find a farm. Lots of people live and work on them, the rest of us drive past them going to and from. Same thing applies to upstate New York, a stone’s throw away. Writer Jon Katz and his wife, fiber artist Maria Wulf live on a farm there. They have sheep and other animals, but the thing I find most appealing about their sheep in particular is Maria’s use of their wool for her work; she also sells some of it to other artisans.

It was sheep shearing time at Bedlam Farm last weekend.

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At one point during the nineteenth century sheep outnumbered people in the state of Vermont three to one. (HCB leaned into my ear when Jim-the-Sheep-Shearer said that, and lamented it was too bad they couldn’t be taxed; there are not many of us here in Vermont, which means we can’t put enough into the state coffers for important things like keeping our roads plowed in the winter. If you want to test this theory, drive across the state line after a winter storm and compare.)

Also, Jim-the-Sheep-Shearer said cows have never outnumbered people in Vermont. You’d never know that, judging from our collective waistlines. But not from Jim’s.

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He is fit as a fiddle, a performance artist through and through (although Jon insisted he never gets the same treatment without a crowd around). Jim and his colleague Liz expertly sheared Jon and Maria’s small flock in a matter of moments and made it look like child’s play. Jim sang and recited poetry while he worked, and at one point even did a little yoga for comic relief. As if any were needed; sheep are so silly.

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Sheep shearing is athletic and dangerous. I know this to be true after watching Jim and listening to his stories about near misses with private parts. And even here you can see the sheep is all up in his business.

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From observers came questions about shaving all that wool just before winter: wouldn’t they be too cold? I get that all the time, he said. Turns out sheep don’t actually need their wool anywhere near as much as people do. At least, that is what I understood from his answer. He said before cold weather arrives in earnest the sheep will have had a chance to grow about three inches of new wool.

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The white sheep go first so that their wool is not “dirtied” by stray fibers from the black sheep when it goes to the mill. Jim told us all kinds of other relevant stuff about sheep, shearing, and shearing equipment, including the shearer’s clothing, which is pocketless for safety reasons (take a look at the photos above and you’ll understand), and the shoes, which are specially made for comfort and pliancy.

Red-the-Border-Collie was invited into the barn enclosure to keep the flock cornered as they waited. I have never really seen Red stop working, at least not in earnest, but it did not take much for him to maintain order. The sheep have a profound respect for him.

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And lo there were nekkid sheep, who seemed relieved to be out of the barn.

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Observing someone who clearly loves what he does, and who is an expert: that is a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.

There was a lot of that going around last weekend on a perfect New England fall Saturday.

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