Hello, fellow Nudgees. I returned recently ("recently" being a relative term, as in, more recently than my last blog post . . .) from a four-day stay on a sheep ranch where I was doing research for an upcoming novel. You're used to me reporting how I have "gotten some of it on me" in preparation for book projects. I've dabbled in surfing and motorcycle riding, attempted soccer, visited a burn unit and went into a fire in a firefighters training tower in full regalia. But none of that could compare in intensity to working with sheep.
And I'm not exaggerating when I say "work." Okay, so by the standards of ranch owners Lisa and Steve it may not have looked like work, but let's just say I didn't sit on the fence and watch and take notes. Except when it came to milking Helga the cow. I didn't atempt that. Helga was meaner than a 1950's spinster school principal. I sat on a hay bale and watched Lisa do it.
I wanted to work. Wanted to experience what my character would experience when she went to a Montana sheep ranch to help and heal. Lisa was willing to take me on for four days as if I WERE "Kirsten," so I got me my first-ever hiking boots and some jeans I wasn't going to care about and got myself to the historic Graham Ranch near Conrad, MT. Historic, like founded by some of the original settlers of Montana historic. Historic like staying in a 1912 farm house to which indoor plumbing was added in the 1930's and has barely been touched since. You get the idea.
It was glorious.
Every morning Lisa met me on my front porch at 6:00 a.m. -- she and her two amazing border collie-blue heelers -- and we headed to the barn to do chores. Mine included feeding the chickens, feeding hay to the three-week old "bum lambs" whose moms couldn't take care of them for some reason, and, after that first day, bottle feeding a lamb who had one eye and could never find her mom in the flock. They named her "LIttle Nancy" and from the moment Lisa put her in my arms, she was my lamb. Once the young bums, the middle school bums, and the last chance sheep were fed and watered, I was allowed to help herd the healthy ewes and their lambs out into their pasture a half mile away.
All 500 of them.
And that thing you always hear about sheep is absolutely true: they are stupid.
So stupid that even though they go to that same pasture every single day by that same route, every day they have to be shown again where it is and how to get there. If one decides that she wants to chew on this plug of grass over here, ten feet from the gate, everybody else follows suit. Every day. It was my job to hang in the back and make sure no stragglers were left behind. Being careful to give them their space, as I was instructed, I stood back and whispered, "Okay, go, go that way." And they would stand there and stare at me for a full fifteen seconds and then perhaps turn and go in the direction in which I was shooing them. I have never looked into eyes so clueless.
Or, perhaps eyes I could love more. I fell woolly head over cloven hoof for those precious animals. "Little Nancy" who pooped, peed and spilled her formula all over me. The lamb who was born while I was there and who Steve named "Ruelene," and who kicked and struggled while we were trying to worm her. The Frat Boy aged lamb who was being cut out with five of his buddies for the lamb chop factory (their fraternity was, of course, Lambda Lambda Lambda) and who dragged me to the ground in the barn until I had a nice sheen of pooh down the side of my jacket. And precious "Tiny Tim" who was lame but who still kept his ears perked up and baaed gratefully when I took his flakes of hay to him. I walked, ran, fed, blocked and chatted with those sheep and when I left Graham Ranch I cried for five miles.
There were other chores involved that stretched my abilities to and in some cases beyond their limits. "Helping" to repair a fence . . . well, let's just say every time I pick up a hammer to hang a picture at home, Jim takes it away from me. Steve was no different. I was a little better at operating the pump and carrying the milk bucket and applying paint to the foreheads of lambs so we'd know which ones we'd wormed already. But when it came to bucking hay, that's where it became just downright laughable.
Because the bum lambs and the ewes with young that can't keep up out there in the pasture yet can't graze, they have to be fed with hay grown right there on the ranch. It's baled and stored and more has to be brought into the barn as it's used up. "We just need seventeen bales," Lisa told me.
"Just." That's where it got funny.
We pulled the old (and I do mean old) pick-up truck up to the stack of bales and Lisa stood in the bed to stack them (since it had to be done just so) while I hauled them down to a lower level. I was feeling pretty good about my sweet sixty-one year old self, lifting those babies by their strings and getting them within range of Lisa. Until she said, "Okay, just toss me one."
Yeah, well, my arms had all they could do just to hold onto the thing. Toss? Was she serious? So I said to her, "Lisa, are you serious?"
My first "toss" was more like a "drop." She said to get it to the bed of the truck however I could so I held it out as far as possible and let it go. Of course it hit the tailgate and tumbled to the ground, busting from its string in the process and spilling all over the ground. I looked at Lisa. She looked at me. And we burst into hysterical laughter.
Thereafter "toss" was a mixturn of sling, fling, and back up before I too tumbled to the ground. Although it was pretty soft down there . . . We managed to get it all into the truck and as I climbed on top of the stack to ride back to the barn, Lisa said, "You have now bucked hay."
But we weren't done. What goes in must come out, so to speak. When we reached the barn, Lisa was once again in charge of stacking and I was in charge of "tossing." But now that I knew the word for it was "bucking", that made all the difference. Bucking sounded more like I should pitch it with my whole body. And make deep grunting sounds. And give it a little follow-through as you can clearly see from the above picture. I was bucking, and though covered in hay and dust and who knows what all else that I don't really want to know about, I made my final jump from the pick-up feeling like I was ranch hand material.
I'm not. But still there was something about being there and getting manure and baby lamb slobber and barn floor detritus all over me (and eating a hamburger made from fresh grass fed Black Angus beef) that made me realize that we human beings are made to experience life. Not just read about it or post about it or watch a video about it or talk about it in emails, texts and Skyped conversations. Life -- and by that I mean the God-life -- is there to be lived out.
So since I've been home, I've been more intentional about living. I'm moving around more. Jim and I are putting in ten walking miles a week with our dogs down our beautiful country roads. We're motorcycling and boating (when it isn't 100 plus degrees outside). I've bought new shoes so I can take up trail running in the fall. I'm doing The Artist's Rule course with a friend. It all feels as right as feeding Little Nancy those last few drops of her bottle and having her rest her chin on my shoulder and sigh a lamby sigh.
I'm being more conscious of the depth with which I do my work, too. As I work on this novel, I'm doing nothing but that during my scheduled work hours. No travel until September. Intense reading. Even more intense interviews with young women who have suffered as my character has. In-depth journaling. It's as satisfying as getting that last ewe into the pen and heading to Lisa's kitchen for elk steak and mashed potatoes.
It's summer, my fellow Nudgees. A time to experience this world, this life that God has so freely given us. What will your experiences be in these warm months? As always, I would love to hear how you're being nudged. Just remember, if I can buck hay, you can do just about anything.