Hennessy stared at her computer screen and bit her lip as she pondered the first assignment of her freshman English class. A personal essay. She had written many such papers through Middle School and High School, but now that she was in college she knew the stakes were higher. She had breezed through English at her small high school, receiving praise from her teachers on her writing abilities, but she no longer felt special. How could she write something that stood out among all of the amazing students around her?
Sighing, she moved from chewing on her lip to chewing on a strand of her curly auburn hair. Then, realizing what she was doing, she sighed again and stared out of the floor to ceiling windows of the campus library. Students were walking by looking oh so confident. Hennessy wished she could have just a little bit of their confidence. College was hard, and her first few weeks had reinforced her feelings of home sickness. She wished she was home, with Talia her border collie licking her face, surrounded by what she now termed as the welcoming sounds of sheep bleating. She laughed at that thought. She would never have guessed she would miss the sound of sheep persistently complaining about their hunger or other woes. She thought after eighteen years she would be relieved to have peace and quiet. Not to mention being free of the stench of sheep manure. But as she gazed out the window, she realized she even missed the muck and mud of early spring and the melting snow. A tear slid slowly down her cheek. She missed home.
Sniffing she willed herself to stop crying. She was a college freshman with a deadline. She needed to have a rough draft of her paper written in time for her English class tomorrow morning at nine. It was now five p.m. She was not a procrastinator, but she had been experiencing severe writer’s block and could not come up with a topic to save her life. It was now crunch time, and she needed to think and decide on a topic. Blinking back her tears, she remembered the words of her seventh grade teacher, Mr. Kim, “Write what you know. Write what you love. Write what you are passionate about and what makes you unique.”
Well, in this metropolitan university campus, growing up on a farm definitely made you unique. Farmers were few and far in between. “Okay,” Hennessy thought to herself, “I’ll write about being a farm girl. That will help me stand out, but which experience do I write about?”
Taking a deep breath, Hennessy started to type.
The Real Joy
There was an air of tenseness in the show ring. The judge had narrowed the finalists to six. I held my lamb with a vise-like grip; she was prone to jump, and I did not want to lose her at this critical point. I stared intensely at the judge, too nervous to smile and barely managing to keep a look of total and complete terror off my face. I knew my lamb was good, one of the best I had ever raised, but I did not know if the judge would agree. Finally he stood back, and the livestock committee handed him a belt buckle and a pink and purple rosette. This was the moment of truth. I think I managed a weak smile in a last ditch effort to impress the grandfatherly man. He started to walk towards me; I was getting excited. Then my mind started to psych me out. What if he was going to shake Abigail’s or Tiffany’s hand, or perhaps Kristy’s? This was perhaps the most nerve-wracking event in my fifteen-year-old life. The judge smiled and shook my hand. I burst out in a blinding smile, and the crowd roared. One of the biggest goals in my life had just been achieved: my lamb was named Grand Champion Lamb of the County Fair.
I bought my first sheep, Cleo, when I was ten. I didn’t know it then, but my life was about to change in unexpected ways, for I have gained more than pretty ribbons and flashy belt buckles from my livestock experience.
Beeeep, beeeep, beeeep. Across my bedroom my alarm clock beckoned. Groggily, I forced myself out of bed. I looked at my alarm and groaned. It was a Saturday, and it was 5:30 in the morning. I swore my dad was a slave driver. I could just imagine my friends waking up at this time of day. They were so lucky. Clumsily, I staggered to our wash room and pulled on my mom’s boots over my pajama bottoms and grabbed a coat and flashlight. Throwing the garage door open, I was attacked by several small knives of frigid air. The only light outside was our yard light and my weak flashlight. The brisk wind cut through my silky pajamas, and I knew that wearing them was not the wisest choice I had ever made. I did not care because I was going to jump back in bed when I finished, so I refused to get dressed. Once at the barn, I peered in the stall to see if any baby lambs had been born during the night. Seeing nothing (literally, because I did not have my contacts in), I scurried back to my warm bed; hoping that there really were not any problems.
Many a time, however, I went up to the barn on those freezing cold mornings and found a lamb that was chilled and on the verge of death. I would have to carry the slimy, spindly legged lamb to my grandma’s house to let it spend the day lounging in a cardboard box in front of the wood burning stove, never knowing if when I returned home from school whether or not my efforts would be rewarded.
Even when sheep are not helpless anymore they tend to hurt themselves. One morning as I was putting my show lambs on our horse walker to exercise them, I noticed that my ewe lamb had torn her hoof and was squirting blood. I had to pour pungent smelling iodine on the wound to harden the hoof and bandage it to protect it from further injury. After I finished my hands were stained a sickly shade of brown and also smelled of that noxious iodine odor I detested.
Animals, especially sheep, always become ill, bloat, and are harassed by carnivorous animals, in addition to the accidents such as tearing a hoof occurring. Some experiences are harder to deal with than others. One that stands out in my mind occurred four years ago. The day before Christmas my dad and I went to vaccinate a ewe that had succumbed to pneumonia. Raised by me from birth, Squirt was one of my first and pet ewes. Very weak, she managed to stagger over to my dad to receive her shot. The shot was given and immediately she went berserk. The shots of LA 200 normally sting the sheep, but this was a particularly adverse reaction. Weakly she sunk to her knees while I cradled her head. As I knelt in the frozen muck, tears started to stream down my face. She made her final death struggle and was gone. Squirt died in my arms.
This experience affected me, but what affected me more was witnessing the destruction wrought by two vicious dogs, a German Shepard and a Black Lab that killed more than half of my ewe herd. That harrowing scene of carnage is one I cannot recall without shuddering. Seeing the sheep I loved and cared about murdered sent me into a state of mind-numbing frenzy that permanently left a part of me deadened. The sight of their corpses floating in the pond, only appearing as dirty cotton balls, shot through me like a bullet. I remember holding 15, another ewe I had raised, whose ears had been chewed off by the dogs and were oozing bright red blood. Denying the seriousness of the situation, and hoping she was going to survive, I winced as I heard my cousin end her suffering with a shotgun. Then I witnessed Blackie, one of my favorites, struggle to gain her strength back and stand, but then I discovered a hole in her hip so deep I could not see the end. As I cried into my pillow that night after she had been put out of her misery, I reflected on how precious life is and how quickly it can be snatched away.
As I watch my vulnerable lambs progress from into an adult sheep, I realize that my experience has not been about winning or even about the sheep themselves. Because of all the things that were required of me during my sheep exhibiting years, I have discovered that it is easier to be responsible rather than to complain and procrastinate. Irresponsibility around sheep has dire consequences. In many cases one tiny mistake can lead to a sheep sickening, or even dying. Because of one such mess-up one of my best ewes died after bloating on alfalfa hay when I left the gate to the haystack unlocked. Caring for my sheep throughout the course of their lives has helped me gain a spirit of love and compassion. Rescuing a chilled and weak lamb from certain death, or nursing a ewe back to health has taught me that giving of my self is more rewarding than concentrating solely on my own needs and wants.
While everyone may not be suited for, or even want a life on a farm, I am glad I had the chance to be raised on one. Despite all of the hard work, I am grateful for the lessons that I have experienced. Perhaps I could have learned these lessons elsewhere, but this avenue was possibly the best for me because it was something I grew to love and enjoy. For me the most rewarding part of sheep exhibiting was not having my lamb win the Grand Champion of the show, but knowing that through my efforts I have been shaped into a better person. This is an experience I want to share with others, especially my future family. I believe that as I share my love of sheep, they too will grow in unexpected ways.
Hennessy stretched her sore fingers and glanced around her. It was now dark and the tables near the window were much emptier than previously. Hearing her stomach growl, she glanced at her laptop and noticed that the time was now 9 pm. She had just spent the last four hours typing, but she was done. Navigating to the class discussion board, she posted her essay to her groups’ revision thread, noting that her three classmates had already posted their essays. She would need to read their essays and provide feedback, but for now she needed to find dinner and get home to her dorm room.