Of Sheep and Men

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The sheep are still in our valley, and my horses are still behaving in ways that make the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz look like Iron Mike Tyson.

 Spending time with your horses while they’re loose in a pasture is a good thing to do under any circumstances. For one thing, it teaches them that just because you walk into their pasture it doesn’t mean they’re going to be worked. And when they’re scared of something, your presence can reassure them and teach them to rely on you for leadership. That’s the idea, anyway. Theoretically. The way we’re progressing with the sheep, I might have to take my computer and sleeping bag and set up residence down there. Did knights of old really ride horses into battle? If so, I can guarantee they weren’t riding highly strung Quarter horses.

I was leaning against the fence at the far end of the pasture, thinking fond thoughts of those little plastic ponies you stick a quarter into in front of the supermarket. Real Quarter horses, in other words. Sensible animals. Half a mile away, I saw the shepherd step out of his trailer and walk down the far side of a fallow field. His dogs, a border collie and two massive guard dogs appeared out of nowhere and went with him. The guard dogs might be any one of various large white breeds created especially for protecting flocks—Pyrenees, Maremma, Kuvasz, Tatra, Slovak (there are also two species with corded coats)—but as they all look pretty much alike it can be difficult to tell them apart. I watched man and dogs make a large semi-circle around their charges, working their way closer to me. They were still almost a furlong away, but I could tell the shepherd was hoping for a little human interaction. He did nothing in particular to convey this, no change of focus from sheep and dogs to me, no change of speed in his steady pace, but I knew he would stop and initiate a conversation.

Well, conversation is perhaps too grand a word. My Spanish pretty much begins with, “Cerveza, por favor,” and ends with “Gracias,” and the shepherd’s English was less extensive than my Spanish, so it was conversation reduced to its barest essentials, a rudimentary skeleton of communication made possible by mime (on both sides), and four years of Latin (on my side) that allowed me to make wild guesses based on root words. The whole process gave me new respect for the Europeans and Native Americans who first met with no common root words of any kind. A good example (translated into English for your convenience and to avoid my embarrassment) would be how I told him I made my living as a writer, working out of my house:

“Me work house.” This was accompanied by a brief bit of mime with my fingers that would have justified the shepherd believing I was a professional jazz pianist on amphetamines. As it happened, he was smarter than that.

“¿Computadora?”

“Yes.” Vigorous nodding of my head. “Si.”

What I learned, after half an hour or so of this process, was that he was from Peru; he was married; he was here on a three year contract (though I’m not sure whether he meant three years seasonally or straight through); that he had approximately eight hundred sheep in his care; that he was not being paid well, but because of the exchange rate of roughly three sol to one dollar, it worked out to more than he could earn at home; he was sending his money back to his family; his trailer was very small, and different from the trailers used in colder, snowy climates, where the traditional rounded roof would cause snow to slide off; that the dogs were actually the property of the owner of the sheep; that the owner came from Spain, not Mexico; the bitch was pregnant, and had had eight puppies in her last litter; and that he had lost one of the sheep to coyotes the night before, up on the mountain at the north end of the valley. Judging by his hand gesture, they had ripped the sheep’s throat out, which would make sense. Coyotes are not stupid, and either instinctively or through learned behavior, would know to minimize any chance of attracting the attention of the two white dogs.

But I was surprised he had lost only one. I know that mountain well. I ride there all the time, and it is the local mall for coyotes. It’s where they go in little groups and make too much noise and buy inappropriate clothing and get rowdy and cause the old folks to complain to the security guards. And it’s where they get their fast food, and if anything on this earth qualifies as fast food to a coyote, it’s sheep.

“¿Uno?” I held up one finger.

“Uno, sí.” Again he made the gesture, his hand curled like a claw, ripping at his own throat.

I learned other details too, but what I really learned was an appreciation of the extraordinary loneliness of his life, in a foreign land, isolated from his family, isolated by the nature of his job from any human contact, isolated from the few people (like me) he might meet because of language, isolated from all the things we take for granted in our daily lives in our native land, as landscape, culture, building styles, clothing, food, all the daily things that tell us where we are in the world.

In central Nevada, in the Monitor Range of the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest, Table Mountain rises over ten thousand feet. Before that area became cattle country fought over by the US government and environmentalists on one side and ranchers on the other, it was sheep country, and for the snow-free summer months Basque sheepherders lived up there with their flocks. Just below the summit of Table Mountain is a large aspen grove the various tourist organizations euphemistically describe as being carved with “Basque art.” Locals refer to it more accurately as “Porno Grove.” Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tree trunks are carved with names and dates going back to 1907, and with the fantasies of lonely—and seriously horny—men: naked women standing, on their backs, on all fours; breasts with life support systems attached; men with heroic phalluses (even in our fantasies we boast and exaggerate); couplings depicted in every imaginable and some unimaginable positions. Most of these are done just about as crudely as you might expect. Some are elevated by humor, some by aesthetics, a few by both.

When I first saw Porno Grove many years ago, I was with some friends, men, and we laughed and joked and made unfavorable comparisons between what we saw and ourselves. But even then, those dates, and particularly the one from 1907, resonated with me. The Great Basin is the loneliest and most isolated place in the lower forty-eight. It’s the darkest spot on the map when you look at one of those satellite night images. That’s today. Back in 1907, before my father was born, before Sir Winston Churchill’s “gloomy milestone” of the internal combustion engine supplanting the horse, this part of America must have been isolated in ways that are inconceivable to us now. Not only no rapid transportation, but no television, no radio, no telephone or cell phone or computer, no email or texting or tweeting, not even the illusion of man’s presence in the form of planes or satellites passing overhead. Just the companionship of dogs, the bleating of sheep, the constant yipping of the ever-hungry coyotes, the occasional hair-raising scream of a mountain lion.

And perhaps even more isolating would be to finally, after all those months, see another human being, because the Basque language is singular in the world, unrelated to any other known tongue, so when the sheepherder finally made his way down the mountain to meet his employer, he would be little better off than he was at the summit, carving his fantasies into aspen trunks. How many of us today could survive that kind of life? If the shepherd in our valley fell and broke his leg, he could crawl to my house, or know that his boss would drive up to check on the flock as he does every few days. He can see cars and houses and people in the distance. A Basque on Table Mountain in 1907 would be as completely alone as Ben Gunn in Treasure Island, or as Robinson Crusoe was before he came upon that footprint in the sand.

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