THE FIRE MOUNTAIN SHEEP CHASE

It’s wildfire season in Montana.  This plume was from an evening when the fire made a huge jump in size, and had us wondering if it might even come over to this side of Blue Mountain.

It was a simple enough phrase, the short, shocking sort of call that can wrench a farmer out of bed at any hour: "Noah, the sheep are gone!" It was about the last news Mary wanted to bring from an early morning round of chores with a big day of garden-harvest planned. But this task needed both of us, and Noah was up andready in a heartbeat at those words. The dangers of farming vary by region, of course, but wherever they are based, nothing rips farmers out of a deep sleep quite like the knowledge that some portion of the year's food or income is gone or in danger.  

For our friends in the coffee lands of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, it can be torrential rains that bring the fear of landslides.  For ranchers in Eastern Montana, it might be the threat of late spring hail and snow in calving season. We are gradually learning the challenges of our space here between Western Montana hills.  

That morning was not the first time our sheep had escaped. After one June thunderstorm, they'd shown up in a neighbor's pasture just down the road. That morning, even before 6 am, several neighbors rallied together to gather our herd. But this day was different.  The Lolo Complex fires had doubled in size the night before, fueled by dramatic winds, and the the whole valley had that smokey ominous light. We knew that when we closed our garden gate late the night before we had scared a herd of deer that thundered out of the pasture. If that was what had taken down some of the electric fence, it was possible the sheep had been loose for almost eight hours already. We had no idea where or how far they might have gone. 

After a hopeful first check of the property, we had to expand the search, and cruised the neighborhood in the farm truck, peering into pastures, knocking on doors, ducking through fences and behind barns of people we barely know, some we still haven't met.  It's not the best way to meet your neighbors, wide eyed and tense, with an opening line of "our sheep are missing; they escaped in the storms last night." 

So, we scoured river bottoms, crashed through brushy thickets and back pastures, crossing surprising little streams and holding barbed wire strands apart for each other. We began to form a whole new mental map of our rural neighborhood, surprising connections and secret-feeling passages. But the growing worry and frustration overshadowed any sense of excitement of discovery. We couldn't help but think of the stories from Ivan Doig's latest book The Bartenders Tale, which had helped us through some a winter drive this past year. The sheepherder Canada Dan is one of those rough western holdouts: independent, tough and weathered, a little outside of normal society. One day, also after big storms, he drags himself back to the Medicine Lodge bar, the center of the town, swearing never to go back to that work again after losing a whole herd of sheep in a surprise lightening storm.  Growing grim and tense ourselves, we exchanged looks, admitting that there was a chance these sheep, our flock of five, was flat-out gone. We could feel a new kinship with Canada Dan, worn down and ready to be done with it all, wondering what it would be like to be one of these neighbors who were just sitting on a porch enjoying leisurely weekend morning coffee. We wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into.  It’s hard not to think about how all the hours of work with these animals could end up being for nothing if we couldn’t find them.  

 The coyotes who inhabit the nearby butte warned us and the dogs away from their particular rocky knoll on a morning hike this July.    We are very wary that our sheep pasture less than one mile away from one of the dens.

The coyotes who inhabit the nearby butte warned us and the dogs away from their particular rocky knoll on a morning hike this July.    We are very wary that our sheep pasture less than one mile away from one of the dens.

And yet, at the same time, we could be grateful that these sheep were not our complete and only income--grateful that we started small, and hadn't bet everything on the sale of a flock.  Because it seemed more than likely that these sheep had headed far out.  We're starting to think of ourselves as farmers now, at least in a small way, subsistence farming with the goal of eatingthe whole year almost exclusively what we have grown here; it's exciting and satisfying. But those moments of lost sheep can feel frighteningly powerless...what does one do with five sheep missing completely? We even considered calling in to the public radio station, like one might for a lost dog.  In the end, we just kept searching. It was all we could do. 

Back when we started working together in Forest Grove, we thought we were really getting into it with our eight hens, one bag of coffee, pilot coffee course, and coffee CSA.  And we were learning, digging in, starting our roots and even our homesteading in that triple city lot.  Some of you who have been with us since the start remember that first roast, the Chicken Chaser, named for those first forays into our home-growing and our coffee and farmer partnerships.    

We are in so much deeper now. Back then the chickens, the handful of raised beds, the greens in the garden window, the coffee, the student programs were additions, sidelines to other work and more-standard jobs.  Now it's a quarter acre garden, 21 hens, and the small herd of lambs intended to supply the year's meat for us and a neighboring family.  Not only that, it's agrowing coffee CSA in Missoula, steadily increasing list of mail supporters, coffee picked up by pallet instead of individual bag, and an all-out effort to launch a student course. We have let go of the stability of our old jobs, and the farming and the Forest Voices work has become our attempts at livelihood, so the stakes are so much higher now.  

Mary prepares to open our improptu sheep trailer after we've moved them over to a pasture we share with neighbors. 

When the sheep are out or the corn blows down, we feel those higher stakes now in a way that we didn't before.  And yet, we still have backups, still have some security.  Even if those sheep were never found, we'd have lost investments and time, but we wouldn't go bankrupt, though we'd be eating less meat.  If coyotes or raccoons found the chicken coop, we wouldn't go hungry.  We'd just have to make fewer omelets.   

Many of our farming friends and partners, in contrast, are all in and feel even more acutely those passing storms, rolling fires, and threats to the thin margin between making it and not. Storms in Indonesia are increasing, and while Eko and his team in Java work hard to protect microclimate and reforest degraded slopes, the coffee harvest comes with increasingly unpredictable timing.  Many farmers in Vietnam have to rely on a system of corrupt water trucks that ply delivery routes in order to water their vegetables.  And once they get the water to the nearest farm road, it still has to reach fruit trees and vegetables through pipe.  Those farmers who live too far from good access, have to buy or use a water pump.  These are the farmers that can do the math in their head, know how many of gallons of gas, how much time and labor a crop really takes. One thing we've gained in this sometimes tough year of planting and growing is a growing kinship with these farmers who, like us, are often small and often at the edge. Like us, they build stuff, break equipment and learn to fix it. 

Our neighbor Sig, who raised hundreds of sheep in this neighborhood at a time when, as he puts it “a pair of Levi’s cost $4,” lends a hand as we load up the sheep in the improvised stock trailer made of straw bales and Noah’s old art-booth panels (below) to move them to new and more-secure pasture. He hasn’t lost any of his sheep-handling skills since those days, and showed us a few good tricks, like how the right hold makes even our biggest sheep easy to put where we want. 

Sometimes we question this way, perhaps more often than we should.  But there are times when it can be a series of blows--yet another shock from the solar-charged electric fence, another animal out, another repair or trip to the emergency room.  We barter for what we can, and more and more, we buy the raw materials, the steel, wood, tools, seeds and animals instead of buying something ready-made.  It's all a way to build the soil and skills that, on our best days, make for a hand-crafted life.  

Language fails to find a term for this occupation,  maybe because it is so many rolled into one:  mechanic, repair person, conflict resolution artist, permaculturist, weight lifter, electrician, plumbing expert, animal doctor, laborer, soil builder, chef, lover, farmer.

We found those sheep again, in the end, not far from home.  Just as we had decided things were pretty dire and were returning home for some food and water before launching a several-hour scouring of the neighboring butte and low-lying areas along the river, the second sheep-news exclamation of the day changed our course of action again"Noah, look! The sheep!" Two of them had wandered out of the head-high thicket of thistle across the road where, apparently, they had all passed the morning hunkered down and ignoring our searching and calling. By the time we returned they had wandered up to graze Mike's lawn and drink from the irrigation ditch. With a bit of advanced herding we had all five back into the home pasture within a half-hour.  

Perhaps there are metaphors here for our new lives. As we dig deeper in, it's up to us, all of us, to neighbor better, to make those connections we always believed we could have.  Sometimes this connection is just lending a hand, helping round up sheep, or discussing a new idea over coffee or a meal. Yet other times, it's the wrangling of some sort of peace, doing deep thinking and acting with ourselves, our land, and neighbors.

 We call this member of our flock "The President," affectionately termed because the way this ram leads our entire flock and comes running to us.

We call this member of our flock "The President," affectionately termed because the way this ram leads our entire flock and comes running to us.

Editor's Note: We first published this essay nearly four years ago, back when we were just homesteading, but decided it deserved a place here, on the farm blog.