Sheep Dog

Some of the trip is planned ahead of time — with lots of phone calls, email exchanges and checking and rechecking of schedules until everything lines up perfectly. And then some of the trip is a “should-we?-shouldn’t-we?-should we?-shouldn’t we?” last minute visit to a random lamb farm in Southern Oregon, where the planets mysteriously align and a beautiful story unfolds before us… just for the afternoon. Most of these spontaneous visits are spearheaded by Daniel who has taken on a “film as much as we can, rest when we are dead” attitude. Whereas my attitude has been more of a “nap often, film later…and only when we are very rested” type of mantra. But inevitably, those impromptu shoots are some of my favorites, and the whole affair usually ends with a tipping of my cap to my overbearing boss in acknowledgement of his great foresight. Such was the case with Magnolia Farms.

We were driving from Ashland, Oregon to Portland, and had been convinced by the Ashland Co-op (an incredible bunch) to stop by (“just stop by… They’re great!“) Mel and Elissa’s place to check it out. Pretty much everywhere we go, we are encouraged by passersby to check out a certain small farmer or local urban gardener, and we cant go to them all. But something about Magnolia sounded intriguing: Maybe it was because Daniel had cooked with their meat the day before. Or it could have been because we left Ashland so rested, relaxed and up for anything. In any case, it was on the way and we decided to drop by. I only wish we could have stayed longer.

For one, it was amazing to be around so many animals. Mel and Elissa have 6 sheep-herding dogs, 1 pet boxer, and 1 beautiful large, white Samoyed-mix breed guard dog named Zosha who wears a bucket around her neck because otherwise she will venture into the neighbors yard at night, and thus, not guard the sheep. Zosha isnt the best guard dog, as she was also recently caught pinning down a sheep and biting out a piece of its leg, which is highly frowned upon in her profession. Luckily the little guy survived with only a large sore to show for it. But for the most part, the dogs on the farm take their job very seriously: spending all day out in the field, and (unless they guard) nights in the house.  And they are loved the way anyone would want to be loved — the way any animal should be loved. You can tell in the way the couple talks about each one…Tommy, Joseph, Grace, Chaba…or in the way they care. When the dogs die, they are buried under a patch of trees, overlooking a beautiful little creek on the property. And visited often.

The animals on the farm spend their whole lives together. The dogs guard, herd, protect and eventually eat the meat of the animals they are looking over. Two of the dogs died protecting the lambs from bears. One of which (Joseph), as Mel told me, would have five little lambs always closely following: jumping on him, sleeping next to him, nuzzling him. It was interesting and beautiful to see this intersection of two species. And I wondered how the dogs reacted to their little friends’ death. Mel said that we dont know what an animal’s concept of death is. What we think we know could be totally wrong. He has heard of cows who will stand right next to another cow that has been shot and just continue grazing — not even flinch. But I find it hard to believe that any animal would be so unaware of death.

What we do know (and what Im becoming more aware of) is our connection to death, and our ability to desensitize or ignore it. Animals are killed every day — every second. And we are able to not even think about it. As I travel around the country, I find it confusing to see the same person love one animal with all their heart (their dog or horse) and kill another (their cow, lamb, or pig). But I appreciate people like Mel and Elissa because they love and appreciate life. Which makes it difficult for them to kill their lambs. In fact, they rarely eat the meat as they want it to be something special. And yet, they do kill their animals because (even though it isnt easy) it is, to them, what they are supposed to do.