The Good Shepherd Lawn Care Service
The sheep were silent as he backed the trailer up my driveway. Somehow I had expected them to be bleating in anxiety, as wooly mammals are not among the most confident of four-legged species. Once in Time magazine I read that sheep farmers dealt with predatory dogs and coyotes by placing a couple of llamas in the flock, much like au pairs. While sheep respond to fear with mindless flight, running like chubby children in snowsuits, llamas immediately take charge at the first hint of danger, herding their slow-witted cousins into a tight cluster, and then authoritatively striding toward the perpetrator, pausing to fire warning shots of spit, and if no heed is taken, kicking the absolute crap out of the canine threat.
However, I saw no llamas in the trailer, only four sheep. But I caught glimpses of black and tan border collies in the cab of the pickup, both as silent as the sheep. I was accustomed to dogs that instinctively announced their own presence or that of others by clarion barking. Obviously, this was not the first business venture either for the sheep or the dogs, all in a day’s work, as it were. The sheep would enjoy lunch in my orchard, and the dogs, a nap in the shade.
The driver of the pickup truck with the attached trailer had navigated my long driveway as efficiently as if he had been progressing forward, and I knew from being raised on a farm that backing up a trailer is tricky business, not as much so as backing a four-wheeled wagon attached to a two-wheeled implement connected to a four-wheeled tractor. The entire process becomes as abstractedly complicated as the spatial concept portion of an IQ test, determining what sort of shape would result if the combination of rectangular flaps were folded back together.
My father had reached the skill level at which turning the steering wheel became almost a spinal reflex rather than an intellectual exercise. And such was the case with the Good Shepherd behind the wheel of the pickup truck, who turned off the ignition and hopped out of the cab, a clipboard in his hand. He closed the door, which bore the logo of his business, a rustic-looking shepherd watching over a flock of sheep, and the text Good Shepherd Lawn Care Service. I was reminded of those businesses owned by religious zealots who wore their beliefs not on their shirtsleeves but on their letterhead: Faith Technologies. Rapture Storage. Glory to God Automotive Repair.
I had expected that he would look like the farmers I had known during my youth, beat-up baseball cap, wrinkled, well-washed plaid shirt, faded saggy blue jeans, scuffed work boots. But this guy appeared like the speaker in Marlowe’s famous poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” While he held a clipboard in his hands, he also had a shepherd’s crook under his arm, not one of those lightweight wooden canes that I had used as a child to show pigs at the fair, but an honest-to-God shepherd’s crook, a rustic accoutrement that had probably not been used anywhere in the world since the end of the nineteenth century.
Rather than a billed cap, he wore a broad-brimmed hat, his muslin shirt open at the neck and replete with puffy sleeves like the Romeo blouse of a ballet dancer, the fullness of the body held snugly by a vest. The slim legs of his button-fly wool trousers were tucked in tall leather boots. He might have been holding a play script, his lines to be spoken to a shepherdess in a Bo-Peep costume: “Come live with me and be my love, and I will all the pleasure prove,” something about valleys, groves, hill and fields—I forget the remainder of the poem.
“Johnson?” he asked, “Ben? 1854 Lands End Road?”
“Yes,” I told him. “You have come to the right place. I hope your sheep are hungry. My lawn is almost a hayfield!”
“The ladies have brought their appetites with them,” he smiled, and reopening the door to the pickup gave one sharp whistle. Out jumped the two border collies, both coming to a sort of canine military attention. The shepherd walked to the back of the trailer and lowered a ramp. He whistled again, made a decisive movement with one hand: the collies scrambled into the trailer, and the sheep emerged, walking briskly as if they were wearing high-heeled shoes and veiled hats.
The series of commands issued by the shepherd, “Come-bye, Away, In here, There, Walk up,” seemed an indecipherable code to me, but made perfect sense to the sheepdogs as, in a series of briskly trotted arcs, each terminated by dropping to the grass on their stomachs, heads on forepaws, they escorted their charges into my orchard. The sheep did not appear to be frightened by their guards but rather moved as obediently as students in a Catholic girl’s school under the tutelage of habited nuns slapping wooden rulers against the palms of their hands.
I walked beside the shepherd as he followed his flock, amazed at the efficiency of the journey to my orchard. “And they won’t stray into my garden?” I asked. “Or nibble at my flowerbeds?”
The shepherd laughed. “Not a chance, at least while they are under the watch of Bet and Gabe.” He pulled a gold-chained watch from a vest pocket and flipped open its lid to check the time. “And I’ll be supervising them, too. You’re welcome to watch if you’d like, but it’s not necessary. The ladies will be as well behaved as cloistered convent sisters.”
“Actually, I have some weeding to do in my garden,” I told him.
“And I have a folding chair and a book that I’ll fetch from my truck.”
“A small carbon footprint,” he had told me when I talked with him on the telephone. “My customers are those people who are trying to leave behind them a smaller carbon footprint, environmentally conscientious citizens who drive electric cars, use heat-pumps and solar batteries, compost, recycle. Some even have natural, chemical-free swimming pools, an upper pond utilizing plant and aquatic life for filtration.”
The image of an ecologically balanced terrarium came to mind, life proceeding efficiently under the dome of a glass bubble. But the vision evaporated as I thought of the Amish, their eschewing of technology, whiskered men and long-haired women, everyone dressed in black, straw hats and bonnets, horses and buggies. Was the Good Shepherd Amish? Would he transport his sheep in a horse-drawn wagon?
As we talked, he asked for the dimensions of my lawn in order to determine the number of sheep that he would need to bring. He also inquired about my use of pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers, a concern for the well-being of his grazers. I had laughed and told him that I took an organic approach toward my turf, not from an ecological perspective, but rather from a desire not to offer my grass any more encouragement to grow than was absolutely necessary. I was not a lawn-sprinkler kind of guy.
My answers appeared to be satisfactory, and after softly mumbling in the phone as he made his calculations, he gave me an estimate for the service, one that I found acceptable, especially as I felt that I was paying for the entertainment offered by the novelty of the enterprise as well as for the lawn care, a wonderful alternative to hiring some sullen high school boy whose parents were teaching him responsibility by forcing him to take on a summer job, or some sluggish overweight lawn-service guy who perched on his riding lawnmower like a huge toad on wheels.
“And at no extra charge,” the shepherd told me, “I will pick up the inevitable droppings. What goes in must come out!” he laughed. “Of course sheep poop is infinitely bio-degradable and dries quickly to fertilizer. Even if you should accidentally step in some, it is not nasty like dog poop. And by the way, Bet and Gabe have perfect manners. Should they have to answer a call of nature, they will seek out tall grass. Under no circumstances would they ever mar a lawn.”
“Sheep turds on the lawn are fine,” I told him. “I was raised on a dairy farm and know all about the excrement of ruminants. When I was a barefoot boy with cheeks of tan, I sometimes would step in a fresh cowpie just to enjoy the soupy warmth!”
He chuckled. “Good call,” he said. “I’ll let the chips lie where they fall.”
As I crawled along the bean rows in my garden, the thick layer of moldy hay mulch cushioning my knees, I kept looking up from the beanstalks where I searched out weeds to the bucolic scene in my orchard, as if I were viewing a nineteenth-century painting, Turner with sheep, perhaps. The four woolies were moving slowly and contentedly under the trees, the shepherd seated in a wood and canvas director’s chair and a dog positioned to either side of the small flock.
Or I might have been watching the filming of a period piece, the director, who also was a character, sitting in his chair and studying the composition of the scene that would later be edited into the movie, the cameramen still back in the lot readying their gear, the animal trainer getting a quick cup of coffee.
I was filled with a sense of well-being as I plucked blades of grass and seedling weeds from the damp soil and dropped them atop the mulch to dry and become a part of the process. All was well in God’s world, an ecological process proceeding as naturally as sunrise-sunset, rain and shine, world without end.
But I remember that dairy cattle actually add to climate change because of the methane gas that is a by-product of their poop. One of my wooly mowers raised her stub of a tail and humped her back as she watered my orchard and left a solid deposit behind her. Maybe my carbon footprint wouldn’t be as small as I had hoped; however, I couldn’t help but believe that the sheep would be ecologically sounder than the smoky drone of a combustion engine on a lawnmower, especially one of those huge riders.
As I moved to a row of peas, I made a mental note to keep my eyes on the ground when I walked through the orchard the next few days. As a boy, I had enjoyed the warm squishiness between my bare toes, but I wasn’t sure that I’d enjoy scraping sheep poop, regardless of its inoffensiveness, from the waffled soles of my running shoes.
My father had never raised sheep on our farm, only cows and pigs. My mother, like other farm wives, tended chickens. But other than a dog and a few barn cats, we had no supplemental livestock.
Down the road from us the Macks had a flock of sheep, but no pigs. I could sometimes hear the sheep baaing when the air was still. As a child, I had been read Mother Goose rhymes: “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go. It followed her to school one day, which was against the rule. It made the children laugh and play to see a lamb at school.” Or: “Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them. But leave them alone, and they’ll come home, wagging their tales behind them.” Or: “Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn! The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn! Where’s the little boy who looks after the sheep? Under the haystack, fast asleep. Will you wake him? Oh no, not I! For if I wake him, he’s sure to cry!”
Bernie Mack’s sheep had served as a reality check for this Little Boy Blue, a coarse foil to the romantic rustic images in Mother Goose. Bernie smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes and used to feed his butts to the sheep as a treat while I wrinkled up my nose in disgust, and the old farmer laughed at me. Goats are famous for their indiscriminate appetites; sheep, their wooly cousins, share their unbridled tastes.
While Bernie’s sheep were technically white, except for the dark markings around their faces, in actuality their wool was anything but white as snow. In retrospect, I think of bawdy Mae West and her admission that she was a pure as the driven slush. The filthy fleece had dirt and bits of sticks and dry weeds clinging to it and gross clusters of dingle-berry turds dangling from their rear ends.
And should the sheep be lost in a meadow, they would not come home until someone fetched them, and their tails would not wag. Like the tails of Boxers, they had been docked. Bernie used an elasticator to slip a tough rubber band over tails of his lambs, cutting off the blood circulation, ultimately causing the appendage to slough off, leaving only a wooly stub incapable of a wag. But even more gruesome to the imagination of this Little Boy Blue, the little boy sheep had a second rubber band placed at the base of their wooly scrotums with the same consequences.
But the Good Shepherd seemed to be a much better shepherd than Bernie Mack. His sheep were well groomed, maybe only figuratively as white as snow. However, they were not as grubby as Bernie’s flock. On the other hand, this shepherd seemed contented with his work, seated in my orchard contentedly reading his book. Bernie, by contrast, was subject to bouts of depression and had been placed under the care of a psychiatrist, who apparently was unsuccessful with his treatment protocol, as one night Bernie did not come home when he left to fetch his cows, later to be discovered hanging from a tree limb after his family conducted a search.
“I think I’ll join you after all,” I told the Good Shepherd as I approached him carrying a small tray in one hand and a resin lawn chair in the other. “Would you like some lemonade?”
“Sounds good,” he said, flashing a big smile that showed off a perfect set of white teeth, and took the glass I offered him.
“A cookie?” I asked, holding a small plate toward him.
“Ah, chocolate chip,” he said eagerly, “my favorite,” and took one. “Did you make these?”
“I did,” I said. “And your bowsers, uh—”
“Bet and Gabe—”
“Yes, Bet and Gabe. Would they care for a biscuit?”
“I believe they’d like a snack,” he said, taking the two dog biscuits from the tray. He whistled sharply, and the two dogs were immediately on their feet trotting toward him. Each took a biscuit, delicately, discreetly and trotted back to their stations to gnaw politely at their treats.
“What are you reading?” I asked as I sat on my chair, a glass of lemonade in one hand, a cookie in the other.
He held up the book. “Far from the Madding Crowd,” he said.
“Ah, Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba,” I said. “But his sheep come to no good end. The opening of the book is chilling.”
He nodded. “My dogs are much better than his.”
In the novel, Gabriel’s sheepdog goes bananas and drives his flock over a cliff to their deaths, an economic setback for the shepherd from which he takes a few hundred pages to recover before he can become a successful candidate to pursue the woman he loves, Bathsheba.
“Oh,” I said, in sudden realization. “Your dogs—”
He nodded. “Yup. They’re named after the lovers.”
“You’ve read the book before?”
He nodded. “I’m re-reading the Thomas Hardy books.”
“Are you?” I said. “Hardy is one of my favorite nineteenth-century British authors: Tess, Mayor of Casterbridge, Return of the Native—”
“Love ’em,” he said. “And the footpaths.”
“Yeah,” he said. “People travel from one village to another on public footpaths. Lovers have rendezvous on footpaths, foes have unexpected encounters, you never know what might happen on a footpath! And England still has those footpaths yet today!”
I nodded. “They are wonderful.”
“You’ve been to England?” he asked.
“A few times,” I said. “You?”
“No,” he answered. “But it’s on my bucket list.”
“Is shepherding your summer job?”
“You teach literature during the winter?”
He shook his head. “No. I have a Masters in British lit, but no interest in teaching. My partner and I have an artisan textile business. This is just a summer gig for me, a chance to give the girls a holiday and help our cash flow. We have a flock of fifty sheep from which we shear and process the wool. We spin yarn that we sell, and both of us weave and knit ourselves and offer our products at art shows and craft fairs. I mostly weave, though. I’m not a good knitter. When I’m relaxed, my stitches become looser and looser, and when I’m tense, they become tighter and tighter, not good in a fisherman sweater! But weaving is different; mostly I do wall hangings, and there you can be as subjective as you like!”
“I teach,” I said. “Literature. Along with mandatory classes in freshmen comp. At Clear Lake College. Or at least I did, until I retired. Now I’m professor emeritus.”
“And I’m a shepherd without merit!” he laughed.
“Not at all,” I said gravely. “You are a good shepherd, and that is everything. The Lord is my shepherd,” I recited. “I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”
“He leadeth me beside still waters,” the Good Shepherd recited, “he restoreth my soul.”
“Yea, though I dwell in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” I added.
“For I am the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley?” he quipped.
“Have another cookie?” I asked, handing him the plate.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” he said, taking one.
“More lemonade?” I asked, noticing that his glass was empty.
He shook his head. “My cup runneth over.”
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life,” I smiled.
He bowed his head, and when he looked up, smiling, he looked as if he had tears in his eyes. I couldn’t be sure. Politely I looked away, glancing toward the sheep, all four of whom were standing alertly, staring in our direction. Bet and Gabe rose slowly to their feet and walked to the Good Shepherd, looks of concern on their faces. The each licked his hand and then lay down at his feet.
“Uh, I’ll get the pitcher of lemonade,” I said, and walked up to the house.