I’m not sure I ever saw a sheep alive and up close until I was in my mid-50’s and I went out to a sheep farm in Pennsylvania to take Orson, my first border collie, there for lessons, and then Rose, in preparation for my move up to the country.
I think people with delusions like I had can often do great things, because they don’t know they are delusional, of course, they think everybody else is.
In Pennsylvania, at the Raspberry Ridge Sheep Farm, I met Carolyn Wilkie a dog whisperer who adored difficult dogs and had little time or patience for people. She was known to toss people off of her property if she thought their cars were Yuppie-ish. She could flip a savage dog around in days with her special meatball recipes and her unorthodox but successful training methods.
Carolyn had a dozen border collies tucked in crates in different corners of the house, and sometimes it seemed the very hallways would growl if you walked quickly past them. She rotated them in and out all day to work with the sheep and the visiting dogs.
We became friends, and Carolyn worked me with and the dogs, and also used me as bait to train aggressive dogs. I learned a lot from her.
On weekends, we conducted herding instinct tests for the very same yuppies who didn’t have sheep but who were desperate – $75 a pop – to go home with a herding instinct certificate from the AKC.
The line was very long and a dog had to eat a child to fail. If the showed interest in the sheep for five minutes, they were in.
People really wanted their dogs to have herding instincts. It was there I saw my first sheep, the long-suffering and long suffering sheep Carolyn used to train the eager border collies and other herding dogs who flocked to her farm, and I suspect, still do. Raspberry Ridge has a full schedule these days.
Carolyn was an amazing dog trainer and a shepherd, I loved sitting out with her at night while her dogs kept an eye on the flock and we drank and read together in the moonlight. Soon, I was going to sheep herding summer camp. Orson got a blue ribbon, a miracle.
It was Carolyn who turned to me after I was yelling at Rose to lie down and yelled, “Katz, if you want to have a better dog, you will have to be a better human!” She was right, and I am still working on it. I miss Carolyn, she was a good friend, and our long BS sessions at night and at breakfast in the morning. I have this life-long habit of letting people go. It’s a sad habit.
It was there I began to imagine a different life in a different place. I just loved Carolyn’s farm and ached to live on one.
I spent a lot of time there away from my family and my life in New Jersey, an hour or so away. It did not occur to me that my visits to Raspberry Ridge would soon change my life, and my writing, and my marriage. My wife then came out to see me once, but she was not much drawn to the dog training and herding out there, or later, to the farm or life in upstate New York.
When I moved upstate and bought the first Bedlam Farm, Carolyn sold me about 17 of her dog-broke sheep to bring up to the first Bedlam Farm. I lambed for three years in a row, until I had a flock of 36. It was Rose who saved the day when the lambs gave birth in the deep and frigid winter. When the lambs were born, they would freeze to the ground if I didn’t them into the heated cages quickly.
I knew nothing about lambing and screwed most of it up. Rose saved me. I never knew where she slept, she had no interest in sleeping in bed or curling up with me. She growled at anyone who tried to talk baby talk to her. She was a very strong woman.
She was the master of the farm. When a lamb was born in the cold night, she would hear it crying out for Mom from the window she looked out at most of the night. She would come to the side of the bed, whine and bark and if that failed, as it often did, she would nip on my ear until I got up. And it hurt.
She was telling me a lamb was born, and we’d rush outside.
Rose would keep the mother together with the lamb so she wouldn’t lose her baby’s scent and abandon him or her. I’d pick up the lamb in a sling and Rose would get behind the ewe and we’d walk down the hill together, me walking backwards and holding the lamb out so the mother could smell it, Rose bringing up the rear to make sure the mother didn’t panic or bolt.
We never lost a lamb. One night, three coyotes came down the hill after a lamb that was crying out and looking for its mother. Rose charged up the hill in snow taller than she was and stood between the lamb and the coyotes, who were standing their ground.
I was trying to get up the hill – it was an awful snow storm – and Rose wouldn’t back down.
She inched up the hill and stared the coyotes down, until the leader turned and fled up the hill.The others followed.
We heard the howls all night, but Rose and I got all of the sheep and lambs into the big barn and shut the door. As hard as it sometimes was, I loved my time on that farm with Rose, I loved learning about the animals and being on that beautiful hill, overlooking the beautiful valley.
Rose and I took the sheep all over town, including to the Presbyterian Church where we moved the lawn until the town Rottweiler showed up.
Rose, who was unflappable, and I led a hasty retreat back up the hill that and confined our travels to the woods and abandoned pastures way up the hill. I could see there were sheep all over the place.
Today, I look out the window and see sheep grazing peacefully. They are fat and happy with good wool we will be shearing this coming Saturday, if the shearer shows up.
I lived most of my life without seeing a real sheep, and now I see them every time I look out the window or go to the car or go get the mail. I will never get over how strange life is. And I am grateful to have these peaceable and patient creatures in my life.
This Wish List was sold out in about five minutes. Three 10 x 30 feet Pagoda tents are on the way to the Mansion so they can host their big summer picnic with their families. I will be there with camera to show you what you did. You are our Better Angels. Thanks.
Activities Director Julie Harlin and I have been scouring the county for tents to borrow or buy for the big annual Mansion Picnic in August, when all of the residents’ families and friends and all of the townspeople are invited.
More than 100 people come and the residents are quite excited about and engaged in it.
This year’s crowd is going to be the biggest ever, so many more people than ever have RSVP’d. Julie thinks it’s because so many people and families are following the the lives of the Mansion residents on this blog. If that were true, it would be wonderful.
Julie says because of the crowd, they need three outdoor gazebo tents for the picnic.
The garden will be in full bloom by then, but the weather is unpredictable, too hot, too cold, too rainy. So the tents are important. We asked almost everyone in a 100 mile radius about tents, and none were right or available or simple to move.
The Mansion will be able to use the tents again and again, for their art and music festival, for plays and for musical shows and appearances.
They can also use them to eat lunch and dinner outside.
The Mansion dining room gets warm in the summer. Julie and I tried very hard to find them locally, but three tents of that size in good condition are just not possible.
So Julie asked me if she should try the Wish List, and I said, sure, why not. Give people a chance to do good if they can, and understand if they cannot. I have learned to never pressure the Army Of Good, but never underestimate them either.
So the new wish list is up, three tents for $119.99 each. I bought one, we have two to go. No pressure. You can see the Wish List here. If Amazon asks you for the Mansion address, it is 11 S.Union Street, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. The phone, if you need it, is 518- 677- 3711.
Americans believed Thomas Paine when he declared that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Franklin Roosevelt’s beloved teacher, a man named Endicott Peabody, told him: “Things in life will not always run smoothly.
“Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights,” he wrote, ” then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward, that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.”
When I was a child, I could not have imagined a movement for transgender people. I did not imagine that African-Americans would be legally awarded equal rights to whites, at least under the law.
I never saw a woman challenge the authority of a man, or speak out against the rampant violence towards and abuse of women. I never saw a woman defy or challenge the power of a man and win.
I never thought I would live to see a me.too movement or a day when the U.S. Supreme Court would protect the marriage of gay people to one another, and legalize their bonds. I never once thought there would be a movement to support and protect the rights of transgender people, and that most Americans would support it.
Or that we would even think of granting legal status to any of the hundreds of thousands of children living in the United States illegally for some or all of their lives. I didn’t even know they were there, they lived only in the shadows.
These things were not even on the edge of our imaginations, they were almost literally unthinkable. Can anyone name any other country which made so much progress at expanding the rights of people, however imperfectly?
Watching the news, I sometimes despair for the souls of the American people. Reading my history, I reclaim my faith in them. We usually end up getting it right.
It is in response to such change, to such expansions of freedom, for such support of the “other”, that epic conflicts occur, and demagogues rise up and masses of people feel threatened and undermined.
There is always an “other” for the demagogues and their followers to feel superior to, to feed on. The “others” are woven into the American experience, drawn here like moths to a flame, persecuted and blamed and marginalized, so much a part of our country’s fabric.
They are always coming to us, finding a way to get in, demanding freedom, needing help, scaring the wits out of small and frightened people. They are the river that never dries up.
If there weren’t a lot of expanding freedoms, there would be no need of a great struggle, nothing for a demagogue or his angry followers to feed on.
We live in a time of cultural and political and media hyperventilation, our noses are so stuck in the moment.
in the arguing, see-sawing, maw of ever-changing expectations, things happen so quickly, and are transmitted so instantly and incompletely, that they all blend into one another, a furious cacophony of tension, anger and frustration.
It doesn’t feel good, this tension, day after day, and to many people it is now a frightening time with no clear end in sight.
The beast we call the media will never tell you there is an end in sight, or even possible.
They make too much money scaring us and keeping us fearful enough to never pull ourselves away from our screens. The corporate media and the politics pretend to hate one another.
They don’t, neither could live without the other. We spent too much time watching them.
In the up-and-down ideology of media, where everything is covered like a sporting event at loud volume, where everything is an argument, the hopes and fears of the opposing sides ride up and down a roller coster from from the Dark Side.
This morning, when I woke up, I was told the election was a disaster for Democrats, then a victory for them, then a night of mixed and uncertain results.Then a great Republican victory. Then they fought about it all day. I am responsible for what I believe and put into my head.
It seems that no one bothers to wait to see what really happened, unthinking and unfounded speculation pelts us like hail in a storm. Every sentence begins with “I think…”, never with “here’s what really happened.”
I think it’s wise to keep history in mind. That works for me.
Something big is happening around us right now, and in many ways it is good, healthy and necessary. It is also inevitable. It is also not new. We have survived. We will survive. Politics, like fear, is a geography, a space to cross.
Democracy is an ugly thing ,a messy and chaotic thing, not a perfect thing, just the best thing invented so far for ruling people and hurting as few as possible and trying out the very radical idea that people have rights. That does not seem to always be the human default position if we look out at the world.
This is why the American experiment is so precious. We have rights. They have rights. The government’s job is to protect our rights. When they fail, everything is thrown off balance.
It might be orienting and grounding to grasp the past, it is for me.
I love history, it has always comforted and grounded me. In his new book The Soul Of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham quotes from the great orator Daniel Webster and U.S. Senator:
“When the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather, and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm., the earliest glance of the sun, to take his latitude, and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course.”
in 1830 Webster added: “Let us imitate this prudence, and before we float farther on the waves of this debate, refer to the point from which we departed, that we may at least be able to conjecture where we are now.” Simple enough. What is happening now is a very American response to more freedom and change than anyone imagined or foresaw, just a few years ago.
In the 1950’s during the great and frightening Red Scare, political writer Richard Rovere wrote of Senator Joe McCarthy: “I cannot easily conceive of circumstances in which McCarthy, either faulted as he was, or freed of his disabling weaknesses, could have become President of the United States or could have seized the reins of power on any terms.”
McCarthy was loud, vulgar and loose with the truth, and he had large masses of people supporting him for years.
Then they tired of him and abandoned him, and he died a lonely alcoholic wreck, another American ghost.
If you have worked in the media for any length of time, as I have, then you know what the media creates, the media devours. TV made Joe McCarthy, TV did him in. Media is carnivorous, it eats its young. And its old. Anyone who lives by feeding off the masses, dies by feeding off the masses. They are insatiable.
Read your history.
“To visualize him in the White House,” Rovere wrote of McCarthy,” one has, I think, to imagine a radical change in the national character and will and taste.” For sure.
Politics has always spawned cults, that is the very nature of democracy, one of its reliable side effects said H.L. Mencken. We always revere the masses, but we often don’t like what they do.
Demagogues appear when government lies to its people. Cults are the nourishment of the demagogue, like people with devoted dogs, they can only be nourished by unconditional and unquestioned and unrelenting love.
“Cults can hide in many places,” wrote Natacha Tormey in her book Cults – A Bloodstained History.”They are so adept at blending into society and making their true colors that often their victims do not realize that they were even in a cult until they have escaped it. Nor do they fully comprehend the severity of the brainwashing that they were subjected to, until they are finally free of it.”
We are undergoing a radical change in our time, it seems, a change in the national character and will and taste. Americans have a short attention span, they easily tire and get bored or distracted.
But they are very much awake. And certain values re-appear. I imagine some young charismatic with a new idea and an even better understanding of technology will appear soon and spark yet another radical change in the national character.
I think it is the new normal. This is a new age. Ideas are memes, they travel and replicate on their own.
And this certainly won’t be over soon, or in a simple and clear-cut way.
The past, writes Meacham, an honest and respected historian, tells us that demagogues can only thrive when a substantial portion of the demos – the people – want them to.
In the American Commonwealth magazine, James Bryce warned of the dangers of a renegade president.
It wasn’t the individual himself that was so dangerous, cautioned Bryce, that from the White House he could overthrow the Constitution. The real danger would come, he warned, at the hands of a demagogic president with an enthusiastic public base.
That is scary, but not apocalyptic.
A bold President who knew himself to be supported by a majority in the country, might be tempted to override the law, and deprive the minority of the protection which the law affords it. Wrote Bryce, “He might be a tyrant, not against the masses, but with the masses.
He would have to be popular with almost everyone to pull it off, says Meacham.
Throughout our history, the masses have fed off of the masses hatred of the elites, and the demagogues feed off of the masses.
Meacham says there is cheering news and room for much hope.
The pain angry reaction is a reflection of deep and once unimaginable changes in the American idea of freedom. We sometimes forget that America was the first country in the history of the world to pledge freedom to all of its people. From the beginning, the America idea has been to steadily expand and protect the freedom of its citizens, even as it denied freedom to so many of its citizens.
Take heart, say the historians. The more freedom, the more turmoil. Expansion of freedoms are the terrain of the demagogue. “”The people often make mistakes,” said Harry Truman, “but given time and the facts, they will make the corrections.”
We cannot argue and taunt the people who see things differently than us into seeing a different way.
They must see it for themselves, and come to it in their own time.
It took a century for many African-Americans to even be legally entitled to vote, it took decades for gays to legally marry, the transgender fight is just getting underway. It will take awhile, but Lincoln wrote that such change is always glacial, people’s hearts soften slowly and over time. America is all about the Open Field.
I think Lincoln should have the last word in this essay.
Truman said of him “he had a good head and a great brain and a kind heart.” We can’t say that of too many of our leaders today. Perhaps one will rise up and show us the way. I think so.
Addressing Union troops returning to Ohio after a fierce battle, Lincoln stopped to speak to them as they left Washington. The tall, tired, President was exhausted.
“It is,” he said, “in order that each one of you may have, though this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field, and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life with all its desirable human aspirations – it is for this that the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthrights – not only for one, but for two or three years if necessary, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”
To me, we are in yet another epic struggle, perhaps two or three years of struggle is not too long a time for us to keep our birthrights, for me, for others, for the refugees and immigrants in need of our help. I am a patriot, I love what America stands for. I believe our values will prevail, and are more powerful than any demagogue.
For all of our darker impulses, writes Meacham, for all of our shortcomings, and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the experiment begun so long ago, and carried it out so imperfectly, is worth the fight. There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, “than the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle.”
I have found my better angels, or at least some better angels. We have joined the battle.
I think of my friend Ed Gulley often these days, and it’s hard not to think of him here at home, his populist farm art is all over the farm. Maria spotted his artistic gifts a few years ago, and that transformed a part of his life. He and I became friends.
His Goose, one of his earliest works, stands out by the front of the house near the road. We have Ed Gulley wind chimes, flowers and the now famous Tin Man. There is a lot of Ed Gulley in permanent residence on our farm.
Ed is all around us. We were just talking the other day about the night he was here when a big beautiful black bear was hit by a truck and crawled into our pasture. We had to call the police and state wildlife officials to come, and they had to shoot the poor bear, who was severely injured. We will always remember his cries of pain and fear.
I was horrified when the police asked if I wanted the body, but Ed was eager to take it back in his truck where he skinned the bear and put him in his freezer, where I suspect he still is.
We don’t have too many friends like that.
Ed has brain cancer, and is returning today from a week -long drive across much of the country with Carol, who is devoted to giving him whatever experience he wants. He wanted to see the Badlands of South Dakota, and he did.
He has refused extreme treatment for the tumor – actually 10 tumors – now in his brain. The cancer is one of the most aggressive, and is not treatable.
We’ve been following their trip most days, as many people have, on the Bejosh Farm Journal.
Ed has chosen to be open about the illness, and the trip, and he and Carol have been faithful to that. From the blogs, I see that Ed is experiencing some anxiety and sadness and also some weakness all along his left side – sight, hand, arm, leg. Carol writes he is getting more emotional. The cancer seems to be advancing.
Lots of people are messaging and texting the Gulleys, and they both welcome that. Ed seems to draw much comfort and support from all those messages, and from the people he meets along the way.
People are asking about the trip, but I’m afraid I can’t offer anything more than Carol has in her almost daily blogging. I talked to Ed once early on, and not since, Carol and I have texted some days, just to say hi and good wishes.
I had this feeling that I needed to back away from them on this trip and leave them to experience it in whatever way they need to. I am always shy of crowds.
My instincts told me not to call or send e-mails or long messages to them. They know we are there if they need us, and I see their trip as a private experience between the two of them, no matter how many messages they get, or people they see.
Ed and Carol have been married for more than 40 years, and have rarely had a lot of time to talk to one another. They are making up for it, and they have important things to talk about.
I would not feel comfortable invading this or intruding upon it, and they are not asking me or Maria to do that. The one advice I gave Carol was to feel free to take a few days off from the blog so they could just focus on themselves. I don’t know if she decided to do that or not.
This stage of our friendship with Ed and Carol are ending, another one is beginning. We will be what they need us to be. I don’t make any assumptions. Ed has given up his art, it is already too difficult for him to manipulate his tools the way he did. Watching him change and suffer is, of course, an emotional experience for me as well.
I’m trying to figure out how to deal with it. I’ve seen many people die in my life, but I was close to few of them.
Ed has a powerful community around him, farm and family. He has more friends than I will ever know. He has been surrounded by caring people from the first.
I love sharing my life, it is liberating, but some things just feel to private for me to wade into, even in the digital age and even with social media.
People wonder all the time about my sharing so much of my life, but I always tell them they don’t see what I don’t share, and that is much of my life, the guts of it in some ways. If I had a cancer of the brain, of course, I have no idea what I would do. That is so personal a thing.
My feeling is that the trip gave the two of them a chance to figure out how to move forward with this very shocking new realization, this understanding that alters the very nature of life. That is a mind-bender. Ed wants to do it well, and he will.
Before he left, he told me of his great expectations for this trip, the spirits he hoped to meet. I hope these expectations have been met. In a few days, I’ll invite him out to lunch, and see if he wants to go.
I don’t need to know everything he’s doing, I just need to know what he and Carol want me to know.
Ed’s illness, so sudden and so all encompassing, sharpens perspective, underscores community, and tests the boundaries of friendship. I welcome them both back, and am eager to give them both the journals we didn’t get a chance to give them when they set out on the trip.
I am learning about friendship. Sometimes you can do the most by doing nothing.