Lessons From An Idaho Sheep Ranch
The photograph above, for all its disturbing implications is a longstanding favorite, shot in late January more than a decade ago on a ranch in Central Idaho. I suppose I like the photo, in spite of its lack of technical perfection, for its tension, for what it implies, in contrast to what it actually is. Because in this case those two things are so very, very different. The photo implies a certain ominous urgency that completely masks the hope and beauty that are its true story, which is exactly how so much of the world we experience daily appears to our limited sight.
It is in fact a photograph of a man, Gabriel, a beautiful, intuitive, kindhearted ‘sheep doctore’ from Lima, Peru hard at work on an Idaho sheep ranch during lambing season. In this captured moment, he carries two newborn lambs, still wet from birth to new, adoptive mothers in a lambing shed just ahead. Both of the lambs had been born as triplets and the red one in his right hand, which really appears more like a skinned carcass than a living creature, is actually very much alive and well. It was simply the firstborn in a rather difficult delivery that Gabriel had saved.
I witnessed that birth, watched dumbfounded the entire amazing drama as it unfolded. Gabriel had needed to push the partially born lamb back inside its mother, moving its two siblings painfully around inside her as well, had then turned it and guided it back out the birth canal from another angle, this time in proper birth orientation. Even after all that, he and this lamb and the ewe had still struggled together quite a bit longer, and eventually Gabriel had ended up once again with his skilled hand and forearm well up inside the ewe, coating the lambs exhausted, unborn body with slippery soap in order to help it pass through the birth canal and into life.
I cannot begin to explain how surreal the entire process was. Both lambs in the picture owe their lives in some part to the gentle man who is carrying them, the man whose face you cannot see and who looks so menacing at first glance. He had delivered them both, had pulled them each from their exhausted mothers and further then, intuited a way to make a better and healthier life for all the parties involved.
While they are still wet, he hurries them to other ewes in another lambing shed who have either lost their own lambs in birth, or only given birth to one lamb while having milk enough for two. Before dropping them into the straw-lined pens with their new mothers, he will take some of the fluid from those adoptive mother’s own placentas and rub it on the new lambs, to give them the mother’s scent, thus beginning the process of bonding them to one another. Such ‘grafting’ both lightens the load of the brave ewes who carried triplets to term, and gives those ewes whose lambs did not survive, a chance to mother a lamb after all. Pretty complicated and miraculous. And strangely, surreally beautiful!
I love the captured motion of the flock ahead of him as they bolt to get out of his way, for that motion only adds to the illusion that something terrible has happened, or is about to happen, implying almost inarguably that this man is a monster, a man to be feared and yes, even run from. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is fitting reminder for this mind …that I should listen carefully and grant myself greater permission; permission to remain curious and open, looking patiently for the truth that is always buried in the mystery, long before bolting, as the sheep did, drawing my own, fearful conclusions.
Only in hindsight have I come to understand that real goodness and new possibilities are often embedded within the fearful appearances all around me and that having trained myself to be always braced for the inevitable worst, I have habituated to seeing evil lurking just ahead, even where it does not exist. In thinking to protect myself I have become blind to one of the truly beautiful ironies of this world …that goodness often approaches in curious, even ominous looking clothing. And so believing, I have missed much, feared much, believed myself much poorer than I am.
May you find beauty and hope where it exists, despite your fears that it does not.
Photos and essay © 2003 and 2007, David E. Perry. All rights reserved. This essay was first published in the Spring 2007 issue of Range magazine, The Cowboy Spirit of America’s Outback.