A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
“we are poor little lambs who have lost our way, baa, baa, baa…” — Rudyard Kipling.
More sheep than people. I say this as a joke, intending to provoke a smile. But I love to watch these Scottish sheep, singly, in pairs, in clumps, white polka dots on a green hillside. I would probably love just about anything in Scotland at this moment in time except perhaps a traffic jam. Although a Scottish traffic jam might be more amusing than an American one, as the cars drive on the wrong side of the road, and many of the roads are tiny, barely a single lane wide. And cliché or not, on a previous trip to Scotland we did experience that particularly Scottish sort of traffic jam caused by a flock of sheep massing on the road.
My husband and I are enjoying a well-earned vacation, a trip to celebrate thirty years of marriage. At times it astonishes me that so much time has passed, but yes, as I look at the man driving on the left side of the road in this small car, he has more than a little grey in his hair.
In my mind, I’m in a different life stage altogether—not thinking about ageing. Instead, I’m a child playing hooky on this trip, hoping that fortune will be kind and allow me stay for the full ten days we’ve planned. I need this place and this lush greenery, a healing respite from the worries and demands that wait back at home. Between serious health trouble for my elderly mother, overall anxiety from my worried father, and my daughter’s distress it has been a complicated summer. I welcome the miles that separate me from all that. And yes, I feel a little guilty to be celebrating thirty years of marriage when my daughter appears to be heading for divorce, but I too have lived through that trauma, and come out the other side. So yes, time to celebrate; it feels like we’ve earned it.
The sheep come in many flavors, straight vanilla, chocolate speckled. Two or three flocks have a mocha contingent and occasionally I spot the darkest bittersweet chocolate, a solitary solid black, or five, among the countless white sisters, pepper amidst the salt.
I wonder about their fleeces. Most ewes appear freshly shorn in late July, skinny, bones and muscles exposed and cold on this day of fifty degrees and light mist, soft weather. A patch of intense color, red, blue, green, paint or dye at shoulder or rump marks each animal’s owner.
The new lambs look clean, fluffy, puff-balls still innocent of the shearer’s clip. A few ewes are long-haired and shaggy, their fleeces knotted and tangled with leaves, twigs, ovis dreadlocks. I wonder if someone has saved these sheep out to grow longer fibers or if they’re a particular breed. I know little about actual sheep; it’s their wool I’ve grown intimate with, its warmth, softness, the way it gives and stretches around my knitting needles, the way it protects me on icy days. My fingers itch for my knitting needles.
Some of these sheep sport horns, twisty and wicked, tinted in alternating rings of brown and ivory. Others go bare-headed, as if they’re naughty children out of mother’s sight who have tossed away their caps. The headgear too may vary by breed.
We see these sheep as we make a day’s pilgrimage to The Valley of the Ghosts, where ancient standing stones and burial-cairn circles line a glen nestled between green, green hillsides. Here past and present coexist: the stones and cairns date to five thousand years ago, but in the next field a farmer drives his baler in ever smaller circles, producing hay rolls for winter feed. The ancient gray stones just appear as part of his daily landscape as they do to the lambs who graze nearby.
When I place my hand along one of the tall stones it feels rough; it holds the warmth of the sun as it has done for generations and generations. My own immediate worries melt a little when I consider the lifetime of these stones. My shoulders relax.
We get our ten days, a gift of time, and at the end of our trip, we return to Glasgow, to acres of cars instead of sheep. My earlier attempt at humor tastes as bitter as the rocket greens in my salad. Over beers with a good Scottish friend we share highlights of visits to the western islands, ours to Mull and Iona, his to Islay.
“So beautiful and so empty,” I say.
“Not always empty,” David explains. “These places we think of as wild and deserted, they used to be farms, homes.”
“Really? It seems so wild in those hills.” But at his words stone ruins rise up in memory. I’ve photographed the single stone wall with a chimney at center flanked by empty windows. A woman once cooked at that hearth. The tumbledown rubble walls that now enclose emptiness, a farmer once tilled those fields.
“There were settlements, crofts, villages, before they cleared the people away to make room for the sheep. The landowners decided sheep were more profitable than tenant farms.”
Cleared away. I know this history. Have taught it to students, yet missed it in the landscape. “The Highland Clearances?”
“Yes, an economic decision. Some people they burned out. The others they shipped off to North America.”
North America, Nova Scotia, New Scotland. I’ve spent time there the past two summers—click. And while the Brits were busily clearing the Scottish Highlands to make room for the sheep, they were also emptying out Nova Scotia. Redcoats were burning villages and removing French Acadians who refused to swear loyalty to the English king, all to make room for the Scots. Two ethnic cleansings for the price of one?
I think again. Clearly I have misread these green hillsides, have not looked deeply enough at these seemingly bucolic pastures. I have missed the pain lurking just beneath the beauty, the ashes and blood hiding under the skin of the hills, the bones beneath stone cairns.
Ruined Landscapes – I must look more carefully next time.
By Katherine Ayres