by Shonto Begay
Published on January 15, 2009 by Flagstaff Live
Reproduced online courtesy of Flagstaff Live
Like generations of shepherds before me, I learned the lessons of the dusty sheep trails that cross the Klethla Valley. This wide swath of clay and sandy ground spreads below the northern slopes of Black Mesa just east of Shonto. This is the very ground that holds my umbilical cord. In this valley, my world was well contained by the horizons.
In the early 1960s, my family owned more than 300 sheep. When I went out with them, it was my job to keep them within my field of vision at all times. I learned how to listen for the faint bells on the lead goats—sharpening my 1,500-yard stare. I learned with all of my senses about caring for the flock. It was also my responsibility to see them well nourished and to bring them home safely at the end of day. Much rode on successful shepherding. A family with productive sheep is still looked upon as being worthy of respect; good neighbors wealthy in their vision and connection to the land. A family’s wealth is measured by a full sheep pen as well as a full stomach.
My struggle was with mountain lions and coyotes as well as the elements, but my greatest struggle was with myself, my measure of skill was challenged. I would look at the sign that hung on the wall of my mother’s sheepcamp. It listed the rules for caring for the flock. I would think that one day I would no longer be a shepherd. I would break through—beyond the horizon. I wondered what rules would guide me in that world.
#1 Take out lambs and give them hay (for 12 lambs, 16 inches of hay—if it looks like hay will run out, let lambs out with their mothers and keep them close).
#2 Feed sheepdogs first in the a.m. and p.m. (camp dog gets fed table scraps and Purina).
#3 Sheep go out at 8:30 a.m. MST.
#4 Release lambs to their mothers in the afternoon so they can browse.
#5 Sheep curfew is at 6:30 p.m. MST.
#6 Head count for sheep: 54, goats 41 (with lambs and kids)
#7 Barter hay from neighbor if you run out.
#8 Orphans do not go out, feed and water them.
#9 Watch cornfield. Horned goats trap their heads through wire mesh.
#10 Delegate responsibilities among all. Good luck
The faithful sheepdogs always eat first, before the camp dogs. They are your other set of senses. The animals we will eventually eat do not get cute names, although we address orphan lambs as “Be’he, Be’he.” This translates as “Lamb-ie, Lamb –ie.” There always seem to be a conspiracy among the flock so … assume nothing. The goats do catch their heads in the mesh fence and the unfortunate ones remain. Orphan lambs do not go out with the others, less they get abused. They smell too strongly of human handling. Lactating ewes reject them outright. Orphans stay home for their peace of mind; the mental health of your potential meal is not taken lightly.
And a final rule: Listen to the voices that accompany the sandy winds, the distant thunders and the chattery brother raven and try to hear the council of your elders. I have now learned that this set of rules has an application in the outside world. We must nurture and care for our community. We do this with compassion, with strength and a focused mindfulness. Today at the age 55 I find myself still in the shepherd’s stance.
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