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Wherefore sheep?

We were sitting outside on a beautiful July 4th, grill smoking, the Mama with her spinning wheel, the kids napping, having a grownup conversation with the neighbors in our side yard. He's a lover of a certain coffee shop in Chicago with expensive, quality beans that I enjoy as well. He knows I home roast and always asks informed questions about the process. Watching the Mama spin was the same. He wanted to know how it worked...and, even more, why.

The question caught me off guard a little. We did our best to explain, but I felt like somehow we didn't do it justice. You might as well have asked me why I like blueberries, or punk rock, or running. It's a question that cuts to the core of who you are as a human being and how you're wasting your meager time on this planet...why?

In essence, why waste your time buying fleece and spinning it into yarn and dyeing it and knitting it? Why enjoy that so much that you want to own the actual wool-growing animals that make the whole silly thing possible? Considering you could just go down to the store and buy--cheaper--some yarn. Or a whole sweater. Wherefore sheep?

It's like asking why I don't just go to the grocery and buy a can of Folgers anymore (I started that way). Though our neighbors understand the provenance of coffee, that there is agronomy involved as an agricultural product, the lives of farmers in other countries, and that (while cheap) Maxwell House probably isn't the place to turn if you're pursuing--as one author calls it--God in a cup. So it wasn't an accusing question and more like a philosophical, leading one about the pleasure and rationale.

I frequently debate the topic of agricultural ethics with people I otherwise share much in common. I'm neither an idealist nor unrealistic in my appreciation for farming. Especially on the subject of organic growing practices, GMOs, and animal welfare I'm a moderate of sorts. Yes, I know the science on genetically modified ingredients shows I'm not going to grow an extra head...in the short term, at least. Yes, I know not every animal to feed the world's population can be grown in a bucolic scene of open, year-round green grass with happy birds singing around them. I'm not against giving animals needed antibiotics any more than I'm against giving my own children antibiotics if they need them.

But...and this is a point where many otherwise intelligent people get stuck...there is an ethical system at work in the culture currently. Which I think is a great thing. Maybe in our secular society some people have difficulty picking up on religious themes and my background puts me in a better position to see it. But there's a moral system at work in wanting to know where our food comes from, what the conditions were, and that has concern for safety, the health of animals and fields and crops, people, and that tries to live up to such a standard with transparency.

This morning in our dad's discussion group one father wrote that sometimes he wished he could just move to the country for a simpler life. Did anyone feel the same? I responded that we're hoping to transition to a sheep farm one day, but that I wouldn't call it a simpler life. Just different. Rural life isn't escape any more than city life is the height of civilization. If you live in the city long enough, you realize it can actually make one less civilized, not more.

Wherefore sheep? Aside from their characteristics, the history, the culture of shepherding, the usefulness, the deliciousness of lamb marinated in yogurt, etc. I suppose the reason we don't buy a knit hat at the store is that we live in an age where we are--literally--interconnected with every other human on Earth with convenience and sometimes lack of consideration for outcomes. There's an existential, purposeful, artisanal quality in doing things with an explicit nod to tradition and conservation. It's an almost celebratory mantra of preserving heritage. And I don't mean museum-like. By that, I mean the way that we make an effort to preserve the blues or bluegrass by playing it. Or we try to make food like grandma made as a way to keep her memory and recipes alive.

It's intentional and spiritual and, I think, speaks to the desire for authenticity in an age when nearly everything in our lives was made in a factory. Cheap toys from China. Hamburgers from a feed lot. It has maybe political elements to it, but I don't find it reactionary. Honestly, I think it comes from the progressive side of things more so though there are certainly those motivated from the right as well. There's an underlying recognition of modernity as a good thing. But, on the other hand, we're all skeptical about the possible limits to...not necessarily science or technology...there's a recognition in the culture that our contemporary lifestyle needs to be offset.

"Don't ask (it's forbidden to know) what end the gods have given me or you, Leuconoe. Don't play with Babylonian numerology either. How much better it is to endure whatever will be! Whether Jupiter has allotted you many more winters or this one, which even now wears out the Tyrrhenian sea on the opposing rocks, is the final one--be wise, be truthful, strain the wine, and scale back your long hopes to a short period. While we speak, envious time will have fled:  seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next." --Horace

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it." --Ferris Bueller

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