Sheep, Shit, Love

I spend the next eight days on a sheep farm in Galicia in a Workaway volunteer situation. The idea is you spend 4-5 hours a day, 5 days a week helping with chores around the place and in return you get room and board. My host, Steve, is a 68 year old English man. He has lived here for 15 years after retiring from a career as a helicopter pilot, then living aboard a sailboat with a girlfriend for three years in the Mediterranean. He bears a slight physical resemblance to John Cleese. He has approximately 60 sheep, including 6-8 new lambs. His companions in the yard and house include four cats, an old dog called Widget, and about 15 chickens.

The big old stone farmhouse is a mess. Not just old and falling apart, but dirty and  messy, with stuff strewn all over, clothes, books, trash, food. The floor is half torn-up linoleum, half wood boards, and every surface, high and low, is coated in grease, dust and animal hair. The kitchen in particular has so many layers of grime and filth on every surface that I can’t begin to guess when it was last cleaned. Possibly never. I wonder if he’s one of those people who thinks, “Why bother? It’s just going to get dirty again anyway.” There are two stories, the upper contains bedrooms, a small sitting room and a kitchen, while the downstairs is one large room with a wood stove, a television and a huge old fashioned sofa and chair, outside of which is the beginning of a new-old room undergoing renovation into what will be the new kitchen and dining room. The bathroom is upstairs, but outside on the porch.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so fucking cold at night, but it’s November now, there’s no central heating, and Steve leaves the front door wide open all the time, even at night, so the cats can “come and go.” In the evening – after the chores are done, the sheep put away for the night and the chickens have flown up into the branches of the huge walnut tree in the front yard to spend the night – he lights the wood stove downstairs, prepares something for dinner, and turns on the television. There he sits for the rest of the night, chain smoking Chesterfield cigarettes, drinking wine, and watching quiz shows and crime dramas. Funny he doesn’t smoke all day, then chain smokes at night. If I want to be warm, I can either join him downstairs or fill up the hot water bottle he gives me and retire to my bedroom where there is a warm down comforter on my bed. The first night I do the latter. The second night I do the former, and on the third day Steve offers me a space heater for my bedroom, which I gratefully accept. After that, I spend a couple of hours with him downstairs each evening, where we watch tv in companionable silence and chat amicably but sparsely, both of us being on the reticent side and there being no compelling thread between us, which is how it usually is with me and other humans. By ten or so I say good night and retreat to my room, where I turn on my heater and read in bed. Twice he tells me “don’t leave it on all night”.

Steve whistles when we put the sheep out in the morning and when we collect them in the evening. On my first day I recognize the tune “The bear went over the mountain,” and another one, though I can’t identify it, sounds vaguely Christmas-y. Each morning I shovel sheep shit on the floor of the building he calls the shed, but is actually a barn. I think my back will break, mostly because the shovel he gave me is so short that I have to work from a bent over position to separate the layers of hard dried shit from the metal floor. I use my legs as much as possible. I ask him afterwards if he has considered putting some hay down to absorb some of the moisture and perhaps keep it from sticking to the floor. He says that would require a lot of hay, which would be hard to come by, and besides “it warms you up, which is no bad thing.” Then I ask him if he has a longer shovel, but he doesn’t.

On the second day, after shoveling, I rake leaves in the front yard, then Steve comes to get me to steer his broken down car while he tows it with the smallest tractor I’ve ever seen to the mechanic. Something wrong with the transmission. Then I rake more leaves and wash dishes. Tonight he is taking us to dinner in a nearby town, and he’s paying. I decide I’m going to order anything I want from the menu, including a cocktail. It has taken me less than two days to realize that unless you are staying in a very posh house and fed gourmet meals, the Workaway volunteer gets the short end of the stick in these situations, assuming the host would have to pay someone at least €10 an hour to do what you’re doing.

We have dinner in a nearby town with three friends of Steve, a British couple (well, the man is English and his wife is from everywhere) in their early seventies I think, and a Spanish guy, probably in his 40’s. He is trying to improve his English, Steve says. He is very animated throughout dinner, especially when he learns I’m from California. He seems enamoured of California, though he’s never been there. He has been to the US once, and visited two places only: New York, and Baltimore. I asked “Why Baltimore?,” and he said because he was making a documentary about Edgar Allen Poe. He is the second Spaniard I’ve met who has made a documentary about a famous American (the other American being Spielberg).

Steve complains about previous volunteers boiling a whole kettle of water for just one cup of tea (“what a waste of electricity,” he says) or not knowing how to wash dishes properly. He likes to wait till there’s a bunch of dirty dishes before washing them, and says many volunteers use too much soap and hot water. I wonder if he is, in an indirect way, chastising me. The problem with washing dishes here is the sink is just big enough for the dishpan he uses to wash them, but there’s no room to rinse them and no place to set them to dry. So basically you just have to wash a few, rinse them in the same dishpan, then towel-dry them, one at a time, putting them away before washing some more. It’s really impractical, but he’s lived this way for 15 years, on his own and with others. I’d like to clean the bathroom but I’m afraid he’d say I’m using too much water. I mean really, how much electricity can it possibly take to heat a kettle of water? I am washing my underwear in the shower at night and drying it in front of my little space heater. Steam rises from it when it gets close to the fire.

Last night I got an email from Marian with the words from a speech given by a woman whose son had died. I find I prefer to say someone died, which is the plain truth, instead of the more often used euphemistic expression, someone “lost” someone. I did not misplace him, like a set of keys. He did not wander off, nor get left behind. He is not coming back. I read it during a quick break from farm chores, not realizing what it was, and thinking I could go right back to work. Instead, it brought me to my knees. If Steve noticed I’d been crying when I returned, he didn’t say anything.

Today, after shoveling, Steve takes me on a walk up in the hills. After we get back to the farm I go and sit in the fenced pasture where the mama and baby sheep graze, trying to pet the little ones. But they’re all afraid of me, all except for Orphan Annie, who Steve lets me bottle feed 3 times a day, and two older lambs called Zeba and Wonka who were also bottle fed until just recently. These three let me pet them, and Annie even sits on my lap foru awhile. She has a birth defect in the form of perpetually weak muscles in her neck, preventing her from lifting her head up all the way, which is likely the reason she couldn’t suckle properly, and her mother rejected her.


The next morning Steve is whistling that Judy Garland song from The Wizard of Oz, then the Oscar Meyer bologna song, and the Xmas song again. Later in the barn while shoveling he whistles two or three more Christmas caroles. Finally I ask him, “Are you looking forward to Christmas?” to which he replies, “No, I’m not a Christmas sort of person.” This evening it is the theme from Popeye.

I sit in the pasture with the mothers and lambs again the next day and Annie falls asleep at my feet. I don’t pick her up and put her on my lap like yesterday because she has poo all down her back leg and I don’t want to get it all over me. Finally I can’t stand it anymore and scoop her up on to my lap. Clothes, like hands, are washable after all. At one point all the sheep stand straight up and look in the same direction so I follow their gaze and see a cat, not one of Steve’s. I guess because it is a stranger they are wary of it, even though it is just a cat.

After I feed Annie her second bottle this afternoon, I give some corn that I have in my pocket to the rest of the sheep. They all crowd around me trying to get to it and in the commotion with muzzles everywhere one of them eats through the headphones hanging down the front of my jacket. Now I have to listen to my audiobooks out loud till I can get another pair.

One day the sheep manure has so much urine mixed in with it that it is equivalent to diarrhea. This makes it a lot heavier thus harder to pick up. When we are closing up the shed I tell Steve that was probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done. He looks at me blankly. “What was?” “Shoveling diarrhea for 2 hours” I say. He doesn’t reply. The next day he leaves me to do all the shoveling on my own. I think it is revenge for my comment the day before though thankfully the manure is a bit drier today, making the task slightly less odious. Steve whistles “You are my Sunshine.”

One day after I’ve been here about a week, Steve decides to let all the sheep go out together in the morning rather than separate the new mothers and babies. Zeba and Annie stop in front of the gate to their former pasture and wait. Even after all the other sheep shuffle on past, following Steve, they stand there and wait, just the two of them, looking at me expectantly and bleating. The look on Zeba’s face… “What’s up? I’m confused, this is where we’re supposed to go.” Who ever said sheep are stupid? I feel a pang of love for her and Annie, and Wonka too. I also am quite fond of Franko who comes up to me whenever he sees me to have his cheeks and neck scratched. At first I thought it was just because we were in the barn so it was a matter of proximity but this afternoon I spend an hour or so with the flock while they are out grazing, just to keep an eye out for foxes and dogs as Steve is a tad worried about the new lambs being so exposed, and Franko comes up behind me while I’m sitting on a rock. I feel a hot breath on my ear and startled, turn to see him just standing there, his face about an inch from mine. He just gazes lazily into my eyes and when I reach up a hand to scratch him, he doesn’t even flinch. Later I ask Steve if he was a bottle fed lamb, but he wasn’t.

The day before I leave, Steve releases all the sheep together again except for Annie, Zeba and Wonka. When I’m giving Annie her bottle Zeba and Wonka keep getting under my feet as they try to butt in, like they always do. Even though they are considerably bigger and presumably older than Annie, they go for the milk like they’re babies. I’m pushing them away when I get all turned around and suddenly I lose my balance and fall. I topple onto Zeba, and she just lays there, not moving and staring off into space. She has that glassy eyed look like an antelope whose windpipe has just been crushed by a cheetah. For a moment I think I’ve killed her. Later, thinking about it, I start to cry. I spend the afternoon in the fenced pasture with Annie, Zeba and Wonka. I know it’s ridiculous but I’ve bonded with these little creatures in the space of a mere week.

Tonight the main flock of sheep don’t come home. Several times until well after dark we go looking for them, to no avail. It would seem Steve’s anxiety was well founded. Annie, Zeba and Wonka spend the night in the pen alone. I check on them a few times, worried they’ll be lonely at best, and freaked out at worst. They are definitely unsettled.

The next morning there is still no sign of the flock. We take the trio down to the small paddock and leave them, but later I come back down on my own to tell them goodbye. I kiss the three of them again and again and hold Annie, who licks my cheek the way a dog would, for a long time. I cry.

Steve drives me to the train station in Valenca, Portugal. We exchange very few words, typically. He kisses me goodbye, the European double-cheeked airkiss, as empty of substance as Annie’s kisses were full of it. All day I think about the missing flock of sheep, and from my hostel that night, I email Steve and ask if they returned. He writes back to say they did, and none the worse for wear. That night, I think about Annie, Zeba, Wonka and Franko. I miss them already. I don’t miss shoveling.

Recommended reading: Deep South, by Paul Theroux.




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