Note: I am performing one of those sleights of hand characteristic of liturgical time and transferring my discussion of Good Shepherd Sunday (observed last week) to this week, finding I have little to say in this form about the Fifth Sunday of Easter, or Mother’s Day for that matter.
I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. John 10:14
Having the good fortune to be married to a fiber artist, I have gotten to know a few things about sheep. We aren’t shepherds yet, nor do we have much prospect of being so on our current quasi-suburban half-acre. Still, because my wife spins yarn, dies fiber, and pursues various other projects with wool, it’s helpful to know a few things about sheep, and with my agricultural interests I have learned alongside her.
In particular, I enjoy browsing The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook, an encyclopedic directory to different natural fibers that contains profiles of dozens of species of heritage breeds of sheep. The book is full of delights even if you’re neither a fiber artist nor a shepherd: you might simply enjoy looking at its wonderful pictures of sheep, or like me, take the opportunity to daydream about what it would be like to farm on a remote island in the north Atlantic. The breed names, as with other heirloom agricultural species, are especially rich:
Bluefaced Leicester, Derbyshire Gritstone, Darbey Down, Castlemilk Moorit.
Finnsheep, Charollais, Navajo Churro, East Friesian, California Red.
Whitefaced Woodland, Kerry Hill, Beulah Speckled Face.
These names reflect the lives of generations of peasants in small places around the world. They encode folk traditions in language and agriculture that it would not be an exaggeration to describe as the staff of human culture, reflecting as they do not only biological but cultural adaptation to the particular places where people settle. Now these traditions are kept alive only through disciplined conservation efforts, by small communities of farmers, hobbyists, and artisans. This is a loss.
Shepherds really are the backbone of civilization. After the domestication of grain and oil crops, it was sheep and cattle that brought agriculture into being, and management of grazing animals remains central even to modern farming. Civilized human life is a product to no small extent of our relationship with sheep, and that relationship has governed and still governs vast swathes of cultivated land the world over. It’s hardly surprising, then, that both sacred and literary tradition are full of sheep and shepherds, including many of the most popular biblical texts (Psalm 23, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and the passage I quoted above), numerous hymns and works of sacred art, and the pastoral genre in literature and art. Though pastoral can be naive and idealistic, ignoring the hard-working reality of the shepherd’s lot, writers and artists have nonetheless intuited the centrality of these livestock to our common life. Without sheep and cattle much of culture would have never existed, since much agriculture wouldn’t have either.
Though modern farmers have mechanical and chemical replacements for many of the traditional agricultural roles of animals, probably there is no truly sustainable farming without sheep and cattle. The first resource that must be conserved in building healthy land is the soil. When growing plants, human beings (largely) remove nutrients from the soil, appropriating them for our own consumption in the form of kale or corn or hot peppers. Though some plants foster soil biology and return nutrients to the soil, their typical function in agriculture is to draw them out. A farming based only upon plants can become purely extractive, and risks leaving the soil depleted.
Grazing animals close this ecological loop by returning nutrients and living bacteria to the soil in the most efficient and productive way possible, that is, through their digestive systems. Regenerative agricultural systems have been able to perform incredible feats of landscape repair—rebuilding topsoil and restoring biodiversity—through healthy management of grazing animals, an ecological feat that plants alone couldn’t accomplish.
Incidentally, goats do not perform this regenerative work. Whereas sheep and cattle require high-quality grazing to flourish—and so their biology tends to promote it—the stock image of the goat chewing down a tin can is not too far from the reality. Goats’ ecological niche is in fact degraded land; they are adapted to consumer the vegetation that persists when all else is dead. The natural farm Mark Shepard observes that goats only move into an ecological niche just before “total desertification,” and thus they are a sign of land no longer able to sustain human health. This ecological information perhaps throws the parable of the sheep and the goats in new light.
The cultural significance of sheep and cattle thus is matched only by their ecological importance. The idealized image of the shepherd basking in green fields promoted by pastoral literature has at least this basis in reality—that grazing sheep promote the health of the land. To call Christ the Good Shepherd then is to mark him not just as a caring and knowledgeable keeper of his followers, but as the regenerator of our landscapes. He greens the pastures in which he feeds us, restoring not just our souls but the soil.
I’m not sure we’ll ever have the land or the will to raise sheep ourselves. If reading The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook has awoken me to the fascinations of pastoralism, my childhood reading of James Herriot has alerted me to the hard work, discomfort, and heartache that is the shepherd’s lot. Even a mere shepherd of the mind, though, gains a greater appreciation of the language of the Good Shepherd. When the Psalmist writes “therefore can I lack nothing,” now, I have a bit more of a sense of what he means.