My thoughts are thumping, my fingers are flying, I couldn’t be more excited to tell you about the crazy! Outrageous! Totally out-there shenanigans I witnessed today! After talking to Carrie about switching things up for a change (sorry weeds), she invited me to her house to watch the shearing of her sheep. Speaking of the shearer’s sometimes-ornery attitude, she warned me that it might not be the most positive experience. “We might need to take a shot of whiskey beforehand,” she said with a chuckle and a hint of seriousness that couldn’t be hidden. Sounded like a pretty good time to me already…
After getting lost twice on the way to her house, a twenty-five minute drive brought me to a quaint house of grey stone with two skylights peeking out behind a large oak tree placed in the right-hand corner of the front yard. It was a picturesque farmhouse, with the corner of a red barn just making its way into vision as I pulled forward in the driveway. Not entirely sure where to go, I followed the sound of faint baa’s straight into a slanted white building that connected to the sheep shed. Inside, I was abruptly met by a large man wearing some ratty reebok sneaks, jeans held up by suspenders, and a sweat-soaked grey t-shirt that suctioned to the small of his back.
“Excuse me,” I said quietly, “Uh, hi, is Carrie here?”
As I feebly made my presence known, around turned a blue baseball cap resting lightly atop the sweaty forehead of the man I would soon come to know. Lifting thin-rimmed glasses from his rounded nose, he whipped out a blue bandana to wipe the beads of sweat trickling into his steely blue eyes before introducing himself. Actually, Carrie jumped in before he could respond: “Oh, hi Cassia, this is Mr. Seavey….”
“No, no, no. Name’s Joe. Call me Mr. Seavey ‘n I’ll turn right around ‘n walk away from ya. Just Joe,” he corrected her while placing a hand on my shoulder and shaking me with a chuckle. Surprised by his touch, I glanced sideways at his dirt-stained fingers and broken, jagged nails that had a few clumps of wool still stuck to the corners. Instantly I winced at the sight of such worn hands, but quickly pushed my prissy judgments out of mind and smiled back at the salt-and-pepper bearded face in front of me. He was quick to correct on many accounts, I would later find out, but his smile and pat on the shoulder seemed to prove Carrie’s prior warning wrong—he didn’t seem so bad!
After introductions, there was really no small talk or chitchat to distract us from the rest of the day’s work. Three sheep milled around the fenced in area where Carrie and I stood, one making his presence very known with his incessant talking and tongue that stretched out of his mouth with each sound.
Meanwhile about nine others were crammed inside the sheep shed looking scared and all-knowing as they crowded into one corner staring at Joe. He really wasn’t that large of a man, but the sheep weren’t huge animals either, so I figured it’d be a good match. Really, I didn’t know what to expect at all so when Joe suddenly grabbed a medium-sized speckled ewe by the snout and rear, spun the animal backwards, and slammed her upside down on her back with about as much grace as a bull in a china shop, I guess I should have been less shocked.
I looked on speechless and aghast as the fight went down: one animal writhing and kicking to break free, the other animal struggling to pin the former down. Using his knee to press down on her head and all his strength to slow her kicking legs, Joe finally got the spotted girl to simmer down. Whipping out what I learned are shearing scissors, Joe made smooth strokes with the blades, careful not to knick any skin. Carrie and I watched on as a multicolored coat was slowly peeled off her body, revealing a much skinnier and darker sheep than had started off.
Yolanda was her name, and she was the mother of two lighter sheep still awaiting their fate. She was older and gentler than many of the others, Carrie told me, but she still fought against her haircut and nail clipping with angst. Honestly, though the whole situation was rather crude and crass, it’s really not much different from how my dog freaks out when we try to clip his nails. Of course, these animals weigh anywhere from a whopping 150-200 pounds, so it only makes sense that the struggle would be more intense, but similar nonetheless. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself each time a victim looked me in the eyes as Joe pressed his knee further into his or her neck. Those were the moments I turned away and made conversation with Carrie as a distraction. I could tell she wasn’t too happy with all the hostility either. After all, these were her babies being thrown around…
After about three sheep, I began being able to put aside the aggressive maneuvers performed in the process and really watch what was happening. The coolest part, in my opinion, was the way each sheep looked completely different after the cut. My favorite of the bunch went last. His name was Dr. Sweets (Carrie is an avid fan of the TV series Bones), and he was one of the largest with a deep, coffee colored coat that just barely covered the eyes set into his silky black face. Soon enough though the beautiful brown was sheared away to reveal a body so black it could have colored the night sky.
Sun bleaching had caused the color transformation, Carrie told me, which is why so many of the shaved bodies were darker than their bags of wool. My job as the wool collector meant I was in charge of getting all the cut wool into garbage bags, which would later be spun into yarn that Carrie would use to make endless blankets, hats, mittens, and whatever else she could think of. As I picked up Dr. Sweets’ coat and stuffed it into a bag, I felt his sweat and natural oils (a yellow substance secreted for water resistance) leftover from a years’ worth of growing.
Carrie shears her sheep once a year, which allows their coats to grow to a nice length for collecting. From the mass amount of material she gets from her pets, Carrie could easily sell the uncleaned wool for roughly $15/lb., or up to $30/lb. after being cleaned. She keeps it all though, not quite seeing the justice of making a profit off of her babies. Sometimes she composts the excess and sometimes it just gets bagged and stored for future use, but either way there’s plenty to go around.
I could tell Joe’s attitude was slowly taking a turn for the worse when I yelled, “Only three to go, Joe! You can do it!”
“I’ll only be happy when there’s zero left,” he grumbled, whipping out his blue handkerchief again.
With each passing minute, Joe’s seeping sweat stained his shirt a few shades of grey darker, making it quite clear that this work was not easy. Finally finishing, the three of us headed inside for some water and rest, where I found out a little more about the man with the blue bandana. Joe Seavey is 67, a retired child-care service agent, and one of the three sheep shearers within a 100-mile radius. The other shearers are also both in their late 60’s, meaning there’s quite a future opening up for the business, he told me.
“You know, there’s a two day program out at Cornell that’ll teach ya how ta shear the right way,” Joe said with a sort of twinkle in his eye.
“Oh, uh…that’s cool,” I responded, trying to avoid any further hinting. “Too bad I’m gonna be heading out west after I graduate, or else I totally would!” So I fibbed a little…sorry.
Although it was incredible to watch and an experience I’m glad I can say I’ve acclaimed, I’m quite sure that I won’t be making a living out of sheep shearing any time soon…or ever. Honestly though, today was a great day and I couldn’t be more excited about getting to see it all go down. Perhaps what I’ll miss most is my new friend, who enjoys ear rubs and long scratching sessions. Say hi to Clara!