All Hail the Fuzzy-Faced Guru.
October 27, 2013
Another Chapter from Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot: You know you’re green when even your stock knows more about running the farm than you do. Our big Komondor, Dali, took it upon herself to show us how we might all survive the life we’d chosen since we had no idea what we’d signed on for, and she obviously did.
Learning, in my book, has always felt as essential to life as breathing or eating. It’s been a relentless force, driving me to run around to the other side of things to see what it looks like from over there. Perhaps that’s why living all those years among animals proved such an extraordinary experience. It didn’t take me too long to savvy who the real experts were in that world. Sure, maybe I’d do better at catching a bus or figuring out tax forms, but no buses came by our farm, and we generally didn’t earn enough to pay taxes. We did however, face death, disease, catastrophe and humiliation on a regular basis, and guess who knew how to do that best?
I didn’t enter the hallowed halls of the University of Farming as a humble seeker of the truth. At the outset, I held a bias that people were the ones with the higher mental processes and that problem solving and decision making lay in our domain. Try to imagine my chagrin when this status was consistently and endlessly challenged by our big shaggy Komondor, Dali. She was a creature who looked prehistoric, like she had just walked out of ancient times essentially unchanged. Her dreadlock cords covered her from head to toe, making it difficult to discern front from back when she was not in motion. She was a giant of a dog, 30 inches at the shoulders, but the ampleness of her size was nothing compared to the enormity of her presence.
Her kind had come off the high, wild plains of Hungary. The genes she carried within her spoke to her clearly and boldly. She was the protectress of the flock, and she needed only the blood coursing through her veins to tell her who she was and why she was here. Inherently, she knew her territory, who the enemy was, and who belonged on our farm. She inventoried the stock, driving off any animals, which had strayed from neighboring farms onto our land. She assessed any new animal she encountered and had some uncanny way to decide if it would be problematic to sheep. Thus she didn’t waste her time chasing coyotes that were just passing through, cock pheasants noisily staking out territory or moose taking up temporary residence. Fred and I had never had the experience of sharing our lives with a working dog before. It amazed us to watch her live daily with a sense of purpose, intention, even wisdom. That’s not to disparage the pets we’d both grown up with, for they were fine friends. But this dog was a scholar, a creature of great knowing, and, as we slowly came to understand, at the very least, a peer.
It didn’t take much time for a situation to arise on the farm that allowed us to experience Dali in a way which introduced the first doubts into our certainty about our mental superiority. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised, for right from the start, she had made it clear that there were three partners in this business venture. This became evident to us when she regularly disagreed with our evaluation of particular situations. We’d hear coyotes in our hip pocket, and she’d just lie there snoozing. We’d get frantic, curse her indolence and run around pulling our hair out for fear our sheep would all be gone in the morning. We’d get up at 3:00 A.M. when the coyotes would be howling from every corner of the world and go tramping through the woods to see if that useless mutt, as we’d taken to calling her in our early years, was doing any damn good. It was foreign to us to believe that an animal could be counted on to do a job without our supervision. So foreign, in fact, that it took us many, many mornings of sheep all safe and accounted for, before we finally got it.
Not only did she assume her full partnership in this business, but she also had a definite opinion on the status of each of us. Fred was president. She was VP, and I was whatever was left. When I reflected on this arrangement years later, it fascinated me to realize how easily I had accepted her classification at that point in my life. I was quite full of myself in my mid-twenties, arrogant and unforgiving. It seems to me now that my acquiescence to her hierarchy could only have been a tribute to the force of her presence. It didn’t humble me, but rather, in some strange way, it made my own deficiencies acceptable to me.
As a result of this classification, she took, as part of her job description, to protect me as well as the sheep, but Fred was on his own. Alpha males should be able to take care of themselves. She also had a set of rules for the farm which she enforced quite stridently. Strangers could not touch the sheep until they were properly introduced to her. Neither could they run about, shout or be boisterous around the stock. Offenders were disciplined. She might snatch them by a sleeve of their jackets and hold them fast until she made her point. Or she’d jump up and bark directly into their faces, a manoeuver that had particular impact on those over six feet tall. If she had a suspicion of trouble despite no present evidence, she’d just rumble out a growl like a pre-eruption volcano. Adults became child-like in their obedience to her rules. We, however, never got a feeling of arrogance from her behavior. Rather it smacked of a sobriety that denotes a job where success means sheep live and failure means sheep die.
We had Dali before we had the sheep. This was a bit of a mistake on our part for her greater loyalties, as a result, were to us rather than the flock. This may have proved advantageous were sheep dangerous creatures, but, that not being the case, it was more irritating than helpful. One of the ways this concern for us manifested was that Dali would protect not only us but everything that belonged to us. Granted, if we left a lunch lying about or a notebook of important information, Dali insured that sheep curiosity could not get the better of itself. Instead of an empty bag or shreds of gooey paper, the lost items would still be intact, waiting for us. But this worked to our disadvantage our first autumn when it came time to supplement the thinning fall pasture with hay.
We had moved onto a piece of raw land that we had to make into a farm. Initially, we had no facilities whatsoever. Every time we needed something, we had to build it from scratch. So, when we noticed the pasture was no longer adequate, we pulled out some lumber from our pile and began to build a hay feeder. Dali lay nearby not exactly watching but just posting sentry on the project. It wasn’t a big production and by the end of the day we had a feeder to drag out to the pasture and fill with hay for the flock. What we hadn’t counted on was a dog who had inventoried this feeder as ours.
Sheep have a delight in them that is nurtured by novelty. They treat changes to their environment with curiosity and enthusiasm. As we pulled the feeder into the pasture, they came running and bucking, swarming all over it with excitement. They tapped on its wood bottom; sampled bits of bark not completely peeled from the rough lumber, and tested it to see how well it scratched their backs. This was too much insubordination for Dali. The feeder was not their property; it was ours, and her rules said that sheep did not touch our property. She flew at them barking and growling, sending them racing off in utter chaos. We were speechless.
I looked at Fred and commented that if she persisted, this operation was going to be cheap on feed. He didn’t appreciate my humor and grabbed her by the hair on her neck to explain the situation. He made her lie down a good distance from the feeder. Filling the feeder with hay to encourage the sheep to drift back, Fred explained to Dali what was to happen here. As the sheep got closer, she looked at us in total disbelief. Her expression clearly said if you don’t stop them they’re going to eat at that feeder. They’re going to break the rules. Twice she started up in response to our seeming idiocy, and twice Fred set her down. Her look was one of incredulity as she lay head flatten on her out-stretched front paws with exasperation written all over her body. She rendered the canine expression of total frustration by blowing air out her flews in a protracted sigh that made the cords around her mouth stand out like rags on a heat vent. It took about a week until she finally accepted our position on the hay feeder: we promise not to shoot you if you let the sheep eat at the feeder. She was never polled on that management decision, but she did obey it, treating us with the same artificial respect that most employees secretly have for their boss. But at other times, her understanding of how to deal with a situation was profoundly wise. She was the guide who led us through one of our first great tragedies on the farm, and we never forgot the lesson.
Part Two of the Fuzzy-Faced Guru will appear next Sunday.