Went to a Border Collie herding trial yesterday. There were sheep there, and lots of dogs, and people carrying shepherds\’ crooks. We watched and listened as a commentator explained the ins and outs of the ballet going on in the field between dogs and sheep. And I watched the shepherds, too.
In my childhood, I had seen the village shepherd who every evening in the summer brought the sheep and goats past my grandparents\’ house. There seemed to be hundreds of sheep thundering by, bleating as if the world were coming to an end–tiny high bleats from the lambs, mezzo bleats from the ewes, basso bellows from the rams. They raised huge clouds of dust as they trotted, and between that and the noise and the smell, my citified senses were momentarily stunned.
I loved the passing of the herd, and watched for it despite my mother\’s and my aunts\’ cries of “Come inside! You\’ll get dirty!” At the head of the herd, covered in dust, was the shepherd, wearing a black vest, corduroy pants, a cap on his head and a cigarette dangling from his lips. At the end of the procession, a small dust-colored animal trotted panting behind the sheep—that was the dog.
The shepherds I saw yesterday were quite different. Neither they nor their dogs were dusty—it\’s rained too much in Vermont lately for dust—and they weren\’t smoking. Some of them were enormously fat–I figured these must be the ones with the best dogs. They could do their herding from a lawn chair, with just a flick of the finger and a whistle now and then, and the dog did all the running. And a majority of the shepherds were women.
Two in particular caught my eye. One was tall and slim, dressed entirely in black. She wore a finely-woven straw hat with a wide brim and a black bow around the crown. She looked like she\’d strayed in from Fifth Avenue, except that she wasn\’t wearing heels. My heart sank when I saw her. She just didn\’t look like she belonged, and I knew I would feel horribly embarrassed for her if she disgraced herself on the field. I needn\’t have worried. She and her dog did a practically perfect run, and at one point she waved her big hat in front of the sheep and kept them in place.
The other shepherdess was like something out of a children\’s story. She was ancient and bent, her face so spotted with sun damage that from a distance the brown spots blurred together to give the impression of a healthy tan. Washed-out blue eyes peered out from a mass of wrinkles. Her plaid flannel shirt hung half out of her jeans, which matched the paleness of her eyes. She wore a brown calico bandanna over her hair, which hung down in a thin gray/blond braid down to her waist. Her crook was partly covered in duct tape. And she was smiling. She smiled at her shepherd friends; she smiled at the panting dogs waiting for their turn; she smiled at the goings-on out in the field.
As I amble into my golden years, I am constantly on the lookout for old ladies whom I\’d like to grow up to resemble. There aren\’t many. Barbara Bush? If only she had been more like Medea. Judi Dench? Too exalted. Jane Goodall? Too saintly. But that smiling old shepherdess with her duct-taped crook and her skinny braid—I wish I could sit at her feet and learn a thing or two about growing old.