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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Between Ewe and She

An author and her flock

Kyle Wyatt

Shepherd’s Sight: A Farming Life

Barbara McLean

ECW Press

240 pages, softcover and ebook

The contours of memory change with age. The salience of details shifts. More than twenty years ago, in Lambsquarters: Scenes from a Handmade Life, Barbara McLean wrote about her start as a sheep farmer in Grey County, Ontario. “I was rooting around, busy at some task one morning late that first summer, when I sensed a sleek navy Volvo glide in the lane,” she recalled back then. Behind the wheel was a stranger named R. F. Harrow —“a gentle man, cultured”— who wore ironed khakis, a denim shirt, and Wallabees. “He shook my hand firmly, his own uncalloused.” After giving her sagging barn and chicken coop a look, he agreed to sell McLean and her partner, Thomas, five “pre-named” ewes: Old Spot, Hampy, Blackie, Susie, and Maggie. They would be followed by many others over the next five decades.

McLean recounts her herd’s origins somewhat differently in Shepherd’s Sight, her beguiling follow‑up to Lambsquarters. In this more recent telling, she bought her first sheep from a farmer named Fred, “a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police inspector” with the “posture and bearing one might expect.” He was a man who “loved wool, perhaps because of the iconic uniform of the Mountie, the red serge wool tunic.” This was not someone, we might surmise from the author’s current description, with perfect hands and countercultural footwear. Initially, McLean explains here, Fred sold her four Hampshires: Old Spot, Susie, Hampy, and Blackie. Maggie would arrive a year later.

Counting sheep while staying awake to the realities of today.

André Kertész, 1931; gelatin silver print; Estate of André Kertész; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

R. F. Harrow and Fred are both the same and different in these two books, just as McLean is the same and different. Now in her seventies, she has more perspective and more aches than before. And perhaps more in common with this late friend who “taught me to be a shepherd”:

When I was in my forties, Fred, who had sold me my first ewes twenty years before, telephoned requesting a visit. Over the kitchen table, slowly nursing a cup of tea, he broke down in tears and told me he’d decided to sell his flock. He was in his mid-eighties. A former Mountie, a powerful thinker, and still a big man, he no longer had the stamina to carry on. I fear that day.

McLean knows that the day she fears will come, but she’s determined to tend her sheep “for as long as I can.” Shepherd’s Sight is not her attempt to forestall the inevitable but a lyrical way of getting ready for it.

Whereas Lambsquarters was arranged around a series of topics — the naming, the rail fence, the hay cutter, the sheep paths — Shepherd’s Sight is divided into twelve chapters, one for every month. McLean starts in January, which she describes as both “quiet” and “not a happy month.” By December, she has recounted a year on the farm —“governed by the whims of nature, by the seasonal cycle of sheep fertility, by the arrival and departure of frosts, the whelping and weaning of coyotes who threaten my flock”— that’s at once singular and emblematic of a lifetime.

McLean grew up in an urban environment and holds a doctorate in English literature, but her diction befits the farmer she chose to become. More often than not, it is direct and declarative, unadorned and wry. She deploys metaphor and alliteration sparingly, to marvellous effect. “The farm begins to stretch,” she writes of February. “It doesn’t fully stir but teases tiny tendrils toward an awakening.” At this point, her ram, Hunter, has done his job for the year. “He’s settled now, focused on food, foregone the fruitless folly of finding cooperative ewes to service.”

Rather less settled is a grey tree frog that McLean finds in her nineteenth-century farmhouse one bright winter morning —“an unusual and unexpected stowaway creature in my living room.” He had chosen an earthenware planter as his hibernaculum, only to awaken prematurely after McLean brought the pot inside. There’s a simple explanation for his presence — McLean admits to “arrogantly” giving the frog a gender and the appellation Louis the Grenouille — but increasingly all sorts of natural rhythms around the farm are off-kilter for one reason or another.

“Every agricultural improvement has its cost to the environment,” McLean points out. “The removal of fencerow trees and vegetation to create larger fields and the increase in pesticide use have devastated insect, avian, and animal populations, threatened the wildlife corridors.” Year after year, she has observed change — some of it swift, some of it gradual — on the long daily walks she takes around her property. Red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons no longer fly over her pastures. Parasites that endanger her ewes are increasingly drug resistant. Even lambing season is fluctuating. “It is difficult to prepare,” she says of husbandry these days. “And difficult to discuss with many who remember specific years of drought, years of flood, years of storms and stillness, but won’t acknowledge their increasing frequency and intensity.”

While McLean admits to nostalgia on two occasions, she speaks more of tenacity and of hope, a word that she uses almost thirty times. The world may be changing around her, but she is still “strong enough to sling hay bales and to hold a reluctant ewe.” McLean’s relationship with her flock of Border Leicesters, of course, is at the heart of Shepherd’s Sight. She writes of lambs being born, yearlings being rambunctious, sheep being counted and sheared and sold. These animals have individual proclivities. McLean has spent countless hours getting to know them and countless sleepless nights attending to their well-being: “And yet I am an omnivore; I eat meat. I find it difficult to explain to those who don’t, but I do take comfort in the fact that I treat lambs from my farm as ethically and carefully as I can manage.” The sincerity is palpable.

For several decades, McLean’s partner ran a busy medical practice, with “well over 2,500 patients.” McLean learned how to deliver her lambs while he was away “delivering all his patients’ babies.” Now retired, Thomas is the farm’s resident stonemason. “He took a weekend course and soon rocks began to accumulate,” McLean recalls. “When he splits a rock or shapes a stone, there’s a melodic rhythmic pinging as he taps the stone wedge with the splitting hammer. His patient, steady song gently persuades the stone to shift shape.”

Several pages describing a new wall that Thomas builds around the vegetable garden are among the book’s finest. After the neighbours’ barn burns to the ground on a cold March evening, they offer Thomas three truckloads of fieldstones from its charred foundation. “These stones were hand-picked, hand-split, and hand-placed over a hundred years ago,” McLean writes. “They kept the weather out, the animals in. Generations of stock were born, milked, nurtured within their shelter.” Now many of those stones will guard her peas and squash. “Instead of being bulldozed into oblivion, they are being reconfigured into another useful handcrafted structure around the corner from their first use since the glacier deposited them. They rise again from the ashes into a phoenix wall.” As she does throughout Shepherd’s Sight, McLean blends sombre reflections on the way things were with optimism for the way they might be.

What’s in store for McLean’s many acres is far from certain. “I’m one of the majority of farmers with no succession plan,” she concedes on the last page. She knows that her son and daughter have no interest in raising sheep: “Fields and meadows are their past, not their future.” But her grandsons “are young enough to influence.” Perhaps they “will keep this farm,” McLean muses. “In their hearts, if not with their hands.”

Another option would be giving it to an Indigenous community. “I would not be the first to consider returning this land to First Nations members,” McLean writes. “Possibly to be stewarded by descendants of those who were relocated by my own great-great-great-grandfather.” Even as a hypothetical, this possibility speaks to change of another sort. When she wrote Lambsquarters at the turn of the century, McLean didn’t once use the terms “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous” or “First Nations.” The closest she came was in reference to the “native paths, portages and trapping lines” that early settlers followed and to the Algonquian etymology of “raccoon.” As they have become for many Canadians, treaty rights, Indigenous history, and reconciliation are simply more top of mind for McLean than they were not long ago.

Shepherd’s Sight is a beautiful reminder that, for individuals and nations alike, it’s only natural for memories to change, for awareness to deepen. If the day that Barbara McLean fears comes sooner rather than later, let’s hope she can nonetheless continue writing books such as this.

Kyle Wyatt is the editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada.