RURAL ROUTES/Margot F. McMillen

A Holiday Story

With Sheep and Shepherd

This being a banner year for lamb sales, my neighbor Eric decided to expand his business. For us, this was good news. A sheep population explosion at our place threatened to overcrowd us. I promised to bring the surplus to his place by 8 a.m. Like most shepherds, Eric has a town job to support his agricultural habit.

So, one morning at 6:30, I drove the trailer into our pasture, put down the ramp and, with the fanfare that sheep appreciate, carried a couple of red buckets of grain up the ramp and put them in view. Then I stood back.

In just a minute or two, the sheep had loaded themselves on the trailer and, heads in buckets, were chowing down. With the last lamb just about in, I lifted the ramp to shut off escape.

I mention this incident to illustrate the way humans, seemingly indifferent to what our choices mean for the future, get on board the very moment something cool is available. Beany babies. Three-door pickup trucks. Viagra. We like new stuff so much that we spend all our savings and then borrow more.

Back to where I'm loading sheep: I'm lifting the ramp when, quicker than greased lightning, the last lamb bolted. She scrambled off the ramp, faced me and angrily stamped.

"No problem," I thought, "I have plenty of time."

But this little lamb was taking the long view. She knew that consumer choices always have an impact. Maybe she measured the long-term possibility that the trailer was going to the locker plant. Or, maybe she was thinking about the thrift of our pasture compared to the resources that went into the grain--the petroleum in the tractors, the erosion of the land, the transportation of that bucket from factory to warehouse to store to my place. We would benefit from such deep thoughts.

Example #1: To feed our coffee habit, we each drink the equivalent of one coffee tree's production every month. That's 1.5 pounds, 6,000 beans or 100 cups. The byproducts include three pounds of coffee pulp dumped in rivers, plus all the byproducts of coffee-producing machinery, highways, roasters, advertising, warehouses, executive jet planes, pesticides and insecticides.

Example #2: Because we want cheap bacon on our cheap cheeseburgers and we export our eating styles to the Third World, we support giant hog factories making huge amounts of waste. According to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, we produced five tons of animal manure in 1997 for every American citizen. Where's yours? In the Iowa-Minnesota-Missouri fish kills of half a million fish? In the billion-critter coastal wipe-out in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland? or part of the New-Jersey size dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico?

Example #3: Because we love new stuff--all new stuff--we turn 40% of our domestic lumber, including oak and maple, into pallets that provide platforms for stuff--new stuff--that is handled by forklifts. Last year, the pallet industry built six just for you. Pallets are hard to get rid of. They clog landfills and tear up mulching machines. Pallets defy rehabilitation and re-use by turning nail-bending-hard in a few months and shattering into splinters in the hands of would-be re-habbers (been there).

The solutions for survival in the long run are obvious.

Consume--that means purchase--as little as humanly possible, even now, during the holidays that brighten the long, grey winter with shiny advertisements. You know that Americans live too richly. By finding your own way to celebrate, you influence people who are afraid to be leaders.

Choose local products rather than things from afar, like herbal teas and local fruit juices. Meats, fish, fruits and vegetables raised by someone you can look in the eye to ask what resources were used.

Recycle. Everything.

Precycle. Everything.

Break the mall habit. Use the time you save to watch T.V. (Just kidding).

Back to the sheep: Planning to seduce the rebel into the barn, I took a new grain bucket and put it where I thought it would work. For the next fifteen minutes or so, I led and I chased. I would nearly get her, then lose her, then nearly get her again.

Then I remembered. On the farm, I'm the Hidden Persuader. If I can't load them, they can't be loaded, right?

I ran my best concepts up the flagpole, waiting for the lamb to salute: "Exciting!" I yelled, "Ultimate Escape! Extreme! You Deserve It! Have It All!" and finally, "Sex!"

The lamb was unimpressed. The clock was ticking.

And then, the mutineer lamb bleated her distress. The crew in the trailer wailed back. At the noise, the horses started to run along the fence line in a threatening way.

The hens squawked encouragement. They roused the Labrador retriever, who's always looking for a chance to put poultry in its place. He chased. I turned and hollered at him. When I turned back, the renegade lamb was charging toward the cows.

Until now, the cows had watched with dumb amusement. But, stirred by the plight of a fellow four-legged, they came to the lamb's aid. They crowded in the barn, fashioning a maze. The lamb dodged under a cow's belly, escaping where I could only follow slowly and at risk of being kicked.

Finally, I cornered her. Grabbing her by the shoulders and sitting her on her butt, I slipped on a halter.

She went limp. Dead weight. A hundred pounds, more or less, of bullheaded mutton.

The truck and trailer were in the pasture, about a quarter mile away. It was 7:45. What was I to do? Drag her? Lift her? Look for a winch?

I let her go, with grudging admiration. The Hidden Persuader was beaten and she has a place here for life.

Here's the bottom line: This holiday season, if you want off the consumerist trailer, stamp your foot, run, hide, tell everyone, go limp. Take the long view, and have a happy new year.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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