“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Anatole France
Sheep have a surprisingly acute sense of geometry.
Clustered near the fence as we approach, they consistently manage to run diagonally to the farthest point upon sight of us, their fleece, upon which weather and botany has sketched their presence, bouncing alongside. Heavy and wet but safe. Away from us.
Torn between wanting amusement and not wanting to use them for our benefit, our sad faces mask deep feelings of rejection. Don’t misunderstand—we own cats, we’re overly familiar with rejection from the animal kingdom.
It’s just that one would imagine that sheep would willingly acquiesce our extended hands… Aren’t sheep cultivated for our human means and our means alone?
Perhaps they felt our overwhelming need and ran from its oppressive force. We’re sheep for God’s sake, what do you want from us? We give you our male lambs, our tails, our fleece…?
What did we want? Simple: to be noticed, to notice something else. To care and feel cared about. Something soft and good and lovely and kind. (Are sheep kind?) In light of where people think our world is going (Is our world no longer kind?), and in light of our own inability to extend ourselves to the state of parental love, we chase sheep.
Or, rather, we stand still while they run from us. Disappearing without even leaving.
I’ve found myself wanting animals to notice me, to let me love them. A vixen scurries across Ladbroke Road in the early London morning and I block traffic to shuttle her to safety. Well, I would have done so had there been traffic. To the crows on our roof deck, I want to say, “I’m of you, my last name means ‘crow’ in Czech!” They fly away, diagonally. I join their murder by writing stories about their desultory nature.
Sheep run from us, repeatedly. Abandoning us swiftly, absenting our corner of the field in a diagonal that leads to the furthest possible point from our extended hands. My husband and I, from this, feel so utterly lost.
I believe we hide bits of ourselves, perhaps the most fragile parts, in places and things that will protect them. Over the years, I’ve amassed emotional safety deposit boxes all over the earth, scattered in familiar items and well-loved places in which I’ve vouchsafed my best parts. After our first honeymoon there, I do believe my husband and I left bits of our best selves in New Zealand. Or, rather, New Zealand has a way of pulling out your best parts and dancing them around you, fulfilled.
This past holiday, we returned, perhaps seeking what we’ve left, hoping to find something better than the gold and grey of London and the world at large. The more time we spend there, the more a warmth extends itself throughout us, like a breaking, cracking, warming thaw. But this time, after a long two weeks in New Zealand, something just wouldn’t thaw.
Every animal in the world—cats, sheep, fox, crows—holds the best part of me: my ability to love. And when I see them, they return it, freely. Or, rather, pull it out of me. Except, not this time. Sheep ran from us, diagonally.
At the end of our trip, in Arthur’s Pass, a noble place in the Southern Alps of low clouds and high peaks, we stayed at a wilderness lodge, a sheep farm and sanctuary of land and trails. Out on a hike we went, passing a field of black-faced, black-footed sheep. They were already on the far side of the enclosure, so we had low hopes of seeing them closely, but we called, in greeting, gently, kindly, because it’s what you do when meeting residents through whose place you trod.
They registered and stopped eating. Then something wonderful happened.
They ran. Towards us. And I mean ran. Ears flopping, hooves strumming the ground, their French Horn bleats heralding the charge. Across the field and under our outstretched hands. Chins were scratched, rubbed. Ears petted. Feet jumped and pranced and elated. The sheep moved about, too. Love had been extended, finally, and so it extended back into us. We needed each other, noticed each other.
Sheep have a surprisingly acute sense of neediness.
My husband pranced on for a thrilling hike above the tree line, I returned to the lodge to read. The proprietor kindly asked me if I had been feeding the lambs. Turns out the large barrel, which my husband almost knocked over in his joy but soon set right and left behind, was full of food. Sheep food. We had stumbled into a closely negotiated and strictly observed extortion situation. Sheep run across a field, they get fed. I rushed back to the pen and fed them, they were forgiving, grateful.
Sheep have a surprisingly acute sense of forgiveness if you fail to notice – really notice – what they need.
Fresh from his hike, warm and loose, my husband and I relived the joy of the day. I didn’t mention the barrel of sheep food. He ended that day and began the next believing that sheep love him and run across fields to him—how can truth possibly compete with that?
In the face of neediness, we can but extend our love.
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