Springtime Sprouts

Life has been happening fast at and around Heatherhope these days. Back in the hay field the alfalfa and grass that Chauncey II and III (or is it III and IV?) planted a couple of weeks ago are just minutely popping their little sprouts above the ground. We are eager for the rain that the forecast says will come overnight Wednesday. We have heard that great oaks from little acorns do grow, but it’s true for all the life that sprouts–it flows from the hand of God.


As we wait and watch and expect great things, here are some insights and blessings that have come in waves very recently.


  • “Why would anyone herd sheep?” That was what one woman asked during our sheep herding demonstrations at Kline Creek Farm the weekend before last. It is a delight for Connie and I to offer these events, and questions like that make it obvious just how far removed from food production most people live. There is an essential economy apart from smart phone apps and algorithms. Sheep and goats have kept major swaths of the world’s population going for at least 15,000 years; and still do. And without herding dogs such husbandry would be impossible in most places where these animals are essential. We hope we were able to cause some insights to sprout in people’s minds. And we certainly gained a deeper insight into the need to bridge the huge vacuum of understanding of agriculture that there is out there.

    Participants in the April, 2018 sheepdog clinic with Gordon Watt soak up the sheepdog savvy. Photo by John

    Participants in the April, 2018 sheepdog clinic with Gordon Watt soak up the sheepdog savvy. Photo by John

  • “Thanks for making me feel welcome.” That’s something that Mary Beth said as she left for home from our Gordon Watt Clinic. I’ve heard that expressed many times in the past, and it makes me feel so good about the sense of community that has grown up around the sheepdog clinics that we have hosted at Heatherhope for many years now. Many things contribute to this spirit of belonging. A major ingredient is our mealtimes together. Wife Connie, of course, works hard to put out coffee, tea, fruit, and sweet breads in the mornings; more hot beverages and snacks all day; and grand luncheons at mid-day. And, of, course, the sheer fact of throwing doors open to everyone, and breaking bread together, is a sacramental thing–inviting God to glue people together–signaling without words that all are welcome and all are valued.
  • “That dog is a great big sponge.” Gordon said that about one particular dog, owned by Sharon. But it genuinely applies as well to all the dogs at the clinic and beyond. He was noting that this particular dog was natural at its flanks and pace and all the essentials of herding. But that meant that those things came easy to it and so any little thing that Sharon would do, such as stopping its outrun or calling it back, or an unconscious gesture with the hand would be inadvertently learned as a rule by the dog. This is one reason why it is so important to watch Gordon’s choreography with dogs and sheep. He is amazingly spare with his body language and use of training tools like leads and sticks and slaps of a hat on the leg. That’s because all dogs noticing things–soaking up things. And the biggest problem we mortals have in training dogs is that we throw out heaps of unintended signals through the flailing of arms, swishing of sticks, and spewing of commands and other sounds that the dogs then must assign meanings–most of the time without our even noticing that it is happening. Come to think of it, people are sponges too. Every word or gesture carries meaning. And if we do things well, those around us feel encouraged. When we are careless the opposite can happen, even though we never intended it.
  • “What did you get?” vs. “What a Miracle!” Our dinner conversation on the Saturday night of the clinic revolved around the point of sheepdog competitions. Kathy, Priscilla, Connie and I agreed that competition itself surely whets the appetite and is thrilling. And it spurs us all to measure the skills of ourselves and our dogs so that we can see better where we need to improve. But there is also an immaturity in fixating on the opinion of others in the form of the judges scores and the whispers of others back in the handlers’ tent. It’s much like back in school when all that matters to some is the test score and the final grade. And when the report card or the exam grades come out and students anxiously ask, “Wudya get?” it signals that they have lost sight of the real purpose of school: to learn. It’s time then to remember what learning machines herding dogs are. They ARE sponges. They have amazing minds. They are always far more capable of understanding sheep, and far more driven to work for us than we can ever fully appreciate. So, it seems to me, the point of competition or of clinics, is to deepen the appreciation for the miracle right in front of us. When we do that it will free us of our anxieties, free us to get much better and more effective as trainers and teammates with our dogs, and free us to think to encourage our fellow competitors.
  • “I’m at the point in my life when I’m searching.” I’m not sure my friend at the dog clinic used just those words, but he was asking big questions. The atmosphere of encouragement at the clinic, and the wealth of time we had, and the miracle of listening allowed us to do a good deal of exploring of mysteries. One of the mysteries we explored was how and why God’s gift of dogs touched us both so deeply. It was a rare and satisfying conversation we shared.
    Ten days before putting our ewes and lambs on pasture we contended with snow. Photo by John

    Ten days before putting our ewes and lambs on pasture we contended with snow. Photo by John

    Ewe with triplets chill out on the first day of pasture. The great AAAAHHHHH! Photo by John

    Ewe with triplets chill out on the first day of pasture. The great AAAAHHHHH! Photo by John

  • “The great aaahhh at the end of lambing.” This year’s lambing was tough. Good friends Graham and Margaret shared that their lambs also found many ways of dying, yet there was much good. We ourselves had many a sleep-deprived day and anxious hour dealing with freezing rain, snow, high winds, more snow, our first full-fledged prolapse, and watching and worrying and wrestling with the labor and delivery of big lambs. But today we finally put the mothers and lambs out on pasture. We take it slow and steady, moving them out of the barn and from one side of the feedlot to the other, then through the unfenced no-man’s land between the barn and pasture, and finally into the new grass. Moms chow down eagerly on the sweet grass along the way. Babies seem to bounce from this direction to that. Moms chortle while lambs call out. The youngest lamb of all, whose leg was broken and splinted a week ago, got the royal treatment by being carried by Connie. It led the way with its mom following its plaintive bleats and the rest of the flock following its super-concerned mother. But then we made it, without much fuss, to the pasture, closed the gate, and that was that. Mothers, lambs, all spreading out to enjoy the wide spaces and luscious new growth of grass. All the food they could possibly want spread out before them. The welcoming table of the Lord. The word “aah” in its correct spelling, certainly doesn’t have nearly enough of the letters “a” or “h” to satisfy. Watching those ewes and lambs contentedly grazing? Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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