A Lawnmower Is Born | The Farmer’s Life

A flock of sheep. A pasture. And a relationship that goes back thousands of years. 

By Julia Shipley

Apr 08 2016


The author’s sheep, mowing down a section of field.

Photo Credit : Julia Shipley

You’ve seen those photos—hard-faced folks standing by barns and houses, and behind them: nothing but endless, rolling hills.

Sometimes I stand in my backyard in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, and gaze out at forest-tufted hills trying to picture this vista as it looked back in the early 1800s with nary a tree, thanks to the ravages of the potash and timber industry; just grassy hill after grassy hill kept open, mowed by a multitude of sheep.

For a score of years, the Green Mountain State was the wooliest place in the country, and, until it became more economical to raise sheep in the vast expanses of the western United States, Vermont’s green pastures fattened flocks whose fleece filled the mills that clothed a nation.

The author’s sheep, mowing down a section of field.
The author’s sheep, mowing down a section of field.
Photo Credit : Julia Shipley

In 1802 the first wide-eyed, pink-nosed Merino set hoof on Vermont’s turf, and by 1837 there were a million of them, outnumbering humans 3.4-to-1, which, coincidentally, matches the ratio on my homestead, where for the better part of a decade, I’ve reared three to five spring lambs.

“You can’t turn back the hands of time,” the fuel oil delivery guy advised me in 2004, after I first moved in. He’d surveyed my sole proprietorship of an overlarge garden, meandering hens, two heifers and trio of sheep and concluded I was one of those back-to-the-land types. I told him I had no plans to forgo indoor plumbing, nor quit electricity, but I did buy a chainsaw, borrow a splitter, and install a woodstove, so I didn’t see him as frequently.

I wasn’t trying to turn back time so much as use it meaningfully.

I had no plans to clothe a nation, but I did have green pastures and an area around the house known as “lawn” that I could either mow with a big noisy machine or graze with some of those wide-eyed, pink-nosed, grass guzzling lambs.

And even as the hands of time turn relentlessly forward, the fundamental human-sheep relationship—a relationship I re-establish every spring as I fetch my small flock—is about 10,000 years old. That’s profoundly ancient when compared to the human relationship to the century-old two-stroke technology of Toro and Honda.

As days lengthen and snowpack wanes, the mechanical lawn mowers of Orleans county hunker in garages, chilly, inert, while in sheep barns across town, ewes hunker in sawdust-bedded stalls that smell like milk and hay and throb with the small brays of newborn lambs.

As most ewes deliver twins, a shepherd’s flock triples beneath one roof in a matter of weeks; while the last snows assail the fields, sheep farmers tend a blizzard of livestock—lambs that can stand up and bound around within minutes of delivery.

A set of the author’s lambs, taking stock of their new surroundings.
A set of the author’s lambs, taking stock of their new surroundings.
Photo Credit : Julia Shipley

Weeks later, when they’re weaned, I’ll flip the seat in the back of the wagon, lay down a tarp and then convince my newlywed six-foot-three-inch husband, Howie, to climb in and ride with the herd as we bring our new ruminants home.

Diane Young’s sheep farm is four miles away. By the time we’ve driven past the reforested fields and hills between our barns, she’s picked out five ram lambs and weighed them. I trade her one check for our twenty-legged lawnmower, and heft each, tucking them in the car, one by one, with Howie, their chaperone.

Once they’re ensconced in their new soft-bedded stall and corral, and eventually the fields and yard, there’s a part of me continually at large, a part attuned to the nearness of the coyote howl, the intensity of the frigid rain, and, as spring widens into summer, the scald of full sun. At night I lie in bed and listen for them. My attention trots after them as they ramble and graze and pile together, dozing in the shade. Who could possibly feel this way about their riding mower? Despite time’s relentless forward momentum, a ten-millennium relationship continues: I love standing in the back yard, gazing at our rams as they nibble back and grow strong on our simple, plentiful lawn.