Sheep shearing and counting the lambs on an isolated Maine island honors both legendary matriarch Jenny Cirone and a tradition of caring for the land and its four-legged inhabitants.
“One ewe!” shouts Alfie Wakeman over the din of shrieking gulls and the baa-ing of nearly 200 sheep, as he cradles a lamb in his arms. A physican’s assistant, he’s tall, square-shouldered, muscular, with large hands and sunburned arms, his manner so gentle that one can easily imagine him soothing infant and lamb alike. Once counted, dosed with medicine, and its tail docked, the lamb bounds away, bleating pathetically and looking around for its mother.
We’re on 75-acre Big Nash Island, at one end of a rough-planked corral perched on a windblown bluff overlooking Eastern Harbor far along the Maine coast: 40-plus volunteers and a flock of sheep that need sorting and shearing and some a bit of doctoring on this blustery mid-June day.
This event is haunted by the gentlest, most benevolent of ghosts, that of Jenny Cirone, matriarch of flocks both human and four-legged until her death at age 91 in 2004. (Jenny’s father, who started the flock in 1916, was the lighthouse keeper on Little Nash Island.)
Alfie’s family summered in these parts, and Jenny had taken him out hauling traps since he was a lad. After he moved to Maine in 1989 and after Jenny’s husband had passed, the two neighbors also became partners of a sort. “For the last 14 years of her life,” Alfie says simply, “we lobstered together, and she’d teach me about the sheep, too. There was no decision to be made after she died. Very little changed; we just carried on as she would have.” So for the Wakeman clan and close friends, too, many gathered from near and far—but especially for Alfie and his wife, Eleni, and their family—the shearing, with its midday potluck feast, is a great family tradition, the “Jenny” tradition that brings home the importance of working this land together and respecting its bounty.
All day long, stories and memories flow from old to young, from people who’ve been participating for 20 years to the newbies, during the coffee break and over the potluck lunch, and on the final boat ride back to shore. They’re sweet stories: how Jenny could never resist an orphaned animal and whose house was, as a consequence, a menagerie. “She could talk to animals,” an older gentleman observed at one point, “and you’d swear they were talking back.” Her Yankee frugality, her uncanny ability to tag someone with a nickname that would stick, her sheer vitality, shearing sheep until her mid-seventies, lobstering as long as she could stand up in a boat: What emerges is not so much a portrait of a person as that of a force of nature.
And then there’s a whole subgenre of “Jenny and Alfie” stories like this one: “Alfie learned everything he knows from Jenny. They’d come out to check the sheep together, and, once, they found a lamb frantically running around a dead ewe, its mother. Alfie tries to catch the lamb to bring it home for bottle feeding, but they’re very quick, and he can’t catch it.
“Finally Jenny calls out, ‘Alfie, lie down next to the ewe!’ Remember, the ewe’s been dead several days now, and the gulls have been at it. Alfie lies down next to the ewe, the lamb comes up, Alfie’s about to grab it, when it dashes off.
“‘Now Alf, baa like a sheep!’ Jenny calls. Alfie baas like a sheep, and the lamb goes right to him.
“‘Wow, Jenny,’ Alfie says, ‘that was amazing. How come you let me run around so much if …?’
“‘Aw, I was just having a little fun,’ Jenny finishes.”
“One buck!” Alfie calls as another lamb is separated from its mother and handed over the fence. This job, “lamb tossing,” as the kids call it, is a mad scramble through the milling flock, the team plucking the 15- to 25-pound lambs off the ground and, holding the struggling creatures in their arms, pushing their way over to Alfie.
An hour later, after the sorting, the grassy hillsides all around the corral are dotted with little lost lambs, their mothers being sheared one at a time by Donna Kausen, Geri Valentine, and Eleni Wakeman. Donna keeps sheep on nearby Flat Island, and she and Geri used to travel the state shearing other farmers’ flocks. Approaching their sixties, they’ve slowed some, but still shear locally.
On the porch of the three-room cabin that is the island’s only structure, three lambs wander around, looking for love. Eve, the Wakemans’ 11-year-old daughter, picks one up in her arms. “This one is Trippie,” one of three lambs born to the same ewe, she says, “and cuz her legs were so long she kept on falling over! Her mother can feed two, but not three.”
Golden-haired like her mom and just as easy with the animals, Eve comes to the island with her dad in May for the lambing. “We go around the entire island and check everything at least three or four times a day, looking for any ewes in trouble,” Eve explains. “Or sometimes a mom will push the lamb away, too, and then we have to bottle-feed it.”
Each of the Wakemans’ three girls has helped at a birth before she turned 12, their father tells me proudly, “and how cool is that, watching your child deliver a lamb?”
By midmorning, all the lambs have been separated and released, and the ewes, which can weigh 200 pounds apiece, are being shorn. The teenagers, mostly, are doing the sheep wrangling, and they’re soon covered in mud and dung.
Lilly, the Wakemans’ middle daughter at 15, manhandles a ewe out of a separate holding pen and over to her mother’s shearing mat. While her older sister, Wren, holds the front, Lilly reaches down and jerks the ewe’s back legs out from under it, tipping it on its hindquarters. Eleni comes in, trapping the sheep’s body between her legs to keep it from squirming as her shears move in that first long stroke from tail to chin, then outward on each subsequent stroke, turning the sheep this way and that until the fleece falls away in a neat rectangle. On either side of her, Donna and Geri do the same, the three women sweating profusely from the taxing work.
Every fleece passes first through Jani Estell’s hands. Jani, gray hair cut short around a warm, open face with its share of laugh lines, runs Starcroft Fiber Mill in Columbia, where the majority of today’s wool will go to be cleaned, spun, and otherwise turned into knitter’s and felter’s gold. Jani stands just behind the shearers, helping with escapees, while keeping her eyes on the fleece; she gathers it in and then flings it over the fence, directly onto the makeshift skirting (cleaning) table, made of lobster-trap wire.
“That’s a hand spinner,” she says: a fleece of good length and fine wool, but, most important, “there’s no chaff in island fleeces because the sheep aren’t fed hay like a barn animal—only grass and seaweed. You don’t want hay in your yarn; it’s scratchy.” Such fleeces, about 30 percent of the total and all of them already sold, are wrapped gently in old bedsheets. They can be spun “in the grease,” the spinner turning the wool directly into a strand of yarn in its completely natural state.
At the skirting table, 60 busy fingers pull and pluck, tearing out blackberry brambles, clumps of dirt and dung, and other debris. There are three nationally known knitting designers helping out today, mostly skirting because they want to touch those fleeces. Ellen Mason, Mary Jane Mucklestone, and Ysolda Teague have all driven hours to come “close the circle,” as Ellen puts it, “because the whole community is here: the people who raise the sheep, the shearers, Jani, and us, who get to work with the final product.”
At lunch, Leah, the Estells’ 31-year-old handspinning-, knitting-, and generally fiber-mad daughter, sits down with a sigh. “You put in a hard day’s work, but it’s way too much fun to ever feel it’s difficult,” she says. “We think about Jenny, about how we’re keeping this tradition alive. It’s part of why I live in Maine, because I get to do things like this: boat rides, this amazing lunch, the people. And the lambs are so adorable.”
About five o’ clock, the last of the ewes have been sheared, and the lambs have magically found their mothers. Shears are cleaned, cords coiled, mats rolled, equipment packed up. The heavy burlap bags, taller and wider than a man and full of new wool, have been ferried to the lobster boats along with any motherless lambs and the first groups of departing volunteers. The rest of us are standing on the pebble beach recounting the small moments passed since we splashed ashore at 7:00 a.m.
The truth is, as Alfie and Eleni both tell me each in his or her own way, that they really don’t need a crew this big. But, once having experienced this day, people can’t stay away from its spell. “One of the things that I think is so amazing,” Alfie sums up, “is that people who come out get caught up in this heritage thing that’s been going on for 100 years. They’re part of that idea of everybody helping each other, how we used to live. That really moves people in a way that lots of what our current society is about does not.”