Where the Land Meets the Sky

Etienne White

I count my sheep every morning. Yes, shepherdesses do count sheep, it’s a real thing.
Since my flock free-range all over the farm, I check, especially in the winter months, to make sure we’re not missing anyone. Our livestock guardian dog is very good at staying with the flock and keeping them all together. At night, he can be heard patrolling the farm perimeter, politely telling the coyotes exactly who he is and how very much he’d like them to keep their distance.
Every time I stand muttering under my breath and pointing my finger into the air, carefully counting, he puts his paw on me and looks up, as if declaring, “Don’t doubt me, I know how to do my job. These instincts and this deep bark, they aren’t for nothing you know?!”
I’ve learned the best time to count sheep is when they’re eating fresh hay because they don’t move around too much, except for their “jealous jostling,” of course. Jealous jostling comes from never knowing whose hay pile tastes best, or if the new bale being cracked open is perhaps better than the food already in front of you. It’s akin to having “menu envy” at a restaurant: when your best friend orders food that looks far more delicious than what you chose. Except unlike us, the sheep have no etiquette, and without compunction will simply start eating their best friends’ food.
So, on a recent morning, I counted 36 sheep. Twice. Then I counted 40 sheep. Twice. Then on my last attempt I finally counted 38, which is how many I have, whereupon, satisfied with landing on that number, I closed up the barn and trudged back to the house.
While walking back, I thought to myself, “What if, in reality, I only have 36 sheep? Or what if, the day I took the ‘empirical count’ and arrived at 38, I had 40 and I missed two?” This carried on in my head such that, by the time I arrived at my kitchen door, I was wondering how any of us know what’s really “real” in any facet of our lives? I was knee deep in existential questioning before I’d even had my morning tea and toast.
That evening the children and I went out to check together. The sheep received an extra batch of “new” hay, which encouraged them to gather in one place. Then we each counted. The consensus between us all was 38, which was a relief to me because it validated that what I perceived to be reality is indeed real, in this instance at least. It struck me, once again, that “as in sheep, so in life:” Having your opinions quantified by numbers, and your assertion of facts validated or endorsed by others, serves us well beyond the barnyard, and helps us in the “real” world, too. That, or simply learning to count faster.

Etienne White lives where the land meets the sky on a farm in Iowa County where she raises grass-fed, Old English Babydoll sheep, as well as pastured chickens, a happy farm dog, a wily barn cat and her two spirited children. She works at the intersection of marketing and sustainability, leading efforts to create mass consumer behavior change, for the greater good of both people and planet.