BOOK REVIEW: Shepherd’s Sight: A Farming Life, by Barbara McLean

24 April 2024

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Picture a store shelf with a ball of yarn, dyed a solid, bright colour, bound by a paper sleeve with crisp printed text. Where did that wool come from? Its sterile state belies its origins; the yarn in the store is stripped of the farm, the sounds and smells, the sunny field of grass, the cozy winter barn, the excitement of shearing day. Yarn is an agricultural product; farmers and sheep lived together for a year while the wool was growing.

In Shepherd’s Sight: The Farming Life (ECW Press, 2024), Barbara McLean shares the stories of the sheep that bring us wool and the human stories of a life in farming. The book is structured as an almanac, with monthly chapters following the sheep’s calendar, moving through spring shearing and lambing, summer in the pasture, and fall breeding season. The book is also a treatise on aging, land use, and the challenges of farming in a changing climate, both meteorological and political.

McLean became a farmer in her twenties, and now, fifty years later, she reflects on her years at Lambsquarters, her ten-hectare (twenty-five-acre) farm in Grey County, Ontario, where she raises a small flock of Border Leicester sheep. She shares poetic musings on farm life, interspersed with detailed descriptions—almost instruction manuals—on various aspects of sheep husbandry, from delivering breech lambs to handling an outbreak of pink eye. The stories are not all rosy—farming comes with both joys and horrors. But even the sad events are described with grace. She also gives vivid descriptions of occurrences in her farm life, such as bread baking and her partner’s skill in drystone wall building.

Shepherd’s Sight is a continuation of McLean’s 2002 book, Lambsquarters: Scenes from a Handmade Life, which focused on farm stories and was organized by topics. This new book is more personal and flows more organically, following the seasons and the sheep’s year.

McLean shares many ruminations on how things worked when they started farming, how they have changed through the years, and of the challenges they face now that they are getting older. Farming, even with all the modern innovations, is still a very physical job. Her descriptions of lambing can leave one elated and exhausted.

McLean paints pictures with her words, describing the beautiful rural landscape she traverses on her daily walks. We see her facility with language, and she appears to enjoy word play, evoking feelings with specific word choices. In addition to her work on the farm, she also achieved a PhD in English literature and spent many years teaching in Ontario universities. McLean’s academic background comes through in the writing, with perceptive connections between topics and astute depictions of issues surrounding climate change and the economics of farming.

December is a dark month, and as the year and the book draw to a close, McLean shares more challenges, like urban encroachment on rural land and the difficulty of making a living on a small farm. Yet she also shares hope and beauty; after a poignant description of a performance of Handel’s Messiah in a neighbour’s cow barn, she shares that “Once again, the privilege of living here overwhelms me.”

Shepherd’s Sight is a rich book, full of the realities, both enchanting and difficult, of living life on the land. McLean brings a reminder of where our wool comes from and graciously shares her years of experience and wonder.

Images courtesy of Barbara McLean.

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Copyright © Sarah Thornton except as indicated.
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About Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton is a connector - she loves bringing people and ideas together, especially over local fibres and foods. When not teaching college Biology labs, she knits, spins, designs, teaches, and occasionally weaves in her new studio space on Vancouver Island. She's also a cyclist, skier, hiker, and gardener! Find her patterns and classes at sarahthornton.ca and @sarsbarknits on Instagram.

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