Welcome, Richard, to SunnyRoomStudio. It’s great to be talking with you about your forthcoming memoir: Shepherd.
Looks like the reviews are strongly tipped in your favor; congratulations! One never knows how the written word will be received by the external world; it’s a great act of courage to publish a book.
I especially liked this quote on Amazon from author Dinty Moore.
Shepherd explores one man’s realization of a boyhood dream. But as they say in southern Ohio, “It weren’t easy.” Richard Gilbert writes with honesty, in gorgeous prose, about the joys and setbacks, bringing to vivid life an enchanted Appalachian valley filled with unforgettable characters. —Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire
“If you decide to take Red to the vet, don’t try to load her by yourself,”
Kathy had said. “Ask Sam to help you.” I’d nodded, but I didn’t
want Sam pestering me and had figured out how to load Red alone.
An interview with author and writing teacher
(Otterbein University, Westerville, OH) Richard Gilbert
- How did writing Shepherd help you find contentment with the world, or did it?
It helped me to make sense of a tumultuous period in my life and to codify the lessons of my farming adventure for myself and others. I’m probably no more contented with the world itself, though knowing myself better may help. Self knowledge is always devoutly to be desired!
- You were clearly inspired by nature (and sometimes dismayed), and now that you teach at Otterbein University, what similarities have you discovered between these two worlds?
In both teaching and farming, you must constantly learn. The sheep really became my teachers, and now my students are. In both cases, my wards have pleased, frustrated, and surprised me. Emerson said, “The secret of education is respect for the pupil,” and I learned the same about my hoofed flock. Sheep have a poor public image, but they’re smart enough to be successful sheep. And in the classroom, my students reveal surprising insights if I get out of the way and let them. There’s a performance aspect to teaching, and if teachers aren’t careful that feeds the dark side: ego and the need to be the smartest person in the room. That’s limiting for everyone in that room.
I teach writing at Otterbein University, and I’ve often thought that certain parallels between writing and farming are complete. For instance, in each realm many are called but few chosen in regard to making money. Most farmers struggle to break even, maybe showing a profit due to federal subsidies (necessary because of America’s cheap food policy, which is manifest but unstated); the vast majority of writers make little or no money directly from their writing. Shepherd would have to earn a boatload of money to compensate me for seven years of labor writing and rewriting it! But that’s not why I did it. Neither writing nor farming usually makes much sense as an “investment,” as a place to put your time and money, yet each is necessary to others in its way.
- We must feed our bodies and our souls; each activity exerts a mythic pull. Each can be a sacred calling.
Nature always bats last, of course. Farmers seldom are able to forget that the biggest variable is nature, especially in the form of weather, usually too much rain or not enough in the growing season. Or extreme temperatures. Nature both permits farming and makes it constantly challenging. Which I suppose is what keeps farming so interesting. One year you can do everything right and fail; the next year you can make multiple mistakes but nature forgives you. I’ve noticed this about college classes, too: even with the same topic, variables make every class unique. Each class is going to have a different character because of its students, the time of day, tweaks to the syllabus. Even something seemingly as small as the room—whether it has windows or not, or where the door is located—changes the dynamic.
- Would you describe the spiritual components of this 10-year journey? Did you see this aspect of your experience “at the time,” or usually upon reflection, at a later date?
When we moved to Appalachian Ohio from suburban Indiana we left a Methodist church and a minister we loved. I had also been reading a lot about Buddhism and meditating a little. The move derailed us at first in many ways, including that we couldn’t replace our Hoosier church but tried. We sampled at least four different churches in the first couple years, and then stopped attending anywhere. Almost a decade later, a new Buddhist priest came to our town and I started meditating with her. About that time, my wife dragged me to a little country church near our farm. That was a wonderful community of people trying to be good and do good. We loved worshipping there. But by that time my wife was on the job market again. We knew we probably wouldn’t be staying, and it was bittersweet to go to Sunday services. A spiritual component of my journey in between these poles of organized religion in Indiana and Ohio was my having to come to terms with my role in the death of livestock. Lambs I’d nurtured I then sent to their deaths or helped others kill.
- I found this emotionally harrowing, and had to develop my own gratitude ritual to acknowledge and honor the enormity of my animals’ sacrifice.
I would say that I, probably like most people, am only fully conscious in retrospect. It takes pieces to make a whole, and a pattern only emerges in time. Memoirists always seem to have all this self-knowledge, but for me at least, that was clarified in the writing. You are lifting stories out of the quotidian and sifting ever finer for their meaning. I was aware I had spiritual yearnings, of course, but a desire like that can surprise you when you connect the dots and see it in a cohesive narrative. So the memoir-writing process emphasized to me what I’d done and why, or failed to do, and by clarifying that it has affected my current behavior.
Having said that, I conceived of the book’s climax from the start as an insight I gained about myself, about my temperament and the nature of human temperament. But I’m one of those people who learns what he thinks largely by writing it down and seeing if he agrees. If I hadn’t captured my Big Insight in writing, maybe it would seem less significant to me now. Even if I end up disagreeing with it, there’s my avowed conclusion in a book, which lends weight.
Surely I could use writing intentionally to enhance my spiritual growth, though I keep a sort of journal and am usually surprised and sometimes appalled when I have looked back and read it. Did I really feel and think that? But certainly the lessons about life I explore in Shepherd continue to resonate for me.
- Do we become our memories, or do we transcend them?
This reminds me of Soren Kierkegaard’s line: “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much.” I think some can transcend their memories, can escape the past’s chains in a moment of clarity, but I don’t seem to be one of them. Though I have changed over the years, I find that willed change—which involves conscious redefinition of self partly by letting go of the past—to be truly hard. Impossible for me, actually, so far.
Eckhart Tolle’s books, especially A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, made a big impact on me, and I reread them many times, hoping to live in the “now.” I failed, though I believe totally in what he says. I do still have hope that by engaging in spiritual disciplines—prayer, meditation, acts of loving kindness—I can gradually change, become someone new, and transcend the past.
- I think I’ve learned that, for me, nothing is going to happen in a blinding flash.
The analogy of this situation is with physical exercise. Everyone needs some form of movement; some become marathon runners and others do nothing so formally strenuous yet get what they need by walking around their neighborhoods, or exerting themselves in gardening, housecleaning, or practicing yoga. I apparently need defined spiritual exercises just as I need a more set physical routine, lest I just sit on the couch and brood. It would probably take marathon-level spiritual exertion for me to totally transform. But maybe another thing I learned in writing applies: you must develop the muscles you need before you impose something drastic on yourself.
- What was the most surprising aspect of working closely with sheep and nature?
No matter what you do, it’s going to be outrageously hard to start farming on a commercial scale. At least it is without being born into a farming family, without infrastructure, without inherited land. There is so much to learn. And tradition and common practices can help or can hold you back. For instance, the “traditional” late winter barn lambing scenario that many shepherds follow is insane from nature’s perspective—sheep should lamb outside, on pasture, when local deer are delivering their fawns—and also it’s silly to let the capacity of your barn determine the size of your flock. Yet winter or early spring lambing makes perfect sense for crop farmers with empty barns and time on their hands before their busy season of planting.
Nature doesn’t care if anyone grows a tomato or raises a lamb. But nature rewards, to some degree over time, those who try to move in concert with its forces. We need purist grass farmers and organic growers if only because our dominant mainstream system exists solely because of cheap fossil fuels. When that variable changes, high-input production agriculture might suddenly collapse. If we’re lucky, that will happen slowly instead, and we’ll gradually pay more of what food actually costs to produce. And what are now alternative and sustainable practices will have become the norm.
- Picking out the “right” sheep, from a practical perspective, must be difficult. Was this an intuitive process for you?
Well, it’s always partly emotional and intuitive. All good livestock farmers love livestock. But the good ones become more knowledgeable. In my case, that meant realizing that visual appraisal and a desire for a certain look—even and especially an obsession with “conformation”—can become decadent. Chasing purple ribbons is a game unto itself, and leads downward for the species involved. Actually, in part I had to relearn what I’d learned as a boy, exhibiting poultry. Show chickens, show dogs, show sheep, show cattle: breeding for appearance is easy and leads to big, picture-perfect animals that are too inbred and lack vigor, that lose reproductive and maternal ability. And that are crazy to handle or placid because they’re stupid.
- Compare the show Border collie to the working one. The American Kennel Club ruins working dogs, and I rest my case regarding breeding for “correct” appearance rather than for performance.
Beyond a few serious physical flaws, appearance doesn’t much matter. The look of a breed should arise not from theory but as a consequence of what it does. So an animal should be selected for its likelihood of successfully performing its particular job. And without your excessively modifying the environment for it, which is costly. Can a Quarter horse outrace a steer within a quarter of a mile? The horse proves its worth by doing just that, not by a judge gauging the pitch of its eyeballs. In my case, could a ewe deliver twins or triplets unassisted on Spring pasture and rear them on her milk and grass, out in the weather and without grain? Finding such animals requires one to keep records. Most shepherds gradually sense which ewes are great mothers, but finding them fast and rewarding them—by retaining their daughters and especially their sons for breeding—takes effort. In my experience, many commercial shepherds don’t track performance; they are busy with other matters and are buying rams from seedstock producers rather than selecting sires from their own best ewes. Sadly most so-called breeders are mere propagators and are not improving their animals for their intended function; instead, such folks are pursuing appearance, some notion of physical beauty.
A yearling ewe that weans a litter weighing more than she does is an exceptional creature. She’s rare and beautiful. Without records, though, you’d never retain her lambs—you’d pick a gorgeous singleton raised by a mature ewe. And you might even cull the yearling, if she’s small and ugly—and she’ll certainly be thin after raising twins. With records, it takes discipline to keep her scrawnier lambs, even though their combined weight on the scale is higher and therefore makes you more money. It’s like one of my father’s stories for an aviation magazine about how a pilot must learn to trust his gauges rather than believe his eyes. My truly learning this is a major thread in Shepherd.
- This story is embodied in the form of Freckles, a dumpy little ewe with astonishing maternal ability. And I have to admit that my wife picked Freckles intuitively—one mother seeing maternal potential in another female. Of course, we ended up culling many more impressive-looking sheep that Kathy selected that day from a big commercial flock. This only increased the mystery of why she’d chosen little Freckles too.
I slowly learned that environmental fitness and profitability on our grass farm meant finding and favoring ewes like Freckles. Once you have found such animals, how to increase their numbers? Selective breeding is a passion of mine—so much so that I really couldn’t deal with its specifics in my book. At first I tried, but it was doing too much and was excessive for a memoir. Suffice it to say that the first step was selecting for behavior, which cannot be seen physically, only expressed in action. In other words, I ended up breeding for mental traits. In sheep!
- You devoted 7 years to writing your memoir: SHEPHERD. Has it inspired you to write a second book?
It’s inspired me to try. I’m thrashing around with a few ideas. The test for me, as yet unknown, is whether my love for the work is greater than whatever holds me back at any particular time. Because there’s always something, some inner resistance and outward difficulty. The day job, physical ailments, emotional baggage. What kept me going as I wrote six versions of Shepherd—through my learning-curve mistakes and some brutal rejections—was my belief in the story. Also I discovered how much I love making sentences.
And the writing process, which can seem so onerous and which certainly is challenging, is addictive. You yearn for that immersion, that purpose, that impossible struggle, because it lends meaning to everything. Eventually all that work that’s so intangible results in something real. A book, at least a physical one, has heft. Art is handmade, and so it has flaws, but you keep trying for perfection. I would like to be worthy of making this art form, books, and really what makes you worthy is your trying.
- One must put one’s head down, wherever one is, and work. One must humbly try. ◊
Thank you, Richard, for sharing your thoughts about your new book in this sunny space for kindred spirits. I agree, memoir writing is extremely difficult, but nearly always spiritually, emotionally, intellectually rewarding.
Wishing you the best of luck with SHEPHERD: A Memoir —
if anyone would like to leave a comment for Richard, please do so below.
You can also find RG on Facebook, Twitter, or via his website and blog.
“To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Shepherd: A Memoir is available from Amazon and other booksellers;
the official publication date is May 1.
Richard Gilbert holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College, Baltimore, and teaches writing at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. Gilbert served as marketing manager of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, where he also helped acquire books on farming. Before that he was a newspaper reporter, honored for public service and feature writing, and awarded a Kiplinger fellowship to Ohio State University. His essays have appeared in Brevity; Chautauqua; Fourth Genre; Orion; The Shepherd, and other journals.
Thanks so much for being here.
Because of Easter weekend, journal entries resume Wednesday, April 16th.
Otherwise, I will be back to posting on Friday mornings as of April 25th, as our spiritual journal, Turning Within, continues. Hope you are keeping a journal; at the close of this series, we’ll definitely compare notes.
- If you missed the earlier posts in this series, click here: Turning Within.
- Browse all Studio Guest posts in SunnyRoomStudio.
- Remember: If you haven’t looked within, you haven’t looked.
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