the challenge of grazing locked up land

In combination with listening to James Rebanks talk about his ancient mountain shepherding traditions, I’ve started reading shepherds of coyote rocks, a memoir type book written by a shepherd moving with her flock in public lands in Wyoming. In both of these shepherds lives’, community rights to land have informed their ability to raise livestock with widespread grazing tendencies– and to some extent they too live nomadic lives. Transhumance, it’s called.

I fundamentally agree with this type of peopled landscape. Instead of attempting to return the land to a pre-colonial wilderness that never existed, using livestock and other animals to practice conservation and promote diversity seems right. It is a way of deeply working together to promote not only human wellbeing but other species as well. The life of shepherding in this way also appeals to me.

However, here in Iowa, raising livestock is a different story. Over 90% of Iowa is privately owned, and much of it is divided into neat little quilt square blocks, fences stitching them together. Our farm only takes up one tiny quilt square– the sheep roam up and down only two small hillsides. We have to take an intensive rotational grazing approach to get the pasture to provide enough for the animals. There is little predator pressure in comparison to Wyoming– while we do have coyotes, and there have been incidents with dogs that have gone wild, on a day to day basis, there is very little predator pressure.

One could view our lives as confined and tame in this way. I think in some ways it does feel limiting. We have less potential, less sights to see. We are always staring at the same neighboring hills, that the sheep at least will never visit. Hills that grow corn and soybeans, sprayed with chemicals every summer, shorn down each fall. Small patches of timber in the valleys. Hay fields. Our own patch of prairie sliding down the hillside. Cows across the way, just some dark blotches in the distance, except for the time they meandered down onto our land. A secret we kept, and just shooed them back, trying to keep relations civil. And the road, the ultimate fenceline. I remember once, driving the sheep down the road, panic in my throat, though nothing was really going wrong. The idea that they could just run all the way, unfenced, to the highway choking me.

The nomadic lifestyle of shepherding appeals to me, in idea. However, I think my mind, too, is too trained to fences. I would panic if I couldn’t rest knowing the sheep are safely in their paddock. What does this say about me, about my life?

I don’t come from an ancient shepherding tradition of five thousand years. Our sheep are probably very comfortable and imprinted on our home land, they know where their home is. But I can’t guarantee what would happen if they were allowed free range. We don’t have a history of guard dogs and herding dogs to keep our buddies safe.

It all goes back to the story you tell yourself though. The music video that SILT and the Awful Purdies created helps make a new story, the essence of which I am currently obsessed with. The idea that your history doesn’t matter– that a fifth generation farmer is just the same as a first generation farmer, though potentially in possession of more generational knowledge, that both can hold their histories in their hearts while working the land. That you don’t have to be connected to an honorable farming tradition to be working towards a better one. That you can be taking steps to liberate your own history from a past of colonialism, oppression, and wrongs. That you can make choices independently of your ancestors. That you can make choices with your ancestors in mind, whether you are trying to honor them or not.

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