I’ve been reading Wendell Berry lately – That Distant Land: The Collected Stories (see the post immediately before this one); A Timbered Choir: Poems; and Leavings: Poems. And this has all put me in mind of – a sheep.
From the time I was roughly 8 or 9 to 12 or 13, I spent time each summer with my paternal grandmother in Shreveport. I never knew my grandfather; he died when I was nine months old. But these visits were special, for a number of reasons. I was able to spend time with a grandmother I adored, away from my parents, and, either coming or going, I got to fly in an airplane. This was the time when air travel still had something glamorous about it, and you dressed up to fly.
My grandmother lived in a two-bedroom house in western Shreveport, right across the street from my aunt and uncle. The house had been built by my grandfather for their retirement. The front yard by the road was edged with crepe myrtle bushes; I loved popping the buds open. There was a pecan tree in the front yard and a pear tree on the side.
A frame house painted dark tan, it sat on piers and had a combination garage and workshop out back. The garage side of the structure contained an old Ford that my grandmother tooled around in (and our escapades in that vintage automobile should be and likely will one day be a separate post); the workshop side was largely unused but left almost exactly how it had been when my grandfather still used it.
It was a large yard, close to an acre, and part of it was fenced. To keep maintenance costs down, my grandmother kept a sheep in the enclosed area that grazed the grass. Once a year, she had a man come by to sheer the wool. And my job, whenever I was there in the summer or for Christmas or holiday visits, was to throw stale bread over the fence to the sheep.
I don’t recall if it was a male or female, but I think it was a male. I seem to recall it being generally disagreeable, downright ornery, in fact, unless you had something to feed it.
It was that sheep that kept coming to mind as I read Berry’s stories and poems. That sheep was part of a place, a time, of people long gone, and on a piece of land anchored in my memory.
Berry writes a lot about place and land and memory. He also rails against “industrialized aliens” who have forgotten the land and are severed from it – those aliens largely being commercial interests or people with overbearing commercial proclivities or, worse still, people ignorant of what the land truly means (in contemporary society, that's most of us). In one story, he has a character named Wheeler Catlett, an attorney, look at the main street of the town of Port William, and see how much decline there had been, how much there had been that had disappeared, deteriorated and not replaced. It is a kind of mourning scene, mourning at the loss of what once was.
My grandmother died in 1984. My uncle had died before then and my aunt several years later. Both properties were sold. The last time I saw my grandmother’s house, the neighborhood was in serious decline; her house was boarded up and had graffiti sprayed on one side. The fence that had enclosed the sheep was gone, as were the pear and pecan trees and the crepe myrtles.
And I find myself mourning that ornery sheep.