Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep & Enough Wool to Save the Planet by Catherine Friend

I love me some sheep. Their weirdo eyeballs facing the wrong direction. Their participation in cloning science. Their tendency to charge right at you when you scare them (so bold!). The way you can pet their fuzzy noses forever at the 4-H fair. How they get into trouble. I’m a fanatic of Shaun the Sheep and will watch those six-minute shows over and over. Did you know a brand-new season was dropped on Netflix this week? Be still, my heart! So when I found Sheepish by Catherine Friend, I was pumped.

Timmy being naughty on Shaun the Sheep episode.

Put together like a collection of mini essays, Sheepish begins with Friend showing a young couple around her farm in an effort to sell it. Sad! The young man seems obsessed with the electric fence and how much it might hurt, and he eventually shocks himself like a total idiot. Although this is a funny start to the memoir, it doesn’t bode well for Friend and her wife trying to sell their beloved farm. Isn’t this book about being farmers? And, more specifically, shepherds?

The next chapter, or maybe mini essay, if you will, defines “sheepish.” Yes, there is the embarrassed version. But Friend prefers the “ish” to mean “of or belonging to. Thinking: Spanish — of or belonging to Spain. Danish — of or belonging to fruit-filled pastries. Sheepish — or or belonging to sheep.” And one not need to own sheep be sheepish (I’m sheepish!). However, Friend is a writer, more attuned to people than barnyards. But her partner, Melissa, wanted to have a farm and so they got one. I learned there are previous books Friend wrote, including Hit by a Farm and The Compassionate Carnivore that I shall have to check out that discuss actually getting a farm and reconciling eating the faces one cares for.

This isn’t your average city dweller buying a farm and getting in over her head memoir. Friend’s grandmother was a shepherd in Montana, and the author is willing to put in the work. Thus, you read about lots of errors, learning how to help and manage sheep, why sheep die, and lots about people crazy about knitting and wool. Because each chapter is so short and reads a bit like a separate piece, each one feels intimate and is easy to digest. I got lots of warm feelings, even if I was reading about the death of lambs after being born, because the whole book felt natural and organic to life processes.

It also helps that Friend knits (ahem) these small chapters together by carrying over moments from previous chapters. As she enters menopause, she can’t stop crying over the fact that Elvis is dead. Elvis tears are referenced in future chapters, and you feel like you’re in on a joke. In another example: Friend shares fellow farmer E.B. White’s (of Charlotte’s Web fame) list of numbers for counting sheep using the Celtic system:

  1. Yain
  2. Tain
  3. Eddero
  4. Peddero
  5. Pitts
  6. Tayter
  7. Later
  8. Overro
  9. Covvero
  10. Dix
  11. Yain-dix
  12. Tain-dix
  13. Eddero-dix
  14. Peddero-dix
  15. Bumfitt

These Celtic numbers come back throughout the memoir, and to great comedic effect (imagine how often one can use “bumfitt” in amusing ways). The whole memoir is herded (ahem) together to make one flock (ahem) of a book.

Even though Sheepish was published in 2011 and shares environmental concerns, it doesn’t feel too dated (well, other than that Britney Spears reference, which was dated in 2011, too). One fact Friend shares is that sheep have been used to prevent forest fires by releasing them in areas with high underbrush growth so the sheep can eat it up. Given that fire outbreaks are constant news now, sheep seem more vital than ever, though sadly the number of sheep and shepherds are declining.

But I never felt like I was getting too much into the factual weeds. Friend combines humor with fact, such as describing how animals are bred on her farm (put the ram in with ewes in the proper month to avoid winter births) vs. how other farmers do things:

This virtual speed mating is called artificial insemination. Basically, you have an expensive ram with great genes and a healthy libido. Instead of dragging him all over the planet to visit the ladies, the farmer gives the ram a plastic cup and two back issues of Totally Shorn Ewes, and soon there’s some sperm available.

What could easily be an “ew” moment is made lighter by suggesting the ram has some saucy reading materials.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Sheepish and mixture of humor, storytelling, and facts it presented. I felt strengthened by reading about two women joining their female farming ancestors. I was tapped into the significance of many women gathering to turn wool into yarn and yarn into clothing, all while sharing their stories. If you’re struggling to read right now, the short chapters and light topic may be just right for you.

21 comments

  1. Granddad said he counted sheep by fives. I doubt this and think he was counting in twos and threes, which is what I would do loading or unloading them or standing to one side as the dog chased them up the race into a shed. He gave the sheep bug to my brother who all the years he has been a policeman has also had a little farm with sheep and a bit of cropping for hay.

    Years ago, like 60, there was another popular US book about small scale farming, The Egg and I. Mum had it and I read it as a kid.

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    • Is The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald? It looks like there is a copy at a library nearby! Thanks for the recommendation, Bill.

      In Sheepish, the author talks about how her wife has a stripe system, painted on the sheep’s backs, for keeping the sheep easily identifiable. I feel like I’ve missed out on this whole part of you now that I’m just learning about your agriculture background! If you find any photos, I hope you’ll share them.

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        • I just got an email that the library I patronize is closed until May 4th. Thank goodness for e-books and a tendency to buy books. I still might get the Betty MacDonald book in digital, though. Weirdly animal memoirs are holding my interest, even the ones that aren’t soft and fluffy and are actually quite difficult.

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  2. I love the sound of this book! And i love your puns and appreciate them, they make me chuckle. Also, that man at the beginning of the book does sound like an idiot-it’s an electric fence, what is there to figure out? haha

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  3. I love when a book mentions something and then keeps working in subtle references to it later on. It makes me feel like I have insider knowledge, even if all I’ve been doing is reading the book, ha. This does sound like a charming pandemic read. Cute animals are always the answer. Great review. 🙂

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    • The recycling of material, especially words or phrases, is something that we also see in really skillful stand-up comedy. It wasn’t just that Friend was self-referencing, but clear that she knew the cadence of humor and good storytelling.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This does sound like a great read although I’m not so much about animal deaths at the moment so might leave it on the wish list for a while. It’s nice to hear about a skilful book of essays, not just stuff dragged together off a blog or something.

    I’m in a slight reviewing rut because I’ve just been so busy with work, rather bizarrely. Hope to have something written up tonight for publishing in the morning, as my to review pile is getting a bit large!

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    • I don’t think the animal deaths are lingered over or romanticized. It’s more like not all new-born sheep make it, end of story. The author does note that on her farm they still feel sadness about it — they’re not cold by any means — but she’s also not jamming the pathos button to make readers tearful, either.

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  5. I feel like you wrote this post specifically for me. I don’t care if you did or not, I’m taking it that way and it makes my heart happy.

    About farming and the absurd things which happen during farming? Check.
    Includes silly puns you had to point out to me because I wouldn’t have caught them all? Check.
    A little self-deprecating but actually filled with joy? Check.
    Maybe a tiny bit trying to encourage me to invest in sheep? Check.
    A possible book for those of us who cannot seem to focus to save our lives? Check.

    Yup. You wrote this for me.

    Funny story– David tried to “rent” our friend’s goats for eating all the underbrush in our wooded areas. She wasn’t into it, as she thought they might eat the fencing before the underbrush. XD Goats, man. Crazy.

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    • Ha! I didn’t really have you in mind when I wrote this post, largely because I still picture your farm as the farm space David was renting, which had chickens and vegetables. I also picture a lot of blueberries. I need more outside pics of your new place. Anyway, yes, you should totally get sheep. I will support this decision 100%, even if you live to regret it. Honestly, I think you would really enjoy this book, especially if you’re struggling to read. See if your library has it and substitute The Silver Gryphon for it, then catch up with #ReadingValdemar after your library opens. SHEEP.

      Also, goats are hilarious assholes. My grandpa used to say he absolutely wanted a pet goat. He brought this up so much that when my parents had heard that the local human society had a goat (for whatever reason), they went and got it and dumped it off at my grandpa’s house. He about shit a brick, because I don’t think he really wanted a goat. He was a talker. Anyway, this goat slept in the dog house and at dog food and ran around with the dogs. It also ate my mom’s pony tail.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The library doesn’t expect to open again before May 1st. So, I have a feeling I’ll be buying a copy of The Silver Gryphon. I don’t mind, though. 😉

        You’ll get plenty of farm photos once the spring really comes. It’s a bit sad and dreary right now.

        !! That story is AMAZING. Please tell me that goat had a name.

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        • My grandparents were horrible at naming animals. The goat was “Gruff.” They literally had two different dogs with the same name (but not at the same time) in my life, lol. I’m not sure why I say “were” — my grandma is still alive! She has a cat named Emma.

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  6. My youngest was a huge fan of Shaun the Sheep when she was little. She called it “Ba Ba Sheepy,” and she slept with a Shaun the Sheep stuffed animal. It was so cute. This collection of essays sounds right up my alley.

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    • Your older girls might even like to read it. The writing isn’t too complicated. Or, it might be something that you could read to them at night, one chapter per night (each chapter is about 5 pages).

      Tell your youngest that the new Shuan the Sheep episodes on Netflix are even better than previous seasons!

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    • You’re welcome! It’s smart, funny, thoughtful, and has short chapters, so it hit all the right notes for me. I didn’t really think of it as a fluff book, but the way it was written helped me focus.

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