Monday, June 20, 2011

Fool Moon: Or Flock Amok

It was my first relaxing day off the farm since arriving in April. Sally and I had spent the whole afternoon in sybaritic splendor with publicist Sally Fischer, her husband Eliot and son Jack, eating, drinking, swimming, chatting at Il Falconiere, just below the ancient Etruscan city of Cortona. Then it was off to Il Molino for dinner. We were dipping our biscotti in vin santo when the kitchen staff rushed through the restaurant saying “something is strange with the moon.” Outside, we stood together in front of the old mill invoking Galileo and gazing up at an unexpected treat -- a total eclipse of the moon. As the first sliver of smoky moon began to re-silver, we bid our buona notes and Sally and I drove back to Tana Lepre to view the end of the eclipse from our balcony.
We never made it to the balcony.
At the stroke of midnight the celestial event was just ending as we drove up to find a note from the caretakers at Romitorio -- the villa perched at the top of our dell and our only other visible neighbor -- taped to our front door. “Something is wrong,” it said. “Your sheep have escaped. Now they are in our garden. Please come get them as soon as you can!”
Romitorio has recently become the property of Virgine Saverys, who runs Avignonesi, one of the biggest wine labels in Italy and the world. We hadn’t met yet, but I could just imagine the damage the munching sheep might be doing to her shrubbery, and the scene when we finally do met: “Oh! So you’re the one with the sheep!”
It is one thing to keep sheep penned inside an electric fence that tickles their noses when they touch it. It’s quite another to herd them. Especially when you’ve never herded anything before. Especially at night. Especially when your darned flashlight won’t work. Especially when you have no idea how to get a flock of anything to turn right or left, or to stop.
When we moved them from the lower field to the olive grove in broad daylight, Ulisse’s Albanese sheep wrangler, Simi, used a bucket full of grain to entice them along. I had no grain. But I did have two boxes of Fitness, a multigrain breakfast flake, in the pantry. As I drove the kilometer up to Romitorio, Sally dumped the Fitness into a bucket.
We found the sheep milling around by the villa’s front gate. Natalie, the caretaker, said they’d been walking down the white road. She was very sweet about it all. I wanted to kiss her for not letting them run all the way to Siena. But I had miles to go before I slept, so we moved ‘em up and headed 'em out.
With Sally driving the car as “pusher” and illuminating the way with the headlights, I walked the sheep down the road trying to interest them in the Fitness, which they couldn’t have cared less about. They were nervous as hell in the moonlight and suddenly they took off running. Thankfully, they follow roads like, well, sheep, which made chasing them somewhat easier than it could have been if they’d just decided to cut across the fields. Eventually outrunning them, I threw out my arms and blocked them. They turned back, started running, and when they got to Sally’s blockade at the junction, turned down our little country lane.
There were several more junctions to turn in this manner – them taking off, me outrunning them, me throwing out my arms and shimmying ugga-booga, them turning like scared sheep, them running up to the headlights like scared sheep, Sally opening the car door and shimmying ugga-booga, and them turning in the direction we wanted. One more turn to go.
This time they simply overshot the turn and charged up the steep hill of alfalfa behind our farm. I charged off after them, Sally’s fading voice became a squeak in the moonlight: “Where are you? Where’d you go?” “Go home!” I yelled. There was nothing more she could do.
After stumbling through deeply furrowed ground pocked with a mine field of calf-deep wild boar rooting holes, I found the flock halfway up the massive slope. Thank goodness the moon was full, the sky cloudless, and some of the sheep white. Thank goodness I didn’t bust an ankle. And now, I began to learn a fundamental law to the art of herding of sheep. You do not herd a flock of individuals., you influence a blob, a big wooly amoeba that oozes this way and that. The trick is to anticipate the direction it is about to ooze in, then try to steer the portion showing directional intent with your firm presence.
By about 2:00 a.m., after munching crop circles through Giovanni’s alfalfa, I half expected the flock to lie down and start chewing cud, and I’d resolved that I’d just sit down and spend the night wherever they stopped, just like a real pastore. But I’d gotten the hang of keeping the blob moving and finally managed to get them into our olive grove at the top of the hill.
I called out to Sally and she heard me. Probably half of Tuscany heard me. When she came up the hill carrying a hurricane lantern burning a candle, she looked like the French Lieutenant’s Woman, except that the lantern was from IKEA. The sheep and I were tired but we were closer than I’d actually hoped to be. But when I unhooked part of the fence to usher them through, they hugged the shade of an olive tree to stay out of the bright moonlight, and refused to budge. This is where thinking like a sheep came in handy.
The thing is: besides the plants they ceaselessly seek, sheep relate first and foremost to the butts of other sheep. If they see a wooly haunch receding, they all move almost automatically to close the distance. I'm sure there is even a mathematical formula for this: The anxiety of a sheep increasing in direct proportion to the distance between its nose and the rump of the next sheep. All I had to do to take advantage of this natural law, was grab the fleecy head of one of the biggest sheep, and walk it toward our destination. When the others saw its rump receding they followed, and with Sally flapping her arms at stragglers, I pulled the flock the last leg home.
After repairing the part of the fence mysteriously wide open (did someone do this as a joke?), and switching the electric fence back on, we went down to the house and drew a bath. Then, for the first time ever, I shuttered the bedroom windows against the bright light of the fool moon. Even then it was hard to sleep. Because I’d neglected to do a head count, I counted sheep over and over in my dreams, wondering if I’d gotten them all back, if little lambs really do eat ivy, and just what their lives would be like now that these lambs had tasted freedom.