I’ve seen a goat farmer who knows his herd so well that he milks them one by one, all in the same stable. He looks around to see who is left and he knows them all, as if they had a name and were old friends. Chosen and fetched, one at a time, each goat has its turn at the milking bucket. Though I’d like to think of this as miraculous, I know it isn’t. That communion between human and animal comes to anyone who lives among them.
May arrived this year and with it a torrid and unexpected heat. Days before, small streams ran down the side of each road and the vineyards became accidental marshlands. But the sun in Sardinia is no coward, and a few days of heat dried the earth everywhere until it shrank and split into endless, hexagonal chasms. In the fields, the wheat turned flaxen, all at once, as if by magic. The heat seemed endless, inevitable, inescapable, and the cool breeze of autumn remained too many months in the future.
Mimicking summertime, we migrated to sandy beaches and took to the refuge of ice creams and cold beer. We packed away coats and pants and freed our beds from heavy comforters. But the shepherds were otherwise occupied. The sheep still wore their heavy coats, their hard and shaggy work of the last year. If the heat continued, the animals would suffer and the first to go would be the unborn lambs, that ancient embodiment of innocence.
One day, with the brackish breeze coming straight off the sea and the alternating gold and green of the fields and mountains around us, we joined a group of old friends who had gathered at sa tundimenta, a day of traditional sheep shearing. A full pen of shaggy haired sheep clustered together with their blank stares and sudden bleats. They seemed vaguely aware they were not in real danger, vaguely aware they would be bound and sheared and let go again. The shearers were relaxed and swift, comfortable enough at grabbing an animal by the leg or the neck, sure-handed enough with the shears. At times they seemed to caress the sheep being shorn; at others they carried them by the legs like live, woolly purses.
As the sun got higher and hotter, the shearers began to slow. Freshly scrubbed countrymen mutated into itchy masses of sweat and lanolin. Dust and weeds and wool swirled in the air and the rhythms of bleating and buzzing became our masters. One by one the animals were pulled out of the pen, here by a leg, there by the neck. The sudden strength as they were flipped on their backs, surely not a natural pose for these upright, heavy-bodied beasts. The intimate struggle as all four legs became one inoperable bunch. Then the probing of the shears, as a being splits in two - one breathing and bleating, the other an independent and lifeless mass, steaming by its side. Then the untying, the sudden reawakening as they are up on their legs - released to stand stunned in a new pen, bare and awkward and relieved.
*Many thanks to the Demurtas family and Azienda Agricola Coile Scalas for letting us participate in sa tundimenta. Since gathering together without food or drink is unheard of in the Mediterranean, they also invited us to an incredible lunch held for all of the shearers where we were able to taste a range of their delicious organic cheeses.