After Gerard Manley Hopkins
PraiseSong to the universe for sleeping things -
For melody-strewn birds of barely dawn;
For trees, pressed black on deepest blue;
Thick-furred dog heap; Frog kings;
Pear bloomed bold with snow petals –
Hawk, hay bale, and fawn;
And all creatures, their baa and bark and coo.
All things shrouded, morning-dappled, nestled, blessed;
Whatever is meadowed, misted (gone?)
With fragile, fresh; draping, hollow; ancient, new;
Our kingdom top to bottom, east to west:
You – praise too.
Cynthia J. Alby, 2018
While you are here, check out the rest of our website. Lots of new photos in the "about us" section photo gallery. Now is a good time to follow Shangri-Baa on Facebook and Instagram because lambs are about to arrive! (click on the little icons in the upper right hand corner)
Our ram, Aeris, is a sweet little creature. He is still young and hasn’t realized he is supposed to be a strong and lusty man-sheep. I have studied how aggressive rams can be toward one another and even people; there is a reason the noun “ram” led to the verb. But we only have this one adorable ram, so no worries, right?
Aeris has spent his months at Shangri-Baa with his “not-so-intact” buddy, Joey, in a pasture that shares a fence line with the ewe pasture. When the ladies congregate near that fence, the boys scurry over to graze as close as the fence will allow. Keeping them apart hurt my heart, but such things must happen at their proper time. Finally a few days ago we opened the gate so that Aeris and Joey could scramble into the pasture with the ewes and then we stood by to witness the joyous and long-awaited mingling. Enormous Joey moved confidently amongst the ladies like a prince - a dusty, wooly prince. Amiable Aeris, however, was quickly surrounded by haughty ladies ready to put him in his place.
Then the ramming commenced. The elder stateswoman of the flock took a few steps back and forehead lowered, slammed into him with a hollow crack. He attempted to hold his ground, but that little dude was no match for the bulk of older-than-thou sheepitude. I wish I could say it happened only once. When a second ewe decided to have a go at him, their shaky shepherdess raced inside to consult “sheep chat forum” on Facebook, as sheep folk surely have done for centuries. Gene, a more seasoned farmer, quickly replied to my distress, “This is the start of your entertainment for the day. It is perfectly normal.” Others chimed in with much the same, I thanked them kindly, and by the time I got back outside a few minutes later, the sheep were all grazing peacefully.
None of my books said anything about ewes harassing rams. The truly endless resources at my fingertips attempted to be comprehensive, but they all have their limits. It was then that I realized that the way many people today are learning to keep livestock (and engage in all sorts of other undertakings) is kind of weird and truly new.
In the vast span of Interwebs-less human history, a novice shepherd such as myself would have been almost unheard of. In fact, a novice of any kind would have been an anomaly. Any shepherd would have learned their trade watching older family members and gradually joining in. Sheep would be in their blood. The blacksmith would have observed a neighbor for years and then apprenticed as a teen before finally graduating to “real” blacksmith.
But who learns anything at their papa’s knee anymore? How many go into the family business? We are a nation of novices learning our trades and our hobbies from books and blogs and YouTube videos. Even when we go to college, we still cobble our knowledge, and only to a modest extent are we “eased in” to anything, beneficiaries of years of imbibing the wisdom of others. Many of those small farmers you meet at the Farmers’ Market didn’t grow up tending rows of vegetables or watching an entrepreneur start a business. The same is often true of those amazing bread bakers and cheese makers everyone is so excited about. Most apprenticed as adults, and they cobbled and then leaped. That means more fresh ideas and cross-pollination and also more uncertainty and terror. And when there are lives or livelihood at stake, it is all the more exciting and terrifying.
I don’t know what to make of my minor revelation except to say that I want you to be aware that as hard as it can be to be a novice in our little operation, those doing it on a larger scale have panic akin to unexpected sheep aggression times a thousand. What they are doing is astonishing. So when you pay more for their products, you aren’t just getting a more delicious, local, sustainably produced product and supporting your community; you are supporting people who are providing a model of a potential way of being in this brave new world. Hopefully they will inspire you to embrace the fear and become a cobbling novice at something yourself. Knowing next to nothing to begin with doesn’t have to be an obstacle, in fact, it is where almost all of us are starting now. Lean in.
This is my keynote address from the 2016 Georgia College Convocation. If you would rather see it than read it, here it is. The written version is below.
Welcome to you all, and thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today. Before I get into the meat of what I’d like to say to you, please humor me for a minute while I tell you just a few of the things I personally believe:
I believe you are incredibly fortunate to be at this university. It is hard to imagine a more ideal place – a public education that is the equivalent of an expensive private university on a beautiful campus in a lovely small town with a brilliant faculty dedicated to the art of teaching who will give you the kind of personalized attention that is so hard to get elsewhere.
And I believe that your generation is on the right track. Don’t listen to those who denigrate your generation. You know who really knows you? We do. The faculty and staff sitting around you spend the majority of their time interacting with your generation, and I, for one, see that you all, in far greater numbers than in recent decades, are hungering for lives that are meaningful rather than simply chasing the almighty dollar. Please chase meaning!
Also I believe that talking at people does not promote learning. Learning requires that you, the learner, be engaged – the more deeply the better. So as I speak today, I am inviting you to be engaged with me. I am going to ask you questions. These aren’t rhetorical questions; I actually want you to answer them in your heads. Sometimes, I’m going to be silent for a few moments to let you think. I know that’s a little weird, but I am going for it.
For the meat of my discussion with you today, I want to talk to you about something WE believe, here, as an institution. We believe in the power of reason. You may not fully understand what it means to be at a liberal arts college yet, but one thing that it means is that we are deeply devoted to helping you learn how to think, how to reason. The Georgia College experience is based on what we call “The 3 R's: Reason, Respect, and Responsibility,” and today I’d like to focus on reason. I want to convince you that it is not your reason that is making the majority of your decisions, but actually an elephant.
Here’s the thing, you feel like you are making conscious, reasoned decisions all the time. But the truth of the matter is this: the vast majority of the decisions our brains make are made by the more ancient parts of our brain, which hijack our rational mind, usually without us realizing it. This includes both small daily decisions as well as the most important decisions we make in life. Let’s look at why this is.
The first part of your brain to develop in the womb is the brain stem, which is governed mostly by instinct. The second part of your brain to develop houses the amygdala, which is the seat of memory and emotion but not reason. Now, the neocortex is the final part of the brain to develop, and it is the seat of the intellect and abstract reasoning. It does have the ability to evaluate messages coming from the lower two parts of the brain, but the problem is, it often doesn’t.
Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt described this situation as a rider on an elephant. The elephant represents the lower two parts of the brain. It is powerful, hard to control, and wants its way. The rider represents the upper brain. The rider holds the reins and has the real intellect, but it struggles to control the elephant. So picture that – little you on the back of a huge elephant. The elephant can be tamed, but it isn’t easy, and the rider must be vigilant. Of course any metaphor like this will be overly simplistic, but it will help us better understand why developing your ability to reason is far more important than you think.
I can’t express what a difference it can make in your life to even just be able to recognize when your elephant is making decisions for you vs. when your rider is. Hint: Most of the time it is the elephant. Your reason generally makes pretty good decisions, but your lower brain – not so much. You MUST learn some methods for taming your elephant, or you, your smart essential you, isn’t going to be the one running your life.
The dominance of the elephant was a godsend when we were hunter-gatherers. We needed to be easily frightened to avoid being prey. We needed to eat as much fat and sugar as possible on the rare occasions when it was available because it might be a long time until we had such high-energy food again. But in modern society, the dominance of the elephant can be difficult. I’m going to tell you about four things your elephant is doing and why they are problematic, and I’m going to give you some ideas to strengthen your rider and tame your elephant.
First of all, have you ever noticed how much your brain talks to you? Human brains almost never stop talking. The majority of the time, that voice is your elephant. The good news is that this is completely normal. Much of what it generates is fairly random, and your rider hardly even notices. When it generates something shocking or scary or cruel, then you notice. Unless your brain is deeply engaged in something, it gets hooked and is taken on a ride. Sometimes the ride is silly or pleasurable. Sometimes is it dramatic, like when we replay an argument over and over, only this time we say what we wish we had said. Sometimes we analyze the ever-loving crap out of what someone else said or did. Sometimes the ride is awful and the internal judge criticizes or belittles us.
How often does your brain do these kinds of things?
I’m going to repeat that and then be quiet for a moment and let you really think about this: How often does your brain do these kinds of things? (pause)
And why is this a problem? Well first of all, sometimes those rants are hurtful. The elephant tells you you are worthless or incompetent or worse. See all these impressive people sitting up here? Their brains do it too. Everyone’s brain tells them terrible things. Why would your elephant do this to you? Because those lower parts of your brain are the seats of fear. It is the language the elephant knows, and it works. It makes you worry. It was designed to do this. It will always do this. These are often referred to as “automatic thoughts” for that very reason; you can’t control their arrival. But here is where reason comes in; you can challenge these thoughts. You can say, “Wait. Am I really incompetent? I’m competent in all kinds of things. Elephant, hush!” You should start doing this immediately. The next negative weirdness your brain throws out there, just say, “Elephant, hush!” Which will hopefully make you laugh, which will also keep you from believing that junk.
For most people, their lower brain also frustrates fairly easily. You know when three things go wrong in a row and your lower brain says, “This is going to be a terrible day.” You can say, “Elephant, seriously? I know you get frustrated easily, but in the great scheme of things, none of what just happened is all that bad, and it certainly doesn’t logically follow that the rest of the day will be bad unless you make it bad. Hush!”
It is also a problem because you start to believe the stuff your lower brain generates is real. Clifford Geertz wrote that, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.” You imagine what other people are thinking and feeling, and you start to believe that’s true, when in reality you made it all up. You analyze a situation you actually know very little about, and you think you’ve found the answer. We do it so much, that we hardly realize we are doing it.
Because of the fact that our brains rarely stop talking, we spend the majority of our lives trapped in mental spinning with no essential reality. It is junk. We stumble around assigning motivations to others that are largely bunk, lost in fictional spinning thoughts. But once you are aware that you are doing this, you can learn to stop a lot of the spinning off before it gets so far. Whenever you catch yourself doing this, you just say, “Wait. You are spinning again. Come back.” And then you focus on reality, something right in front of you like a sound or the trees or your breathing. You will have to do this A LOT because it is the nature of the brain to spin off like this very frequently. But the good news is that you can get adept at halting this more and more quickly, and eventually you are spending more time in reality and less time in fearful or meaningless fantasy worlds. Take a moment and think about this: how much of your time is spent totally present, just taking in whatever is happening around you without a running commentary in your head? (pause.)
And I’m not saying that you should never do something like analyzing a situation; it’s just that there is a big difference between when your elephant, with its tendency toward random or unreasonable associations, analyzes a situation while you are driving vs. you setting aside time to sit down and use your reason to sensibly analyze a situation without attributing motivations to others that you can’t possibly know.
So #2. What else does the elephant do that is problematic? Well, it wants what it wanted for the hunter-gatherer: fat, sugar, and sex - all things we needed to stay alive a long time ago. It wants you to stay away from anything it perceives as scary. It wants you to conserve your energy. Imagine you are on the sofa and there is something you know you need to do. The elephant will not generally want you to do that thing because it is programed to get you to conserve your energy. You get this very powerful sensation that you shouldn’t get up, and then comes the rationalizing. “You worked hard today, you deserve to rest. Just watch this one more movie, and then you’ll do that other thing.” Your elephant is a master at this. But for the most part, your lower brain does not have your best interest at heart. Your reason believes in getting things done. The elephant does not.
Think about this. Ready? Think about all the things you tend to do when you’ve had a long day and you want to relax. (pause). Most of us watch TV, surf the Internet, eat some junk food, shop, or troll social media. But here’s the thing: how often does any of that leave you feeling actually rejuvenated? (pause) One day I started paying attention to how I felt after I had done things like that. And what I discovered was that I almost never felt better than before I did them, and often I felt worse. Most of these things are just means of numbing out or escaping, which the elephant loves. My elephant is constantly telling me that these things will make me feel better, but they don’t. So I did what most people would do when faced with this realization; I got some sheep. Let me explain: When I let my reason take over and question my lower brain, I had to get real about what truly revitalizes me. I listed some things I found actually rejuvenating such as interacting with the natural world, embarking on adventures with my husband, and taking on new tasks that required me to think creatively. Getting sheep has made those things happen for me. Do I still engage in that other crap sometimes? Sure. But that junk is still is almost never truly satisfying.
You too can do this. How much of your time is spent doing things that aren’t very satisfying to you? And what does truly rejuvenate you? Go ahead. I’ll let you think. (pause.)
#3. Another problem with the elephant is that it desperately wants life to be good all the time. But you know that life is often difficult. Being frustrated by the fact that life is often difficult is like being frustrated by the fact that grass is green. If you had a friend who was deeply frustrated that grass is green you would say, “Dude, that’s just the way it is. You have GOT to get over this.” So too should we say to our elephant, “Things are often not the way you want them to be. You have GOT to get over wanting it to be otherwise.”
So what do we do about this? You can allow yourself to hold life’s inevitable difficulties differently and change your relationship with them. You practice not running from what you don’t like. My new mantra is, “Be here and breathe. My whole life has let to this moment; what is it offering me?”
#4. And did you know that when it comes to your most deeply held beliefs, often it is the elephant who is making the decisions? Why is it that people will rarely let go of cherished ideas even when provided with strong evidence that refutes their position? Research from Jonathan Haidt and others suggest that when you take a position on something, it is because your lower brain generates a “gut feeling,” often based in some kind of fear or need, and then the higher brain invents an argument to support that feeling. Let me repeat that: your lower brain generates a “gut feeling,” often based in some kind of fear or need, and then the higher brain invents an argument to support that feeling. Our beliefs may seem based in reason, but generally they aren’t.
It was extremely important for hunter-gatherers to agree with those closest to them because being shunned could be deadly, so the elephant strives to keep our beliefs in tune with those in our social group. This makes us easy prey for politicians and the media who know how to play on our fears to keep us tuned in. But here’s where reason can help. If you recognize that this is what’s happening, you can look up the actual data on any given matter (from the least biased resources you can find) and then work very hard to shush the elephant, who fears this process.
This is something a liberal arts education is purpose-made to help you learn to do, if you will let it. Learn to love the feeling of having your mind changed. I am oddly giddy when someone says something that flips some aspect of my worldview. I went to a liberal arts college myself; maybe that’s where I learned that.
So in summary, let reason take charge of your life more often. Let me remind you how to do that:
I will close with a quotation from George Washington, which sums up well where most of you are in life right now. “I am embarked on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospect, in which, perhaps, there is no safe harbor to be found.”
Safe harbor isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Your elephant may think it is, but let your reason guide you, and allow that wide ocean to be a fascinating journey rather than something you race across to get to the closest, safest shore.
Can we absolutely argue that humans are the Earth’s most intelligent creatures? To what extent does that distinction rely on what we count as “smart”?
Are sheep smart? Many would argue that they are not, but most of these individuals have never lived with sheep; they “heard from someone…” Sheep truly will “follow the flock” even when that doesn’t make much sense, but when that dedication to following protected them beautifully for millennia 99% of the time, maybe it isn’t as crazy as it seems. I don’t know about other breeds of sheep, but our Gulf Coast Native sheep simply must have some wits about them. The Spanish brought them to the New World in the 1500’s, and large flocks would be left on their own for the majority of the year and rounded up on rare occasions as needed. There is a limit to how unintelligent you can be when you are delicious and vulnerable and your only defenses are a) stomping a small hoof angrily like a petulant child and b) fleeing, but not nearly as deftly as, say, a deer.
Professor Jenny Morton, a neuroscientist at University of Cambridge, says sheep have been greatly undervalued for their intelligence. "I didn't expect them to be so amenable to testing and certainly didn't expect them to be so smart. In our tests they performed at a level very similar to monkeys and humans in the initial learning tasks.”
But an issue that arises with all our tests of intelligence is this: we define intelligence in terms of how close that animal matches our human ideal of what intelligence is. We label dogs “smart” when they can detect the faintest hint of explosive material on someone at the airport, something we find useful. But we don’t often recognize dogs as brilliant for merely possessing a mind-blowing ability to distinguish scents; it is only when that ability is bent to our benefit that we relent. Sheep have a highly honed aptitude for discriminating between individual blades of grass, a palatable one next to a potentially dangerous one, using the fine hairs on their muzzles; can you do that? Such a highly refined ability to separate the nutritious from the deadly seems like quite a valuable skill. In comparison, humans aren’t nearly so “smart”. But then again, I am much better with semi-colons than any of our ewes, so there’s that.
Our ideas about “smart” extend to humans who differ from the norm as well. Humans have held a very narrow view of what it means to be a “smart” person. But in recent years the neurodiversity movement has begun to reconsider those individuals whose brains differ substantially from the norm due to Down’s Syndrome, Asperger’s, autism, and the many other ways a brain might be wired differently. Might this diversity, formerly seen as purely negative, bring something important and wonderful to the table?
The Autism Acceptance Month website notes, “Neurodiversity is a natural form of diversity, found in every human society. It is similar in many ways to other forms of diversity, such as ethnic, racial, cultural, sexual, or gender diversity. Like these other forms of diversity, neurodiversity can enrich a society or community that embraces it.” And as John Elder Robison, an adult with Asperger’s notes, “There is no question neurodiverse people have brought many great things to human society…There’s that also no question that group homes and other institutions are filled with people whose gifts remain hidden. When 99 neurologically identical people fail to solve a problem it’s often the 1% fellow who’s different who holds the key.”
In our rapidly changing society, perhaps neurologically diverse individuals can see solutions or model ways of being that will indeed be key. What would it look like if we went out of our way to discover and support each individual’s neurological gifts and unique personalities rather than expecting every person (and every animal) to conform to a narrow definition? Maybe it’s time we broaden what we mean when we label both humans and animals as “dumb” or “smart.”
A mockingbird. An Exhale. Tentative sheep finally rustle towards us rather than away, lured by ribbons of molasses twirled into oats. Their disgrunt has begun to be gentled in this new meadow. Pipping chicks gather under a heat lamp, plopping exhausted into mounds. They sleep in short shifts, switches flipped from on to off to on. Donatello the Guardian gambols on the deck’s mossy planks, an enormous pup, eager and gentle, his whites already muddied.
I can see these things this morning, but last week was a tropical storm of anxiety. My mind was hijacked, the way a limb is tossed in the current as the torrent rises. The sheep would surely be forever frightened of us. Each sleeping chick was clearly dead. The dog would be afraid of sheep. So much happened at once – sheep on Sunday, chicks on Wednesday, dog on Thursday. This was not what I had planned. But it turns out that rare breeds are, well, rare. You can’t just call and place an order to be delivered by Amazon Prime the day after tomorrow. When you finally find someone who has what you need, you have to pounce (or in this case, pounce, pounce, pounce) which can result in an avalanche of animals.
And perhaps this will be the only smooth morning, although I doubt that. But as seasoned farmers say, “Where there is livestock, there is deadstock.” (Thanks, seasoned farmers; just what I needed to hear.) But fortunately I have a superpower: when I need answers, just point me towards a bookstore, iTunes, a collection of podcasts, really any media at all, and I will magically happen upon whatever I need. This past week was no exception. The Freakonomics and Hidden Brain podcasts provided me with some soothing information indeed. First of all, I discovered that research shows that successful innovators feel just as much fear and doubt at the outset of a project as anyone else, they just don’t let it stop them if they are convinced they are moving in the right direction. So this fear and doubt isn’t a sign of something dreadful? Good to know. Then I learned that people who envision the future of an endeavor going beautifully tend to be less successful in their attempt than those who have concerns. I hope there is some correlation between the number of concerns and the success of the endeavor because my concerns have been legion. At this rate I should be blessed with a lifetime of healthy, leaping lambs and puppies. Wait – not supposed to be too cocky – ugh! Hopefully a little wishful thinking isn’t the end of the world.
Follow Shangri-baa on Facebook and Instagram! Just click the buttons here or in the upper right corner of this page.
Why would anyone start a farm? It is one thing to live in a farm-like place, as we have done for 13 years now, but it is quite another to try to turn a farm-like place into an actual working farm. This undertaking has required an outrageous quantity of research. Let’s raise animals. OK, which ones? There are so many choices, each with their pros and cons. Livestock guardian dogs? Sheep? OK, which breed? Which breeder? We’ll have to fly in a puppy from California?! And don’t get me started on the amount of research needed to start a business. Do you know the difference between a sole proprietorship and an LLC? I do now!
So why would I want to undertake this, especially since we are so busy already? I love to relax as much as the next person, but I find a lot of time spent “relaxing” doesn’t leave me feeling rejuvenated at all. Binge watching TV is fun in the moment, but I can’t recall a time when I turned off the TV and felt revitalized. More than half an hour of Facebook or surfing the Internet can be downright draining. But reading about sheep breeds invigorated me. Of all the ways you could spend your precious free time, what truly leaves you feeling recharged after a long week?
I also asked myself what I wanted more of in my life. Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I don’t plan to spend too much of it glued to a screen. I decided I wanted a reason to be outside more. I wanted to be able to create something new with Charlie; when we put our very different talents together, amazing things happen. I wanted to challenge myself with something that scares me. (The idea of turning a lamb around in a birth canal if needed is daunting, believe me.)
And I hoped to do something that would make a difference somehow, and I think this undertaking can do that. I believe in small farms and building local communities. We don’t have the space to have a very large operation, but we can provide exceptional livestock and livestock protection to others who are trying to homestead or feed their communities or create amazing fiber art. We can build the infrastructure of this farm and the quality of its soil and forage so that a future generation of farmers can benefit from it. We can serve as an example to others who might want to move to the country or bring the country to their backyards. We can use this as an opportunity to raise awareness about critically endangered breeds, and how you don’t need to be a farmer to help them. And maybe best of all, we can demonstrate that if you want to do some crazy thing, maybe just do it. We’re from suburban Atlanta for heaven’s sake! But why not us? Why not you?
So after months of spending my free time researching all-things-farm, do I feel revitalized? Yes I do.