Farm life full of roses and thorns

border collie

“The dogs and I were confined inside much of the time, the heat so extreme that going outside was a kind of physical assault. The sheep lay in the barnyard like dogs in the tropics, flat on their sides, legs extended, desperate to disperse whatever heat they could. People began selling off their livestock … I used what little energy I had to save the trees, hauling hoses from one end of the yard to the other. Yet as brutal as living with the land can be, I wouldn’t trade my connection to it for anything.”

— Patricia McConnell, “The Education of Will”

There is no getting around the fact that if you want a lifetime of farming, you’d best be tough enough to handle many days that bring only the thorns, none of the roses.

Patricia McConnell, an internationally known zoologist and animal behaviorist, lives on a sheep farm in Wisconsin. I just finished McConnell’s book detailing her own experience with a troubled, aggressive, young border collie that she carefully chose from a litter.


She writes honestly, showing that even the most highly trained, intuitive person can choose a puppy who quickly displays inexplicable behaviors. In dealing with her young pup’s aggression and anxiety, she began sensing shadows of her own troubled youth, and for both author and dog, returning to the farm each day felt like nirvana.

“Sometimes I think I owe my life to it,” she writes. “It might seem strange to talk about the healing force of nature, and how it has helped me specifically, by telling a sad story of a drought. But it is not just beautiful flowers and awe-inspiring vistas that do a body good.”

“Living in the country includes sprained ankles, wasp stings, sunburns and droughts that break your heart. It means bitter winter nights in the barn, trying to save a dying ewe gasping for air, her eyes rolling, her chest heaving, while your fingers are so cold they sting like fire, or extracting a deer whose leg caught in your fence only to learn she was killed the next day by a neighbor’s dog,” she wrote.

As I read this book, there were many times I could relate to what makes a life feel purposeful, whole. It was more than just the story of training a complicated herding dog.


It wasn’t until reading this particular chapter that it all clicked. We who live through the tough stuff of being on a farm know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but it is our home in the world, and we can’t fathom it any other way.

“But I love it still,” McConnell writes. “I love the good and I love hating the bad. The fact that the farm is not all pretty and comforting somehow makes it even more valuable. One day there’s the shocking finality of a dead newborn lamb in the barn. The next day the healthy ones frolic, my spirits rising with them as they toss their heels to the sky.”

We all can relate

It is surviving both the tough losses and celebrating the accomplishments and joys that keep us going.

When we lost a particularly promising, ailing calf, my dad said to me, “They aren’t all meant to make it. That helps you appreciate the ones strong enough to knock you on your tail!”

McConnell writes, “Bearing witness to the inevitable link between the living and the dead helps me to feel centered, with the earth holding me up and the land surrounding me with something bigger and better than my own little life.”

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