As a farmer, I will attend events shared in Farm and Dairy as … well, a farmer. Most recently, though, that attendance took me further afield — down a long stretch of gravel road, north of most things, surrounded by wilderness that stretches to the Canadian border, to be exact.
One of my seemingly multitudinous interests these days is with livestock guardian dogs. Over recent years, I’ve come to know and work with some very knowledgeable folks within the guardian dog realm, including our online columnist, Tarma Shena. A behaviorist, longtime dog trainer and livestock guardian dog breeder, she is the source of several of my dogs, as well as a mentor and friend. While many farmers view livestock guardian dogs as only a tool to protect stock, she showed me that my relationship with my dogs can be so much more meaningful.
I recently made the trek north to Maine to visit Farei Kennels, her home base. (Farei is pronounced “fairy.”) It’s not the first time I’ve visited. In 2018, on a trip north, I met her and her dogs for the first time. The resulting pup I acquired, Maya, has become the heart and soul of my pack. While I’ve added other dogs along the way, Farei dogs are special. I visited late last year, as well.
For the first time in June 2020, Tarma opened her home to fellow farming and livestock guardian dog enthusiasts. Although the pandemic prohibited me and a number of folks from attending last year, we were determined to make the second annual Farei Tale Weekend. And, so, we did. For one weekend, about 30 folks descended on the 20-acre, off-grid farmstead, tucked among hunting cabins and forested wilderness. We came from all walks of life. Scientists. Creative folks. Cooks. Homemakers. Commercial farmers. Manual laborers. Retirees. Community activists. There was even a Jewish rabbi.
We may not have had the same political, philosophical or religious beliefs, but it didn’t matter. We were there to learn from Tarma and from each other’s best practices. Some came from just down the gravel road and others traveled from as far as Florida, Arizona and California — one attendee used the weekend as an excuse to complete her first cross country road trip. Many made the trip a second time. We all did the silly antics to gain entry and signed that we’d read the list of rules, which included: “Don’t ride the bull” and “Clothing must be worn at all times.”
Cell service is spotty there. So, for those few days, most of us were blessedly unplugged, and spent much of our time talking dogs, training, farm life and whatever else struck our fancy. You know those people you have a rapport with immediately when you meet them? That’s what these folks were like. All along, members of Tarma’s livestock guardian dog pack moved in and out of our gathering, basking in ear scratches and belly rubs.
After a long pandemic year, it was a balm. In addition to workshops about training, we tent camped in a field, drank campfire coffee, ate homemade pie for breakfast, roasted homemade marshmallows for s’mores, swapped stories about farming and life and laughed at the antics of young pups as they cavorted throughout the group. It was the closest to normal I’ve felt in a long time.
Sure, most of us got to know each other and Tarma because of livestock guardian dogs. But friendships have grown along the way. It’s not really about the dogs. It’s about learning how to be better human beings — or, at least, be honest about our journey. Livestock guardian dogs are intelligent enough to know the difference between real and fake, and they don’t have the pretense to bother putting up with the latter.
It’s amusing, really. Rumors, exaggerations and tall tales abound about Farei. Mostly from folks who’ve never gotten to know Tarma or bothered to understand what she is all about. Meanwhile, a community has developed through Farei. Tarma is no saint, but she’s about as real as you can get. So are many of the people who have stumbled on her training for their dogs.
Having gotten a thorough tour of the surrounding area the last time I visited, I know there is little in the way of civilization. Hunting cabins are inhabited, sporadically. Logging trucks rumble down the gravel road, intermittently. This winter, Tarma and her dogs beat back countless predators that drifted through, largely uninhibited by human activity.
The weekend drew to a close quickly for me. In addition to attending the gathering, I was picking up the newest livestock guardian for our farm’s pack: 12 week old Fantasma, or “Fanny.” In order to get home and unwind before I hopped back on deadline for the newspaper, I had to get up at o’dark thirty Sunday morning, tear down my tent and leave. That night, after a few hours of shut eye, I awakened to the sound of the guardians roaring. They would crescendo and then fall silent. Then, there was another salvo. I listened intently as the dogs warning something off. Repeatedly. When the time came, I packed my things, bundled Fanny into the car and made the long drive home.
As I slipped back into the routine, the news trickled out. Something had hit the farmstead. Even with two packs of dogs guarding the area — at Farei and next door — it pressed in, causing some loss and injury. Then, after one intense night, things settled down. It appeared the dogs and their shepherds had beaten it back. For now. Such is life at the edge of a wilderness.
I think a lot about the various places those of us who work the land call home. I think of the crucible those places can become. Often in intangible ways, they forge change and evolution and expansion in one’s perspective that most things can’t — and for a brief time, we saw what it was like in that corner of Maine.
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