There are now five horses and about twenty-five sheep pastured on our fields. The horses are Morgans; they're handsome and dignified. They have mucho gravitas and very distinct personalities. I'm proud to say that we're friends; the horses make a point to trot over and say hello when I'm working nearby. They have big brains (or, at least, room for big brains) and they seem to want to communicate. I sweeten our intimacy with windfall apples. My relationship with the sheep is less satisfactory. Frankly, we're not on the same wavelength. Today I was cutting some brush (mostly beaked hazelnut and red maple) on the other side of the pond right against the sheep fence. Because I know that sheep take a gourmet interest in leaves of any sort (although we keep them away from lilac and wilted cherry), I carried a stack of branches out into the field. The sheep were interested but wary. Finally, one of the lambs (Braveheart, let's call him) sidled up to the pile and pulled on a leaf -- at which point the whole stack moved an inch or two. The entire flock started and immediately skedaddled back home.
The sheep are Scottish Blackfaces. My neighbor Ed, who owns them, claims that Scottish Blackfaces are the smartest of all ovines. Talk about damning-with-extra-faint-praise. Here's how utterly brilliant sheep can be. There are two gates right next to each other to a second pasture. One of the gates is for the horses and one is for the sheep. The sheep gate is nothing more than a few boards tacked together to make a space 4 feet high and 4 feet wide -- just large enough so that the sheep can slip through but the horses can't. The gate for the horses must be 12 or 14 feet across. It's metal and it rests on a hefty pair of hinges. Sometimes it's left open to allow the horses access to the field. But even when it's wide open, the sheep don't use it. Instead, they line up single file at their own little gate and wait their turn. Not a one of them, even Braveheart, has the sense to look around and notice that the main thoroughfare is available to anyone who wants to show a little initiative.
The horses are organized. Gillian, who's a twenty-something-year old mare, is the boss. Gabe, an ex-boy, is at the bottom. In between, the two young chestnut mares and a newly gelded bay struggle for status. In social terms, the sheep are a horse of another color. If there's a system to the society of sheep, I've not been able to discern it. It's all random Brownian movement. I asked Ed, who knows his sheep and has kept them for many years, if he'd ever been able to discover the structure of ovine social life. "Near as I can figure out," he answered, "one of them gets it in his head to go somewhere, and the rest follow."
Horses are noble; sheep are amusing but duller than Charles B., who was twice left back in first grade in P. S. 217, and duller also than my long-time colleague Joel S.
Whose idea was it, do you think, to placate the gods by sacrificing sheep? Were our ancestors trying to pull the wool over their deities' eyes? Were they being deliberately disrespectful? What sort of offering is a sheep?
"Here, sir god, I'll kill you a sheep. It's enough. What would you want with a horse?"