How do you make a living on a rock surrounded by water that doesn’t have a large employer, a bridge to the mainland or even a hospital?
Small businesses like a bike shop, bakery or pub is one answer and islanders often work at more than one of these places to make ends meet. Also people in rural areas whether it be an island off the Washington coast or a one-stoplight-town in the middle of America seem to be more resourceful. They can fix what’s broken, grow a salad, hook and fillet their supper and breed and nurture a years worth of meat and eggs – with a little left over to sell to the city folks. These resourceful Americans are the fading shadows of our founding fathers. Sadly none are running for president.
Lopez Island is a forty-five minute ferry ride from the Washington coast, is fifteen miles long and has twenty-five hundred full time residents. In tourist season its economy plumps a little. Shuttered shops let in the light while others that were only partially hibernating during the dark wet season extend hours, pull out the patio furniture and release a hopeful sigh that things will be better this month.
March is still early for tourists on Lopez but for Michelle and Audrey and their expectant sheep, now is the right time for lambing. Lambing is the time of year when ewes give birth to lambs, typically two at a time with a few sets of triplets thrown in to keep the shepherds from becoming complacent.
That picture of Audrey and Michelle walking to the barn with a hot mug of tea in their hands to see who delivered last night is as heart warming as a Norman Rockwell painting. But totally out of touch with reality. It’s true that the women own, manage and nurse an expanding herd of sheep but they do it in addition to their day jobs on leased land that they have to visit before work, during lunch, after work and before bedtime.
Actually the sheep don’t even deliver in the barn. They deliver somewhere in the fields. That means the women have to first find the ewe and lambs then move them into the barn for a couple of days of monitoring. Getting a ewe to follow you into the barn is a slow, tedious process, especially when it’s pitch black and raining. Once the ewe and lambs are strong and healthy enough to return to the field they send them out to make room for another mother with newborns. The cycle repeats again and again for three to four weeks in the sunshine, black of night, rain and gale force winds.
If things go as planned Michelle and Audrey will conclude lambing season by adding forty-four lambs to their herd. The female lambs will be kept for fleece and breeding while the males will leave the island and become a delicious stew, shawarma sandwich or lamb chops.
The shawarma, a pita bread sandwich filled with grilled lamb and veggies is one of the most delicious sandwiches I’ve ever tasted. But like most people when I look at the runt of the litter being bottle fed my immediate wish is for him to survive and return to the field with his mom. That doesn’t mean I won’t order another shawarma sandwich when I get the chance it just means I’m not cut out to raise sheep for market.
Like many people I want to cuddle calves, lambs and baby goats but I also like grilled meats. I’m an omnivore that was once a vegetarian and before that a hunter (but I wasn’t very good at it). Call me a wimp but the truth is I just don’t want to see what happens between the barn and the bistro. My wife is similar but still calls herself a vegetarian despite enjoying an occasional burger or BBQ sandwich.
There’s a part of me that would like to live on an island in the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington. I’d like to test my self-sufficiency and taste the salty winds while adjusting to the tidal rhythms and muted isolation. But I can’t lie to myself, it’s not real island life I want, it’s the Norman Rockwell painting of it. The old sailor looking at the sea, the kids playing in the waves and the male lamb saved by bottle feeding then released with his mother into a spring green paddock to live happily ever after.