They’re calling to each other as we arrive, the sheep. Some of us drove to the farm that day and some walked. As those of us in the car shout greetings to those waiting there who had walked ahead, roughly a hundred shaggy brown sheep and wispy white goats join in. Some are reedy, plaintive. Others bellow deep in their throats. Manish Jain, in brown robe and blue jeans, bawls back at them: a call-and-response between four-legged and two-legged beings, we with our forward-facing eyes and they who look outward to the sides. They eat what we feed them, we eat from them. We are predators and prey, caught in some semi-symbiotic relationship called farming. They mill about the yard. Some bend their front knees and fall lazily to the dirt below, some clamber over each other. They seem protective, bound together by strength in numbers, but within that structure, each one chews, wanders, sleeps as it pleases.

Attached to the farm house, a fence. At the end of the fence, a post. On top of the post, a hook. On the hook, a lamb hangs. Cold metal on tiny femur, which wears a sock of brown fleece and hoof. The careful hush of knife on skin, the dangling struggle, tugging, the drip down the chin from lolling head. Eager dogs below lap it up.

Free Home University fellow Mattia Pellegrini met the shepherd who holds this knife, Marcello, at a wine bar in San Cesario. It is by this kind of relationship that Free Home University is most vivid—the connections of stories, conversations shared over wine, over dinner, over work in the fields. Marcello has no less than eight dogs—he calls them his sons. All adoring mutts of the most humble, sturdy, and quietly graceful stock, each with his or her own quirks and charms. They work as a team and as individuals to control and guide the herd. One is an 8-month-old German shepherd, one is a German shepherd cross in his senior years (the worker), one is a hound cross who never sits still, three are tiny enough to possibly have Chihuahua or dachshund blood, one might be a descendent of a duck troller with her red fur and yellow eyes. The last one is nearly unidentifiable as a particular breed, but amiable and loyal in a general doggish way.

In thinking about shepherds present and past, animal and human, there is a story about two brothers: the Biblical one of Cain and Abel. Cain, the farmer, works the land, sedentary. Abel, the herdsman, wanders the land, nomadic, homeless. This story comes from a Euro-Christian root, and the mythology tastes like it grew out of an agrarian way of life. But even with its foundations in traditional religion, can be an interesting metaphor to use as a starting place, as part of a complex web of spiritual histories. In a way, the two brothers can be seen as representing two facets of a community. The first of the brothers, Cain, represents a community embedded in a location—a farm, a city, a town, a building, spaces (like Lecce’s Ammirato Culture House) that are hubs for gathering, making connections, discussing. It is one that is more commonly accepted, because we often use the world community as a sort of shorthand for a group of citizens of a specific place.

The second of the two brothers, Abel, represents a more complex idea that a community can be nomadic. Imagine a group of travellers as one manifestation of this complex community—home is where the heart is, goes the old saying, and doesn’t always need a physical place. We find community through living together. But what of a solitary shepherd tending her flock of sheep in the hills? She might feel a sense of interspecies community with the ruminants she watches. But she might also make a community in her thoughts, across great distances of time and space, as she remembers conversations shared with friends, bringing her mentors’ and fellows’ thoughts into her own thoughts, giving these people a presence through memory. In an interview with Free Home University participant Emilio Fantin on the Secret Ingredient this April, he spoke about how we take up shared knowledge and things we have done together when we are apart—books, ideas, songs—and warm it in our hearts. We build community even as nomads, from far away, by interpreting the thoughts that we hold in common.

The sheep walk on, past fields of solar panels. A dump nearby is covered taught with blue plastic, pipes, and vents stretching above it, an undertone of chemicals leach into the groundwater below. Patterns and pieces of old tiles and plates clink under clicking hooves. The sheep and goats are powerful en masse, determined and heavy. Two of us, Francesco and Noah are caught by the pressing of firm skulls and dangling ears. A curious goat jumps atop a wall, just to see if she likes it or not. After trotting there a for a little bit, she decides that she’s done with that, and jumps down again.

Most of us haven’t spent much time with sheep before. And it is incredible to see the heaving of their wooly backs, to watch how they cluster together, moving constantly inward, towards the others.
“They move as one body,” we murmur.
“If some of them go, they all go, because they want to be with each other,” we marvel.
We read the sheep as one group, thinking with one mind. And partially this is true‚ they walk together protectively. But if we look beyond our human-centric framework, we can start to see the sheep as individuals, with as much of their own personalities as some of the dogs. They might be evolutionarily inclined to gather together protectively, their outward-facing eyes constantly on the lookout for predators. But one goat climbs to eat some berries that hang from a nearby branch. A few sheep wander into the garbage pit in search of new foliage. Five sheep move away from their comrades to work together at clipping grass. And when they call to each other, they don’t call with one voice, but back and forth, call and response, question and answer.

November 3, 2014
Danica Evering