I have done a variety of things with my life, most of which took place in the great outdoors. I have backpacked all over the world and while I packed out what I packed in, I felt I was never actually giving back to the earth what it was giving to me. I fished, I foraged, I farmed and “thank you” was beginning to feel as though it just was not enough.
Five years ago, I decided I needed to do right by the ground beneath my feet but had little idea of how I would do so. I went back to school, studied sustainable agricultural practices and ecology and eventually stepped into the role of shepherd. My heart has always been with the animals, and now I can combine my love and knowledge of livestock with my appreciation and respect for the land by connecting them again. Thoughtfully tending to the land and facilitating the rightful movement of animals through it, this feels like I am finally giving back.
Responsible land stewardship is a wisdom that goes back long before the birth of our nation. A lot of those wisdoms were buried in the dust kicked up by European settlers as they moved west. Tapping into these wisdoms has allowed us, as a species, to increase the health of our landscapes and benefit from the flurry of ecological services provided by doing so. I strive to follow in the footsteps of all the cultures who’ve spent centuries connected to the land as if it were their own garden. As I get to know my own relationship with mother earth, I feel honored to share my experiences and hope to inspire others to connect and become involved.
As a shepherd I, alongside a Sonoma County outfit that goes by Sweet Grass Grazing, move sheep and goats across Northern California landscapes to replicate the migratory species that were once in abundance here. We use solar-charged electric fencing that helps protect our four-legged partners from predators as well as protect the land from overgrazing. Overgrazing occurs when animals return to a spot that they’ve previously grazed before the plant species there have had the appropriate amount of time to recover and regrow. The plants that shade the surface of the earth all evolved with animal interaction. By taking the animal interaction away through land privatization and fragmentation, this cycle has been halted in many ways.
Through research, activism and education we are realizing that land health and productivity are directly related to the presence of animals. So the lines are blurring, boundaries are being removed and we, as animals ourselves, are returning to the land to learn from it and love on it. Landscapes that have been consciously grazed with this understanding prove that previously overgrazed land can flourish again; it hums with energy in every crevice—soil dense with active life, flora full of vigor and the space between rich with every shape and size of fauna imaginable.
While the health of the land is a priority to me as a shepherd, I benefit from my relationship with it just as much, if not more. It’s funny how being willing to give back often leads you to a space to receive the hidden gifts of nature. The benefits provided by my occupation leave me feeling taken care of and satisfied.
Landscapes that have been consciously grazed with this understanding prove that previously overgrazed land can flourish again; it hums with energy in every crevice …
Depending on the season and the land we are tending, my day often ends in a number of ways. My life partner, a mindful farmer, laughs when I unload my haul from a day out with the flock, as if I just came home from the market: bay nuts to be roasted, nettles to make pesto or wild blackberries to bake into a cobbler. My jewelry is made up of gifts from the earth and my medicines the same.
Even farther than the physical, however, the land offers me sanctity when I am with it. While I carry a book with me everywhere I go, I often sit back and read the land instead; sometimes perched up on a rock overlooking the space, or kicked back in the grass to disappear into the flock, ruminating my own thoughts. It tells an interesting story about diversity and the relationships between all different species that inspire life. I have learned so much since deciding to fill this crucial role of shepherd, and yet I never forget it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to how much knowledge there is still to gain in my many years to come.
While my job is far from easy, it pays me in ways that go much farther than paper bills. The greatest reward of all, besides the baby lambs that bouncily fill the scenery in springtime, is the community I have found in this pursuit. A great number of people care for the spaces we refer to as “nature.” So many are making the same efforts to learn about the relationships that are necessary for life to exist — the connection between our rivers and the fish that swim in them, the soil and the organisms that feed it, the grass and the hooved animals that inspire it to grow.
People are returning an array of animal species to our under-managed California landscapes, mindfully and with consideration for all present life. Tending to the land, and supporting others who do the same, helps secure a ravishing future that we can all look forward to.
A final note to anybody who has the desire to return to the land and put their primitive side to the test. My sleeves smell of raw wool, I am not unfamiliar with the terrifying word “tick” and the only clean day any of my boots have seen was the day before I took them out of their box. This job is indeed grittier than most; it requires constant hydration and challenges me to open my mind [and my lungs] daily. My body appreciates a long bath and clean yoga pants as much as the next girl. I cherish my Rainbow flip-flops and really do have a dress somewhere. At first, leaving our sterile spaces is uncomfortable; but over time, I can promise you from my core, that we adapt. Nature is supposed to feel normal to us, after all, we are a part of it.
Do you feel like your connection to nature could use a boost?
Photos by Chelsea Dier Photography