The Not So Simples

by Bruce McEwen, August 4, 2010

The last few acres of the American prairie with its soil-building native grasses went under the plow in 1984, making us forever beholden to Monsanto and Dow Chemical. The US Forest Service, chartered to preserve the watershed, sold it out to timber and livestock inter­ests a long time ago, reducing the national forests to government-operated tree farms and pasturelands. The giant Oglala Aquifer under the Great Plains, named after a now-remnant Indian tribe, is basically a dry hole.

The earth is being killed off, and when it goes we go.

Ideas about how we might save us from ourselves are ideas taking root in Mendocino County, whose farmers are on the leading edge of survival technique and inno­vation.

The Not So Simple Living Fair presented last week­end by the Anderson Valley Foodshed Group at the Boonville Fairgrounds featured many of these ingenious folks. They held workshops throughout the weekend featuring how-to guides to wild foods, shelter, farming and gardening, animal husbandry, baking, brewing, bee­keeping, butchering, composting, canning — on and on through the alphabet, everything from Acorn processing to zymurgy (the chemistry of fermentation processes).

If consumer capitalism careened to a halt tomorrow, a surprising number of Mendo people are perfectly equipped to fend for themselves. Of course they'd need armed guards to keep The Cheeseburger Eaters away from the gardens and flocks, but it's a good idea to stay on friendly farms with our Food Shed brothers and sis­ters just in case it comes to it.

Of course there was much feasting, fun and music and dancing, as well as practical instruction in how to do this, that and the other edible thing.

It was too much for one overwhelmed person to take it in, and with my cynical attitudes — not to mention my greenhorn status as a complete newcomer to the area — I was probably not the best reporter for this assignment, but the AVA's heavier hitters were unavailable, one of them literally being at the ball game. So I chose some preferred concerns of mine, attending those lectures. Being from Wyoming, where sheep herding is a big part of the culture, I was particularly interested in the sheep dogs. All-purpose impresario Steve Sparks and his wife Patty Liddy conducted the workshop. This proved to be more exciting than I'd had any right to hope for, espe­cially when those rogue critters, the sheep, escaped from the demonstration arena and threatened to stampede through the Fairgrounds. (The best stuff is always the unplanned stuff.)

It started off peacefully enough. A pastoral scene, shady and green, the shorn sheep milling peacefully in the background, the dogs laying about their tongues lolling, a fascinated crowd attentive in the bleachers.

Maestro Sparks introduced the working dogs, each in turn, by name, taking time to patiently answer imperti­nent questions by this reporter. Then the demonstration began with a somewhat mischievous sheepdog named Uncle John.

The object of the exercise was for the clever hound to put the sheep through a series of makeshift gates, and then into a pen. But Uncle John, perhaps aware he was in the limelight, became wantonly exuberant. He had to be scolded and caught up with a crook staff. In the mean­time, the wily sheepdog Winston set upon the sheep and put them clear through the fence. The sheep galloped off down the road, the spectators spilling out of the bleach­ers to follow.

What fun! The spectators all went to “help” (?). The resulting pandemonium was perhaps predictable. But we were treated to an actual working-dog experience as Sara Bennett and her wonderfully skilled sheepdog Puma cir­cled the sheep and brought 'em up in a neat turn.

As the rescued sheep grazed on a convenient patch of grass, Maestro Sparks called the demo to an end and the crowd wandered off to enjoy other spectacles.

Again, I apologize for my jaundiced and amateurish report, and promise to do better next year.

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