Robert Moor Doesn’t Freak Out (Until It’s Time to Freak Out)
The writer learned to have patience with himself after a catastrophic first day as an amateur sheepherder
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Robert Moor told his story to producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I had this moment of horror where I thought, It is only ten in the morning on my first day of herding sheep, and I have already failed as much as a person can fail. I have lost every single sheep that was entrusted to me. And of course, this made me feel terrible.
I’m the author of On Trails: An Exploration, and I’m working on a book about trees. One of the funny things about me is that even though I wrote a book about trails, I have a terrible sense of direction. I get lost very easily. Thankfully, my husband has a great sense of direction, so whenever we go anywhere, he’s the one who navigates, and I’m sort of along for the ride. But this does tend to get me into trouble when I’m on my own.
Back in 2014, I was writing this book about trails, and I knew I wanted to include a chapter about animals. I wanted something about the way the animals move through the world as individuals, and especially as groups. And I thought that the most archetypal herd animal is the sheep.
As soon as that thought occurred to me, I remembered a group called the Black Mesa Indigenous Support Network. What the Black Mesa Indigenous Support Network tries to do is send volunteers out to help elderly couples herd these sheep.
The Navajo have a deep attachment to their sheep. When a child is born, that child’s umbilical cord is buried in the corral where the sheep live.
That whole world of human-animal relationships was fairly alien to me. At this point in my life, I was a 30-year-old freelance magazine writer. I was obviously not a professional shepherd, or even someone who’d spent much time around animals. And I’d never spent much time in the desert, so it was a forbidding place to me.
So that’s what I did. I said, “I’d love to come out and herd these sheep for three weeks and learn what I can about sheep.”
A few months later, I was introduced to my host family. It was a couple named Harry and Bessie Begay. They were in their late seventies or early eighties. They spoke almost no English at all; mostly they spoke Diné, the language of the Navajo. And I, of course, did not speak any Diné. And so we had a hard time communicating. But, it was clear to me through their actions what my responsibilities were, which were to keep the sheep alive, basically. Taking the sheep through the fields so they could eat the grass and drink some water, and come home. That was supposed to be my day.
It really wasn’t too hard at first, because it seemed that the sheep knew where they were going, and they had a natural instinct to stay together. There were about 30 or 40 of them. And I was walking along as quickly as I could, trying to keep up with them, trying to keep them together. The problem started when at a certain point the sheep began to divide into two groups.
One went uphill towards the top of this kind of mesa, and the other stayed where they were. I had not accounted for the fact that the sheep might divide into two groups. I didn’t know what to do. They were wandering apart and there was only one of me.
I was running back and forth, back and forth, between them, until eventually I somehow managed to lose all of the sheep. Not just one group, but both groups. My heart was racing. My eyes were darting around in all directions. I felt that I had a cat’s tongue growing in my mouth. It was so, so dry, and everything was spiky, and just roasted in the sun. I think all of that added to my feeling of panic when things went wrong because there was this dream-like quality about the landscape.
One of the funny things about the feeling of true panic is that your senses get sort of blown wide open—you’re seeing everything, but you’re not thinking about it very clearly. I had this feeling of wanting to be able to leap out of my skin. To be able to change what was happening in some sort of superhuman way.
Especially with technology, we forget that there are hard limits on what we can do and what we can control. I think many people have also experienced the sensation of having lost something, and then you want to be able to hit command-F; you’re so used to your computer, you think, I can just search some sort of metadata and find this thing, but you can’t. The only way is to comb through the landscape, foot by foot, trying to look for it.
So at a certain point that morning, a blue pickup truck pulls up, and inside are Harry and Bessie Begay. I think they’d been trailing behind me, sort of half suspecting this to happen. And I have to tell them that the sheep are gone. In fact, they couldn’t understand what I was saying. So Bessie pulled out a small, flip phone from this woven pouch she wore around her neck, and she called her daughter, and I had to tell the daughter, “I lost the sheep, the sheep are gone.” And then the daughter told Bessie and she got this stricken look on her face. I felt terrible.
So the rest of that morning, we roamed around in the pickup truck trying to find the sheep. But we couldn’t find them. So we returned home, we had lunch, and then Harry went out on his own with his horse, and fortunately managed to find half of the sheep. So he came back with half of the group, then a few hours later, we got into the pickup truck again. We drove out to a nearby windmill, which pulls water out of the ground where the sheep liked to have their water each day. This was supposed to be my end point that day.
I hadn’t known it because I’d never seen it before, but that was where I was supposed to be driving the sheep to. And lo and behold, there is the other half of the group of sheep. They had found their way to that windmill without my help, and were sort of patiently waiting to be picked up with this very innocent expression on their faces.
So, we brought the sheep home that day. I managed to wrestle them back into the corral, and as the sun was setting, I sat and wrote in my journal, and thought, How can I prevent this from happening again? I can’t keep losing these sheep.
There is an impulse that we have when something starts to go wrong to panic, and we’re not panicking so much about the present situation, as what we imagine the situation will be. You feel this intense drumbeat of anxiety and this desire to do something, this desire to be able to fix it. I think one of the ways that we manifest that desire is by imagining worst case scenarios, imagining various futures, because at least that gives us some sense of control.
A couple of lessons occurred to me at that point. One I’ve carried with me the rest of my life is, Don’t freak out, until it’s time to freak out.
The next day I went out with the sheep again, and I simply did the best I could. I stuck with them, and I managed to keep them all together. And, day by day, I learned to read their desires and what they wanted, what they needed.
So though my downfall had been very swift, my way back out of it was gradual. And I think that’s the way it is with a lot of things in life. I think that movies like to portray instantaneous resolutions, but in fact oftentimes it’s very slow. It’s almost imperceptible the way that we make ourselves better and fix the problems that we cause.
Robert Moor is a writer living in Half Moon Bay, British Columbia. He’s the author of On Trails: An Exploration, and is currently working on the final chapter of his new book, In Trees. You can learn more about him at robertmoor.com.