Quill and Quire

Barbara McLean

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Her watchful eye: Barbara McLean shares her keen observations

Author and shepherd Barbara McLean has been closely observing a flock of Border Leicester sheep – and her wider surroundings – for half a century. 

“It is all about looking, especially with sheep, because they’re prey animals, and they don’t show any weakness until they absolutely have to,” McLean says. “So in order to be a good shepherd, you’ve got to watch. You’ve got to be out there looking all the time.”

Readers benefit from the careful observations McLean has collected in Shepherd’s Sight: A Farming Life, published this month by ECW Press. Using the calendar as its narrative structure, McLean presents readers with 12 essays, one for each month of the year. Over the course of the book, and over the course of her decades farming in Ontario’s Grey County, McLean points out the changes she has noted from her front-row seat to both farming practices and climate change. But McLean brings her academic training – in addition to decades of experience in the practical work of farming, she also holds a PhD in English – to bear on her work, and her observations have a keen philosophical bent as she ruminates on the passage of time and her own mortality.  

Shepherd’s Sight isn’t the only book informed by McLean’s unique viewpoint of sheep farming. She also wrote Lambsquarters: Scenes from a Handmade Life (Random House Canada, 2002). Published about 25 years after she and her husband moved to Ontario’s Grey County and she began sheep farming, she thinks of Lambsquarters now as the genesis of her story, with Shepherd’s Sight the denouement. “We’re getting towards the last act here,” McLean says. 

Although she had always planned to write a second book, McLean initially thought it would be a worthwhile project to talk to her neighbours – the farmers who live along the Second Concession – to create a portrait of the changing experiences of farmers in her area through the specific story of one rural road. But as many of her neighbours began to sell their farms and move away, or reach the end of their lives, she realized she would have to take a different approach. 

“It put me in mind of just how much has changed for me on my farm,” she says. “I wanted to look at certain things with a really close lens. I wanted to look at the changes in farming and agricultural practices, because that’s a huge reason why things have changed. I wanted to consider colonization, which I had not considered in Lambsquarters, and the climate crisis.”

The result is a book that also deals with McLean’s own mortality. At 75, she is clear-eyed about the fact that she likely won’t be able to continue tending a flock in the same way forever. In the chapter titled “November,” she shares an observation of a solitary mallard duck on her daily walk. “Here we are, two old birds together fighting against time, against the onset of winter, against the inevitable decline of the season, of life,” she writes. “I do not see her the following day. And I am still here, walking doggedly, doglessly, before or after my barn chores, hunting for stragglers, for tracks, for signs.”

“I can’t quite imagine ever leaving the farm. I know a lot of people say that. I really, really mean it,” she says. McLean says once she decides not to take on any replacement sheep, she will maintain her current flock until it dwindles through attrition, taking as inspiration an 80-year-old friend who is down to five sheep and some angora goats.  

McLean also hopes Shepherd’s Sight can help bridge the urban-rural divide, and offer city folks a window into the intricacies and seasonality of her watchful life in the country – those who may not know the difference between straw and hay, for example. But the book’s tapestry of close observations also appeals to her own neighbours, even those whose more mechanized and industrial approach to farming sheep differs so greatly from her own. 

An early reader of the book learned about how to turn a lamb during a breech delivery in his reading, something he told McLean he’d never heard of before. He also remarked upon her observations of the movements of coyotes based on the tracks she spots on her daily walks. 

“I said, ‘Well, you must see them all the time,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but I never really think about them; I never look at them.’ He’s been a farmer his entire life, so that’s gratifying,” McLean says.