Did you know that there are 150 ruminant species living on earth?
Sheep, goats, and cattle, however, play a special role. About 10,000 years ago they helped bring us agriculture and the familiar landscape of pastures and meadows.
I learned that fact from one of my favorite guides to memoir, Richard Gilbert, whose posts and comments have appeared on this site for the last three years.
Richard himself is an ruminant, a writer who grazes down to the roots and then chews on ideas until they yield nurture.
In his forthcoming book (May 1 from Michigan State University Press) Shepherd: A Memoir, he ruminates on three archetypal quest themes:
- the son’s search for his father
- the search for a lost bucolic paradise
- a spiritual quest for invisible wholeness and connection
I. The Son’s Quest for the Father
The story begins before the first page. We learn, in chapter one, that the author’s paternal grandfather
committed suicide took his own life years ago. Something immediately “clicks,” bringing all other descriptions of the author’s father, Charles Churchill Gilbert, into the foreground. The suicide happened when Charles was fourteen. By the time of this story, which takes place after 1996, Charles has died. As a father, he was both charismatic (when in public) and distant (to his sons, at least, a “stone face”).
The father also lost an inheritance by buying two cattle farms, never able to make them financially sustainable. He was no slouch, however, but a man of action and dreams, ahead of his time in some ways, able to make contributions to aviation and agriculture even when he couldn’t save his farms. His son Richard admired him.
At the impressionable age of six, author Richard moved with his family away from the second farm, the lost paradise in Georgia, to what many would have considered a better place: Florida and the middle-class suburban life that surrounded the space industry in its prime. From then on, Richard would have a dream, perhaps an obsession, to return to the land.
In mythic language, he wants to find the holy grail and restore the land to fecundity. He will do this in some ways for his father and in some ways in opposition to his father, besting him at his own game in the classic ways of sons. He will live to tell the story. He will write a book.
Of course, Charles Gilbert, the father, was also an author — of a niche publication still available online: Success without soil: how to grow plants by hydroponics. The memoir Shepherd could have been called Success With Lambs. Fortunately, it wasn’t. But I do note that its Amazon category is not memoir but horticulture!
Throughout the book the reader yearns along with the son for the father’s gaze, touch, verbal approval. It never arrives in fullness. Even the final good-bye fails to satisfy. The father’s heart gives out, but the son still cannot reach him:
I fell on him, kissed his rough cheek, tried to hug him. He submitted quietly, unmoving, his face slightly turned from our first embrace (291).
II. Paradise Lost, Found, Regained
At the center of this narrative lies two farms. First there is that lost farm in Georgia, the one that the boy Richard lamented and the man Richard tried to find through the purchase of a magical but run-down property in Appalachian Ohio in 1996.
By this time Richard was a middle-aged man and a father, married to a woman he met when both of them were graduate students at Ohio State University. Kathy, unlike Richard, grew up on a farm and held no romantic illusions about it.
Nevertheless, Kathy works “like a horse” and applies herself to leadership in academics, eventually becoming a college president. She has a gift not only for working hard but for seeing opportunity. She finds the seventeen acre farm, ironically called Lost Valley, and she suggests the strategy of bidding an extra $101, which is enough to make them winners.
Throughout the book, Richard ignores her sage advice only at his own peril. And she is there to help in every project he initiates, smoothing relationships with neighbors and their two children, and offering plenty of labor.
But Richard is the one who eventually finds the project that will bring in income and make him a shepherd. He settles on assembling a herd of Katahdin hair sheep. He learns, the hard way every time, how to purchase, select, breed, tend, feed, and evaluate his herd.
Coming from a farm myself, and having investigated farm inheritance issues in my own memoir, I can heartily endorse Richard and his father’s conclusion about farming. You can only make a go of it if you inherit the land or if you scale up from small to large or both.
If you want to know just how many adventures old buildings, animals, and town/gown issues in a small town can produce, read the book! You will veer from one near-catastrophe to another. And you will learn to love sheep, especially the one pictured above, Freckles.
Along the way, make sure you pause to appreciate Richard’s gifts as a writer. His imagery will pull you into his cave, where you will find, for example, “jagged stalagmites of greasy mud” (32).
His exquisite braiding of three different stories: childhood, early adulthood, and life on the farm may at times confuse you, but never confuses him. I suggest you create a timeline for his life as he distributes clues.
III. Wholeness. The Mystic’s Quest.
“The animals, their reproductive cycles, the pastures, and the farmer’s efforts move in turn with the seasons, with the entire tilting, spinning planet.” (55)
Throughout the book, the author offers us glimpses of his soul. Behind all his longings — for the approval of his family, especially his father, for the chance to create and live in a rural paradise, and for the achievement of a work of art in this book — lies one big longing: he wants to feel himself part of the “entire tilting, spinning planet.”
No writer can do more than suggest this kind of union. And too much yearning turns the words into abstract mush. Richard always stays with the concrete image but manages to suggest invisible forces beyond.
In fact, this book contains one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever encountered. It sent a shiver through me and rewarded me for close reading. As a reader, I got to put the whole together myself. The words are suggestive, transcendent, and yet grounded. I defy you to find a better, more electric, ending.
And I’ve got to believe that somewhere Charles Churchill Gilbert is saying, “Well done!”
What else would you like to know about Richard, memoir, this book? Are you also a ruminant?