Sheep Shearing on Big Nash Island | Jenny's Day
Sheep shearing and counting the lambs on an isolated Maine island honors both legendary matriarch Jenny Cirone and a tradition of caring for the land and its four-legged inhabitants.
“One ewe!” shouts Alfie Wakeman over the din of shrieking gulls and the baa-ing of nearly 200 sheep, as he cradles a lamb in his arms. A physican’s assistant, he’s tall, square-shouldered, muscular, with large hands and sunburned arms, his manner so gentle that one can easily imagine him soothing infant and lamb alike. Once counted, dosed with medicine, and its tail docked, the lamb bounds away, bleating pathetically and looking around for its mother.
We’re on 75-acre Big Nash Island, at one end of a rough-planked corral perched on a windblown bluff overlooking Eastern Harbor far along the Maine coast: 40-plus volunteers and a flock of sheep that need sorting and shearing and some a bit of doctoring on this blustery mid-June day.
This event is haunted by the gentlest, most benevolent of ghosts, that of Jenny Cirone, matriarch of flocks both human and four-legged until her death at age 91 in 2004. (Jenny’s father, who started the flock in 1916, was the lighthouse keeper on Little Nash Island.)
Alfie’s family summered in these parts, and Jenny had taken him out hauling traps since he was a lad. After he moved to Maine in 1989 and after Jenny’s husband had passed, the two neighbors also became partners of a sort. “For the last 14 years of her life,” Alfie says simply, “we lobstered together, and she’d teach me about the sheep, too. There was no decision to be made after she died. Very little changed; we just carried on as she would have.” So for the Wakeman clan and close friends, too, many gathered from near and far—but especially for Alfie and his wife, Eleni, and their family—the shearing, with its midday potluck feast, is a great family tradition, the “Jenny” tradition that brings home the importance of working this land together and respecting its bounty.
All day long, stories and memories flow from old to young, from people who’ve been participating for 20 years to the newbies, during the coffee break and over the potluck lunch, and on the final boat ride back to shore. They’re sweet stories: how Jenny could never resist an orphaned animal and whose house was, as a consequence, a menagerie. “She could talk to animals,” an older gentleman observed at one point, “and you’d swear they were talking back.” Her Yankee frugality, her uncanny ability to tag someone with a nickname that would stick, her sheer vitality, shearing sheep until her mid-seventies, lobstering as long as she could stand up in a boat: What emerges is not so much a portrait of a person as that of a force of nature.
And then there’s a whole subgenre of “Jenny and Alfie” stories like this one: “Alfie learned everything he knows from Jenny. They’d come out to check the sheep together, and, once, they found a lamb frantically running around a dead ewe, its mother. Alfie tries to catch the lamb to bring it home for bottle feeding, but they’re very quick, and he can’t catch it.
“Finally Jenny calls out, ‘Alfie, lie down next to the ewe!’ Remember, the ewe’s been dead several days now, and the gulls have been at it. Alfie lies down next to the ewe, the lamb comes up, Alfie’s about to grab it, when it dashes off.
“‘Now Alf, baa like a sheep!’ Jenny calls. Alfie baas like a sheep, and the lamb goes right to him.
“‘Wow, Jenny,’ Alfie says, ‘that was amazing. How come you let me run around so much if …?’
“‘Aw, I was just having a little fun,’ Jenny finishes.”
“One buck!” Alfie calls as another lamb is separated from its mother and handed over the fence. This job, “lamb tossing,” as the kids call it, is a mad scramble through the milling flock, the team plucking the 15- to 25-pound lambs off the ground and, holding the struggling creatures in their arms, pushing their way over to Alfie.
An hour later, after the sorting, the grassy hillsides all around the corral are dotted with little lost lambs, their mothers being sheared one at a time by Donna Kausen, Geri Valentine, and Eleni Wakeman. Donna keeps sheep on nearby Flat Island, and she and Geri used to travel the state shearing other farmers’ flocks. Approaching their sixties, they’ve slowed some, but still shear locally.
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