It’ll Be Fine, Sam: A Meditation on Working Dogs
This excerpt from Tim Saunders’ memoir of farm life, Under A Big Sky, is an ode to the cunning majesty of the working dog and wolf ancestors that came before them.
I pushed open the portal, the fluffy lichen crusty beneath my fingers. The midday sun hadn’t found the energy to dry the dew on the grass, and the moisture seeped through my jeans, turning the tightly woven fabric a dark blue.
Sam stood beside me, her ears pricked and alert, her black nose sniffing the air. Sparrows huddled along the fences, feathers billowing against the west as cobwebs caught the sunlight between taut threads.
“Are you ready, Sam?” I said quietly, my voice out of place among the whistles and bleats. “We have to move these sheep.”
A rooster pheasant burst into the air behind me, stunning the silence as its short wings flapped furiously and its long tail feathers trailed like a comet. It hovered low to the ground, ungainly and barely clearing the grass, trailing yellow pollen through the air.
It didn’t look like he would gain enough altitude to cross the bench stop. A collision with the side of the ridge seemed imminent as the stocky bird flapped its wings faster, gaining height but losing time. It seemed odd that such a beautiful bird could be so poorly designed for flight. Nature sometimes plays with us, gives us just a hint of potential but usually includes a fatal flaw to make us struggle.
“If it was easy, everyone would do it,” said dad. I remembered it as I watched the pheasant arch its back, lower its slender legs, and smash unceremoniously onto the top of the embankment. It seemed so cruel to wear such flamboyant colors on the aerodynamic bodywork of a haggis.
The sheep did not notice the clumsy flight of the pheasant. Sam shivered with excitement next to me, and his smooth black fur quivered. He looked at the sheep impatiently, his nose quivering. I wouldn’t have to tell him what to do, he already knew instinctively.
I sometimes wonder about the first person who used dogs to herd other animals. All dogs are descended from wolves, but wolves have traditionally been more interested in eating sheep than chasing them through doors. Sam is a Border Collie, one of the most useful lead dog breeds in the world. Lead dogs use their agile and quick movements to control animals, unlike hunting dogs, which are mainly used to move animals around by barking. The word collie actually comes from the old Celtic word for practice.
The relationship between humans and dogs is fascinating.
“They can trace the line of Border Collies back to a dog in England in the late 1800s,” Dad had told me. “His name was Old Hemp. He apparently had a natural affinity with sheep. Know how to manage them. Used to watch the herd when he was a pup and learned their ways. His owners bred from him, and that trait became the Border Collie we know today.
It wasn’t long before a few descendants of Old Hemp were shipped to New Zealand, where the rebellious sheep soon fell in love with the strong-eyed dogs. Even today, the names of these pioneer dogs are whispered reverently at dog trials. Old hemp. Hindhope Jed. Ness, Old Bob and Moss of Ancrum. I wonder what it would have sounded like when he was shouted through the paddocks.
“Get behind, Moss of Ancrum, you stupid bastard.
Sam looked at me and tilted her head.
Most of the sheep in the pen had their heads down, chewing on grass. Starlings, glistening black bodies the size of fists, bask on the ridged spines of the sheep like tiny cowboys. The sheep, imperturbable, ignored their passengers.
“Relax, Sam,” I said as he patted the floor.
A falcon sliced through the air above us, its smooth shadow sweeping across the grass, twisting in the furrows and folds of the earth. His piercing eyes searched for food – a mouse, perhaps, hiding in the weeds. Or a baby hare. Kāhu’s undulating flight took him up and down the entire paddock in seconds, the heat from the sun allowed him to catch a spiraling thermal. I thought of the clumsy aeronautics of the pheasant. Nature does things well sometimes.
“Right away, Sam.”
My voice was low and calm in the air, like fog over the paddocks, but the effect on Sam made his nerves fire. He shot across the grass, a black and white blur too fast for the eye. The rye grass parted as he moved secretly, a silver reflection shone on the paddock.
Sam slid close to the ground and circled the sheep around the right flank of the herd. I was watching the result of a million years of evolution, a wolf’s hunting instinct combined with humanity’s predisposition to exploit the designs of nature. Even at high speed in the paddock, Sam’s slender muscles rippled at his back. It was perfectly balanced for ruthless acceleration and nimble cornering, blending into the grass and dappled light until it was nearly invisible. Designed for speed and stealth, designed to hunt and gather.
I thought of Old Hemp, his predilection for breeding. His owner, Adam Telfer, had recognized his dog’s character and bred him to produce what is now essentially a biteless wolf. Early humans led nomadic lifestyles, moving with food sources. They were hunter-gatherers who adapted the cooperative hunting methods of wolf packs to hone their own skills. Somehow, around 15,000 years ago, wolves were assimilated into human tribes. No one can agree how, or even why, this happened. Maybe the wolves assimilated us.
Sam snaked through the grass as the sky deepened to a rich azure above us. He turned the back of the flock in seconds, and the sheep moved as if they were one. Their heads came up, the grass still clamped in chewing jaws, and they swelled across the paddock in a wave. Sam emerged from the grass, rising from his crouching position to his full height. There was no barking, no biting. No bullying. He only used pure energy to assert his authority, to communicate exactly where he wanted them to go.
The sheep circled around, slowly moving toward the door like a twisting storm system. There was instinct involved here, an ancestral memory that sheep in the center of the herd were less likely to be eaten than those at the edges. The herd rolled through the gate, quickly spreading out into the new paddock, already distracted by the fresh grass. They dispersed, lowered their faces in the meadow, regained a natural social distance.
“It’ll be fine,” I told Sam. But he was already sitting on the catwalk, aware that the job was done. He didn’t need me to tell him that.
The new grass would give the sheep a boost of fresh fodder. I would leave the paddock behind to recover, regenerate, revive. Sam leaned against me, her heavy head pressed against my thigh. The white fur on his chest, bone-colored and streaked with dust, moved slightly in the breeze like the imperceptible movement of clouds.
Under A Big Sky by Tim Saunders (Allen & Unwin, $34.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.