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Sylvia’s Farm: The Journal of an Improbable Shepherd

By Sylvia Jorrin

Bloomsbury, 2004

As someone who grew up devouring tales of the dairy farm on which my grandmother was born, I’ve always enjoyed stories about country life. And, for 25 years I lived in a semi-rural town in New England, a town where everyone knew everyone else, where you had to have lived there a couple of generations not to be considered a newcomer. Neighbors in that little town in which I raised my children pastured sheep, goats, alpacas and chickens, all kept in order by numerous dogs.

So, browsing last week in a second hand bookstore, I came across an intriguing book with a picture of an older woman giving a bottle to a lamb, its brothers and sisters crowding in to catch stray drops. The book was Sylvia’s Farm.

Sylvia – her writing style immediately invites intimacy – bought an eighty-five acre farmstead in upstate New York a quarter century ago, complete with an enormous nineteenth century house, carriage house, and barn. Before long she found herself the owner of over a hundred sheep, a cow, a goat, and numerous chickens and geese. She also gardens, from which she cooks and bakes, and grows gooseberries and currants commercially. From her sheep’s wool she knits, and she is interested in stenciling, and embarks on endless renovations of her buildings. Oh, and did I mention that she also writes? She’s written a regular column for a local paper and published over a thousand articles on farming. And she runs her livestock farm by herself.

I have my share of domestic skills, but a single day in Sylvia’s life, as told in these essays, made me exhausted just reading it.

The climate of Delaware County, New York, is bitter in winter. In a chapter where Sylvia describes rescuing newborn lambs abandoned by their mother, she writes that she put them in a sack on her back and crawled on hands and knees over the treacherous ice from barn to warm kitchen, thus saving them – and herself – from death by falling and freezing. To think that she lives on the farm alone, and handles all these dramas with only occasional help from friends, family, and neighbors, gave me chills.

Anyone who thinks that farm life is unadventurous will be disabused of the notion by reading this book. For all the drama, the urgent need to fulfill the numerous daily tasks, and an income that is dependent on weather, the inner satisfaction Sylvia has gained from this literally down to earth lifestyle comes across on the page in captivating, lyrical prose.

Amazing and inspiring.