Shearing Sheep, and Hewing to Tradition, on an Island in Maine

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With journey restrictions in place worldwide, we’ve launched a brand new collection, The World Via a Lens, in which photojournalists assist transport you, nearly, to a few of our planet’s most stunning and intriguing locations. This week, Greta Rybus shares a set of images from a set of islands in Maine.


Three miles off the coast of Maine, in a distant space northeast of Acadia Nationwide Park, lies a cluster of islands — together with Little Nash Island, Large Nash Island and Flat Island — populated solely by sheep.

The Wakeman household, who stay on the close by mainland, are the year-round caretakers. Alfie Wakeman works full-time as a pediatric supplier in the native clinic. His spouse, Eleni, works full-time as a speech-language pathologist and the assistant fireplace chief for the native volunteer fireplace division. Their three daughters — Wren, Lilly and Evie — are all college-age or newly graduated.

Every spring, Alfie leaves his medical observe for 3 weeks to stay on Large Nash Island for the lambing season. (In his textual content messages, Alfie contains smiley faces when he talks about going to the island, or about new lambs; unhappy faces punctuate his texts when he discusses leaving the island.) The sheep, wild and self-sufficient, are ready to thrive off the windfall of the island. However every now and then a sick lamb wants particular care.

A few century in the past, a 10-year-old woman named Jenny Cirone — the daughter of the lighthouse keeper on Little Nash Island — started elevating sheep. She would go on to have a tendency her flock for greater than 80 years.

Alfie, Eleni and their daughters knew Jenny effectively. They lived subsequent door to her and helped her look after the island and its sheep. They nonetheless perceive this a part of the world largely by way of Jenny and her tales.

Jenny knew every little thing in regards to the island and the ocean round it. She hauled lobster traps with Alfie virtually till the day she died, a month shy of 92. She remembered every sheep, its lineage, how a lot wool it made. She gave names to each lamb, and to every spot on the ocean ground that was good for a lobster lure.

On the finish of lambing season, a neighborhood gathers on Large Nash to assist spherical up and shear the sheep. (The opposite islands’ sheep might be sheared, too, however these require smaller crews.) The volunteers — round 40 folks — embody a handful of knitters and spinners; they typically put on sweaters product of Nash Island wool. Some present up as a result of they stay down the highway and are accustomed to pitching in. Others are lured by an adoration of excellent wool. Nonetheless others come due to the island itself — for the custom, for the reminiscence of Jenny.

Earlier than they’re sheared, the sheep have to be rounded up — a course of that requires appreciable persistence. Round 20 folks sweep the island methodically; no animals might be left behind on the little hills or rocky seashores, and the sheep shouldn’t be spooked. (Sheep are notoriously skittish.) Everybody joins in — their arms outstretched, their arms generally clasped collectively — as they funnel the sheep towards a corral product of salvaged driftwood.

When the corral is full, the crew works to pull lambs from beneath the sheep, transferring them to a separate pen; there, the rams are castrated and the ewes’ tails are docked. Every lamb and sheep is fastidiously checked and given any obligatory care. In the meantime, the shearers skim whirring blades alongside the our bodies of the sheep, their arms and the clippers hidden below the thick wool. (A lot of shearing is completed blindly, by really feel.)

The work is bodily demanding, however the shearers transfer shortly, typically with out pausing for meals or water. After hours of labor, and as soon as the final sheep’s wool has been eliminated, the shearers return their instruments to their instances, the blades slick with lanolin, and the group migrates to a cabin — Large Nash’s lone constructing — for a potluck meal: baked beans, a salad, turkey, rhubarb truffles. A easy rule is introduced: “The shearers eat first.”

One other roundup will occur once more in the autumn: The sheep might be gathered, checked and tended to. Some will keep on the island, rising thick with wool, whereas many of the males and a handful of ewes might be introduced to the mainland to be processed as meat.

The sheep chosen for slaughter might be scooped up, their delicate woolen our bodies carried from the driftwood pen, down the rocky seashore, to a dinghy. Then, from the dinghy to the household’s lobster boat, till sheep are packed from bulkhead to transom, calm and blinking in the solar. Volunteers will sit on the edges of the boat or climb onto its high because it motors again to the mainland. A ready truck will convey the sheep to the native butcher.

Maine was as soon as a land of shepherds. Its islands and coastal communities had been dotted with the fleeced our bodies of sheep, its shrubs and bushes grazed into oblivion. Historic photographs present huge expanses of pasture which have now develop into thick with forests and homes.

Again then, there have been extra households just like the Wakemans, who raised their very own animals and grew their very own meals, who gathered folks collectively to share each their work and a meal, who used darkish humor and whispered their thanks on the times when animals gave up their wool or grew to become meals.

A number of the sheep spend their complete lives on these islands, from beginning to dying. They develop into the islands. Their sun-bleached bones are entrenched in the earth, embedded in the grassy knolls and wetlands the place they as soon as grazed, their our bodies decomposing to nourish a brand new era.

Jenny Cirone can also be right here; her headstone sits on the far finish of Large Nash, her ashes buried in the place with the most effective view of the lighthouse. She, too, is part of the island — the grass, the ocean, the sheep, the story.

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