Aniroonz Sheep Company

There are Cheerleaders Among Us

Sitting across the table from Nancy Irlbeck one December at our ANIROONZ Sheep Company corporate Christmas party (which meant the 2 of us in a restaurant eating fresh, hot food, actually sitting, not wearing Carhartts or covered in sheep manure), I asked her the question, “If you had to choose one word to describe the next chapter of your life – one over-arching theme, what would that word be?”

Without a nanosecond of hesitation Nancy responded, 

“Nurture.  That’s it.  That’s all.  It says everything.”  And then after a moment of thoughtful silence she added, “Nurture… with a brazen sense of ‘don’t you dare tell me I can’t.’”

There are cheerleaders among us, folks.  They are exceptionally rare, but they exist.  People who are as delighted with your success as they are for their own – maybe even more.  Who bring out the best in you – push you and pull you toward excellence.  Where do they come from?

ONCE upon a time, there was a farm girl who dreamed of sheep.  She was, in many ways, an ordinary Iowa farm girl – strong German stock, a firm father with capable hands and a watchful eye; a stoic mother with quiet, unacknowledged strength. 

As the first-born of eight children, she drew strength and gained experience at being a protector, a coach, a defender.  To Nancy, being the eldest was all privilege and no burden. 

Somewhere in that childhood surrounded by cattle and hogs and chickens and dogs she sensed something was missing.  A reading of Rumpelstiltskin had left her enamored, enchanted with the idea of spinning and weaving and SHEEP. 

As a woman born of the 1950’s it was rare to be encouraged to dream – to have dreams.  More likely, one was told to get married and have lots of babies, to wear a starched apron and pearls perhaps, stretch the food budget, keep house, drive a tractor in a bind.

Cutting through the culture of the time, another woman introduced a striking new thought to Nancy: college.  Nancy reflects on that moment, “When someone outside of you sees something IN you, you believe it.” 

Nancy went to Iowa State University and earned her Bachelors in Animal Science.  Soon after she added a MS in Animal Nutrition and a PhD in Ruminant Nutrition.

Years later, as a professor on sabbatical studying marsupial nutrition in Australia, and later serving as a faculty advisor for a group of students in New Zealand, Nancy had the opportunity to breath a little.   For the first time in years she had leisure time away from her many duties in teaching, advising, and committee work.

While down under, she could never escape the sheep.  They were everywhere.  And while she had told herself that sheep would be a part of her after-retirement world, she was tired of telling herself “no, not yet.”  The dream would not be postponed any longer.  Without all the pieces in place Nancy went for it.

Back in Colorado in 2004 Nancy started her flock with 8 sheep and began the painstaking and incremental task of building a breeding program.   She was always intrigued with the heritage sheep and wanted to do something to contribute to their numbers.  She was mentored early on to keep a variety of breeds to be able to offer diversity of fleece types to hand spinners.  Her love of weaving rugs and saddle blankets made the Lincolns and Karakuls a natural fit.  

If this sounds a bit easy to you, keep in mind I am leaving out all the crazy-hard logistics like finding a property, financing, building fences, barns and shelter, and water sources…all that had to be done first, of course.  There was so much to do.  So much to learn. 

“Tell me about your highs and lows.” I ask. 

“Everyday had its challenges.  And they always seemed to keep coming…but I was doing what I loved so it didn’t seem like a burden to me. 

It is a hard place.  An arid, windy, fiercely beautiful place.   A place of peace and toil and becoming.

I pressed deeper.  “Wasn’t it scary?  I remember the day I came home from the hospital with my first son.  I was petrified!  Here you’ve got a whole flock!”

“I don’t remember being scared,” she said, “Challenged, yes.  Scared, no. 

“The worst feeling a shepherdess can have is helplessness.  Early on I lost a ewe.  I felt so utterly powerless.  I’ll never forget that day.  It was bitterly cold – below zero.  She was struggling to bear a lamb too big to be born and I was doing everything I could to assist and save her – everything.  I called for help but it was too late.  My neighbors looked on, tears streaming down their faces, just as impotent as I was.  I lost both lamb and mama.  It was devastating.  I sat and watched her side as her breathing slowly stopped and her eyes whitened.  And then I lay with that ewe and her 21# lamb in the pool of her blood, now frozen, and wept and wept and wept.”

Knowing the place as I do, the hill, the barn, the ground, I can imagine it all.  It is never easy to lose one.   I’m glad we never get use to it.  What an honor it is to be their care-takers and they, ours.

Nancy has been telling me this story over the skirting table.  It is pin-drop quiet except for the squeak of the table leg that we rock back and forth as we move around the fleece.  We look at each other through tear-filled eyes and sigh.  After the sacredness of the moment passes I feel it is okay to pester again…

“The first time I cleaned the wool room I found hundreds of award ribbons – so you’ve won – a lot.”  Nancy is already shaking her head, knowing where I’m going.  With adolescent persistence I press,  “But…what about last year at Estes when you won the high point…”

“Nope.”  She cuts me off.  “The high point – the best part is my work with the students.  I feel so deeply burdened about their need to learn and apply what they know.  The students come out here with book knowledge and energy…and they leave with smashed finger nails and scrapes and badly chapped hands, utterly PREPARED to step onto their own place and capably begin their life’s work.  THAT is my high point.

Ask them.  They’ll tell you.  I’ve met at least 20 of them in the last two years. 

But now I’ve caught on something.  And she continues.  “Do you know that right now less than 2% of the US population has anything to do with animal agriculture? This last fall only 15% of incoming freshman in the Animal Science program at Colorado State University had any experience with livestock or large animals.  Forty years ago that percentage was close to ninety-nine!  Ninety-nine!  I worry about the animals.   Who is going to know how to feed and treat the animals if we, who know, do not teach them?”

She’s taken my pen and she’s scratching notes and numbers all over my pages.  Notes about women in agriculture and all the things we want to work on and help with and be a part of some day. 

“Sorry for preachin’ at you…but you got me going,” she apologizes.  She pushes back from the table.  “Let’s go see the sheep!”  We head toward the door, stopping to pick through the pile of boots for two pair that reasonably match.  I chuckle at her veiled attempt to stifle the passion that has driven her daily for all these years.  We head out to check ewes and lambs - our sheep therapy. 

“Come on Mini-Me!” she calls to my daughter.  “We’ve got sheep to check on!”  She can’t help but teach.  

It is in her nature to include, to invite, to esteem.  

Even a seven year old girl.  

If you ever are lucky enough to go into Nancy’s living room you will surely see a pile of bed linens on the couch, papers strewn on the table and evidence of a shared meal.  Someone has likely shown up – with a moments notice – and she’s given them a year’s worth of wisdom in a day, a hot meal, a shower, a good glass of something-something and friendship to last a lifetime. 

NURTURE.  It does say everything. 

There are cheerleaders among us. 

High Country Wool is delighted to offer BEGIN and NURTURE, yarns that celebrate the boldness and strength of a new-born lamb, and the life-work of the woman who loves them.

December 08, 2020 — Jennifer Guyor

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