Growing the Soil and the Soul: On Richard Gilbert's SHEPHERD

By Thomas Larson

June 1, 2014

Growing the Soil and the Soul: On Richard Gilbert's SHEPHERD

Sometimes a memoir, spilling into the ken of autobiography, must grapple with an author’s lifelong enigma—his book’s story, the story. As we read, we feel this cyclonic summing-up, the best chance after the life (or as far as the life has got) to say what, in particular, shaped that life’s core meaning. Perhaps the revelation is that we don’t get another go-round (obvious but important), that we never knew the storm was gathering while it happened (as much good as bad), and that the life we thought we lived was not exactly the one we did live (the new self the memoir discloses to its surprised narrator).

Such is the case with Richard Gilbert’s book, Shepherd. Ostensibly, it’s the story of his recent up-down tenure as a southeastern Ohio sheep farmer, ceaselessly cultivating fields of grass on which his wool-less flock feed until they reach their destiny, a slashed throat. It is an exhaustive ten-year sojourn in which Gilbert’s doing outdistances his being: purchasing twenty acres of rolling pasture; coveting and buying the parcel across the road; remodeling a hilltop home; tilling and protecting the topsoil; seeding and mowing the grass; building movable electric fences; dairying the cows; courting his neighbors; hiring somewhat reliant help; adding two dogs and a horse; summoning the vet in the midnight hour; lambing, tending, de-worming, lifting, culling, selling, and killing the sheep (“the farmer’s heroic struggle to nurture animals he’d soon kill”); suffering (before and after surgery) a herniated disc in his neck from shepherding; ruminating, during rare moments, on purpose while watching his flock ruminate on grass—and, as though all that weren’t enough, raising kids Claire and Tom, partnering with wife, Kathy, and publicizing books (yes, his day job) at Ohio University Press in nearby Athens. How, and eventually why, Gilbert brought on his family and himself these ceaseless waves of toil and trouble—constantly “over my head” yet consciously forging on—comprise the tale of the modern, money-losing, farming romantic.

Listen to the language as Gilbert inoculates, or “drenches,” his flock against disease. You’ll hear, in the lapidary style, the sheer amount of dirt, drudgery, and duty the handedness of sheep farming exacts.

The first lamb I caught dragged me. “Kathy, help me, goddammit!” I yelled. I had grabbed the biggest lamb around the neck, and she was jerking me across the pen; then the lamb collapsed and I fell across her, pinning her with my chest, my knees on the hard-packed floor. Kathy ran over and put a bear hug on the creature, her arms around its middle. The lamb went limp as she hoisted its front feet off the ground.

. . . This one weighed eighty pounds. I calculated the dosage for each drench, shot the dewormer down the lamb’s throat with a plastic syringe, and herded it into an adjoining pen.

. . . By the end—almost three hours later, a ridiculous time expenditure for drenching fifteen lambs—we felt battered and bruised. But we’d gotten it done.

Husband and wife rise the next morning at 4:30 for another drenching. Thus the work toboggans down the slopes, every day, week, month, season—with barely enough time for the herder/scribe to reflect on what he’s gotten himself into.

How much of Gilbert’s fraught desires and daily inadequacies as a farmer plod on and puddle up. In a testamentary twist, he is shepherding not just the sheep but himself. As I say, co-ruminants with his flock. Still, the doing-so reigns and elicits fresh blisters and backaches. The farmer’s vocation stumbles through seasonal incompleteness, carry-overs, put-offs, re-fi-ing the loan: the male juggernaut. He never breaks even. Costs punish profits. Lambs die. Tractors quit. Storms wreck. Farms will fail . . . but that’s not the point. It’s that selfhood begins.

Thus enters the other attention-grabbing story, percolating not far below the agricultural grid. Gilbert is the son of a dreamer, a father who wandered America in and out of farming, to whom the author is most emotionally connected. The Gilbert family’s central trauma feels ever-present: in 1932, Gilbert’s father, a boy of 14, discovered his father’s suicide.

A jack of all trades and prescient food activist, Gilbert’s dad ranches cattle in California and Georgia, flies planes, works at NASA in the manned spacecraft years, goes broke, retools, and writes a provocative treatise on hydroponics, Success Without Soil. Gilbert’s tack is similar, motivated in part by his curiosity as a boy watching his father adapt to what his mother calls “the saddest story you’ll ever hear.” After his father’s death and before Gilbert relocated to Ohio, his mother tells her son of a dream she had in which her husband says, “I had no idea there was so much to learn.”

This simple truth forms the sustaining tone, Shepherd’s most booming resonance. Gilbert’s bent as a learner must be found out via farming, following his dad’s muddy footsteps. Tending and slaughtering the sheep unloosen motivations he’s carried from his father, which plague him as much as the land and the animals do. Or, put differently, the devotional nature of husbandry furrows a path for him to get at his paternal issues. Which he does, in due time, treating sheep foot-rot and earning the grudging acceptance of his neighbors, practices which, in comparison to his father’s many setbacks, Gilbert finds, in a kind of slow-motion wonder, to be self-enhancing.

It’s a curious counterpoint: we think we’re reading the farming life when we’re actually reading a grief story—Gilbert’s unearthing of his true nature by failing at what his dad failed at. He gets there near the tale’s end in a finely voiced, out-of-time/across-time confession. (The best memoirists learn to emphasize a book’s emotional narrative more than its chronology.) The death of his father occurs in 1989, several years before Gilbert, his wife, and two small children leave their placid Indiana home for the Ohio hill country. This willful disruption he comes to regret as much as to welcome: he finally has perspective on his father’s mistakes, and voila, they’re his as well. The child is father to the man: the (pre)determined Gilbert must, to his wife’s consternation and support, engage the thing that alienates himself from himself in order to find himself.

Hovering above all this is the farmer-writer and Ohioan, Louis Bromfield, and Thomas Jefferson, dreamer of America as an agrarian paradise. Both writers along with Dad—all three seduce Gilbert via fantasy and intellect—help him fall into this manure-soaked conceit. Ah, the studious farmer, the work-tired academic, the labor-easing inventor. The dream says the bounty of the land and the creating we do with it engenders individual worth: It’s all about the land’s potential to grow ourselves—ourselves, not our corporations. With Gilbert, the fantasy that farming grows soil and soul, nation and self, is true. His project may have failed but this lone shepherd (Gilbert) and this nugget of earth (Mossy Dell Farm) are stronger for his having done so.

As such, the journey nails down another reason the memoir is the Great Preoccupation of contemporary writers. At its best, it’s a sinkhole, widening when you least expect it and taking you down into your and your family’s abyss. It’s as demandingly psychological as it is damnably hereditarian. In Gilbert’s case, the form pushes the man through the farmer’s seasons of planting and sowing until his existential due rings clear—something neither Jefferson nor Bromfield wrote of. But Gilbert, a wise elder of the memoir age, has. His book is a luminous rendering of a wish grown and shorn few autobiographers ever achieve.

 - Thomas Larson

Shepherd by Richard Gilbert

$24.95 Paper | Buy Now | richardgilbert.me 

About the Reviewer:

Thomas LarsonJournalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader and Book Reviews editor for River Teeth. Larson teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. His essay-series, “The Social Author,” is running at Guernica. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.

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