the shepherd on the train told me
is to clip hill milking ewes too soon
I put my newspaper down;
he’d got my attention.
Nothing puts the milk off them quicker
than just a day like last Wednesday.
And when it goes off at this time of year,
it never comes back.
His warning continues
They never get so rough in the backend,
and have less protection
against the storms and the winter chill.
He glances up,
checks his crook in the luggage rack
And another thing
is that the wool neither weighs so heavy
nor looks so well. It’s the new growth
that brings down the scales.
A fleece from a ewe that’s near
hasn’t the same feel as one from a ewe
that has plenty of rise and a good strong stoan.
In the beginning of July the new wool on a thin ewe
will grow more in one week under the fleece
than it will do in three with the fleece clipped off.
He summarised his argument for me
Experienced flock masters never clip hill stocks
before the second week of July.
In terms of the sheep’s sufferings
a strong sun is little less severe than a cold rain.
He stopped there
looked out the window at the passing fields
then fell asleep to Waverley
content that a stranger in a suit
had listened to his wisdom
this wisdom I now share with you.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2007 was Alan Spence.
Poets are good listeners, inveterate eavesdroppers. Here Jim Carruth recounts - or invents, who knows? (probably somewhere between the two) - a one-sided conversation with a shepherd on the train. Technically it's brilliant, the title forming the first line from which the whole thing flows with conversational ease, the shepherd's thoughts on sheep-farming interspersed with simple stage-directions, setting the scene, moving it along. I realise on first reading I assumed the shepherd was an old man, though there's nothing actually saying that. But it feels as if that wisdom has been accumulated over a lifetime, and is articulated in language that is sheer poetry in itself.
'The Big Mistake' is one of the poems from my third collection, Cowpit Yowe. This collection has been developed over five years and looks at the language of agriculture and the importance of intergenerational learning – the passing of skills and experience from father to son and the increasing threats to this aspect of rural life. This approach to learning comes out in poems in the collection such as 'Generations enjoy the heritage of husbandry', 'Educating the farm boy', and 'Words of wisdom'.
I have chosen only to use experimental verse forms in this collection, a wide range including concrete poems, sound poems, found poems, and acrostics. Working with these forms has been an enjoyable learning curve and I would like to thank my panel of experts for their advice and support as I distilled over a hundred poems down to the final twenty.
'The Big Mistake' is a found poem based on a diary extract of a farmer writing in 1910 which I found tucked away on my father's book shelf. This poem also looks at the passing on of language and experience between the generations. I imagine the shepherd as an amalgam of a number of old farmers I have encountered through my life who have always been keen to give advice.
Recently my eleven-year-old son was given a pound coin by one of his grandpas for helping him milk some cows. He was asked what his other grandpa gave him for milking cows and responded in an instant - 'He gives me knowledge.'
I hope you enjoy the poem and its wisdom.