By Donella Meadows
–December 22, 1994–
As rams go, Wally was a real gentleman.
Rams defend their territory by backing up to get a good run going, putting their thick necks down, and charging at anything they regard as a threat. Once, before we had Wally, I was walking heedlessly across the pasture and suddenly found myself flying through the air, both sneakers knocked off my feet and flying in front of me. That day I learned a cardinal lesson of sheep-keeping. Never turn your back on a ram.
But Wally never charged anyone. He never whapped me with the side of his big head to get more than his share of grain. He could have done a lot of damage if he’d wanted to. He was a solid white Romney, over 250 pounds, slung low. He stood like a granite block, square and immovable. But he had mild eyes, a sweet face, an air of placid contentment. He was king of our flock for four years, and during that time I could let children play around the sheep. Wally would lie happily on the grass while the lambs used him for a rock, jumping on and off his back.
He did have a mind of his own though — in fact he was one of the few sheep to which the word “mind” actually seemed to apply. When Wally wanted to do something, he was unstoppable. Shortly after we brought him to our farm, he decided one night to strike out, maybe for his old home. He left the ewes and trotted away. We found him a mile down the road, loping along, undaunted by oncoming headlights. We herded him home with the farm truck.
A few times he butted the gate open and led the whole flock into town. He was good at getting through gates. That talent was his undoing.
We would have been happy to keep Wally forever, but shepherds have to change rams to avoid in-breeding. With four Wally-daughters in our flock, it was time to switch. So this fall we found a tall, black Lincoln-Corriedale ram named Satchmo and advertised Wally for sale.
No one called. It was time to start the lambs. We herded the ladies up to the barnyard where Satchmo was waiting and left Wally alone in the pasture. He seemed satisfied there, as long as we brought down grain once a day. But one day he ignored the grain bucket and took off through the gate, along Daniels Road, over two bridges, up the hill to the barnyard.
Wally and Satchmo met at the barnyard fence and glared. They followed each other’s every move, nose to nose. The two rams stayed fixated on each other, separated by the wire fence, for weeks. They didn’t charge, they didn’t utter a sound, they lost eye contact only when it was time to eat or for Satchmo to breed.
Finally the ewes were all pregnant and the tension waned. Satchmo began to laze around in the barn, and Wally waited calmly for hay in the orchard, still just a fence away from the flock. We got calls from prospective buyers, but the deals fell through. Wally was well past ram middle-age, and by early December, with the breeding season over, the ram market was glutted. I was resisting the thought of hauling Wally to an undignified end at the Thetford auction, when he chose his own fate.
Last week in the middle of a sunny afternoon he stuck his big nose under the gate and pushed up. He lifted the gate right off its hinges. In no time he was in among the ewes, and Satchmo was coming at him. Wally backed off, charged, and the crack of their colliding skulls alerted my farm-mate Scot, who was working in the yard. The rams backed up for another charge. Scot ran to the house to yell for help. In the minute it took us to pile outside, it was all over. Wally was down, bright arterial blood running from his nose and mouth onto the snow. Within another minute he was dead.
Chrissie, who is new to farming, stood speechless, horrified. “Testosterone,” I said to her, glibly. “It does a lot of damage in the world.” I was shocked, but somehow not sad. If there was an appropriate way for Wally to go, this was it, by his choice, in the course of ramly duty. Testosterone leads to tragedy, but it’s glorious, age-old tragedy. Rams have been going at each other for millions of years — and roosters and bulls and all the male animals you see fighting on TV nature shows. And men.
We have it too, that testosterone. It leads us to our bravest, most foolish, grandest, and cruelest moments. We tap into it to sell video games and movies. The gun industry thrives on it, and the sports industry, and the industry that makes the weapons that are causing bright blood to flow onto the snow in Bihac and Sarajevo and Chechnya. There are always leaders somewhere in the world stirring up the blood-lust of young men. It’s there to be stirred up, not just in young men, but in all of us, in every country, all the time.
But I watched the life ebb from Wally’s broken body with a mixture of resignation and admiration, not hopelessness. I acknowledge the million-year evolution of powerful hormones. I know that war and mayhem run in our blood. I refuse to believe that they must dominate our lives. We humans are animals too, but animals with amazing powers of rationality, morality, society. We can use our strength and courage not to savage each other, but to defend our highest purposes. We know how to restrain ourselves, if we choose to do so. We know how to build fences, and bridges, and churches, and peace — if we choose to do so.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994