guest essay: juxtaposed
By Madeline Rosenberg - Ballyhoo Fiber Emporium
Shepherdess and Her Flock, 1862–1863, Jean-François Millet (French, 1814 - 1875)
“Her life story is one of contrasts; contrasts of thought, contrasts of culture, beneficial inventions and suffrage.” – She Carries the Scars, Federal Writers’ Project “Born in Slavery” 1936
The massive ewe was not to blame. From her perspective, the ground looked solid; chartreuse bulrush spikes beckoned her into the sucking mud, and there she paddled until I found her. I lassoed and heaved the soggy ewe to firm ground, expecting her to jump to her feet, but all the fight seemed to leave her then; she closed her eyes and rolled on her side, legs tangled in the pool of muck collecting beneath her. I simply wasn’t strong enough to lift her into the tractor bed; I couldn’t even hoist her onto her butt! It was a sunny day made miserable by cold winds, and soon the only sign of life was her incessant shivering. Desperate and exhausted I let fly a stream of obscenities finishing with, “I’m trying to save you. YOU AREN’T ALLOWED TO GIVE UP!”
It’s logical that suicide rates among farmers are terribly high. Our profession is misrepresented as a quaint, bucolic pastime, perennially green and fruitful, where no one ever dies and life is like a holiday. Really we live in constant anxiety, for failure is frequent and everything we do is life or death. Farming is an ongoing battle against superior forces, and the best possible outcome is a draw. This life requires every kind of strength, wearing at the soul until, sobbing over a recumbent ewe as a school bus rolls past, I wonder why I do what I do, and what things would be like if I gave up.
I came to Kentucky because I wanted to farm and land prices in Oregon were prohibitive. Kentucky, a border state where racism grows like Johnson grass and dower laws govern divorce settlements. I was not at all prepared for friendly conversations with Good Ol’ Boys who talked openly of their distaste for n---s, then looked at me and said, “You understand I don’t mean you. I’m talking about lazy folk.” I did not understand that at all. Over the years, I became tough enough to withstand, refute, and rise above that “culture” – and strong enough to farm. I’ve leveled up from novice to expert in my field, mentoring and advocating for other shepherds in the Midwest and beyond. I am one of a handful of female state representatives to the American Sheep Industry, and the only representative of color. In teaching business skills to fiber artists, podcasting about fiber production, presenting workshops to people outside of agriculture, and making knowledge available to new producers, my aim is to create a legacy that will jumpstart future women in agriculture. However, I can’t give them the most important thing they need.
The fire in my belly that has made me successful was given to me by my ancestors. As the 250lb ewe slid down my shins and onto her side yet again, my own words echoed in my head. ‘You aren’t allowed to give up.’
I am a survivor, the child of survivors. My ancestors were stolen from their homes, survived the great crossing, stood up to the notion that one man could own another, and made their own way in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. I am a legacy of the Maroons. I am a legacy of the Holocaust. My DNA is equipped to thrive in struggle, and that’s perfect for what I do. Strength is admirable, necessary, but it’s cold and harsh. Too much strength results in cruelty when we need mercy the most.
I covered the ewe with a blanket, curled up around her, and stared at the blue sky.
It takes tenderness to transition from trauma to triumph. It also takes community.
We need flocks, be they human or ovine; others to look out for us, as we feel needed by looking after them. We need physical connection, though society tells us digital connection is just as good. We need to rest among others who - despite differences in age, appearance, size, color, and place of origin - are just like us. I see mentorship in the older ewe helping a first time lamber. I see courage in the wether who crosses the farm on his own to guide a blind ewe back to the flock. When my personal journey was very dark, the fiber community created a safe space for me to process, rest, and begin moving forward.
It occurred to me that spooning the behemoth ewe was also a form of giving in. I might not be able to move her, but I didn’t have to remain passive. Knowing she either couldn’t or wouldn’t hold herself up, I rolled her into a frogged position, tucked the blanket around her, and sat against her weak side so she wouldn’t roll over again. We remained like that, leaning and silent, for long minutes. Then, slowly, Annabelle began to graze.
My forbearers’ names were taken from them when they arrived on this continent – the Jews by immigration officers, the Africans as they attempted to form a cohesive community in a strange new land. At least my Jewish ancestors could take comfort in the continuity of their Hebrew names, through which their lineage was honored and recorded. I try to name our animals based on their heritage. Our Nubian goats have Yoruban names. The Sebastopol gander is Mikhail, and the sheep are named from Scottish, Welsh, and Icelandic traditions. This helps me keep lineage in order (faster than the ear tags do). It’s nearly impossible to change the name of an adult sheep. They won’t answer to it. Set in their ways, sure, but to quote Shaka Zulu, “Word sounds have power.” Names matter.
I didn’t name Annabelle. She’s only been with us a few months; in fact, that muddy afternoon was the first time she allowed me to touch her. Familiarity doesn’t matter in a crisis. As a farmer, I am responsible for every life on my property. They aren’t numbers to me, they’re individuals that I know by sight and voice who know and trust me. No matter how grim the crisis may appear, I am with them completely until they recover or die. Annabelle was family as soon as she hopped off the trailer. “You are not allowed to give up, because that’s not what we do.”
Somewhere in my genes there must be a marker that says “don’t look back”. The people aboard that horrible ship to Jamaica knew their only hope of survival was to face forward, together. The Hebrew Bible warns of Lot’s wife who looked back and became a pillar of salt. Nothing can grow where salt has touched the earth. Likewise, it’s impossible to move forward while looking back. I don’t dwell in the past; I do remember the lessons.
Blue Spring Farm near Georgetown has fallen to ruin, reclaimed by Nature. It was the home of Vice-President Richard Johnson, his common law wife, Julia Chinn, and their two daughters. She ran the plantation when he was in Washington. She received and was received by the cream of Kentucky society. Julia was an octaroon – 1/8th African American - less colored than I am. Nevertheless, she was born into slavery and remained an enslaved person throughout her life. She died just a few years older than I am now.
I have what Julia Chinn – and so many women – only ever dreamed of having: a voice, a seat at the table, the right to speak up and demand to be heard, and the ability to act for myself and others. And behind every Julia Chinn Johnson or Madeline Rosenberg is a supportive man who has her back. Like Mr. Johnson, my husband is strong enough to allow me to shine and is there for me without question when I ask for help.
When he got home, he brought hay down the field. Annabelle tore at the flake he proffered, but we still couldn’t get her to stand. He struggled to maneuver her into the tractor bed. “You drive,” he said, and walked behind as we slowly made our way around the entire farm to make sure she wouldn’t slide out on a hill. We propped Annabelle up with a bale of hay, tucked her blanket around her, and left her peering at the lambs through the gate. The following morning, he steadied her back end as she took a few wobbly steps. She tried to trot, failed, and landed hard on her side. He lifted her again and made encouraging jokes as they tottered to a patch of grass. Slowly she recovered her balance and grazed her way across the maternity pasture, showing a keen and congratulatory interest in each lamb.
By the end of her convalescence, Annabelle’s personality was on shining display. She is a strong, courageous, sensible ewe who knows her limits. While her Wensleydale breeding makes her tower over our other sheep, she’s soft and kind, and quite a beloved aunt. She belongs to our flock of many colors, a flock that doesn’t give up.
When I participate in historic reenactments, I’m usually the darkest skinned person not portraying an enslaved individual. I am reminded that my life is so easy. The work I do is hard; it requires all my energy, time, inner and outer strength. But not a day passes that I don’t bless those who went before me for everything they earned. I walk through this world on the plush carpet of someone else’s struggle, and my every action is informed by that awareness and gratitude. It is a privilege to carry not one, but two rich, deep traditions within me. Being biracial presents unique challenges as well as the gift of a balanced worldview. No single label defines me. It is a privilege to do the slow work of agriculture, to refute the statement ‘Look, this is how they used to do it,’ with “This is how I make a living.” I love seeing the pride in my husband’s eyes when I build or achieve something that others don’t think I’m capable of because I’m a woman. The fire inside me blazes every time I tell someone that we have achieved 95% food sovereignty. My life – my existence, my work, my surroundings – is a gift. I am not about to give up.
Madeline Rosenberg has been raising wool sheep for ten years. She practices traditional methods of blade shearing, fiber processing, and handspinning. Madeline studied sustainability and is an advocate for holistic farming, a message she shares through hands-on educational experiences both on and off the farm. In addition to hosting a fiber-related podcast, Madeline is a mentor for the Kentucky Sheep and Goat Development Small Ruminant for Profit School and teaches workshops throughout the US. She serves as Vice President for the Kentucky Sheep and Wool Producers, whom she also represents on the Kentucky Sheep and Goat Development Board, and is the state representative to the American Sheep Industry.
Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814 - 1875)
Shepherdess and Her Flock, 1862–1863, Black chalk and pastel
36.4 × 47.5 cm (14 5/16 × 18 11/16 in.), 83.GF.220
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles