According to Axel Lindén, who left the work of a university lecturer in Stockholm to become a sheep farmer, it would be much better if people had some sheep of their own rather than a Facebook page.

A shepherd-philosopher tells in his book “On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd” about his struggle to move from “newbie” sheep farmer in search of a sustainable good life to “real farmer”, and how these animals changed his approach to life.

In 2010 he ditched his day job as a literary studies lecturer in Stockholm, rejected the ills of consumerism, pulled his three children out of kindergarten and, with his somewhat lawyer-wife in tow, embarked on a sheep-rearing “project”, possibly long term, possibly not. 

During the move to his parents’ old farm, Lindén was reading a lot of Proust, “a writer,” he concedes, “who is the opposite of being grounded in practical, hands-on reality”.

His other literary companion was the American transcendentalist nature poet Henry David Thoreau, who wrote “Walden; or, Life in the Woods”.

Lindén’s wife was “not so keen on animals”. He went off and bought 12 ewes and 16 lambs. She preferred cats. Rearing a flock on five rented hectares of the former family farm (his father was a dairy farmer) was part of a non-mechanical means to a non-profit end: small-scale sustainable living.

Eight years in, his wife is happily growing their vegetables and flowers, the freezer is stocked with lamb and Lindén has come to know “that seductive sensation of being in direct contact with the natural world”. He now lives in a state of profound empathy with his ovine charges. “You become part of them, and they of you,” he says. “It sounds silly, but it has given me an inner peace.”

The manual labour and round-the-clock responsibility for his flock absorbed him: he thought less and less about himself, improving his mental health.

“You learn about sheep, how they function; it’s more than pure knowledge. It’s like a feeling in a deeper sense – what it would feel like to eat grass and have it ruminate inside you. You see the way they form their group – sometimes spread out, sometimes packed together. When you think why they do that, there isn’t a straight answer. It’s a complex world that comes to you – and so you have to change to another thought and then to another and not necessarily come to an answer.”

 “Sheep are special. They really allow you to contemplate. Cows,” by contrast, “are quite hectic. With sheep, you can lie down among them,” he adds.

He was an “urban vegetarian” when he took up his shepherd’s crook, and he still looks the part in checked shirt, rimmed glasses, and long hair. Anti-intensive farming literature he read 15 years earlier compared the meat industry to the treatment of Jews in Auschwitz, he says.

Animal husbandry, he says, “is not violence or humans taking power over the lives of animals; it is a complex relationship, and a good one. Sheep are individuals, and you take care of them.”

The fact that you will eventually kill them, he says, is part of the relationship. “It sounds very strange, and it was very hard for me to grasp in the first year. I couldn’t take part in the slaughter. I instinctively walked away. But over the years, I have learned to integrate this into the relationship. You learn that life and death go hand in hand.”

Lindén, who eats his own lamb, but is otherwise vegetarian, believes that meat-eaters shouldn’t eat any meat whose slaughter they have not been involved in.

“I realised that living in the city, I couldn’t walk one metre without being an oil consumer. That was the basis for the move.” The farm is divided up now. The Lindéns have a café, where they sell sheepskins. They turn neighbours’ apples into juice for a tiny fee, chop their own wood and generate some of their own electricity. 

Besides, he and his wife “are not authoritarian – we live the way we do, and our children learn from that.” They have one daughter, aged 15, and three sons, aged 15, 13 and eight.  Generation Z eco-activists they are not. They are very normal teenagers. We have tried to let them develop their own interests, but then you see your children grow up and become exactly like everyone else. You can’t be disappointed; it is a good example of how strong society’s norms are, and how much pressure is exerted to make us all the same.

Lindén still sees his friends back in Stockholm. “When they ask me, ‘Don’t you miss university and discussing literature?’ I say, ‘I’ve got the sheep.’

“It doesn’t mean I sit in a corner of the café like a crazy person. It just means that sitting in a café listening to other people is not the full meaning of my life. It sounds like a moronic answer,” he says, “but it is true, because having a relationship with sheep can be as complex as reading Proust, I think. I don’t think, I know it.”

Source: The Guardian