A burned-out writer, 12 sheep, and 12 life lessons

When writer John Connell found the creative well had run dry, he found solace in “12 little Buddhas wrapped in white fleeces”.

Connell was an investigative journalist, documentary maker and author of multiple bestsellers – notably his memoir The Cow Book – when he found himself “soul tired”.

Fighting to find purpose and shake off the bone-deep malaise, Connell returned to the land he grew up on – Ireland’s midlands – and a humble beast, the sheep.

His year as a shepherd to a dozen Suffolk crosses delivered 12 life lessons which he imparts in 12 essays in his latest book: Twelve Sheep: Life Lessons From A Lambing Season.

One of his favourite writers, Henry David Thoreau, was part of the inspiration, he told RNZ’s Sunday Morning.

“He wrote a famous book in America about 200 years ago called Walden. He said you should live in ‘each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit and resign yourself to the influence of the earth’.

“And I just thought, the ‘influence of the earth’ Well I’m on a farm in rural Ireland in the midlands. The idea of getting 12 sheep sort of descended upon me from above.”

His parents own a small farm in Ireland and he bought the sheep from them, he said.

“It was a wonderful process, because not only did it put me in the driving seat, these Suffolk crosses, but it allowed me to learn a lot about life. I joke that I found the meaning of life in a sheep shed in rural Ireland. But in many ways, I did.”

He started to realise these 12 sheep had lessons for him, he said.

“I came across John Clare, the English poet, and he was a pastoral poet. And he used to talk about being under in the ‘cathedral of nature’.

“And slowly, as we took the sheep and got them in lamb, I started to realise that maybe there was a way to learn, and then impart for someone else, I was thinking about people who live, in many cases, on the frontlines of life in maybe a tough inner city neighbourhood, who don’t have access to a green field, who don’t have sheep in their life or don’t have animals in their life and so that they could find a patch of green and connect with it.”

The resulting book had certainly connected with people, he said.

“It’s been a really remarkable experience, because the book’s in its 13th week in the best seller list here, it’s really has won people over in such a positive way.

“And I suppose the funny thing is, they call me a philosopher here, but I’m not a philosopher. I’m just someone who listened to the earth and let the land speak to them. And I think that was the good thing.”

Sheep were cleverer than we thought, he said.

“They can be brave on occasion. They also are smart enough, studies have shown they can remember human faces. They’re very maternal with their lambs.

“And in a way you know, I think we do them a discredit, we say our well, there’s only a small animal, and they’re not worth much money. But actually, they have a lot to teach us about life.”

His time as a shepherd taught him to slow down and take more care of himself, he said.

“If we can be kinder to ourselves, you can start a whole revolution of good. At the end of the process, we also had a son, and that was a real beautiful end to that journey, that sojourn, I was on into the farm, into the land and into learning about life.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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