Norwegian Wood meets The Tao of Pooh in this philosophical, witty, and heartwarming collection of daily observations from a Swedish academic-turned-sheep farmer who finds peace and meaning outside the hustle and bustle of modern, urban life.
One of the fun things about keeping sheep is that now and then it feels like something other than a job or a duty. Perhaps the feeling can best be summed up by the idea that it’s not I who keep the sheep, but the sheep who keep me.
When Axel Lindén leaves his literary life in the city for the farm he unexpectedly inherits—along with the ever-escaping flock of sheep that comes with it—he has a fairly naïve notion of what farm life will be: pure drudgery.
But as time passes and Axel slowly settles into the rhythms of the farm and shepherding, his naiveté fades away and is gradually replaced with a new appreciation of the spiritual and emotional value of manual labor, caring for other living things, and staying connected to the earth.
Capturing his observations and thoughts in short diary entries, Counting Sheep is a meditative and irresistibly delightful book that delves into the small wonders of our world and celebrates pastoral life, demonstrating that it’s often the little things in life that mean the most.
Counting Sheep Introduction It feels rather long ago now, the time we lived in Stockholm. Initially we thought of the move out to the country, to my parents’ farm, as a project, as a period when we would be doing something different. Maybe even as a longer kind of holiday. Several of my colleagues at university, where I taught literary studies, had received a grant of some kind to do research abroad for a couple of years after completing their doctorates. That sort of thing.
At that time there were several of us who became aware of the environmental crisis and the impending catastrophe. What’s going to happen when water fails to come out of taps, electricity from plugs, or cash from dispensers? I was also starting to think about global patterns of resource flows. I realized, of course, that the world was unfair, but I hadn’t really thought about the direct connection between high and low standards of living. The conclusion I drew, a bit hastily perhaps, was that the only way to seriously tackle the threat to the climate and global injustice, while also making sure of the bare necessities when it all came tumbling down, was to start growing our own food and chopping our own wood. And getting some sheep.
The whole idea was completely absurd in the situation I found myself in back then. I lived in a flat, commuted to work, pretended to be aware by going to political meetings and vegan restaurants. The best thing we could come up with when we used to talk about making a difference was to write an article or start a Facebook group. My colleagues and I might convince ourselves that we barely contributed anything at all to economic growth and consumption. Although this sounded a bit hollow when the salaries we received were spent in full on luxuries and indulgences.
But there was something that appealed even more. A vague and yet powerful feeling. I wanted out. To be outside. In Stockholm, I was like an indoor cat. Everything I needed was in packages, served up in boxes of one kind or another. I had been domesticated and made passive, never experiencing any immediate contact with the elements. I never really needed to know what the weather would be like. Suddenly I wanted to be out there, feeling the cold in my fingers, hitting myself on the thumb, and wearing my trousers out at the knees.
This feeling was exacerbated by placing the children in a kindergarten on the other side of the inner city. We had to travel by tube (subway) for forty minutes every morning and again in the afternoon. The children lay down on their backs along the aisle floor. They were simply exhausted by the situation. It made me think: We don’t belong here. We’ve got to get out.
As if by divine intervention our moving plans coincided with my parents wanting to leave their farm. My parents’ farm seemed to be the perfect combination of individual family homes, vegetable gardens, paddocks, and agricultural buildings within one commune. At the beginning of the twentieth century the farm had been a kind of miniature feudal society. In addition to the buildings used for agricultural ends, a number of homes had been built for the people who worked on the farm. With the restructuring of the agricultural sector, the feudal lord had become just another small businessman, the dwellings were turned into housing associations, and the huge cowshed with the magnificent round barn (a peculiar construction that looked like a combination of Shakespeare’s Globe and a pagan cathedral) became an abandoned museum object.
The idea was that we would occupy the old core of the farm. The big fields and the cowsheds could be rented out. We took over the tenancies of some of the houses and created an oasis of non-mechanical small-scale agriculture in the midst of the high-tech, fossil-fueled landscape of modern farming.
All our friends back in the city, the ones who lived on the same tube line, were convinced we would soon be back. But it was too late. We’re sheep farmers and country people now. When I lived in Stockholm my mother used to be appalled by all the noise, the hustle and bustle. It couldn’t be good for the children. . . . I would roll my eyes, thinking she was a stick-in-the-mud. Now I’m appalled by life in the big city as well. It can’t be good for anyone.
Toward the end of that first summer, my wife and I were looking over the hedge at the big fields one warm evening. We had labored all day at harvesting root vegetables. We had gathered enough to feed a family for an entire year. From one crop. Huge headlights were sweeping across the fields out there. They were coming toward us. A whooshing and subtly complex sound was getting louder. A gigantic combine harvester swept past us in a disdainful pirouette. We realized that every minute it was gulping down the food supply for thousands of people.