We had a great experience last week; one of the richest kind you can have. Two charter busloads of kids from the Metropolitan Learning Center in Portland arrived on Wednesday for a day at the Imperial Stock Ranch. What a memorable day it was! And not only for the kids, but for every one of us here at the ranch. People and animals! You’ll see why as this story develops…
I had been to their school a few months ago to kick off a very in-depth and comprehensive curriculum based on wool production from sheep. They use a curriculum design method called Storyline Design. In a nutshell, it is an integrated approach to teaching/learning. For 3 months, the students learn skills, knowledge and content in all the different areas (music, science, social studies, math, poetry, reading, writing and the arts), with everything that is covered in some way connected to a book entitled, Symphony for the Sheep. This is a poetry book that depicts the process of wool production from shearing to clothing and includes spinning, weaving and knitting, all told simply in poetry and rhyme.
I took a skein of yarn for each student as a gift from the sheep. As a part of their learning, they had one of the largest knitting circles ever. They reached out to the community, and on one day, about 100 knitters showed up to help all those kids learn how to knit. Another part of their study involved working with the Oregon Symphony to put the poetry to music, and compose an actual “Symphony for the Sheep.” And of course, the truly best audience for their symphony was the sheep! That’s where the field trip came in. “Hats off” again to our ranch family for their involvement in making this a special day for the kids.
The Imperial Stock Ranch headquarters is located about 2.5 hours from Portland. The buses arrived mid morning and we unloaded up on top where you can see forever. They got an idea of the open space and the “sunlight story” of how we work with nature. This included an overview of our no till farming practices, rotational livestock grazing and some of the changes in thinking and practices we’ve made in recent years from a conservation perspective. We talked about how these changes are good for the land and good for the bottom line too. Of course, we keyed in on the important role sheep play in that process and in all our lives. Many of the kids were wearing scarves or items they had knitted with the yarn from our sheep. We traveled on down to the ranch headquarters where they ate their lunches sitting on hay bales in front of the historic Hinton House (now Imperial Yarn headquarters) and were entertained by our “ranch band” who played some great old tunes from the porch (fiddle, mandolin, guitars and stand up bass with plenty of singing). The bummer lambs who live in the orchard joined in the fun and wandered around nibbling on their lunch sacks and clothes, to the great delight of the kids. Next we were all treated to Scott Cameron (ranch family) demonstrating the working ability of herding dogs. We had brought a few sheep in off the range, and using his dogs, he parked those wild range sheep right up against the kids. It was awesome. He did a great job of explaining this “working partnership” between man and dog, and answering questions from the kids.
Next, we hung little miniature bells on all the kids with color coded yarn, to split them to groups, and they went through three stations: 1) touring the historic buildings where they all got to be sheep waiting to be shorn in the little pens in the110 year old shearing shed; 2) seeing the no till drill and some of the big farm equipment, where they got to get up in the big tractors; and 3) going through the Hinton House, now Imperial Yarn headquarters where they saw more history up close and some of the beautiful garments made from the wool grown here.
Then we embarked on the culminating event. We all hiked up the creek for more than a mile to where we had contained the sheep. This is a part of the day that is difficult to capture and describe. We had to hike past the horses pastured up that way, and I had told the kids to save their apple cores from lunch for them. 130 people walking up the valley proved to be a startling sight to the horses! Oh my! The horses put on a show of wildness! They raced out of sight over the ridge, and then raced back to check out all those people. We were all stopped and quiet, but still it was an intimidating sight for the horses. There were so many learning moments for the kids with regard to the nature of animals. And off the horses would go again. Blowing! With manes and tails flying, to circle back again and again. We decided that from there on, we would not speak, but walk the last quarter of a mile in complete silence. We approached the sheep very slowly, stopping frequently, and I quietly shared about the nature of the guard dogs who live with the sheep and protect them from predators. Several of our ranch folks moved out ahead of the kids to work on calming the guard dogs. Slowly, we were able to come in close to the sheep. And the kids sang their incredible “Symphony for the Sheep.” I cannot tell you what it was like. In the wilds of a small canyon, in the sheep’s environment, surrounded by nature, the children performed their beautiful poetry and song, written in movements, truly a symphony for the sheep. I cried. It was an indescribable experience. I love this place so much. It isn’t just its history, the old buildings, the animals, the life. It’s more. Maybe the greatest part is the silence and solitude. I hope we shared a piece of that with each kid that came to sing to the sheep, and to be in the sheep’s world for just awhile.
Amazing continued. I can’t say enough to praise these teachers at Metropolitan Learning Center. On the hike back, they spaced everyone at 20-second intervals. I led off. It was the longest single file line I’ve ever been part of. Everyone hiked back solo, down the valley along the creek, with the horses still prancing the ridge lines. And then the kids circled up and reflected on the experience. When they pulled away in the buses, all the ranch folks were feeling the same. We were so glad they came and spent a day with us. The day was filled with music and rhythms. The rhythms of nature, the pound of hooves, the movement of working dogs and moving sheep, the jingle of bells on the sheep and kids! Lots of singing, and the “Symphony for the Sheep.” There was definitely some bonding that went on this day. They warmed our hearts and we miss them.
p.s. I understand some of the kids wore their bells to school the next day!