Among my new friends in Barre, MA is Hops*, a lamb who lives at Carter & Stevens, a family farm that’s been operating for more than a century. Over the summer Hops and her brother Barley* shared with me a timeless message in a fresh and delightful way.
In April, Carter & Stevens opened their ice cream parlor for the season, awakening a voice within me that says periodically throughout the week, “Hey, you know what’s a good idea? Why not head over to Carter & Stevens for some ice cream?” If I’m strong enough to not concede to the voice it’ll eventually come back, naming flavors: "Graham bee, grasshopper, ginger, freedom of espresso." About once a week or two I acquiesce and make the drive down the road.
The delicious ice cream is only half the reason to make the trip—the delightful animals are the other half. I grew fond of the jailbreak roosters, lazy pig, and randy rabbits, but Hops was quickly my favorite. She would often kneel down on her little lamb legs and squeeze her head outside of her metal fence to nibble the grass on the other side of the pen, despite living in a full enclosure of lush greenery. The first time I visited the farm, Hops was getting bullied by Tilly the mini horse and a nameless goat**. Every time after that I’d seek out Hops to feed her handfuls of tall grass.
Then Hops got evicted from the big pen and moved to the tiny, nearly-grassless pen amidst the roosters, geese, and bunnies. Barley remained in the pen with the luxuriously tall grass, along with the bullies. I speculated that the reassignment was to protect Hops from Tilly and Goat Doe. Hops’s new pen did not have openings nearly wide enough for her to eat the tall grass on the other side, so I’d grab handfuls for her. Ever since the move, Hops became more vocal, which I interpreted to be protestations about her predicament.
One day I was talking with Sean, the grill-master on Friday and Saturday night when the farm has a barbecue in the summer and half the town shows up. It was during this conversation that I learned Hops’s name, and I asked him what landed her in the little pen.
Apparently, when Hops knelt down for a snack on the other side of the big pen, she would get her head stuck about twenty times a day. The farmers couldn’t train the habit out of her, so she got moved to the little pen, where she couldn’t get stuck.
As Sean said, “The grass is always greener.”
We all know this story, and yet we all need to be reminded of it. I work at perhaps the most amazing retreat center in the world, and it’s not an uncommon experience for people here, on retreat, to already be busy planning future retreats. I’ve done this myself—many times. I think of the words of Basho, the 17th century haiku master:
Hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.
Over the summer, a friend of mine shared this thought as we were wading into the ocean: “I miss the ocean.” Perhaps more than he realized.
Hops would voice her displeasure (my interpretation) all day about being exiled from her old pen and goodies therein, ignorant to the part she played in that exile. I’d always bring a handful of grass to my friend when I saw her, grateful for the lesson: What I seek I probably already have, if only I’d realize it.
Afterword: Recently, I went back to Carter & Stevens, one last time before the cold closed the shop for the season. Hops was back in the big pen. I offered a handful of grass, but Hops was uninterested as she ate the tall grass in the middle of her pen. Barley, on the other hand, was going along the perimeter of the pen, reaching his head to eat the grass on the other side. The tricky thing about these timeless messages: we’ve all got to learn them for ourselves.
*Sean told me the names of the lambs at Carter & Stevens are Hops and Barley. Later, Molly Stevens told me the names are actually Violet (Hops) and Riolet (Barley). I trust Molly more than Sean on this one, but I like the names Hops and Barley better, so that’s what I’m going with.
**Molly also told me the goat's name is Dan.