We rode down the coast a bit before heading inland to our next wine region, the Coonawarra, home of Australia’s best reds, we have been told. But on the way we met a man who shared his life with us. We’ll never forget Frank Boylin:
An Aussie Sheep Farmer
In the distance: a trayback ute, two border collies coursing back and forth, a mob of sheep drag a dust cloud through a paddock gate onto the bitumen. The dogs expertly herd them, keeping most moving smartly between the fences, now and again circling back toward us to turn a straggler.
The ute drivers introduces himself, and invites us to stop by the shearing shed for a cuppa and a yarn (visit). Frank decides one old gal needs a ride. We grab handfuls of wool and heave her into the ute. The dogs get the mob into the shearing paddock, we close the gate behind us and follow Frank to the shed. Frank plugs in the kettle and then notices something underfoot. A dead sheep, blanketed in flies, maggots, lies stiff under the table, the hot sun. “Dead from the maggots.” He says, and drags her a few feet away.
We follow him into the cooler shed to have a look about. He’s a big man, wearing cords and a poplin shirt stained with sheep shit. His face, ruddy with the sun, is open, friendly, curious. His handshake is firm, his voice animated. He shows the wool grading table, where the just sheared fleece is inspected and graded before being baled for sale. His meaty hands grab and deftly toss a fleece on the table, and begin pulling tabs of dark ragged wool and tossing them on the floor. Fibres float on sunbeams, the warm light is that of a Tom Roberts (Aussie artist) painting, and the air is heavy with the scent of lanolin. We touch the elegant Marino fleece, soft as soft can be, lanolin enfolds our hands, soothes. I notice that his hands are not the rough cracked hands of the farmer, as my fathers were, but smooth, if not soft looking. Lanolin. The wood floor of the shed is slick from years of lanolin. No wonder the sheep shed has been the center of country social events; I imagine the dancing is wonderful on the soft naturally treated floor.
Outside, Frank serves tea in well loved communal mugs. He drags the maggot infested sheep a bit further away, pokes it with his foot and explains how she died. “It’s the green ones. Lay the eggs in shit and wool on their backsides. When they hatch the maggots begin eating the sheep. Die from stress in a day or two.” We drink tea and talk about sheep farming. “About everything that gets done to sheep is brutal,” he says with a mixture of practicality and regret. Mulesing is when part of the rump of a ewe is cut away so there is no wool for fly eggs to hatch in around the vulva and anus. Sometimes the patch of skin cut out is too big, and the ewe’s vulva is turned inside out and she dies of skin cancer from exposure to the sun. Frank shows us his teeth grinding machine. By grinding down the older ewe’s teeth, he can get a couple more years out of them, couple more lambs.
It’s a brutal life for the sheep farmer too; 12 to 14 hour days seven days a week, high debt and low return, and dangerous. It’s a not the bucolic life often imagined by city folks. He has 4,500 sheep and a few hundred cows to care for alone, spread over thousands of acres in different properties. And, not a healthy lifestyle either. Frank has a large scar on his chest from a heart attack before he was fifty, just a couple of years ago. He tells us about neighbor farmers who have committed suicide, of others who are “closet drunkards.” But he brightens up, and tells us about his family, how long the family has been in this part of South Australia, and how he is working so hard to make sure his children are able to keep the land in the family. He is proud of his run for public office once, and remembers the campaign with relish, although he lost. He loves people, having a yarn, difficult for a man who spends his days in the company of two border collies. We are good listeners. We care. He once came to America, traveled by thumb all over, and up into Canada where he proposed to his wife working there. He loved America; thinks Americans are the friendliest people in the world, something we’ve heard before from Aussies who’ve been there. He’d love to go back someday, to travel again, but doubts he can: the farm debt, two children and the uncertain heart. We are reminded again of how fortunate we are to be free to do what we are doing.
He tells another story; one that needs telling. He apparently looks exactly like his grandfather’s pictures as his age. He went to a big family reunion a few years ago and met a distant cousin for the first time. She looks exactly like his grandmother, at the same age. “We talked and talked. It just seemed like I’d known this woman all my life.” He paused and looked out over the paddock. “She’s a long ways away,” He tells us again how the picture of his grandparents looks exactly like he and his cousin. This has moved him. But, it is no more than a metaphor for roads taken, or not taken, a means of thinking about his life. Because we are strangers who will move on and out of a life, people sometimes tell us things they might not tell a good friend. We listen.
He is a very personable man, good looking, full of energy and ideas. He could have done well in most any business. The sheep business punishes and rewards decisions and hard work in a random and whimsical manner. He almost made it big a couple of times, but was brought down by drought and government policy changes. Bad luck. We listen and wish it were different for Frank.
Our two hours with Frank went far too quickly and we rode away wishing we could stay two days for the shearing, and the big blowout with the shearers afterwards. We are very lucky to have shared that time with Frank, and hope he will remember us. We remember him still.