Sylvia’s Farm: The Journal of an Improbable Shepherd

I was recently sent a copy of Sylvia’s Farm, a memoir by Delaware County farmer Sylvia Jorrín, along with a request to review it for York Staters. I am new to the book-review game, and was flattered by the request. Thus I decided to bring the book—a hefty 258 pages—with me on my recent vacation and see what I thought.

The work is laid out in a series of vignettes, each about 2-3 pages, detailing the observations and ruminations of a single day in the life of Mrs. Jorrín. The book is suitably subtitled “the journal of an improbable shepherd,” since Jorrín never intended to become a shepherdess and was woefully unprepared when she found herself in possession of 85 acres and a dozen sheep; she had never owned even a dog before this. In the fifteen years since then, her farm has grown to over 100 sheep, chickens, ducks, barn cats, angora rabbits, sheep dogs and a little donkey named Giuseppe Nunzio Patrick MacGuire. She has the habit of naming all of her animals including Zorro the rooster, Pierce, Prentice and Prescott the barn cats and a long list of Scottish-inspired sheep names: Mary Queen of Spots, Snow White and Rose Red Abernathy, Little Molly Malone and Ally MacBeal.

At its best, Sylvia’s Farm echoes the sentiments of Thoreau’s Walden; certainly both were born of Yankee pragmatism and the hard land of New England. Like Walden, this work details the long, quiet, singular search of the individual for harmony with world and understanding of his or her place within the world through labor and reflection upon the cycles of the yearly round. She is akin to the Buddhist masters in her desire to live mindfully and consciousness. For Sylvia, working on the farm with her beloved animals is part of God’s plan and it is belief that infuses the work—though always that faith is subtle and never preachy or haughty—and it is belief that holds together the farm.

Sylvia looks back upon a world that has passed and tries to grasp something of its wholeness and meaning in her own life. At the same time, you feel throughout the book that she sees her work as inevitably destined to failure because of the simple fact that, like Thoreau, she is a single voice in the wild: “I [of my family] live closest to the life on my grandfather’s farm. But there is a difference. Although I live not so very differently from the way my grandparents did then, my style is different, in form as well as in content. But there is one more important thing that is different. There was family all around them. Friends. Relatives. Community. There were ties that could be broken only by death and even then continued. There were so many of us sitting around that table in those days” (87)

The work is not without its weak points, however. The zen-like quality of writing flows from one moment to another, but never brings drama to any peak; it is less a story and more a collection of moments. Thus even powerful, emotional events such as the collapse of her barn or the death of a beloved friend fall flat and carry the same voice and weight as her thoughts on a sunrise or the preparations on the coming of winter. It is a book that makes a point, but does so so early in the work that it leaves itself nowhere to go in the second half. The story of Sylvia’s farm is told in a hundred different ways, each subtly different, but these shades are often lost in the sparse writing style and short vignettes.

In conclusion, I would recommend Sylvia’s Farm not to those interested in farming, there is little technical information to be gleaned from within it, but to those who are also seeking to understand their place within the pattern of the world. For those few, I suggest not reading the book through, but taking it in pieces and—like Sylvia—ruminating over them in the early pre-dawn light or late at night.

-By Jesse

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