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facts & arguments

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I used to sleep anywhere, any time. Ah, the joys of youth.

Then, I became an airline pilot. Long haul; overseas. Arrive somewhere exhausted; sleep a couple of hours. Force yourself up; walk, exercise, eat. Try to sleep again. Back to work. Insomnia is an occupational hazard.

So I've had practice at trying all the different approaches to the issue. But counting sheep? Laughable. Surely not a real solution?

Still, ummm … what's to lose?

You're going to need some kind of a setup.

I find myself in a meadow of rough grass. It slopes gently away from my feet, and in front, quite close, is a hedge. The hedge is thick and green and thorny, with sharp little twigs sticking raggedly out of the top. I can't see them, but somehow I know the sheep have to be in the field beyond. Yes: they start coming over right away; I'm not quite ready for them. They're leaping over the hedge in twos and threes and bounding off to the left, out of my field of vision. They're a dirty-white colour with long, lank fleeces hanging down below their sides and curling at the ends. They have black faces, big black floppy ears and black hooves. I've never seen sheep jump like that. It bothers me. What was going on behind the hedge to make them so desperate to get away? I can't tell; the hedge is too high to see over.

This isn't working.

I get rid of the hedge and put up a wall instead. Now I can see into the next field and further, to a pattern of gently rolling hills and hedgerows stretching far into the distance.

It occurs to me that I've been too busy to count that first lot.

The wall is a lot lower; about three feet high, drystone with a neat, rounded cap to it. It's built out of blocky sandstone, mostly yellowish, with a sprinkling of big squarish stones of a rusty red. The wall glows warmly in the late-afternoon sunshine. A fine piece of work, I think. Well-fitted, the joints tight and regular. Whoever built it knew what he was doing. Um … something's wrong, though: Most of the stones look typically Cotswold, but those red pieces, they're more like that soft deep-red-coloured material you get up around Chester. Where on Earth am I anyway? Did the glaciers come this far south? Maybe the reds are glacial erratics? Couldn't be: too square, almost as if they've been cut. Glacials would be more rounded. I look at the wall again. It's too new, too tight, too expensive. This is the kind of wall you'd put around a garden, not a sheep pasture.

Jess Davidge for The Globe and Mail

Not getting anywhere, are we?

Over the top of the wall, I can see the backs of the sheep, heads down, grazing quietly on the dry, tussocky grass. A calm, quiet day. Late summer, I think, not much rain lately. But the sheep are fat and the pasture in good shape. They can’t have been grazing in there for long. Or maybe it’s a small flock. Uh-oh, not good; we don’t want to run out of sheep; going to need lots of woollies here.

Get over it.

Directly in front of me there is a gate in the wall. It should be one of those sturdy, five-barred oak gates you see in calendar pictures, but it isn’t. This one is made out of bent black pipe, with rounded corners. Some of that rectangular-wire fencing stuff is fastened to the bars. It’s rusty and badly hung and drags on the ground. It doesn’t go with the wall at all.

Are we going to get started here?

I open the gate a foot or so. The sheep look up at me, then start walking sedately through in single file. That’s better. This lot are different from the first bunch. They have short, tight, curly coats, smaller ears and are an all-over dun colour. They, too, trot off to the left where I can’t see them. I start to worry. Is it all right letting them out? They aren’t my sheep, are they? Where are they going? Where’s the farmer? I’m going to be in trouble here. But there is no farmhouse in sight; no barn; no sign of human presence. Just me.

Can we start counting now? We’ve got to keep it simple; can’t always cover everything.

Oh well, it’s coming on evening, I think, and the sheep seem to know where they’re going. Maybe there’s a sheepfold or something, over to the left. Funny, I can’t seem to see over that way.

Okay, so how many have we had through here so far? I mean, there’s no point counting unless you’re going to get a reasonably accurate figure, right? How many in that first lot? Oh, for crying out loud, I don’t know! A couple of dozen? Can we stop this lot while we get sorted? I try to close the gate again, but the sheep are thrusting, insistent, and seem bigger and heavier too. They look me in the eye and just kept pushing through. Oh dear. The flock’s moving along in a steady stream now, beginning to jostle one another at the gate. We’ll just have to average it. How long have I been here so far? If I count for a minute, then prorate …

How will I know it’s a minute? How long have I been here?

I can’t do this.

Exhausted finally by the complexity of the whole thing, I must have just … drifted off.

Andrew Henwood lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.