In a 2000 study, researchers at the University of Southern Australia found that by every measurement taken, from sustained heart rate to oxygen consumption to calories burned, sheep shearing was tougher on the human body than any other work measured. More energy is burned shearing sheep for a day than running a marathon. The study leader called it “the hardest work in the world.”
The second day of a new shearing season is worse than the first. By the end of the first day, I’m at about that stage of tiredness where a child would start to cry, but at least it’s the end of the day. The next morning I’m marginally less tired, but I have a day’s shearing in front of me. My handpiece has raised a blister on my ring finger that’s almost the size of my ring finger, and the parts of me that I know will hurt all day — legs, back, hands — already hurt.
The last time I sheared a sheep, eight months ago, was the last time I did any kind of heavy physical work. Because my muscles have half-forgotten shearing’s intricate pattern of handwork and footwork, and because I’m already sore, I’m getting through fewer sheep than I did the day before and making less money. When I pause to ask myself what I’m doing here, 500 miles from my wife and my bed, up to my neck in sheep shit and grease, I find no ready answer.
My friend Robert says that the problem with shearing is you get addicted to the money. You end up shearing when you’d be better off doing something else. This is true about the money — in the spring in California, good shearers can make $700, $800 a day. But it’s not the whole story. Only after you’ve invested a few grand in your gear — which includes but is not limited to the handpiece mentioned above and the cutters and combs it runs, a grinder to sharpen them, and the shearer’s uniform, which looks like a bro tank and skinny jeans but costs more — then suffered like a dog through a season or two, do you start to shear at a lucrative speed. The work is also intensely migratory, so if you want to do it full time, you’ll spend most of that time living in motels or your truck. You’ll also have to reckon with the possibility that your body will be wrecked by the time you’re 50, maybe 40. There are easier ways to make money.
One way to make sense of it is to think of shearing as a sport, a contest of skill and stamina in which shearers compete among themselves. When you finish a sheep, you click your pitch counter to keep score. If you’re not doing it right, shearing can also be a contest between you and the sheep. It says something about the work that a lot of the guys I shear with are former high-school wrestlers, but the better the shearer, the less wrestling goes on. The goal is to keep the sheep balanced like a beetle on its hips, with nothing to leverage against and no choice but to sit still as you drive your handpiece through the wool. A good shearer takes the wool off at the first pass without breaking the sheep’s skin, quickly, with no fuss or struggle.
When it’s going well, the pleasures of shearing are comparable to the pleasures of surfing. A rhythm moves through you, and the sheep shears itself like the wave rides itself. This doesn’t happen to me often — I’ve been shearing for years, but now and again and never for long enough to get all that good. Still, just like a little surfing sharpens your appreciation for what a good surfer does, watching great shearers work gives me a sense of how good it must feel.
But even that is not what it’s really about.
To stop shearing at the end of the second day, to step out into the sun, bury your arms to the shoulder in a trough of cold water, then sit for a minute with a shook-up can of light beer — the sensory enjoyment of these things borders on the obscene. Emerson said, “Every ship is romantic, except that we sail in.” Shearing sheep is a temporary release from this bind: It makes things like sitting down, putting on clean clothes, even the simple act of not shearing into impossibly romantic activities.
When your wildest dream is to sit on the floor and drink a half-gallon of water, and every day this dream comes true, it creates a habit of satisfaction in your life that you have to experience in order to understand. There are easier ways to make money than shearing, certainly, but that may be the point.
Brian Kearney was born in Ireland, lives in Oregon, and shears in California.