Once upon a time – in April 1979 actually – there was a farmer with the unlikely name of Shepherd. Mike Shepherd that is. A part-time weekend farmer when I met him. A public servant concerned with matters agricultural during the week. And also a man with a precious knack for entertaining young people. A man who took chances.
Have you ever taken a chance? I don’t mean buying a lottery ticket or betting on the horses. Although that is really how I first met Mike. He had brought a tiny piece of his farm to Canberra one fine and sunny afternoon, as part of a ‘City meets Country’ happening. And I was there with my young children. My nine-year-old son Darren entered a “Guess the Weight of the Black Sheep” contest and, you guessed it – he won! The prize? A visit to Mike Shepherd’s farm.
And so it was that we came to spend two days on Mike’s farm. Not a new experience for me I thought, having lived on farms for some years as a child. Even when Mike warned that the farm always hosted an assortment of people at weekends, I didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary. But even Mike didn’t always know who would turn up on any particular weekend. Always adventurous, we just set off into the unknown to take a chance on this Mike, his farm and his other unknown guests. As always, of course, my camera was on board!
Arriving early Saturday morning we found all the other guests had turned up the night before. One group was in the process of slaughtering a sheep in readiness for the evening meal. As promised – or, perhaps, threatened – the other guests were indeed a whole variety of people. Various ages. Various backgrounds.
A public servant about to opt out of his personal rat race and work the farm. A woman, her four daughters – aged from about six to thirteen – and her unemployed brother. And a caftan-wearing American, resident at the farm. Mike himself. Des, with his great hat. And a couple of teachers from Sydney. Oh, and their class of thirteen teenage children with a level of intellectual disability from Wairoa Public School in Sydney.
The teachers and children were, in fact, stopping over for a few days experiencing country life. With little previous experience of such children, and certainly not any previous opportunity to get to know a group of such children at first hand, the weekend was to prove an exciting opportunity for me. And for my camera!
Ask any farmer and you will be told there is always plenty of work to be done. This one was no exception. All the guests were welcome to get involved with whatever was in progress. My then wife settled down with her sketchbook. My children went exploring and found a pony to ride. One of the other children, Susie, looked longingly but could not be persuaded to join them.
I found myself helping Mike to bring in some sheep. One of the school children used his imaginary walkie-talkie to pass innumerable instructions to imaginary security guards, and to the rest of us as we gathered the sheep! As the rest of the children ran towards us when we brought the sheep in, I ran to get my cameras.
I was not disappointed. Teacher Sylvia, and Des in his hat, tried their hands at cutting toenails and treating footrot on the rams. An upside-down ram and an inquisitive bunch of children soon found Mike giving an impromptu biology and sex lesson. The farm visitors watched on whilst one held a sheep steady, and the nearby building silently observed.
Once the work was over, there was time for fun. The children were enticed to leave their safe viewing positions beyond the yard fence and join the sheep. Not an easy thing for some of them. They dug deep for courage to really get among the unfamiliar.
Eventually, my camera followed Hatice, a mildly retarded girl, as she tentatively moved – in a few feet, back several, in again, back again!
Until eventually she took a firm hold on a sheep and grinned up at me in triumph!
(Those five images about Hatice were published under the heading “I was there” in the February 1980 issue of an Australian Photographic Society magazine, Image.)
Dean, an only child, adopted almost everyone as his temporary family. He really took a fancy to Sandy. She became his sister. Her mother became his mother. Others became his father, uncles and aunts! Around the evening campfire later this young boy delighted us all with his skills playing a guitar.
John also thrilled us with his musical ability. He lacked the co-ordination to peg clothes on a line, but he was able to produce tune after tune on a piano accordion keyboard – as Mike did the squeezing for him!
I will always remember the weekend for so many things. The way small hands slipped quietly into my arm. The way small arms slipped around my shoulder. The shy smiles. Susie – who eventually found the courage to ride the pony. The music and singing after we ravenously tore at the barbecued sheep. And, particularly, the hauntingly beautiful unaccompanied singing of the Lord’s Prayer by one of the young girls from the special school before we turned in for the night.
I became so engrossed in learning from, and getting to know, these special children that I forgot to keep taking photographs. I don’t make that mistake any more. But the images I did get have always served as a reminder of the day my son took a chance.