Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Sheepherder Tells how Country Folks Are Different

August 20, 2001

A sheepherder, Archer Gilfillan from Buffalo, S.D., wrote a humorous book titled, "Sheep." He not only wrote about the eccentricities and peculiarities of sheep but also of the human species as well. Though the book was written in the late 1920s, his observations about rural life ring true for our day and time. These excerpts from "Sheep" are used with permission and I think you will find them insightful.

On newspapers. Many a city man looking over a country paper for the first time, and finding column after column devoted to the unimportant doings of presumably unimportant people, jumps to the conclusion that the editor is in his way tickling the vanity of his fellow citizens in the hope of building up the subscription list.

But the city man is shooting wide of the mark. To be sure, country people like to see their names in the paper, a weakness which they share with governors and presidents, but the real reason the editor prints these items items is that this is the news his subscribers want to read.

City people are interested in events, country people in each other. The city man wants to know the results of the ball game, but he neither knows nor wants to know anything about the family that lives next door to him, to the right or the left, or above or below him.

On neighbors. As for the country dweller, organized baseball leaves him cold, as a rule, but he has a pretty good idea of what is happening to his neighbors for a radius of 10 miles or so. The countryside, for instance, knows all about the row old man Smith had with his wife. They know who started it and what she said. The only thing they don't know is what he would have said if he had a chance to say anything. But they can pretty ready guess that anyway.

The city man has a disjointed knowledge of life at the best. He knows the business life of his business associates but not their home life. He knows the home life of his friends, but not their business life. If he wants to know the whole life of a man, he has to pick up a book or go the movies.

But the country dweller sits in a movie every day of his life. All around him dozens of dramas are unfolding, episode by episode, with their rejoicings and their mournings; their births, marriages, and divorces; their triumphs and their despair.

When the country dweller moves to the city, an interesting metamorphosis takes place. He cultivates, and very soon comes to feel, a blase indifference to the private life of anyone but a movie actor, a multimillionaire, or a murderer. But in common with the rest of his fellow citizens, he goes after the most insignificant detail of the lives of these privileged classes like a starving cat after a bowl of ice cream.

On gossip. Then the talk will inevitably swing to the never-failing topic of neighbors. Some name will come up, and the class in vivisection takes the floor. The man is discussed dispassionately and completely. The herders will of course magnify his vices, explain away his virtues, gaze upon the remains a few moments in gentle melancholy, and then pass on to the next victim.

Naturally the particular friends of each man, well known of course to the other, will be given unqualified praise; or, if circumstances render this impossible, they will be passed over in a discreet silence.

The countryside has a memory like a vice. It often forgives, but it never forgets.

Country people not only know all about each other, but they know the most intimate and hair-raising details about one another. Halitosis is nothing compared with the things they know, but don't mention it to the person concerned. Many a man has believed that his family skeleton was safely locked in the closet, while in reality it was spending most of its time gallivanting around the country in a most unskeletonly manner.

He should have known this was so, because he has at various times entertained the skeletons of all his neighbors. But by a merciful dispensation of providence, each one of us thinks of himself as an exception to any general rule.

On sophistication. Suppose that through some angelic dereliction of duty the Doomsday Book is left for a time unguarded, and that a city man and a countryman gain access to it.

The city man sidles up to the book, and with the help of the index gets for the first time the real low-down on his friends. With tingling spine and a rising scalp lock, he devours page after page.

He finds that among his friends and acquaintances, men whom he thought he knew, one or another has been guilty of every crime in the calendar except chicken stealing, and a few moments intensive thought convinces him that only the inconvenient location of the hen coops accounts for this omission. He closes the book with a shaking hand, and a no less shaken faith in human nature.

The countryman in turn approaches the book, opens to the section devoted to the misdoings of Windy Flat, and begins to read up on his neighbors, and then closes the book with a gentle yawn. Old stuff; and incomplete at that.