NASH ISLAND, Maine — The hundreds of islands dotting Maine’s Down East coast traditionally have been used to hold herds of sheep for centuries, causing the name Ram Island to appear repeatedly on maps of the Maine coast.
During the first week of June for more than 100 years, Addison community members have gathered to shear the sheep.
Early Saturday morning, a flotilla of boats left the Addison dock for the short trip to Big Nash Island. Among the three dozen passengers on board were a lawyer, a financial officer, a midwife, a blueberry farmer, a physicians’ assistant, a gaggle of enthusiastic teenagers and an opera singer from Boston.
“This is magical, just magical,” Seth Joy of Swan’s Island said of the day of shearing. It was Joy’s third year participating in the annual event. “It’s like stepping into the past. This is the way it has always been — community, work, food, and, of course, laughter.”
Eleni and Alfie Wakeman of Addison own the 75-acre island and a diverse farm in Addison. “Every year I am terrified that no one will show up,” Eleni admitted. “But they do. It’s that magic again.”
The workers — all volunteers — had packed a small generator to power the electric shears, burlap bags to hold the precious fleece, and food enough for a small army. Big Nash is a barren island — dotted by rocks, carpeted in thick grass and wild iris, with not a single tree in sight. Just off the landing beach of stone is a three-room cabin and along one shore is a series of pens.
The sheep, Dorset-crosses, were shaggy from the rough winter and, with their newly born lambs by their side, were wary of this posse invading their island. But shepherd Alfie Wakeman had a plan for the roundup.
“Move slowly and stay behind the sheep,” he advised. “No fast movement, and if the sheep start to freak out, drop to the ground and pretend you’re a rock.”
Teams were dispatched and, in what Eleni Wakeman rated an “A-one plus, the best ever” gathering, soon the sheep were swept slowly in front of the walkers. More than 120 ewes, two rams and 61 new lambs were herded into a funnel of fencing that led to the pens in less than 45 minutes.
The lambs were segregated, inspected and given a dose of worming medicine. This wasn’t the Wakemans’ first look at the lambs this season. Alfie Wakeman takes his vacation in May and stays on the island — often with one or all of his three daughters — for up to three weeks as the lambs are born. He patrols the island diligently, looking for a problem birth or a lamb in trouble.
“It’s not unusual to have a lamb or two in the cabin with me so I can care for them and keep them warm,” he said. This year, two less-than-perfect lambs were in residence, sunning themselves on the front porch.
Once the lambs are tended to, they are released and stand alongside the pens, bleating for their mothers. The ewes, in an ancient song, call back to their babies. Gulls wheel overhead, the sun finally comes out, and the shearing begins.
Eleni Wakeman, Donna Kausen and Geri Valentine are the shearers. Sitting each ewe on its butt, grasping its sides with their legs, the women are quick and efficient. In groups of 10 sheep at a time, the thick, dense fleeces, creamy with lanolin, are removed — each as a single blanket.
They are lifted and placed on the skirting table, a chest-high wire grid where the Estell family of Monroe, (which owns a fiber mill and purchases most of the Nash Island fleece), John Grace of Newton, Mass., (who hand-weaves rugs with the wool) and Pam Dyer Stewart of Harrington (a spinner and weaver) take on the task of grading the fleece. This year, partly because of that long, hard winter, the fleeces are very high-quality.
Unlike the wool of land-farmed sheep, the Nash Island wool is fog-washed and exceptionally clean, not filled with straw and hay bits. “These guys eat the short grasses that grow here and seaweed,” Lean Estell of Starcroft Fiber Mill in Monroe said. “This is for the high-end market.”
All morning under bright sunshine, the work continued until, one by one, the shearers turned off their clippers and stretched, signaling the lunch break. All morning, Eleni Wakeman’s parents, Jane and George Soulas, who traveled from Vermont for the shearing, had been cooking in the tiny cabin kitchen. The spread was generous and eaten buffet-style, diners standing in a line that stretched out the door, across the porch and onto the grass.
It was clear that the socialization was a key part of shearing day. “This is pure. This is life: laughter, work and food,” Anne Elvins of Boston said.
After one of the longest, hardest winters in recent memory, a day of sun and physical work on a Maine island was recuperative medicine. The world seemed very far away and the sense of community was overarching.
“Why not come out? You get a free boat ride and a free lunch,” Grant Estell joked. “If you had to do this work every day, you probably wouldn’t feel this way, but there is this real sense of community here. It is hard to explain how it happens.”
The Big Nash Island sheep and the tradition of a community shearing day go back generations but the best-known shepherd was Jenny Cirone, who lived on Little Nash Island lighthouse and kept sheep on both islands.
“A lot of this goes back to Jenny,” Jane Soulas said. “She was an extraordinary woman.”
Billy Thompson, now 79, knew Jenny all his life. “She was a short, stocky woman who could work like a man and often did,” he said. He recalled boating her out to the island to check on her sheep. “Before her feet even touched the beach, she was calling the sheep — she named every one — and they would come running.”
Whether time has elevated Jenny’s status as a local legend or not, it is clear the Addison villagers adore her. Upon her death at 92 in 2004, she was buried on Big Nash Island where the descendants of her sheep roam, in view of her beloved lighthouse on Little Nash.
As the sunlight faded Saturday evening, the now-nude sheep nibbled grass with their reunited lambs at their sides, the supplies were packed up, the food stored away, and the visitors prepared to head back across the Addison narrows.
Alfie Wakeman, however, had one last honor before the day was done. Inside the cabin, on the wall where it has been recorded for decades, he wrote: June 4, 2011, 120 sheep, 61 lambs, 38 people. A few inches away, someone else had penciled “This place is paradise.”