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The Three-Cornered Field
Written August 2001


When you're a kid growing up on a farm, sometimes you can't resist playing with the animals.

Mine was not a farming family.  But from 1954 to 1963, we lived in a rented farmhouse on Hoskins Pike just half a mile outside Richwood, Ohio.  Alongside our house was a barn where the landlord, Jesse Roberts, kept sheep.  They grazed mostly in pastures beyond the barn, but there was another field behind our house.

Ottawa Street left the village of Richwood headed due east.  Beyond the village limits, the road was known as Hoskins Pike.  Just as it got to where we lived, the road curved a little to the right.  The house sat on a pie-shaped lot on the inside of the curve.  The part of the lot behind the house, less than an acre, had been fenced off to make an additional pasture for the sheep.  We called it the "three-cornered field."

With livestock living so close, I couldn't help trying to interact with them.  I noticed that the ewes kept in touch with their lambs, even at night, by bleating.  If a lamb wanted its mother, it would call her with a high-pitched "meh-eh-eh."  She would answer with a deeper "baaaaa."  Now as a ten-year-old boy, I couldn't imitate the adult ewes very well; some of them had quite deep, gravelly voices.  But I could sound like a lamb.  I didn't look anything like a lamb, but in the dark, that might not matter.

So one night in late spring, from my open second-floor bedroom window facing the barn, I gave it a try.  "Meh-eh-eh," I sang out.  Nothing happened.  "Meh-eh-eh-eh," I repeated.  Somewhere in the shadowy barnyard, one of the ewes thought, "That doesn't really sound like my lamb, but where is she?"   "Meh-eh-eh-eh," I bleated one more time.

The ewe thought, "I'd better make sure."  "Baaaaa," she replied.  "Meh-eh," I quickly answered.  "Baaa," said the ewe.  Her real lamb heard her and answered, "Mmmmmeh."

This conversation woke up some of the other sheep, and some of them must have felt insecure.  "Beh-eh-eh," said another lamb.  "Maaaaa," replied its mother.  "Meh-eh-eh," I called again.  Another ewe joined in, then another lamb, and soon the whole barnyard was in a state of confusion that lasted for several minutes.  My grandmother, who was visiting, mentioned the uproar the next day; I proudly explained that it was all my doing.

Another experiment occurred to me.  I had heard that in places like Scotland, a dog could herd a flock of sheep.  Could I?  It should be possible, at least in the confined space of the three-cornered field.


One day while the sheep were grazing there, I crawled through a hole in the fence (shown above) that separated the northern end of the field from our back yard.  I set out to herd the flock down to the pointed end of the field to the south.

I started by merely walking back and forth next to the fence at the wide northern end.  I was making a "no-grazing path" running east and west, just to the south of the fence.  The nearby sheep moved away from the annoying little boy, trotted a few feet south of my path and started to graze again.  I kept walking east and west, slowly shifting my path a little more to the south; the sheep moved south and continued eating.  If they all stayed south of my path, I could gradually shift the path even further south until they were all in the narrow end of the field.

One old ewe, however, seemed to sense where this all was heading.  As I walked across the field, she moved south to get out of my way, but once I had passed her, she trotted back towards the house.  When I turned around to cross the field in the other direction, I saw that she was north of the path again, so I altered my course to pass to the north of her.  She moved south temporarily, but as soon as I passed, she returned to the north of my path.

After a few tries, I gave up on this ewe; she could tell I was trying to herd her south, and she didn't want to be herded.  So I let her stay north of my path and resumed shifting the rest of the flock southward.

But the lone ewe didn't return to grazing in the now-vacant northern end of the field.  She stood there and bleated to her friends.  "Hey, guys!  Wake up!  Don't you see what this little boy is doing?  He's trying to force you all down to the pointy end, and who knows what will happen to you there?  Maybe they want to shear off all our wool again!"

The rest of the sheep didn't pay attention to her at first, and I continued to shift my path to the south.  By the time that they started to notice, I had moved my path far enough south that the field had become significantly narrower.  Before, they could have gotten past me by escaping along the eastern fence while I was on the western side of the field.  But now it was too late for that.  The eastern and western fences were only a few yards apart, and I could control both.  If a sheep tried to escape along a fence, I could take a couple of quick steps toward its intended route and scare it back.

It wasn't long before the entire flock, except of course for the lone ewe, jammed into the narrow southern point of the three-cornered field.  Each ewe's head was above the back of her neighbor as they all turned to look at me, their captor, wondering what was next.

I had their attention, but I had no further plans, so I stepped to one side.  The massed sheep looked at me.  Finally a bold one along the far fence feinted an escape.  I didn't move, so she made a run for it for real.  All the others followed, all running past me as fast as they could, then slowing.  Once they reached the open spaces of the northern part of the field, the danger was past.  They returned to grazing and to ignoring me.

Now it's time to get serious:  Life can be like that three-cornered field.

Mostly we just graze.  If something disturbs us, we make a small adjustment until the disturbance is gone, then go back to what we were doing.

But sometimes there is one who perceives what is really going on, who sees the big picture and bleats at the rest of us to see it too, to change our strategy before it is too late.

For example, those who can see the numbers bleat that this planet simply does not have enough resources to support its current population in the manner to which Americans have become accustomed.  Either the masses of Asia and Africa are going to have to remain satisfied with a much poorer standard of living — no cars or air conditioning for you! — or the human race will have to drastically reduce its numbers.

But we individual sheep don't want to hear it.  Since we can afford it, we go on consuming as much food and energy as we like.  Since nothing prohibits it, we choose to have as many children as we want.  We make decisions as we always have, for this time and for this place.  We choose the path of least resistance in the three-cornered field without really caring where all these individual decisions are taking our species.

"All we like sheep have gone astray.
We have turned every one to his own way."

And there are other examples of not realizing what is really happening.

When I was in first grade, I thought that Santa Claus brought the Christmas presents, because that's what my parents had told me.  They had never lied to me before.  However, one day in second grade, when rain kept us indoors at recess time, the question came up around the table, "Do you believe in Santa Claus?"  Well, yes, of course.  Until then, I had never considered that there might be another possibility.  But then I began thinking about it, and by the next holiday season I had figured out what was really going on.

When I was in junior high, I read how the solar system had condensed from a huge cloud of dust, and how life had evolved through dinosaurs to humans.  I found the science fascinating.  But the Bible told a different tale of creation, and I knew that other religious traditions had still other stories.

I eventually realized what had happened.  When the Bible and those other traditions were starting out, the storytellers lacked our present level of technical knowledge about how the world works.  So when they had to explain the world, they came up with mythological guesses like Adam's rib and Zeus's thunderbolts.  That was the best they could do with the information available.

But now, although there are still some traditionalists who like to believe the old myths, we've figured out most of the mechanism of things like evolution and lightning.

When I was in college, one of my friends tried duplicating J.B. Rhine's parapsychology experiments to see if ESP could work.  I read with interest the unexplained accounts of flying saucers and such, and I tried (and failed completely) to send telepathic messages.

After graduation, I heard about the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (http://www.csicop.org).  I started reading their Skeptical Inquirer magazine.  One by one, essentially every "supernatural" event could be shown to have a rational explanation.

Eventually I saw the big picture.  People believe in spoon-bending and visitors from the skies because they want to, not because there is good evidence.  People believe in miracles and rewards in heaven because they want to, not because there is good evidence.

Now if I hear of an UFO, I don't assume that an extraordinary event has happened which demands an explanation.  Rather, based on past experience, I assume that someone or some group has deluded themselves into thinking that what they saw was really an alien spacecraft.  The burden is on those who think it's an UFO:  Prove it!

More generally, I have come to realize that we humans have a great ability to deceive ourselves.

We want to know the future, so we believe those who claim to be able to reveal it to us.

We want to avoid illness, so we believe someone's claim that a magic "all-natural" potion will preserve our health.

We want to avoid death, so we believe someone's promise of eternal life if we only become martyrs in a holy war, or follow a set of rules, or have faith.  But it's obvious to me now that eternal life is a chimera.  If we want to find happiness, we must somehow find happiness in this life, here on earth.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I had figured this out.

I wrote in a notebook, "There is no star.  Many people have said they have seen one, but they were imagining things.

"Now I know the lay of the land.  Now I know what lies out there in the darkness.

"Now I know that what they all thought was a star is just a mirage, a hallucination.

"I know that.  I know that.

"So now I turn in another direction.  I find a star of my own, a star that is real:  the star of happiness, of contentment.  I follow this star through the storms.

"But the more I advance towards it, the farther away from me it seems to be.  A sudden chill hits me as I realize that perhaps this star, too, is only a mirage.

"A cold rain begins to fall.  And I am alone.

"There is so much I do not know."

The Three-Cornered Field by moonlight, 1961



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