NEW HILL - Lynn Michael bent to unlatch the barred gate, the fields behind her dim with the last light to leak over the horizon. A dozen white and brown sheep shuffled past to graze, prodded gently by her Border Collie and mountain dog.
“That’ll do, Joy. That’ll do,” she told the smaller dog as the last of the Shetlands left the paddock. The compact, kind-eyed woman was done with the day’s chores, ready for a few hours at the spinning wheel.
It’s a different life out here, just beyond the border where suburban neighborhoods of western Wake County dissolve into pine and open fields. Michael’s darkest concerns are coyotes and broken fences – and she has room on these 57 acres to do a shepherd’s work.
There are almost 100 sheep on her land that grow a total of 300 pounds of wool a year. After shearing day each spring, Michael, 68, stuffs the fur into big plastic bags, then tidily stows them in a double-wide trailer that’s lined with state fair awards.
She’s almost tired now of lustrous purple ribbons. They blanket her work trailer like wallpaper, they hang in rows from bungee cords, they congratulate her for champion ewes and fine yarn. She even took the Golden Wheel at the state fair this year.
“You get to the point where you just don’t need any more banners or rosettes,” she sighed with mock exasperation.
That’s why she stopped entering her animals in the annual competitions years ago, instead spending more hours each day spinning, knotting and dying.Of the land
Raised near Washington D.C., Michael lives now with the flock and her husband in unincorporated New Hill, a rural area that’s best known for huge utility projects like Jordan Lake and the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant.
“You can’t see it for the sunset, but that’s the cooling tower,” she said, pointing across her hills to the hourglass silhouette in the sunset. “It’s been a great neighbor.”
The reactor, and New Hill’s lack of water lines, have kept the suburbs at a distance from Rare Find Farm. If the nuclear plant blows, Michael deadpans, she’ll just have to run faster than the folks down the road.
She and Jim Michael moved to the Triangle from Indiana for work in the early 1980s, then searched for a decade to find their land. They wanted a big lot, like in the Midwest, where they could raise their kids and animals.
The couple founded their flock 49 years ago, the same year they were married. They started with Shetland Sheepdogs in 1963, though it was to be decades before they got the accompanying sheep.
Since then they’ve added animal after animal, from little guinea hens to full-sized steer.
Jim Michael came home years ago to find his wife had put a cow in the yard of their then-home, a two-acre Cary lot where a Starbucks now stands. Lynn had bought the bovine because she thought her two boys needed better milk.
“It took me a long time to stomach store-bought milk,” she said.
The Michaels’ herd now includes 59 ewes, six rams and 27 lambs in colors from red-brown moorit to steel-gray shaela. They’re tended by two Sheltie dogs, the Border Collie and a fluffy Great Pyrenees.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would turn into all this,” Lynn Michael said.
The woman shows a bond with her animals that tempts cliché. She gives them names like Demetrius and Rosmerta, and her Border Collie tends to stare her down with sweet intensity.
“Lord, please help me be the person my dog thinks I am,’ she quotes from a throw pillow. At the spinning wheel
Lynn Michael thinks pretty highly of her animals too, and she often tells them as much. She’s a steely shepherd, though, when her standards aren’t met.
“They can be a beautiful animal, but if the temperament’s not there, I’m not going to have them,” she said, relaxing in a wooden chair in a room with bunkbeds, a piano and a portrait of a few Shelties.
The silver-haired woman manages her herd’s size by selling some for butcher. And she’s careful, she added, not to cede judgment to nostalgia as she chooses which animals will breed.
“My heart’s always going to go out and say Rosmerta’s better than she is. You can be swayed by emotion,” she said. (Rosmerta’s the aging ewe who hangs out by one of the barns.)
Michael’s breeding choices are instead informed by a lab’s measurements of the wool samples she sends each year.
Over the years, Rare Find Farm’s product has grown finer, her sheep’s wool shrinking from 30 microns’ width to less than 25. The science-anchored method echoes her veterinary days, when she managed a canine drug trial.
Data, she said, is “the only way you’re going to improve yourself.”
But if it’s data that guides her, it’s a love of her work’s tangibility that motivates her. You can’t appreciate your sheep’s fiber until you work it with your hands, she said.
A decade at the spinning wheel has earned her respect in the wool-working circles, and she travels often to give demonstrations of her spinning. And for a woman with such restless hands, the meticulous craft is a way to calm the nerves and rest a spell.
Michael always figured television was just a waste of time. But with the wool in her hands, she feels just fine sitting for a few hours in front of her 52-inch television, headphones on her ears. Football is her favorite program; she owns more than one Troy Polamalu shirt.
Her life, Michael said, is heaven on earth. She’s at peace, now as much as ever, but she’s slowing down physically. Arthritis has made her hands knobby – the pain is the only thing she’d change.
She wonders too what will become of the land they’ve tended and nursed for 20 years. She and Jim think development will come eventually, perhaps turning their farm into an out-of-place neighbor to the suburbs.
They bought the land in part so their grandchildren could have a place to yell and throw rocks, Lynn Michael said, but she doesn’t dread the day that new homes spread across the area.
Like many people on the suburban borders, the Michaels face the arduous work of maintaining a huge chunk of land with little help. For them, developers’ offers can grow more tempting with age.
“Am I ready to sell? No,” she said. “Well, ask me on a bad day, when all the joints hurt.”
Until that day comes, she’ll enjoy her time in the fields and at the wheel.
“True happiness,” she said, “is knowing what really satisfies you.”