Written & photographed by Kalie Ilana Cassel-Feiss
Safely tucked into the San Miguel mountains northeast of San Luis Obispo, down a long ambling road that leads far away from cities, highways and all of civilization, warm late afternoon light falls and fills the golden hills surrounding Blue Oak Canyon Ranch. The two humble stewards of Blue Oak are Lynn and Jim Moody, who tell me that just a week prior, the grass was still green. Lynn and Jim are of the gentlest spirit yet sturdy in strength and determination. Overseeing 122 acres, they tend to 9 acres of olive trees, vegetables, ornamentals, and dye plants. They raise the endangered Santa Cruz Island Sheep, care for turkeys, chickens, and a special crew of geriatric sheep. Their ranch is named after the towering blue oak trees that thrive there.
When asked why Lynn does this work, her answer is simple. “It just seems like the right thing to do. I have a vision, probably not to be realized in my lifetime, that everything – food, fiber, textiles for clothing and household, energy, work, entertainment, information exchange – will largely be community based.”
Lynn and Jim started fiber ranching in 1984, when they lived in Atascadero, California, with French Angora rabbits. They then acquired llamas, and more llamas, and then Navajo-Churro sheep. After a while they decided they needed a bigger ranch, and bought the San Miguel property in 2002. They ceased breeding llamas and Navajo-Churro sheep and turned their focus onto Santa Cruz Island sheep.
The Santa Cruz Island sheep are a very rare breed, listed as “Critical” by the Livestock Conservancy. “There is a very limited genetic base for this breed of sheep, as you can imagine,” explains Lynn. “So we breed for general sheep quality, trying to maintain their unique characteristics, but also we breed some for wool quality and color (most of them are white but they do come spotted and in various shades of brown).” Lynn and Jim’s short term goal is to enlarge their flock enough to be able to sell starter flocks to other breeders, and to promote the rare sheep’s wool.
In addition to conserving a rare, heritage breed, the Moodys are active stewards of their landscape. As a professor emeritus at CalPoly, Lynn studied, conducted research, and taught in the fields of soil science, geology, and earth science, making her well-prepared to understand the connection between soil and animals. As shepherds, Lynn and Jim are both in touch with the patterns of their land as well as the patterns of their sheep.
You can see and feel the kindred nature that Lynn and Jim share with their sheep. The animals all come when they are called and are eager to receive pets. I am especially touched by the geriatric sheep, the less glamorous, well-aged, arthritic ones whose dynamic personalities speak so loudly. Lynn says, “Just because they are old, why would we kill them? We want to give them a nice life.”
Offering others a nice life seems to be a theme as Lynn offers me dinner, and we stay into the night chatting about weaving, and the development of Ovis Rustica, a Santa Cruz Island wool handspun yarn business Lynn is starting with Sandra Guidi of Black Rock Ranch in Stinson Beach, who also raises the rare breed (Guidi’s sheep are from Moody’s stock). Lynn shows me how she cleans the wool, on a carder made of rotating cylinders. “The machine is a sample card, a smaller version of the big card machines commercial fiber mills have. As the name implies it was invented for carding sample fibers and blends. I love my machine! And we use it now only for Santa Cruz Island wool.”
After dinner it is well past dark and I reluctantly head out again, though I long to stay in the embrace of the golden hills, the happy sheep of young and old, the song of the turkeys and hummingbirds, the ancient blue oaks and Lynn and Jim’s gracious ways. You can find their fleeces for sale online at Blue Oak Canyon Ranch, and be sure to look out for Ovis Rustica, the handspun wool of one of the rarest breeds of sheep in the world.
Learn more about the history of Santa Cruz Island sheep and drought-tolerant breeds by listening to Lynn Moody’s presentation from the 2015 Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium: a free video is available here.
Meet Lynn Moody at the 2017 Fibershed Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium, where Ovis Rustica will be for sale through Blue Oak Canyon Ranch and Black Rock Ranch in the Church Building Marketplace, which will be free and open to the public all day: 9:30 – 5:00 pm at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station.