Writer’s Block With Suzanna Crampton

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to farmer, writer and photographer SUZANNA CRAMPTON about FARMING, FELINE FRIENDS and growing up between America and Ireland …

Photograph by Clement Gelly

Suzanna Crampton has become one of Irish agriculture’s most fascinating figures, thanks to her extraordinary sidekick, Bodacious the cat. Suzanna is a farmer, writer and photographer from New York who spent summers at her grandparents’ farm in Co Kilkenny. She studied agricultural and environmental sciences at Sterling College in Vermont, before embarking on a number of exciting adventures in various corners of the globe. Some of her most notable jobs include breaking and training Morgan horses in upstate New York, acting and modelling in New York City, numerous experiences in the London film and theatre scene and working for a wildlife charity in Southeast Asia. She returned to Co Kilkenny permanently in 1997, where she taught photography and later stepped into her grandparents’ shoes.

Since 2013, Suzanna has attracted considerable interest in her vocation through Twitter. Black Sheep Farm is home to Zwartbles sheep, alpacas, horses, chickens, dogs and cats; the most famous of which is the subject of Suzanna’s bestselling book, Bodacious: The Shepherd Cat.

Bodacious, a long-haired feline with attitude, padded into Suzanna’s world eleven years ago and has become a celebrity of sorts, via the many blog posts and tweets that illustrate his overseeing proceedings on the land. These social media interactions formed the basis for Bodacious: The Shepherd Cat, a playful memoir about the joys and pitfalls of farming life, told through the eyes of a crafty cat as he observes his human, otherwise known as The Shepherd. Suzanna’s book is divided into the four seasons, with three to four enticing chapters assigned to each one. The pages heave with luscious pastoral language, self-deprecating anecdotes, tender moments and infectious dry humour. Along with many excellent reviews and nods from the Irish press, Bodacious is only the third male to grace the cover of The Lady, Britain’s bible for upper-crust women, and the book continues to charm animal-lovers nationwide.

Bodacious: The Shepherd Cat (€16.99) is published by HarperCollins and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I am based on our farm which has been in our family for eight generations located six miles south of Kilkenny City. Black Sheep Farm nestles in the Nore River Valley just down river from the village of Bennettsbridge crossed by a lovely ancient six arched stone bridge. From the farm we view the Province of Leinster’s three Black Stairs Mountains dominated by Mount Leinster that often acts as our weather forecaster when winds come from the east. Most of our fields face south and have great oak, beech and larch trees which stand tall to soften bad weather and create deep cool shade on hot summer days to protect our livestock. Our sloped hills roll down towards River Nore that flows below our furthest fields. We can see the Norman tower house Kilbline Castle and the round tower Tullaherin from several of the highest points of our farm.

I chose to live here on a farm that has been in my family for generations and to me feels like deep roots in a rich soil of history. I not only can name which building was built by which relation but also which trees were planted by whom.

My day starts early as I open the scullery door to let cats in for breakfast and dogs out. I follow the dogs out into the yard and depending on the time of year I walk the fields to check on my flocks of sheep and carry out feed for the livestock’s morning ration. After I return for my own breakfast and feed the dogs, I then settle into whatever that day’s job might be such as testing the soil for alkalinity, dagging sheep tails and writing. Every day differs when one farms livestock. Even if you have plans they might have to change due to a circumstance beyond one’s control. Weather and livestock often intervene with their own ideas as to what needs doing.

My two favourite places to buy food are The Little Green Grocer on Parliament Street in Kilkenny and our local butcher in the village. I strongly believe in the adage shop local, think global so I support as many local enterprises as possible.

On roots

As a child I lived in both the USA where I got my education and in Ireland for summers where I helped my grandparents by picking soft fruits and vegetables for local markets. As children due to our age we were an inexpensive trans-Atlantic ticket. Our parents would place an address label around our necks. I was five years old for my first trip. My sister and I flew the Atlantic on our own and were met by our grandparents at Shannon Airport. When away from Ireland I miss the sound of the wood pigeon coos in the wood and that distinctive smell of turf smoke. When away from the USA I miss the sounds and scents of days when I used to ride a horse through cedar woods on a hot summer day. Blue jays called as I rode cushioned by the soft rhythmic thud of galloping hooves on a deep bed litter of cedar tree needles with its heady mixed aroma of cedar and horse sweat.

On creating

I have written in the sheep shed while I watched and waited for a ewe to lamb. I’ve written on trains, airplanes and occasionally in a café. I have written in bed while feeling under the weather as well as in my studio, but mostly I write at our kitchen table due to the ambient comfort of Aga stove heat that keeps my typing fingers warm from Ireland’s mostly damp cool weather. The Aga dominates our kitchen and it is used to cook, heat part of the house and warm hypothermic newborn lambs. It is a 1935 model which my grandparents bought second hand when they built this kitchen in 1940. I write at an old wooden table that is probably as old as the kitchen which was added onto the house by my grandparents when they bought the Aga. One corner of this table has been sawn off where my grandfather used to attach the meat mincer to grind meat or to press blackcurrants to make delicious jelly. I remember well how I sometimes helped him by putting chunks of cut meat into the top funnel as he wound the handle which ground the meat that came from the spout at the bottom of the grinder into a bowl that sat on the floor.

On bookshops

Sadly the independent book shop I used to go to regularly has recently closed. It was called Stone House Books on Kieran Street in Kilkenny.

On her “TBR” pile

On top of my to-be-read pile of books which is very large is a present from my sister. It is a copy of Wendell Berry’s latest book The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings. I have read quite a few of Wendell Berry’s books and poetry. Last summer in 2017 I had the great honour and pleasure to meet and spend some time with him on his farm in Kentucky.

On escapes

If I feel I am stumbling through a complicated bit of writing or need to straighten out my thoughts into a more cohesive coherent legible manner, I go outside to walk amongst my sheep, work in the garden or search for an aspect of nature that is seasonally occurring. This settles my mind no matter the weather, blizzard, rain, wind or sun. There is nothing like nature, or the soil that one tends, to bring one back to reality which I find is where my mental strength arises. If I have been away from the farm for even a few days, a walk across familiar fields, even if delirious from jet lag, resuscitates and revives me and returns me to equilibrium.

On previous adventures

When seventeen I enrolled in an agricultural, forestry and wildlife curriculum at a Vermont college in the USA where I learned much of the sustainable farming I now try to practice. In the early 1980s, I apprenticed to sheep farmers in Counties Wicklow and Carlow. There I lived in caravans beside flocks and worked their lambing seasons. After my farming and environmental education, I studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. I lived and worked in New York City acting, modelling, but mostly I waited on tables or tended bar. I moved to London where I worked in various jobs that included making beards and moustaches for film, TV and theatre actors. I worked in a North London small animal veterinary practice and next for a wildlife charity based in London Zoo that moved to the Royal Veterinarian College. While I worked for the charity I collected and collated animal husbandry and veterinary procedures for exotic animals in South East Asia. While in Southeast Asia I became a photographer. All these formative years preceded my farming career.

After a serious illness in Southeast Asia I returned to my family’s farm in Ireland. This modest acreage has been in my mother’s family for seven generations. After my grandmother died in 1996, I began to supervise the farm for my mother. Five years later when the tenant farmers who had leased the fields moved away, I began to farm it for myself.

My first small flock of sheep was conventional commercial stock. As my flock enlarged, a farmer friend and neighbour pointed out that I couldn’t make much money with a conventional flock on such small acreage. He suggested that to earn any income from sheep farming a high end pedigreed or rare breed of sheep might work better. In 2008 the National Ploughing Championships, Ireland’s biggest agricultural event, came to County Kilkenny. I inspected sheep breeds to see what I might like to choose. All top end pedigreed breeds costed well above my cash bracket. Luckily I discovered Zwartbles sheep. I love this rare breed of beautiful, elegant, chic sheep. They are striking black with sun bleached rich chocolate brown tips to their fleeces, a lovely white blaze down their faces and white socks. I now breed them, shear their wool to make blankets and sell lambs for breeding and meat. The Zwartbles wool blankets are sold and shipped internationally. Social media has been my sole means of marketing and to spread news about what, where, why and how I raise my sheep and produce blankets from their wool.

Within weeks of the blankets’ launch, the Crafts Council of Ireland selected them for the 2013 London Design Festival. A few months later President Michael D Higgins chose Zwartbles Ireland travel rugs as diplomatic gifts for his trip to South and Central America.

Not only am I a writer and farmer, but I am also a photographer and have taught photography. I also use social media as my main means to communicate with the outside world to sell my farm produce. I also connect with fans and farmers all over the world. I am an active member of Southeast Women in Farming Ireland where I advocate for women who farm. 

On farming highs and lows

To farm is to understand hard work but it is an excellent lifestyle – clean air, wildlife, birdsong, and being in touch with the real world of life and death, the beautiful and the ugly and sense the seasons turning. Best of all for me is raising the animals I love to a high quality for meat and wool by farming as sustainably as I possibly can.

The hardest part about farming for me is the weather and the financial challenges. As I heard someone say about 2018 recently: “We’ve had the coldest, snowiest, wettest, driest and hottest year so far and we’re hardly seven and half months into it!”

On feline friends

I think most cat lovers know you have to allow a cat to find you interesting first. Once a cat trusts you, you are able to have fun with them but still how much attention the cat allows is up to each individual cat. Felines are finicky till one finds their foibles. If they choose to frolic with feathers or not it’s up to them.

I find cats amazing. They are such a purely natural independent animal despite their domesticated status which often is in name only as they retain their wild instincts very close to the surface. My cats are tuned into me and I to them so our daily ritual moves companionably whenever the dogs and I walk and work on the farm. They are also very affectionate and love their lap time, even Bodacious but very much only on his terms. When I have been away for several days or running messages for the day upon my return, Bodacious greets my car as I drive into the yard. He comes trotting up to the driver’s door and meows till it’s opened. If it’s raining he will leap into the car till I get out. Then he will follow me to the house demanding to be let in. Whenever I have been sick it is always my cats who stay in bed with me all day as comfortable furry medicinal warm water bottles. By contrast with my felines my dogs know precisely when it is supper time so they become very pushy to get me out of bed to feed them.

I’m aware that some people have had unfortunate experiences that have adversely influenced their attitude towards cats. I have found that some cats have such charismatic characters that self-proclaimed dogs-only people have been converted into a select group called “I am mainly a dog person but my cat is the only cat for me.” Bodacious aka Mr. B has a select fan group that are self-proclaimed dogs-only people for whom Bodacious is more of a dog than a cat so include him into their dogs-only club. What does perturb them when they meet Mr. B is that he is a hands-off cat who doesn’t enjoy a normal dog’s pleasure of a good body pat or a scratch behind the ear.

On her Bodacious book

I am really surprised by the remarkable, encouraging enthusiasm of Bodacious’s social media followers. Their excited anticipation for his book Bodacious: The Shepherd Cat has been humbling. It is thanks to his followers that this book was written. It has been an extraordinary year. While farming during this year’s unusually extreme weather I also wrote my first book, a great challenge.

While I lambed through the night of the blizzard “Beast from the East”, there were times I had to wade through ever deepening snow to bring hypothermic newborn lambs into the kitchen. I sat at our kitchen table where I wrote and edited the final draft of this book as frail lambs warmed and came back to life in our Aga’s warming oven.

The book is about sheep farming as told by Bodacious, a strong minded, no nonsense, bossy farm cat. I wrote about highs and lows, living and dying, hardship and pleasures of farming livestock. This tale is not a sentimental sugarcoated view of farming. Farm life is tough but also rewarding. I hope to have shown this and I encourage young and old to be interested in farming and embrace the world of nature and the importance of agriculture.

On what’s next

If this book sells well enough, I hope that Bodacious might be the first cat to buy its owner a tractor. As it was entirely due to Bodacious’s enthusiastic followers on social media that I was first approached by publishers who subsequently offered me an advance that enabled me to write his book. I feel I must follow their passion for a second book which they have already told me should be entitled “The World’s Smallest Sheep Dog” about Inca the “Puddle Maker” and her life as a very small dog amongst much larger farm cats and learning how to herd sheep.

@SophieGrenham

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