BRITTANY COLE BUSH | West Marin & Orcas Island
Every spring, as tangerine poppies, Indian paintbrushes, blue lupines, and Douglas Irises emerge in a coastal chorus of California wildflowers, and patches of young nettles and Indian lettuce begin to sprout, Brittany Cole Bush arises from winter hibernation in her Orcas Island cabin, migrating south to the Bay Area where she spends spring and summer. Brittany is a shepherdess and leatherworker who moves and works according to the seasons, and spring is the season when pasturing begins. “I go where the seasons take me, where community takes me,” she says.
The original meaning of the Greek word nomad is “one who wanders for pasture,” following the patterns of the seasons to seek temporary settlement for their livestock. A nomadic pastoralist like Brittany structures her life around the availability of land for animal-grazing and browsing. Even though the nomadic lifestyle is the oldest human subsistence method in the world, it is virtually unheard of in modern, metropolitan America. But Brittany connected to this way of life early on. In her 20s, she began working at Star Creek Ranch after taking a permaculture design course at UC Santa Cruz, and shortly thereafter, helped to start Star Creek Land Stewards, a company that develops contract grazing programs to reduce wildfire hazards, control noxious weeds, and improve wildlife habitats in the Bay Area. “I felt like it was a calling of mine to be a shepherdess,” she says, “to bring traditional farmsteading, ranching, and livestock to the urban world.”
The relationships between shepherd, animal, and land form a triangular system, in which each provides for the other. As a shepherdess, Brittany’s care for her mixed-species “flerds”—hybrid flock-herds of sheep and goats—is simultaneously her care for the land; both animal and earth are not merely her means of survival, but rather integral parts of her life that she celebrates and honors, through vocation, craft, and food.
As the project manager for Star Creek Land Stewards, Brittany spends six months out of the year managing up to 2000 animals—both sheep and goats. “I’m very passionate about how much positive impact animals can have on the ground,” she says. Based on the principles of Holistic Management developed by a Zimbabwean biologist and rancher named Allan Savory, Star Creek is contracted by private companies and public organizations like the National Park Service to bring in hundreds of animals who graze on rural and urban areas at high densities. The fundamental idea underlying holistic management is that animal impact on the land, which mimics the movement of wild herds, provides necessary symbiosis in vibrant and healthy ecosystems and restores the natural integrity of the land.
The relationships between shepherd, animal, and land form a triangular system, in which each provides for the other. As a shepherdess, Brittany’s care for her mixed-species “flerds”—hybrid flock-herds of sheep and goats—is simultaneously her care for the land; both animal and earth are not merely her means of survival, but rather integral parts of her life that she celebrates and honors, through vocation, craft, and food. She is passionate about eating animals in a sustainable way and is also involved in West Marin’s Fibershed, a regional textile community that brings together farmers and artisans to collaborate on responsible clothing production.
Brittany’s own leatherwork is also an acknowledgment of the animal as a source of life. Currently, she uses cowhide to make leather tool belts and sheaths, but one day she hopes to develop a line of leather handicraft from her own animals. Alongside, she collaborates with her partner Jorgen Harle, a master blacksmith and butcher, as well as Oakland-based friend Laura Schoorl, who makes bags and clutches out of whole-hair hides. The animal, it seems, is central to their lives—for milk, meat, wool, and hide—, vital for the survival of both humans and land.
Brittany’s versatility—as both a shepherdess who works with live animals on the ground and as a craftswoman who uses their pelts and skins after they have passed—allows her to truly “close the circle,” as she says—, to be a powerful link that nudges the cycle onwards, connecting its different parts. The duty of the shepherdess, after all, is to keep the herd intact, knowing that one sheep cannot survive on its own; the herd functions because sheep roam in tandem, always dwelling and moving together. “When you’re out in nature all the time, you remember that you’re human, because we can’t do all the things that creatures in nature can do,” Brittany says. “Together the sheep and goats can impact the landscape drastically, and I feel the same about the community that I am a part of. Together we can make great change.”