Judy Tysmans goes to work, she looks forward to managing a recognizable
cross section of cubicle types: She has two loyal, hard-working
employees who can almost always be trusted to work independently.
She has what she calls the sheep -- there are eight of them.
They do a good job but just plod along with little sense of
direction or motivation. Then there's the insolent butthead,
always jockeying for the opportunity to push her down just for
the fun of it.
Let's call the hard workers Becky and
Siobhan, the butthead Cindy. The sheep will remain the sheep,
because, after all, that's what they are.
When Tysmans leaves her Carolina office
at Lineberger North, she heads southeast to her two-acre homestead,
carved into rural southern Wake County where the plume from
the Shearon Harris Plant's cooling tower is a recognizable landmark.
It's there in the outskirts of Apex that her hard physical labor
A research nurse associate in the Prostate
Cancer Consortium of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center,
she runs Shady Grove Farm with her husband Dirk, whose day job
is programmer with IBM.
TENDING THE FLOCK Judy
Tysmans, research nurse with the Lineberger Comprehensive
Cancer Center, keeps a close watch on her sheep. In spite
of an electrified fence and a Great Pyrenees who lives
in the pen with them in summer, they're still vulnerable
The couple raise a small herd of eight
sheep: two Romneys and five half Romneys (Romneys are prized
for their long-staple fleece) and one Jacob-Border Leicester
mix. A valuable part of the group is the insolent Angora goat
Cindy. Cindy may be cagey, but the mohair culled from her fleece
is to die for. But that's the thing: Unlike most livestock,
Cindy and the sheep are not raised for meat. They make their
contributions every spring when each is sheared of six to seven
pounds of fleece.
There's a long, multi-ply yarn of time
and place that brings the Tysmanses to the life they live today.
Suffice it to say that she learned to knit from her mother as
a little girl growing up in Connecticut. She became hooked on
spinning during a visit to Ireland 16 years ago when she "spent
an afternoon watching them spin with natural dyes." And then
they made a decision to leave "the city" -- Raleigh -- and move
to Apex, to the house they live in now.
The people who owned the land before them
had horses, and "it took six or seven years before it could
recover," Tysmans said. "Two horses on one wetland acre had
totally pulverized the land, and it took several years to grow
much besides broomstraw grass, an indication of very poor soil."
Well, it did grow poison ivy. The land
was covered in it. They turned to a Wake County agricultural
extension agent for advice, and she's the one who made the fortuitous
suggestion that they get sheep and goats to graze on the poison
But the existing barn had been built in
wetlands, and sheep are very susceptible to foot rot.
They improved the barn and have eight
paddocks that they move the sheep around in. The poison ivy
is now at bay, thanks to the sheep, and Tysmans said it provides
an excellent, high protein, high quality livestock feed. But
now they have to be vigilant about weeds that, unlike poison
ivy, are dangerous to the sheep: nightshades, wild carrot and
The sheep also needed protection and occasional
herding. An electrified fence helped, but it wasn't perfect.
That's when Becky and Siobhan, the hard workers, were added
to the farm.
Becky's a rescue -- a plump brown Australian
Shepherd. "The Aussie," Judy said, "although having been a city
girl, does a fantastic job rounding up the sheep when they get
out. It has saved us many hours of work that she knows what
to do, and the sheep know they'd better pay attention to her."
Judy related a recent story about an escape
attempt staged, naturally enough, by Cindy. The goat leaped
over the electric fence, "getting her hoof stuck in the top
layer. She kicked and pulled enough to tear several layers of
the old mesh electric fence, and there she and the sheep were,
out of the enclosure and heading for my vegetable garden," Tysmans
said. "I went and got Becky. They saw her coming, did an about
face and returned to their area inside the enclosure. I asked
Becky to sit and stay beside me as I repaired the fence, and
she stared the sheep down and kept them from running by me to
get back out. What a gem she is! From the streets of a city,
cast out and neglected, to my back yard in Apex, doing what
she had been bred to do."
But left inside the pen with the sheep,
Becky would herd them relentlessly. So the Tysmans added Siobhan,
a gentle Great Pyrenees rescue, to guard the sheep.
In hot weather the sheep are allowed to
stay in the pasture and graze at night, and Siobhan lives in
the pen with them then. It reduces the Tysmanses' work and "stresses
the sheep less since they can be out whenever they want to,
and they eat the grass when it is best, loaded with protein
before it goes to seed."
Tysmans, who has her BSN and master's
in public health from Carolina, has worked here for about a
year and a half. In Chapel Hill, she shifts gears a bit and
moves from being livestock nurturer to nurse of humans. She's
part of a research team that will be beginning a vital prostate
cancer study in mid-August. (See gazette.unc.edu/morestories.html#5.)
A pilot study completed in April looked
at racial differences in prostate cancer in North Carolina as
compared to Louisiana. It turns out African Americans in North
Carolina have twice the rate of prostate cancer than African
Americans in Louisiana.
Tysmans and her co-worker Andrew Franks
will be traveling four days a week to 25 counties to the homes
of 1,000 study participants. They'll be collecting toenails,
urine, blood and fat samples and additional information for
genetic and nutrition studies.
Back at home, Tysmans takes a few minutes
away from the work at hand to sit and talk.
FROM 'ROVINGS' TO YARN
Judy Tysmans takes a handful
of fleece -- a roving -- and using her double treadle
spinning wheel turns it into a single-ply yarn. From caring
for the sheep, to the shearing, washing, dyeing, spinning
and knitting, she manages the process all the way from
the sheep wearing its own garment to her knitting one.
They've just moved back into their brick
ranch after some major remodeling. There's still work to be
completed, though, and the rooms are less organized than she
Tysmans picks up a few fluffs of lavender
and blue variegated fleece -- her own hand-dyed "rovings" --
and begins spinning. The veins are prominent in her strong hands
as she feeds the wool with little wasted movement. The wheel
has a double treadle, and the rhythmic back-and-forth of the
pedals looks like an exercise in meditation, and for her it
"This is so relaxing," she said.
"It's repetitive motion, and it's very relaxing."
While she worked, Tysmans talked about
the Twisted Threads Fiber Arts Guild, which she founded. The
group meets twice a month, and everyone -- from rankest beginners
to fiber artists -- is welcome to work on spinning and "lap
work." This spring the group collaborated to create a spectacular
afghan as a show of loving support for one of their members
In addition, she teaches knitting and
spinning classes, "usually as weekend workshops," she said.
"People come from as far away as Eastern North Carolina or New
York and stay the weekend, learning to spin, getting to know
the sheep, and just relaxing in the country for a couple of
days." She uses the wool from her own herd to teach students.
"I have a superior product," she said, "and it makes it easier
to learn on this soft, long-staple fiber. This activity is mainly
what feeds the sheep," she added.
It's hard work just to maintain their
fleece in top-notch condition. Like little lambs of children's
poems, the sheep wear bells that tinkle gently as they graze
or begin curiously nibbling on a visitor's buttons. Once their
fleece grows a little longer than it is on this afternoon, Tysmans
will dress them in light canvas jackets to keep straw from matting
in their growing fleece and degrading its quality.
Looking for shear pleasure?
To learn more about Twisted Threads
Fiber Arts Guild, which meets twice a month, search for
Twistedthreadsraleigh at Yahoo Groups: groups.yahoo.com.
For more information about Judy Tysmans'
knitting and spinning classes, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
or call her at 966-9440.
As calming as the few minutes of spinning
and conversation are, there are chores waiting and evening church
services to attend.
Before she goes, she must engage in one
small skirmish in the unending battle to claim a small piece
of land for her own.
A hound mix from down the street has arrived
and is slyly sizing up the sheep. The fencing is electrified
and will give him a good jolt, she said, but the wire isn't
high, and he looks like it wouldn't be much of a challenge to
Tysmans worries that Siobhan wouldn't
be enough protection if he decided to make the leap, and she
said he's big enough to kill a sheep. "In weather over 85 degrees,"
she said, "sheep can die from exertion, and a dog chasing the
flock in such heat could kill them."
She paces along the fence line, tries
in vain to shoo him away and wishes out loud for a BB gun.