Home was the Hopland Field Station

My first home with Don and Rosemary was on the Hopland Field Station. Dad worked there for the University of California’s Department of Animal Science. The Field Station was a great place for a young scientist with an inquiring mind, his wife, and an inquisitive daughter.

Dad graduated from Bozeman in 1950 with an emphasis on beef cattle. I don’t know when or why he switched to sheep, but switch he did. He met Mom, the Department secretary, at UC, Davis where he went to get his Masters. His mentor was a matchmaker. On their third date, at a Burl Ives concert, he popped the question and she said yes. When a job opened up with the University 2.5 hours northwest of Davis at the Field Station, they took it.

Ewes at the Hopland Field Station waiting to be fed.

In 1957, I joined them. My brother came along shortly after. We lived on the Station for awhile, but the little house there was too small for them and two kids. Besides, it wasn’t theirs. So when a piece of property with a ranch house went up for sale nearby, they bought it.

Even after we moved off, the Field Station was the center of our world because it was the center of Dad’s world. Lambing season wasn’t an 8-5, Monday – Friday kind of job, so when my brother and I were older, we went to work with him sometimes on the weekends. Our job was to keep an eye on the ewes about to lamb (without stressing them) and help weigh and mark the lambs.

Mom made sandwiches – white bread, cheddar cheese, and yellow mustard – for lunch. We ate them in the chilly barn office, huddled around a space heater drinking Sanka.

When it wasn’t pouring rain I pretended to ride my horse on the little trails through the creek bed, gathering ewes and newborn lambs into the barn. When we found a ewe fretting over a dead lamb, Dad would skin the lamb and tie its skin to a recently orphaned lamb. Sometimes the ewe would recognize her lamb’s scent and adopt it. Not always.

I learned about death on the Field Station. Dad was quick to end suffering when he saw it. Though it was merciful, it bothered me. I won’t share those details.

We watched coyotes pace inside pens above headquarters and I tried not to imagine them taking down sheep in behavioral research trials conducted by a woman from Davis. Dad and his colleagues thought she was strange – they weren’t fans of predators. Apparently she became attached to the coyotes, practically turning them into pets. Dad was not impressed.

In the good old days, from left, Station Superintendent Al Murphy, Vic Tuck, and my Dad, Don Torell.

I learned to drive a stick shift on the mountain roads to the upper pasture where we’d summon the flock to feed by blowing a loud ooogah horn. Sheep came running from every corner of the field to meet us when they heard it.

Dad always had lemon drops in his top desk drawer.

We lost plenty of lures fishing in the weedy little lake on the Station and stalked noisy bullfrogs after dark. There was a huge old buck in a pen named Drinky, and I spent hours looking at rabbits, lambs, deer, snakes, skinks, and more preserved in jars of formaldehyde. I wonder what happened to them.

Combing through the wreckage of a small plane that crashed and burned on the primitive landing strip at the Station, we found the pilot’s glasses, a hole burned right through the case that I imagined held them and might have been in his pocket.

So many memories.

Dad worked at the Station for about thirty years, long enough to create the idea in me that it would always be there, just exactly as he left it. But time marches on, change comes. Those working there regard the Station theirs, not ours anymore. They are the guardians of other memories now. Ones that don’t include us. Since Dad retired in the 70s I’ve not been back.

As the sheep industry disappeared from Mendocino County, the University diversified its mission. I hear the station is more about watersheds, climate change, and the environment than livestock now, although there’s talk of introducing cattle to its oak woodlands. The local extension agent, Rod Shippey – Uncle Rod, with whom I had a Saturday morning radio show for a time – has a building named after him, and I read recently that most of the sheep have been sold.

On my way south, I plan to first stop in Oregon to visit old friends whose father, wildlife scientist Bill Longhurst, was at the Station with my Dad. I haven’t seen Maggie and Caroline since high school. We hold in common memories these new ones can never possess.

When I get to Mendocino County after too many years away I will go see for myself how time has treated my former home, the Hopland Field Station. And remember Dad.


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