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Modern Shepherd: A Queer musician and textile artist leaves academia for agriculture

Shepherd, Musician and Textile Artist
NYC, London & Oakland to Ojai, California

I’m excited to invite you to my conversation with shepherdess Diane Anastasio. Diane grew up in the rural reaches of the Connecticut suburbs. From a young age she was planning her escape to the bright lights of the city. Right out of high school she moved to New York City for college. After she graduated, she moved to San Francisco and worked for a music magazine. City living agreed with Diane, she loved the culture, diversity and easy access to community, especially as a queer person and musician. She never in her wildest dreams thought she would live in a rural place again.

In 2015, Diane moved to London to pursue a masters in gender studies. She battled some health problems which caused her to drastically shift her diet and lifestyle in order to heal. The recovery journey was so profound that it derailed Diane’s academic career to study nutrition. Nutrition led Diane on a path towards working with livestock because she became interested in the intersections of human health, raising healthy animals, and preserving the health of the land. This interest inspired Diane’s journey back to rural living and becoming a shepherd.

One fateful day, Diane was driving in her car in Oakland and heard a radio segment about a sheep shearing course in Hopland and every part of her knew she had to do it.

“I essentially hadn't touched an animal aside from a few cats and dogs in my life (never had pets growing up), let alone a sheep, so this was quite a departure from my normal life... I don't come from an agricultural background, so a career working in livestock never seemed possible, and was in fact, entirely discouraged by my parents, one of whom immigrated here from Europe with just a trunk of belongings, and the other being a 2nd generation Italian American whose grandparents came to the US in order to escape a poverty-stricken agrarian lifestyle in Sicily. So they weren't thrilled to discover my agricultural aspirations.”

Diane shepherding in the Alps

Yet, after five days of shearing at Hopland, Diane knew that wasn’t the way she wanted to work with animals. In 2019, she embarked on her first shepherding journey in the European Alps and then moved to a sheep and pig farm in VT during the pandemic. There she learned rotational grazing, lambing and farrowing, butchery, and some business aspects of agriculture.

While living in Vermont Diane’s perspective on rural living started to shift. He began to see the real benefits of living a life rooted to people and place. She noticed that folks treated each other with such kindness, respect and generosity - regardless of their background or politics. She began to build deep, lasting friendships with her neighbors and realized she had been missing that deeper knowing and understanding of the people in her midst.

“In my previous city life, I had always been seeking community there based on common views and interests, but in my rural adventures, I have realized that this sort of more superficial commonality is less important than the respect, learning and understanding that come from being around people who may have different values.”

After the pandemic, Diane moved back to the West Coast and landed a job as the ranch manager at Shepherdess in Ojai. Diane now runs sheep and goats through hard to reach lands in the Southern California mountains. This work has helped to mitigate fires by restoring soil, native vegetation and cutting back on brittle grasses and brush. It is labor intensive, solitary work but she feels a deep connection to the animals and the land she roams. In addition, the isolation of shepherding has given Diane time and space for her creative passions of music and writing. She has come full circle, weaving the fibers of the sheep she keeps into tapestries and writing songs inspired by the diverse landscapes of the rural spaces she’s had the opportunity to call home. For a woman who has had many metamorphosis, the life of a shepherd feels just right.

“At this point, I can't imagine living in a city again - my heart belongs to the animals and to the land we steward here.”

This is a story about trusting your gut, the grand adventure of a life bravely led, and the importance of utilizing the wisdom from the past in the future.



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