It was another day of journeying through the middle of almost nowhere. Or as I have heard it said, “It’s not the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there.” That thought rode along me during much of our travel through the Mongolian countryside. But do not be deceived. Within this seemingly empty space, life abounds. From the tiniest of desert flowers to the herds of wild and domestic animals, to the occasional isolated business establishment, it would be a mistake to equate nowhere with emptiness.
“Vast” was the description that continually came to mind when scanning the horizon, but it was woefully insufficient to convey the scene to any who have not experienced it. Vast and beautiful, despite and because of its starkness and the endless space inviting us deeper into it. It is the only time I have ridden on a highway system that consisted mostly of multilane dirt roads, no speed limit signs, and not a directional aid to be seen anywhere. I am not certain that even Google maps could have located us. Once when exiting a small airport, we took a right at the end of the parking lot and didn’t see asphalt again for days. On the positive side, a situation like that greatly reduces backseat driving! Instead, you pray that you have a competent and trustworthy driver!
Bouncing along on those roads, we left a trail of dust for whoever was unfortunate enough to be riding behind us. On this day, a tiny speck finally appeared on the horizon ahead. In a few minutes, small block building with a trough of perhaps fifty feet extending from it came into view. Around it, as far as the eye could see, were herds of goats and flocks of sheep. Apparently, they have not yet read the parable where the sheep and goats are separated with one on the right and the other on the left. These were mostly mingled together, a practice that has proved to be beneficial for herds as well as the environment.
Imagine, if you will, a wide-open, flat plain. Limited vegetation is available. An abundance of dust is easy to find. And there is one – count it – one well to water a few thousand head of livestock. At this single watering hole, several shepherds have arrived, each with their respective herds mixed with sheep and goats. They all have the same destination point in mind. If you ever witnessed hungry people charge a buffet, you know that at times, “it ain’t pretty!” It can be the same for animals. I have observed herds break into a run when they spot food or water in the distance. With all those thirsty critters converging at once, it was a recipe for chaos that never quite came to pass.
For a moment, I was transported back to a high school agriculture class. Our teacher informed us we were beginning that day’s lesson with a movie. He had, he said, managed to film the class as we went to the cafeteria for lunch. We wondered how he had managed to do that, and how we would look on camera. We sat in anticipation as he threaded the projector and switched on the machine. He then treated us to a clip of pigs running to the feeding trough, pushing, and crowding for better access to the food. Honestly, there probably was a strong resemblance to our meal-time dash to lunch. This day in the Mongolian desert was sort of like that, only no pigs were involved, and these animals were much better behaved than was my high school class.
Imagine the job of sorting these animals back into their respective groupings if the various herds of the different shepherds became mingled together. Even if the animals were marked, the task of sorting them would take hours. The rule, or at least the practice, is that only one herd drinks at a time while the rest park themselves at a distance.
It reminded me of a favorite hamburger joint of mine where the booths are small and the servers are none too friendly because they do not want to encourage conversation or lingering. Come to eat but take your visiting somewhere else – they have a line of people waiting to be fed and the doors close at 2:00 p.m. Such was the case at the well, except it probably never closes. It also offers no shelter from the sun’s rays. No airconditioned waiting area. No ice-cold beverages or food truck to provide a snack. Take care of your business and move along because somebody else’s thirsty critters are waiting.
Amazingly the other herds obey their shepherds. They keep their distance until the water trough is clear for the next group. It all moves in an orderly manner. At least as orderly as a few hundred animals can be when heading off to the next point on their itinerary.
With no fences barricading or organizing the activities, we were free to walk among the animals and soak it all in “up close and personal.” From patient ewes to rams head butting one another to crying babies wandering in search of their mothers, a lot goes on at this well. In fact, that is frequently the case at watering holes.
The whole experience recalled stories from Genesis where the well was an important location for transactions. When Abraham was ready for his son, Isaac, to be married he sent a servant back to his homeland to search for a bride. The servant found her by a well when she came out to draw water. As an adult, Isaac and his herdsman had to contend with disputes with other shepherds who claimed ownership of the wells in their area and tried to prevent them from drinking there. In the next generation when Isaac’s son Jacob goes on the run, it is by a well that he first spies the apple of his eye and spends the next several years earning the right to marry her. Later, Moses will defend the seven daughters of the priest of Midian when other shepherds harass them as they try to water the father’s flock. I have long understood that the well is a social point for these agrarian cultures. But seeing is believing, as they say, and this experience brought it to life. It reminded me that what is true at a well is true at most places where people congregate for whatever reason.
With a single short trough and so many thirsty customers, it is a given that this will take more time than a McDonald’s drive-thru. But I saw no evidence of being hurried. Water is vital to life. The animals do not last long without it, so it takes however long it takes. Probably, we can all name a few things we cannot do without. Spending the time needed to obtain those things is important and worth the time and effort; the sooner we learn that, the better.
Like people everywhere, the shepherds invariably look for ways to fill up their idle time. I don’t know how good their cell phone reception was, so texting a friend or online gaming may not be an option. While the animals cannot intermingle, the shepherds do. They stand, though ever watchful. They talk. They visit. The well is an amazing location where relationships can form or progress. Perhaps friendships are fostered or possibly rivalries are born. Wherever people intersect or linger those possibilities present themselves.
On this day out in the Mongolian desert, this lonely well reminded me that we all, except for the occasional hermit perhaps, have hubs of social interaction. Those are the places where our lives intersect with our neighbors, acquaintances, and even strangers. In those moments the rules of conduct set the tone for how we engage one another. It is where we have the best opportunity to build a better world – or make it incredibly worse. Particularly when we need to share resources, of which water is only one example, how do our patterns and practices honor and reinforce such a commitment? These are vital components of fashioning community life, whether we are talking about fun on the beach, a protest on the steps of city hall, or even a primitive well located near the middle of nowhere.