Grass, long brown and trampled in the fall morning light, covers hills growing out of the bay wetland. A black and white smooth coat Border collie, bred for green hills a half a world away, hunts the many small trails tunneling through the grass. He hunts for sheep perhaps, or if not that rabbits, or the scent of a female.
Come Sunday, the young dog waits in the back of the truck, not yet his time. Inside the county fair arena, older dogs take their turns to see which can most skillfully move three fresh sheep through two gates and a chute to finally reach the pen. For ten minutes, each handler does his or her best to tuck cares and distractions in a pocket with the leash, while he or she shepherds the small band through the obstacles.
The qualities of the sheep, the dog, the course, the weather and the handler combine to make this ritual infinitely unpredictable as it is repeated in fields and fairs throughout the state during the long summer into fall.
Throughout the afternoon, a small crowd of casual suburban onlookers streams in and out of the open arena. At the fair mostly for the wine tasting, they happen on the dogs, working under the dim arena lights with focus and gravitas as though on a secret mission, between the classic cars and the llama exhibition. The onlookers study the dogs for ten minutes or maybe twenty before moving on, satisfied that if like bowling they understand the course and the scoring they have come to know its purpose.