The Sheep's Blessing

Francesca Rheannon

© Copyright 2002 by Francesca Rheannon
 2002 Travel Contest Winner 

Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash

A few weeks after September 11, 2001, I embarked on a long-scheduled trip to spend a year in France to write a book. Too much in shock from the terrible events of that day, I found myself unable to work on my original book. So I began a memoir of my sojourn in Provence. I found some measure of healing in the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the people. This is an excerpt from that journal.

For months, the haunting melody of sheep's bells had followed me on my walks around the hills of Haute Provence, and I wondered about the men who spent their lives caring for them: their ancient way of life and the encroachments of the modern world that threaten it. This is the story of one of them, who became my friend.

 "Il faut trouver ta bête." Hervé

I hesitated to say it before ­- thinking that perhaps I was being deceived by a late January winter thaw ­- but, no, Spring has arrived. I have been ensconced in this corner of Provence since September, not the gentle, sybaritic Provence of the Côte d'Azur and Avignon, but Haute Provence, a rude and wild country, where the dark alpine hills stream like a school of humpback whales toward the distant shores of the Mediterranean and sheep and lavender share the land. The wind is fierce, the people few, the soil stony. I was quickly snared by the region's stark enchantment.

For the past week, the weather has been glorious. Warm, sunny - even when the mistral blows it has lost its winter bite. Today the sky is hazed over with a thin film of white so I decide to take advantage of the weather before it changes. I start off in the direction of Lardiers with ambitious plans to hike the three miles to that neighboring commune. But, five minutes into my walk, I get waylaid. I hear the bells of sheep, a seductive sound, archaic and wistful, and immediately a net of tranquility settles over me, stopping me in my tracks. I look across the narrow valley and there, splayed out over the hillside, undulates an intricate pattern of wooly shapes, a school of sheep-fish grazing in the deeps of the meadow. The colors of their barrel-like bodies mimic the duns of their winter forage: tans, yellows and browns, offset by the lighter stick legs flickering underneath as they munch and move.

The shepherd reclines on the earth, propped on one elbow, facing away from me. I steal up behind him to get a closer look and then remain standing some 100 meters away, watching, for perhaps 30 minutes. I have been puzzling over the shepherds around here for some time. They spend all day, every day, out with their sheep and their dogs, wandering the hills and dales of the region. When I pass them on my hikes, they respond to my "bon jour" with a warm glance of greeting flashing from their eyes, but no word passes their lips. Perhaps they have lost the knack of human speech, I wonder, fallen into disuse during the days and years of solitary roaming. (Later, my friend Génia tells me that for many years she walked the hills with an old Andalusian shepherd who joked to her that he only spoke "Sheep".)

What do they do to keep from getting bored, I have wondered, out there with their ba-a-a-nal charges? They don't have any earphones peeking out from under their caps, no radios that I can see or hear. I never see them carrying any books or magazines. They are always just there with their crook and their dog and the sheep. Now, observing my subject as he goes about his business, I see what shepherds do to keep themselves from getting bored: they watch sheep. Intently. With the same one-pointed absorption as his dog, the shepherd is attuned to every shift and shudder in the massed animals before him. There is a force field out there, palpable, that is composed of man-dog-sheep; it is not only the herd that acts as one organism, but the whole triad.

The shepherd calls out something. At first, I think he is talking to his sheep, and they seem to be answering him with a chorus of bleats. One group strikes up the tune, then another on the other side of the herd, then another, as a wave of ba-a-as sweeps through them.  The shepherd mimics them playfully. He ba-a-as; they ba-a-a back. Then he laughs.

A stream of sheep begins to pour into the adjacent meadow, and I notice the swift black shape of the dog glancing along the edges of the herd. The troop swirls in a muttonish ballet. The shepherd calls out another command as one small group of rebels begins to move in the opposite direction. The dog streaks to the left, neatening up the borders of the herd as he goes. But, caught up in the excitement of the game, he gets a bit overzealous. The sheep, pressed, start to become agitated. It only lasts a second, for the shepherd sings out a warning to the dog, who drops back immediately. Then "à droit!" and the dog streaks to the right where the front flank of the herd is beginning to spread out raggedly toward a lavender field. "Arête!" And the dog drops to the ground like a stone between two wintry rows of lavender bushes. Then man and dog go back to a watchful stillness.

The minutes stretch out as I stand, transfixed, waiting. It occurs to me that while it looks like nothing is happening, something is going on all the time: observation and action are seamless. The shepherd spends his days in meditation; sheep are his mantra.

As I move off finally, I notice a pile of dead lavender wood lying at the edges of the adjacent field. It contains a resin that makes for excellent tinder, so, my hike forgotten, I return home to snatch a bag to carry my find back to the wood stove. As I walk, I ponder the life of a shepherd, my thoughts tinged with envy and admiration. Its timelessness and tranquility lures, although I know that I am irrevocably time-bound in the modern world. "He lived a life of husbandry and liberty, inhabitant and hermit, half-sage, half sorcerer, always poet..." Is it merely coincidence when the next day I pick up a book about Provence in the home of a friend and find this description of a shepherd?

When I return to the lavender field, I see that the sheep are swarming homeward, a seemingly endless line stretching along the contours of the landscape, bells tinkling in the deepening afternoon light. The black silhouette of the dog stands sentinel alongside in the dip of a narrow valley. I look for the shepherd, but he seems to have vanished. Then, out of the bushes, I see him moving toward me, staff in hand, his sun-and-wind brown face visible now under his broad brimmed hat, his jacket slung around his shoulders like a cape. It is a figure out of the Middle Ages, or older, ancient and beautiful. With a nod of acknowledgement, we move off, each to our own direction.

But the encounter remains with me. A few weeks later, I take a walk in the high hills above Banon with a friend, the nurse Hélène. She tells me the story of an old shepherd who lived all alone in an ancient stone hut on the top of a mountain until well into his eighties. There, without electricity or running water, heating his little home with an old wood stove, he lived in utter contentment. One day, on one of her appointed nursely rounds to see the old man, she asked him if he ever missed having a television. "If they would show sheep on the TV, I would buy one," he answered. Then she asked him what was the happiest moment of his life. "It was night, there was the moon, and I was with my sheep," was his reply.

It is now several weeks after my surreptitious observation of the mystery shepherd. Last week, I found myself crossing his path as I walked up the little valley from the village. Throwing shyness to the winds, I accosted him as he led his sheep across the road. Could I accompany him on his shepherd's trail some day? Just to find out more about the life of a shepherd? Of course, Hervé answered (for that was his name), you would be welcome; come to the sheepfold any day at around 10:00 in the morning.

I thought to go Saturday, but it rained with abandon. The day began with an impenetrable mist where nothing was visible more than a few meters ahead. By 9:00 it had cleared sufficiently that creeping slowly in the car was imaginable, if not altogether safe. So I went to the market in Apt. Later, on the way home, it was the first time I couldn't see the mountains that always lift my heart as they heave into view, just past the hairpin turn after the sign pointing to Opedette, where the ground drops away into the broad valley. The village of Simiane la Rotonde, tiered like a wedding cake, rises on the left edge of this valley against the green, gray, and gold embroidered tapestry of the hills behind. The hills of home lay like a sultan's concubine behind the luminous veil of mist that still hung in the distance.

Yesterday, Sunday, was the polar opposite - polar, too, in the cruel bite of the wind that blew in spite of the bright deceptive sun. The preternaturally clear light of morning spotlighted the houses of the village, lending them the appearance of having been reborn. It was as if these ancient structures had risen from the ground during the night in all defiance of the laws of time. The light cut sharp angles into the dwellings, their lavender shutters incised against the uneven stone courses of their walls. The corrugated red and black lines of their tiled roofs appeared etched as if by a celestial pen. Light reflected from every surface: blades of grass, waxy ovals of red berries floating on the thorny stems of the eglantine, the curly silver coat of a passing dog, the sinuous arch of tree branches; even the dark ribbon of the asphalt roadway that curved away from under my feet seemed to gleam.

Bracing every step against the wind, I crossed the field that extended down from Hervé's sheepfold to the road. It was littered with bullet-shaped pellets and cropped to a golf course's smoothness by his animals' relentless incisors. There is a large, old stone farmhouse next to the metal hanger that acts as a stable and I assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that Hervé lives there.

I mounted the massive stone steps to the farmhouse door. My knock was answered, to my surprise, by an old woman with jet-black hair fashioned in the style of the 1940's, wearing a dress of approximately the same vintage. Warmth billowed from the kitchen behind her, with its ancient wood cook stove and period cupboards. I was overcome suddenly by a sense of transtemporality, of a fraying of the boundaries that keep time periods separate, each in their own drawer in the filing cabinet of eternity. She smiled encouragingly, this envoy from the past. Hervé will come in about an hour, as always, she told me, and would I like to come in and get warm while waiting for him? I declined her proffered hospitality with thanks and turned back into the wind toward home.

Once there, I realized that I was not feeling well. Some kind of bug had taken hold of me and a day's jaunt in the hills was out of the question. It was not long before I saw Hervé from my bedroom window, pouring water from a large can into rusty metal troughs of various shapes and sizes. As I walked back to the sheepfold to tell him, my movements slowed, dreamlike, by the fierce compulsion of the mistral, a great wave of weakness spread suddenly through me. You must stay warm today, Hervé said. "Je suis ici tous les jours, tous les jours."

Today, I have recovered and the wind has died down. A good day to consort with sheep, I think to myself. By the time I reach the meadow in front of the sheepfold, Hervé has released the animals for their morning snack of feed grain. I negotiate a solid phalanx of staring white wooly faces on my way to rendezvous with Hervé. Orange ear tags mottle the audience, creating a polka dot effect.

I wonder a little nervously how things will go with the shepherd. I am apprehensive that the Romantic portrait of bucolic simplicity and spiritual purity that I painted of him before making his acquaintance will crumble beneath the force of mundane reality. Perhaps shepherding is just unremitting, lonely toil, rudely buffeted by the elements. Perhaps he is a man empty of reflections any deeper than his weekly paycheck.

But Hervé turns out to be a true blue philosopher of his profession, a kind of guru-cum-revolutionary proponent of the shepherd's life and we pass the day deep in conversation that ranges from animal husbandry to ecology to a critique of global capitalism to spirituality.

Hervé was not born to the shepherd's life. If he had, he might not have been so happy with the job, since many shepherds of peasant background become steeped in alcoholic depression and are at high risk for suicide. No, he was called to it, in the form of a dream.

After a youth spent largely traveling, smoking powerful hashish, and getting to know the common people of India, Nepal, and Afghanistan, Hervé returned to France. He cast about for a line of work that would suit the values he had come to cherish during his years abroad: simplicity, freedom, and nature. He put in a stint as an agricultural laborer, but it wasn't exactly the ticket he was looking for. Moreover, as the only white European in a work force made up entirely of immigrant labor from North Africa, Hervé found that he was increasingly subject to suspicion and ostracism on the part of his fellow workers.

"One night," he tells me, ""I dreamed I was guarding sheep." Upon awakening, he knew he had found his métier. The next day he signed up at shepherding school - a course of study that included 13 months of apprenticeship and 6 months of classroom work. He decided to skip the academics, figuring - correctly as it turned out - that he had learned all he needed to know in the fields with his apprenticeship master, a professor of animal husbandry.
After the sheep complete their breakfast,  Hervé gives his dog, Tango, the signal, and  the animals are rounded up into a neat wooly packet. "P-r-r-ri-téh!" Hervé cries in the manner  of shepherds of this region and the flock begins  to elongate at the front end as it heads out to pasture.
Photo of Herve and Tango, his dog.

With a large head and wiry black fur streaked by white as if with age, Tango reminds me of Cerberus, the dog of Greek myths who shepherds the souls of the dead to the underworld. He has a faintly demonic look, but this dog, it turns out, is all business.Tango is tethered to Hervé by the invisible leash of utter devotion. He is almost grimly loyal, accepting my caresses with barely restrained impatience before turning back toward his master. He dogs Hervé's every step, trotting at his heels like a shadow. He only leaves the shepherd's side when given a command, and then he is off like a shot. "Doucement, doucement!" ("slowly, slowly!") Hervé often admonishes the dog, who is clearly subject to excesses of enthusiasm. "If I let him have his way, he would herd the sheep into a tight little ball that would just keep rotating all day," he says.

Nonetheless, Tango's skills are impressive. There is not a moment when he is not thinking "sheep," I notice, for the dog picks up even the commands that Hervé lets fall seamlessly from the midst of our conversation, the words spoken casually and in a barely audible voice. "Passe derrière" or " à gauche" or "sors les," Hervé mutters, and the dog bounds down behind the far end of the herd, or to the left, or hustles the sheep from one meadow to the next. Tango has a large vocabulary of commands, but I imagine that his breadth of understanding extends much further than mere words. Every ounce a workaholic, Tango's dedication to his job has turned into a nice sideline for Hervé, who hires him out to other shepherds from time to time.

"Did you train him yourself?" I ask the shepherd. "No. He was trained by his father, Spek." He stops in his tracks and looks down, his glance turned inward. "Spek was my best dog. A dog like that only comes once into a person's life." The silence stretches out; then Hervé sighs and turns again onto the path. As the day wears on, it is obvious that Tango has had a tough act to follow; Hervé is clearly not done with mourning his old companion and the current one is often found somehow wanting. My heart twinges as Tango, an ever-hopeful suitor, slaves away for his master's approval, which is always just out of reach. The slightest mistake, and he gets a sharp rebuke. Once Hervé even throws his staff at the poor creature, clipping him on the side, when Tango starts to lead the sheep down a path a few meters from the correct one. Tango yelps and slinks behind the flock for a few minutes until, unable to bear the separation any longer, he sidles up behind his master once again.

It takes one to two years for a lead dog to train his apprentice. "One day you give the command to the older dog and the young one takes off," Hervé tells me. "But the refining process takes about five years." (A week or so later, he had a new dog in tow, a 4-month old Border Collie named Charley. I was surprised since he had told me before that Border Collies are "too intelligent" to take the rough treatment he can dish out. Perhaps my pained expressions and halting remonstrances at Hervé's "rough treatment" of Tango during our previous outing had had an effect. Hervé was treating Tango better and the older dog seemed happy with his new sidekick. The shepherd was delighted with Charley, although the puppy's first day was unpropitious. He cowered in the van at first and then fought the leash when Hervé set out with him and Tango. But the next time I saw Charley, he was all eyes and ears, paying strict attention to the older dog and trotting along behind his heels. Hervé's shadow now had a smaller shadow of his own.)

Hervé, Tango and I move up the broad, unpaved military road leading to higher pastures. In the 1970's, the French state decided to establish an underground military station here to house nuclear missiles. They built the road, planning to run it to an installation deep in the bowels of the mountain that broods over the village. They put in a water supply system before abandoning the plan when President Giscard d'Estaing decided that submarines presented a less vulnerable location for nuclear missiles than land. During the course of the project, local real estate prices fell precipitously as prospective buyers worried over the possibility of being targets of nuclear attack. But when the plan was abandoned, the town had a modernized water supply and a new road leading to now buildable land to offer summer refugees from Marseilles. Prices rose.

As we wend our way up the mountain, I inhale the sweet, rich fragrance that is the true herald of Spring. It mixes with the oily scent of lanolin rising from the sheep. The magnolia are budding out and the air is filled with bird song. The bees are humming in the bushes.

"Are you ever bored? I ask Hervé. "No. Well, sometimes, like in any job. But a lot is happening all the time. And I like not having a boss on my back," he says.

He is short, lean, and weathered. His chestnut hair is caught in a ponytail, exposing a narrow lined face dominated by a strong jaw. Laugh lines crease his eyes, which gleam with a fresh and disarming openness. Wearing blue jeans and a hooded jacket, he walks with a large leather satchel slung over one shoulder and carries a tall, classic Bo-peep crook.

Although we converse mainly in French, Hervé speaks a passable English learned from his American traveling companions when traveling the hippie circuit in Nepal and Afghanistan. "I like Americans, but I haven't been to America because I don't like it." Then he softens, "I like America, but I don't like some things it does." But Hervé also has much to critique in France.

"Things are really changing here, and not for the better. France is getting to be more and more like America, where profit c'est tout, it's the most important thing. Take sheep farming: it used to be that a family could live on 10 to 15 acres with 2 or 3 goats, 4 or 5 sheep, one cow and a pig. Now you have to have a thousand sheep to make it and you depend on the international market. This is especially true in other parts of France; here we are more protected because there are only stones, so big agriculture isn't interested. But it is changing here, too. One used to be able to make a go of it with 80 sheep, now we need much more and you don't earn as much as you did before."

I ask him how many sheep he guards now, looking back at the closely bunched herd. "Six hundred and fifty." I whistle in astonishment. It doesn't seem half so large to me, not much more than a subsistence flock. But the operation is far from the rural traditions of yesteryear. Hervé's boss is an absentee proprietor - a rich lawyer who raises sheep on the side, much like the Wall Street brokers back home who plant vineyards on eastern Long Island in their quest to squeeze the simple life in between their stock trades.

"I am of the last generation of shepherds," Hervé predicts. He points to the clearcuts that mar the hillsides. They are changing the ecology of the region, he says, replacing mature forest with a brushy growth that is difficult for sheep and shepherd to navigate. Agricultural fertilizers spread on the lavender fields make the forage too rich for the sheep, and they get sick. He has noticed other ecological changes, as well - a loss of diversity in both plants and animals, and fewer birds, although whether that is due to the ubiquitous logging or originates in more distant habitats, he is not sure.

"What I do is part of the vieux monde. Soon there will be nothing of it left." It was the last war that changed everything, he goes on, and it turns out he means that continuity of World Wars that was interrupted by only a few decades of turbulent peace. "So many families lost members in World War I that by the time World War II ended, they couldn't pay the taxes on their land and they lost everything." Until the last twenty years or so, there were ruins everywhere in these hills and valleys: not bombed or torched in war, but simply abandoned when there was no one left to farm. Some are still here, but more recently vacationers from Marseilles, Paris, the Low Countries, Germany, England, and the U.S. have been snapping up these stone country houses and restoring them "with taste" - as the realty ads proclaim - and copious amounts of cash. But, aside from the lavender growers, the agricultural way of life is dying out here, as it is everywhere. And the renovated farmhouses stand empty 11 months out of the year.

It seems the newcomers come freighted with urban prejudices. "Until the 1960's, there were bergeries" (sheepfolds) "inside the villages, but no more. Now, people think sheep are dirty," Hervé snorts. "They don't want to see where their food is coming from. They want to pick it up from the supermarket counter, wrapped in plastic." The little things, he adds, "le microcosme", produce the larger fate of the world, le macrocosme.

For him, the changes in the macrocosm are not abstractions. They threaten his livelihood, which is more than just that; it is his life. Yet, he made his choice with open eyes, knowing that the shepherd's way was already dying. "J'ai toujours refusé 'le système'", he says. Perhaps this is in part a legacy from his Italian grandfather, an anarchist who fled Mussolini's Italy and lost his life in the Spanish Civil War fighting against Franco as a partisan in the International Brigades.

As we thread our way up the narrow sheep trails braiding through the sloping forest, Hervé fills me in on some more sheep lore. Once upon a time in France, each region had its own local breed of sheep, and the wool was as diverse as the different strains of stock. Some was coarse, some fine; some was short, some long. Fleeces traversed a continuum of curl.

Now, my informant tells me, all the sheep in France belong to several varieties of a single breed: merino. "Do you know why that is?" he asks me rhetorically. I respond in the negative. "It was due to Napoleon; he made a decree that all the sheep in France had to be merino." My first thought is that this was Napoleonic megalomania, brought to heights of micromanaging absurdity. But there were sound military reasons behind this first step toward the industrialization of French animal husbandry.

"Napoleon had to make war, and for that he needed three things: horses, iron - and wool, " Hervé tells me.

The Emperor's legions needed woolen uniforms, and the wool for them had to be, well, uniform, so that hundreds of thousands could be clothed efficiently to identical specifications. Napoleon researched the best breed of sheep for the job, decided on the English merino, and, as Hervé says, "imposed this choice on everyone." Given the age-old contempt of the French for all things English, I imagine there was quite a bit of grumbling.

We arrive at the summit of the mountain that overlooks the village and catch our breath. The view is breathtaking, too, with the hills humped below us, the tan-and-red tumbles of little settlements here and there, and the russet waves of the winter forests rising and falling on the ocean of the land. A giddiness seizes us, and we spin around, arms flung wide, teetering on top of the world.

Suddenly I realize there isn't a sheep in sight. We have been so deep in conversation that I haven't noticed the absence of sheep bells until now. "Where did they go? Did we lose them?" I ask Hervé, anxious that my company has distracted him from his job. He turns around slowly, then with a dramatic flourish, he lunges like a fencer, pointing his staff straight out in a southerly direction. "They are - there!" Over the lip of the summit, the sheep are hustling down the steep slope with a purposeful air. On a typical winter's day, they cover between 5 and 7 hilly kilometers in search of the sparse forage, and they've taken advantage of our distraction now to head for a particularly succulent pasture they know is below. It beckons with a premature Spring-like green through the dry woods, easy pickings. "It's like ice cream to them," Hervé confides. "I can't let them stay there too long, or they won't want to eat the regular winter herbe. But today they can have their treat." And, indeed, when we reach the flock, they are fairly gobbling their dessert, incisors busily flashing, and the air is filled with the sound of tearing grass.

We stand watching them in silence for a while. Then "sors les!" the shepherd cries, Tango rounds up the flock, and we all head home. "Il faut trouver ta bête," Hervé tells me as we walk back. "One has to find one's animal." He adds, "I am lucky; I found my bête." At first I think it's a metaphor for his métier, but he means it literally. I ponder the statement. What does "finding one's animal" mean to him? What do sheep mean to him?

For Hervé, it becomes clear, being a shepherd is a spiritual practice, a faith. In his youth, he studied Hinduism and Islam; later, he practiced yoga and meditation. But being a shepherd has returned him to his Christian roots, on a deeper, more mystical level than he ever imagined it would. No son of a Catholic country like France can fail to draw a parallel between shepherding and the Good Shepherd. But for Hervé, the parallels between his life with the sheep and the lessons he learned as a child at catechism are vivid, lived daily. He tells me that soon after he started his shepherd's life about 12 years ago, he began to talk to God while guarding his flock. At first, he asked God to grant him this or that wish, to make something happen he wanted or prevent something from happening that he didn't want. All the time, he watched his sheep and listened for an answer. For seven years, he heard nothing back. Yet he persisted, day after day. Eventually, he stopped asking for anything. He just said the Lord's Prayer, watched the sheep, and listened. Finally, God began talking back - "or actually, I think he was talking all the time, but I finally could hear him."

He doesn't say so in so many words, but he implies that the sheep taught him how to hear the voice of God. "Les bêtes nous donnent sa bénédiction," he tells me. "The sheep give us their blessing. It is something religious; they teach you a positive way of life. They teach you the mystery of love." How do they do that, I ask him. "They give up their lambs, their own children, to man, not out of resignation, but out of acceptance. And acceptance is love."

I don't doubt Hervé's sincerity, but I do wonder if this notion smacks of self-serving anthropomorphizing. "Do you think they know what they are doing? Are sheep intelligent?" I ask him with some skepticism.

"They have their own intelligence, a kind of telepathic intelligence, a group intelligence. They want to circle, like birds and fish; like water, like fire. It's all the same pattern, like a mandala. And they are telepathic with me, as well; they know where I have decided to take them, and they often start going there even before I give Tango the command. They need man because they will eat until they drop, until they die from overeating. That's why they need shepherds, not only to protect them from wild animals, but also to protect them from themselves." It is only later that I realize he is drawing another spiritual parallel here, too.

We near the large metal shed of the bergerie, the day falling into dusk to the sound of sheep bells. I tell Hervé how drawn I am to their sound. "It lures me like a magic spell," I tell him. "There was always music like that in Afghanistan. Being a shepherd is the only way I could live in Europe; it's the only way to have the magic. With the sheep," he responds.

We have reached the shed. Tango, his workday finally done, collapses in a black heap next to the truck to catch a few Z's. The sheep are lined up in a mass waiting to go in for the night. As Hervé talks to me, distracted from the work at hand, a few of them begin to bleat a reminder as their patience wears thin. One jumps up, trying to see over the closely packed crowd, like a short person at an outdoor music concert. Finally, she muscles through and gains a few feet toward the open door, which is blocked by a final gate where she subsides in frustration. When the bleats become numerous enough that Hervé remembers his charges, he flings open the gate to the bergerie. Sheep rush in as the sun sinks over the horizon.

Francesca writes, lives in, and walks the hills of  Western Massachusetts.

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