We began work on this film in the spring of 2001. Living at the time in Colorado, we heard about a family of Norwegian‐American sheepherders in Montana, who were among the last to trail their band of sheep long distances — about a hundred and fifty miles each year, all of it on hoof — up to the mountains for summer pasture. I visited them that April during lambing, and was so taken with the magnitude of their life — at once its allure and its arduousness — that we ended up working with them, their friends, and their Irish‐American hired hands intensively over the coming years.
Sweetgrass is one of nine films to have emerged from the footage we have shot over the last decade, the only one intended principally for theatrical exhibition. As they have been shaped through editing, the films seem to have become as much about the sheep as about their herders. The humans and animals that populate them commingle and crisscross in ways that have taken us by surprise. Sweetgrass depicts the twilight of a defining chapter in the history of the American West, the dying world of Western herders — descendants of Scandinavian and northern European homesteaders — as they struggle to make a living in an era increasingly inimical to their interests. Set in Big Sky country, in a landscape of remarkable scale and beauty, the film portrays a lifeworldcolored by an intense propinquity between nature and culture — one that has been integral to the fabric of human existence throughout history, but which is almost unimaginable for the urban masses of today.
Spending the summers high in the Rocky mountains, among the herders, the sheep, and their predators, was a transcendent experience that will stay with me for the rest of my days.