Why I farm
Last Saturday my teenage ewe, Butterfinger, had her first lamb. I found her in the barn pen, licking off a slippery package of skin-covered bones covered with tiny whorls of wool and placental slime. Even though she was a first-time mom, she was a good one. She attended to her lamb just as she should, licking off the sack and clearing her head and nose first, nickering to her repeatedly, and standing patiently during the lamb’s first wobbly attempts to find the faucet. After I had seen that things were going well and the lamb looked hardy and healthy, I dipped the umbilical cord in iodine, and my guests and I left them alone and walked up the old farm road to visit the rest of the flock grazing in the breeze at the top of the hill.
When we came down the lamb seemed a bit weak; she’d stand up to nurse and then lie down before getting any milk. It was sunny and warm, and because young animals don’t thermoregulate well, I wondered if she was getting overheated. So I picked her up and and moved her and mom into the shade inside the barn. My guests and I went into the house, and I didn’t get back to check on her for over an hour. When I did, I found the lamb dead, sprawled on the ground beside her mother, who was still nickering and nudging in a futile attempt to rouse her newborn.
It’s hard to articulate what it’s like to walk into the barn and find that one of your sheep is dead. It’s a shock of course, but there is so much more that I struggle to translate. It was alive, and now it’s dead, and “dead” is just too damn final to deal with when it comes out of the blue. “Wait!” I want to say… roll back the clock a minute and I’ll come to the barn sooner and do something to save the lamb and then this won’t have happened and the little life that spent five months growing inside Butterfinger will still be here…. If only, If only, If only.
But that way lies madness, and I know it. I’ve raised sheep now for over 20 years, along with ducks and dogs. I’ve been a zoologist for just as long, and have thus seen numerous animals dead or dying and in all states in between. And although I felt physically sick for the rest of the day, I also realized that is this is why I love my farm so much. I imagine that sounds strange, at best, and at worst, an indication that I have indeed gone mad — “I love raising animals because they die” is not an easy line to explain. Bear with me.
It is easy to be disconnected from “life” in our culture. I mean “life” in the sense of “life on earth,” or the complicated all- encompassing web of soil and worms and birds and pollen and dogs and pine trees and streams and flowers that surrounds us whether we focus on it or not. And after living in the country and raising animals, I know now at some primal, atavistic level that you can’t separate out “life” and “death.” They are part and parcel of the same thing, two sides to the coin, the night that defines the day. And as hard as it often is, there’s something about this awareness, this being forced to deal with the shock of a dead newborn lamb along with the joy of watching healthy ones frolic, that gives me comfort. It helps me to feel centered, with the earth holding me up and the land surrounding me, with something bigger and better than my own little life.
And this is also part of why I love dogs so much. What better animal to keep us connected with other species, other realities, the joys and sorrows of biology? Here’s how I expressed that in The Other End of the Leash: “We humans are in such a strange position–we are still animals whose behavior reflects that of our ancestors, yet we are unique–unlike any other animal on earth. Our distinctiveness separates us and makes it easy to forget where we come from. Perhaps dogs help us remember the depth of our roots, reminding us–the animals at the other end of the leash–that we may be special, but we are not alone. No wonder we call them our best friends.”
Last week I spent many hours trying to save my perennial flowers from the inevitable hard freezes we all knew would come after the unseasonable warmth caused them to grow as if it was May instead of March. One evening, as I piled on mulch and covered plants with old towels, I groused in anger about having to spend my time doing this, when what I really wanted to do was “garden.” And then I began laughing at myself, because how else would you define what I was doing, except by calling it gardening? Of course I was gardening, but the weather and the plants got to define what that meant, rather than me. Gardens, and dogs, and the sheep in the barn have their own agendas. We are wise to understand where each of us, just one little life on earth, fits in. Sometimes we get to write the agenda, or direct the traffic. Sometimes we are merely along for the ride. It’s good to remember that, no matter where you live.
Here are some photographs taken by one of our visitors on Saturday. He is a far better photographer than I (and Jim and I lusted after his 500 mm lens), and he graciously agreed to let me post his photographs. Thank you, Rob, I love being able to post these pictures.
This is Butterfinger and the lamb that died a bit later. Butterfinger is doing well, by the way, she called for her lamb for about two days and now is quiet. She stays close to her mother and her sister, Oreo, who has a two-week old, healthy lamb. I’m afraid I am going to have to change her name: although I’m not giving her any supplemental food, Butterfinger is downright fat. After a few more days of sympathy, I’m going to start calling her Butterfat. (And by the way, just in case you’re not used to seeing them, newborn lambs come out little more than bones and skin, so this little lamb looked perfectly normal compared to the rest.)
Here’s her sister Oreo and her black and white lamb. The other 3 lambs are solid white (2) or black (1), it’s just this one who is replicating a Border Collie. We’re still waiting on Spot and Rosebud, who must not have been bred the first time they mated with King Charles. He was a young ram and I suspect his sperm just wasn’t up to it. Ewes cycle every 17 days, so we’re hoping for some more lambs this weekend.
And here’s a photo of me and Willie boy. He’s a bit out of focus, but after a year of his severe exercise restrictions, it still makes my heart sing to see him run.