Lambs in spring.
Of course, that is when they are supposed to arrive. Not in dead of winter. To postpone the lambing season – which would naturally begin five months after the first cold nights—until the milder weather arrives, requires making sure all the ram lambs are neutered, and either separating the ram from the flock or not keeping a ram at all. Last year we had no lambs, and we had no ram, and in the fall we borrowed a ram (who was not easy to find) for two months, returning him after he had performed his “service.” He was a gentle giant with a roman nose and a bell hanging from his neck, which meant we always knew when he was near. His name was Obama. I was not sure how I felt about that name—though soon enough the name belonged to him. Obama did have a fringe of grey frost to his dark wool, and he had that certain presidential coolness about him. After the tragic events of November 8, I felt a pain something akin to grief whenever we spoke his name.
When he first arrived, the girls (as we call them) were afraid of him and took off running. Obama ran after them, his bell ringing, but since he had a sore ankle he had difficulty keeping up. This went on for a few days. In time, it was the ewes who were seducing him, rubbing up against him and batting their eyelashes, and he became well integrated into the family. He turned out to be the nicest ram we ever had here; he never bullied the ewes and never so much as suggested any aggression toward us. When we had to get him into the truck to take him home, I stood back and watched – having been spooked by the aggression I have seen from other rams – as two girls from next door helped Art to lift up his front legs, then the rear, to get him in the Uhaul. They were dressed in clogs and colorful scarves. Obama only shrugged as he took one last look at us, before Art closed the door and he was gone. Ci vediamo.
The lambs came five months later, in two sets of twos, at two-week intervals, starting in mid-March. The first lambs were born– both ewes, one black and one white– to Eweriah, a granddaughter of Ewelysses. They were both strong and healthy. The following day we had the biggest snowfall of the season: twenty-nine inches in Burlington – a record. The next day more pairs of twins were born. And then more. All the ewes, in the end, had twins, except for Eweripedes who produced one big black ram lamb with a white X mark across his face. Lambs in snow still sounds like winter, but the temperatures were in the twenties at the lowest, t-shirt weather for the sheep, who had no trouble with it at all. No frozen ears snapping off like tortilla chips, no cold blue tongues. We never had to bring any lambs inside to warm them by the fire. And no bottle lambs.
We dug out a trail to the barn through the knee-deep snow. I looked back at the barn from the house through a lacey curtain of snowfall to see the newborns, white and black, nudging at their mother’s underbellies, their heads disappearing and the little rumps sticking out, the tail shaking to say to the world that that all is well beneath its milky firmament. The white blanket of snow covered the bare paddock, the sheep tucked in as if in a freshly made bed. They will not try to make their way through the deep snow, and so they are confined to the barn, but this is a good time for them to stay home, absorbed as they are in their tender domesticity.
And when the sheep are out on pasture, we get to watch the lambs racing across the brilliant green velvet of new grass. They have long tracts of grass for their races, and we watch them tearing across the pastures in a zebra-striped blur. They will play their king-of-the-mountain game on the backs of ewes, who remain placid, chewing their cud, as the lambs jump on their backs and run across the ridgeline of their spines, then jump off and jump again. Art made them a jungle gym out of some pallets, an artificial mountain for their games, which we can watch from our kitchen window. How they kick their feet together in mid air when they jump, twisting their bodies like a high diver in her descent. They will run circles around their mountain, then take off in a race across the length of the paddock and back, more lambs joining into the throng until they are a full herd galloping across the prairies.
In his classic essay, “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger reflects on the disappearance of animals from our lives, who have been with us as partners in survival throughout our history. In Vermont, there are almost no cows or goats or sheep grazing on open pastures anymore, though that iconic image still persists in our minds as if it were still true. There are two large dairies in our town, though no cows anywhere in sight. On one farm, the cows sleep on waterbeds and are milked by robots. On the other, it is possible to catch a glimpse of their big-boned bodies through the barn door, and to see the calf hutches lined up behind it, though not the poor animals that must live their short lives in them. The animals are still here but we do not see them, and they can not return our gaze to look at us.
We are not the only ones looking at our animals, which can be seen from the road by passersby who often stop to admire the lambs. Berger says that the presence of animals gives us a sense of endurance. The ewe that has died “had already lambed her permanence.” So it was that the animals who had been with us were still with us and will always be with us: with every season there will be new lambs, who will fill the air with their cries and will delight us with their pink-eared faces and their leaping. That is why we are grateful to see lambs out grazing, or resting together with the ewes beneath the shade trees, chewing their cud, in their blessed contentment. That is why we are so glad to see the VYCC’s cows on the hillside pasture behind us. This year they are Jerseys, those caramel colored cows with the long curly eyelashes and the dreamy eyes of young girls in love. The animals have not disappeared altogether, their presence says to us, the soils have not all been carried away by the winds and the rains in their absence. There are still animals to anchor us on this earth, its axis fastened in its reliable turning, four-leggeds speaking in their strange tongues of this day and forever.
Why Look at Animals? John Berger. Penguin, 2009.