We were not expecting lambs this year.
After last year’s horrible lambing season – followed by a drought – we decided not to do this anymore. Last year, as if in a conspiracy, all the ewes decided to take care of only one of their twins – and all of them, save one, gave birth to strong healthy sets of twins. Thus we had, at one point, five bottle lambs at the same time – a record for us, by far. And almost all the lambs were rams – another conspiracy.
And then came the drought. In recent years we have come to expect monsoon rains and floods in summer, but last summer, the rain did not come, the grass turned brittle and brown, and the hungry flock rebelled and bolted, time and again. Art spent half his summer moving fencing and the other half chasing sheep. We had to buy hay, at great expense, in the middle of summer. That was surely the last hay stalk—in a long series of demerits against the diminishing merits of raising sheep.
Among the checks against us as sheep farmers – our wool processor, just down the road from us, retired. And so did our shearer. It’s mid-May and we still don’t have a shearer. The older ewes are shedding their fleeces, which hang down in long trains of ropy curls, as if they were wearing long skirts or shawls. They look as if they were getting undressed and got distracted.
Worst of all, the invasives are winning the war of the grasses: our Soays – our last ditch strategy for controlling these weeds– it turns out, are just as finicky as our other sheep and won’t eat them. All of these occurrences add up to a single argument, which is that it is time for us to let our ewes live out their lives in retirement. Fewer in number, and with no lambs, they are simply less trouble all around.
And then the lambs arrived. I was not all that surprised (though I hoped not) as the ewes looked very pregnant to me (it is hard to tell under all that wool). It is not unknown for the rubber band to fail – the method we use to neuter our ram lambs. This year, those same ewes who rejected their second-borns last year are this time taking devoted care of all their twins. One ewe even had triplets.
“Another lamb,” Art said, coming in from feeding them one morning. I went out and found a medley of tiny black lambs scattered all over the paddock and barn, crying their heads off. (It is always mayhem when the sheep are fed, when the lambs are not as important as breakfast.) I had to sort out who belonged to whom, and which one was the new one. After figuring it out, as well as identifying the mother by her tell-tail of afterbirth (the origin of the word?), I then wondered if there was a twin. There were still all those little crying lambs. After sorting them out, I decided one of them was the twin, and moved both newborns and their mom, Eweripedes, into the lambing pen. A little later, I returned to check on them, but there was still a little screaming lamb, unaccounted for. Could it be a triplet? I placed her in the pen with the other. Eweripedes sniffed her, approved, and then raised her chin in the air in satisfaction, as they will do. Thank you, she seemed to say. You are welcome.
I left them and hoped for the best. Would she have enough milk for the three of them? And just how, logistically, would it work? We have never had success before with triplets, who come rarely. Last year, in what was another misery in a long list, a triplet came as a breech birth. In our experience, a triplet, if it lives at all, will surely be a bottle lamb. In that case, two of the three were bottle lambs.
But all three of them were standing and nursing, managing to do so all at the same time (the ewes often have extra teats), disappearing beneath Eweripedes’ long wooly skirt, with only a forest of little legs visible beneath her and their tails trembling with happiness.
I don’t know why but the lambs this year seem especially sweet to me. The tiny band of triplets running behind their mom in perfect unison, or lifting up their faces with their splatterings of white, like spilled milk. For the lambs life is one ongoing slumber party. They curl up together, pairs of them, black and white, nested together like inverted commas, yin and yang; or together with their cousins and the ewes, napping in the shade of the elm tree. Who will run rings around a big tree, and jump, one at a time and keeping score, from the back of a resting ewe. At siesta time, they will rest, chewing their cud, with the eyelids drooping and their chins raised up, acting all grown up (they do actually eat grass at so young an age). Our bottle lamb follows me everywhere, keeping me company when I work in the garden, nibbling on last year’s fallen leaves and then finding her way back to the barn on her own.
Spring to me is the most beautiful season, and it always comes as an astonishment. Now the forest canopy over the hills is in full spring foliage – as varied in color, or more, as in autumn, though the colors are more subtle – from the pale lime green of the birches to the purplish emergence of the maple leaves. The lambs, black and white, on the vibrant spring grass blazed with dandelion flowers, the fruit trees –pear, apple, plum and crabapple – are in blossom. The air smells of spring water and apple blossoms. Our world opens up from the confinement of winter in the midst of all of this emergence.
Biologists use the term “recruitment” to mean the replenishing of a new generation, from the French world croître, to grow, or croissance, growth. The lambs signify regeneration just as do the new shoots of trees. All human cultures (but ours) have embraced respect for natural cycles –night and day, growth and decay, winter and summer, and accepted the recurrence of life as a gift, as reliable as it is astonishing. Only with fossil fuels– which is sunlight bottled and stored, that we can pour from a spigot at will– have we been able to live out of synchronicity with these cycles. We have so taken this for granted that it has distorted our sense of place in the universe, and we have come to expect “renewable” energy to do the same. But cultures that relied on current sunlight (“renewable” energy sources) embraced a life of periodicity, of cycles of light and darkness, abundance and scarcity, and expressed this sense of structure in their cosmologies and their art.
To live in “harmony” with nature is much abused and derided notion. Webster’s defines harmony as “a just adaptation of parts to each other; agreement between parts to each other; giving unity of effect of an aesthetically pleasing whole; the structure, relation and progression of chords.”
Indigenous cultures did see themselves as living in “mutually agreed upon arrangements” with animals, who chose to “give themselves” in exchange for being treated in respect, and only if the People followed the rules. Raising farm animals is also an arrangement – or should be – in which the needs of humans is balanced with the needs of the animals who give their lives so that others will live. Their lives may be short but they are good, and they are given a good and dignified death in return. (We tell ourselves stories in order to live.) I like to think of living “in harmony” in the Greek sense of the music of the spheres: that is, living in compliance with the laws of nature. Composing in accordance with a structure of limitation. Meanwhile, seeing the black and white forms grazing against the backdrop of verdant pasture, festooned with dandelion flowers, the mountains behind them in their color-shadows, does indeed form an “aesthetically pleasing whole.”
Ask me again a few weeks from now, when we are tearing our hair out, chasing sheep; when the yellow grass spreads like a fading bruise on the flesh; when the thistle has clawed its way out of its dark hell. Right now it seems hard to accept that we are saying goodbye to this, that we are bringing to a stop a cycle that has come and gone for as long as I have lived here. The old ladies, and our pair of Soays, will still cut the grass for us, but there will be no more recruitment. There are other ways we are imagining living in relationship to this place; other ways of seeing the world renew itself; other ways of living in the presence of our days.