Read Sylvia's Farm Online

Authors: Sylvia Jorrin

Sylvia's Farm (3 page)

This morning I put on a jacket over my flannel shirt, Delaware County summer, and went out to see where the sheep were grazing, and to determine if they were to be moved. They were in the field of June grass, but was it quite June grass? Here and there were timothy, and daisies, and large pads of clover, white, and some dots of red, and sorrel, and mallow in bloom, and even some orchard grass. And there around the piles of bleached straw and the places where they were spread was green. Deep, dark, rich, thick green grass. The sheep are bringing the pasture back.

I buy hay. From friends and neighbors, and, one year, Mr. Aitkens. I look longingly at the one last hayfield I've got left as it stands going to waste. It has not been possible to have it cut these past few years, but I always hope. I've been watching hay wagons being hauled up and down the road and having occasion to ride about evenings along the back roads have looked wistfully at the round bales dotting the hills and the square ones through opened doors of partially filled barns.

Of the two most exciting days of the year on my farm, one is the day when the first hay wagon is pulled up to my barn and is unloaded into the mow. Feelings of jubilation, gratitude, and humility always fill my heart on that day. I always want to do something special for the people bringing it, but harvest dinners don't happen anymore. My dear friend Charlotte Kathmann told me about her neighbors cutting corn together, farm to farm, when she was a girl. The women and girls would get together and cook dinner for the noon meal for the men who worked in the fields. It sounded like so much fun.

I buy hay now from a well-respected farmer two or three hills from here. But yesterday, a neighbor drove in and asked me if I wanted some hay his son had just cut. It would be ready to bale tomorrow. The price and terms of payment were both fair and kind. I still would need a great deal more bales for my flock's winter needs, but this would be hay in the barn. I said yes. I'd been cleaning and arranging the top level of the barn all day. It needed only a few hours to finish and to create order out of some bedding I'd bought. “You've made my day,” I said.

And so the wagons being hauled up the road today will pull off into my driveway and up the bridgeway into my barn. I won't be making a haying dinner, not this year, anyway. But I will give my neighbor some flowers for his wife, a loaf of bread each for him and his son, some cash, and offer a prayer of gratitude to Him who made all things grow.

PASTEL COUNTRY

W
E HAVE
been living in pastel country for nearly two months. It started with a pale blue sky outlined in December's delicate gray trees, and the flat planes of white snow. By January the gray and black outlines changed. Suddenly, its onset imperceptible, the hills became a deep rich rose the moment the sun began to set. Stark white, still pristine, rose-colored hillsides, and the sky in varying shades of blue. One afternoon last week the western sky was lined with blue and white stripes, as clearly defined as one of the woolly blankets we're all covering ourselves with in winter. The blue was sharp and brilliant, with a faint wash of green.

Greenleaf is set in Elk Creek Valley. Although it is deep in the mountains, it is bordered by hills on two parallel sides. I have almost never seen a sunset here, at least not the involving kind of sunset I grew up with on the Connecticut shore. So you can imagine the joy I felt knocking on my tenant's door to tell her that, apparently in the way of welcome for her friend here on his first visit, we were indeed having a sunset. Spokes of rose in all shades broke out from a central hub at the sky's edge, filling almost half the sky with color. The snow assumed a faint pink cast, and the sheep outside in the snow became tinted a pale rose as well.

It is February now. A couple of days ago the cocoa brown branches and twigs of the willows bordering my property assumed a faint shade of green. There is a ewe in the barn whose life is leaving her slowly. She went down some weeks ago, still carrying lambs, I
thought. There have been sheep in suffering who told me with their eyes to shoot them. This isn't one of them. When fed and watered she looks content, surrounded by everyone else's lambs. The look in her eyes says, “Water me, grain me, wrap me with bedding. I'm cold. But never shoot me. Not yet, anyway.” There was a casualty among the twins she had last March. The ram lamb died. The ewe lamb lived. She and her mother became Siamese twins. They moved as one. The lamb ran from me, always hiding behind her mother. It broke my heart. She was ever aware of my presence in the barn and pasture.

One day, after I had long given up trying to tame her, the ewe lamb walked up to me and rubbed her face against me. She was asking to be petted. After I did, she began to spend less and less time with her mother. She now rarely lets me enter the barn without coming over to be admired and petted. What a lovely gift you've given me, my good old friend.

One night, a week or two ago, I noticed my sick old girl was bagging. The next day, having spent too long in the house trying to get the fire going, I climbed down the ladder once more into the barn. She had just freshened. Her contractions had forced her backward, wedging her into a corner. The lambs were dead.

The water to the barn has frozen. Water has always been the single most relentless source of discouragement in the barn. Each winter season brought some thin strand of hope, only to break into tiny fragments on the ice or snow or stone steps to the barn. Even a plan formed with energy and ingenuity gained only a few days of respite before failing. I carried water, each day, getting wet as the sheep struggled with me, vying for position, to be first to drink. As winter wore on, the prospect of getting soaking wet in the cold became more and more disheartening, and I'd bring down the water closer and closer to nightfall.

The day after the first time the water froze, it suddenly thawed. The sheep, the rafters in the barn, and the neighbors, I'm sure, all heard my voice singing the first two lines of the Doxology, sung from the deepest regions of my lungs and my heart. There was no sound yesterday from the hydrant as I counted to three, the time it takes for the water to come both down from the well and up from the “frost-free hydrant.” I carried water from the house to Lady Fettiplace and Olivia and Alice in their respective jugs with their respective lambs, left the door open for the rest to find the snow, and left for my off-the-farm job.

Despair is a luxury I can no longer afford. And I cannot allow so much as a twinge of discouragement to enter my heart. Not this week, at least. I must take a lesson from the sheep looking up at me at the foot of the barn ladder. She's not ready to give up. I'm not, either. I think I may be able to adjust the well to restore the water when I get home, but that won't be for hours. Thank God for the snow.

The joy in the barn is in the form of a little black ewe lamb that has a white stripe down her nose and a couple more on her ears. She's been named after her mother Ophelia Too Applebasher, Ophelia Applebasher for short.

Ophelia is my largest sheep. Chocolate brown, with the most flawlessly beautiful profile of any sheep I've ever owned. She freshens too fast, triplets three out of four times, and has neither mother nor sisters in the barn to help, so if I'm not there when she freshens and the day is cold, her lambs are at risk. My timing was off by five minutes this year. All of my efforts to revive the last of the triplets failed. The second one managed to nurse with a little encouragement from his shepherd. His temperature rose rapidly when I put him and his older sister into a lambing jug. She, the firstborn lamb, pretty little Ophelia Applebasher, already had a round full tummy when I arrived.

My daughter, Justina, anticipating the eventuality of a new metal roof going on the barn, sent me a color card of industrial paints. I dream of the willow green that is the color of some of the farm gates. It will be a subtle contrast of similar tone to the buffs and browns of the hillside pasture beyond it, the rose of the woods in early spring and late fall, the pale green of early summer, and the gray stone walls. It will match for one brief week in April the pastel line of willows bordering the brook beyond the creek. The ever-present snow is still beautiful to my eye. The delicate colors of winter remain pleasing. I'm powdering the top of my freshly baked Shaker Daily Loaf with flour, the white mountain loaf of my childhood. I've just realized what a white mountain loaf is. Now that I'm surrounded by them, I enjoy the one sitting on the blue and white plate on the table even more.

RACING FOR THE GOLD

H
ARRY GRACEY
shot Lavinia Brandon the other morning in the barn. Lavinia, my oldest ewe, had been down for some time but mothering everyone else's lambs from her ensconced position in the lamb creep, quite unwilling to die. The morning before, I had gone down the ladder to the sheep level of the barn. Lavinia's alert and expectant face was not looking up at me. Instead, she was lying on her side, struggling and thrashing in a futile attempt to stand.

I turned her over and straightened her out. Blood was oozing down her face from a cut over her eye. I cleaned her up and fed her, but Lavinia was no longer the same. The next morning I found her wedged into the spot in which she had so long lain, her legs raw and bleeding from flailing about. Her eyes had lost the alert, eager, intelligent look I was so accustomed to seeing. They now expressed absolute agony. The moment had arrived.

I called Robbie Kathmann, a dairy farmer down the road, who suggested that Harry Gracey might help me, and he so kindly did. I fed Lavinia one last bowl of lamb milk replacer—a mixture diluted with water and a shot of molasses is what had kept her going since she went down. Harry and I lifted her to a corner in the sun away from the others, and he shot her. Mercifully.

There are now four left of that miscellaneous group of sheep, my starter flock Phil Commings drove in with that beautiful day nearly five years ago. Of my original girls, only Lady Fettiplace, Ophelia,
Collette du Bac, and Amelia Simpson remain. They had ten lambs between them this year. Collette's twins died due to a misadventure. Lady Fettiplace's little ram, Sir Pegasus, will stay on to breed young stock. His sister shall stay as well. Ophelia's little black ewe, Ophelia Applebasher, and Amelia's little ewe, yet unnamed, shall stay. Sentiment compromises wisdom in my choices regarding these four.

I'm not certain what it is that I hate most about being a shepherd. Is it when I am the direct cause of the killing, as in the case of Lavinia, or the indirect cause, as in the instance of a newborn lamb freezing to death because I lingered ten minutes too long over the morning's coffee and its mother made an unfortunate choice in the dark, vacant, windy corner in which she freshened? Perhaps the worst is when I see my lambs trussed and chucked into the boot of a car or the back of a van, or maybe it is that horrible feeling that never leaves, going to the barn, six, seven, eight times a day and dreading that slow, searching walk around the perimeter, peering into the corners to see if death had climbed down the ladder before me. Sometimes it still feels too hard a thing to do to put that foot on the top rung and climb down.

My job is a paradoxical one. Keep everyone alive, safe, and healthy in order to kill them. Some of them. Some shepherds resolve the moral and philosophical dilemma. I'm one of those who haven't. I live within the order of things. My task is to maintain my position on the side of life and fight to keep it, and within that I must accept the ultimate order of death.

This morning the sun hadn't stepped over the line of hills in the east when I started for the barn. The day had begun by being bitterly cold. The house had arrived at a record low temperature indoors, and my bedroom was a startling ten degrees when I awoke. Snow drifted two feet over the path, plowed clean yesterday. I was moving in a reluctant slow motion when I got up. I had a choice. Put on barn
clothes to feed the hay and risk my ride to work coming before I'd have time to change, doomed once more to go to my other job in my torn, faded black jumpsuit, or wear a skirt and tights and a good sweater and just throw on a jacket over it. It's discouraging to stumble into work with apologies on my lips for what I look like, albeit an honest representation of what I am, in heart, soul, and body, a sheep farmer. So I put on the skirt.

The day was flawlessly beautiful, winter at its most refined, pale, delicate, and brilliant. The sky was a fragile blue waiting to be broken by the sun still not quite over the hill. If I run fast enough, I thought, I'll be there the moment it rises and fills the barn with light. A newly delivered load of hay blocked the door. I scrambled over the precariously thrown bales, a thin coating of snow making it all a touch slippery. The mow was a dangerous tumble below me on one side. Down the ladder I went, taking a quick look into all the corners, listening as well for that little tin sound signaling a newborn. All the while searching out the presence of death.

My flock lay peacefully on the warm pack on the floor, chewing their cud and watching me. Their lambs were lying next to their mothers or in their own tiny flock, a pile of peacefully sleeping young, together in the warmest spot.

The people door within the barn door was open facing east. I leaned against it. Some sheep stood up slowly, their eyes not leaving my face. Everyone was secure that in due time hay would fill the mangers. No need to remind her to give us our breakfast, she'll feed us shortly. I waited a moment or two. I had made it, just in time. The sun crested the hill and filled the barn once more with gold. The wall, the pack on the floor, the sheep were all the color of gold. The sheep forgave my tears.

DANDELION GREEN

P
ETERMAN
'
S CATALOG
arrived just yesterday, on the edge of our spring. The first daffodils are in bloom in the front of the house. Late even for us and much welcomed. The ruffled dahlialike version was transplanted from an abandoned garden when I first arrived. I felt both the savior and the thief when I took them. I am glad now. I watched that doomed garden grow and bloom, daylilies between brambles, centura between stepping-stones, a mock orange, once burned to the ground, small twigs emerging. I wheelbarrowed the thinnings and cuttings to my border. The old garden has been bulldozed and is only a memory, but a living reminder continues in my garden. The creek takes turns with itself, overflowing its banks. Every day I clear masses of branches from under the small bridge that spans it. The snow is nearly gone from the hills and from the front lawn. Delaware County spring to me means the drama of water running down the hills through the massive stone wall causing the creek to overflow. It means joy at the sight of spring rains brightening the quick fresh green of April spring runs and embodying a disconcerting mixture of longing and expectation, a wish to hold the moment and extend it, conflicting with the joys still to unfold.

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