Authors: Sylvia Jorrin
Shall we add sixty-some-odd bales of hay being left on the doorstep, the snow having blocked the route to the barn, blocking all exits from the house, necessitating climbing over them while carrying two bottle lambs and their formula, bales being hauled almost three hundred feet to the barn with me acting as cart horse, pulling them balanced on a toboggan and all the while the smell of that soup, enjoyed but not partaken of, permeating the kitchen as I prepared a bottle to tempt the lambs of the ewe who had not moved from her favorite spot in the corner?
The hay is now moved and stacked. The animals are fed. The kitchen pipes, frozen for a day, are once more thawed. The new puppies fed three times. The water for the barn is drawn. The sheep can no longer make it to the brook, nor the culvert, for that matter, and eagerly wait the 150-odd gallons of water to be poured out for them. And, of course, all fires are kept going, and the wood for them brought in to fill their respective wood boxes. And the smell of that soup wafts through the house.
Suddenly I remember that there are two lambs too many in the
main part of the barn, and that if the ewe lying down (whose name is Daisy, by the way) really hasn't gotten up, she must be terribly thirsty. So back down to the barn to give her water and find the mother of the two extra lambs.
Daisy can't stand up. I half lift, half drag her away from the bedding she's fouled and put clean straw under her and give her water, a quart at a time, between feeding the others more hay. The water is given in intervals, in order not to shock the thirsty ewe's system. Her ewe lamb, no matter how gently persuaded, won't take more than an ounce from the bottle. I put everyone into the cozy dry part of the barn and suddenly hear the ewe struggling. She's dying. Oh, no! I run to her and see her flailing her legs convulsively. I pull the ewe to her feet. She stands. Slowly she begins to eat the hay that was set before her a few minutes earlier.
I tuck the lamb in a jacket, tie the sleeves, and carry her up the ladder, past the sixty newly stacked bales of hay, into the warm house with all fires glowing brightly. In the kitchen, where the soup is still warming, I take a silver demitasse spoon from a drawer and feed the lamb four ounces of milk, a spoonful at a time, go back outside, get some very sweet-smelling hay from the broken bale still lying on the front door stoop, and put the weak lamb, as well as the other two bottle-fed lambs, on to the hay. Then, noting that the clock is announcing the ninth hour after noon and the twenty-first hour of the day, take a ladle from the drawer and stir the soup on the stove, ladle some into a big blue-and-white cup, and sit down in front of the living room fire, legs over the arm of the overstuffed chair, and eat
potage tomato Ã la bonne femme
, tomato soup!
was a special time for me. My reward, in a way, for the year and especially for yesterday, an intense, tension-ridden, and nearly too-difficult-for-words day of shearing. It shouldn't have been. I had hired a shearer who was a bit on the temperamental side. A prima donna, the Emperor of the sheep-shearing world. Or so he thought. All seventy-one sheep who were to be shorn and their lambs had been penned inside the day before, as he had requested. Shearing wet sheep is difficult. He had also requested that they not be fed or watered for twenty-four hours before he came. Since he would be shearing for at least eight hours, it was too much stress for my nursing and pregnant ewes, so I split the difference. And in they went for twelve hours. I made certain there was fresh bedding that they could nibble on. Hay, in other words. He would know they had eaten.
Moments before the Emperor of Shearing arrived, a van pulled into my driveway. In it was a family sent to me by the nearby Hanford Mills Museum. The museum had canceled its Sheep to Shawl Day and sent me a family that had wanted to see shearing. They were speaking with me when the Emperor of Sheep Shearers appeared in a huff. Late for him, but two hours early for our appointment. He had skipped his morning shearing. I was as ready for him as was possible, except I hadn't started the pear tart that was to be for the shearing dinner.
I now have a new green picket fence around my south pasture. It
is complete and reaches all the way to the barn. There is a nice alleyway from my driveway right down to the apple green gate leading to the barnyard. Gates into the field are not yet hinged but are tied and look to be as complete as they should be. Without a pause the shearer drove up to the apple green gate leading into my field. His son got out of the truck, untied the gate, and the Emperor drove through and into my pasture. “Why are you driving there?” I asked.
“To get to your barn,” he responded.
“You can't get there from here,” I replied in true Yankee fashion. “Why not?” Well, that set the tone for the day, or at least the morning through lunch.
It went from bad to worse. Suddenly the setup that the Emperor last year had found adequate was now a subject of ridicule and rage. The sheep began to panic. I wasn't certain that they would get shorn. The neighbor's children who came to watch and help, the family from the museum, my neighbor Herb Klumpe who brought his friend's sheep to be shorn all stood on eggs, whole, unboiled, fragile-shelled eggs, in an effort not to make a sound, the sound of not even one egg cracking to upset this sputtering shearer. Instead, they lifted eyebrows, gestured to me, and tiptoed out of the barn.
I had prepared most of the dinner for the Emperor and his heir-designate at five o'clock that morning. “Go make lunch,” he decreed. “By the way, I'm only trying to teach you how to do things right,” he added.
And so the Emperor and his heir-designate came up to the house, washed, and sat down. I served a homemade fromage au poivre (cracked pepper and chive cheese), fresh milk from my cow, homemade bread an hour out of the oven, a veal dish with tomatoes and olives, a salad, and a pear tart with fresh cream from my cow, coffee,
and a pitcher of ice-cold milk. We went back to the barn. There was nary a grumble after that.
Shearing is one of the definitive moments in a shepherd's year. It is a time for assessment and evaluation. Once the fleeces are off you can see how your flock fared the winter: who needs something extra, who is bred, who is okay. I got several surprises. About eight ewes are very pregnant. As of today I have fourteen May lambs. That is seven more than last year, with eight ewes still pregnant. The flock, with the exception of five ewes in trouble, are from good to excellent on a condition score, as decreed by the shearer himself, or rather the Emperor, much better than last year. Last year was one of our worst winters, nonetheless, this year's group was on a three-lambings-in-two-years self-starter program. We got full fleeces from all seventy-one that he sheared. Last year five of the fleeces were in pieces.
The major health indicator of sheep is the condition of their fleeces. When a sheep has poor nutrition or suffers stress, the fleece will be weak and break at the spot where it was growing when the poor nutrition or stress occurred. If the nutrition and stress are really severe, a yellow line will develop and run through the fleece. There were only two sheep out of seventy-one with any break in their fleece. Both surprises, yearlings who otherwise looked good. The third indicator from a sheep's fleece about a flock's health is volume of fleece. This winter was not a particularly cold one, yet the Emperor decreed that I had at least fifty percent more fleece from the flock than I had at last year.
The fleeces were weighed, evaluated, and graded at the Wool Pool today. The Emperor was right. My fleeces graded top grade, except for some belly wool, and weighed fifty percent more than last year. Considering that I kept back five to use for hand spinning, that is quite good.
Well, it would seem the Emperor really needed his dinner, because the afternoon's shearing simply became a monologue about sheep from the expert's mouth. I listened and smiled, and listened, and continued to pen sheep for him until he was finished. “I sheared 750 sheep in three days before coming here,” he said. It would seem to be by way of apology. “See you next year,” said the Emperor of Shearing. I laughed. My daughter said I should have served dinner at eleven in the morning rather than one-thirty in the afternoon. However, this lady of the manor never invited the Emperor of Shearers to set foot on this farm again.
to a sudden stop on Elk Creek Road a couple of days ago, late afternoon. The familiar sound of a country tragedy. It is the sound of fear. The sound of terror, in fact. My son rushed out of the house. He saw a car stopped in the middle of the road. A man got out. My younger dog, Samantha, came racing toward the house from the roadside, ran to Joachim for a brief moment to be petted, only then to desperately circle the house and disappear into my farm office. The man drove off without a word.
I had left for work leaving Joachim with the two dogs. Joachim called me later in the evening at my job. “I can't find Samantha,” he said, “anywhere.” He had searched the house, most of its cellars, the farm office, the wood room, and finally, with a neighbor's flashlight, along the roadside ditches, he said, after retelling the story of the accident. The accident that we were not certain had happened. Was Samantha hit, grazed, or missed? Border Collies are the smartest dogs of all, I've been told, and yet they are quite often roadside casualties in the country. The instinct to herd, to work, is built in, bred, some say for hundreds of years, and others, thousands. There is a school of thought that the Norwegians brought elk-hunting dogs with them to England and crossed them with some herding dogs from France, and there is another school of thought that links them with the wolf. Above all, Border Collies need to work. It is ingrained in them to flock something, anything. Even cars moving quickly along the road. Samantha had been taught, with her mother Steele, to drop on the
verge of the road upon hearing an approaching vehicle. I realized early on that since Border Collies are driven to
when a moving object approaches or recedes from them, to train them to drop on the wayside grass was a possible replacement action to chasing cars. Steele can be trusted, but Samantha is still very young, and I'm not certain what she will do if I'm not with her. The shepherd acts as a command dog.
Samantha is an eager and loving puppy. The first sound of my step in the driveway coming home will bring her running to me. If I so much as mention her name to someone with whom I'm talking on the phone, Samantha will react to me from the back porch. She reads my mind and comes to me when I've just thought her name, before I can even call “Sammie, Sam, Sam.” She is always there. Until the other evening.
My boss was most understanding about the phone calls interrupting us all evening. “Did you look here, did you look there, the other whereÂ â¦” I asked, bringing up every imaginable other either Joachim or I could think of, but no Samantha.
The next morning I came home directly from work and walked beside all of the roadside drainage ditches. I looked in the big metal culvert under the road, and then, with an enticing piece of cooked chicken held in my hand, went into the wood room where sometimes Samantha sleeps far underneath a set of stairs. The room was silent except for the beat of my heart. “Samantha,” I called. I looked partway under the stairs. No Samantha. I turned to go back to the house proper to get a flashlight when, just then, I saw a tiny tip of a black nose emerge very slowly. She had been under those stairs all night and into the next morning. “Samantha.” Her face appeared. She made no sound. I reached in and pulled her out. Half dragging, half carrying, I brought her into the morning light, a silent pup, with no apparent injuries, frightened silent, but fine. She came with me
into the house, but it took some coaxing to get her to go up the stairs and into Joachim's room. “Jocko, wake up! It's Samantha!” And in a minute his face was covered with doggy kisses. Her tail energetically wagging, Samantha was very much alive. And still Sammie, Sam, Sam.
This afternoon, while shoveling out the barns, my son and I noticed a sheep way up on the hill, near the tree line. She was too still, sitting without moving for far too long. A short distance away was something white, not moving and less distinct. Joachim, ever practical, suggested I check with binoculars before walking up there. I never focus them correctly. He did. One sheep became distinct. The something white was obscured by a bush and less identifiable.
We took Steele and Samantha and went up to investigate. The side hill has been providing pasture for some time now and it was good to be able to inspect it at close range. As we went up to the tree line, we spotted a young ewe and an old ram that had separated from the flock and spent the day together. The something white was the ram that immediately joined the ewe to protect her.
They had chosen well. The view was beautiful. The hills are alive with color right now, and looking down, the proportions of the layout of my farm are pleasingly well ordered. Joachim and I searched for trees to become candidates for future Christmases. The dogs returned the ram and the ewe to the fold. The fear that the ewe was dying and the white spot was a lamb was a reasonable but erroneous one. They were safe. We all went down the hill for tea.
Fear doesn't leave me, when confronted by relief, as immediately as it once did. It lingers first in the center of my heart, and then, imperceptibly, moves out to its edges. Slowly I find myself hugging Samantha, unexpected bursts of love without apparent reason. And watch the flock with a sense of wary caution. Life and death are so
immediate here on this farm, partly because there are so many of us, sheep and lambs and dogs and cows and me, and all so much out of my control, in hands more wise than mine.
Tea was a rough kind of one for today. There was no time to bake. We had leftover cake and toasted cheese sandwiches. It was all in all a rough kind of day, mucking out the barn in a faint drizzle of rain. Climbing the side hill with rapid caution. But I was grateful for it. It was a good day.