To the memory of Freckles, sheep super mother, and my teacher.
In my decade as a grass farmer, as a shepherd, my lambs came in the middle of April. They dropped heavy and wet and wriggling onto the pasture. The spring grass was shiny and emerald green, as billowy as a blanket across the ground, and for a time made southern Ohio look like Ireland. Every morning, such sweet newborn lambs they were, coming into my arms dazed and ethereal. And the colors! Ice-milk white, strawberry roan, and khaki tan. Dark chocolate, rich mahogany spotted, black as coal. These were Katahdins, a product of the American melting pot, the proud claim of Maine, where beer heir Michael Piel created them in the 1950s.
In a passage since cut from my memoir in progress, an experiment in third-person, present-tense narration, I describe a rainy April morning during lambing:
Thunder booms at daybreak. The shepherd awakes and listens. There’s the spattering tap of rain on the roof and lightning flashes—a spring thunderstorm. Rain drums and then steadies into a shush. He stares at the ceiling. “This is our first due date,” he says. “Lambs are out there being born in this.” His wife rises. “At least it’s not snowing,” she says. He pulls on his canvas overalls and goes for his jacket. In the kitchen Mister Coffee gurgles and moans. The shepherd steps onto the porch, and, finding the air mild, feels thankful.
He makes his pasture rounds, the rain gentle. No new lambs. A white yearling who lambed two days early hovers over her twins. The brown-spotted male, his legs braced, punches his mother’s udder like a flyweight hammering a heavy bag. The smaller roan ewe lamb sits hunched like a sodden rabbit.
Water drips from the brim of the shepherd’s hat, and beads of water roll off the shoulders of his slicker. He surveys the bent and bitten glistening grass. He must move the flock before any more births and nudge the new mother along. Yet he lingers in this spell, in the hushed dignity the rain has lent this April morning.
When I was growing up in Satellite Beach, Florida, the nearest sheep had to be 100 miles away. Grieving for the farm we’d left in Georgia, I’d drag out Dad’s old farming books and moon over pictures of blocky whitefaced Herefords. I even memorized breeds of swine, admired the chickens. But sheep? The breeds looked too much alike in the grainy black-and-white photos. A poor fantasy livestock. It took me years to learn that they don’t all look alike. Or behave alike. To see how fitted to my hill country they were, how fitted to a small farm’s infrastructure and human muscle. To discover, in short, the hidden beauty of sheep.
So I’m a tad defensive when people ignorantly disparage sheep. I was guarded when estimable rural writer Verlyn Klinkenborg pondered sheep in his New York Times column this past Sunday. But after warily reading his piece, I can tell he’s working himself up to get sheep—in both senses: to begin to raise them and so to become a fan. Because they are a great species—and fully smart enough to be successful sheep. How smart do you require the animals you eat to be, anyway? Can you decode their complex, ongoing body language? Grasp the dozens of messages passing between a ewe and her newborn lamb? Grunts, bleats, tail flicks. Nudges, licks, baas.
Daily sheep humbled me with their fleeting displays of joy, their stoic dignity, their calm presence, their acceptance, and their gentle egoless group mind.
My pocket lambing notebooks, cheap spiral-bound Oxford booklets from Wal-Mart’s shelves, are enchanted. Even now, years later, I can open them—the dog-eared pages smudged by dew and birth fluids; smeared with blood and dirt—and hear lambs crying and their mothers baaing and see a ewe licking her newborns in the sun. The chunky notebooks contain data: birth dates, weights, tag numbers. And scrawled exhortations: Great mother! or Cull this ewe!
Lambing season’s chaos, drama, and abundant living gifts made it almost unbearably exciting. How I do miss it this mild April morning.