Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
It doesn’t have to be spring to see the cycle of renewal happening here on the farm. At Bittersweet, days of frigid cold and nights of blowing gales accompany the onset of lambing season.
Lambs. Is there anything that tugs at our hearts more than their soft, wooly faces or the sight of twin lambs nursing from a good and patient mom? Having a bad day? Grab a lamb and go sit on a hay bale in the sheep pen for 30 minutes. When a ewe shares her tiny one—a soft nose snuggling into your neck, small whimpers, tiny lamb kisses—all of your troubles melt away. (As for that mom, maybe she has bad days, too: little ones demanding too much milk, wandering out of sight, getting pecked by curious chickens. Lambs take energy. When night falls, rest comes soft and sweet to that mom, as well as to the shepherdess.)
With Jack Fergus in the pasture last season, the girls’ due dates came earlier this year. I was OK with that until we hit December. Unrelenting cold. Wind howling up over the cove and slicing across the pastures. Gates blowing shut just when you’re driving the flock in for the night. Snow drifts up and over the fencing, leaving pastures vulnerable. Frozen water. Buckets, buckets, and more buckets to keep hydration levels up. Hay. Did I say hay? I lost count at 200 bales. “Isn’t it a little early for this much snow and cold?” I kept asking. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending on who answered. But even the old timers were commenting that they hadn’t seen a December like that for a while.
Frankly, I expected lambs by Christmas. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. But two weeks later, at morning feeding time, Colleen gave birth to twins, two coal-black boys, 9 and 10 pounds. Last year, in March, all the girls delivered overnight. It began just before St. Patrick’s Day, ending Easter Sunday with Maeve delivering the last set of twins under the pine tree by the sheep pen. Warm days and sunshine melted winter snows, and after the first weeks, lambs were sprawled across the earth, soaking up the spring warmth.
This year was a different story, the lambs doing their best to find a warm corner in the sheep pen, tuck in behind a hay bale or a mom, and snuggle down. Sitting with them in the mornings was a comfortable and comforting place to sip my morning coffee. But come nightfall and even some days when temperatures reached only single digits, dropping to minuses at night, there was no relief. Sixteen days into January, on a 4 a.m. check, I found one of the twins lying stiff and flat on the ground, crying out. Pneumonia.
I wish I could say that he is bouncing around in the pasture with his twin brother as I write this. I can’t. What I can say is that, in his last days with my tending him around the clock to try and save his life, he brought me much joy. His big brown eyes were so trusting, allowing me to snatch him from his mom and keep him warm and dry, while his mom patiently waited for his return. As much as I would have liked him to be with his own kind through it all, he was too weak to stay with the flock.
It’s such a privilege to be a part of these animals’ lives. I get far more from them than they could ever receive from me. They teach me kindness and patience and unconditional love and trust, hope and belief in something much bigger than me. I walk into the dairy barn every morning and am greeted so warmly by my herd, each nuzzling a head into my chest, zipping and unzipping my jacket, pulling on my hat, pushing faces into my hand, just so I can tickle behind an ear or rub a head. What other lesson do I need?
As I look out the windows to the pasture, I can see my lost lamb’s twin brother bouncing around. He goes from chicken to duck to turkey to other lamb moms, lies under the tree for a bit, nibbles some hay, then runs back to his own mom for nourishment. Twins are never really separated, so I see his brother bouncing with him the way they did, chasing one another around the pine tree. Soon there will be more little lambs. They will learn to bounce, and he’ll have playmates to run with.
Winter brings cold into our lives and makes things seem bleak at times. I’m happy I have little lambs to take away some of that bleakness, even if briefly. Life and death, a cycle of beginnings and endings on the farm: It is the order of things, even if it hurts our hearts when it seems to come out of order. As tenders of flocks and herds, we can only strive to keep them as safe and warm as possible. We can’t work magic and probably wouldn’t, even if we knew how. Mother Nature knows what the lambs need. No rocket science or wonder drugs will fool her. I always know my flocks and herds are in her good hands.
Update: All together, seven lambs joined the Bittersweet flock, six rams and one ewe. With the exception of the one little lost lamb, all are thriving and waiting the arrival of spring, when the cycle will renew.
Dyan Redick describes herself as “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Her farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross ﬂock, goat milk soap, lavender, woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Bittersweet Heritage Farm is an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food source, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.
Photos by DYAN REDICK