Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Does This Straitjacket Make Me Look Fat?

In my last post, I mentioned that one of the casualties in the barnyard this summer was Bull, my favorite sheep. It has taken me two months to mention this because the event cast me down to an extent which you probably wouldn’t believe, and which I really do not understand. He was a nice sheep and all, but he was a sheep. Losing him should not send a person into the kind of tailspin that, in fact, ensued.

In the third week of August, Bull started hanging around the barn instead of going out with the other sheep to graze. He may or may not have been acting a little strange weeks before; I remember seeing him standing alone for a long time inside the branches of a reclining apple tree, which is not a real sheep-like behavior. He had stopped coming to scarf up the cup of chicken feed I throw out the door of the Hen Room every morning for the entertainment of the grazing classes, but I assumed that that was because Joshua, the sheep with the stand-up horns, had taken to using those horns to, as the capitalists say, maximize marketshare. Still, Bull was acting fairly normal until one particular week when John went to Colorado to travel and work, and my parents came up and stayed with me and the children for a few days so we could visit and do fixer-upper projects together. That Thursday Bull started not leaving the barn much, and I saw him drinking water from the barrel, which is unusual—they seem to get most of their water from the grass they eat. But he wasn’t really eating. I stayed overnight with my college roommate and came home and Bull was still odd but no odder. Mom and Dad left on Saturday, and Bull ate a little strip of leftover grilled zucchini I gave him because it was slicked with olive oil, which I thought might help if he was plugged up inside. Sunday morning he was wider than the other sheep. He was always wider than the others, possibly because he was the greediest damn sheep in the world, but Sunday he was wider than usual. I went on the Internet and found advice involving the gargling of mineral oil by sheep with bloat. Juliette de Bairacli Levy, the great barnyard herbalist, counseled dill seed. I started thinking about the ice pick scene in Far From the Madding Crowd. But none of these remedies seemed possible without John there to restrain the sheep. And it was Sunday, when it seemed criminal to call Dr. Mike away from the family dinner table because my sheep had gas.

I guess I should have called. On Monday morning just before full daylight, I went to the barn to open the hen door and check on Bull before I darted off to serve breakfast at the B&B. He was lying in his usual spot along the wall, his head curled down alongside his flank. He was still warm. His eyes were closed. He looked for all the world like a sheep sound asleep.

After I laid out the coffee and juice and cereal and pastry at the Inn, I called my friends on the next hill. Bill understands tractors, and was willing to come dig a hole for me. The kids helped me drag Bull out of the barn and into the tractor scoop. We buried him down near Dermott and Sterling and Dolly Madison, the turkey. Phyllida put some goldenrod in the grave. Everybody got poison ivy.

All the rest of that day, I couldn’t stop crying. Pretty soon little whispery voices in my head started making accusations about care that could have been given, actions that could have been taken, choices that could have been made that would have saved that sheep. The rational assertions of my friends—that Bull had lived about six times longer than sheep normally get to live, that he had had a really nice life, that he was a sheep, for God’s sake—had no effect. By Thursday, the little voice had turned from angry to vicious. Sheep killer, it whispered. Sheep killer. It wasn’t this bad when I had to send Rocco, the fourth lamb, to the slaughterhouse because he had become violent. This time, the little voice was carrying a torch and a pitchfork, and you could tell that after dark there was going to be trouble.

This worried me enough to call in the Cavalry. I told my friend Paula in Vermont what the little voice was doing. Paula ordered me to tell the little voice that if it said another word on the subject of sheep, now or ever, she would come down here, and it would be sorry. She meant it. Don’t push her.

That was it. Like all bullies confronted by a person of courage, the little voice shut up. I started feeling a little better and sleeping at night. On the weekend I told more people what had happened. My friend John, who has spent a good deal of time in Ireland, said, “He might have had that thing sheep get where their stomach flips over and there’s nothing you can do to save them.” It had never occurred to me that maybe there was nothing I could have done.

Seven or eight weeks went by. I wondered why I was not writing about Bull. Then at the feed store I ran into my friend Margaret, who sold me the lambs three years ago and maintains her own large flock. She is so sensible she actually eats some of her sheep, and sells them to other people to eat. Margaret is wise and good, and as I confessed to her what had happened, how I had taken one of her lambs and heedlessly thrown it away, I watched her reaction. She stood with her hands in her jeans pockets, tapping her Muck shoe, which was held together with duct tape. When I finished speaking, she gently shrugged thin shoulders under her ever-present flannel shirt. “You do what you can for them,” she said. “But the time comes when only they can decide whether or not they are going to live.” She added, “He probably ate something bad.”

I am not ready to exonerate myself of this sheep’s death. But it does occur to me that Bull was the greediest sheep alive, and if he did in fact eat himself to death, there is a metaphorical elegance in that which I think reflects the deep structure of the universe. I believe in that structure, and I believe you can read the fitness of an event—how necessary it was—by how fully it conforms to the deep elegance. So while I am not yet ready to get down off the cover of the Autumn 2011 Triple Harvest Issue of Bad Farmer magazine, it is possible that I was a bystander at the wreck of this hay train, and not the one who blew up the tracks.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dead or Broody?

Back in the day when I was in college and MTV was the coolest thing anyone had ever seen, we used to wile away the time between study groups playing Dead or Canadian? This week at Wren Cottage, we are updating that game for the 21st century farm with the action packed puzzler Dead or Broody?

I guess the photo gives away this week’s answer.

One of the black hens, the youngest, spryest, egg-producingest part of our flock, went broody early last week. This is not the most convenient time of year to have tiny defenseless infants, but what the hell. It’s her life.

I have been leaving for work before daylight lately, so the chickens get fed in darkness, and the few eggs that are still being laid are collected in darkness, by feel. A day or two after the hen went broody, I was feeling around for eggs and accidentally jammed my hand into the broody girl’s back. I apologized. But the next day I had the chance to visit the barn in broad daylight, so I thought I would do some visual recon on the mother-to-be. And guess what? I guessed wrong. Not broody. Dead.

At least her eyes were shut. I hate when creatures die with their eyes open and then they get dirt in them. Who wants dirt in their dead eyes? When my favorite sheep, Bull, died this summer, he died in his sleep, his head curled gracefully down to the hay bedding and his eyes closed as though in repose. Ditto the black hen. I am a tiny little bit tired of my animals dropping dead this year. But I am glad that none of them have been smashed open, and their eyes were all shut.