The brilliant oranges and blues that have ruled the farm for the past two weeks have now faded into solemn grays and ochres, more appropriate as a herald of the dying back that fast approaches.
The dash and fever of the summer have faded, too, giving way to a more contemplative state. There is something in the autumn air that stirs the mind; the days when clouds brood low over the hill, the crunch of leaves beneath boots, mornings and afternoons wearing wool sweaters – all this calls us to turn inward as the trees do, when they let go of the leaves that reach for the sun and content themselves with a focus on their roots, their center.
Autumn is the passage from vibrancy to dormancy, a seasonal walk from life to death. To watch nature undertake this solemn march is to learn the natural way of dying. Brilliance fades into sedate beauty, quickly tumbling clouds slow, warm soil cools.
1612 was an old ewe, our oldest, and her hold on life had been loosening since the beginning of the summer. All season she was at the back of the herd, observing from afar the rush toward the grain bucket, declining to follow the herd in their leaps over the stream. She slowed. As the nights cooled, she slowed more.
She stopped seeking the company of the herd, preferring time to herself under the apple trees in the grove, or sunning among the thistles. One imagines that she was seeking her center, more easily found alone in the forest than among the helter skelter crowd of young lambs, new mothers, and courting rams.
This past weekend, she curled inward. We found her under the protective trunk of a long-dead tree on a painfully clear morning. Leaves sighed underfoot as we moved her out of the pasture.
She was buried, as all non-food farm animals are, in the richness of the compost pile. Her body, so heavy when lifeless, will lighten. But she will not float away into the air. Instead, she will seep into the ground, foster delicate roots, and become the grass itself. Death leads forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it. Nothing collapses. -ww
Or rather, I suppose I should refer to the second as a "hands in" birth...
But first, the first: The sheep are a relatively new addition to the farm, so we're still learning our way around them. This results in a lot of surprises, from how to catch them when they are roaming 30 acres (apparently, you need a dog), to how they view Beulah the milk-cow-in-training (as a threat if you are a nursing ewe, as a playmate if you are an older lamb), to how to hold them when you trim their toes (stand them on their rump and cradle them and they calm right down).
I found two very cute surprises of a different sort last Thursday.
As I was working on morning chores in the barn, I heard a sheep making a low grumbly baaa...not the normal, conversational baaa, and not the insistant, I-want-grain baaa. I had heard it before. A mama was introducing herself.
Pregnant sheep are very obvious...they look like they have basketballs glued to each side. But we don't yet know the "lambs within 12 hours!!!" signs, the way we do with pigs (in order of operations: "bagging up," nest building, giving milk when you squeeze a teat, swollen nether regions, loss of apetite, laying on their side and breathing deeply, discharge).
So, I had, in fact, noted in our sheep spreadsheet five days prior to surprises: "Q looking extremely pregnant." But it still took my breath away to find Ms. Q cleaning off two very spindly, shocked, pink nosed fluffs in the chill, rainy morning. I sat for a good long while and watched them to make sure everything was proceeding well. My reading indicates that the ewe-lamb bonding process is important; they have to learn each other scents and noises so they can keep track of each other. I didn't want to get in the way, so I just watched, mystified, as Quagmire cleaned them off and guided them toward her udder. They were nursing feverishly by the time I went back to the barn.
I noticed something else that morning. Myrtle, an accidentally pregnant gilt, was not hungry.
On friday morning, I went down early to check the lambs (seeing them laying in a white heap from a few yards away I steeled myself to find dead lambs, but as I approaced they both arched their necks up and looked at me, unconcerned) and Myrtle. I found her with one fresh stillborn piglet. The umbilical cord was still inside Myrtle, which was odd: usually (93% of the time, the internets informed me later) stillborns are stillborn because they have detached from the placenta. I noted the time and determined that if another piglet weren't out in 45 minutes, I would investigate.
It was also a very bad sign. If the first piglet is stillborn, it likely took awhile to birth (live piglets help somehow in the delivery; most of the time we've had to help out, it's been with a stillborn). If it took awhile to birth, all the presumed piglets behind it, lined up in the birth canal and detaching from the life-giving placenta would be suffocating. I decided to only give her 15 minutes before investigating.
15 minutes, it turns out, passes almost instantly. Long enough only to brew coffee and drink one sip.
When I checked on Myrtle, my coffee evilly cooling on the table back at the house, she had passed a placenta. That was very odd.
Pigs have more than one placenta; in our experience, they usually pass two, one for each of the two "horns" of their uterus. The fact that she had passed one meant that it was likely that a horn was already empty.
I gave her another 15 minutes of pushing before I donned the shoulder-high gloves, liberally doused all things pig and human in baby oil, and did some investigating. Usually, just the presence of a hand where a hand should not be strengthens the contractions; only about 40% of the time that manual intervention has been initiated have we had to pull the piglet.
This piglet though...was STUCK. I found it wedged right behind her pelvis, and I could not get it over and through.
The worst part about the ordeal, as I was feeling around, twisting and pulling, was the growing certainty that this piglet was also already dead. Just as it is easier for the sow to birth a live piglet, it is easier for us to manually extract a live piglet. This piglet's unwillingness to move or rotate combined with the first being a stillborn made it likely that it was a stillborn as well.
I called in Big Man to help out. He spent a very draining hour and a half wrestling with Myrtle and the piglet, which was indeed most certainly very dead. What can be such an awe-inspiring ordeal -- there is no piglet, then her tail flicks and there is suddenly something gooey behind the sow, and then the gooey starts to move and kick and squeak and it is suddenly a piglet nursing -- was just two cold, slimy bodies, with two cold, slimy farmers morosely staring at them.
There is not much more emotionally draining or depressing than a rough delivery of stillborn animals. But then, there is not much more uplifting than an animal that has a hands off delivery of super healthy lambs that thrive despite the grumpy weather -- despite the fact that the day they were born consisted almost entirely of rain, and despite the fact that overnight it dropped to 35 degrees and it sleeted throughout the morning, despite the fact that every time I stepped outside to let the dog in and felt the chill air I was positive that anything as fragile-looking as a lamb must certainly be dead, both of them have been thriving. Quaggy has been a perfectly attentive mother, staying near but somewhat separate from the wandering herd, and both lambs do a good job of sticking close to her. I check on them every day to make sure they are doing well, and they always reward me with their waggling tails as they nurse -- probably the cutest thing ever in the entire world.
As we say so often here: life goes on, but sometimes, it doesn't. As farmers we have to do the best we can to tip the scales in life's direction, but we also have to be accepting that death always follows on life's heels -- sometimes, quicker than we would prefer.