I’ve been trying to reorient myself to write these past few days. In the midst of the conference—I took a break and tried to sit down and figure out even what I would write about. I made a map of all the topics that I am Interested in: little bubbles with connections drawn between: Farm. Family. Grief. Art. Climate change pathetically linked to every single one. Love.
Q: How does one write nonfiction when you don’t feel like an expert on a single thing?
A: You are an expert in your own life.
I try to remember a time when I felt this type of sad in January. I have never been this sad before. I have always been this sad.
I wrote down every memory I can think of with the sheep in chronological order, trying to parce out a theme. Why do I like them? I really don’t know. There is something so calming about them (when they are calm). The rhythmic crunch of their jaws, breaking down the cud. The occasional rumple when they shake their wooly coats. I can’t describe how much I like the sound of a sheep shaking its coat. It is reminiscent of a prairie grouse, a deep and feathery sound. Ephemeral and earthy. They rest their heads on each other like pillows. When they lamb, their babies sometimes curl up on top of their fluffy backs. Can you imagine if your mom was a pillow?
The other side, when its hot. The sweat turns to layers of grease in their coats. Lanolin. When we shear, everything becomes greasy. My boots when I stomp down the fleeces in the deep burlap sack. My arms when I work my way around a sheep, the motions awkward and new, but the flow of the clippers along the skin somehow ancient.
How long have sheep and people lived together? 13000 years, roughly. (Thanks, Wikipedia).
From another perspective, you can see sheep across the world as an expression of colonial power. Native to Europe, the Middle East, parts of Asia, domesticated sheep were brought to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand as part of the colonial process. The livestock has since been incorporated into local traditions, but responsibility for the spread is inevitably linked to the spread of white colonists. I’m not sure what to do with that information—I can’t resent them for it, just like I can’t blame myself for being born here. But I can’t ignore it.
The real trick is not in recognizing things like sheep and my own body for being products of white expansion in this country. These things are obvious. It is the subtleties I get hung up on.
Why do I inevitably delve into these topics that feel too big for me to handle?
It is worth acknowledging that now, with our pastures, large and small ruminants can perform the same ecosystem function that wild bison did on the tallgrass prairie. Intensive herd grazing, rotated through the pasture, incorporates poop and aerates the soil, allows the grasses, clovers, legumes, and wildflowers to regenerate and flourish. While sheep may be a result of colonization, we can work with them now to make something good, to respect the land.
And now, February.
Four perfect sets of twins in the barn, mamas’ bellies growing wider. We can’t find our tags for the boys. The tetanus anti-toxin vaccine we prefer to give at birth is on manufacturer backorder. It is a good thing we vaccinated the moms two weeks ago, but feels so fluky. We are constructing pens as lambs are born, the barn isn’t ready ahead of time.
Trying to adjust to lambing sleep schedules. We deliriously talk about turning to an ancient sleep ritual that humans used to use—call them First Sleep and Second Sleep, going to bed early and then waking in the middle for a period called the Watching. During the watching, one would stretch, stoke the fire. Eat a snack. Make babies. Use the darkness to sit and think. Then back to sleep, for another period.
Last night, Carmen tried to attempt a watching. It went very poorly, she reports in the morning, and we giggle at the prospect of trying to stay awake in the middle of the night. It feels like maybe all either of us will do is check the sheep and sleep.
First Sleep and Second Sleep was how we as humans evolved, apparently, but sleeping longer, through the night, seems to be better for our internal organs. This would be an impossible thing to really test scientifically; humans didn’t live long enough at that time for the internal organs to degrade. And who could really commit to this sleep schedule for the rest of their lives?
Lambing feels like a liberation from the rigorous American work schedule. Lambing feels like the greatest physical challenge of the year.
Yesterday morning, on my 4am check, I found a ewe with one lamb. I moved them under a heat lamp, and tried to dry the lamb off with the towel I brought out in my coat. It was zero degrees fahrenheit; little icicles were forming on the lamb’s ears and tail. Ran back to the house for more towels, for the hair dryer. The dryer served only to disturb everyone else, even the lamb, with its roaring.
I back off, suddenly doubtful that she’s done birthing, and sure enough the ewe backs up to the wall, and heaves her sides, one, two, three, and lamb number two comes sliding out. I race back in, mopping as much birthgoop as I can with my towels. They aren’t enough. Back to the house, more towels. These babies were born on the coldest morning of lambing; one girl one boy. Later I think the boy maybe got a little frostbite on his balls. They seem fine, though. Cute and perky by evening.
This is the coldest winter we’ve lambed in before, mostly it means we have to check the barn more frequently, make sure to catch any new births so the wet babies don’t die in the cold.
A brief episode with a hypothermic lamb, we were sure was going to die. Carmen tubed it, alone in the barn, while I was at painting class. Limp and unconscious, we packed it in blankets next to a hot water bottle on top of the hot air vent in the house. By 4 pm, it was wandering around the living room, looking for milk.
My vivid dreams haven’t ended, but I’m having them more sporadically. The lambing fatigue sometimes gives me dreamless nights of deathlike slumber. I can’t imagine people who can’t sleep. I can’t imagine a sleepless night.
Last night I had my lost in a mall dream again. The shelves packed with purses and baskets and shoes and craft supplies reached all the way up to the ceiling; the stores were each the size of Costco. Around and around, trying to find the West Entrance, always staring out the Eastern Entrance doors to a foggy and wet parking lot.
Why do I mostly feel inspired to write during lambing season? How do I carry these feelings forward?
This time of year makes me feel some weird animal urges. Constantly tempted to just lay my body down in the barn and sleep with the sheep. It makes me want to have a human baby. I’ve been thinking, a lot, about my grandchildren, about their future. About what stories I will tell them, about what world they will live in.
Midwifery is a connection to the border of life and death. I can almost see the other side.
We’re up to ten lambs from 5 ewes. 1/6th done? They’ve been coming slow and steady, which is nice. Many more to go.
Reading A Sugar Creek Chronicle this winter is an exercise in disillusion. The winter she observes, takes painstaking notes on, is warmer than usual. It easily fits many metaphors of climate change. “Global warming.” This is not to say that she says Iowa is getting warmer exclusively, but the path of the book makes the line between her observations and the conclusion of changing climate an easy one to draw. This winter, this unending winter, has made me feel it on a different scale.
I looked at a map today of snowfall totals this winter: we are in the 40” category. With more inches predicted tomorrow night. That’s almost four feet!! I’ve learned to plow the driveway well this winter.
Time to stop the monologue and go shovel snow off the high tunnel.