The Lessons of Lambing Season
Spring on a small farm, and what we can learn about bonding and resilience.
Well, hello, dear ones, It's been a dramatic week here at my house and abroad. I've taken to soothing my bystander despair by picturing that bridge on the Romanian-Ukrainian border where people left toys for refugee kids to find as they crossed. Maybe these individual acts of kindness will accumulate, rising like humanity's last bulwark against the tide of unspeakable cruelty that has been visited upon Ukraine.
The list of the good and the brave is long. There are all the ordinary people donating time and space in their hearts, and the heroes I look to, like José Andrés, head of World Central Kitchen who's feeding bodies and souls in Lviv, and Shelly Tygielski, founder of Pandemic of Love who's in Poland working to get orphans out of the war zone.
I wonder if even all that love is enough to heal the horrific damage already done. But perhaps the lesson the Ukrainians have gifted us is to not ever stop trying. (More ways to help here.)
This week, in honor of the Spring equinox, I bring you a beautiful guest essay about lambing season by Mia Tramz, who is a farmhand and an Emmy-winning storyteller. It's a poignant dispatch from a place where life is tightly bound to the ancient cycles of loss and rebirth. (And you'll find some other inspirational delights below.)
by Mia Tramz
Several weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a pile of mud and sheep shit holding a half-dead newborn lamb in my arms. It was one of the first warm mornings in February in upstate New York. Melting snow was running off the aluminum eaves of the sheep shed in rainbow droplets, falling on me and the lamb as the sun shone down.
It was the eaning time—the time of year when ewes go into labor—and this was the ninth lamb that had arrived since the beginning of the month. We had about a dozen pregnant ewes that were all going to deliver fairly close to one another. The first lamb that came had been a stillborn. Then, a miracle healthy baby that in its first five days of life grew to nearly twice its size. Then, we lost a mother, likely to toxemia, a condition that affects ewes carrying multiples. The babies take up so much room in the mother’s body that she can’t physically get enough nutrients into her stomach. She had folded her legs under her, breathed ever harder for several hours, then closed her eyes and passed. The day after that I had come out to the barn and found another stillborn in the sheep shed.
Cal, the farmer and owner of this flock, had lost his own mother this past year. Shortly after that, he’d lost his chief dog, Iggy. Despite his belief that death was a part of life on the farm, each sheep that had died in the last few weeks sent Cal spinning. He’d forget what he was doing in the middle of doing it. I’d find him standing in the tack room in the barn, in the middle of some forgotten chore, staring out into nothing, unable to speak or to continue what he’d been doing. With no wife or children, the animals of the farm had become in many ways his surrogate family. He said to me one day, “I’m at the beginning of the last chapter of my life.”
The day I found the second stillborn, I came into the kitchen to find Cal sitting at the table staring ahead into the dimly lit room. He had tears in his eyes. I had called him from the sheep field to tell him the news. “I won’t be able to lose another one. Emotionally I can’t do it,” he said.
I pulled up in Cal’s driveway the next morning and went into the house to get my briefing for the day. He was absently moving eggs and toast around in the kitchen. “I think there might be twins out there,” he said, lifting his eyes to me. “I saw two baby lambs in the field from the window this morning. Take the Nutri-drench and the bottle of formula out there with you and see what happened.”
I nod, throw on my muck boots, and bang through the swinging vestibule door towards the field. He’d started asking me to go out to the field in the mornings before him. My sense was that Cal had come to a point where he couldn’t be the first one there. I had become a buffer between him and bad news that he couldn’t bear.
I grab the bucket we keep the supplies needed for newborn lambs in and walk out through the cow pasture to the sheep field. As I approach, I see two perfect little white lambs circling around their mother. I wait at the gate before going in, observing the mother and her two babies and looking around for other arrivals or mothers in labor, then unwind the chain latch and go in.
A few steps into the field at the opening of the sheep shed I spot a little pile of bluish-white. It could be the mother’s placenta, I think. A few steps closer and I can see the pile shiver. It’s another baby, likely from the same mother, and possibly rejected. It’s still covered in membranes, which means the mother hasn’t cleaned it off. I can hear the little body breathing hard, with a fluid sound on the exhale that makes it seem like it’s drowning in its own breaths. I lower myself to the ground a few feet away from the baby to get a better look at it. Something Cal has made clear is that if I touch a newborn before the mother has bonded with it, she may reject it forever. I sit still and watch, giving the mother time to come back to the lamb, observing them all quietly.
The baby, though it is in the sun, is shivering violently. Its eyes are closed, and each breath is a rattling, painful labor. It’s somehow bigger than the other two she has already bonded with. I think about where I was just two years ago, sitting at a desk in an office, immersed in a career that took place in a world wholly separate from this one. I didn’t know anything about animals and farm life until I came to work for Cal just a few months ago. Each birth - and stillbirth - that had happened in the last month was a revelation. I had seen and touched more life and death in three weeks than I’d ever imagined possible. I was gaining a deep understanding of what can go wrong, where human intervention can help and where it can do irreparable harm.
I watch the little glistening blue and white body struggle against its own breath, and something deep inside me says You only have a few minutes. I quickly go into the shed, get down the nitrile gloves we keep up in the loft, and put them on. I ready a syringe of Nutri-drench, a liquid supplement of essential nutrients for newborns, and grab one of the bigger sheep jackets we keep for these cold months as a blanket. I sit down in the mud in the sun next to the newborn and carefully scoop it into my lap, gently folding its legs under its small body. I wrap it in the jacket, slip my thumb into the corner of its mouth to hinge it open, and squeeze a syringe full of Nutri-drench into its mouth. The sweet-smelling, thick brown liquid delivers an infusion of vitamins, electrolytes, and antioxidants and should take effect in minutes. The little body in my arms shakes. I whisper to the lamb, “You’re ok honey. You’re ok. You’re going to make it. You’re ok.”
It calms for a moment then begins to shiver again. I rock it gently against my body, put my thumb back in its mouth and slip in the tip of the bottle of lamb formula I’d carried out in my jacket. I feel the lamb’s tongue move against my finger. It sucks at the bottle, then makes a small sound that I take to mean it can’t drink anymore. It swallows with its eyes still closed and continues to shake gently in my arms. I feel the world around me go quiet. In a small bubble of sunlight, it’s just me and this little lamb. “You’re ok, you’re ok,” I whisper again and again. I close my eyes and listen to the melting snow droplets hit the ground.
I feel the tiny body still in my arms. I open my eyes and begin to look down. Surely it has passed. Surely this is a small tragedy that will stack upon the other small tragedies on the farm of the past few weeks. But as I gaze down, the little white face looks up into mine. Still covered in pearlescent and blue membranes, its face looks weak and fragile, but its eyes have opened. I realize that Cal has come out from the house and is standing a few feet away looking at me. I hear him say quietly, “You did good.” He tells me to put the lamb in the enclosure in the shed with its mother and the other two babies to see if they’ll bond.
As I stand to take it into the shed, the little lamb makes a small bleating sound, now stronger than before. Throughout the day, we would see its mother come to it, clean it, and form a strong bond. That afternoon, while I was spreading soft hay bedding along the floor of the shed, I watched it ever shakily rise and stand for the first time. It could have passed and it would have been a part of the life and death of the farm. But there was a small victory, a little wedge of hope that’s opening something bigger inside of me.
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What Mothers Know About War: A moving piece about those strollers left on Polish train platforms for Ukrainian refugees and how women have held families and countries together during conflict and disaster. Plus this lovely piece by the daughter of a Ukrainian stained-glass maker:
‘Becoming Human Again: A Reading List For Getting Offline On privacy and the quest to disentangle our personal and professional lives from social media.
If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary's cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.
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