The black lamb in the photo is a single. The white lamb is one from a quintuplet birth, a rare event in a shepherd’s life. The guy is Brad, my brother-in-law, the shepherd involved. Note the much larger size of the single lamb which underscores the opinion of many shepherds that singles are really preferable, all things considered, than multiple births, especially in this case since two of the quints died after their mother laid on them. Many shepherds, including myself, prefer singles even to triplets and don’t mind singles rather than twins because invariably a single lamb will grow faster without any problems. And, as shepherds rarely admit, if everyone got lots of triplets every year, the price would just go down.
Brad and my sister Berny are super-shepherds and this year have an excellent lambing survival rate of 69 lambs from 35 ewes. The other photo of Brad and Berny watching a pasture birth unfold, was taken by Dennis Barnes who, in addition to being a professional photographer, just happens to be another brother-in-law and owner of part of the pasture Brad and Berny use along with their own part. That pasture with its hills for sledding, creek for wading, trees for climbing, and sheep paths over which we, as children, galloped our make-believe horses, has been the playground for our family for four generations now if I count Mom riding her real horse over it in the 1940s. It has actually been a sheep pasture for over a century. With sisters, Berny and Marilyn, going over it constantly with hoes, and Brad and Dennis with mowers, and the sheep roaming over it with their teeth, I bet five bucks you will never see a weed go to seed on it.
I spent an afternoon in the lambing barn with Brad and Berny recently and it turned out to be a wonderful visit. Having sold my own flock— too old to handle them anymore— I was lonesome for sheep and shepherd company. B and B are remarkably disciplined shepherds, rising constantly through the night to check for ewes in labor and using all the skills of midwifery to save as many lambs as possible. Mothers and new offspring go into individual pens until they bond. Then, and this is a new trick to me, two or three ewes and their young are put in a pen together for a day or two. The sheep families learn how to sort each other out this way much better than if they were just turned loose in the whole flock. Berny calls this pen the “halfway house.”
No ewe was having lambing problems as we sat there watching, and so we just talked on and on about all the memories that old barn holds for us. At one time I thought I would spend my life working there. What a wonder to be able to return so many years later and find it still a working barn on a real farm not much different than it was 80 years ago except it is a whole lot neater than when Dad and I did the chores.
Not all the memories that place holds are sweet and lovely. Where we sat and talked marked almost the exact spot where Mom fell from the mow, broke her neck and died, shattering the faith and almost the resolve of Dad and his nine children— a family that was ultra-close then and still is. Mom’s spirit is still very much alive all over the place. Five of my siblings live right there on the farm in their own houses. I am only two miles away and the other two (one has passed away) only about 8 miles away. Berny and Brad live in the home place where Berny was born some 70 years ago, a rarity today. I told her that her cousin, David on the other side of the county, has her beat. He lives in the same farm house where he was born 86 years ago. She arched her brow and replied: “But does he still sleep in the same room where he was born?”
A palpable peace settled over the three of us as we talked through the quiet afternoon. The ewes lay there chewing their cuds, dozing off, the lambs nuzzled up next to them. Why can’t humans find such peace and contentment instead of constantly shouting and shooting at each other? As four o’clock approached, the ewes knew feeding time was approaching without clocks. They stirred, arose, looked expectantly at Brad, then crowded up to the mangers after he threw down the hay.
The sound of sheep munching is more soothing than listening to trained monks sing Gregorian chant. The ewes also make little gurgling sounds of contentment as they eat. The lambs go wild, with plenty of room away from the mangers now to prance and dance. It is impossible to watch them and not feel good about the world no matter how awful it seems to be.