Thursday, December 5, 2013
photo by Dave Ellison
When I walked Newton this morning, the temperature had settled at two degrees below zero. The wind cut through my wool mittens, fierce out of the west. Fresh snow stretched unbroken across the fields. It was a beautiful day, although a spare, harsh kind of beauty.
An hour later, while washing the dishes at the sink, Dave and I watched real beauty unfold. The rising sun burned through the clouds of snow still in the air and sun dogs appeared. Bright cousins of rainbows, sun dogs are even more magical than their rainstorm equivalents. The sundogs are due to sunlight refracting through hexagonal plate shaped ice crystals, usually found in high, cold cirrus clouds. In the winter, these ice crystals are called diamond dust and they float in the air at low elevations. Many winter mornings we see flat plates of diamond dust settled out on snow banks and grasses, glittering in the rising sun.
This morning the diamond dust refracted the light of the rising sun into a solar halo that circled the sun and two sun dogs, awesome in their beauty. Who could ask for a better reason to do the dishes than a glimpse of awesome beauty.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
The sheep don’t have a chance to be picky eaters. They graze on grass in the summer, on alfalfa hay in the winter and are supplemented with a little bit of corn the six weeks before lambing. Not much variety in their diet.
Newton the dog has even less variety. He gets one particular type of dog food. If we change the food, he gets diarrhea. So we try never to change his food. Interestingly, he never gets diarrhea from snacks.
Simon my youngest grandson, at 9 months, eats everything that comes within reach, including that one particular type of dog food. He is always hungry and squawks if we slow down while spoon feeding him. He’s a lot like his older cousin Jasper who also eats voraciously, but would just as soon not eat tomatoes or cucumbers and some other vegetable type foods. My oldest grandson, Kieran, is the original picky eater. He doesn’t like much of anything except fish, snacks and dessert, certainly not vegetables. In fact, he knows before you even tell him what we’re having for dinner that he won’t like it. Presumably they’ll all grow out of these phases.
The chickens are also picky eaters, but for them, it comes naturally. They wander through the barn and barnyard, pecking at the bedding, picking up bugs, grains and bits of sheep poop. In comparison to the chickens, I don’t mind my oldest picky eater so much; at least we don’t have to supply him with sheep poop.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Winthrop our ram loves people. When we walk up to his pasture, he leans his head against the fence so we can scratch behind his ears. He’s always glad to see us, whether for the scratches or for the corn we bring.
Winthrop is a huge sheep but we can usually lead him anywhere he wants to go. He was trained as a 4H lamb, so we lead him with a leash or with an arm around his neck
During breeding, Winthrop has a personality transplant. He’s just as glad to see us, but he is also just as apt to knock us over as to snuggle up for a scratch. If we catch his harness, stand beside him and scratch, he’s perfectly happy. But if we try to walk away, he lowers his head and charges.
Monday, I heard Dave calling me. “Bring some corn.” He was standing in the middle of the pasture tugging on Winthrop’s harness, completely unable to move Winthrop or to escape himself. I picked up a bucket and rattled it. Winthrop trotted up to the gate and the corn, allowing Dave to escape. Yesterday Dave cleared a four foot high gate in a single bound and I picked up a 2” X 4” for self-defense.
During breeding we walk the pastures with one eye on Winthrop because we’re never sure if the ram approaching us is Winthrop or his alter ego, Winthrop the second.
Saturday, November 9, 2013
I tell myself it’s like dressing a child. Head goes here, legs into the leg holes. But my self knows better. Dressing a sheep is nothing like dressing a child, not even a 150 pound child. Coating is enough of a challenge that if we didn’t earn a lot more money selling clean fleeces, I wouldn’t bother. But a clean fleece is worth $10 per pound. A fleece full of veggies, whether hay bits or weeds is worth around a dollar a pound. The extra work is definitely worth it. If I sold my fleeces to the shearer, he would sell it to a commercial woolen mill where they acid wash the fleeces to get rid of the veggies. But I sell my fleeces to individual spinners, felters and knitters and they would rather work with wool in its natural state – no acids, no bleaches, no veggies, nothing but wool and lanolin. So my sheep are coated from October through February when we shear them and my fleeces are wonderfully clean.
On the day we coat the sheep, we first put them into the barn. Lately, that’s been difficult as Winthrop doesn’t want us anywhere near his ladies. Once the sheep are corralled, we grab Winthrop’s harness, hold a bucket of corn in front of his nose and lead him back out of the barn, shutting him out. Only then can we work with the ewes.
Dave grabs the closest sheep and holds her against his legs. We inject her with a wormer and note in the barn log whether or not she has an orange crayon marking on her rump, evidence that she’s been bred. I pick out the most likely sized sheep coat and slip it over her head. That part is easy. Then we pull it down along her back. To fit well, the coat must hang down over her bottom by a couple of inches. If it fits, we wrestle her hind legs through the straps on the rear end of the coat. If we’re lucky, the coat fits perfectly. If we’re unlucky, the ewe backs over me, or runs Dave into the fence or we both end up on the ground.
Most coatings are somewhere in between the extremes. More often than not, when we release the sheep, it becomes obvious that her coat is too small (she has trouble walking) or too large (it hangs past her knees and she can easily step out of the straps) and we have to try a different size. Some sheep require two or three trials. The coats are various shades of beige, made in several different styles and embellished with denim patches where holes have worn in the fabric. Fortunately, we don’t have a mirror in the barn, so the ewes don’t complain about how their coats look. Coating would be really difficult if the sheep could tell us which patches suited their personalities or which coat style made them look fat. If we finish coating the sheep in a single day, we consider it a good day. And if they keep their coats on until shearing we know that we’ll have beautiful fleeces.
Monday, October 28, 2013
The walnut leaves turned from green to gold, and after the freeze, lost their connection to the branch and vanished on the wind. The walnut fruits themselves are rotting in a bucket of water on the back deck. Next week, I’ll simmer them for a couple of hours and strain the dye liquor from the nuts.
Walnut is a substantive dye. That means I can dye wool with only the dye liquor, no added mordant. I usually get a pale brown color when I dye with walnuts, but my friend Kate discovered that she can get a beautiful deep brown color by soaking the walnut fruit in water for a long time. I’m perfectly willing to wait until next week for a deep brown dye bath. After all, I’ve waited all summer, since the leaves first appeared, for the trees to produce nuts. What’s another week after the leaves have fallen?
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
It’s dark when we take Newton for his last walk of the day. I like to walk in the dark. We leave the house lights behind us and head up the drive way, feeling the path through our feet. Eventually, an area of paler dark appears at the edge of the woods, arched over by branches. Next the stars appear through the trees. Newton is a pale blur on the road, I locate him by the sound of his dog tags. One night last week, a coyote howled, and then a second. It sounded as if they were right outside our pasture fence.
Our sheep were all in the far pasture, the one without a top wire of barbed wire. I had just talked to a friend who lost nine lambs to coyotes. “I’ll get the head lights,” Dave said and turned back toward the house.I finished walking Newton and then headed out into the pastures. I could see Dave’s head light bobbing in the south central pasture, but I couldn’t see the sheep. I followed the fence lines down and met him at the gate. The ewes followed him, puzzled but not worried. They circled around, confused by the lights. I went wide, trying to get behind the sheep without spooking them and a few turned to follow me. This could be the beginning of a mass exodus back to the pasture from which they had just come. “Call them!” I shouted to Dave.
“Hay ewes.” The stragglers turned and followed him through the next gate. I continued on out to the far pasture, sweeping my head from side to side as I walked, trying to shed light on every section of the field, checking to make sure that no lambs or ewes had been left behind. Finally, satisfied that all the sheep had followed Dave into the barnyard, I turned around, turned off my head lamp and headed home.
Behind me in the distance, the warm glow of Pelican Rapids filled the western sky. Ahead of me, to the north, a pale patch of peach drifted in the heavens. Another patch to the east, further south than I had seen the aurora for a very long time. I stood and watched the charged particles shimmer in the sky and then begin to fade.
“Did you see it,” I shouted. “Was it the aurora?”
“I don’t know what else it could have been,” Dave said as I joined him. “It was beautiful.” We walked side by side through the barnyard , listening to the sound of sheep eating grass, smelling the ripe scent of fresh manure, and feeling the dew soak into our socks, content in the dark.