Sunday, April 24, 2011

A perfect day

Today was a perfect day in the sugar bush. It didn’t matter that the sap wasn’t really running. This Easter Sunday, like nearly every Easter Sunday for the past 26 years, we spent our day in Budd and Marguerite Andrew’s sugarbush.

The sun glistened off the waters of Grandrud Lake. The call of the loon echoed through the woods. Drifts of pelicans glided just beyond the trees, to settle on the lake. The air was full of the sound of people laughing and talking and making music.

We hung intricately decorated eggs in trees. We found bright wire baskets holding plainer eggs in trees. We hid eggs in hollows in trees, under logs, and around corners. Kids and adults ran or strolled from one bright spot of color to the next, adding eggs to their baskets. When they had found all the eggs that they could, they rehid some of their eggs for the next group of hunters.

We ate ham and fresh bread, strawberries and jicama, hot cross buns and peeps, hummus and vegetables, and of course, eggs – chocolate, malted milk, deviled, and just plain hard boiled.

It was a sweet day.
It was a bittersweet day.

Today was our last day in the sugarbush on the shore of Grandrud Lake. Next year, we will be in a new sugarbush on another piece of property. We will begin to learn new paths through a new woods. We will discover the biggest maples and where the wild leeks grow. We will explore a whole new ecosystem for signs of beaver, coon, otter, fisher and squirrel. We will learn where the bloodroot blooms, and the crimson cap fungus first appears in the spring. We will search for sumac to carve into spiles and pussy willows to harvest. We will locate new sources of grape vine and bittersweet for baskets. We will begin to name the trees. There will never be another Lacey, that huge, gnarled old maple whose branches are dying, but who is still one of the best sap producers in the woods, but we’ll find another tree to begin building legends around.

In a new sugar bush we won’t have to scavenge as far as we’ve had to the last few years for dead trees; there will be lots of wood for burning where-ever we set up our sugar camp. On the other hand, we will have to build a new shed to store our gear and find a new place to hang the kitchen cupboard. But maybe, we’ll finally build the roof over the fires that we’ve always dreamed of, so that even on rainy days people will be comfortable out in the woods. And then, as we stand around the fires, splitting wood, toasting bread or making pudgy pies in pie irons, we will tell the stories of the years in the old sugar bush, and begin creating new legends.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A shepherd's blessing

Bottle lambs find a special place in our hearts. They learn to recognize the sight of our coveralls and the sound of our voices. They come running when the gate rattles and butt our legs, vying with each other for the most advantageous spot to be first at the nipple. With three bottles lambs and only two hands to hold bottles, it is a bit chaotic when the lambs try to force each other off the nipple.

When Amber’s sister’s in law, Avalon and Jianna, came to visit, their big brother taught them how to bottle feed the lambs. Avalon fell in love with #62 and named him Max. She fed him, carried him around, and hugged him as often as possible during the five days of their visit. When they left, Avalon cried. She won’t see Max again; we don’t keep any of our own ram lambs for our flock. But her memories of a loving white lamb will remain with her forever.

I just wish that Max had been a girl. I love to keep bottle lambs. It isn’t smart. They might be bottle lambs because their mom couldn’t figure out how to be a good mom, or because she couldn’t feed as many lambs as she had – neither of which is a very good trait to add to the flock. But in general, if we have a bottle lamb that we bond with who also has a nice fleece, we keep her. Dave and I make the same connections with bottle lambs that Avalon did. We recognize their bleats. We can locate them in the center of the flock. We scratch their fuzzy heads and when they are small, we hold them next to our hearts to feed them. We don’t forget bottle lambs either.

A good blessing for a shepherd might be ‘May all your bottle lambs be girls.’

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Signs of spring

There are so many signs of spring. Today, five grabbed me and shook me, shouting ‘Look at us! We are spring!’

Crocus flowers have opened in all their purple and golden glory – bright splotches of color in the still brown gardens.

Today we heard the echoing laugh of the first loon.

The odor of a skunk passing by lingers in the air long after his body has disappeared from the neighborhood.

Wild leeks appear, bright green in the brown woods, their pungent flavor just perfect for potato soup.

Pussy willows bloom soft and fuzzy under my fingertips.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Nine lives

The lamb with the broken leg died yesterday morning. His injuries were more severe than I imagined.

This morning when I went out to the barn I saw through the window, a black ewe lying on her back. I dashed around the barn, heart pounding. It was Christmas! She had been there awhile; a small pile of sheep pellets lay behind her. I turned her over and she staggered to her feet. Her lambs immediately started trying to nurse.

I knew that the lamb with the broken leg was facing an uphill struggle, that there was a good chance he would die. I know that Christmas is old and weaker than the younger ewes. I know that one of these days I will go out to the pasture to feed the sheep or to move them to a new pasture and Christmas will not follow.

In my head I know these hard facts of raising animals. But in my heart, in my bones, I wish the animals I care for to be ageless. When the lamb died, I felt grief and relief. One of his best case outcomes would have been to only lose his leg. As sick as he was, I would have been gavaging him with lamb milk replacer 4 or 5 times a day to keep him nourished and he still might have died of a bone infection or gangrene. When she was pregnant, Christmas ruptured the ligaments that hold her uterus up. I will not be able to breed her again. If I was a shepherdess with her eye on the bottom line, I would not feed Christmas through another winter. But my heart speaks much louder than my bottom line. As long as she survives she is a part of my flock and I will feed her, care for her.

I just wish it didn’t hurt so much to lose animals I care for.

After I was sure that Christmas was doing all right, I climbed up into the barn. BC (that is, Barn Cat), greeted me, purring and winding back and forth between my legs. She loves us almost as much as the bottle lambs do. More actually. BC purrs and asks to be petted even when her food dish is full. I sat down beside her and began running my hand across her back, across her head. Just sitting and petting, letting my mind run free. In that five minutes of sitting and petting, my mind slid away from grief, slid out from under my lists of things to do. I just sat and petted, enjoying the feel of sleek fur under my fingers, enjoying the quiet in the hay mow, the sounds of sheep and lambs eating just outside. I just sat and loved BC. She is a gift from the world. She came to us in the middle of the winter and Dave tamed her. She is a friends, uncomplicated. I can love her without restraint. It’s nice to bond with an animal that has 9 lives.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The mist hangs heavy

The mist hangs heavy in the air. It froze last night and the temperatures is predicted to reach the 40's today. A perfect day for the sap to run in the sugar bush. I should be happy.

I have a sick lamb in the barn. He broke his leg last week and Dave and I set it. He followed his mother just fine and was practically running with the rest of the lambs. Then he got his splint caught in a feeder and in struggling to get free, broke his leg in a second place. This was a bad break, a compound fracture with 3" of bone sticking out. Way beyond my area of expertise. Dr. Magnusson cleaned up the bone and the tissue and set the break. But the possibility of infection is high, and the blood vessels and nerves for that leg were badly damaged. When I took the lamb home, I knew it was an iffy proposition.

I set up the group pen again and bedded it with clean straw and laid the lamb under the heat lamp. His mom wasn't actively looking for him and wouldn't come unless he baaed, which he wasn't up to doing right then, but she would search out his sister if she called.

So I caught his sister and set her next to him in the group pen. She baaed and mom came running. This morning, mom and sister are quietly eating hay. The lamb with the broken leg hasn't moved. He won't drink from a bottle. I fed him milk replacer by gavage last night, but this morning, I can't get the tube into his esophagous, it keeps going into his trachea. He coughs and I pull the tube out.

He's only had 6 ounces of milk since I brought him home from the vet. I have to figure out a way to keep him nourished. I am not optimistic. My heart is heavy.

Monday, April 4, 2011

From here to there and back again

If they were fish, we'd call it schooling. If they were birds, we'd call it flocking. With lambs, Dave calls it a lampede. They're not frightened, in a panic, or going anywhere in particular; they are just full of energy and joy.

The lambs have to be old enough to hang out with each other instead of their mothers. We don't have grass in the pastures yet so they aren't running toward food. The lambs need to be full and warm. They don't often run like this on cold rainy days, but any sunny day will find up to 30 or 40 lambs running. Other lambs join them as they pass, pronking with all four feet off the ground - another sign of joy.

Both Dave and I walk out to the barnyard and lean on the gate just to watch the lambs run from here to there and back again.