Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Of Patience and Politics

Three green went down in early February. In  farmer speak, “went down” means that the animal lay down and wouldn’t get up as opposed to “put down” which means that the farmer killed a sick animal because there was no hope of recovery. We should have turned Three green into sausage last fall, but somehow, we didn’t get around to it. By February she was very thin and walked as if every step hurt. She was obviously pregnant and she could deliver any day. Together, Dave and I stood her up every time we went out to the barn and turned her to the other side when we allowed her to lie back down. We laid hay directly in front of her, and held a water bucket while she drank. We gave her calcium to combat hypocalcemia, one of the most common pregnancy problems and then gavaged her, giving her calories and water through a tube to her stomach to combat pregnancy toxemia. 

The days dragged by. She didn’t get better. Eventually even when we stood her up, she couldn’t hold herself upright. Finally, we gave her the drug that would induce labor and delivery within 36 to 48 hours. I wasn’t at all sure that we could keep her alive that long. 

The morning of February 15 when we went out to the barn, Three green was licking a white lamb. Somehow she had delivered, and managed to turn around so that she could reach her lamb with her tongue. She only seemed to have milk in half her udder, the nipple that was exposed when she lay in her most comfortable position, so we only stood her up a few times a day and we didn’t force her to turn over. I was sure that this meant that she would become weaker and weaker, no longer strong enough to stand on her own, making “putting her down” inevitable.

 The lamb nursed enthusiastically. Three green mothered her well, licking and encouraging with soft rumbles and baaas.  We continued to feed mother and baby, forcing Three green to her feet several times a day. Then one morning when we opened the big barn door, Three green struggled to her feet. Her baby immediately got into position and nursed well on both nipples. Then Three green settled herself very carefully back down, nudging her lamb out of the way.

This week, we moved Three green and her lamb into the group pen. She walked the twenty steps to get there with her lamb bouncing around her. Now when feed her, she walks slowly (and painfully) to the feeder. She stand for her lamb to nurse. She walks to get water. Through her own strong mothering instincts, and the persistence of her lamb and her shepherds, Three green has survived to birth and raise a lamb. With patience and persistence, a hopeless situation can improve.

Since the election I’ve felt hopeless, as if there was nothing that I as an individual could do to stop the flood of hate and un-American behavior, nothing that I could do to help our neighbors. No one answered my letters to political leaders, their phones are always busy. I sign petitions on line and hope that they actually are seen by the people who are supposed to lead the country. 

About a month ago, I realized that other people are standing up to help. I received an email from a composer who would like to work with a group of young women refugees and immigrants and young women whose families have lived in the US for generations. Together she hopes that they can explore dreams – the American Dream, their dreams for the future, their actual dreams. 

Two weeks ago, a sculptor contacted me, looking for a Somali weaver who would be interested in working with him on a commission to create a piece of sculpture for a city park. 

Last week, a woman from my community asked what she could do to help the new immigrants in town. We put together a planning meeting and decided to run a focus group including local leaders of the different ethnic groups in town as well as leaders from the medical community, the schools, the business community, the city government, and the turkey plant, the biggest employer in town. Our goal was to learn what problems the new immigrants were facing right now and how that was affecting the rest of the community, but also what the feelings of the non-immigrant population were and how that was affecting the rest of the community.

A young man from the Historical Society is presenting a talk on the effects of WWI in Otter Tail County between the immigrants and the locals at that time.

I received emails from three of the legislators I had written to.

Yesterday, I noticed that the lighted sign outside our local Cenex gas station was flashing a message that read “Peace begins with a smile.” 

Perhaps I have been too impatient. Three green is recovering in spite of my foreboding. People who are kind, who care for their neighbors as for themselves, who don’t define stranger as enemy are beginning to stand up for their beliefs, to find ways to help. With patience and persistence, a hopeless situation can improve.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


“I didn’t know that sheep had personalities,” a friend said. “I thought they were just white blobs on a hill.” Most people think of sheep that way. You usually see them from a distance; you don’t get to know them. They are just white blobs on a hill with all the attributes that people who don’t know them assign to sheep – stupid, timid, meek, embarrassed at having done something wrong, and if you’re a cattleman out west or grew up on cowboy shows - damaging to grasslands. All stereotypes.

Once you spend some up close and personal time with a sheep or two, you realize that they are not stupid. They know the importance of finding their next meal and will berate the shepherd who doesn’t provide food in a timely fashion.  They may be seen as timid when they run from dogs and coyotes who will kill them, but they aren’t timid at all when they stand between their lambs and that same dog, risking fatal bites to protect their children. They aren’t meek when I move a newborn lamb into a pen. The mother runs interference, almost knocking each other over trying to keep their lamb from being adopted by another ewe. 

In thirty years of raising sheep I’ve never seen an embarrassed sheep, although I have seen other personality traits. You see joy in a lamb bouncing and pronking around the pasture with other lambs. 

You hear loss in Dot’s plaintive calling for a dead lamb. You recognize good mothers in their infinite patience with their lambs. 

As for damage to grasslands, if the pasture is managed well, the sheep are moved to a new pasture when the old pasture needs time to regrow, then the sheep do no more damage than any other grazing animal.

Knowing a sheep changes her from a blob on the hill to an actual individual, a real sheep, just as knowing a friend turns them from just another person we pass during the day to someone we are glad to see, an individual. That knowing gives us insight into their thought processes, into their actions. It allows us to accept them as they are.

It works the same way with strangers, people who are different than us – people with a different color skin, speaking a different language, following a different religion. Our Somali friends frequently sound like they are arguing when they speak Somali together. But when I spoke to a group of Somali Elders about the possibility of a four day school week with a good translator, I knew what he said to them and I knew that what he passed on to me was a good translation of what they said.  I knew they weren’t arguing; they were just speaking loudly and fast. Many people raise their voice when speaking to someone with questionable English. We don’t raise our voices because we’re angry, we raise our voices in the mistaken idea that if we speak more loudly that non-English speakers, like some deaf people, will understand us better.

At first I thought that women who wore hijabs (the head covering of many Muslims) were doing so because their fathers or brothers or husbands made them dress that way. As I spoke to more Muslim women, I realized that their dress was their way if honoring their God, and that not all Muslim women felt the need to cover their heads to honor their God.

One third of the children in our community school don’t speak English at home, most of them are African, Asian, or Mexican, they don’t look like the blonde, blue eyed kids who went to school with my daughters thirty years ago. And yet, they still love having their teachers read them stories, their favorite lunch is still pizza, their favorite class is still recess. Children are children, no matter what their race or creed or color.

We fill our world with stereotypes, not real people. Just as a sheep is a white blob on a hillside, a person who looks different than my family and friends is just a blob on the hillside, not a real person with emotions, hopes and dreams similar to my own until I get to know them. And then, strangers can become friends, not stereotypes.