Sugar from the forest

It is mud season here at White Pine Farm, with nights dipping into the twenties and even the teens, followed by a daily thaw of frozen earth and the mud this brings. Yet this messy, seasonally ambiguous time of year is one my favorites. It is maple syrup season. Indeed, in late winter if you journey to our little farm at the top of Snyder Hill, you are likely to catch the sweet scent of maple sap boiling down to rich, dark maple syrup. It takes some time for this transition to occur as maple sap is mostly water, requiring reduction of the sap at a 40 to 1 ratio. However, there is no need to wait to enjoy the bounty of the sugar bush. Dip a clean cup into freshly collected maple sap and take a big drink. You will taste crystal clean, pure and cold water with just a hint of sweetness and rich maple flavor. I have often thought I should bottle this sap and sell it, but perhaps not. Maybe this can just be the special treat of the maple syrup maker. 

So how does this sweet liquid get to my cup? It started as rain or snow melt in the forest that percolated through the soil to the roots of our maple trees. Tiny hairs on giant roots pull this water from the soil and pump it through the vascular system of the tree into the thousands of leaves spread out in the the spring and summer sun. Photosynthesis, the driving force of life on earth, uses that water to produce sugars. Sugars to grow wood and bark and more leaves, and to send seeds out into the world to bring us more maple trees. Come fall, with the return of cold weather, the trees pump this enriched water back down into the roots to wait under the soil for spring. In late February the days start to rise above freezing, but the nights bring the return of frost. Somehow this pattern tells the trees that spring, while not here yet, is on the way. They start to pump sap up into the branches in preparation for spring leaf-out. This is when the maple syrup maker comes in. 

People fortunate enough to live in the hardwood forest biome of what is now the northeast US and eastern Canada have been collecting maple sap for thousands of years. In our region the Haudenosaunee (people of the longhouse) confederacy likely discovered this source of energy and flavor from tasting the liquid draining off the tips of broken branches in the spring. From there they devised methods to collect and concentrate the sap into syrup and sugar. Reports from early missionaries and colonists describe indigenous people chopping a descending slash in the bark of maples and collecting the sap in bark containers. The sap was then boiled down by placing hot rocks in the containers. Colonists likely copied these methods, but at some point introduced the simple technology of the metal spile with a hanging wood or metal bucket. This is the method most of us are familiar with, and the way sap has been collected for hundreds of years. In more recent decades we have seen the advent of miles of blue plastic tubing woven through the maple forests, all designed to flow downhill to large, plastic storage containers. While this method is certainly much more efficient than buckets on trees, it is not how we do it at White Pine Farm.   

This year I tapped the maple trees in mid-March as the hard winter cold just did not want to give up. The method is simple. I use a cordless drill with a 5/16 bit to drill a 2-inch deep hole in the maple trees. This small hole easily heals once maple syrup season is over. I then place, and gently tap in, a metal spile in the hole and hang a galvanized steel bucket from the built-in hook.  The buckets, 19th-century technology, even have cleverly designed lids that slide in place and keep rain, dirt, and other debris out of the sap. On a 40-degree day the sap will immediately start dripping in the bucket with a gentle pinging. Once, twice, or often three times a day I will journey down to the forest with two large, 5-gallon buckets to collect and carry the sap up to my evaporator. Of note, it is indeed an uphill carry as our sugar maples (Acer saccharum) are downhill from my shop. I then boil the sap down using electricity, but this power is largely supplied by our photovoltaic panels. Hence our maple syrup labels say, “Harvested the old way with buckets on trees. Boiled down with the sun.” 

So come visit our sugar bush at White Pine Farm. If you find me harvesting, I may even give you a sip of cold, clear maple sap fresh from the tree. You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale.

The sugar bush
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Of llamas and lambs

The winter cold continues here at White Pine Farm, but longer days and the warming sun tracking higher in the sky hint at spring in our future.  These winter nights can be ideal for star gazing with Orion the Hunter, the Pleiades, and Taurus the Bull arcing across the heavens. Most any night I step out to view the stars, I will hear the voices of our resident coyotes, calling out their inscrutable thoughts to the beauty of the night.

Coyotes are a constant presence here now, though at one point they were entirely wiped out in the Northeast due to systematic hunting, trapping, and poisoning.  Consequently, the wild canids I hear howling from our hilltop are not direct descendants of the pre-colonial residents of the Northeast.  Coyotes from the west (Canis latrans), resourceful beings that they are, expanded their range into the depopulated Midwest and eastern North America.  Along the way, during this centuries’ long journey, they spent some very intimate time with grey wolves in the wildest parts of our continent. 

This has been revealed by genetic testing of resident coyotes.  A review of genetic studies shows that, on average, the northeastern coyote is roughly 60% coyote, 30% wolf, and 10% domestic dog https://canids.org/CBC/19/Northeastern_coyote_taxonomy.pdf).  Indeed, our neighborhood coyotes are sufficiently genetically and morphologically distinct from their western cousins that many taxonomists now classify them as a distinct species with the moniker Canis oriens (eastern wild dog),or in the common tongue the coywolf.  These bigger, more pack-oriented, wild canids in our midst help check deer overpopulation and add a richness and complexity to the wild places of the Northeast.  Their presence does call for some awareness with small pets and very small children, but on the whole these wild neighbors are no threat to us.  Unless, of course, you raise sheep!

As some readers may know, we raise heritage breed, Navajo-Churro sheep at White Pine Farm. These are tough, intelligent sheep, but they are no match for the coywolf.  Visitors often ask if we have trouble with coyotes.  The short answer is not anymore.  However, during the summer of 2017, we had a sudden upswing in sheep predation on our hilltop.  A neighboring farm up the hill lost a number of lambs, and a neighbor down the road lost an adult ram!  On our farm, our friendly lamb Joseph was attacked and required numerous stiches to repair a badly lacerated back leg (he was and is ultimately fine).  Protection of the flock is the ancient, even sacred, duty of the shepherd. Accordingly, I spent a few nights out watching over the flock, but this was not a long-term solution.  With that, I would like to tell you about Diego the llama!

I found Diego at an alpaca farm to the north where the owners had aged out of the work.  Llamas are natural guard animals and have been used for centuries to protect sheep.  They are bigger than sheep, much taller in stature, and have an instinctive hatred for all things canid. Unlike the sheep, they will confront a canid intruder with a loud alarm call and stomping.  The wise coyote will quickly look elsewhere for dinner, or risk serious injury or even death.  Coyote, 40 pounds; llama, 200 plus.  This is not good arithmetic for Wily E.  However, not all llamas make good guard animals.  Diego, though, was a champ, and despite a few glitches developed into a fierce guardian of the flock.  I could tell a hundred stories about this amazing interspecies relationship, but this time I will just tell you about Diego and Chaco the lamb.

Chaco is Cinnamon’s (not so) little boy.  He was the first lamb born that spring before the coyote attacks.  The day I integrated Diego with the flock, Chaco came walking up and introduced himself with a nose inclined towards Diego’s face.  Chaco seemed to have no fear of this seven-foot tall, two-hundred-plus-pound creature.  Diego, however, turned and scooted away.  An odd power dynamic considering Chaco weighed no more than forty pounds with eyes at the level of my thighs.  Chaco was not dissuaded, though, and tried it again several times that day with Diego growing more comfortable with this much smaller, white creature.  A week or so later, we looked out in the pasture and saw Diego lying down with Chaco standing right next to him, looking his hero Diego in the face from a few feet away.  At the very least, Diego had decided to tolerate his little worshipper, but I soon realized there was much more than tolerance occurring.

Some days later, I was sitting on the back patio as the day’s light faded and saw Cinnamon walk out into the pasture to graze with her two boys, Chaco and Paco.  This time of fading light is the golden hour for many predators. Diego got up and followed and simply stood next to them, watching the tree line–looking, looking, looking.  At one point, Chaco put his face up towards Diego, just like on the first day, and Diego stretched his long neck down and briefly touched noses with his admirer.

As a biologist, I know it is bad practice to interpret or apply human emotions to the animals we observe.  However, it is hard to imagine the gesture of touching noses as anything but affection, bonding, and family.  Diego was Chaco’s hero, and this shepherd’s hero as well.  Sadly, llamas are susceptible to a number of internal parasites that do not affect sheep.  In spite of our best preventive practices, advised and assisted by the excellent Cornell vet service, we lost Diego a few years ago.  This was a hard loss and we have not been up for bringing another llama to the farm.  So this shepherd continues to guard the flock with well-designed and maintained fencing, and awareness of the presence of our wild, coywolf neighbors.

You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale. Come meet our farm family!

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Hey! (or rather hay)

It is mid-winter here at White Pine Farm, and it has been gray! I often take exception with those who claim the sun never shines in Ithaca, as we have many glorious sunny days throughout the year. However, occasionally in winter we get a string of cloud-covered days that can try the soul. Our sheep, by contrast, do not seem to be affected by such seasonal blues. They thrive in winter as summer’s scourge of harassing insects is over, and their wooly coats and vigorous, ruminant metabolism keeps them warm on even the coldest night. All they need is clean water, shelter from the wind, and a regular ration of hay from their devoted shepherd.

My daily winter chore of hay delivery is a source of great entertainment to me. It doesn’t matter if they have finished yesterday’s hay or not. They are always so excited to see me and that bale of hay coming! The whole flock will come running from wherever they are, sometimes literally leaping in the air with excitement. Of course, they also act that way when I bring them mineral salts, or even walk by them carrying an armload of the day’s mail. Cinnamon, our prize ewe, seems convinced that someday there will be a letter for her. While this ever hopeful attitude towards the postal service is silly, the enthusiasm for hay is well deserved. As with most animals that spend the winter in northern climes, it is not the cold that threatens their survival. It is starvation. Sheep, white tail deer, and the chickadee at your bird feeder need abundant food to support the ramped-up metabolism required to endure our northern winters. In the case of wildlife, I often wonder what they are finding to eat, but for our sheep it is hay.

Hay is simply dried summer meadow, cut and dried in the summer sun when the grasses and legumes are packed with nutrition. However, there is really nothing simple about it. A successful hay crop depends first on good soil, abundant spring rains, and ample sunshine. With these ingredients, by June our local hayfields will yield an explosion of green with a diverse mix of grasses and legumes swaying in the early summer breeze. The beauty of the hayfield is an ancient one, stretching back thousands of years to the earliest days of the relationship of humans and domestic livestock. Hayfields can be, depending on management, significant repositories of biodiversity with dozens of species that have evolved to thrive in these human-managed plant communities. I dream of the day when we will visit the hayfields of Transylvania. Far from being a place of blood-sucking aristocrats, these are ancient landscapes where humans have raised and harvested hay for their stock for millennia. Much of this hay is still harvested the old way, with scythes and rakes, and stored in traditional haystacks.

I have tried these methods (scythe and rake) for a very small harvest of hay on our land. To say the least, I am deeply impressed by the skill and perseverance of those Transylvanian farmers. The vast majority of our winter hay comes from our wonderful hay farmers down the road. As the crow flies (or the sheep jogs), they are only 3 to 4 miles away. Obviously, they are not out in their fields in June with scythes and rakes, but even mechanized hay production is a daunting task. Come June, the hay must be cut before it starts to flower as this provides the best nutrition. This timing most then coincide with enough dry days to allow the hay to dry in the sun, be raked into windrows to dry some more, and then bailed and stored out of the reach of rain. By the time my sheep see me carrying a bale of hay to them, it may have been worked by our hay farmer a dozen times. This work is done with expensive and hazardous equipment that requires a great deal of maintenance and no small quantity of diesel. Accordingly, and appropriately, hay is by far our largest operating expense at White Pine Farm. However, the cost of hay per day for 16 adult sheep is less than we would spend for two fancy coffee drinks at a local coffee shop. A small price to pay for healthy, happy sheep.

So the winter continues, with gray and cold days, and days of brilliant sunshine glancing off the snow-covered fields and forests. Through the season our resourceful, wooly charges thrive and grow, and greet me like a returning hero every time I bring their daily meal of dried, summer meadow. And surely, someday, Cinnamon will get a letter in the stack of daily mail.

You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just up from the village of Brooktondale. Come meet our farm family!

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The Ram Report!

Early winter is breeding season here at White Pine Farm. We try to time breeding so the lambs are born in the late spring when the pasture is exploding with green growth, providing vital nourishment for late gestation and nursing for newborn lambs. All sheep have an approximately 5-month gestation period, so this means to have spring lambs we breed in December. This, of course, requires a ram. We do not own a ram at this point, though we have many charming and friendly wethers (castrated males). However, the wethers’ attempts at breeding (yes, they give it shot!) will not result in lambs added to the flock. So, somehow or another our willing ewes need to spend some time with an eager, intact ram.

Sheep have a three-week estrus cycle culminating in approximately 3 days when they are receptive to breeding. This means the ewes need to have an extended “play date” with a ram for a minimum of four weeks. In addition, Navajo-Churro sheep show a moderate seasonality to their breeding and tend to start going into regular estrus cycles in early fall. When a ram is introduced to ewes, he tends to be ever hopeful and is almost constantly checking the gals to see if they are ready. In other words, he makes a nuisance of himself. The ewes have no patience for this for most of the three-week cycle and send him on his way, but when the magic three-day estrus arrives, the ram suddenly turns into a hunky hero in their eyes. The actual breeding is rather quick, almost bordering on “if you blink, you will miss it.” However, it is obvious what is going on as the ram and ewe are inseparable with frequent nose rubbing, gentle head bonks, and, of course, other activities I will leave to the imagination. All this is predicated on finding a way for ram and ewes to meet. As we do not own a ram (and likely never will), this requires some planning and, at times, creativity.

The best approach is to bring a visiting ram to our farm. However, some years we have chosen to breed only one ewe and it makes more sense to bring our ewe to the ram’s farm. One year we did this by loading Cinnamon (our prize ewe) into the back of our Subaru Forester and driving her twenty miles to the home of Frosty the ram. But most years the ram comes here.

Navajo-Churro rams are impressive animals, routinely growing four large horns and sometimes up to six. There is much discussion about handling rams, especially with such headgear. Conventional wisdom is to take great caution around them. Never turn your back on them, and do not raise them with any human affection or attempts at friendship. This is good advice, but as with most generalizations, it is not true for all rams. Our biggest breeding year we introduced Shemp to our flock (pictured with Spot below). Shemp’s owner followed none of the conventional wisdom. He described Shemp as his best buddy, and sure enough he was friendly, loved pets and chin scratches, and never threatened us in any way for the four weeks he was here. Most significantly, his visit resulted in a successful, rewarding, and somewhat terrifying lambing season (a subject for another column). When he left our farm, he left me with the impression that rams do not deserve their daunting reputation. That was our breeding season with Shemp the sweetie. However, a few years later we hosted Frosty the Jerk, who provided a rebuttal (pun intended) to this relaxed view of rams!

Frosty arrived at our farm in December as is typical and his owner admonished me to never turn my back on him. I smiled and acquiesced, but was not concerned given our positive experience with Shemp. Later that day, I went into the paddock with Frosty and the two ladies he was there to see, and said hello. Frosty came up and I gave him pet under the chin, and then I wandered off to check on their hay supply. Suddenly, WHAM!!! I was on my back in the snow and smarting from Frosty butting me hard on the side of my leg. After assessing for broken bones, I immediately hopped up, grabbed Frosty by the horns, flipped him on his back, and proceeded to sit on him and forcefully lecture him on who the boss was here! He was not impressed! For the remainder of his visit, whenever I went in the paddock I had to march right up to Frosty, grab him by the horns, and shut him up so I could do my chores. He most certainly did not think I was the boss, and never did. Needless to say, I was glad to see him go, but he gave us beautiful lambs, all of whom are gentle and friendly.

This is yet another example of how much I have learned from our delightful wooly charges. All are individuals, with unique personalities, and relationships with each other and their humans. You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just up from the village of Brooktondale

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True local fiber

Never in the history of humankind has functional, and fashionable, clothing been so in-expensively and easily available to so many, at least in the industrialized parts of the world.  While this is of great benefit to many this convenience comes with a cost far beyond the individual’s monetary investment.   Consider the path a polar fleece jacket takes to my closet.  Most clothing today is made from synthetic fiber, which of course comes from oil.  So my jacket started life in an oil field (Pennsylvania fracking fields…off shore oil derricks?).  This oil then ended up eventually (in some form) in a large factory, almost certainly on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.  There the fiber was synthesized, the garment produced, loaded on to a massive container ship, and transported thousands of miles to a retail outlet, and finally my closet.    All of this comes to me through a tremendous expenditure of fossil fuels. 

Prior to the industrial revolution clothing was generally produced with materials sourced from area farms.  In the northeast this was usually wool which was either hand or mill spun and crafted in to durable, weather resistant garments for our cold, wet winters.  Clothing required much more of an investment so people would buy far fewer, durable garments that would have a long life, or craft them on their own with wool, and flax, from their own farms.   In the Finger Lakes wool production was a significant part of the local economy.  Indeed when exploring the cascading streams of our area one frequently encounters ruins of old mills, many of which likely processed raw wool from the thousands of sheep that once inhabited our hills and valleys. 

Consider the alternate path of the growing wardrobe of wool garments in my closet (indeed we are trying to phase out clothing made from oil).   These garments start with a lamb, born in the spring on our pastures.  A summer of grazing, running, and enjoying lamby life allows her to grow a thick, wooly coat that protects our four legged charge through her first cold winter.  Come spring our shearer arrives, who quickly and kindly shears this wool and sends her back to the pasture where she runs about in delight at being 5-10 pounds lighter.  Her wool is then cleaned, sorted and sent to the nearest mill for processing in to yarn.  Unfortunately, small scale wool mills are a rarity in these days of clothing made from oil, but we found a good one (Batenkill Mills) near the Vermont border.  This is a bit over a hundred miles away, but it sure isn’t China!  The yarn then returns to the farm where we offer it for sale, or is hand knitted into warm and durable garments for us!  Our sheep also attract the interest of hand spinners who buy our raw fleeces. 

This is White Pine Farm’s small way of contributing to the “Slow Fashion” movement.  This movement fosters local, sustainable production of clothing from natural (no oil) fibers.  Many large companies are starting to embrace these ideas, and clothing shoppers are responding favorably.  Come visit us to see how our small farm participates in this movement.  We can be contacted by email at ronlecain@gmail.com, at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Landon road just up from the village of Brooktondale, and about 1/8 mile east of the meeting of Landon and Snyder Hill Road.  Come meet our farm family!

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Introduction post

I (meaning Ron the shepherd) have started writing a monthly column about White Pine Farm for the little local newsletter here in Brooktondale called “The Old Mill”. I will be putting these comments onto this blog so our friends, family, and followers can see them. Below is the introductory column.

You can find White Pine Farm two miles up from the village of Brooktondale on 14 acres of meadow and woods at the top of Snyder Hill Road.  We raise chickens, tap maple syrup, and grow fruits and vegetable for our table. However, the center of our farm is our small flock of heritage breed, Navajo-Churro sheep. This hardy breed of sheep was adapted by the indigenous peoples of the southwest United States and Mexico from the Churra sheep brought over by the Spanish. At one point the breed bordered on extinction due to several waves of government imposed flock reduction. However, at this time the breed is rare but thriving throughout North America, and on White Pine Farm. Navajo-Churro are known for prospering in difficult climates on marginal forage, and producing beautiful, low grease wool that is ideal for hand spinners and knitters.

Our flock helps us manage our land with minimal input of fossil fuel, provides us with raw fleeces for the hand spinner market, and many natural shades of yarn ready for the home knitter to craft warm, durable garments.  Complementing these practical benefits, our wooly charges enrich our lives, our pasture, and our gardens.  In coming issues of the Old Mill we would like to share the adventures of raising sheep, and discuss the environmental and cultural benefits of sustainable grazing and fiber production.  Come see us and meet our farm family.  

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things Ron thinks of when he’s trying not to think about running while running: or, farm tall tales

A guest blog post from Ron.

Or, story time with Ron.

Taking the sheep out for pizza

At a recent New Year’s Day gathering, a neighbor asked about winter feeding of our sheep, and whether they get a bit bored with hay all the time. “Don’t they crave a bit of variety” she asked? I explained that the hay is simply dried pasture, just as they eat in the summer, and that there may well be 50 species of grasses and forbs in there. All they really need. I did not discuss the evolutionary wonders of the ruminant digestive system that takes grass, forbs, even bark and small sticks, and turns it into muscle and bone and wool. Again, all they need!

However, this question stuck in my mind and I began to wonder if our wooly charges might not like a little treat now and again. We have a red wooden box in our entry way where profits (HA!) from wool and egg sales collect. I pointed out to my wife that this was likely enough to take the sheep out for pizza! Won’t that be fun! Sara was skeptical but supportive, but wisely suggested reservations as a table for 14 (12 sheep, 2 humans) can be hard to come by on a Friday night in Ithaca. So I called Simeon’s (a fancy restaurant with great pizza) on The Commons in Ithaca and reserved a table for 14, but said we would only need two chairs as most of our party prefers to eat standing.

With that the only challenge was transportation the 7 miles to downtown Ithaca as we only have a Subaru Forester and a Nissan Leaf.  However, Navajo-Churro sheep are not that big, both cars seat 4 plus driver plus the Forester can take two more in the back, and Flora and Rosa (our little lambs) could ride on our laps behind the steering wheel. This worked fine, but seat belts were an issue, so we hoped we did not get pulled over, and Flora on my lap kept wanting to steer! I let her steer on Snyder Hill Road, but when we hit the traffic of town I insisted I take over.

When we arrived at Simeon’s, and I held the door for our sheep and my lovely wife, the staff seemed a bit surprised about the non-human makeup of their guests. However, this is Ithaca where the unexpected is to be expected. They showed us to our large table and shortly brought out 6 large, vegetarian pizzas and one small pepperoni for me. Being the good shepherd I had ordered in advance as sheep are not know for patience when it is time to eat. The sheep dug in to their slices with their usual quiet enthusiasm, but I did notice Crescent (our drama queen ewe) pushing aside the artichoke hearts! I thought she would crave pickled foods as she is pregnant.

As I enjoyed my pepperoni pizza and quietly visited with Sara, I noticed a few missing noses. I did a quick check and sure enough Joseph and Paco (our teenage wether boys) were missing. Being the good shepherd I went on a search and quickly found them pulled up to the bar, precariously balanced on the bar stools, and drinking a golden liquid from two bowls under the eye of the attentive barkeep. I was alarmed as I assumed it was beer! Barley, hops, and other grains are all fine for sheep, but the bubbles could be disastrous, not to mention alcohol in the brains of adolescent sheep boys! I approached the bar with urgency, but was intercepted by the barkeep who assured me it was non-sparkling, non-alcoholic apple cider. Turns out she was a Cornell vet student working nights, and was well-versed in the wonders and limitations of ruminant biology.  I made a silent thanks for the wonders of Ithaca, and returned to our meal.

In short order the pizza was gone, and we had a bit of a mess! Sheep are not known for their table manners. We asked for the bill and I suggested a 25% tip, but Sara pointed out the piles of sheep poop and pee collecting on the polished hard wood floors and suggested a more generous 30%. “We want to be sure we are welcome in the future,” she said.

A week later, when Friday night arrived again, I wondered if the sheep would want another town adventure. I am not sure I want this to be a weekly thing! However, they were quite content with their hay, clean water, mineral salts, and warm and dry sheep shack. Those things, along with room to run and protection from coyotes (and occasional snuggles from their humans), are really all sheep ask of the world. Perhaps their human companions could learn a bit from that!

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joys and sorrows

The Unitarian church has a moment in their services where they ask folks to share “joys and sorrows.” The few blog posts of 2018 definitely fall under the sorrows category. Then there are all those I haven’t written–and won’t write–about in a public space.

2018 has been full of challenges and sorrows, but there have been some joys–first and foremost, our “new” lambs Rosa and Flora, born May 9.

5.13.18 5890

Here they are at four days old (Rosa on L, Flora on R).

Cinnamon went into labor under the pine trees with the sheep, once again, giving her plenty of room. That said, her first lambs, Chaco and Paco, hung out closer than the rest. It was fascinating to watch. They knew something was happening, but they gave their mom some room.

She had Rosa easily. Ron and I watched from the deck. We were both a little worried at first because Rosa didn’t move much and took some time to get up. In the end, she was healthy and fine, but her calm, serene character seemed to appear at the moment of birth. She wasn’t rushed to get up and about, and enter the world.

When Cinnamon had Chaco and Paco, they came just 10 minutes apart. We suspected she was having twins again, but waited and waited. No second lamb. Cinnamon took care of Rosa, Paco gently greeted her (!), and Ron was able to check and confirm she was a girl–only the second of seven lambs born on our farm by that point (!).

An hour and 10 minutes passed. Then Cinnamon went into labor mode again and out popped Flora, all white and wiggly from the start. She squirmed and got up, Cinnamon cleaning her up. Once again, Flora’s busy self seemed to appear from the moment of birth. And what a blessing that Cinnamon gave birth this time to twin girls.

Boy lambs, 5; girl lambs 3.

We were relieved that super ewe-mom Cinnamon had healthy lambs and both have flourished. They are pretty and adorable, and it’s been fun, once again, to watch them grow up. And once again, sheep are not monolithic, flighty, stupid creatures lacking personality or differentiation. We’re amused by their personalities and also how they’ve evolved.

For instance, Flora was curious, but didn’t really want anything to do with us until about a month ago. Then she suddenly decided I was okay and accepted full on pets and snuggles. Meanwhile, Rosa, was initially the friendliest and most calm lamb of those born on the farm. However, bigger at birth and ever since, we think she has already gone through sheepie puberty (!) and is now in a grumpy teenager phase. We hope she grows out of it.

There have been too many sorrows on and off the farm in 2018–and not just small ones. I especially am trying to hang onto the good things.

Two of those things are named Rosa and Flora.

 

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more dead animals (seriously)

I helped Ron with the morning farm chores late Christmas morning. I often “help,” not help, but I did go into the chicken coop to check the feeder, see if they needed any more hay under their roosts, and so forth.

Then I found a dead chicken in the corner by their feeder.

Sigh.

Seriously???

I came out of the coop, found Ron, and told him that there was a dead chicken in the coop.

“More dead animals,” Ron grumbled.

Seriously.

As I went about the rest of the farm chores that morning, this came to mind:

Dear universe,

We don’t need any more dead animals right now, thankyouverymuch. Your messages about mortality, impermanence, and (non)attachment have been loud and clear. We are well aware of your expertise in Buddhism. No need to demonstrate it further. We would really appreciate a break just about now.

All best,

Sara, Ron, & the animals

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merry diego

I woke up early this morning first thinking about Christmas.

Then I started thinking about Diego.

The vet did a necropsy yesterday because, as she said, she “really” wanted to know what had happened. She believes he died of alpaca fever. We’ll know after the tissue results come back.

After she left, Ron took Diego into our woods so that he can nourish the plants and animals of the forest ecosystem. We both find comfort knowing that he will remain on the farm. But as I was thinking about the woods and cycles yesterday, it felt even more bittersweet.

Diego loved the woods. He loved to wander, especially at the forest edge. He liked to do this regardless of activity or season, but he seemed to exile himself to the woods after he’d been cooped up with the sheep for some period of time. This was particularly true last winter when he was still uncomfortable with the enclosed space of the sheep shack, but if it got cold and windy enough, he’d put himself in there. Once the weather improved though, he’d get out of there and often send himself down to the woods for a little time away from the sheep. We laughed about it because some of Diego’s characteristics–introverted, desiring quiet–we share.

I’m trying to remember other good stories about Diego–hence merry Diego. Here are a few more.

Chaco & Paco

Diego loved his lambs. Period. But last year he was especially fond of Chaco and Paco, Cinnamon’s first lambs. Yesterday I was trying to think about why he was so fond of those two when we had five lambs in spring 2017. Crescent and Joseph were particularly bonded with us thanks to their delinquent mom, Junie, who initially rejected them. PJ was a solo birth and very bonded with his mom, Brownie; until a few months ago, he’d still lay down right next to her to rest, even though he was now bigger than her.

Ron said over dinner last night that Chaco was one of the first sheep to come up to Diego when we were able to integrate him with the flock (thereby making a flerd–flock + herd). I didn’t remember that. But for whatever reason(s), Diego hung around Chaco and Paco, and let them hang out with him.

Crescent and the (not) udder

Last spring, Crescent was one of those five lambs and the only girl. Yesterday morning, I suddenly remembered amid my sadness that soon after Diego was integrated with the flock, she’d wander under his legs so she was standing under his belly. As Ron says, she’s a little sh^t so she could get entirely under his body, even though Diego was a small male llama.

It gets better. She did this just a handful of times, but Crescent would get under Diego and start looking around. We swear that she was looking for an udder.

Poor Crescent (and Joseph). Their first week was so rough given that their mom rejected them and we had to co-parent them to teach the not-so-happy family to be functional. Maybe she was confused. Maybe she wanted Diego to be her mother. Maybe she needed therapy.

At any rate, Crescent would get under Diego, clearly annoying him, but he’d gently step a bit to the side to try to get her out of the way. She seemed oblivious. The behavior didn’t last long, but it was one of many examples of Diego’s remarkable patience with his lambs.

Fetching Paco

Ron reminded me of this story. One day all the sheep were sleeping and resting. When they do this, they tend to hang out in the same area, but spread out a bit. All the sheep woke up and eventually wandered off to the same patch of pasture to graze.

Except for Paco.

Poor Paco woke up, looked around, and started baaing in a panic. Sheep, especially lambs, will do this. They think they’ve lost the flock or their mom, and instead of looking around a bit more, instead go into panic mode.

Diego was with the sheep in the pasture. He heard Paco and jogged over. Then he did his llama inquisitive voice, “hmmmmmm???” He turned and slowly started jogging back to the flock. Paco followed and was reunited with his sheep family.

Anthropomorphism gets a bad rap for many good reasons. But it’s hard not to interpret Diego’s behavior through anthropomorphism.

Diego and the swimming pool

This one I remembered very early this morning as I was still lying in bed thinking about Christmas and Diego.

Diego didn’t like summer heat. He’d whine about it in his llama humming. “I’m hot. I’m hot. I’m hooooooooooooot.”

Then Diego discovered that the large sheep water feeder could serve as a small swimming pool.

It drove Ron nuts.

Diego would put his front legs in the feeder/pool, standing there up to his knees in water, looking pretty darn pleased with himself. And getting all the dirt, poop, grass, hay bits, and whatever else into the formerly clean water.

Like I said, it drove Ron nuts.

Pretty quickly Ron figured out that we couldn’t keep Diego out of the larger sheep water feeder. However, we had another smaller one that he generally didn’t turn into his personal pool. He put his feet in there a few times, but especially if he had the larger water feeder available, he’d leave the smaller one alone. So instead of having two sheep water feeders in the peak of summer when the critters needed the water, we had one small feeder and a Diego pool.

Llama 1, shepherd 0.

Racing the wind

This one is going to make me cry (again).

Some time early this fall (I wish I could remember when), we got to see Diego race the wind.

It must have been after the summer heat and humidity were over. It was during those crisp fall days that are perfect weather. I was standing at the kitchen sink and window, and suddenly Diego raced by.

I was a bit concerned that something was wrong so I tried to see what was going on. I couldn’t see much, but a few seconds later, Diego raced back the opposite direction. We have 650 feet of road frontage. He wasn’t racing from one property boundary to the other, but he was running the greater width of our pasture, probably something like 300 or 400 feet.

He did this many times. I started counting a few times after he had already gone by. Now, because enough time has passed, I no longer remember how many round trips he completed. But the number 9 sticks in my mind.

He ran, in full camelid sprint, from the western side of our pasture, past the house, to the east. Ten seconds later, here he was, running west.

I called Ron to watch because it was so funny–and impressive. We saw Diego walk and jog most of the time. Camilids jog in a funny way. Their anatomy is such that they look silly when they jog.

Full run, though. They are beautiful and distinguished.

There Diego was, running west to east, and back again, something like 9 round trips. At one point, he took a short break, putting his front legs, yes, in the sheep water feeder, a.k.a. Diego’s mini swimming pool. Even fall weather can be hot when you are doing sprint reps across a pasture. And then he was back at it again, running west to east, and west again.

This image of him running full speed across the grass of our pasture has been in my mind a lot the past 36 hours. Diego looked so happy and free. I’m trying to remember him that way.

Merry Diego.



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