Lessons of life and death Learned from a Fuzzy Faced Guru

mountain laurel montessori farm school ewe with newborn lamb 2011

Lambing season had started. In retrospect, it was a gentle initiation into the world of stock breeding, but for two green city kids, it was a passage by fire. This particular morning, I was quite excited because one of our purebred Finns was going to lamb. This breed is known for having litters of lambs, so you never know what awaits you when one of them breaks water. Today it was Big Udder, named for her copious bag, and we had great hopes for her offspring. She had been hanging around the barn for the last hour talking in that deep, soft “maa” sound ewes make only at lambing, a voice they use to “talk” with their lambs. We knew she would break water soon. Finally she lay down heavily and started the process to bring her lambs into the world. Ewes waste no time lambing. Fifteen minutes is all they usually need to have their lambs on the ground. So once she started, we had a beautiful, robust ram lamb yelling his head off within ten minutes. She started to lick him off but lay down almost immediately to push her next one out.

Christina Carson
Christina Carson

She was still preoccupied licking the first one, so we toweled the new gal off. This little ewe lamb was every bit her brother’s equal, bolstering our confidence and excitement by the minute. When the ewe lay down for the third time, we cavalierly waited for the last one to arrive as if we’d done this all our lives. By now our nervousness had given way to a cocky sense of skillfulness, and we joked and bantered as the little hooves and bulge of the forehead appeared on the horizon. We weren’t in any way prepared for what was to happen next. Our lives to that point had not included such injustice. The third lamb appeared at first glance to be as marvelous and perfect as the other two. It was not until we picked up the little baby that we saw the problem. To our horror, the skin on the hind legs had grown fast in the womb to the underbelly of the lamb. We turned it and pulled at it, unable to believe what we were seeing. My stomach began to knot up and a helpless, quiet “oh, no” welled up in my throat.

We were green, but not so green as to miss the implications of what we saw. This lamb, this gorgeous, healthy baby, could not survive. We stared in disbelief, realizing the role we had just been handed. Numbly, I wondered who ever wrote the book to tell you how to handle this one. Having just welcomed this new creature into the world, we were now going to have to be the agents of its death. “We should put it down quickly,” a tiny voice spoke out of me, “before its mother knows,” which was naïve indeed for they didn’t miss anything where their babies were concerned. But we both sat motionless for a moment, hoping lamely to be somehow spared from this task. We sat for a few moments more until we finally accepted that we were not going to be dismissed from school just yet.

Fred took his knife out of its sheath and carried the little bundle out of its mum’s sight. He had never killed anything more than bugs and fish to that point in his life. The warm, unsullied body of this baby sucking hungrily at his shirt buttons tormented him unimaginably, but the rule of nature was what guided any stockman, that being: could this animal have survived on its own. That the knife would not be in my hands, in no way lessened my horror. Being so wrapped up in our own grief, we hadn’t noticed Dali, our Komondor, all this time.

Dali by the barn
Dali by the barn

She was lying nearby watching us most intently. It felt like the gaze of a mother superior. Many times we had felt that Dali demonstrated a sense of responsibility for the fate of lambs on our farm. If she knocked into one, she’d hastily turn to check if it was harmed. If one cried out in an alarmed fashion, she’d dash up to see if there was trouble. She even endured great abuse from the ewes when they butted her away from their babies as she patrolled through the flock. It was as if she understood and respected their intention. At the moment Fred drew the knife across the wee lamb’s throat, I watched fixedly to see how she might react. There was much about her that was still a mystery to us. Would she try to stop us now? She never moved, but statue like, she stared at the lamb. I found her gaze unsettling and turned back to Fred.

He was just returning his knife to its sheath. His hands were trembling, making it difficult to match the blade to the opening. He focused all his attention on the knife, blotting out the rest of the world momentarily. As I stood there chewing on the inside of my lip to keep the tears away, I allowed my mind fleetingly to despair what kind of hell we’d unknowingly signed on for. Fred picked up the now lifeless body and laid it on the burn pile. We walked back across the pen to finish our chores with Big Udder. We mechanically dipped navels and cleared teats, dispassionate and disconnected from the miracle of but a few minutes before.

As we finished up, we shot a furtive glance at the burn pile as if hoping it was all a bad dream. That was when we saw her. Dali lay sphinx-like in front of the pile. Then, as if in silent prayer, she lowered her head onto her paws, stared directly at the lamb’s body and remained utterly motionless. Something in her actions caught hold of us. A sudden chill shimmied through my body that May afternoon. For all the world, it felt like being in the presence of something holy. She lay as if in silent tribute. She didn’t desecrate it in anyway by sniffing at it or licking at drops of blood, like any canine I’ve ever known. Instead, in the most respectfully intense pose, she appeared to allow death its due. For five minutes, she never moved a muscle. When her ritual was complete, she popped up and walked off purposefully, without a backward glance.

We remained behind, still held in the force of whatever was created there. The spell was finally broken as Fred turned to me and spoke in a hoarse whisper,” She just taught us a great lesson, Christina, accept your fate and don’t look back.”

I knew something very extraordinary happened that May afternoon. To have pain so suddenly released, as happened in that moment, was a novel experience for Fred and me. Although I didn’t turn to meet the rest of the day smiling, something in me permitted me to allow this trauma as natural instead of cruel. Fortunately, fate spared me foreknowledge of how many more times in the years ahead I would need to recall that truth that Dali taught us in that first year on the farm.

DyingToKnowFinal (3) with Bleed SpacePlease click the book cover to read more about Christina Carson and her novels.

 

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