Spring on the Norlands Farm: The Animals Have a Dramatic Sense of Timing

Good morning, Norlands. It’s the end of April, and the Dirigo high schoolers are coming to volunteer their time.

It’s been almost a week since the black ewe, Arya, gave us a new lamb, Karr. He’s a little dubious to look at him, on account of a subtle twist in his face, thanks to his time in the womb packed so tightly to the left, but he’s springy on his hooves now and black as black can be. I watched his mother gently swelling through the winter; his father encouraging her appetite. 

The animals at the Norlands have long had a keen sense for dramatic timing. Karr came along just after–and in fact during–our biannual sheep-shearing event, having broken her water between passes of the blade and outside the pen before an audience of two dozen. This was nothing new to the farm folk of the Norlands, who just last year on Maine Maple Sunday helped a goat mother bring forth the twin kids we have today, Silver and Cadwallader, who are as comfortable now with human crowds as on the day they were born.

That tradition continues today, as despite our plans for Emelia to instruct the volunteers on sapling gathering for a garden fence, Emelia is unavoidably detained: her sow is having piglets this very morning. I will have to handle the Dirigo High Schoolers alone.

I’ve put the sheep out to pasture ahead of the visitors, hoping to avoid unnecessary chaos and distraction. The flock is speckled with errant burrs despite their short fleece, and that’ll be just the problem for a dozen eager hands. The sheep won’t stand for strangers picking them over, but the yard certainly will. There’s new shoots of all kinds peeking up through winter detritus: grasses and nettles, rhubarb and daffodils, and burdock. I’ve prepared a dozen clippers and rakes for the young volunteers. With their attention, none of it will be burdock by tomorrow.

When they arrive, I modify my tone from the usual: more energetic for children, more assertive to encourage productive work. I welcome them and waste little time before putting tools in their hands. The air is cool, the wind is cold, but the sun puts working hands to rights.

Some of them are strangers to hard work, some of them seemingly old hands. The pasture’s looking a lot better by noontime. From time to time I see some activity out in the paddock. The black ram Deima seems too interested in the brown ewe, Astrid. It’s not the right season for that, and the elders are trying to seperate them. When the children break for lunch, I decide to herd them in to get the kids a chance to see the lamb up close.

The sheep have always been skittish of me, and it’s no different this time as I climb over the fence. brown Astrid and black Deima scatter from the shed, not to be cornered. But that’s when I spot a shape in the shade that doesn’t belong. It’s a curly-headed black lamb, and it’s much too flat and still.

For a moment I’m hurt. Did someone roll over onto Karr this morning, and crush him? But no, Karr was larger than this on his first day. I’ve reached the creature splayed out in the mud, its little legs thrown out straight, hips wide and flat, its tiny head resting limp in the dirt. I’m in disbelief, and implausible explanations keep swimming up in my brain. It must be new-born; it looks surely dead. I squat and slide my hands under its face and rump. I’m shocked again when it mewls weakly. We thought Arya would have twins; is this some kind of absurdly late delivery? “Absurd” does not do justice to the intervening week. Yet here I have a newborn pitch-black lamb in my arms, barely noticeable in the shade and the sunlit glare, browned over in mud and amniotic discharge. She (she is a she) is wet all over, and I can’t distinguish matted dirt from blood in her curly pelt.

Her legs apply weak pressure in my arms, her head bobs and lolls against my chest. Occasionally she mewls again, but I’m hardly comforted by it. I’m still flummoxed; I bring her into the barn where the visitors get a close look and a brutally honest display of farm life. They part for me by instinct, and as I stride inside the farmhouse, I am stuck between inscrutable and desperate needs. I don’t know where she’s come from. The cold needs dry. The mud needs wet. I put a washcloth under warm water and mop her off, crooning and asking her for another bleat, another jolt. I don’t know how this happened. I am not a midwife or even, truly, a farmer.

Our curator April and I speed down the hill to summon help, still clutching the lamb to my chest. Emelia’s dogs are excited to see a relative stranger in the yard, but they cannot deter me. I step into the barn where I know Emelia will be, crouched beside a four-hundred pound mound of swine, happily nursing piglets. Just in time.

Emelia knows: she knows just what to do. We head back up the hill, and spend a few uncertain minutes trying to see if she can be accepted by her mother. Emelia understands: this must be brown Astrid’s lamb, though none of us presumed she would birth it today, and none of us predicted it would be black: Deima’s daughter. Astrid can’t be coaxed back to her little cold lamb, so we relent. Emelia accepts: if she lives, she will go to great trouble to bottle-feed her. The little lamb’s tongue is cold to the touch. Towels, a hair dryer, a hot water bottle. The lamb joins Emelia in a baby-carrier to pick up the human kids from school. 

Emelia succeeds.
Good evening, Norlands. It’s the end of April, and I’m finally ready to believe it will not snow again. Songbirds flit from tree to tree, and the yard is abuzz with invisible flies startled aside as I walk. There’s new shoots of all kinds: grasses and nettles, rhubarb and daffodils. The chickens are laying once more; all the animals are full to bursting with new life. There is resurgence and renewal in the air, in the land, and in the Norlands.


Good night, Norlands. See you in the morning.
Dan Pugh, caretaker