I've often commented to my friends and family that my home state of Maine is one very big small town, where everyone knows everyone else and sooner or later, you find that your daughter's frenemy at school is your coworker's stepchild. Nothing, however, has brought home to me the truth of that statement like what happened yesterday.
On my farm, we have a flock of 6 sheep (which hopefully will soon expand to 7, 8, or 9, depending on how many babies Ethel plans on having, when she FINALLY deigns to give birth). How we obtained these sheep is a bit of a story. One that gets stranger than fiction, and has lessons for us all... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Last October, my husband and I went to Fryeburg Fair, intending to buy a lamb so that our older son, now 7, could learn about sheep. It was step one in getting him involved in 4H. He's too small for us to have him working with horses, he didn't much care for the chickens or the duck, and we really weren't equipped to have pigs year-round (which is why we bought piglets in the spring, which is what led to my other, pig-centric diaries — but that's another matter). Lambs, however, were interesting to him, and more importantly, they were interesting to both me and his dad too — me, because I'm a fiber-loving person who has always secretly longed to learn how to spin wool, and his dad because he loves him some roast leg of lamb now and then. (I do, too, but really, the wool is what I'm after.) Our goal was to find a ewe lamb that we could raise and eventually breed to a ram so that Nate could start with a newborn. We came home that day with a little black ewe that I named Darlene. Now, I'd hoped to tell the young girl who raised her that we didn't plan on eating her, simply because the kid looked pretty sorrowful when I bought her lamb, but I didn't get the chance. Well, I figured, I'd simply remember her name (which was an uncommon name and easy to remember) and tell her next fall when we went back to the fair.
About 2 months later, our farrier was visiting. He saw the ewe and asked what we were doing with her, and my husband told him the plan. The farrier made a suggestion that would transform our farm. He had a client, he said, whose health was failing. She had a great many sheep and goats, and she was trying to re-home her flock of Romneys because they were too much for her to care for. These sheep were her babies, though, especially the ram (who was show-quality), and she would only pass them to a good home. He could vouch for us if we were interested in taking her flock. It was a win-win for everyone.
We took him up on the suggestion and met Janice [not her real name, to protect her privacy] for the first time a few days later. Janice is in her early 60s, but has multiple health issues. She tires easily, and on the day we met her, she had difficulty speaking—a product of the white-matter deterioration that, as she put it, is "turning her brain to mush." She had an incredible collection of creatures on her farm. Goats large and small, sheep of all descriptions, a miniature pony, even a guard llama named Elton ("He hates men, because a man used to beat him, before I rescued him," she informed us cheerfully, "but he takes good care of all the babies.")
It was immediately apparent that she adores her animals — many of whom she'd rescued, some of whom she'd bred herself — and she was unbelievably knowledgeable about their care and well-being. And they adored her right back. Have you ever seen a 300 pound sheep come when it's called, like a dog? That was Alex, the ram. It blew my mind. I could tell that giving them up was hard for her, but her family had given her no choice: either she found new homes for the large sheep now, or the next time she wound up in the hospital, they would simply hand them over to the MSPCA. Of course that thought was unbearable to her, particularly after she'd raised 3 of the 4 (Alex, Myrtle, and Coco) from babies.
We took all four of her large sheep that day: the ram, Alex, a wether, Coco, and two ewes, Myrtle (a papered Romney she'd bred herself) and Ethel (a Navajo-churro she'd found tied to a tree as coyote bait 12 years prior and "liberated" by virtue of untying her and leading her home). Myrtle was pregnant with her very first lamb; Ethel, a geriatric ewe, was possibly pregnant, but under all that wool, who could tell? So we would have a lamb in the spring, and possibly more than one. Good enough: we had what we wanted, and Janice had, well, if not what she wanted, then at least, the best she could ask for, that being a good home where her babies would be well-cared-for.
She would not accept cash payment, saying she only wanted a good home for them (and the farrier's recommendation was enough for her to know we fit the bill) but when we saw that she was low on hay, we brought her 30 bales from what we had stored. It was worth maybe $120—nowhere near the value of what she'd given us—but the peace of mind she got from having hay in her barn was clearly worth a lot more.
We kept in touch. Janice came to visit us about a month before Myrtle was due to lamb and showed us how to clip her "personal areas" in preparation for lambing. When Myrtle gave birth to a little black ewe, Alice, I called Janice and let her know. This week, I went for a visit with a friend of mine, Grace, who was interested in Janice's large collection of fleece.
And this is where it got bizarre. Grace had 3 sheep — two Jacob ewes (Beryl and Penny) and a Cotswald ewe named Juliette. The latter had been obtained shortly after Penny, spooked by changes to her surroundings, ran away into the woods. Juliette, a very personable and well-socialized ewe, had been given to Grace to keep Beryl from panicking. As it turned out, Juliette was also instrumental in luring Penny back to the sheepfold as well as in teaching both Jacobs how to trust Grace.
I'll make the long story short: after discussion and examination of many fleeces, Janice showed us the fleece she'd had off a Cotswald ewe she'd once owned, whom she'd given to a 4H member whose lamb had died and needed a sheep to show. And if you haven't guessed by now that the Cotswald ewe Janice had given this little girl was the same Juliette given to Grace to help with her frightened Jacobs, well, you're slow off the mark. But it gets better. In talking about the girl she'd given Juliette to, Janice mentioned the child's name. It was an unusual name. In fact, it was the SAME unusual name I'd committed to memory. "Janice," I said, "that name rings a bell. I think it's the same kid I bought my market lamb from. Did she have any other sheep? You said her lamb had died, right?"
"Yes," said Janice. "I gave her Juliette, and I also gave her a market lamb to raise."
"Uh... was that market lamb, by any chance, a black ewe?"
"Well, yes, it was," said Janice.
O.M.G. "I bought that ewe from her at Fryeburg," I said, stunned. "That's the little black ewe you saw, Darlene. Do you know her breeding?"
"Of course," said Janice. "Her father is Alex, and her mother was a Romney-Rambouillet cross."
I just stared at her. It defied imagination that I could have bought this little ewe months before even meeting Janice, and have her be from the very same flock I wound up adopting. And yet... it seemed that was exactly the case. It was a little like a soap opera plot — long lost daughter comes back to join father's family, but no one recognizes her until a chance encounter Reveals! All! (Just in time, in this case, to prevent the father from accidentally siring offspring with her—our plan to breed Darlene to Alex having just met with a big monkey wrench.)
We left with a bunch of fleece that we would sell for her, as she was almost out of hay. My very first act upon coming home, after unloading the fleece, was to send my husband back to her house with a round bale big enough to feed her goats, sheep, llama, and mini pony for quite some time. Next week, I'll be back at her place with another one—and hopefully with pictures of Ethel's lamb or lambs, if all goes well, for Ethel (having been shorn) is clearly in lamb with at least 2, possibly 3 babies. Note: Churros, it seems, are long-lived sheep, and Ethel has had the best care possible for most of her life; thus, a pregnancy at 13 is not nearly as alarming for Ethel as it might be for another breed, and we look forward to seeing her babies. It's the least we can do for her, after all she's done for us.
For the immediate future, Grace and I will be keeping Janice in hay, and making sure her fleeces get sold so she has enough income to support her animals. She has 3 lambs on her farm that need homes, and I think we can find people to take them in — especially since it's clear they'll all be excellent fiber producing sheep. We'll also be keeping Janice up-to-date on the well being of her babies, for as long as she's with us. And we'll be picking her brains to get as much of her knowledge out before her memory goes. She has taught us both a great deal in only a few short visits, and we owe it to her to maintain not only the animals she loves, but also the knowledge she harbors. Grace and I have already agreed that when the time comes for the rest of her animals to need homes, we will step up and find those homes for them — even if that means taking some in ourselves (I have dibs on Elton).
This strange circumstance has me thinking about a lot of things. How knowing the people in your community makes you richer. How reaching out to those in need can bring you unimagined rewards and connections. And how coincidence works in very odd ways to bring you to where you need to be.
Sun May 06, 2012 at 2:10 PM PT: For those who want to know, Ethel gave birth to twins, Shaun (male) and Shirley (female). My hope is to sell Shirley for fleece, but I'm afraid Shaun is destined for the freezer. Not our freezer, though. One of the commenters wanted to know how I could eat something I'd named. I can't, unless I name it "Bacon" or "Pork Chop" or "Chorizo" to keep my mind focused on what this animal means to me. BUT I also cannot eat anything I have not raised myself, because I know too damn much now about how awful the animals raised on factory farms are treated — leaving aside the ethics of it, the disease and discomfort to which these creatures are exposed makes me really not interested in ingesting the stress hormones and microbes they're bound to carry with them (blech). My pigs, chickens, and lambs have a great life, given plenty of space and company and appropriate medical care, and what comes from them is healthy and free of pathogens, chemicals, or medications. That knowledge is the only thing that allows me to continue to eat meat.