A New, Wet, Woolly Life Comes in Like a Lamb


I like my winter chore of stomping on frozen water in barnyardbuckets. It is aggression with an instantaneous, friendly reward.

Steam billowing from their nostrils, farm beasts who have heard the thud, thud, thud, crack-splash, now can lean into the trough for a clear, chill drink. It has been an easy task this winter; too easy.

In a proper winter, I would give up trying to jackhammer with my boot heel. I'd have to heave the heavy bucket upside down and pound on it until it released its rigid pedestal of ice. Those round, de-molded blocks would remain where they fell. Each morning, each evening a new one would be hatched: an arctic Stonehenge cropping up around the water pump.

Haven't done that for several years now. The ice is minimal -- merely a lens afloat in the watery eye of the pail. If you finger it out and toss it against the fence post, it tinkles to smithereens. It is quite gone.

Statistically, February is the month it snows the most in Baltimore. But it rains more than it snows. We long for a massive soggy southwestern snowfall, when the snowflakes are bigger'n dog paws, and the children stay home to sled. And a week ago it happened. We awoke and everything was in black and white white white. My backyard barnyard was nearly erased. My little red barns were re-invented as igloos, warm as breath inside.

My chickens are a gaggle of dear Bawlamer ladies. They peered out -- and were scandalized. The sky had fallen! These Lovely Laying Ladies crossed back and forth before the hen house door, declining to venture out. Instead they gossiped wildly, positing every kind of outlandish opinion as to why the world had vanished. They cocked their heads and clucked and gazed sideways, indignant.

Who would dare be first to make her mark, place her chicken scratch on that wide blank page? Certainly not the supercilious rooster. Not likely the two mountainous turkeys: Hedda Gobbler who is blue-brown and George Bush, our white male turkey who is not pro-choice.

On the other hand, Mother Goose and Bumps, Alfred Drake and Doretta Morrow are ever ready to express their fondness for precipitation of any kind. They slap their fat flat feet around in virgin snow with evident pleasure. Likewise, the two dogs and the young cat are seized with the spirit of adventure. They wag and race and snuffle through the white stuff, leaving elliptical trails. The older orange cat Altobelli is not impressed. He remains indoors, tucks his paws under him and dozes by the fire.

Back in the barn, the two sheep also have their legs tucked under. They are ewes chewing cuds, waiting for the instant I emerge to commence their complaining. They are bulky blobs of wool, Bo white and Louisa Mae Woolcoat brown. Louisa is soon to lamb. The snow is heaping up untracked outside their open door. Only when they hear the kitchen door open, do they rush out, baaaing and bawling and belly-aching at the possibility of orange peels, sweet feed and new timothy hay. Then the snow piles white quilts over their wool.

Historically my sheep pick the bitterest, wintriest night to lamb. This year they hardly know when to give birth.

When their udders "bag up," the blessed event is nigh. Bo's are pink as a birthday balloon; Louisa Mae's dusky supply of milk also is nearly blown up full. You find yourself head down on the cold ground looking up, looking to see how "bagged up" the restive ladies are.

Lambs are born after sunset or before sunrise. It's a quick business, when all goes well, as it did with Bo last week. Front feet first and then head, out slithers a new, sopping, woolly life, sheathed in a glistening, tearing birth sac, landing on the straw. Warm water and fresh hay are greatly appreciated by the ewe. The warm water helps her lactate and expel the afterbirth. And suddenly she is ravenous.

I try to be present at the creation, to run my finger over the newborn's nose and across its tongue -- to be certain the birth sac is not gluing up the nostrils like cellophane. the ewe is up right away, and in short order so is the soaking lamb. Fifteen minutes after its wet entry into the world, the lamb will have succeeded in wobbling to its feet. Now it diffidently tries to find the cafeteria.

The size of a pinata, the newborn has wee perfect cloven hooves, a longish wiggly tail, and minute dense curls close as a putting green all over its body. Dried placenta may sequin these curls for days. Once dry, the lamb is warm as toast even on the coldest night. The trick is getting it dry. A red-bulbed heat lamp hangs in my barn, offering a little pool of warmth.

Resist the temptation to scoop up the new tyke, to wrap it in towels, or to cuddle the shivering little thing in the kitchen. Better to stand back and let mama lick the wetness dry. This bonding is critical to her accepting her lamb. If your smell is all over her baby, she might actually think it's your lamb, not hers. (There is no use trying to reason with a sheep.) She'll butt it away.

Lambs-being-born is our favorite way to lighten up the disagreeable month of February. Bo's little black lamb is an etching on white, as curious as the chickens about where the ground went -- but determined to stay next to mom. Hannah, our 6-year-old who is by now an accomplished animal-namer, chose her moniker from an A-B-C book we were reading. Her name is Xukazi, the Zulu word for female lamb.

Sarah Fenno Lord is a theater critic.

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