April 22, 2008
During my weekend retreat at the monastery, I spent far more time in the sheep barn than in the chapel. Most of the sheep gave birth on their own, needing no help. The babies, dropped unceremoniously to the floor, would wriggle and choke and then almost immediately struggle towards the mother, bleating and ready to suck. Their skinny legs seemed disproportionately long; sometimes they'd crawl about on their knees first before finally standing up and taking those first wobbly steps.
Early Saturday morning, Brother Tractor brought in a sheep who had been laboring all night. She seemed to be in distress. He put on a plastic glove and reached his whole arm inside of her. "They're all tangled up," he said. That happens sometimes with multiple births. He reached in again to sort out the limbs and managed to get two forelegs in his clasp. The first lamb he pulled out was dead, fully formed but lifeless. But the next two were very much alive. They slid out: wet, slimy, covered with dark yellow gook. Within minutes, the ewe began licking them clean, and soon they struggled to their feet.
One sheep gave birth to a big healthy lamb and a tiny runt. The smaller lamb seemed too weak to move, certainly not strong enough to stand up and nurse. Brother Tractor tried to give him a bottle, but he wouldn't even suck. When I returned to the barn after lunch, I saw the runt lying lifeless in the hay. Brother Tractor said, when he arrived, "I'm not surprised." He carried the body off.
When I returned to the sheep barn after Vespers, the sheep in the nearest pen was giving birth. A newborn lamb wriggled on the floor of the stall, lifting her head, trying to walk on her knees. Labor had stalled, though, and just the head of the second lamb was sticking out of the mother. From what I could see, the lamb looked dead. The ewe paced back and forth, and her sides began heaving again. The lambs are usually born with their forelegs coming out first, as if they are diving, so I wondered if she could deliver this way. I motioned for Brother Tractor, who was just coming into the barn, but before he could make his way over to the pen, she gave a mighty shove, and the baby came out, pulling a clear sac with it. The ewe turned to lick the baby, and then I saw movement. The lamb was alive! He choked and sputtered, and then shook his head.
One of the sheep in labor on Sunday morning was a skittish first-time mother. She'd been in labor all night, but something wasn't right. She ran around the pen when Brother Tractor entered. He tied a rope to her horns and then tied her to the fence. Finally, she lay down, and he reached a hand in to see if she was dilated. He rubbed and pulled to help stretch the opening as two forelegs appeared.
"We use olive oil sometimes," he said to me conversationally.
I nodded. "Humans, too," I said, "My midwife used olive oil for perineal massage."
After two babies have been eased out, the ewe got to her feet and began licking them. "She'll feel better now, " I said, "It's always such a relief to get that baby out."
Brother Tractor and Brother Curly Beard both looked at me, and it occurred to me that monks would have very little experience with human childbirth, not even the kind of vicarious experiences many of my married male friends have.
Sunday morning was busy in the pens: another 13 babies born. One of the ewes gave birth to three dead babies. Brother Tractor brought her one of the orphan lambs, and she accepted the baby, who crawled under her and nursed vigorously.
Poodles, a dark brown sheep, is a pet among the monks. When she gave birth to three white lambs, several monks stopped to talk to her — and to doublecheck the door on the pen. "She's always getting into trouble," Brother Curly Beard said. "That's why we like her. She's the black sheep." She is known for pushing out fences during restless moods. "Whenever a bunch of sheep get out, you know that Poodles is at the front of the pack."
During quiet moments between births, Brother Curly Beard would get a wheelbarrow of hay, and begin tossing it into the stalls by the pitchfork. Sometimes this would cause a sleeping baby to jump to her feet, sneezing and shaking her head as the hay rained down. An ewe would munch hay contently, while the babies would follow her, butting their heads underneath to nurse.
Posted by jo(e)