May 05, 2009
Inside the sheep barn
When I visit the monastery in winter, my favorite place to think is in the crypt below the chapel. After walking through the cold wind, I’ll enter the warm chapel and descend the long stone staircase into the candle-lit space that smells like incense and melting wax. In the very center of the octagonal room, a stone statue of a young woman is surrounded by vigil candles. I’ll sit cross-legged on the stone floor, just staring at those little flames, sometimes for hours.
But in spring time, my favorite place in the monastery is the sheep barn.
The ewes will turn and look at me as I enter, and sometimes a skittish mother will stamp a foreleg in warning. But once I settle into a comfortable spot, leaning against the wall to watch, they ignore me. Each ewe usually has two babies. They wobble at first, as they try to get up on all four legs, but soon they are jumping about and knocking into each other as they push under the mother to nurse.
When I see Brother Tractor hurry by with his shepherd’s staff, I know that another ewe is about to give birth. He’ll rush from the barnyard to open the gate, and with his staff, he’ll separate a ewe from the others and guide her into the barn, pushing her into whichever pen is empty. “She’s having a bit of trouble,” he’ll say to me, conversationally, putting on a long plastic glove that goes way past his elbow.
Sometimes I’ll see a baby’s head sticking out. That’s an awkward way for a sheep to give birth – usually the two forelegs come first, just as if the baby is diving. So Brother Tractor will reach in to find two legs and help guide them out. “It’s a tangle of legs,” he’ll say, laughing. Sometimes a bag of waters will pop, causing a rush of fluid. Within minutes, he’ll pull out the legs and then a newborn lamb will slide right out, choking a bit as it takes its first breath. And then a second lamb, and sometimes even a third.
The babies are slimy, covered with yellow and sometimes a bit of blood. It’s a messy process – the afterbirth that still hangs from the sheep is bloody and dark, and dripping all over the pen. But the mother starts licking the babies immediately. A healthy baby will struggle to its feet right away, first getting up onto her knees and then figuring out how to unfold the long legs. Before long, the baby will begin butting her head against the ewe, figuring out how to eat. And within a few hours, the newborns look like the kind of lambs you might see on greeting card: their wool dry and fluffy.
Posted by jo(e)