How does the Story of Goose Landing begin?
The calendar reads Lambing Season Eve—Sunday the fifth-to-last day of March—and I am in bed early in an attempt to stockpile sleep before the floodgates open. I am slow to leave the house the next morning, and Sun’s been up an hour or more before I walk up the hill to begin chores. North Wind has arrived, carrying the coldest air in weeks. Rolling the season back overnight. Gray-cloud Sky. Snowflakes ride on a stiffening breeze. Yesterday’s mud, marked by Cow and Sheep hooves, is now firm underfoot. Frozen. Lambing Season Morning. I look through the Ewe flock before bringing the Cows in for morning milking—or more accurately, nursing. Three hungry calves wait in the Barn, eager to be fed. If you’ve ever raised Sheep or Cows you will likely know that they sometimes sleep in positions that make them look to all the world like they’re dead—rolled over on their side or neck stretched out in an odd position. A loud call and they will lift an ear or an eyelid, confirming Life. The Ewe in such a position this morning doesn’t stir to my call and so I’m over the fence and by her side in a moment. Billie has died in the night, and what I see doesn’t register. Her intestines are outside of her body, but no Lambs, afterbirth, or placenta, and no sign of predators. The other Ewes watch, calmly, as I drag the heavy carcass—still warm but already stiffening—out of the pen before heading to the field to fetch the Cows. Lambing Season arrives like a Lion, riding in on a chilling North breeze.
Could I have helped her if I’d checked through the night? This is the question that nips at a shepherd’s heels, urging one from bed and out into the dark. Back at the house, I pour through the lambing books that just arrived in the mail. And there it is: prolapse of the intestines through the vagina. I read, “This sporadic calamitous event results in the death of the ewe and lambs. If the ewe is found still alive in this condition she should be humanely killed as soon as possible. This tragedy usually happens a few days before lambing. The cause is not known.” Dear, dear Billie. She was such a stunning Ewe, and a powerfully attentive mother. Just yesterday afternoon I checked her swelling udder and wondered if she would be the first to lamb this year. I gather supplies to skin and gut the carcass, to salvage her meat. I pull two huge lambs out of her, still warm and looking to all the world ready to rise to their feet and totter their way toward the waiting teat. A girl and a boy. I lay them out on the table, clearing the afterbirth from their faces. It’s all right there. Life in its trembling unlikeliness, an achingly beautiful possibility. The tears won’t come that day. Or the next. The list for the week is long, and I haven’t set aside time for unexpected butchering. Plus, there’s not even running water at the Farm yet.
Back in January, I got to know an Amish butcher named Benji, working alongside him for two days as he cut Ashlee the Cow and Randy the Ram—the sizeable sire of the two dead lambs. Benji graciously entertained my hundreds of questions about Amish life, even inviting me down to the house for lunch with him, his wife Lizzie and their young daughter Rachel. As he doesn’t use a phone, I call his neighbor to ask if I can drive the carcass down to him. She tells me that she’s unsure of his schedule, given that Lizzie’s given birth to their second child that very morning. While Billie lay dying. Two days later I still haven’t heard back from the neighbor, and with the weather threatening to warm I load Billie’s carcass into the car and drive down to find Benji. Remember, he doesn’t use a phone. When I stop by the house Lizzie’s sister answers the door and tells me that I’ll find Benji at the butcher shop. He’s closed the shop for the week to give the walls a new coat of paint. He greets me with a huge smile.
“Congratulations on the new Life,” I say.
He tells me that the baby was born nearly a month premature and very small—only five pounds—but seems to be healthy, as does Lizzie. They’ve named the boy Joseph after Benji’s youngest brother. He is beaming. Benji agrees to hang Billie’s carcass in the cooler and tells me he can get to the work next week. He asks me if the Farm I’d told him about back in January had come through. The one that was then just an achingly beautiful possibility. The one we’ve been calling Goose Landing. “Yes it has,” I tell him. “Just a week and a half ago. I’ve just moved my house there, brought the Sheep over from Vermont and walked the Cows and Calves down the road from the neighbor’s where we spent the Winter.”
“Congratulations,” he says.
As I drive back to the Farm, I remember something Benji told me during those two days we spent working together. He told me that the Amish don’t expect any certain amount of Life. They don’t see it as theirs to control. They don’t protect themselves against pregnancy, and usually end up with large families. At the other end, they don’t overly protect themselves against death. They will go to the hospital for certain procedures, but they believe that there is a larger plan they’re a part of and they carry a certain amount of obedience with them through the days that they’re given. At least that is how I remember what he told me. And then I think about their two-day old son Joseph, the fact that he’s been born a month premature at home. I wonder whether they would have taken him to the hospital if he’d been in serious trouble, or if they would have buried him in the yard come morning. It is a sobering thing to wonder about. The tears still won’t come. They’re buried too far down on the to-do list.
Billie’s twin lambs are still half frozen to the table where I set them two days ago while I hastily worked to gut and skin Billie’s carcass. I couldn’t bring myself to put them in the barrel with the guts and the hide. In one of the Farm’s outbuildings, I find a hand-made wooden bushel crate, and line it with soft hay. I tuck the twins in together. Tomorrow morning I’ll walk with the crate down the abandoned, half-grown over old town road that bisects the Farm, headed for the Woods. A gift for the wild ones. The ones who have renewed and upheld Life here at this abandoned Farm ongoingly. The Song I will sing as I walk sounds like this: (You can hear a simple recording of the Song HERE)
We raise you up, we raise you up, we raise you in a song, song, song.
Your life will surely shift in shape, but you’ll live on in a song.
Oh thank you, Oh thank thank you, Oh thank you. Thank thank you.
The greatest gift, is to be alive, to breathe the world for one more day.
And if this breath, should be my last, I’ll blow it out as a song.
Oh thank you, Oh thank thank you, Oh thank you. Thank thank you.
So how does the Story of Goose Landing begin?
Goose Landing is the name we’ve begun to use for an old Farm here in Keeseville, NY—un-ceded Mohawk/Adirondack land a half-hour walk inland from Western shores of the broad Lake. The place has been largely left alone by humans since the old man died in 2004. Henry Schermerhorn was his name. He never married and the Farm passed to his niece and nephew, who live elsewhere and finally got to putting it on the market just recently. I’ve begun to glean some stories of his life from the older folks in town, and I’ll share some of those glimpses next week as a way of honoring what I promised at the end of last week’s Letter—the rest of the story of the Blessing of the Ewes.
Clearly, the story of this place has no beginning—rather stories overlayed and carefully stitched together through time. Stories that, in their telling, might begin to resemble a quilt. A quilt that might just offer some threadbare shelter in a troubled time.
Many blessings to you and yours,