The Inexperienced Shepherd and Gina's Night Labors
Greetings Friends and Neighbors,
There was a plan, and then there was what happened. I had planned and promised to begin describing how it came to be that I officially hold title to 115 acres of unceded Mohawk/Adirondack home land—purchased for $475K cash a few weeks back. That story will not be sidestepped, but rather postponed for a week. Why? Because lambing season—which officially ended when Thalia and Galadrielle dropped their babes onto warm, moist Grass this morning—delivers its own crop of heartrending stories.
Lambing season takes you by the ear and whispers, “Stay close to home, don’t avert your gaze, keep your ears open for where and how you are needed, and carry your plans with a loose grip.” The ecological and social unravelling of our time—the troubles to which we are both party and participant—might just grab us each of us by the ear and whisper something similar, if we dare to stand within reach. But wouldn’t it be a lot more convenient if the situation weren’t really that dire after all? More convenient if we could carry on with all of our plans? Wouldn’t it be preferable if we didn’t end up having to be on call in the middle of the night for the unravelling we’ve set in motion? Convenience is a potently addictive designer drug these days, along with its generic version, personal preference.
Last evening, I logged onto the computer for a gathering with the Second Cohort of the Hospicing Modernity Study Group, which, come to think of it, could be likened to an AA meeting. What is the first step, again? Once I admit that I am an addict, I must then set out to apologize to those I have harmed. Hospicing Modernity’s author, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, offers an image in the book that I have found immensely helpful in understanding why it is so difficult for us to respond to the overwhelming news of ecological collapse. She shares a Brazilian saying that we can’t learn to swim as the water rises to our ankles, or even our knees. We only learn to swim once the water reaches our waists. A teaching for those of us who live on the uphill end of the global supply chains. Consequence seems to flow downhill, like water. The following lambing Story describes a water-up-to-the-waist moment.
I offer my most sincere gratitude to the seventeen stunning Ewes who have given birth here at the Farm over the past two weeks. These hardworking mothers model again and again how to trade personal preference for willing participation—while I tread water in the shallow end with my floaties on. What’s more, they forgive me again and again for being such a slow learner. Preference is a potently addictive drug indeed. It sure would be convenient not to be on call through the night for all that I’ve set in motion, for the reckoning that now comes to term.
STORY: The Inexperienced Shepherd and Gina’s Night Labors
Most of the lambing this year has taken place during the quiet, dark hours between bedtime and sunrise. Perhaps the daylight riot of Spring birdsong is too noisy for them. Monday night three Ewes gave birth to six Lambs, and all went well except that Gwynn had a tiny, underdeveloped triplet. The little one could barely stand after two hours, while her siblings had risen to their feet in minutes. I milked some of Gwynn’s colostrum by hand and gave it to the triplet through a feeding tube before climbing the stairs to the Barn’s hayloft where I have a mattress and sleeping bag set up—a lambing season loft bed—to sleep for a few hours. Miraculously, the tiny Lamb was alive come morning, but still very unsteady on her feet and would clearly not survive alongside her vigorous, assertive siblings. I had already made the hard decision not to raise any bottle Lambs this year—the milk replacer has an unjustifiably large ecological/industrial footprint and the required labor would divert my limited attention from the rest of the Flock. Saving preemies is very costly for the larger metabolism, be they Sheep or Human or other. So, I was prepared to let the underdeveloped Lamb die, or kill her if that seemed the right thing to do. Willing participation often hurts more than a little bit. See what I mean by being in the shallow end with floaties?
The next day I finish dinner and walk up to the barn for the final evening check. If the Flock is quiet, I will sleep in the hayloft for four hours before rising for night check at 2am. As if on cue, Bonita begins to labor. By midnight, I have her safely in a pen with her twin girls. I walk through the flock one more time, looking at each Ewe, carefully, by headlamp. Only three more Ewes left to lamb now. Gina paws the ground, lays down, extends her rear leg, and tenses her body. Here we go. I nudge her over to one end of the yard and settle down to wait, as often the whole effort is over in less than an hour. Gina is one of our most affectionate Ewes. She walks over to me and begins to lick my bare hands, which I realize are still covered with afterbirth from Bonita’s twins. As she licks, Gina makes the gentle cooing sound that she will sing to her own Lambs once they’re on the ground. It’s past midnight now, and I lay down in the hay next to her to wait. Sleep comes. I wake some minutes later and she still hasn’t progressed. I set an alarm for 2am and allow my head to lower to the hay, expecting to see babies when I wake. But still nothing. I open the lambing book and realize that it is well past time to reach inside to determine what’s happening in there. I’m good and nervous now, and rush back to the house to wash up my hands and forearms and gather clean dishrags, warm water and dish soap for lubricant. I have to restrain Gina with a halter. She is nervous, too. With the book open on the ground next to her, I reach in. Ideally, I would feel front hooves and a nose. No such luck. It takes me at least 45 minutes, reading the book carefully as my fingers work around the Lamb, to figure out what position the Lamb is in. I finally discern that I am feeling the lower back and hips of the Lamb, a breech position worsened by the hours of laboring. The book reads, “Unless you have had plenty of experience, it is better to let the vet tackle this one, as it can be very difficult to correct without injuring the ewe.” I don’t yet have a vet here in NY, but I’ve met the one who comes to call at my friends’ Farm down the road, and by luck I have the office number in my phone. It is nearly 3 am when as I describe the situation to the person who answers the overnight emergency phone. One of the vets calls me back within ten minutes and lets me know that, unfortunately they can’t come until morning, as I am outside of their emergency service range. He spends a few minutes encouraging me to keep working with the Ewe before we end the call.
Gina will definitely die if I do nothing. And I may kill her by trying to pull the Lamb out. I suddenly realize that the water is up to my waist. I have no choice but to start swimming. The book says that I must position the Ewe on her back and then raise her hind end in the air with a system of rope slings and pulleys that are all laid out in detailed diagrams. I run to the garage where I know the Old Man kept his carefully coiled collection of ropes. I gather a few different sizes, begin tying knots, and before long I have Gina in this unbelievable position—very similar I realize to lifting the back end of a slaughtered Lamb for skinning and gutting. She flails and tries to turn her front end over to get up. I am pleading with her now—something between a yell and a sob. “Gina, Mama, please stay calm. I am trying to help you stay alive.” She settles. I have the book open on the floor next to me as I work on my knees, identifying one of the Lamb’s rear legs and then the other. I have my right arm inside her up to the elbow. I have to push the Lamb back far enough to rotate each leg in turn without rupturing the wall of the uterus. This process is excruciatingly slow, as the Lamb keeps sliding back towards me when I release pressure on its hips. Finally, I have both legs in the birth canal and I pull the Lamb out, clearing mucus from his nose and face. But the Lamb has no breath. Dead. I lower Gina back to the ground and roll her onto her side. It is only now that I notice that my pants are soaked with her blood and birth fluids. We are both in a trance. I wonder if she will be able to stand up again. Within a few minutes she makes a sound that I take as a sure sign that I’ve fatally injured her. And then I look back to see two more hooves sticking out. A second Lamb, in normal presentation. I pull this one out quickly, to save Gina from even one extra contraction in her exhausted state. This Lamb is, miraculously, alive. I place the live Lamb next to his dead brother in front of their mother’s nose. She still hasn’t moved. The Lamb’s movement shakes Gina from her trance, and she begins to lick him in the same way she licked my hands now almost four hours earlier. And then she begins cooing to him—the small black Lamb with white marks on his head just like his mother, the one who waited patiently for this breath. And then I remember Gwynn’s underdeveloped Lamb in the nearby pen, the one who wouldn’t get enough milk to survive as a triplet. She might have found a new mother. I move quickly, bringing the tiny girl over and laying her next to the black boy Lamb, rubbing the birth fluids over her. Gina is now alert enough to vocalize her suspicion. She is not fooled. I remember reading about this in the book, so I flip to the page on fostering and grafting and find the section titled “Skinning the Dead Lamb.” And this is what I do, tying the dead Lamb’s skin around the tiny girl as a jacket, fastened with a lacing of baling twine under the neck and belly. Immediately, Gina begins to lick her as well, as she now smells and tastes the part. And then Gina rises to her feet. When I finally leave the barn, I can see the first light of morning in the Eastern Sky. I drag myself out of bed a few short hours later and make my way back up to the Barn to start morning chores. On the ground under the incandescent lightbulb that lit my work a few hours earlier I see the open lambing book, splattered and stained, the pile of ropes and the drying pool of blood on the floor. The long night was a dream to which I was both party and participant.
Today, a day and a half later, all three are still alive. More than a small miracle. Gina, her patient son and her adopted daughter. But they are surely not out of the woods. A uterine infection could still take Gina, which would also bring death to the two Lambs. But today Gina has a strong appetite and her familiar, affectionate brightness. I cut the now-smelly lambskin jacket off the tiny girl, and then, come evening, I walk the skinned, dead Lamb out to the woods to lay him beneath Grandmother Oak where I set Billie’s dead twins two weeks ago. If you missed that Story, you can find it HERE. Just like last time, I sing the whole way there. To my great shock, Billie’s twins are still there, bright white on the bed of hay I laid them on, looking almost exactly the same as when I left them. I reach down to touch their soft coats. My tears are close. How can Life be so messy and beautiful at once? Unable to sing any more, Winter Wren and Peepers, on cue, fill the darkening woods with their hauntingly beautiful songs. Back at the house, I write down these final paragraphs.
It’s a messy and beautiful story about an inexperienced shepherd who is, without warning asked to provide midwifery. There’s something particularly potent for me about the image of walking into Barn the next morning and finding the lambing book lying open on the ground, stained from its hours of service. I plan to send a note to the author to thank her for laboring to write the book. The following evening, in conversation with the Study Group Cohort about the book Hospicing Modernity, I catch a glimpse of something I hadn’t seen before. Like the lambing book that guided me into the mysterious practices of midwifery the night before, Hospicing Modernity amounts to a manual of techniques for doing the very thing the titles describes—offering palliative care to modernity as it dies within and around us. This is what I meant earlier by the reference to AA. Saying, “I am an addict,” is a lot like saying, “Our way of living and our extractive modes of being in relationship with the rest of life are dying.” Such admissions require a willingness to proceed absent any assurance of what lies on the other side of the threshold. But we would prefer to know what we’re signing up for before we agree to jump in, right? Remember Vanessa’s teaching about how high the water has to get before we can learn to swim? And so, I will leave you with an excerpt from an interview between Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project, and Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, the author of Hospicing Modernity. Their words, which I first read several years ago, flooded my memory today and, upon re-reading, the images conjured therein into sharper focus in the presence of the Story I’ve just told. Perhaps they will prove useful to you, as well.
Many thanks to you for reading.
With great care,
From Dark Mountain, Refuge. Issue 16, Autumn 2019.
Dougald: You talk about ‘hospicing modernity and assisting with the birth of something new, undefined and potentially, but not necessarily, wiser’….What I find striking is that this language of ‘hospicing’ gets used quite a lot in some of the places and conversations that [I] cross paths with.…However, the other half, the assisting with the birth of something new, is often missing in those conversations. Part of that comes, I suspect, from an inability to see much space between the end of modernity and the end of everything.
Vanessa: It’s very interesting that everywhere I speak about hospicing, there’s always a very strong normative desire for humans to create the new reality. It’s this archetype of agency that is extremely ingrained: the idea that we can create something, and then the lack of faith in humanity to create it, which then plays into this sense of resignation. People say ‘Well, I don’t believe we can do it’, and that it.
What we are trying to get at is that the death we are talking about is an interruption of the totalisation. If it is about a move of integration, a move towards entanglement, towards the metabolism itself, then it’s the metabolism that does the dreaming and the creation. That’s why we don’ say ‘creating’ something new, we say ‘assisting with the birth’ of something new. We are the assistants, not the ones doing it.
Dougald: So it’s a humbler role that we might be arriving into, if we’re lucky?
Vanessa: Absolutely. And it’s very different from this bravado thing about saving the Earth, or saving humanity, or even saving ourselves or our families, prepping for the end of the world. Existentially, it is a very different starting point.