reflections from the southeast PA rural underground

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Leaving Winter

I tried to leave Winter on the morning of March 13. Friday the 13th to be exact. I drove the 13 miles to the new farm's location anticipating my first ride on the Case tractor since 2007. It was a fun tractor to drive. It was over 40 years old and somewhat unpredictable, kind of like the boss. But it was such a pleasing machine to look at and hear and operate. Jen had said when I took her for a short ride on it that it was so "nice."
Walking up to where Tim was already working I glanced over the 57 acres and marveled again at the sheer size of it all. It was like a bowl. Three grand hillsides enclosing you. Each hill with its own tree line softly closing in the entire property. Off to the right and down the truck path stood the giant Ash tree. It was the cornerstone of the property. It stood there looking worn and old but sturdy, being the diameter of several persons.

I got onto the tractor and headed out with the first load of composted mushroom soil. This was after having the New Idea spreader loaded by Tim who was seated in the New Holland trake-dah (read: Pennsylvania Dutch tractor). The controls slowly came back to me. Raising and lowering the bucket, the PTO, the brakes that didn't really work, the start position on the stick shift. Winter laid her grips right into my face with a brisk steady breeze. Being less than 30 degrees outside, the thought of Spring wasn't a thought at all. Thankfully the sun was starting to break through the haze of thick gray clouds and I knew it would be a warm day in about an hour. Well, almost warm.

We rode and rode and rode all day. The sod never got soft as we thought it surely would by noon or one o' clock. One quick stop for Bob's roast beef sandwiches at around 2 was the only break we took. There's a kind of fire in the belly that stirs in these first weeks of March. A frantic, spastic, deep energy that cries, "Let me out!" The ground began to look covered after about 6 hours of steady blanketing. First in long passes down the field, then crossing over these in an attempt to fill in the gaps. Ron showed up at about 10am, his son following with another spreader filled with cow manure. During a pause in the action Tim filled both spreaders and Ron, the dairy farmer and neighbor of the new farm said to me, "Tim worries a lot it seems. I don't think we'll remind him it's Friday the 13th." "No," I said, "And I don't think we should talk about the full moon last night either!" Was it full last night? I remembered it looking pretty near as I stared at it just before going inside the Fire Company.


Lilly had kept sheep, goats, and a caramel colored ram that could have been mistaken for a lion for about three years now. She has fifteen that shuffle around together on the 12 acre hillside piece of land. They have names like Cinder and Hershey and Mr. Fox and a perfectly round shaped, salt and pepper wool covered girl called Minikin who has onyx colored, smooth, ancient looking curved horns. The Shepherdess took such pride in getting them all together and explaining to those of us with no knowledge of these animals all their distinct habits and needs. Today they would get vaccinated and have their hooves trimmed and cleaned. "There is so much on the to-do list but these two things are in the A category and must get done today," Lilly said.

The sheep as a group are quite attentive, it turns out. However, one by one they are all uniquely skittish and are likely to scatter at the slightest movement by a human. Like any animals, they come running at the sight or smell or sound of food! Yet they know immediately when they are trying to be coerced into a group movement. The goat of the herd is brave and high spirited as he comes up to you and licks your hand, wondering if the treats will soon return. He is dressed in a highly prized cashmere wool coat that is grey, white, black, brown, and all shades in between and loves to be brushed. He looks calmly at one human face after another as if to say, "Yes, thank you all so much for coming. I am the famed Caaaaaaashmere goat. You will no doubt notice my beauty and stature. Eh hem. . . .let me see if you still have pretzels in that pocket and if I might just taste but one more."

Ruth was inside the barn bay all by herself as I worked the door with Tom. Lilly waited by the small entrance coaching Ruth on to how to ease one more of the sheep to her strong hands. From there it was onto the platform to receive the season's vaccines and tlc. Five sheep rounding the small bay inside, the Cashmere goat shoving one of the sheep with his horns, the distraction of the tasty hay bale and the Shepherdess calling from the entrance made for a swirling, door banging circus. Without fail each animal eventually came running out into Lilly's hands horns first or flailing vertically in Ruth's hands. "Shut the door!" one of the women would say as Tom and I would scramble to shut the heavy barn door without squishing one of the other sheep that was, at the same time, breaking fast for freedom.

We took a break and had a taste of Ian's homemade sour red wine. I thought of how much Lilly would have to do in the next month with it now being birthing season. How could she possibly have done any of this alone? She had. She complained that it was always a struggle for her lower back at those times. Wrestling with 15 animals that weighed around 200 pounds each was definitely a bear of a way to start Spring but also so worth it, it seemed. Every one of the sheep having its own personality behind those strange, staring, mythical, stoic eyes. All the colors mixing together and waddling around you and pushing at each other and baaaaing the deepest guttural whines. Theirs were the hooves of Iceland. Of old times. Of the Winter that strove to to have its full term.

Photo of sheep by Lelayna Klein, proprietor of Lillian's farm in Kempton,Pa.