This essay is from Two Farms: Essays on a Maine Country Life by Janet Galle
Originally titled, “December, 1992”
I went out to the barn this afternoon when it wasn’t time to do the chores. If the clouds hadn’t been piled, one gray pillow on top of the other, I could have seen the sun hanging just above the tree line. I slipped over the fence on the east side of the paddock to avoid the geese and their incessant honking. I wanted peace. In the barn, Sam the ram peered through his fence, but he keeps quiet these days. I silently crossed the frozen earth, pockmarked with hundreds of cloven hoof indentations. What was once November mud is now December hardpan.
On the west side of the barn is the newly-opened section of the paddock. Here a giant hemlock tree, hanging heavy with tiny cones like Christmas ornaments, stands like a protective umbrella in the center of the area. A small creek, essentially empty with but a trickle of water clinging to the bottom like shards of glass, meanders at an angle toward the obscured setting sun. The sheep seem to like this patch of land away from a direct view into the barn.
Ours is an open south-facing structure which allows plenty of sunlight to enter the barn in winter. If you are a sheep who has to be enclosed, you like this. But if you are an outside sheep looking in, it can be a noisy, bothersome place full of crowing roosters, cackling hens, and honking geese.
This afternoon there are twenty-three ewes outside, sixteen of whom should be pregnant. Number 19 looks ready to deliver any minute. She is built like a tank, slung low to the ground and, when she spies me, gets to her feet looking a bit like my father does when disturbed from a quiet afternoon in front of the football game. Once Number 19 is up, the others, who are scattered on the ground like moguls on a ski slope, get to their feet, too, their ears cocked forward with an air of surprise. No one comes to the barn at this hour of the day.
I just read a farm book in which the author explores the idea that sheep are not really dumb creatures at all; rather, their annoying habits, like running en masse right through fences, are logical responses to situations. Sheep have no defenses. They have no way to fight except by flight. I could see that look about them now. Until they were sure who had arrived in their paddock, they needed to be prepared to escape.
For a moment I have become a tomten making my rounds of the farm animals on Christmas night. I whisper to them, “Sheep, fat ewes, stay warm in your wool coats — eat your alfalfa hay.” I repeat the mantra. Who am I to know whether these words work for soothing sheep on a December evening or not?
I crouch against the fence post and call Tilly’s name. A small, thickly-fleeced ewe separates herself from the group. She trots over to me. Down low is the best level for greeting Tilly; she likes to nuzzle in close and then get her nose and chin scratched. My husband calls her annoying, but I can easily call her lovable. Tilly stays with me, and I am glad, for I have decided to stay with the sheep for a long time. It is hectic in the house. We are cleaning for the holidays and everyone is helping. I have no complaints, but still…
An old friend whom we had not seen for twenty years came for coffee this morning. With him arrived a flood of memories. Wasn’t it only yesterday that we were young? I ask Tilly about time flying and holiday meanings and such; her response is to push closer, snuffling for a handful of grain and another hug — the simple needs.
The barn is the place to go during the holiday season. And the sheep are the animals from whom I seek comfort. They don’t wag their tails like our dog in blind affection nor are they as cozy and intimate as the cats. Sheep are accepting, tolerant, non-demanding. I expect to sit here for half an hour, talking out loud to them. They will listen without comment.
Teeny Spot, who looks like she ran into a wall and was squashed from both ends, comes nearer to see what is up with Tilly. Tilly is, of course, the tamest, and the others stand watching her behavior with a human, but I suspect Teeny Spot wants to know a little more about me. Maybe before winter is over I will know more about her. She is the great grandchild of my first ewe, Cassie, and by that bloodline alone captures a corner of my heart.
Leaning against the fence, not moving for a long time, I can feel the temperature dropping. The air is ice-cracking cold. Snow swirls furiously in fragments of ice chips. I feel like I am part of a scene from one of those magical Christmas globes which some giant’s child has just picked up and given a shake. Here I am, caught in the “barn and shepherd scene,” just right for Christmas. It grows darker. A few older ewes are no longer curious about my voice or my ideas and they turn away, walking in their slightly stiff-legged manner, looking for all the world like matrons on the streets of Pittsburgh or Chicago, finishing the holiday shopping in their thick fur coats. These matrons, however, are content to wander back to the welcoming shelter of the hemlock boughs and have no interest in Marshall Field’s windows.
I stretch my legs. All the sheep except Tilly move away now. Tilly is still intent on grain. She knows I have a handful of cracked corn waiting somewhere. We walk together back to the barn and I produce her treat. She snuffles, inhaling the kernels from the palm of my blue mitten. I scratch her head one more time before I return to the lighted house. Electric candles have been turned on in the windows, inviting the traveler, the friend, the adult-child coming home, or the shepherd to come inside and stay a while.
An hour in the company of sheep was all I needed. They reminded me what should be done during December.