There were two ladies at the homesteading conference on the way to the potato line with me who said, “Are goats always dying? She was talking about goats always dying so I don’t really know if raising goats is right for us.” In my mind my first thought was, “Well, that’s just part of it all…you have a homestead, you’ll have a lot of death.” My first week on the farm led me to a dying chicken who was egg bound with liquid seeping from her mouth, her breast still warm, her breathing slow. Her cause of death was revealed with a bloody egg which could not pass; her attempt at life was the end of hers. There was a dead baby goat that fell pale against a wall; we had only hypotheses as to how he could have died. His body was still warm but his baby body hung limp.
I was buzzing with life and inspiration during and after the conference. I came home prideful to do all of the animal chores, letting the family know they could go celebrate and eat together while I held down the fort solo. The sun was setting low and reflected the emotion vibrating within me, the clarity of being and the clarity of my direction forward. Questions were answered. Knowledge was stirred and passion discovered. Soul enlivened. Perspective gathered. Gratitude peaking. I was feeling at home in my animal body’s place in this world – feeling quite calm surrounding what Is. I was open hearted and minded, at peace in the pale yellow grasses as the stars began to curtain down the night.
I delighted in the view of the sun lowering behind the walnut trees. I gave extra flanks of hay to all of the goats as I would rather their bellies be overflowing than baring scarcity in the moonlight, crawling with hunger. We all made eyes at each other, my love widespread and direct, sharing my gratitude and appreciation for their very selves. I chunked in a flake of alfalfa in a feeder that is between the sheep and the goats. The sheep always love to gather at this feeder because they enjoy stealing bits of alfalfa which is missing from the simple grass they receive in their troph within their section of the pasture. I got one flake in and below the feeder was a dead sheep. Her horizontal eye was pale with a grey gelatinous coating. I palmed her belly to see how stiff it was. Ungloving my hand I felt the coolness of touch on the fat of her belly. I moved my hand to her heart and found warmth near her chest and shoulder. It had not been too long; the movements of her bending knees and limp neck also indicated a narrow amount of time since last breath. I tried to pick her up and fluid dripped from her mouth and the dead weight of her body proved too heavy to cradle in my arms and haul her to the barn.
I went into the barn to find an old sheet that I had used to help our ailing llama, Katy, to stand up. I dead lift her every day from her back end and hoist her back into standing position. Once Katy falls she cannot use her back legs to get up. She is paralyzed of sorts. On a bad day I lift her 6 times before the end of chores in the morning. When she falls it is like seeing a giraffe take a spill, or watching a foal walk for the first time, a baby deer, a baby cow. The difference is that watching Katy stumble strikes a grim feeling in the heart because her wobbling is not due to new tender steps. Her difficulties are born of an illness due to meningeal worm that she has not been able to heal from. I know she will die. And soon. But, I lift her and I hold her until she can get a steady stand, her back leg trembles against my palm, and I tell her I love her. I dig my hands under her bottom in a pile of pebbles and urine soaked straw and dig my heels deep and lift with my back and my core trying to make her vertical again. When I absolutely cannot lift her, I tell her that I am sorry. I am sorry. I place hay in front of her because she cannot make it to her feeder, despite how much she swivels that long neck or tries to scoot with her front legs. I think if all I can do that time around is to give her a snack to keep her content, then I have done my job, and I have loved deeply. Tonight her shadow on the wall looked like a child’s shadow puppet up against the plywood; the one where you rest your middle and ring finger on your thumb, while raising your pinky and your pointer. Cobwebs draped where her lashes might hang. The shadow looks like Katy the llama. When I help to bury her, I will rest knowing I at least loved her in the ways I could. I have honored her in her days.
I took her sheet which was already doused in the grit of care. I took the white cloth back to the field and lifted the sheep onto the sheet and proceeded to tell her I was sorry, too, and that I hope she slept well. I soothed her forehead and tried to relax her lid down over her gummy eye. The lid would catch but would only rise again. I folded her head down in a way a sheep might sleep, relaxed on its own.
Later in the pasture I thought to myself how much my initial impulse of thought in conversation with the ladies at the homesteading conference indicated a piece of healing surrounding the issue of death which has been looming in my brain and life experience repetitiously over the past year, aching deep within me, a fear. Part of my reasoning to farm and homestead is to lean into that fear instead of turning an eye – to more deeply immerse myself in the cycle of nature. I came not just for the beauty but the realities which are less soft in our world as well. I teetered my rubber boots through mud clumped paths and rolls of mole mounds, like caterpillars thigh wide cusping out of the earth.
My heel rolled into the softness and I thought of the peace I felt about death, thinking of the sheep’s eyeball and how I could not get the lid to shut. I looked out among the chilled sunset behind naked rows of a walnut grove and thought of the eyeball dancing above the trees, spirit of the sheep. We have to accept this body which fades but we can always love the essence that is a soul when we know it and honor it; how our minds and hearts can enliven that, how we never have to let anything become completely dead, though we must simply learn to let go. Over, and over, and over again. We will get better with it in time; it will destroy us some of the time; we will feel it more difficult sometimes than others; we will repeat patterns and let lessons fester until we truly learn from them; we won’t always get a chance to fully heal from things, or understand them, but yet we still have to let go.
A beautiful component of death is that our physical selves, our meat and our bones, are recycled back into the earth as we pass. I honored her spirit in the field while also accepting that I took her into the barn office because she is going to become nourishment for our sweet guardian livestock dog, Lucy. The spirit of the sheep has passed and its eyeball was roving elsewhere, but her meat will become part of another creature and sustain her life, too. Lucy honored the sheep already; when others gathered nearly tromping over the sheep to get to the alfalfa, she roared and told them to all get away. She knew what I was doing, it seemed. Lucy knew it was a moment of honor, and she chased away those who were not echoing the sentiment. Last weekend Lucy hovered over a newborn baby goat that was rejected from its mother, and she hunkered down over the kid in protection and care. Birth occurred just on the other side of the sheep fence, not even a full week ago – she was harboring life. And tonight, as the sun faded and the stars crawled, she alerted and honored death. It will cycle through her and give her longevity. Until she is physically gone, too.
I wrapped up the sheep and tied it so that I could pull her through the field and to the barn. I sailed her through the muddy patches. We coasted on bumps. We dragged on through the mole mounds and caught on the linoleum when we finally arrived to the office. I opened the sheet again to try once more to close her eyelid, unsuccessfully, and so now she sleeps peering. My high feelings fell somber, but with acceptance. It is part of it all.
I had to continue on. Many other living mouths were hungry and many more eyes were enlivened and in need. I treated the pigs to some whey byproduct of making mozzarella. They squealed and ran around the mud castles with white whey beards and snouts. Corn and oats peppered their noses as they chortled through the field; all was right in their world. In this way, you continue to care. It is important to keep caring, to not let your care die. You accept you cannot care for that particular eye any longer, but you turn to all of those that you can, and you do, and you let it fill you with joy and you let yourself feel the vastness of different types of joy. Even in the face of death, you find the smiling pig.
I struggle at times because my heart is so open and I pour it out to those who cannot accept it, do not want it, and my impulse is to withdraw my care as though my emotions have been spilled into a gelatinous eyeball. These days are teaching me to wrap that heart up with the same honor, let go, and let that love cycle into a new heart home for another who is robustly waiting to receive and reciprocate. When I speak my heart, living and loving with intention, it is the way I honor a life which neglects regret. Despite the pain of love fallen pale, or finding a cold body in the pasture, I would always rather honor my truth my giving my full self than to fall silent, unmoving, apathetic. It is within me to quilt what has fallen and thread anew in the life cycles which prove themselves throughout every grain and body of nature.
I came in to nurse my babies, scooping up their little bellies which have grown over the week. Their contentedness and health is a source of my pride. Little Maya makes a gentle snorting breathy sound as she nurses, as though she will never tire from suckling and each pull of the teat is as good as the last. Her doe eyelids flutter downward, contented with the warm milk, and I kiss her behind her eye and before her ear as she eats. I pick up Louie and watch him reach hungrily for the teat, his mouth agape and gumming like a turtle reaching for cantaloupe. He sucks vigorously and I kiss him all the same. A tail wiggles between my breast and armpit, another flicker in thanks of nourishment. It is part of it all. Their towels went in the wash and I replaced their soiled crib towels with fresh warm ones to nest in for sleep before they would wake me in the night for another nip at the warm milk.
As I put them down for the night they each took one more suckle at my chin. Despite the death before me in the night pasture I felt my swelling love recycle anew for the little babies at my breast, feeling at peace that there is a place for me here and now to pour from me that of which flows as generously as the sap from our neighboring maples.