It’s a cold fog this morning as I head out to do chores. Right on the edge of freezing, but mostly wet, slippery and deep, damp fog. I’m dreading the trip out to the far end of the south pasture where the sheep are parked with round bales for the “pasture improvement program.”
I sense I have a hard decision ahead of me. For the last two days I have found Blue, a 2 year old ewe, lying down and a little stuck. I get her up and going again, gently moving her to the hay rack where she can prop herself and eat. She contracted meningitis last summer, and although she came through it, her back end remains partially paralyzed and she walks sideways. She managed quite well through the remainder of the summer and through the fall, but the plan was to cull, along with a couple of lambs once they had more size.
Heading out to the sheep, I see that she is down again and hurry out to where she is laying on the ground. She’s dug a trench into the ground with her feet in trying to get up, and scraped the flesh off her legs, leaving a bloody smear on the icy ground. So I get her up on all fours – she’s lost so much weight these past two weeks I can lift her with one arm – but they no longer can support her, and she collapses as soon as I step back.
So – what to do?
It’s raining now, and the weather report said it would be getting much colder in the next 24 hours. She could be like this for a few days, or she might die by the end of today.
There are no good choices, but one has to be made, and it has to be made now. I can’t bear the idea of leaving her like this even if I got her in a cart and took her back to the shed. I am not leaving her to a slow agonizing death. I sit down on the ground next to her, and take her head in my lap – her legs stop their thrashing and I can see she’s aware of me although her eyes are not focused. We sit like that for a while. She’s very weak, her heartbeats visible with a body twitch each time her heart pumps. I am trying to decide whether I can do what I need to do – going over options and scenario’s in my mind. But they all lead to the same conclusion – she is not going to make it, and she will keep thrashing, creating a bloody muck hole no matter where I put her. It is not an option I can live with.
I take a deep breath and I put my mitten over her nose and mouth and hold it there. Not even a full minute goes by and her feet stop and she goes limp. She had been really close.
I can’t move. I look at all the other ewes standing around watching, and suddenly I am crying. I feel like a crazy woman, but I tell them all anyway, “ I know, I really liked her too –she had great spirit trying to keep up with all of you. And it wasn’t easy. Sometimes she had to make a big circle because she couldn’t go straight. But she kept on trying.”
Now I have to dig the pit. I am lucky – we are in a bit of a thaw, so I will be able to dig a hole, but it has to be today. The frost only goes down about three or four inches. But I have to do it now while it is warm, and quickly before I have to get to work.
I get the shovel from the house, and scrape off the top couple inches of snow, and then start to dig in. The surface is hard but once through that layer, the soil is plenty pliable and loose. As I dig I can’t help but talk to the sheep and the dog – “that stupid meningeal …. stupid, stupid, stupid meningeal!” I’ve lost five sheep in five years to the dreaded parasite. No cures. Half hour later I have a hole big enough for the ewe, and I get her into it, and scoop shovel after shovel of sod and soil back over her.
I look out over the farm and think of all the animals buried here – sheep, horses, dogs. Some, but not all of them, have a tree or bush planted on the site. We try to bury them in a spot that was somehow “theirs”. It gives a strong measurement of time that has passed – thinking about the contribution they gave to the farm when they were alive. And a very warm feeling of all those spirits still floating around here. I wonder if they communicate with each other about that past life, or about what’s happening on the farm now. . .
One way or another, the goal of increased fertility happens on this farm and that is the gift they’ve given.