For over eight years now I have invited my Facebook friends and church community into Lamb Watch, as we wait together for the birth of spring lambs on the farm. It is a joyful and wondrous time, as I provide regular updates about how the flock is doing. Anticipation builds as day by day I announce “No lambs.” And then, one day, as we all know will happen, I go out to the barn, or look out to the field, and see that our waiting has been rewarded. I let the community know, with the happy declaration, “Lambs!”
I have always been aware that creating a community around the anticipation of lambs is a risky proposition. Every shepherd knows the reality of lambing season: sometimes our anticipation of new life ends in sadness rather than celebration. That has happened here on my farm as well. One year a ewe was unable to deliver her big lamb. My good vet came out in the middle of the night and performed a c-section right there in the barn, with only me as his assistant. We saved the ewe but the ram lamb didn’t make it. Over the years I have also lost lambs who did not get enough milk in their first day of life to survive. I know at lambing time there are no guarantees.
But in the years since Lamb Watch began, I have not lost a lamb. Until this year.
It had already been an unusual Lamb Watch this spring. Because of the coronavirus, I have been isolated here at the farm since mid-March, keeping an eye on the farm flock from my home office window, and connecting with my Seattle flock only virtually. Of the four ewes that were pregnant, two delivered their lambs later than I expected, and a surprising two weeks apart. Usually once lambing begins, most of the lambs are born within a week or so. And after that second lamb’s birth, on May 1st, the Lamb Watch community entered a long period of waiting for more lambs. My regular updates of “No new lambs” has become monotonous.
Then, just after midnight on Tuesday morning, I headed out to the barn for my nighttime check. I had been watching one ewe very carefully, convinced she might give birth any time. I always get up in the night when lambing seems imminent. Even though I would rather stay in bed I know that once I am awake, my busy mind will be occupied by the thought that a ewe might need my help, and since my thoughts are in the barn, my body may as well be too.
Once in the barn I swept my flashlight over the ewe I was watching and saw she was asleep. Then I saw the other ewe, lying on her side in distress and barely moving. And I also saw, there on the barn floor, the not-fully-formed body of a lifeless lamb. Instantly, I could feel my heart breaking. Not just for this ewe and her lamb, not just for myself, but for the whole Lamb Watch community.
When I was in Great Britain ten years ago, a Welsh shepherd told me that he loved lambing season not only because of the new lambs everywhere, but because, as he said, “It’s all of life right there. Birth and death and all of it.” Now as I was again experiencing this other side of spring shepherding, I knew that my beloved Lamb Watch community was going to experience it too.
I looked closely at the ewe. With no lamb to give her the energy to rise, she simply lay on her side, exhausted. I took the lamb’s body out to the field for burial and then checked on her again. She still lay there, barely moving. I sat with her awhile, wondering if I should be doing something more. In the end I realized there was really nothing I could do. I decided to let her rest, and maybe recover, or maybe not. I went back to the house and back to my bed, but not back to sleep. It was a long time until morning.
When the sun was finally up, I walked back down to the barn, not sure at all what I would find. I opened the door and looked to the place where I had left the ewe. She wasn’t there. I looked around the barn and finally spotted her, standing with the others and chewing her cud. If I had not know of her trauma the night before, I would not have thought her any different from the other ewes.
Sheep are that way. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, they get sick and die. And sometimes, like that morning, they just get up and go on. It is part of the mystery of shepherding.
In this pandemic time, the whole world seems to be experiencing mystery as well. The reality of our lives, our vulnerabilities, our interdependencies, and the puzzle of it all are right here in front of us. We have witnessed death and loss. And we have seen friends and family make it through. Sometimes it is all we can do to remain open and be present to it all.
Last Tuesday morning, I let the sheep out of the barn, and watched the ewe whose life had hung in the balance earlier that morning trot out to the field with the rest of the flock. Then I took a deep breath and signed on to Facebook for my regular Lamb Watch update. I had invited my friends and my congregation to share the joy of lambing season. Now I would trust this community to be able to carry the other side of spring’s reality.
“I have some sad news from the barn today,” I began, and told them about the stillborn lamb and the ewe who was somehow ok. It was when I saw the comments start to come, expressing sadness and support, that I finally felt myself start to choke up. I kept talking through the tears, reassuring myself and the community that we would make it through this too, and thanking them for showing up even when this was not what they had planned to show up for. Then for awhile I focused the camera on the two lambs we did have, and together we watched them enjoying their morning, and full of life.
As of this morning, the two lambs are continuing to play together and to grow. The ewe who lost her lamb is continuing to recover. And there is still one more ewe we are watching, maybe more realistically and perhaps more cautiously, to see if we might receive the gift of one more lamb. There it is. All of it. The reality of shepherding – joy and loss both- and the reality of life. I am grateful we are in it together. And I am grateful for a community that shows up for it all. You are in my prayers. May I be in yours.