By Donella Meadows
–November 27, 1986–
The shepherd’s new year begins in November. That’s when we bring the sheep up from the pasture, butcher last spring’s lambs and turn the ram in with the ewes to start making next spring’s lambs. The record book closes on one cycle, and the next cycle begins.
I think of late fall as The Time When We Haul Sheep Around.
This year the first haul was a ram trade. Our ram Polka was born on our farm, and his mother, sisters, and daughters make up most of our flock. Too much inbreeding; Polka had to go. So we arranged a trade with a neighbor who also had a handsome ram who had been around too long.
We were sorry to lose Polka, because he was the only ram we’ve ever had who wasn’t a complete nuisance. Rams generally treat every moving object (except ewes) as something to be knocked over — that’s where the verb “to ram” came from and why “The Rams” is a perfect name for a football team. A ram can weigh 250 pounds and prefers to come at you on the run, head down. The rule of the barnyard is never turn your back on a ram.
For some reason Polka was an exception. The new ram we traded him for isn’t. He is a true, one-hundred-percent, all-American ram. We are back to using evasive bull-fight maneuvers to do the chores. The sheep corral is his, and he defends it against all comers. We have named him Caspar Weinberger.
We hauled in another new sheep, a yearling ewe, from a different neighbor. We named her after the woman we bought her from — Faith. That then suggested names for the two ewe lambs we decided to keep from our own flock — Hope and Charity. We thought Faith, Hope, and Charity would balance Caspar Weinberger very nicely.
Then, because we had added three young ewes, we had to get rid of some older ones. The flock is already at the carrying capacity of the pasture. After much agony and long perusal of the record book of lambings and fleece weights, we decided that Vanilla and Angelica were the ones to go. We hauled them to the Thetford Auction. We didn’t stick around to see who bought them; we prefer to keep auction outcomes ambiguous. They were fat, well-formed ewes with good years of breeding still left in them; presumably someone recognized that.
The final haul was the five ram lambs we took to Sharon Beef, the slaughterhouse. This is an annual trip, which we do with crisp routine, and even a certain serenity. We unload the rams at Sharon Beef on a Sunday night into clean stalls. The people who receive them really seem, amazingly, to care about animals. The next Friday we pick up wrapped, frozen, labeled lamb meat to deliver to the freezers of our customers. We also pick up the skins to scrape, salt, and cure, to become sheepskin rugs.
The slaughterhouse is meticulously clean and efficient, and all the business is done with neighbors. Neighbors do the butchering and neighbors buy the meat and the rugs. And the income arrives right before the December tax bill, when we most need it.
When I talk happily about this time of year, some folks (nearly always meat-eaters) ask how I can possibly be so cruel as to take my lambs, whose births I assisted, whose growth I’ve overseen, whose mothers I call by name, to slaughter. It’s the kind of question that can only come from an urbanized culture like ours, where most people live a long way from the sources of the food they eat.
You don’t have to live on a farm very long before you come to terms with life and death, with the Novembers when you kill the lambs from last spring and start the lambs for next spring. It’s not that you become hard or unfeeling; rather you become accepting. You know that birth and death are not separable and that deaths are necessary for the balance of the farm, so that the ratios of rams and ewes and sheep and pastures will be right, and so there will be beautiful meat to feed people. On a farm every stage of the cycle — breeding, birth, growth, maturity, death — has beauty and dignity.
The fall isn’t the exciting high of spring when the lambs are born and the daffodils bloom. It’s the time of preparation for spring. The dead-looking daffodil bulbs go into the ground, and the ram goes in with the ewes. The fall is the time to remember that all nature turns death into new life. The garden takes last year’s cornstalks and fallen leaves and sheep manure and turns them into next year’s tomatoes and broccoli. The sheep are out in the barnyard right now turning last year’s hay into next year’s wool and lambs. And who knows what tasks and achievements, joys and sorrows, our customers will produce out of the energy from that lamb meat?
It was Gandhi who pointed out that in spite of all the death in the world, life is what persists.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1986