I wake and reach to the ceiling. The scabs on my arms crack. Eczema has spread along my inner forearms. The rooster is being oddly silent. Worried, I get up – I saw a fox the day before. I pull on my jeans, and mud breaks off in hard flakes.
First, the chickens. No fox, thank god. Next, the greenhouse. Then I go to the barn for pig feed, three 3-pound buckets for the two sows and boar. After the pigs come the sheep. One bale of second cutting for the whole flock, strewn along the closest fence to avoid having it trampled before it’s eaten. I cut the twine and give a call, "Here, lambs!"
Hooves pound the dirt. Hay drops in clumps along the fence. Instead of rushing to milk the cow, I watch as the sheep nudge and kick each other for prime feeding spots. The ram, with his massive horns, takes the fresh hay as his. The lambs all stand at a comfortable distance from their mothers.
One of the youngest ewes paces manically in the corner of the pasture. Lying down, standing up, rubbing its rump on a post, bleating uncontrollably. She is about to give birth. I come back an hour later. There she is with the rest of the flock, but her lamb, covered in placenta, is still wobbling around the other side of the pasture. She is completely ignoring it. In the first few hours of life, it is absolutely essential for a lamb to nurse. The mother produces a special milk, the colostrum. In this nutrient-dense milk are many antibodies that the lamb will need to fight disease. We have to move lamb and ewe into a barn stall together to make sure the lamb nurses. We simply walk up to the lamb and pick it up, but the ewe doesn’t follow. This is a problem.
Sheep flock together, so herding one sheep without the others is a task. At first I get between her and the other sheep. She bolts past me. I shepherd the whole flock toward the barn stall. If you move too quickly, they run. If you're too slow, they spread out. If you're driving them somewhere they don't want to be, you fail. The trick is to be reciprocal. Bribe them with hay or fresh grass. Drive them sternly and gently in the direction of the bribe. Then, give them time to go in that direction. They know what's happening better than I do, so it's best to give them space.
We corner the ewe. She tries running to the left, but runs into Rex the cattle dog. She turns and tries right. I scoop her up by the belly. She kicks hard, and catches my knee. Cursing, I throw her into the stall with the lamb.
Eventually, the ewe suckles the lamb. We release them into the pasture, and I continue my chores. That night farmer Dom decides to keep the new lamb and mother in a barn stall to prevent them freezing. I use the lamb as bait – I chase down and pick up the lamb and walk toward the barn. The ewe follows. She has become a mother. I give them some fresh straw for bedding and leave some hay for the mother.
I only have to feed the pigs before retiring to the warm kitchen to cook dinner. I unlatch the feed room door, swing open the thin white door. Rats flee up the walls with a patter. With a cold, steel scoop in hand, I react. One rat falls dead on the floor; the pang of metal on cinder block rings out. My cracked skin splits. I bury the dead rat in the compost pile.
The feed buckets beat a thick rhythm against my leg. I walk to the pig pasture, and the pang of the feed scoop rings into my body. A nausea comes over me. I just brutally murdered another animal. But my legs follow the bucket’s rhythm. That feed is our lifeblood – it allows the farm to exist. The rat was eating our existence, so my body knew the rat should die. That's survival.
Yet I'm struck with guilt. I feel like a soldier fighting a political war. The bucket hits my knee, and pain shoots upward. I trip, fall over. The ewe's hoof did some damage. That poor rat was surviving just like me. The pigs will soon die too, but I knew that from the moment I met them. They are food. The rat was not food. I'm feeding the pigs to make them fat for slaughter. The rat was feeding itself to survive. The pig is my friend; the rat is my enemy. Surely, if the rat and pig were states, I would be on the side of the rat.
A few days later, as I feed the sheep their breakfast, I notice a pure white tuft stuck out in the pasture. Goddamnit. Yesterday was market day, and I forgot to bring in the lamb. Now, it is dead. I killed a beautiful, lively spring lamb in my haste to finish chores. I was thinking about dinner, about unloading the truck, about building pea trellises. Not about the lamb.
Ryan is a junior environmental studies major at Ithaca College. He grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where he learned to hunt and fish and respect those who continue these very human traditions. In spring 2015, he studied in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, looking at the potential for mediating the impacts of climate change through community-based, grassroots solutions. In his free time, he plays tabla.