Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot – Episode 6
Our dream of farming at the lake came to a grinding halt in late fall of 1980. Word had it the provincial government had decided to expropriate all the land on the west shore of Pigeon Lake and do so for a song. We had just finished building a workshop and buying all the building materials for the house we planned to build in the spring, but there was no time to mourn. We acted quickly and sold to a realtor for enough money to buy elsewhere. Our departure was swift and brutal, like ripping yourself out of your mother’s womb. Our lambs softened the ache of our leaving, however, through one last memorable experience of that place.
As the white light of daytime separates into the dusty peach and purple of evening, the calm of twilight subdues the bustle of the day. This time of mystery and magic is what some mystics refer to as the gap between the worlds. Whatever the forces loosed at that hour, I suspected they were somehow responsible for the most extraordinary whimsy I have ever seen. I call it lamb dancing.
It was the spring of our first lamb crop. Each day was like a journey into another world, for we had never been in that place before. What did we know about the struggle to be born? What did we understand about the connections these animals had with each other, ewe to ewe or ewe to lamb? Each day offered a new experience, a place one rarely gets to stand in as an adult, for by then we’ve usually relegated most days to more of the same. Weeks went by with us immersed 24 hours a day in the intensity of lambing, our limited abilities making more work and anxiety out of what was already more than enough. But one evening, our seeming endless slog jerked to a halt when our sheep issued their first invitation to join them in another world.
Our induction into this realm occurred one evening when a baby lamb, standing stock-still in the corner of the barn, caught our attention. Its head drooped, cocked slightly to one side. I thought it ill and stared long and hard to see what could be wrong. Its body curved in a gentle inverted U-shape, and its tail hung limp as its head. Its ears, however, were stiff with attention, as if it were listening to some distant voice or rumblings from the earth. Yet there it stood so still that I couldn’t even see it breathing. Nothing could have prepared me for what was to happen next.
As if someone had wired the ground beneath its feet and thrown the switch, this little fellow shot straight into the air. He landed in the same place and shot up again like a four-legged basketball. I watched, awed. It was like he had been standing there soaking up energy from the earth and then launched himself like a rocket. It was neither elegant nor sophisticated but rapturous indeed. When he came down for his third landing, the condition began showing up in other isolated lambs in the flock. It spread like a wave on water rippling out from each new center. One lamb would bounce here, another there, until the scene was reminiscent of a popcorn popper reaching critical temperature, with little white fluffs exploding everywhere.
The first lambs to jump were already experimenting with variations, landing on only two feet, throwing their tails up in a buck, or bouncing sideways across the floor. Then, as if organized by some inaudible command, the flock raced to one end of the barn, like fire through dry grass. Some were running, some bucking, some leaping; responding to whatever spirit possessed them. At the far wall, they turned and spilled back toward the other end of the shed, bouncing, bucking and pirouetting. Even the little sick and lame lambs seemed unable to resist the call and for one short moment, forgot their pain and limits and lived whole.
The grand finale brought in the ewes. Pulling up their matronly bones and throwing age to the wind, they bounced in time to some ethereal strain, around the edge of the flock. Some were grandmothers many times over, and they moved a bit more stiffly but with no less abandon.
Almost as suddenly as it started, it subsided. Like a ballroom when the orchestra quits, the dance was over. The barnyard returned to normalcy so quickly that it was almost as if they had no memory of the magic. Or maybe they didn’t need to remember, for they had never forgotten. For the next fifteen years, I would witness these remarkable presentations many times – sometimes solo performers and other times large revues. But the solo performance that would live with me always happened one evening in a pen of month old lambs, after we’d moved to the far north.
Lambs respond with rapt attention to any noise their hooves make on different surfaces. It’s as if they live in a perpetual tap dance competition, clacking on loose boards, tapping on hollow bottomed hay feeders and whatever else they find that has that sound to it. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know. The stage this particular evening was an upturned plastic bowl that we used to feed the ewes in the lambing pens. The dogs had dropped this one outside in play, leaving it in the pen. It produced a sound that proved irresistible to one lone lamb that evening as he tested it out with his forefoot. After a few test taps this star-struck creature leaped onto the eight inch round, transforming into a flamenco dancer. He tap, tap, tapped with one foot and then jumped into the air, landing back on the bowl, rattling around in complete abandon. Pulling all four feet in on a dime, he twirled bending sideways, head down tappity tap, head thrown back tappity tap. Then he threw his legs out wide and bounced on all fours. He kept going until he finally wound down like a sprung wind-up toy, finishing in that inverted U-shape I had come to recognize as the lambs’ First position. When the curtain came down, he ran off to other pursuits. I remained leaning on the fence for a long time, straining to hear the melody of whatever tune it was that had driven him wild. I envied him and sulked back to the house wondering if there lived such abandon in me.
A toppled plywood self-feeder became another favorite stage for lamb dancing. The wind had blown it over in the pen of some older lambs and when the first lamb jumped up on it to investigate, all heads shot a look toward that new sound. The lambs swarmed onto it. It produced deeper clacks that mesmerize them. They wouldn’t have impressed Radio City Music Hall for no two performers danced to the same rhythm or step. Each held a performance all its own, until a new hopeful would rudely bunt one of the dancers off the stage to make room for itself. You never knew when they might decide to dance; you only hoped you’d be there too.
The most poignant dance I was ever privy to happened our last September on our farm at the lake. It had been raining for three solid weeks. The rain destroyed the crops, and what remained of the pasture was mostly under water. Sheep love being wet about as much as cats do, so by the second week, they slept, and ate little. The lambs, normally forgiving creatures, roamed about on whatever high ground they could find, until there wasn’t any left. They never frolicked any more. The mud in the pens became thick and deep and sticky as tar, so we began feeding them in their shed. There they stayed like survivors of a shipwreck; pneumonia being the next ill we feared. It continued pouring every day and looked like it might never end. The dropping temperature added a chill to the already depressing surroundings. We felt so helpless and useless in the face of this misery. Fred and I spent our time with unending discussions about how we would survive the financial disaster. Plus living in the North, you knew that any day the rain could turn to snow, taking away any hope of renewal before a long grueling winter. I don’t know if lambs wish, but I sure did. “Let me feel the sun once more,” I begged, for going into winter without one last warming is like starting a long journey hungry.
One day short of three weeks, the rain slowed to a stop. By noon, the west wind drove the clouds to the east. By 5:00 PM, the sun glowed in the sky, its radiance reminiscent of the Second Coming. I immediately started to imagine how long it would take to dry out, when we’d be able to pick up the rotted crops, clean the pens, bring in feed…. My mind raced with plans of how to salvage what we could. But the lambs, they weren’t so silly. This was a moment for celebration. They picked their way gingerly through the flooded pasture to the one high ridge above water by the creek. There, they played out the moment in a way that never occurred to me. They danced. Along the creek as far as the eye could see, they bounced and pirouetted their joy and thanks. Like the tiny army of the Pied Piper, they heard the distance music and danced. They wove in and out of the long arms of the afternoon sun’s rays like woolly weft on a celestial warp.
I was dogging through the gumbo of the barnyard that evening immersed in my worries and concerns, when suddenly, I stopped and looked toward the creek. There I saw them, dancing for all they were worth. I leaned against the corner of the barn, shoulders hunched, hands dug deep into my coverall pockets and watched. My breathing slowed and tears ran down my cheeks. In the reflection of their whimsy, I saw what I had lost. When had I become so earthbound? How foolish a choice I’d made. Perhaps, there was a time we too knew how to dance when the worlds split open at twilight. And on that magical evening, I let the lambs help me dream that perhaps we would again.
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