I learned a lot of life-lessons on a local farm when I was in my teens, and not a few I learned from the sheep. For the next few weeks I’ll share some of those lessons with you.
I’ll start by telling you about the weaning of the lambs.
The beauty and delightfulness of the new lambs would be hard to exaggerate. In my four springs at the farm I never saw a birth, but I did see several lambs shortly after birth that were still wet and were being cleaned off by their mothers. The tenderness of the scene is marvelous in the true sense of the word. Within hours the lamb has, with considerable struggle, gotten to its feet. Though very wobbly to begin with, within a few days those skinny little lambs have become the most agile athletes imaginable.
Observing the jumping and skipping of the newborn lambs could melt a heart of stone. In their frolicking, the pure joy and goodness of life is displayed in all its grandeur. I count it one of my great privileges to have been allowed to watch the lambs during those years.
But all life on earth is fragile, and one day the harsh reality of that fact was sadly shown to me. I was headed down to the dry-shed early one morning to begin work, and there in one of the water troughs was a little drowned lamb. Though the troughs stood about sixteen inches high, the lamb’s center of gravity obviously got higher than that. With a heavy heart I buried the little fella.
As the lambs get older and stockier they gradually lose their nimbleness. Also, the gentle, peaceful nursing of the young ones gradually gives way to more forceful practices. The weaning of the lambs can be a demonstration of innocence lost. When they become larger and hungrier, they learn that if mom’s udder is struck hard, more milk is discharged. So instead of sucking gently, a pushing of the head into mom is practiced.
At first, the pushing is relatively moderate, but in time it can develop into just plain bad manners. Of course, these thrusts into her body are not comfortable for mom, and when they get too rough she starts walking off. If the little ones do not want to get their heads crushed by her thigh, they back off.
Some of the lambs find the transition to earning their own living by eating grass quite distasteful. They’d rather just live off of mom as they had when they were younger. The problem is that mom is pretty well worn out from the whole process of child rearing and especially from being bumped so hard. She allows them to nurse less and less, stares them down when necessary, and eventually they get the picture. Some will sneak in for a quick thrust now and then, but soon realize that that is unprofitable.
So it is with most. But with some individuals, weaning becomes nearly a war. Certain youngsters just don’t care about their mom. I suppose they hold the opinion that her udder is their God-given property and they will take what is rightfully theirs—and do so forcefully if necessary.
You can actually observe them scheming, trying to get on mom’s blind side and strike when she’s not paying attention. Mom wheels around and dispatches a head butt, which if well connected, begins to teach the lamb that perhaps such behavior is not acceptable. These battles can turn downright ugly when a young one becomes defiant and mom has to drive him away repeatedly.
But eventually all the lambs are eating grass.
This article was condensed from my new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story. The book is available at www.2timothypublishing.com