inched above 20 degrees for over a month. The pastures are hard, icy, and
white, polished by the northwest wind that roars down from the Cats-kills
relentlessly seeking out every crevice. Our small Greene County sheep farm
feels perched on a cold white porcelain bowl that’s been turned upside down.
Our ewes are now in full fleece. Their flowing coats of brown and black and
white and gray ripple in the winter wind. They look a lot more comfortable
than the shepherds.
sheep. In late November we brought them in from the outlying pastures to the
sheltered fields close to the house and the barn. Their cousins in Ice-land
with names like Grimur and Hnokki spent the summer wild on pastures high in
the mountains where glaciers still exist. In the fall they were rounded up by
big crews on Icelandic horses, brought down to a huge corral, and then
sorted. Our setup is much simpler. We just walk our sheep in from the fields.
that the snow has
arrived, we all have trouble walking. The hard crust keeps our feet from
touching the earth. I stamp my boots into the slick whiteness to gain
traction. The sheep hover nervously above their hooves as they pick their way
from the wind shelter to the hay feeders and then up the rise to the watering
trough. As I grunt and groan and help roll the 400-lb. bale down to the
pasture, the sheep come to the fence, noisy and expectant, an unruly bunch of
children on a playground, shov-ing their way ahead of us to the feeders as we
pull the bale apart. Hay dust flies everywhere. The sheep don’t seem to mind,
but my eyes are sand paper. There’s a lot of taking gloves off and putting
them back on. I haven’t found a pair yet that I can wear while I open my
knife to cut the baling twine, but I can’t cut the twine with frozen fingers
either. Ninotchka, a brown and white ewe with a strong sense of entitlement,
bulldozes up to me and almost knocks me over as she tries to stick her nose
into my pocket, looking for grains of corn I sometimes keep there.
food, water. The
large oval trough has a heater, but we have to break the ice on the smaller
ones. It’s tricky to hook up hoses and fill water troughs without get-ting
your gloves wet. More numb fingers. On really cold days the water in the hose
turns to ice almost instantly once the flow stops.
winter we all pull in
close. Even the big rams curl up next to each other, head to tail, like
sardines in a can, with Grayfire—the alpha ram—right in the center, the
warmest spot. We wait and we watch. We notice things that are barely visible.
The faint curving outline of a deer trail across a white field. Tiny rodent
tracks scratched in the snow. We aren’t the only ones waiting and watching.
Last week I heard the crows making a racket in the hedgerow. Then the dogs
ran to the far fence and began to bark. The day was clear and sunny, and
there, I saw him—the coyote—a slinking gray shape loping down the hedgerow.
Hungry. As tired of winter as we are.
the sun gets lower in
the afternoon the snow turns slightly rosy, and when the wind drops, there’s
silence. The afternoon grows darker before our chores are finished. We’re
cold. We complain. We talk about how soon winter will be over, as though it’s
an aberration, and we’re just holding on until the real things starts, the
warm weather. In truth, of course, the real thing—the only thing—that owned
these fields for thousands of years was the ice that flowed down from
Labrador pushing rough whiteness over the Catskills. Century after century
the ice advanced and retreated. Ancient glaciers planed the ridge where we
now deposit the hay bales; it scoured and sculpted the peaks now visible from
the barn: Blackhead, Blackdome, Windham. In deep time, we are the newcomers.
all the chores
are done. The big white guardian dogs have been fed. The chickens have been
put to bed. We stumble into the warm kitchen and hot tea where we wait
together, the sheep close by, each of us just a tiny spark surrounded by ice
and winter quiet that comes after the tender exhale of autumn, before the
green inhale of spring.