Coyote Winter

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by Dorothy Dow Crane   

Winter 2008   

 

The thermometer hasn’t 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.

These are Icelandic 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.

Now 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.

After 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.

In 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.

As 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.

Finally, 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.

 

 
 
Contact: Mike (Mary Michael) Kelley
Dancing Lamb Farm & Icelandic Sheep Dairy
212 Harold Meyer Road
Earlton, NY  12058
518  634-2196