Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010


MARGARETSVILLE, N.S. – The little barn is alive with people. A few naked light-bulbs burn away the gloom of late dusk; by their glow, we flip furiously through veterinary reference books, eyes scanning the texts, searching for answers.
“Look under `Birthing – problems with!'” shouts Janet Wallace. She and her partner, David O’Leary, are in a stall with Carmina, a goat in the final stages of labour. Her kid is jammed in the birth canal. It should be exiting the womb like someone diving into water – front hooves extended forward to the nose. But only the nose is visible, poking out from the vulva; the legs are bent backwards somewhere inside Carmina, clogging up the works.
We could call the vet, but by the time he arrived, both mother and kid would be long dead. All we have to go on are a few seasons’ experience under Janet’s belt, and the thick stack of reference books before us.
“Here!” several of us yell almost simultaneously, shoving our tomes under Janet’s nose so she can study the diagrams within. The pictures are of ruminant insides, laid bare by X-rays – the bulbous shape of uterus and birth canal, the hinging of spindly kid’s legs.
“It says here to rely on your experience,” says one of Janet’s friends, Kris. “Yep, that’s what mine says too,” asserts Kris’s partner, Sue. In other words, the best advice these sagacious compendiums of animal husbandry knowledge can offer is, “You’re on your own, buddy.”
Our small library does eventually yield some fruitful words of wisdom. Apparently, the only way to remedy the situation is to push the kid back through the cervix and into the womb, coax the wayward appendages forward, and then pull them out again.
Janet reaches for her very big latex glove, and pulls it up to her armpit. Carmina – happily for her – can’t grasp the implication of this latest development.
The next few moments are drowned out by Carmina’s bloodcurdling bleating, as Janet pushes the stuck kid back against the force of her contractions.
It sounds as if Janet is killing her – but she’s “relying on her experience,” which reassures her that she is only doing what she must to save both mother and kid.
A world of warm gooeyness closes around Janet’s arm, as she struggles blindly to complete her task inside the nebulous folds of flesh. It’s moments like these that cause Janet to bristle when people call her operation a “hobby farm.”
“It’s not a hobby when you’ve got your arm halfway up a ewe’s vagina at two in the morning,” she retorts. As for the rest of us, all we can do is watch and cringe, or avert our gaze and pretend to have found a particularly captivating passage in Diseases of the Mammary Glands of Domestic Animals.
To everyone’s relief, Carmina gives one last heaving grunt, and a long, slimy black thing slips into Janet’s waiting hands. Minutes later, a brother appears; he slithers out so quickly, no one’s there to catch him before he ignobly plops onto the straw floor like a freshly caught fish.
These are just two of the latest additions to Tangleroot Gardens, a small farm on what is called “North Mountain,” a modest ridge of woods and pastures that rises from Nova Scotia’s fertile Annapolis Valley before plunging into the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy.
Besides two milking goats who have given birth, there are five sheep with new lambs. In addition to this cohort of bounding, clamouring mayhem, we accept three orphaned lambs from another farm, and bottle-feed them every few hours. Feeding time is like a speed-eating contest, and each time I thank my maker that those nipples are not attached to me.
Later, several of the hens catch a wave of “broodiness” – an all-consuming desire to sit day and night on a clutch of eggs until they hatch – and three weeks later we have a flurry of chicks underfoot.
The first time I see a chick hatch, I am astounded that something I make omelets out of could produce a little, fluffy being that runs around cheeping.
The closest experience I can relate it to was in Grade 6 when I left a Zip-Lock bag of carrot sticks in the bottom of my locker for a semester.
They, too, magically got fluffy, but unfortunately remained inanimate.
The chickens share lodging with a smattering of geese and ducks, and one of my favourite chores is letting them all out first thing in the morning. The geese charge out at the head of an eruption of pent-up avian energy, honking with imperious self-importance; behind stream the ducks, quick-marching in single file to the pond as fast as their stubby legs can carry them; and then strut the hens and the rooster, Louis Quatorze, already sizing up the day’s grubbing possibilities.
It is always an inspiring sight to watch these animals throw themselves into the morning’s activities with such unhesitant gusto.
Meanwhile, we humans sit by the big window and eat our meals prepared with the animals’ eggs and milk, and watch them like we used to watch TV. I think we find them so endlessly fascinating because they give us something perhaps more important than food – they remind us of what it is to live in the moment, to have guiltless desires, to treat a little patch of earth like there’s nothing more important.
Now, the seasons are changing faster than even the newborns are growing; the snow is gone, the leaves whisper in the ocean breeze, and that brief Canadian window between killing frosts has at last been pried open by the sun. It is the garden’s turn to be born.

©Sean Butler 2004
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, July 11, 2004


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