~ Riceland Meadows ~

A Barn's Embrace
by Ralph Rice

Steam rises from the straw like an eerie fog, and in this golden bed a lamb stirs, his wool still wet and streaked with the blood of birth. His momma inspects him and starts the job of cleaning him up, licking and encouraging her new baby. The soft light of my lantern illuminates this miracle of birth.

While other expectant ewes look on I tend to the mother and her baby, and help dry the little one with an old towel. The little lamb bleats softly to his mother. She answers half-heartedly, already busy birthing the youngster's twin.

The second baby tumbles into our world steaming and wiggling. Momma rises and licks this new little girl. She goes from one baby to the other, cleaning and fussing.

Tiredness racks my body as I watch this little family get acquainted. The little ones are on their feet, their tiny tails wagging as they eagerly fill their bellies with milk. Taking the lantern in hand I raise it high to check on the other sheep. For now all is quiet.

Biting wind nips my ears as I head for the house, a warm bed, and restful sleep. Like a mother's hug, the barn enfolds her animals for the night. They are content and warm sleeping in her matronly embrace.

The ewes and lambs spend these winter nights under a lean-to on the lee side of the barn. They eat, sleep, and give birth under her watchful gaze. Behind the barn, cattle lie quietly chewing their cuds. Falling snow blankets their backs. Sheltered from wind by the barn, they wait for the warmth of the morning sun.

The rooster crows, signaling to all in the barnyard that daylight and breakfast will soon be here. Sunlight streaks across the eastern sky as the animals start to stir. Hearing the rooster's muffled crow, I wake from my slumber. I dress and shuffle through the snow to the barn, where I am greeted by the sights, sounds, and smells of my animal friends.

Sleepily I feed my hungry charges while the mother sheep feed their frisky babies. The nappy-coated youngsters greedily butt their mother's teats as they enjoy their breakfast. The cattle rise, stretch, shake the snowy blankets from their backs, and wait by the feed bunk. I fill the bunk feeder and hayrack with sweet smelling hay from the barn's loft. The hay and straw stored here are fresh and dry. The barn's roof stretches over the animal's stores like a mother hen's wings, protecting and warming her chicks. The quiet peacefulness of the loft makes a nice place for kittens to be born. The mother cat hides her babies, knowing they will be safe and protected from the wet and cold in this upper story.

Peacefulness comes over me as I recall, in my youth, putting up loose hay with my grandparents in their old barn. The work was hot and hard, but fun as well. We shared our love of family, along with dishes of cold homemade raspberry ice cream. Thinking of my teenage years on the farm brings a smile to my face. I recall first kisses shared in a hayloft such as this. I think of the special times, the births and deaths witnessed in barns such as mine. I take comfort in my stubbornness to let go of the past.

Descending the ladder from the loft, I am gripped by a cold sadness as I think about the many old barns dilapidated and forgotten, their lifeless hulking forms dotting the fading countryside. The ravenous appetite of urban sprawl eats up not only farms and forests, but also a lifestyle‹an unstoppable monster paving over pastures and leaving only remnants of these grand old maidens rotting on their sills. Once the center of the family farm, the very heartbeat of a lifestyle, these matrons~that once held animals, laughter, hopes, and dreams in their motherly embrace‹are disappearing at an alarming rate.

The draft horses peer over their shoulders at me. They enjoy the comfort this barn provides. Their stalls are roomy, well bedded, and clean. They look majestic, quietly waiting for the rest of their breakfast.

A glimmer of hope stirs in my soul. I see a light on a dim horizon as a new generation of farmers comes on the scene, seeking peace and tranquility. They long for the community spirit and core family group that once was common on the American farm. They come from all walks of life but share a common goal. They want to live and die in the shadow of a barn. They want to raise children, animals, crops, and occasionally a little Cain on 40 acres with a sow, a cow, and a team of horses. Each one wants to stand in the barn and listen to the sweet music of the chewing animals, suckling baby lambs, and mewing of newly born kittens.

In a secluded corner of the barnyard another ewe prepares to give birth. She makes a nest in the golden straw as her soon-to-be-born youngster seeks the light of day. Before long a wiggling, steaming ewe baby lies in the barn's safe bosom, while her mother licks her clean. Along with me this grand old lady of a barn looks on. I can almost see her smiling as she proudly protects her animal charges from sun and rain, cold and snow, fair weather and foul, while she celebrates life, mourns deaths, and nurtures us all.

Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Winter 2003 issue.

22 March 2003