friendly heads-up: the last photo in this post is of an animal hide in the process of being tanned. I did not choose one of my close-ups out of courtesy to those of you who might have a hard time with such images, but there is no mistaking what it is in the photo, so consider yourselves forewarned!
We made some new friends this fall through farm school who raise sheep and live on a beautiful farm of their own in the county south of us. After many attempts to get together, weather and Life cooperated last week, and we went to see them. The drive was full of "Oh, Mama. This is where I want to live! This is The Beautiful Country!" I couldn't agree more.
Looking at my photos, I am amazed at how monochromatic they are, as if taken in black and white, and then tinted with the occasional brown or soft pink. Winter in Ohio.
Their home was built by my friend E's husband, and is off-the-grid, run on solar and heated by a wood stove. They have a greenhouse and a large garden, and I am really not quite sure why they ever leave this farm. Well, it's lucky for us that they have a need for companionship and communal learning!
Most of the sheep they raise are Jacob's sheep, thought to be a breed straight from the days (and the pages) of the Bible. This impressive ram has four horns; this breed can grow up to six, though I don't know where they'd put them. Eliza was in love, and begged E to follow the flock up the hill and then call them down behind them...the sheep were happy to play along for a while...
The other girls were very happy to hang out in the pasture with the yearlings and some nice big puddles of ice.
Everyone had to test the ice, to skip stones across its smooth surface, listening to the twang and bounce as they ricocheted around to reach the far edge. We were surprised by the movement of a frog beneath its surface. Oh, the questions. Is it really alive? Will it live until the spring? What will happen if more of the pond freezes? This part of Ohio doesn't have a "true" winter, never staying at low temperatures for very long, and experiencing many thaws throughout the winter months, which can make life difficult for critters who plan on spending a certain amount of time dormant.
I did read that frogs are able to be frozen - when their bodies receive the message that the temperature is dropping, via ice crystals on their skin, they are able to slowly change the processes in their bodies until their heart slows to a stop. I couldn't find out what exactly tells the heart to start up again when the temperatures rise, but it doesn't seem to affect them adversely, as long as the temperatures aren't too low. E explained how her bees can really be affected by the thaws; if they awaken in February, they are hungry and will eat all of the honey they've stored up for the remainder of their winter, and for the early spring days, and they can starve. Kept bees can be fed supplemental honey and sugars, but it is rough for the wild bees.
E had just had several of her yearlings slaughtered by a local butcher, and was in the early stages of working the hides, which she will sell along with much of the meat. She had asked ahead of time if the girls would be interested in watching or helping, and you know who jumped on that. One of our favorite books, The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich, describes the work the young protagonist does, tanning a moose hide. These hides had been salted and were drying out, and while I read books to the other girls who worked on warming up and drinking hot chocolate, Eliza learned how to flesh the hides. We will try and go back in a couple of weeks to help with other parts of the process.
|The salted inside of a sheep's hide|
While we were all standing at the edge of the pond, talking about the frogs, and the ice, and taking turns tossing rocks and listening to their amazing sounds, E's daughter, who is almost six, whispered to her, "Is this school?" We just kind of chuckled as E nodded her head. How do you answer that, when it is really nothing at all like "school"? There were skittish sheep, and a flock of hens roosting in trees, and time to try to break all the ice that had formed in the summertime paddle boat on the shore of the pond, and hot chocolate and a snakeskin we found blowing across the pasture and dogs to cuddle and hides to inspect and sheep anatomy to figure out and turkeys gobbling off in the field and the wood stove to stoke and... Somehow, though, she was recognizing and expressing that tingling of learning that was going on: wondering, exploring, watching, listening, feeling, trying, asking...