Sunday, March 20, 2011

Florette is dead

   Florette, our last sheep, died while we were gone on vacation. Christian found her remains in the upper field, already picked over by the turkey buzzards. Now there’s just one old cow left and, when she’s gone, that’s it for our livestock. For several years we’ve been moving towards birds - ducks, chickens, geese and turkeys - as they are easier to maintain and have a high entertainment value as they wander the property.
   Still, it’s hard to lose Florette as she was our last connection to the early years of the Hermitage when we eagerly acquired rare breeds of goats, sheep and oxen to live with us. They embodied our ideal of returning to the garden, of living in harmony with the earth and her creatures. We had no fencing then and the animals roamed freely about the property. On warm summer evenings they gathered around our outdoor supper table, sitting on the ground, waiting for any tidbits to be tossed their way. We truly felt at peace in those moments, as rare as they were when we were building a community almost literally from nothing, moving log and timber-frame buildings to the property while living in the barn.
Like our early Moravian forbearers in Bethlehem, whose First House had people at one end and animals at the other, our barn, the only original building left on the property, had Christian and I living on the main floor while the animals lived below us in the stable area. At night we heard them moving and mooing around and it was comforting to know we were together.
   Florette was a Jacob, a small, rare breed from England that is brown, black and white. The fleece is wiry and coarse, not a good spinning fiber but the breed is so visually interesting that we fell in love with them. Our Jacobs came from a flock in Tarrytown, New York, owned by the Rockefeller family, actually just by the widow of David Rockefeller, who imported a shepherdess from England to manage them. We’d arrive at the entrance gates in our beat-up old van to be admitted into a private world where wealth was shown by the size of the stables and barns and by pristine maintenance of the fields and pastures. We’d load up the van with lambs and drive them back to the Mahantongo Valley where they faced a very different world, sharing our own hard-scrabble life of building, farming and creating a spiritual place all while trying to make a living to keep everything going.
   Eventually the lack of fencing posed problems as our animals began roaming and foraging on our neighbors’ corn. We were forced to put up fences that kept the animals away from us, breaking those early bonds, replacing closeness with security. As the Hermitage grew in numbers of programs and buildings, we had less and less time for the animals and gradually sold most of the livestock until we ended up with just Florette the sheep and Christmas Early, the cow.
Florette was nearly 15 when she died, old for a sheep, though her death was hastened when she was chased into the pond by a dog and ended up swimming for her life. The stress of that encounter, just before we left, must have been difficult though I thought she doing well as she returned to her routine of grazing and resting.
   Now she is gone and only our cow remains. She is also about fifteen years old and I’m sorry she’s alone. Herd animals need to have others around them but Christmas Early is all that’s left and I know she’s lonely. When her sister died some years ago, Christmas Early mourned and bellowed for days. When she dies, our livestock will be gone and a significant chapter in our story will be done. But don’t forget the birds. Ducks are always amusing.