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Stories from the Field

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Mid-Winter Passing

I said goodbye to an old friend in the barn this month.  Anabelle, a sweet Nigerian dwarf goat who first came to the farm in 2006, did not rise for breakfast one morning in early January of 2017.  Her death was not unexpected, but I was surprised by how it affected me.

Anabelle was already showing her age over last summer, and frankly I did not know if she'd make it through the winter.  Every morning I'd feign surprise at her when feeding the animals, “Still with us, eh Anabelle?” Sarcasm, a life-long habit, was the best strategy I could come up with to deal with the coming reality.

I found Anabelle peacefully lying in her regular sleeping spot, in the stall where all the goats and sheep spend winter nights.  She was dead. I threw some hay to the still-living members of the herd and entered the stall to take care of her.

I don't always close the stall door on winter nights, but this year I've been closing it more and more to help shelter Anabelle and also Wilhelm, another goat who is old and on the decline.  During a recent cold snap I found Anabelle shivering, and I became more concerned about her.  I doubled hay rations to the goats and sheep, and closed the stall door every night it got cold. I avoided thinking about what was coming.

I was grateful that she died in a dry stall, quietly surrounded by the sheep, her daughters Jasmine and Julia, and Wilhelm.  Jasmine, born to Anabelle in this very barn 10 seasons ago, sniffed at her body a couple times and looked confused. I did not have time to linger that morning, so I carried her remains out behind the barn and laid her in the pasture. She didn't look right to me on the frozen ground, so I folded an old coat and placed it under her head. I felt bad for abandoning Ana but had to go work for a few hours before I could get back and attend to her burial.

Anabelle shortly after giving birth to Jasmine and Julia.

Animals understand death, but exactly how is a mystery.  Cassie, a miniature draft donkey in an adjoining dry lot, stared at Anabelle's body and snorted repeatedly.  The goats and sheep kept looking at her like they expected her to get up. My own understanding of Anabelle's death eluded me, safely behind my defenses.

Digging her grave that afternoon was a herculean ordeal, much more difficult than I expected.  The frost was unusually hard and deep.  I swung at the ground with a pickaxe, and tiny bits of frozen dirt flew back into my face. I had to put on goggles, and the hole opened up inch by inch. I considered giving up several times and waiting for Spring, but I just didn't want to do that to Anabelle.  Digging got a little easier once the hole opened up. By pecking away at the sides of the hole it was possible to start knocking out reasonably-sized chunks of frozen dirt.  Below the frost, digging was easier and mercifully there were no rocks. Nevertheless, I was dirty, sweating, and exhausted by the time I had a hole big enough to fit my little friend.

I laid Anabelle's perfect little body in the ground and placed a shock of wheat under her head. I added some some sweet red clover hay and kale from the greenhouse for good measure.  I was a bawling, emotional mess and could hardly move the dirt to cover her up.  I hoped nobody could see me.  I laid her to rest about 30 feet behind the barn, in a grove of black walnut trees along the path to the compost pile.  I'll miss Anabelle and probably never forget her, and I'll never know why she affected me this way.  I'm grateful for all the time we spent together, and the unwavering trust and sincerity she showed towards me.  I sure wish she could have made it to Spring, to munch on some fresh clover or honeysuckle again.

Our farm animals, with their short and wonderful lives, connect us to times and places in our own lives. I was still married when Anabelle came to the farm, and she was one of the first animals to move into the barn that I built almost entirely by myself. Soon after Anabelle arrived she gave birth to Jasmine and Julia, and that summer I learned to milk her and make cheese. She was never a great milk goat, being stingy with her output and prone to kicking over the pail whenever it got close to filling up. However, her milk was pure ambrosia and I felt like superman every time I drank it.

The last day I spent with Anabelle, laying her to rest on a mild January day, was a gift from an animal that I never gave that much thought to. I can't express how amazing it was to feel sad and emotional, the opposite of my normal self. I'm grateful that my lifestyle allowed me to experience this interlude of grief, and to indulge in the folly of caring about a life that was so insignificant. Anabelle's gone, I get that, and the farm will go on. But when the grass starts to green up in a few months, I'll be thinking about her, and grateful for the last gift she gave me.