I simply cannot believe that it has been one year since we brought all these lovely animals home to live on our farm-in-the-city. When I go down to the barn in the morning, or leave it at night, I often pause and look around me, just trying to remember what it used to look like—even feel like—before the occupation of the ‘friendly beasts’ that reside there now. Truth be told, there always was something just the least bit uncanny about that old barn before it came to life again last spring. I’ve always felt intensely, almost eerily, aware of the agricultural past of this place, and of the long-ago presence of people that originally loved and worked it, out there among the stalls and hay drops and the leftover implements of a once-thriving farm. The house has been reclaimed in every corner: the hearths are haunted with the memories of my own friends and nights of stimulating conversation; the dining room has seen ten years of book club meetings and Christmas Eve celebrations and dinner parties; the parlor where, as the story goes, family wakes were held, has rung with music and laughter and song. We’ve even sanctified the precincts of the front hall with a wedding.
But the barn remained rather aloof to me, untouched by the warmth of daily living. A pulse unquickened; a melancholy witness to a once-useful past. Even after we had cleaned it out and began wiring it for electricity and preparing it for its yet-unknown tenants, I just never felt quite like it was mine. And I never was too keen on being down there by myself. 😉
Something happened, however, the night we installed our baby goats, Puck and Pansy, out there with their Great Pyrenees babysitter, Juno. Even though the said babies stood at the door to their stall and screamed in protest at being left behind when their Mamma went back to the house, even though I stood at the window with tears streaming down my face at their distress, there was a quiet, almost brooding joy. Life breathed once more in that rugged old barn, weathered by a century-and-a-half of life-giving labor. The people who hewed those massive timbers and hammered together those hay drops and fashioned that hand-carved manger in one of the stalls—all the generations of them—would probably smile in bewilderment at our utterly indulgent approach to animal husbandry and all these pet goats and sheep and chickens. But I like to think that they didn’t love their beasts any less than we love ours, and that for all the life-sustaining work the original occupants of that old barn once knew, they received in equal measure a gentle hand and a tender eye. I know that the people who built this house were good, God-fearing Methodists. Surely they caught the significance of the verse in Proverbs that I’m longing to paint somewhere as a motto in the barn:
A righteous man regards the life of his beast.
I had no idea what I was getting into last spring. Something great and tender and terrified rose up within my heart when the one day-old Puck was lifted into my arms for the first time, and I realized that his very survival, and that of his pretty little sister, Pansy, was entirely dependent on me. The bottle-feeding of baby goats is an experience that I wish everyone I love could have. And for all my neurosis over milk temperatures and feeding times and correct angles of the bottle, there was a bonding that took place such as I never could have dreamed of. Those little goats (so big now!) really think that I am their mother. And I am not even going to try and describe how tenderly I love them back. You would be hard-pressed to find a more spoiled pair. And when they come running towards me across a pasture, or caper after me with heels clicking and long Nubian ears flying, I have to marvel that there ever was a time that I knew not the charm and beauty and utter endearing impishness of a goat.
My sheep came home in May, at two months old. Three little rams and three little ewes, snowy-golden white and scared to death of Philip and me. Their lovely eyes registered, if not abject terror then at least a rather alarmed suspicion, and things stayed that way for a good several weeks. It wasn’t until the day that they finally recognized me as their shepherdess that they began to open their lovely little ovine hearts, but once they did we were literally overwhelmed with the compliment of a sheep’s affection. I have always thought that sheep were beautiful creatures, and always smiled over all the Biblical comparisons of God’s people to sheep. But I had no idea that they were such warm-hearted, fascinating animals. Or that they would all come running to the gate to greet us in the evening, or to see Philip off in the morning, with such friendly little nuzzles of velvet noses. Or that you just can’t know what it means to be trusted until a lamb looks up at you from a posture of ruminating contentment with a perfectly untroubled gaze of lucid, limpid confidence. I know that gaze well, now, but it never ceases to move me.
They all have names from Shakespeare: Hermia, Ophelia, Beatrice, Harry (Henry V ;)), Sebastian, Benedick, and, the little sister who joined them last September, Titania. And, yes, I can tell them apart. And, yes, they all know their names.
In the midst of all our preparations last spring, I asked God to send me a Great Pyrenees to be a livestock guardian for our little flock, as we had decided from the counsel we had received and our own study that there was no better, more benevolent guard dog on earth. Well, God didn’t send me a Great Pyrenees. He sent me two, in an inimitable gift of His lovingkindness and wisdom. Our lovely Juno, and her adopted sister, Diana, are an amazing team—with absolutely no livestock experience, they took to their roles with an alacrity that would have surprised me had I not known the breed better. Juno is gracious—as any true lady would be—not to flaunt her exquisite lineage, though you can see it in every line of her face, every inquisitive, thoughtful shade of those speaking dark eyes of hers. But what Di might lack in connections, she more than
makes up for in the beauty of her dog-heart. Once you have looked into the wells of love that are the eyes of a Pyr, you simply cannot doubt the God-endowed vocation of these dogs. It really has, quite literally, blown us away. To see these girls from day one, take to patrolling the fence lines and dividing the pasture guard with a wordless communication has been a miraculous thing to witness. And the gentle, bonding love they have for their charges! They are kindness itself with the goats and sheep, and I have only had to issue one correction about the chickens—and that over a play bow to the rooster (who was definitely not playing!) on the part of the fun-loving Diana. I am so proud of my girls. And I love to remind them of what they already know right well—that they were sent to us by God himself. Of that I have not the slightest doubt.
So the barn is alive again. At night, just before we turn out the lights, we love to stand and listen to all the now-familiar evening sounds: the restless remonstrance of a hen settling into her roost and the contented clucks that follow, the munching of hay from the stalls and the occasional happy grunt of a goat or a sheep, the peeping of a brooder-full of chicks, the creaking and settling of the barn itself. All the grueling hours of labor we poured into restoring it are forgotten, along with the nagging fear (at least, on my part) that we really couldn’t take all this on. All that remains, in such moments of quiet enjoyment, with a Pyr nose lifting under your hand and a great white tail calmly thumping against your leg, is the joy at the goodness of God, surpassing even the dream of it.