Friday, June 01, 2007

Dancing to difference

I started a rug with Nilly's fleece today. I strung a plain white wool warp on the loom, not stripes or bright colors. In part, it is because her fleece is soft and has many variations of gray, mauve, lavender, cream and white. I wanted to let those colors stand out, without artificial coloring to pick them up or drown them out. Mostly though, plain white felt right for Nilly's fleece.

Nilly has always been special. She was born into the name Laffing Horse Vanilla Extract - her mother's name was Vanilla Bean. In her first days, she kept getting lost. We would find her under the grain bin, behind a barn door, stuck in the hay feeder with her mother running frantic and Nilly just standing there with her head cocked. She was a tiny lamb, and seemed a bit slow to figure things out. We watched her mother bump and coax the little Nilly up the step to the barn. She never joined the other lambs in their lamb-pedes or king-of-the-log games. She got better at staying with her mother, who was devoted to this strange little lamb.

Fourth of July fell on a weekend that year. Our sheep barn was about a half mile from the house, but we did not worry too much about the sheep. All the lambs were several months old and we have guardian llamas, who have been very effective against predators. So we were horrified that Sunday morning when we went down to water the sheep and turn them out on pasture to find several dead and injured sheep. We lost four ewes that night, among them, Nilly's mother.

The little lamb was bereft without her mother's support. While she was technically old enough to wean, she did not seem to be eating well. We took her to the vet, with the injured sheep. One had a broken leg, the other a severe laceration. Both of them survived with lots of nursing care. The vet checked little Nilly over and could not find anything wrong with her, but he could tell she was odd. Then he checked her eyes. "This lamb is blind," was his pronouncement.

Thinking back, it made sense. Her wandering off, her mother's directing her, her never playing with the other lambs and having trouble finding food all fell into place. So, she came up to the house for some special attention. Nilly learned how to find hay with her nose and how to eat corn out of people's hands. She was fascinated with Shawn's deep voice and to this day will respond to him. They sing these funny sheep/shepherd duets. She is a four-horned Jacob, like her mother, and she learned to use her upper horns as feelers. The horns developed round knobs at the tip. They look like giraffe horns.

Nilly learned to define her space by "sounding". When ever we put her in a new pen, she runs in tight circles and screams her head off. The first few times we saw this behavior, we felt that we were being cruel keep this lamb here on this earth. But after watching her go through this appearant "panic" several times and then settle down, we realized that she was using a sheepy sonar to learn the boundaries of her space.

When they are young, lambs are so entertaining to watch. They play games with obvious elaborate rules. They form cliques and have turf battles and they dance. It is so much fun to watch what seem to be dance competitions, with each lamb trying to out-leap, out-twist and out-bounce the other. They start dancing when they are a few weeks old and for most of the summer, lamb dancing makes us laugh every evening. By the time they are weaned though, at about six months, the dancing has stopped. Grown up sheep very rarely dance, at least not when humans are watching.

But Nilly, now five-years-old, never lost her dancing. She started late, I don't remember ever seeing her dance while her mother was alive. After she had been at the house a few months though, she started dancing when the wind would catch her. It was like it was a reaction to the breeze in her wool. "Watch Nilly wind-dancing!" we'd say to each other. She'd cock her head and then leap straight up. She'd sun-fish and bounce and twist - all in the same spot. She'd often dance for as much as a half-hour. It seems to be a pure expression of physical joy.

It is extra trouble keeping a blind sheep. Sometimes I have been known to remark that the silly blind sheep takes more care than the whole flock. For the most part, she cannot run with the flock. We have spent more time out with a flash light, in a blizzard or clawing through brambles looking for her when we have tried to let her be a normal sheep. She does love sheepy company, and we have found she is a great (if strange) Auntie Nilly to the weaned lambs.

We never intend to breed Nilly. Who knows if her blindness is genetic? But every year she grows a nice fleece, baby sits the lambs, sings duets with Shawn and brings us daily joy with her dancing. So, even with her blindness, Nilly is a productive part of the farm. In fact, in many ways, she is a big part of what makes our farm special.


Anonymous said...

What a FANTASTIC and loving story about Nilly. I am so glad you kept her. She sounds like a rare gift and that you are all very blessed to have her.

Anonymous said...

That is a great story. it really made me smile.
thanks so much,