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History

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story, too.” –Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

Watercolor of Belle Vue Sheep Farm by Richard Schlecht, National Park Service collection

Three years ago we decided to take up a farm on my little home island. This place has been changing rapidly during my lifetime. Looking across our central valley now, I can see large houses on every rocky knoll commanding a view. Our ferry system carried more than a million passengers last summer. Venturing into farming—or more accurately, learning what’s required to do right by a piece of historical farmland that we love deeply—was a choice we made to participate in a sector of the island community that feels vital to maintaining the character of a landscape in danger of being loved to death. We feel the weight of the many forms of privilege that allowed us to choose this life in this place, and we feel gratitude to the more experienced farmers and stewards of the land who continue to guide our steps. We try to come to the work humbly and eager to learn.

The more we learn and make mistakes and learn some more, the more our appreciation and respect for farmers has grown. And the more I’ve listened to the stories of elders in our community, the more I’ve wanted to know about the longer story of farming on this scatter of fertile wooded islands in the Salish Sea.

The “old farm families” in this part of the world—as in much of the American West—can claim five, maybe six generations here. Our island history, as I was taught in school and in community lore, began in the 1850s with a boundary dispute between the British and Americans, a Hudson’s Bay Company pig shot for ransacking Lyman Cutlar’s garden, twelve years of military posturing, and then a peaceful arbitration after which the American settlers got on with platting townships and claiming farmland and felling trees and growing crops, as their brethren were doing all over the Pacific Northwest. These things happened, but they are only the dominant story. Whose story were we missing?

The Hudson’s Bay Company saw an opportunity to establish a farm with sheep and pigs here because the native prairies and woodlands had been kept open by careful stewardship, including the periodic use of fire to clear underbrush and favor desirable species. The settlers who staked their claims to the land called Oak Prairie by the Hudson’s Bay Company and now called the San Juan Valley didn’t have to carve their farms out of the forest. Their fruit trees and vegetable gardens thrived in part because farmers had been sustainably cultivating the soil for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Lummis photographed in ceremonial traditional dress circa 1900, Library of Congress

Those first farmers were Northern Straits Coast Salish people—Lummi and Samish, Songhees (Lekwungen) and Sooke (T-Sou-ke), Saanich and Semiahmoo, all having a common language and much intermingled by marriage and other relationships—sharing use of these islands in their seasonal rounds of hunting, farming, foraging, and fishing, with large permanent settlements on the more sheltered bays. The women did most of the agriculture, tending gardens that were handed down generation after generation, amending the soil, planting the edible varieties of camas, weeding out the white-flowering death camas. They were also fiber farmers and artists. They bred white, long-coated, curly tailed dogs known as Salish Wool dogs, keeping them on specific small islands to maintain genetic purity, and sheared them annually with razor clam shells to harvest the fiber for spinning and weaving textiles. According to Captain George Vancouver, who observed the woolly dogs in 1792, they resembled large Pomeranians. “So compact were their fleeces, that large portions could be lifted up by a corner without causing any separation,” Vancouver wrote, adding that the dogs’ coats were “composed of a mixture of a coarse kind of wool, with very fine long hair, capable of being spun into yarn.” The Coast Salish women blended the dog hair with more valuable mountain goat fiber to bulk up their yarns for blankets and other textiles that saw daily use.

The woolly dogs are gone now. The forced relocation of the humans who tended them disrupted the husbandry system that protected their genetics, and the availability of sheep’s wool supplanted the need for their fiber. During the 1850s the Belle Vue sheep farm quickly grew to almost 4,500 animals, and the Hudson’s Bay Company employed Cowichan, Hawaiian (Kanaka) and possibly Chinese laborers to build roads connecting the prairie grazing grounds and to tend the sheep. Our town, Friday Harbor, most likely takes its name from a Kanaka shepherd named Friday. The wages paid by the Hudson’s Bay Company, though too meager to support a family according to complaints of the day, were attractive enough to draw Native American men from beyond the immediate region to work on annual contracts. But the meticulous diary of the Company’s Chief Factor Charles Griffin refers to his laborers as “men and Indians,” suggesting a clear perception of race-based hierarchy, and only employees of European descent were awarded supervisory roles at the several sheep stations around San Juan Island. It’s important to acknowledge that even here in the Pacific Northwest, a continent away from the cotton fields, our earliest story of commercial agriculture is about a white-owned company relying on cheap labor from people of color.      

Colonization of these islands was complete down to the ecological level. The Hudson’s Bay Company turned out pigs, brought from their Hawaiian station. The pigs ate vast numbers of acorns, impacting the native Garry oaks and collaborating with the sheep to rapidly alter the native prairie. According to company records, in the first season the pigs ate the wild-growing death camas and died, but pigs are smart; the survivors quickly learned to eat only the edible plants and soon decimated the Coast Salish crop. The Hudson’s Bay Company introduced Ozette potatoes that quickly replaced camas in the indigenous diet, solving the problem they’d created by introducing the pigs, but only by also creating a dependency on a non-native species and breaking an ancient relationship between humans and native plants that signified a cultural loss as well as blow to the local ecology.

This is all part of the history of the farm my family is stewarding now. Most of the stories that unfolded here are lost, and we can’t mend the rupture of a hundred and fifty years ago. There can certainly be no repair without acknowledgement, so sharing this story and asking myself many questions about how to be a caretaker in this place is my first step. There are parts of Oak Knoll Farm that could be managed to promote reestablishment of native prairie species, and that might be a way to begin. On the human front, we can ask why our children’s Native American studies in school still don’t include the stories that took place in their own backyards. We can attend to the indigenous stories still unfolding here, and we can heed and amplify the native voices that are speaking today. In our neighborhood, for example, the Lummi Nation is leading the fight against the installation of a coal-shipping terminal on their Cherry Point lands.

And in the immediate mean time, I have more to say on the role of sheep and the romanticizing of pioneer and ranching history, so I’ll craft a separate post (or posts) for that. There are stories upon stories to find.

Last of the year

A clear and sunlit close to this circle ’round the sun. The children slept over with friends, so it was a queerly quiet day. I spent a pair of morning hours learning marimba parts to play with a new band and then we fell to chopping firewood. We’ve been building German-style round stacks that we roof with pieces still wearing their bark, so the whole stack can season for next winter without needing shelter.

At three I rode a horse up a hill for a glimpse of the sun winking low over the sea. It was the first time the mustangs have been separated in years and they were not pleased. Horses rely on their herdmates to feel safe, so my mount was anxious and jiggy, pirouetting and bending to nibble my boot toes in her need for connection and reassurance. The one left behind was wild with worry and spent our whole ride tearing around the field. Every inch of her winter coat was soaked with sweat and she wouldn’t come to me for a rub down.

I walked back down to the pasture after we put the kids to bed. It’s a chilly night, almost freezing, and I wanted to be sure Yahzi had cooled down properly. A still, calm night, with Orion pricked over the barn amid the thin clouds. I wore my headlamp to find the horses by their eye shine, but Yahzi mistrusts the bright light and kept her distance. I brought her a pan of minerals to lick and fetched towels from the lambing kit to dry her a little more. With the headlamp stowed in my pocket, there was still starlight and the glow from Victoria and the gleam of houses across the valley—so many more houses on Little Mountain than there used to be—and I could work over the horse’s rough and muddy coat by feel anyhow. She accepted the toweling with relish, stretching her face to the sky so I could rub harder beneath her neck. The barn cat ghosted along the hedgerow nearby, pale and formless in the dark.

I remember being just a little afraid of the night woods as a child, secure in the knowledge that there is nothing dangerous abroad on this island but still tingling with imagination, straining to hear beyond the drum of my own heartbeat and to categorize any scuffling whisper in the trees. A flashlight makes it worse. The dark is less knowable beyond the limit of its light. I have learned to switch off my lamp and love the darkness on this farm. I stand with the horses and listen to them licking and grazing, I breathe the falling damp and scry among the wan stars—yes, the clouds are thickening, the temperature is climbing a very little, the bright weather is done and the rain will be coming tomorrow or the next day. In a couple of months I’ll be making this night journey to the barn to check the lambing ewes.

The year is turning. The wood is stacked high. The family is sleeping. I stay up late to stroke the dog as she quivers and pants at the fireworks. I have too much steadiness, too much wry self-knowledge (I am to be forty next summer, after all) or some combination of the two for resolutions, so I make none. I have no reasonable expectations that the coming year will be better or worse in sum than the one we’re leaving. On we hurtle through space, and if I have a wish it’s for clear eyes to notice the good and open hands to extend the good to others. A soft night to you all and joy in the morning.

Night drop

Lambing season. April 9 was the date I circled on the calendar to begin night checks at the barn, 145 days after first possible conception for the seven ewes we put to Perseus and Hermes back in November. It feels like a season ago. The daffodils and plum blossoms are gone; now the dogwoods and apples are in full flower, as are the bluebells and the buttery scentless roses along the driveway. The fields are drunken vibrant green with new grass and spangled with dandelion seed puffs. Every evening is soft and luminous with sunset pastels and robin song.

This is the fourth week of trading shifts to tramp down to the barn in the dark, either near midnight or before dawn, to watch and wait for signs of lambs on the way. We both know what it looks like now. Sansa went first, a textbook labor and delivery despite her youth and inexperience. She pawed the straw, she circled the barn trying various spots, she whickered to her unborn lamb and licked the air. She lay down, she strained, she leapt up again and looked to see if anything had happened. She produced a bag of fluid and then, an hour and a half later, a neat pair of toes. We watched them emerge, retreat, emerge, retreat. It was my first chance to watch a birth. We were poised to spring in with the birthing tackle, to suction the new lamb’s mouth and nose and perform an increasingly acrobatic string of tricks if it should be slow to breathe. Like thoroughgoing beginners, we moved in too soon and Sansa took flight down the barn with the flock, her lamb still only halfway out. We scooped up her newborn and enticed her to follow him into the pen we’d prepared with fresh straw. He was a fine big fellow and didn’t need us, not really, but we fussed over him as Sansa licked him dry and we helped him to nurse and dipped his umbilical cord in iodine to prevent infection. The children named him Jupiter when they met him a few hours later. At three weeks of age he is a strapping, muscular fellow, long in the body like his father and with his mother’s stylish head carriage. He is a relentless imp, bounding atop the poor old grannies whenever they lie down to rest and dominating his week-old half-brother by chasing him in circles around the barn and paddock.

Athena with Pluto, her pretty ewe lamb

As so often happens at lambing time, there are sad notes, frustrations, regrets. Artemis delivered a stillborn, premature baby back in March. We count ourselves lucky that she showed no ill effects afterward. Athena gave birth to twins, and we were minutes too late arriving at the barn to revive her big ram lamb. Her daughter, Pluto, is beautiful and vigorous, but only nursed on the right side, and within a few days we were trying to fend off a case of mastitis on the side that should have fed the lost twin. We milked her out every four or five hours around the clock, discarding the infected milk and taking care not to spread the bacteria to other ewes.

There are moments of comedy, too. I left the island to pick up a thousand pounds of seed for the pastures, and meanwhile Adam caught Aphrodite in the act of delivering a very nice ewe lamb. When the twin (and I was sure there must be a twin in there; Aphrodite had been the size of an apartment complex for a month) hadn’t arrived an hour and a half later, I told Adam I thought he had better fetch it out. I’d read the lambing manual over and over during my night shifts and I’d been to a one-day lambing camp at a big sheep ranch in eastern Washington back in February, so I coached him through it on the phone while I sat in the truck in the ferry line. I sent him back to the house for chlorhexidine gluconate rinse to scrub his hands. It was a beautiful warm afternoon; all of us in the ferry line had our windows down or doors open to enjoy the sunshine. At some point I realized my husband, with his cell phone propped on the barn wall on speaker, might not be my only audience. I suspect a few fellow ferry riders learned a thing or two they weren’t expecting that afternoon. “If the cervix is too tight, run your fingers around in a circular motion and gently try to stretch it. Now open and close your fingers inside the vulva. That should stimulate a contraction.” The lamb had one leg back and an elbow locked on the pelvic bone; I talked Adam through walking his fingers up to pop the elbow loose and then pulling it by one leg, which I’d practiced at lambing camp on a dead lamb who sportingly donated his little body to science so a bunch of shepherds could work through the maneuvers that might help them save luckier babies. And it worked. Out she came, very weak, and Adam toiled over her to make her breathe and dangled her upside down and tickled her nose with straw and generally willed her into sticking around. We gave her a nutrient drench and a vitamin injection and she lasted through the night and was up and nursing on her own the next morning, a little stocky fluff ball of a lamb with a coat that waves rather than coils. Ada named her Venus.

Aphrodite’s girls, Venus and Starshine (you bet it’s after the Hair song)

We had another birth to remember when Persephone finally went into labor last weekend. I watched her Saturday night on our spanking new barn cam, rampaging around the barn harassing one of the oldest ewes the way a ram would. I perched myself on a hay bale and cast on a Littlewing vest for a human baby due to arrive soon and settled in to watch her labor. Three hours I watched her squat and lie down and strain, but to no effect. No fluid bag, nothing. I read the lambing manual again. (Laura Lawson’s Managing Your Ewe and Her Newborn Lambs. It’s been indispensible.) As I feared, the signs pointed to a breech baby plugging the dyke, in which case intervention was going to be absolutely necessary.

Persephone values her personal liberties and is one of the ewes Adam calls Tank 1 and Tank 2; she outweighs me by a clean hundred pounds even when she’s not pregnant and thinks nothing of plowing me into a wall. I didn’t fancy my chances of penning her for an exploratory feel on my own, so at 3am I woke Adam and mixed up the disinfectant wash. We corralled half the flock and, as predicted, Persephone barged around the pen like an angry rhinoceros and smashed my knee into the concrete while I tried to hang onto her so Adam could push the others back out again. We left her to cool down long enough to fetch the lambing kit, and then I scrubbed up for action. She struggled very briefly, but in my own experience a body doesn’t feel much like galumphing about during an internal exam, and the ewe seemed to agree with me and elected to cooperate.

It’s a curious experience, fishing for lambs. I found nothing at the cervix but bags of fluid and began to wonder exactly how far I’d have to reach in and whether I’d even recognize a lamb amongst all the hot slippery mysteries in there. Down, down below the pelvic bone my fingers touched something bony. A jawbone? Yes, there was an ear nearby. But no legs. Deeper in. Sorry, Persephone. There’s got to be a leg somewhere. Here! But is it a front leg, and does it belong to the same lamb? Back to the jawbone and down the shoulder to be sure. I worked the leg forward. It jerked away again. I can’t tell you how slippery a lamb leg in a birthing sac is. I gripped its tiny pastern between my thumb and forefinger with as much force as I could exert; my whole hand squeezing along the length of the leg wasn’t as strong a connection as I needed. I used the spare fingers to try to make sure the jawbone was coming along, too. Little by little I hauled my lamb foot and my jawbone up toward the birth canal, and I was spectacularly and repeatedly bathed in fluids as some of the sacs ruptured. (This post ought to have been sponsored by Grundens rain gear for fisherfolk; those pants really are waterproof!) I kept my grip on the single foot. Persephone pushed, I pulled. We rested a moment and tried again. Downward, downward. The book says to rotate the lamb a quarter as you’re pulling to bring the shoulders through more easily and to protect the lamb’s organs from bruising, but with only one leg out it didn’t seem possible. And then the head came free and the rest of her slipped out afterward. A strong little ewe, flapping her ears and struggling even before we had suctioned her mouth and nose.

The book also says to go right back in and get the second lamb immediately if you’ve had to pull the first one, so I did. Two feet to work with this time, and the nose nicely alongside. A smaller brother, not flapping any of his parts, rather weak. We worked over him as Persephone licked both her babies. The girl was suckling the air already, so I slid her aft under the teat, stripped out the wax plug for her, and on she went without even needing to stand up. The boy was still floppy. I held him to the nipple and milked it for him. Adam went to wake Ada, who’d wanted to witness a birth so badly. It was nearly 4am. I clipped and dipped umbilical cords and toweled sodden hides and tried to keep the lambs from floundering back into the puddles. Ada was beside me, helping the ewe lamb to find milk, passing me fresh towels. “Mom, what’s that sac hanging out?” she asked. “Oh, the afterbirth,” I answered without looking. There’s often a little red sac the size of an apricot along the cord to the placenta and I thought that’s what she’d noticed. Then I looked. It was not a little red sac the size of an apricot. It was a big white sac the size of a grapefruit, and that’s the sac that means a lamb is on the way. And sure enough, there he was, nose and toes coming right behind it. A tiny ram lamb, only half the size of some of the big singletons we’ve had, but full of vigor, up and sucking in no time. A proper little North Country, this one. We worried over the middle brother, still wobbling like a twig in a gale if he stood at all, and we gave him a vitamin drench and a shot of BoSe. I knew I’d gotten some colostrum into him, so I tucked him into the warmest of the knitted lamb sweaters, crossed my fingers for him, and wobbled off to bed myself as the neighbors’ rooster was doodling up the sun. And lo, we were both much stronger after a few hours’ rest.

Triplets! Comet, Saturn, and Ceres.

There’s one ewe left to lamb. I don’t think tonight is the night. Maybe Ruby will be kind and produce her babies at a nice civilized hour, say, between school drop-off and lunchtime. But it’s my turn on night drop patrol, so down I go to watch her behavior for a little while and to top up the triplets with a bottle before bed. (Persephone is mothering them all beautifully, but making food for three is a lot to ask and we are helping her out.) The stars are out, which means I’ll see Leo bowing to the western hills as I walk through the dark. My feet know the way to the barn. My hands know the way to a lamb. We’re still beginners, but we’re getting our seasoning.