Retrospective twenty-five (March 2014)

Given the way in which blogs are presented, I am convinced that posts which reside more than a scroll or two behind the most recent are doomed to languish and to be forgotten. Because I believe there is value in looking at contributions from days, weeks, and even months ago, I present a gallery of images presented during March of 2014. Perhaps it will be interesting to scroll through these and to compare them to those presented during this past month. Be patient, it may take several minutes for all of the images to load fully. Hovering over an image will reveal its title. Clicking one will take you to a carousel view and you can either move through the collection or click the links to read each post in its original form. This is the twenty-fifth in my series of retrospectives. You may find interest in taking a look at the retrospective from two years ago and if you missed any of the others, you can find them all by clicking Retrospective in the tag cloud in the sidebar.

Faux holsteins

When I called, Joanna reported that Mallory had dropped two lambs and, by the time I arrived home, Audrey had delivered her own set of twins. We were off to the barn for scissors, iodine, pencil and paper, ear tags and a towel. We cleaned, trimmed, and tagged Audrey’s two and then set off to find Mallory and her family. Although her fleece isn’t particularly distinct, and we were too far away to read ear tags, there was no question where she was because her lambs gave her away. They looked like miniature Holsteins and are a classic example of the Shetland fleece pattern called Flecket (white with large black patches on the body). I have written about and always been fascinated by terms assigned to the thirty recognized patterns of fleece coloration which occur in Shetlands. Stefan Adalsteinsson has written … Of the thirty markings, fifteen have names that have a comparable counterpart in Icelandic, in spite of 1100 years of separation. This is a remarkable example of how certain aspects of the culture of sheep-keeping have been kept alive. It is noticeable that the white markings in both Iceland and Shetland have names that are from the Norwegian. These must have been used in Norway at the time of settlement in both Shetland and Iceland, because that is where the sheep in both countries came from. I can’t help but note the hooves on this pair. Do you see how they look irregular? This picture was taken when these two were, perhaps, 30 minutes old. During gestation, and at parturition, the hoofs are quite soft. This is, as you can imagine, a way of keeping the little ones from doing damage to the delicate placental membranes while still in utero. Once on-the-ground however the hooves undergo a dramatic change. I’m not sure whether the solidification is due to the rapid mobilization of calcium or to simple drying of the keratin which comprises this all-important structure, but within hours the hoofs straighten and solidify.

New arrivals

It’s been mild and wet this week, not bad weather for lambing but not the best for photography. I captured these images a week ago during a brief window of blue sky and sunshine. Gloomy weather notwithstanding, the lambs have continued to arrive, singly and in pairs, and the arrivals (at the moment) have been biased toward girls, and that is good.


For George

Lambing season began today when we welcomed #1437 and then, a few hours later, #1438 and #1439 … all girls … a very propitious beginning indeed. This little one needs a name … do I hear any suggestions?


This view of life

Spring is such a wonderful time of year, a time of birth and renewal. Something tells me that it is perhaps easier for most of us to appreciate the former of these occurrences. One allows ewes and rams to co-mingle for several weeks in the fall and, come spring, lambs arrive. But perennial plants are able to lay dormant over winter and, at the appropriate time, break dormancy to return to the business of growth and reproduction. Sure we know of diapause and every school kid has learned that bears hibernate through the most difficult weeks of winter. But plants do this in such a remarkable way that it is important to take special note. Consider, in a physiological sense, what a plant must do to ensure winter survival. First, it must manufacture stores of carbohydrate to support some minimal level of physiological activity throughout the winter. No growth. No reproduction. The organism must generate enough ATP (the energy currency of cells) to stay alive. Second, deciduous trees must do chemical inventory and withdraw everything of potential use from their leaves and then jettison them (the leaves) as winter liabilities. All of that material, along with the nutrient stores, must be transported down and into the roots. Once all of this is complete imagine that genes which were active during the spring and summer must be turned off and, at the same time, genes involved in baseline physiological maintenance must be turned on. And, these cascades of activity must be reversed come spring. Consider, that all the genes involved in these activities are in every cell. Have you ever stopped to consider that each and every one of us started life as a single cell? That cell had two complete sets of DNA, one from Mom and one from Dad. That single cell gave rise to the many trillions of cells which now comprise your body. Although the constituent cells of all of your organs have the very same DNA, these cellular sub-populations behave differently. How it is that muscle cells behave like muscle cells and liver cells behave like liver cells if, in fact, all of these cells have the same genetic material? All of the appropriateness of plant physiological response is dependent upon the expression of certain genes and the suppression of others. It turns out that gene expression may be influenced by the cellular environment within which any particular cell happens to find itself as well as in changes in any number of other environmental variables (biotic and otherwise). How wonderful life, in its myriad forms, really is. I find myself, several times during the academic year stopping in the middle of lecture. No matter whether discussing counter-current exchange in the molluscan ctenidium to one group or chromosomal nondisjunction to another, I’ll stop, look up and into the surprised eyes of my students and ask, Isn’t this elegant? I’ll plainly admit that I couldn’t devise anything more so. All of life’s solutions are ancient and optimized. I could continue but will, instead, end by quoting the very last sentence of Darwin’s monumental work, On the Origin of Species. Not many recognize these words as Darwin’s own summary of the elegance and beauty of Natural Selection, the phenomenon he explained to scientists and to the thinking world, more than a century-and-a-half ago.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

All of nature is a wonder. Truly. To be lucky to know just a little bit of how it all works is a joy. To know its secrets doesn’t, to my mind, take away, but rather adds to my sense of wonder and admiration.


Jellicle cat

Barn cats will have their stories and Merlin has more than his share. He, like so many other Jellicles, found us one day and, rather than continue on his way, decided to stay. We have been glad of it. I’m not sure how many of his proverbial nine lives remain. Surely eight, perhaps fewer. Merlin is a very lucky cat and, if you were to ask him, I think he would agree. He has always gotten along well enough with the other barn cats and has paid scrupulous attention to the established hierarchy. Not too high on the pecking order, Merlin has always been quiet, respectful, and deferential. One afternoon, several years ago now, we noticed a number of cats moving quickly toward the woods. When Joanna arrived at the source of the confusion she found what she describes as a whirl of brown and white which eventually resolved into Merlin trying to extricate himself from the jaws of a Bobcat. When faced with the situation [parallels to which seem to happen often around here, and most recently involved a Grey Fox and one of the hens] Joanna rushed at the melee and shouted, with authority, DROP IT! And the Bobcat obligingly did, and fled. Merlin, still alive, immediately ran for cover. With some effort we extricated him to find the anticipated lacerations and called our veterinarian for advice which was, Bring him in. Upon closer examination it was discovered that the attacker’s teeth had established a good grip on Merlin’s skull and lower jaw. Swift kicks opened Merlin’s underside from stem-to-stern; he was in tough shape. Our very good friend (and large animal veterinarian) Bob knows his stuff and rises to the occasion on especially challenging cases. Two days, as many drains, and dozens of stitches later Merlin was home for an extended recuperation. When he was well he took up residence once more in the horse barn. He likes it there. He’s quite jumpy now and starts at most movement and at unfamiliar noises. I’m afraid he suffers from the feline equivalent of PTSD. Wouldn’t you? Spring has arrived at the farm and all but the very last bits of snow and ice have disappeared. The winter seemed especially long and very cold. We fed round bales of hay to Ari (the horse with whom Merlin shares his digs) this winter and Merlin took quick advantage of the abundance of loose forage. I have never seen a cat build a nest in this way before but build one Merlin did, and it looked to keep him very warm and comfortable. On the coldest of nights he would even pull a blanket of hay across the top of his little niche. Clever, jellicle, fellow is he.


Mud season

I am grateful, the thermometer reads 51ºF. Less than one week ago we were well below zero. Although I have little tolerance for the sound of drip, drip, drip (more often than not, it portends disaster) I have welcomed the sound today. The sun is high and, when the wind is quiet, it warms my shoulders from above and my face from below as its illuminating rays reflect off the subsiding blanket of snow and ice. I could find the barns with my eyes closed for the sweet perfume of wet hay has settled over the pastures.The sheep have not been thrifty and have trampled much of their feed as bedding. The icy mattress which took months to form thaws rapidly as does all exposed ground. Our thick soils are good at producing a particularly soupy sort of mud, and I don’t much like this mud season. I have fallen on the ice more times than I would like to recount, last week alone, but would rather skid and dance briefly in the mud than slip and fall prey to the unforgiving force of gravity, even one more time, on ice. I welcome the return of liquid water. That may sound strange but because we have been so cold for so long, natural pools of water have been scarce and Joanna and I have worried about the birds and the deer. We were glad to know that a nearby spring was producing a small but constant stream. The thick blanket of ice which formed one evening last week must have been especially difficult for the deer. Their legs are so thin, seemingly unprotected. The ewes stuck close to their feed but managed to beat a path to their trough. I walked back and forth between the water for the rams and their shelter, once each day since the ice settled, to be sure that they could find their way through the otherwise unbroken sea. The roofs are now clear and I can see a bit of gravel here-and-there along the lane. The blue sky is lovely, the birds seem lighter and fly faster through it. They spill seed, carelessly, from the feeders. The opportunistic deer park themselves in just the right places to greedily collect the spoils. The reflected light of winter makes that season bright. The ground, this time of year, will become progressively darker as layer upon layer of snow and ice melts. Each stratum giving up its treasure, frozen within, such that the ever-increasing accumulation darkens the ground until the snow is gone and the trove dissolves into the soils below. The buds are swelling and our lamb crop is due to arrive anytime within the next week or so. And then surely spring will have arrived. We felt the need for a walk this morning. Joanna headed off along the trail, still knee-deep in snow, while I donned my waders and took to the water nearby. The stream lay deep within a narrow gorge and because the sun has not been all that high there was still lots of snow piled along the icy banks and atop a uniform sheet of ice which lay between them. It wasn’t until I made my way, upstream, to the dam that I spied photographic potential. I was able to walk along the wall of the outflow which provided good vantage from which to photograph this receding ice sheet.


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