Sandplain Grassland

by Kristin Griffin

Sandplain Grassland

Fae Kontje-Gibbs

The farmer takes me in the long way. The land stretches out the car window to our right. We drive the length of it and take a dirt road up its center. I see dots of cows, a cluster of sheep. Later, I’ll pass a pen full of heritage breed turkeys, skinny-necked and eager at the fence line until they realize I’m empty-handed.

We head to the cow pasture where the herd of Belted Galloways and British White Parks make their own shade standing shoulder to shoulder. They’re all big-eyed and curious, the new calf off in the distance with its still-astonished mother. Barely two hours old and the baby, white as quartz, is up on its feet and searching for milk. We watch it root around by the udders. Visible instinct.

The farmer takes a seat on the ground and motions for me to join him. “They can’t resist,” he says as the cows turn to face us and take a step in our direction, then two steps. “Down here we’re on their level.” They’re breathing heavy, ears perked, and make a half-circle around us, 10 or 12 steps across. They move in closer. I can’t keep track of all the pairs of dark eyes, of those long, dark lashes. Cow breath is what you’d expect it to be; the power of their gaze is not. Every so often I feel I have to look away. They stare and stare and I’m as seen as I’ve ever been, out there on that sandplain grassland.

On Tuesday, I help paint a chicken coop. The chickens are still inside but that’s easy to forget. For the most part they stay still and quiet, but every so often something kicks off and there’s a lot of clucking, a lot of wings beating against the wood siding. Another farmer perches on a ladder and tells me what it means to be a sheep person. She has written a book—a manual for beginning shepherds. In it she describes how sheep farming used to be on the Island. Farmers told their flocks apart by the placement of a v-shaped notch in their ear. The old mill in West Tisbury, home to a garden club now, clothed whale men in durable, water-resistant satinet woven from Vineyard wool. At one time there were thousands of sheep here, but that number’s more like 200 now.

I spook the sheep. They all stand up and make for the barn door as I approach. One limps, a vertical crack in her right front foot. Later, I’ll watch a farmer flip her onto her back and hold the hoof in his hand, noting its warmth. A low grade infection, probably. He clips her hooves with garden shears I fetch from the shop and squeezes Krazy Glue along the seam, hoping it will hold. Her teeth are in good shape, he says, running a finger along her gums.

I’ll be on the farm long enough to see that sheep recover and to watch as another one dies, hit hard by what ends up looking like a lung infection. The farmer gives her a cocktail of mostly molasses from a beer bottle. He sticks her with nutrients she’s missing and hopes. In the morning he tells me we lost her and I watch as he loads the body into the bucket of the tractor. I ride out with him to the cow pasture where he drops me off to count calves, continuing on to a far corner of farmland with the sheep. The tractor comes back empty. There are two new calves since the day before.

Here’s something I’ve never done: held a sorting panel in an open field, doing my best to keep a mother from her calf as a farmer loads it into a trailer to tag and inject with vitamin E. Once or twice I end up in the trailer with him, holding the calf in my arms while he pierces the ear with a yellow tag and prepares the injection. The calf’s heart is a bird on fire. Its call rings in my brain, the mother outside calling back. Another farmer, outside watching the door, speaks assurances, but I can hear the mother trotting circles around the trailer and the huff of her breath. The two bellow back and forth until we open the trailer door and out stumbles the calf. They’ve reunited but my ears still ring with their call and response. Where are you? I’m here. Where are you? I’m here.

Back at the barn, I make a discovery: sheep drink water just like kids suck milkshakes through a straw.

I didn’t know that.

I’ve never thought of pigs as land sharks, never knew that not all ducks quack. Take Elvis, the resident Muscovy, who hisses and pants and nips at your shoes but not one quack escapes him. He’s always there, that Elvis. Early on I thought there were three of him.

I didn’t know the weight of a plow bolt or that the Dutch were particularly well known for their plows.

I don’t know a lot of things about farming and two weeks at the farm makes me no expert. That’s one thing I know for sure.

But this glimpse brings me back to the big things: soil and sun, water and time, sickness and health. Later this month, 10 sheep—happy sheep, loved sheep, sheep who’ve known warm days and Vineyard wind—will cross the Sound to be processed and come back as cuts of meat. Just as they board the boat it might be time for another cow to labor, another new calf to take its first breath on this Island and walk its first steps on this ground.