Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Jam to Lamb

This is a friend's daughter, Danika, leaning in to touch the orphan lambs. I made this image in Montana in 2005 on my second trip to Pachy's ranch. I have this image up in my private workspace and every time I look at it, it makes me want to cuddle with the lambs.

To be clear, I'm a city girl, and I was never an animal lover. I dislike shed hair of any kind, and my keen sense of smell has ruined many a trip to the state fair or zoo. But something powerful drew me to this all-female sheep ranch during lambing season.

Pachy Burns has an outfit of about 800 sheep in western Montana. When her daughters were maybe 8 or 9, Pachy left a corporate job and moved to Montana to become a sheep rancher. She had no experience, and she was a single mother. No men around to speak of. She and her daughters figured out how to do everything and somehow did it. But when the girls grew up and on, she needed help during the lambing season. (Lambing season is the month when all the pregnant lambs give birth. It happens 5 months after the introduction of several genetically well endowed bucks.) So she invited several of her female friends from around the country to come see what she was doing and also help her with the work during that crazy month long birth bonanza. That was 15 or more years ago. Since then, word spread and now women from all over come and participate and some even pay her (not much) for the privilege. She has dubbed it "Jam to Lamb."

I first heard about it through a friend that is a documentary photographer. We had been wanting to collaborate on something and this spoke to both of us, so we went. If you asked me then why I was going, I would have told you that I wanted to interview and learn the stories of the individual women and what drew each of them, but in truth, I wanted to see if their reason was the same as mine: I was terrified and obsessed with birth.

I had no children yet and wasn't close to ready--and the primary reason was that I was afraid of giving birth. I had never witnessed a birth, just heard horror stories and had the media version of birth firmly entrenched in my imagination.

But something about lambing and this sheep ranch drew me. Perhaps because it was all women. I will analyze myself later...

It ended up being a pivotal moment in my journey to motherhood. I could write tomes about the sheep and this experience, but the most important thing I learned was that birth is a normal process that happens hundreds of times every day. Very few of the sheep were screaming out in pain. Maybe 4 in 800 had a problem. I remember looking deep into the eyes of a laboring sheep and what I saw there is what I now recognize as "the zone." She was going deep within and working hard.

Sheep give birth standing up (on all fours I guess you could say). The lambs come out front hoofs first, swan diving from the womb. It is beautiful to watch. When her baby hits the ground the mother licks its eyes and face clean.

I remember worrying about the smell of 800 sheep, but miraculously, there was no smell. It was strange. Pachy explained that it could be mother nature's way of protecting the lambs from cayotes and other animals during lambing season. This is amazing to me.

One of the days I was there, I helped pull a lamb from a sheep who was having a difficult time (someone else was massaging the parinium). I was up to my elbows in amniotic fluid when it was finally born, healthy. I remember standing there thinking, I should wash my hands. But before I reached the bathroom they were dry, and felt oddly clean. I smelled them. They smelled good. They smelled cleaner than anything on that whole ranch. I washed them anyway, but like Mary, I kept all these things in my heart.

I took another year before I had the courage to try it, but I learned so much from these sheep. I hope someday to take my daughter to play with the lambs.


  1. Oh wow. I think I have to do this!

    Beautiful post. :-)

  2. I hadn't read this post yet and since my mind is fresh with thoughts of my chicks and cows this rang strong with me. What a beautiful experience. I think it is too bad that lots of children don't grow up with animals any more, not only are they distanced from their food source but also they don't get to see how normal and peaceful birth is. I think birth would be a lot less scary for women if they saw it more often... not on TV



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