The Female of the Species

An unexpected discovery.

Right in front of me.

As we prepare for another lambing season, I’ve been doing some mental push-ups. Strengthening my inner being for what is guaranteed to be a demanding period on the farm—physically, emotionally, and mentally. The hours and patience and decision-making involved in assisting our flock to deliver as many healthy lambs as possible will require all of our fortitude to endure.

It’s a joy, certainly. But I’ve learned it also necessitates an intentional type of preparation. And in the months leading up to this particular lambing season, there’s been a new theme developing in my awareness…

It started one January morning as a light snow (not a sideways cyclone, for once) was layering the landscape outside my window with the whitest of white icing. Directly in my view was a homemade, wooden bird feeder that Faith made at school last year, newly installed beside a large boxwood whose branches were starting to droop under the weight of the fresh snow.

I had been watching birds going to and fro all morning—their activity at the feeder always seems to accelerate when the snow starts to fall. Cardinals, mourning doves, blue jays, woodpeckers, and many other kinds that I couldn’t name but loved to observe.

I looked up from my laptop at one point and immediately noticed one particular bird nestled snugly inside one of the dryer branches away from the feeder. Its colors were striking against the white backdrop: tan and yellow and gray with streaks of red and a dark mask outlining a bright orange beak. You might have guessed its variety—it was a female cardinal. And it was stunning.

I couldn’t look away.

We all know the male birds get most of the attention for being the most spectacular in color and form. And it’s true, they are impressive, particularly the male cardinals that always catch the eye. They’re beautiful.

So I was a little surprised at how my attention was so captured by this female. She sat calmly for many minutes, and I noticed her subtlety, the gradual fade of subdued color into another shade of subdued color. Smooth, filled out, peaceful. She had an altogether different kind of beauty than the male.

I pondered over the likely reasons for the less-spectacular color pattern in female birds. In all probability, I presumed, it’s to help camouflage them when they’re attending baby birds in the nest. Less flashy means more safety. Her carriage and coloring is for her protection—and for the protection of her young, over whom she has also been appointed primary caretaker.

This is the way of the animal kingdom, I know well. Our sheep follow the same pattern. The ewes are quite small next to the larger rams, who are much more impressive in stature. What makes for a really nice ram is size, structure, and the ability to procreate successfully. A really nice ewe in our flock is determined by temperament, instinct, and mothering ability—these are much more subtle traits that take time and intentionality to discover.

These differences between the males and females of our livestock are fascinating, but they also bear a little more significance for me than they might for others. Because I grew up in a community that didn’t value many of the qualities I possessed as being desirable for the females of our species (being a leader, for one), I’m fairly sensitive to the nuances between men and women in general. I carry with me a history that brings color to my face in situations that seem quite benign to others.

I’ve grown and healed tremendously in this particular area of pain from my past, and I’m growing still. So when I uncover new layers of  , I pay attention. The understated yet exquisite beauty of this female cardinal was worth noting.

My eyes shifted from the cardinal in the boxwood to the aging barn behind it. That barn housed sheep for which we’ve given attention, sweat, and tears. Most of those tears come during lambing season, when Andy and I serve as chief attendants in our barn’s maternity ward. It’s during that time that our mother sheep and I form ever-deeper bonds over the messy, wonderful, and sometimes heart-wrenching process of bringing forth new life onto the farm.

What impresses me every year without fail is the way our ewes instinctively know how to care for their lambs from the get-go. As soon as the lamb drops onto the straw, the ewe turns and smells the lamb to investigate. Once she recognizes it as her own, she immediately starts knickering (to teach it the sound of her voice), licking (to clean it), and nosing her lamb (to get up and nurse).

Mother and lamb exchange this mysterious, innate language that is understood and reciprocated from birth to weaning. Their bond is such that they can hear and find each other in seconds amid a confusing throng of warm bodies and deafening bleats in the mixing pen.

Equally impressive is the patience the ewe exhibits as her lambs deliver blows with ever-increasing force against her udder in search of milk. Bam! Bam! Picture a ram head butting another ram. Sometimes the ewe has less patience and delivers a blow right back, and the lamb half-runs and half-stumbles away in retreat.

My laughter at these exchanges is part of the full range of emotions that come as I watch nature’s design unfold from the sidelines. Laughter and awe. No one teaches these mother sheep how to do what they do. They’re inherently full of devotion, watchfulness, persistence, and plenty of personality.

And this year, more than past ones, I’m more cognizant of the female role in the order of things. It is distinct. And beautiful. The sheep, the farm, the cardinal … they’re all tiny snapshots of the many layers of beauty to be discovered. Male and female are different—and that is okay. Right, even.

It turns out that the long hours spent in our barn’s birthing pens produced more than just new lambs for our flock. They also birthed something in me: new perspective, understanding, and appreciation for my own design … and for the boundaries inherent in what makes me different.

As I look back on my youth and the years I spent berating myself for my individual qualities that didn’t match what was communicated by some as the proper female pattern, I realize how mistaken I was. Now in my 40s, I’m more often finding richness instead of pain in my God-given design.

And that female cardinal taught me that there’s more beauty to be discovered daily, if I watch for it.

 

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