Recent Work By Sarah Zhang

It was not until senior year that I finally did what college kids are supposed to do over spring break—spend a week in the Caribbean. The trip was all expenses paid, and this is where things diverged from the spring break of college lore. Along with a dozen students and a handful of professors, graduate students, and post-docs, I headed to Panama to study marine invertebrates on my school’s dime. While we encountered plenty of tourists there, our tans outlined not skimpy bikinis but wetsuits, which meant a dark tan that abruptly cut off at the neck and wrists. Our evenings were spent with microscopes in the lab. Except for one Friday night, when we were let loose to “experience the local culture” in town.

Shit and Death

By Sarah Zhang


The Devil Incarnate was airborne again. One shit-covered hoof landed on my hand, and the other kicked off the pump milking her teats. Two for two. She wriggled her black rump in triumph. Many have tried, but none have succeeded at exorcising this notorious Shetland ewe. It was my first day on a British sheep farm, and I was already locked in a losing battle.

Nursing my bruised hand, I reconsidered why I was here in the English countryside. It made sense logistically as part of my not so Grand Tour of Europe: two weeks of room and board in exchange for labor. I may have also mumbled something about “cultural immersion” and “work ethic” and namedropped Michael Pollan in a manifesto of sorts when I chose this organic sheep farm. The fact of the matter was I had no idea what I was doing, and I was just a suburban kid whose only previous contact with farm animals was the petting zoo and that time I chased goats around a biomechanics lab. Not a match for the Devil Incarnate.

The people patient enough to put up with my foolishness were Lawrence and Karen, the farm’s owners. Both were architects until the 80s, when the British economy collapsed, and they found themselves looking for a new line of work. With no farm experience other than beekeeping on the rooftop of their London apartment, they learned the necessary skills from the Soil Association, bought a farm, bought some animals, and set up for business. I admired their gutsiness and liked to think that my own escapade was in the same spirit of independence. However, I suspect they were considerably less clueless than I. Lawrence went to Cambridge, but he is a man of both head and hands. For fun, he used to drive a beat-up truck out to the middle of nowhere, have it breakdown, tinker with some things under the hood, and drive back. Karen, originally from South Africa, liked to say she had outback in her blood.

Most of their income these days comes from their flock of sheep, whose wool and cheese they sell at local farmers’ markets. It is an entirely family-run operation, with Karen making and selling the cheese and Lawrence doing the farm work, occasionally aided by his son and volunteers through the Worldwide Organization of Organic Farms (WWOOF), which was also how I found myself in at their farm.

It didn’t take long to settle into the daily rhythms of the farm. At 10 in the morning, I set out with the sheepdogs to round up sheep for the day’s milking. Ewes were let into the milking parlor a dozen at a time. Most were cooperative, the Devil Incarnate being an obvious exception. With their heads in the trough, we milked from the back. Here’s a dirty fact – not a secret but often overlooked: a sheep’s teats are located at its rear end, so milk is dispensed in proximity to urine and feces. Not to worry sheep milk and cheese consumers, the teats are thoroughly disinfected with iodine before the pumps are attached. The milk stays clean, but the milker is sometimes not so lucky. It was not uncommon for an ewe to leave something other than milk at the parlor.

While I milked, Lawrence scanned the ewes for those in need of “haircuts and pedicures.” Two of the most common ailments afflicting sheep are flystrike and foot rot. Flystrike occurs when flies lay eggs in the sheep’s wool. As the maggots hatch, they eat their way into the sheep and kill it from inside out. The docking of tails, a practice much maligned by animal rights activists, is actually a preventive measure, as a sheep wagging its wooly tail spreads feces all over its hindquarters, attracting flies. Flystrike in its early stages can be treated by shearing away the dirty wool and applying an insecticide – a haircut and shampoo for those having bad a wool day. The pedicures were similarly a treatment for foot rot, which is an infection between the two toes of the hoof. A trimming and antibiotics usually had a limping sheep back to jumping hedges in no time.

* * *

Farms will make you nonchalant about touching shit. It was a matter of ubiquity. On a farm with 180 sheep, fifteen cattle, six cats, four dogs, two pigs, and a dozen each of chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl, the sheer volume made shit unavoidable.

Which isn’t to say the farm was filthy. This was the natural order of things: input (food, water) begets output (meat, wool, milk, and yes, shit). The process, though, is more circular than linear. Sheep spend the days grazing in the fields, deriving their nutrition from the grass and then returning the favor by dropping some nutrient-rich poop back into the field. Such was the ethos of organic farming, grounded in the harmony of nature. The grazing diet of sheep was supplemented by silage, cut grass that has been fermented in plastic-wrapped bales. In the rare event of three consecutive sunny English days – the moisture content of silage is important for its proper fermentation –grass in the ungrazed fields is cut for silage. Sometimes, a few wily sheep will have found their way into an ungrazed field and left a token of their presence. “You’ll pull out some silage from the bale and out comes a clod of shit,” said Lawrence.

The ubiquity of shit on the farm did not mean it could be ignored but rather than it needed to be dealt with, constantly. “Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil,” philosophized Milan Kundera, but on the farm, we operated with the philosophy that shit was a more onerous logistical problem than is…anything else. It may take slipping on a pile of shit and falling into an even larger pile of shit to learn this, but so quickly one learns. Each day’s milking culminated with scraping down the yard outside the parlor. The “shitscraper” resembled a shovel whose blade had been replaced by a three-foot wide metal bracket, and it was remarkably ineffective at scraping up shit. The topmost layer of shit was pushed to a large pile at one end of the yard. It was usually then deposited in a field for fertilizer, but the tractor was out of commission during my time there and the pile simply built up. On rainy days – almost every day as this was England – a small pond formed in the middle of the pile and leaked streams of shitwater down to the fields. Irrigation and fertilization at once.

* * *

Lambing season begins in April, so when I arrived in July, the earliest lambs had grown to adult-size, but the late lambs were still in their stage of maximum cuteness. With their floppy pink ears, saucer eyes, and fleece as white as snow, the three smallest lambs were ready for their close-ups. Floppy, the smallest of the three, was even being hand-nursed with a bottle. Photogenic as this scene looked, it belied the fact that Floppy was in danger of not making it. Late lambs suffer the disadvantage of not getting their mothers’ colostrum, antibiotic-rich milk produced by the ewe right after birth. Ewes will also abandon a weak lamb, which is what happened to Floppy and also why we were bottle-feeding him. Floppy’s adorable disorientation was actually a sign that he was sliding south. He died the first week I was there.

A few days later, the two other small lambs – twins, one male and one female – were left alone in the barn after the other sheep had headed out to graze. A bad sign: their mother had also abandoned them. We moved them to a pen, fitted a heat lamp, and tried to hand-nurse the twins. It was difficult to feed the resisting lambs, not because they could wrestle free but because I was afraid of using too much strength against their delicate limbs. When they finally stayed still and allowed milk to be dripped into their mouths, it seemed out of defeat rather than a desire to eat. They coughed and sneezed and grinded their teeth, which sounded all too human. Lawrence said that they probably had pneumonia. From then on, the first thing I did in the morning was to check up on the twins. I would dread finding them limp on the ground, breathe a sigh of relief upon seeing them standing, and then unsuccessfully try to feed them. Cuddling with the furry creatures brought a rush of maternal instincts, and I briefly considered naming the twins. No names jumped out though, and I remembered the pity in Lawrence’s eyes that said there was no point in getting emotionally attached. The girl died three days after, and the boy the next night.

* * *

The day after the second twin died, Lawrence announced that he had to pick three lambs for the abattoir, a kindlier word for “slaughterhouse” borrowed from across the channel. We drove a tractor up to the fields and picked out the three fattest lambs. These lambs, almost as heavy as me, had to be wrestled in. They were driven to the abattoir on Wednesday and returned as vacuumed-packed cuts of lamb on Thursday. Thursday dinner was fresh lamb chops.

“This lamb is real good, mum,” said Lawrence’s son, “What’s in it?”

“Just garlic. No salt or seasonings. Good meat,” replied Karen.

“Speaking of good meat, remember 15? Now he was a tasty steak.”

“Feisty bull he was,” interjected Lawrence, “Made that indent in the lower gate. You can go see it.”

It’s hard to think of the slab of protein, fat, and connective tissue that grows on supermarket Styrofoam trays as having personality, but Lawrence could rattle off the life history of his steak. These animals on his farm have had good lives roaming free in the pasture. While I could accept “15” as a feisty bull before he became a juicy steak, I still couldn’t imagine Floppy cut up on my plate.

I once asked Lawrence what he planned to do with the dead body of a sick lamb. The lines around his eyes crinkled. “Fancy rack of lamb for dinner?” but then he turned serious, “I’m going to bury it. The authorities will tell you that a dead animal has to be taken away and incinerated because of disease but this lamb grew up on my farm. It got its nutrients from my farm, and when it dies, its nutrients return to the farm.” Worse to let an animal’s life go to waste. As shit is a fact of life, so is the end of each animal’s life. The life of the farm goes on.