Grit Blogs > Almost Country

Signs of Spring Are Everywhere Despite Old Man Winter

A portrait of the author, Colleen Newquist.The wind is sailing hard across the landscape, pushing dead leaves in great angry gusts. It’s Old Man Winter at work, vainly trying to erase all signs of Spring, who’s been nudging him on his way this past week. 

He never goes easily – not without those last snow squalls and a few spiteful freezes that knock buds from trees and leave daffodils in distress for daring to show their sunny faces before he is good and ready to leave. Such a bully. Today I say, go ahead, Old Man, have your tantrum. Spring has already been hanging around here for several days, and we sure have enjoyed her company. You, Mr. Winter, are history.

The proof is everywhere: The pointed tips of our few daylily plants are stubbornly pushing their way through the mud and mulch near the front door. A welcome sign, even though they’ll eventually be chewed to stubs by deer. In the darkness just before dawn, birds are busily singing, flitting from tree to tree in a flurry of activity. Today, the quiet Sunday morning was broken by the repeated howling of a coyote, followed by the frenzied yipping and growling of an entire pack. Perhaps he or she had cornered one of the young deer I’ve been seeing around and was calling the family to come and eat. 

Later, slipping and sliding up and down the muddy hills of the Thorn Creek Nature Preserve that borders our yard, in a futile attempt to keep up with my dog, I came upon the remains of an earlier dinner – a skull licked clean, a couple of deer hooves, a ribcage and spine, and lots and lots of deer fur. No intact hide, just loose fur spread out like a blanket of pine needles. Charley the dog found that all very fascinating. So did I. Unlike my own kitchen, nothing goes to waste in the wild. I wondered if the eyeballs were a particular delicacy. 

While I was walking in the woods, my cell phone rang. (I know--it’s Walk in the Wild Lite: all the trees and hills give the illusion of being removed from reality, but in actuality, I could order a pizza at any time. And be back at my door before it’s delivered.) It was my sister calling, telling me that friends of ours who are relatively new to farm life were planning to shear sheep today. Woo hoo! I hiked back home, managing to stay upright in all the mud, and headed out to their house, 10 miles from my own, close the Illinois-Indiana state line. 

How “almost country” I live is really evident when I head up the winding driveway of Three Fates Farm and hear a rooster crowing and see the Jacob sheep out in the pasture.

Jacob Sheep

Jack the mule is fenced in near the front of the drive. Two llamas are chewing in their pen closer to the house. I spot the Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) Longwool sheep in their own section of fencing, a couple of them already sheared.

Unlike the Jacob sheep who will come running to the barn when they see people, thinking they’re going to get something to eat, the Leicesters retreat behind their shed, where they shyly peek at me. 

Leicester Longwool Sheep

Without their long curly fleece, which reminds me of dreadlocks, “they look just like regular sheep,” says Karen Askounis, the owner, who also happens to be our veterinarian. Together with her husband, Terry LaMastus, who also happens to be our insurance agent, they own 22 rolling acres and a menagerie of assorted animals that needed homes: the mule and llamas, a mastiff named Vicky, two sweet pit bulls, house cats, barn cats, a few roosters, guinea fowl, and pea fowl, including a peacock who had no interest in leaving his coop today and displaying on demand, as Karen encouraged him to do (“Out! Out! Everybody outside!”) He came out for a few seconds and promptly turned and headed back in, long tail feathers swatting a few of the other fowl as he made his exit. 

In addition to the strays and castaways, they raise two breeds of sheep in need of conservation: Jacob sheep, an ancient breed that originated in what is now Syria, as well as Leicester Longwools, which date back to the 1700s and had almost disappeared from North America by the 1980s. They both are beautiful to behold. The Jacob sheep are especially stunning with their curved horns – sometimes four of them on the rams – and their black and white faces. 

Sheared Jacob Sheep

I’m eager to help shear the sheep or get a lesson by watching. But today it is not to be. Terry’s busy running errands and Karen is loath to leave one of the pit bulls, who is quite ill, without supervision. So further shearing is postponed to next weekend. And who knows? Given the bulging bellies and swelling udders of some of the ewes, maybe by then we’ll be celebrating a symbol of spring that would melt even Old Man Winter: a new lamb. 

More next week!