Maine’s Herd: Shaped by the Seasons

Published by Hope Hall ’92, P’19

In Maine, we mark passing months in sound—drips of clear sap in tin pails, calls of irrepressible peepers, whirs of iridescent dragonflies in their late summer blue.

Seasons here are hard-won. Each month is a fresh proclamation—a surprise—even though we can feel the transition brewing beneath the surface as sure as a pulse. Traditions enable Mainers to find rootedness despite the ever-shifting weather. The markers of nature force us to adapt, while also reminding us that on a larger scale the cycles of life are predictable. In this way, our traditions both ground and nourish, allowing us to grow as nimble as birches.

Our yearly celebrations in Maine are a doorway back in time—a bridge to the present—and a promise that, no matter what happens, we have in us a pattern of resilience.

Farming is one tradition here that runs deep.

My entry into farming came through my Grandpa Lew, who always cautioned, “Don’t rush the season, kid!” In the ten years since we began Sunflower Farm Creamery, our days have become punctuated by caring for a herd of thirty dairy goats, an herb garden, and a cheese kitchen. I hear his words often and work to find ways to linger in and celebrate what each month offers.

Although the solitude of farming can be challenging—hundreds of hay bales to load, the loss of a loved animal, hours of digging out after a storm, or a succession of goats kidding in the middle of the night—there is always the guiding sense of connectedness to all who farmed before you, and to all who are sharing this exact moment with you right now, on far-flung farms scattered throughout Maine.

Because small farms depend on the community, we have a comforting attachment to our farm friends, building traditions year by year with everyone who makes the trip to buy cheese or visit the herd. People come in spring to meet the new babies, in summer to do yoga in the pasture, in fall for Open Creamery Day, and in winter to leave Christmas trees for the goats to eat. We have seen many families grow up, grieved with others as they have lost parents, and met new folks each year.

One of our favorite traditions is Kid Snuggling Days. In April, we welcome hundreds of families who patiently wait in long lines for a chance to hold a newborn baby goat. As we settle two-pound Nigerian dwarf kids into people’s arms, it is not uncommon for them to burst into tears, and it is equally likely for them to fall into the kind of focused silence usually only seen in a church.

People return year after year, searching for proof that spring, this precious sleeping quality in our hearts that speaks of love, is still very much alive after the cold winter.

One Sunday during kid visiting hours, the barn was especially full of people when a pair of does both went into labor on opposite ends of the barn. My husband, Chris, easily delivered triplets, and the barn cheered as he held each one up. Strangers, farm friends, and family were all caught up in the miracle of new life together. In another stall, our sweet doe Chianti struggled for hours. In time, the noisy barn cleared, the veterinarian arrived, the doors closed, and I continued to lean into the task at hand—trying to save my goat mama who had impossibly stuck kids. The rest of the world disappeared. We have assisted in hundreds of births, but this was the first we could not right. After losing her, I knelt down in the shavings, lowered my head, and wondered how I would return to the world outside the barn after such a loss.

Sliding open the doors, I was greeted with the most joyful sight! Children of all ages, a grandma in a wheelchair, mothers and fathers and teenagers, all sat with their feet facing the center of a circle while thirty baby goats pranced and entertained in the middle. Even as I had slipped between seconds and lost track of time—become stuck in the season of loss—the farm’s spring tradition had continued more beautifully than ever, just outside the barn. Their smiles were contagious, a field of fireflies suddenly illuminating the dark space in my mind.

I learned later that two older women, who had both grown up on farms, quietly noticed the situation and took charge. They handed off the babies to trusted adults to carry outside, led the crowd out of the barn, and then instructed those gathered in the sun to encircle the newborn goats so they could continue to celebrate the beautiful spring tradition of welcoming new life.

Chianti’s collar hangs in the barn on a nail where I placed it that evening years ago. I was bone tired and sad, but, thanks to the sweetness of tradition, I also felt immeasurably lucky to call this farm and this state home. Again and again, the farm traditions have shown me that to be grounded in any place is a gift, because it gives us the courage and permission to be rooted everywhere—even in ourselves.

When we participate in and carry on traditions, the whole community is drawn closer around what matters most. Lobsters on a dock, fireworks over the harbor, the satisfaction of a cord of wood stacked well—whatever your yearly practices might be—their repetition is as essential to our humanity as breathing. And, on those occasions when life throws a punch and we lack the strength to navigate the path forward, the community in our state circles around us with familiar ritual until we are back on our feet. This is what I love most about Maine.

Hope Hall ’92, P’19 is a high school English teacher, writer, Nigerian dwarf goat farmer, cheesemaker, and yoga teacher. Her brother, Fred ’88, and daughter, Tess ’19, often volunteer at Hall’s Sunflower Farm in Cumberland, Maine.

Pat Corrigan is an artist based in Portland, Maine, who makes paintings, drawings, illustrations, murals, and comics. His work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune, among others.

This story first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.