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(Photo: Courtesy AC Shilton)
Adventures in Audio

What I Learned About Survival and Motherhood from Two Lambs

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Farmers aren’t supposed to get emotionally attached to their livestock. But when you suddenly find yourself caring for two newborn sheep, these things happen. Outside contributing editor A.C. Shilton had long dreamed of becoming a farmer when she and her husband purchased a plot of land in Tennessee and began managing chickens and horses and cows. Then she added a few sheep with the idea of slowly raising a flock—and very unexpectedly came face-to-face with what she was really missing in her life.


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Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.

If you don't live on a farm, I'm going to bet that you dreamed about living on one in recent years.

It's been something that, seemingly, almost everyone has been imagining, even with those roosters. This is partially because of that awesome documentary, The Biggest Little Farm, but mostly because of the pandemic, which freed many people from their ties to cities. If you can live anywhere and work remotely, why not a farm?

But for some of us, the yearning to grow things and to raise animals from birth is about a lot more than just an idyllic, pastoral lifestyle. For Outside magazine's September-October issue, journalist AC Shilton wrote about her adventures on a plot of land in the southeast, and why she did exactly what farmers are not supposed to do: get emotionally attached to their livestock.

AC Shilton: Hi Julia. Hi baby girl. 

Michael: Producer Paddy O'Connel spoke with AC about her relationship with two little creatures that had a very big impact on her life.

AC: As a teenager I was a weird horse girl

Paddy O’Connell: you weren't like pretending to be a horse, like galloping, like towards school.

AC: Oh, Paddy, of course I was absolutely I was.

Paddy: Oh my God.

AC: Yeah, no, no, no. I was absolutely like the tween girl with like her other best friend tween girl who also loved horses. Galloping around pretending to be a horse. Cuz like I lived in suburban DC area where horses were not common. So we had to kind of make our own.

Paddy: You guys were like doing your like, human horse pretending, dressage.

AC:  There was a lot of like jumping over things. Yes. So Totally normal. I had lots of dates. I was so popular. Absolutely.

Paddy: That's it. We're ending there. That's, that's gonna be the episode.

AC: Excellent.

Paddy: That was the start of my conversation with AC Shilton, who along with being a little bit different as a kid, is one of the most interesting people I've ever talked to. AC is a journalist and investigative reporter whose career has sent her all over the country. But before that, she was many other things, and her interests have splintered in so many exciting and differing directions it seems like, at 38 years old, she isn't living one life, but several.

For instance, AC the writer is also AC the farmer. Like an actual, real deal farmer. She bought a farm in Tennessee a few years ago, which has made her inner stuck-in-suburbia child very happy.

AC: Okay I think we've established that I was a weird kid. But, beyond the weird kid thing, very early it became pretty clear that like, I loved animals. I will do anything to be around animals. Unfortunately I was an extremely allergic child, so we couldn't actually have any animals. And so all of my childhood imaginary play was formulated around animals and farms in particular. Here I am this like kid who is like totally born into the wrong landscape, right? 

I often tell this story of like my dad being like, Can you go rake the leaves? And like, I feel like most kids would be like, ‘Ah, God, Dad, I hate yard work.’ 

And I was like, ‘This is so great. I am totally feeding my horses. I am cleaning the sheep pen.’ Meanwhile, like my sister was like very much an indoor kid and like, like to read books and like, you know, more traditional like play with dolls and all of those things than us.

Like, don't mind me just feeding the chickens, you know. So, that desire to be close to the land and to animals, it was always there.

Paddy: Do you find yourself going into a new experience that you operate under the idea that everything is gonna be good. I'm going to be taken care of. This is gonna turn out okay.

AC: This is complicated because I also am an extremely anxious person. Like when we did Turkeys for Thanksgiving a couple years ago, like I just, you know, spent a lot of time being really anxious about these turkeys, but it wasn't until I was like, well into the process that the anxiety set in.

So I think maybe my problem is that like, you know, yes, at the outset, like, everything's gonna be great. Like, I know I can do this. Right? And then I get into the process and I'm like, what if my turkeys I'll die? And I have to call everybody individually and be like, ‘I'm so sorry, Thanksgiving is canceled.’

Right? So, um, so yes, I have, I guess I have an optimist. I definitely think that like, you know, I jump into things with like, how bad can it be? And then, and then I get into it and I like, ‘Oh, it can be fucking bad.’ 

Am I allowed to curse?

Paddy: The fact that AC's life, career, and, ahem, conversations jump all over the place is something that she always figured was just part of her personality. But then, recently, she was diagnosed with ADHD, which helped explain some things, though not just in the ways you might expect. AC believes that the condition has actually propelled her throughout her many transformations. And when she explains this, she really gets going.

AC: Part of having ADHD is that you hyperfocus on things which makes you feel like you have this superpower. And it's fun because I keep thinking about, well, well what's next?

Adding to my coolness factor, I was a musician in high school and I think there was part of me that thought I was going to become a symphony musician.

] and then I kind of got to college and realized like, No, no, that's not what I wanna do. So I ended up with a degree in sociology.

 I graduated, worked for a bike company for a couple of years, while I tried to like make it as a professional cyclist, which did not work. And then I moved to Hawaii and I took this job where we launched this nightlife website and literally it was my job to party for a living. Like I have stories of like girls vomiting in my little purses, like my little clutch that I would carry around.

Like, I mean I lived this like insane party lifestyle. I worked from like 8:00 PM to 3:00 AM and then, uh, worked in a marketing department of a newspaper, and I started to be able to write small things here and there. 

And then I like moved to Florida and start working, as a journalist and then get into investigative work and do a Netflix documentary about these wrongfully convicted men and have this whole chapter of doing investigative journalism.

This is complicated. Sorry. Blah. Sorry. Cause I'm all over the place. Okay.

So, part of the story is that I like seem to have this weird thing in my life where every three to four years, I completely reinvent myself in some way that kind of nobody saw coming, not even myself.

And I think again, it comes back to that ADHD hyperfocus, like, what's the worst case that could happen? Like clearly I can do this because like, I can do anything if I can fucking focus. I guess I just assume that like, you know, I can do it. Why not?

Paddy: Part of AC's wanderings were due to the fact that her husband, Chris, works for the National Park service, where moving up the career ladder often means moving to a new place. This is how, in 2012, they ended up in Southwest Florida, where AC began working for a newspaper. While researching a story about migrant farm workers, she was stricken by the injustices in commercial agriculture. And just like that, the seed was planted in her mind that would eventually grow into her and Chris buying their own farm.

AC: I was just so taken aback by the cruelty within our food system. There's a lot of abuse that happens within these communities where some people have very, very little power and some people and some people have a lot of power, right?

The laborers were trying to negotiate for a penny per pound raise, which would've been $2. And the big supermarket chains were stonewalling them and saying absolutely not.

And I realized that plant based food is not necessarily cruelty free, because humans are part of our food system and so I realized that I wanted to excuse myself from that food system in any way I could. And so an easy way for me to do that at first in South Florida was to start a little container garden on our patio.

Paddy: AC and Chris started small, growing veggies like kale in three raised beds. It wasn't much, but it gave AC a huge sense of pride and confidence that she could manage more than a few boxes of dirt in the backyard. So when her husband got a job opportunity in Tennessee in 2016, AC saw it as a chance for them to go much bigger.

AC: Originally we were looking for 10 acres and a house, which would be enough for two horses, some chickens and a garden. That would've, definitely satisfied my like, farm girl needs. And like, it actually is surprisingly hard to find all of those things, especially when you're in a couple and you both have opinions.

We had looked for quite a while, maybe like 18 months or so. 

And I saw, you know, this place and there was like one little drawback, which is that it was 45 acres, not 10 acres I mean, what's 45 acres if you're gonna buy 10? The answer is it's totally fucking different.

Paddy: The farm was AC's childhood dreams come true. They soon had chickens and a herd of cattle, three horses, plus a large home garden and a honey operation. She was ecstatic.

But, of course, running a farm proved to be exceedingly difficult and very stressful. Because of all the work and the millions of things they didn't know how to do, and the fact that Chris still had a full-time job and AC was still a very active freelance writer. But also for reasons that AC didn't expect. Among them was that providing her own food exacerbated struggles that AC has always had with eating and her body.

AC: I don't know that there is any way in this lifetime that I unfuck my relationship with food.

So I was like a bit of a chubby kid. I can remember going to the doctor and being told that I should exercise more, or like, you know, watch my diet or whatever.

Being a little kid already hearing, diet talk and conversations about what kinds of bodies are okay and not okay. Probably, from 3, 4, 5 years old, I was hearing those conversations so it's so deeply ingrained with me in me. And so much so that, like, this, this ends up, you know, ending in full blown eating disorder in, in college. 

But, so I've come really far from that, but I don't know that I will ever like, just like sit down and enjoy a meal and not think about like, is this too much? Should I have eaten that? Should I have not? Now getting older, it's not only that like, you know, I shouldn't have eaten that thing like now, it's also like my face has wrinkles, right?

Like, it's just like, oh no, it's compounding.

So, um, I don't know, maybe someday I'll figure it out. But I'm so critical still, right? Like a few weeks ago, I posted a photo on like Instagram or whatever, and I like had this moment where I was like, ‘Oh no, like my left arm is not toned enough and my right arm is too toned.’

Like, that's not a thing.

Paddy: There was another struggle that AC faced that was even bigger, and it was the simple fact that she was getting older, approaching 40, which meant that one major window of opportunity in her life was starting to close

AC: There are a lot of cultural expectations that are just really hard to live with as a woman. I am trying to age gracefully in terms of, you know, like not botoxing myself to the high heavens. And, you know, wearing like super, super crazy mini skirts is like an act of like needing to like stay 22 forever. But the one that like gets you at 35 if you haven't had kids and want to have kids, is that like you're losing your chance.

This is such a thing that nobody really talks about. You spend the first 25 years of your life being so afraid of getting pregnant and having it like drilled into your head that like, that's like the worst possible thing that could happen to you. And then you spend like the years 35 through like 42 being like, Oh shit, I'm never gonna get pregnant.

Right? And so really, you know, at 35, it's just like, it's like a switch flipped. And it just like was one of those things where I was like, fuck. Like I really need to just like do this thing.

I think that you just kind of wake up one day and they're like, Oh, this may or may not happen for me. And that is surprisingly grief inducing, even for like someone like me who spent a lot of time not being sure they wanted kids. Just realizing that the window was shutting is hard. The more and more I watched kind of the opportunity starting to vanish, the more I just felt kind of sad and sadder about it.

Paddy: In her feature essay for Outside, AC wrote that, for her 37th birthday, she begged Chris to let her get a few sheep. The farm had always been her dream, not his, and he felt that they were already spread too thin with everything they were managing. But AC needed something soft in her life. What she didn't know then, is that raising sheep would help her understand both what she was really after, and what she had the capacity to give.

AC: I asked for sheep and I got sheep.

But I think what I really wanted was clarity on what I should do. That has been the thing that I have wished for for a long time. 

But that’s the kind of thing you can't ask for your birthday.

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Paddy: On her 37th birthday, journalist and farmer AC Shilton got what she asked for: sheep. Five sheep: two ewes, which are female sheep, two wethers, or castrated males, and one ram.

AC: The idea was that, they would get here, the ram would breed with the ewe, and then this was gonna be spring, so I would have fall lambs. And that was the plan. And then, you know, these, these sheep would, you know, become the beginning of, of my little flock.

Paddy: Right away, things went sideways.

AC: The first couple of days with these sheep was absolute chaos. I had been promised that these sheep were trained to hot wire, which is what I use like electric fencing to move my animals around my farm.

And they were not trained to hot wire. Like literally the first three days is just like the sheep getting out and going rogue. And my husband is like, so not amused by like any of the sheep antics.

Paddy: The sheep were escape artists, which meant AC spent three days running around the 45-acre farm herding hoofed clouds.

And then on only their fourth day on the farm, AC looked up from the desk inside her house out toward the fields and saw two small white poofs next to one of the ewes, which AC had named Beatrice. 

AC: I walk out there and sure enough there are two baby lambs that are like brand new. Just, minutes old, still slimy. And I'm like, ‘Well, shit, we have lambs.’

As I'm standing there, you know, Beatrice just starts working on a third lamb.

And then this, this little tiny, tiny, tiny thing is born and it's just so weak and so little I mean, it was maybe half of the size was the other two and it just seemed like, Cosmically unfair, that like this one had so gotten so much less nutrition in the womb than the other ones.

And there's like all this like amniotic fluid in her nose and her mouth, and she just clearly is not breathing. And normally the ewe would turn around and start licking her and kind of you know, invigorating her and getting her cleaned up. But Beatrice had two other babies and she was totally engrossed in those two.

And they were up in nursing and healthy and ready to go. And then there's this, like, there's just this one that just is like, so not bound for this planet.

I had to like, try and do something, right. I'm not just gonna like sit there and watch it die. I'm able to clean it up.

I, it, you know, kind of sputters to life, but is so, so weak and she couldn't stand to nurse. So I ended up, you know, having to bottle feed her

Paddy: Meaning that AC had to race to the farm supply store in her Ford pickup to buy powdered milk, then wake up every two hours at night to give the lamb milk and try and coax her to her feet. Finally, at dawn the next morning, the lamb took her first steps.

And then, two days later...

AC: Literally the same scenario, right? Like, I finished my day at work and I'm like, Ah, what a good day at work. It's beautiful outside. I'm gonna go walk outside and do some nice farm chores, and then I like walk outside and I'm like, Well, fuck, because there's two more baby sheep on the ground,

NARRATION: The other ewe, named Nurse, had given birth. There were two lambs this time, both of them good-sized. But after AC carried them into the barn, she noticed that one couldn't stand and that it had a wound running the length of its back. She once again jumped into her pickup, this time racing to the vet who diagnosed the lamb with a condition called Spina bifida. It's back legs would likely never function.

AC: Uh, boy. I like went out to my car and I just cried and I cried some more. I cried, you know, for this lamb that was in, for a really tough road and for myself, because I was also in for a really tough road.

And I hate, like, you know, just, I just felt like I'd made such a giant mistake on all of it. And like all of it being like, you know, the lambs, the farm, possibly my marriage, which was like exploding because like I had made this choice that had made us both so like at locker head. So, you know, I just, just, I did a big, big fat cry in the parking lot before I turned around and headed home.

Paddy: AC decided she was going to give the lamb its best chance for a fruitful life. She named him Sebastion, sometimes shortened to Sebi. The undersized lamb that had been born two days earlier, she called Juliet, and it also needed extra attention Juliet had been born with weak front tendons, her legs bowing like a cowboy.

AC: Every morning I would wrap her legs in these little splints, and she would kind of tottle around on them.

And then every night I would take them off for a little bit to give her a chance to have a break and her just, her legs just go right back to the same position. And it was incredibly frustrating because every resource I read was like two weeks in the splints and they'll be fine. And like two weeks in the splints and she was exactly the same.

Paddy: AC took Juliet and Sebastian to the veterinary program at the University of Tennessee for specialized care. The vets there fitted Juliet with lifted shoes that elevated her heels into the correct position.

AC: And that worked wonderfully for her, actually. She was so cute. She was like a little, a little, um tap dancer with her little funny shoes on, just trotting around.

 She just blossomed. She could run. She could play, she, she could hop. It was just, it was such a joy to watch after her watching her lumber around in these braces that I was making for her, and then like, when she didn't have those on, walking on her knees.

Paddy: The vets told AC that with some time in the special shoes and the bottle feeding and lots of careful attention, Juliet would be fine in a few weeks.

Sebastian was a different story.

AC: They had no idea really what to expect with him. But they did say, you know, when he's ready, we often do fit animals to carts and we're happy to try and help him with that. When he is full grown. But they also warned me that often with spina bifida, there are malformations in the skull, that they can't really see, and they don't know how it's gonna affect the lamb as it grows.

And so they warned me that there could be other internal damage that would end up ending his life. But that they couldn't predict what that would look like.

Paddy: AC knew that many farmers would have looked at Juliet and Sebastian when they were born, weak, damaged, and unable to stand and decided that the extreme amount of work just to keep them alive wasn't worth it. 

But AC Shilton is not like most farmers. And these lambs were more to her than just farm animals.

AC: Both of them were bright-eyed and engaged with each other and with me.  Neither one of them ever seemed to be giving off cues of like, this is, this is too hard, right?

And so, I don't know, I just like think about the people who have not given up on me, right?

Like, I mean, I just think about like all of the chances I've been given, like why not give him the chance? And I realize like, the logistics of it were insane. I was going to at some point have to lift 150 pound lamb or sheep, you know, in and out of a wheelchair. But I also, you know, I'm able to figure out like a lot of stuff

Like look at all the things I've done. You know, I've been able to like do all these things. Clearly I can figure out how to give this lamb a life.

And, you know, I think part of it is I just needed to care for something.

And here were these two lambs that deeply needed my care and I was up to the challenge.

Sometimes we just like need to be needed, and these lambs so needed me. And I needed to, you know, to be needed. I needed to be a lamb mom. Right? I know. And I know that like, people are gonna roll their eyes and be like, ‘lamb mom, oh my God. Like, that's not a real mother, right?’

Like, ah, God, I, can't fucking stand out. And people are like, you know, pet kids are not the same as kids, right? I fucking get it. I may not get to have kids. Let me have this thing.

Like not everybody gets to live their dream life, but we can find small things that bring us joy. And this was it for me. 

Paddy: AC cared for Juliet and Sebastian inside her home, doing physical therapy with Sebastian in an attempt to strengthen his hind legs. But it became clear that he was never going to be able to walk on his own.

And then one day in April of 2021, his cart arrived.

AC: Good job, buddy. Good job. Oh, look at you. You trying?

AC: I put him in it and immediately he was like, This is amazing, mom. He was like, This is so cool. Just immediately was like, I can stand.

I let go of the cart, like literally a second. And he is just off, he is just running and he just like down my little asphalt driveway, like the cracks and all. He is just bumping over all. And Juliet, is like, right, like right in tow. Like the two of them are like finally doing things that they have like wanted to do since the day they are born. And like, oh my gosh. It was just, It was just awesome.

 That truly was an incredible moment. 

Only to be followed by a horrible moment.

Paddy: After Sebastian and Juliet had run themselves out, they collapsed with joy alongside AC in the grass. 

AC: And he just starts seizing. It just, just out of nowhere. It's like his little body just started shaking. This like rigid shake that like just wouldn't stop. And I just scoop him up and I hold [00:24:00] him against me he had had little tremors before, but nothing like this. And, and it just like, would not stop. He finally like relaxed, but his little eyes closed. And he had, was just doing this, this heavy snoring. It was like I couldn't wake him up.

And I was just holding him and There was nothing to be done at that point. And so, I scooped up Juliet and I took them both back to our barn and, uh, just the three of us kind of bed down in this stall. And I just, you know, I Just kept hoping that Sebi needed to sleep it off, right? Like it had just been, uh, just a terrible seizure. But he was gonna sleep it off and tomorrow he was gonna be fine. And at some point in the middle of the night, I woke up, um, and he was just gone.

Paddy: Sebastian's death was and still is a crushing blow for AC. But Juliet was still there and still needed AC's help.

Because Juliet had spent her early weeks mostly indoors, away from the other sheep, she wasn't properly socialized. AC says she acted like a mix of a person and a dog. So, even after she was ready to stop wearing her special shoes there was work to do. Integrating her into the flock proved to be almost as difficult as getting her little legs to work. But with time and persistence, the other sheep eventually accepted her.

Is there something that Sebastian has taught you about how we view our bodies and is there something maybe both he and Juliet have taught you about loving?

AC: Absolutely. What Sebastian taught me is that like we don't necessarily get the bodies we want or the bodies we deserve. A lot of this is just luck of the draw. And a lot of it is cosmically unfair, but that doesn't necessarily mean that your life is gonna be shit.

Sebastian's life was hard for sure. I know he wanted to walk so badly. This is, it was a really bad hand that he was dealt. But that little guy, I swear, he just, he loved to lay in the sun. He loved to nuzzle with his sister. He, you know, was gonna try his darndest to walk and when he got a chance, he ran.

And I think like, you know, my body's not gonna do everything I wanted to do, and that's just part of life. But it can also do a lot of other things. And that's sometimes that just has to be enough.

Paddy: Shortly before AC's essay was published, she and Chris separated. This isn't something that AC is ready to talk about, but she is very forthright about what being a Lamb Mom has meant to her.

AC: The thing that I kind of think about with this is that like, it gave me exactly what I needed in like the worst possible way, but at the same time, like the best possible way. It was like the universe handing down like this giant fuck you, but also this is gonna make you think so deeply about like what you want, and what you're gonna do if, like what you want is actually not attainable and how you're gonna cope.

I am very, very capable of deep and powerful love and care for something. And so I think if I had had a question about like whether motherhood was right for me, this for sure, answered that question. Yes indeed, I would love this very much.And in some ways that's hard because I don't know if I'm gonna get that right. 

But it also taught me that like there are lots of ways to mother. And they might not, not always look like the ways, ooh, sorry. They might not look how you expect them, but like, woo...

So, you know, I may have to, I may have to change the way my, you know, the way motherhood looks for me might be different than what I want it to be. But that doesn't mean that I won't be able to experience it at all. It's just gonna be [unintelligible]. That's hard, but it's a good lesson to learn. And so I'm still figuring that piece of it out, but I, you know, I'm grateful that these sheep kind of showed me that there's more than one way to be a mother.

Michael: That was journalist AC Shilton, speaking with producer Paddy O'Connel about her story for Outside magazine's September-October issue. You can read it on our website, Outside Online. And you can follow AC on twitter; she's @ACShilton.

This episode was produced by Paddy, and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.

This episode was brought to you by Tracksmith, a proudly independent running brand that makes high-performance products for athletes striving to be their best. You can check out their new Eliot Runner at Tracksmith.com/Outside.

This episode was made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn about all the benefits of membership, like free access to the premium Gaia GPS app at outsideonline.com/podplus. Right now, we're offering a 50% discount to new members.

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