Agriculture: Chekhov’s Gun

A deadly chewed rhubarb leaf Photo by Mark Scherzer

“It’s just like Checkov’s gun!” Steve practically hooted into the telephone. As if my call was all about the plot of some comedic play, and not serious business. It was not exactly the reaction I expected after I called him to say I was afraid I might have killed Doodle, the sweet lamb who was rejected by his mother at birth while Steve was minding the farm last July, and has bonded with us human caregivers, Steve in particular, ever since.

To be fair, Steve didn’t hoot derisively until he had figured out, through an extended discussion of the circumstances, that Doodle’s demise was highly unlikely. I had told him that I had been doing chores Tuesday evening and was transferring a cartload of compost to the vegetable garden with Doodle in my company, as is typically the case when I’m near the barn. I wanted to dump some nourishment on a planting bed I was preparing near the rhubarb patch. And before I knew it, I saw out of the corner of my eye Doodle munching on a rhubarb leaf. Knowing that rhubarb leaves are poisonous to humans, I yelled out and ran over, trying unsuccessfully to get whatever he was munching out of his mouth, and rushed him out of the garden.

Extremely concerned, I immediately texted Gillian, the wonderful vet, who is particularly expert in sheep matters. She texted me back right away, confirming that rhubarb leaves are poisonous to sheep too. They can cause sudden kidney failure and death soon after ingestion, or kidney problems in the following days. She advised that I should give Doodle 60 ml of mineral oil by mouth to prevent absorption and that in the following days I should monitor his urination to be sure he was not developing kidney stones. (To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how I would do this. I am rarely around to see Doodle urinate, and I’m not sure if I followed him for a couple of hours I would see him pee, or would know if the quantity or quality of urine was different from normal.)

Fortuitously, I knew I had some mineral oil, because I had come across a container the day before in the garage. I’m not sure why I had it originally or why it was in the garage, but I was able to get it right away and measure out 60 ml into one of the baby bottles that I had previously used to feed Doodle his milk replacer. I used a nipple with an exceptionally large opening, in the expectation that I might have to pour it down his throat. I didn’t have to, because at 9 months old he still remembered exactly how to drink from a baby bottle once I got it in his mouth. But because of the large opening, during the process of getting it into his mouth a fair proportion of it had dripped out on my hand.

Determined that I had to give him more quickly, I headed back to the house. It helped expedite matters that Doodle was all too happy to tag along with me. We walked right into the kitchen, and he took the bottle with the additional 20 ml of mineral oil without complaint.

“People kill the things they love,” was the refrain that went continuously through my mind. I was extremely concerned, so I googled as much as I could quickly find about sheep and rhubarb leaves. I was pleased to find several accounts of people whose sheep had ingested rhubarb leaves without apparent consequences, and to find that in order for the oxalic acid in rhubarb leaves to have significant effect on a human being, one would have to eat about 2 lbs of leaves. Even extrapolating down to Doodle’s size of about 35 lbs, it began to seem highly unlikely that the small portion of one rhubarb leaf he had been able to eat in the less than a minute we were there could do him significant damage.

Though my fears were somewhat quelled, I felt compelled to let Steve know about the situation. While I play the parental role on a daily basis, it was Steve who cared for him right after birth, got Gillian involved to save him from certain death back then, and who comes closest to being Doodle’s birth mother. A couple of weeks ago, while Steve was again visiting, it was remarkable to see how they communed, with Doodle nuzzling him and seeming to try to nurse on Steve’s shirt. If I were to cause Doodle’s death, I don’t think Steve would forgive me.

I was relieved that once he heard the whole story and determined that Doodle was in no real danger, Steve saw the comedy in the situation. And he really let me have it. “You know how Chekhov displays that gun innocently at the beginning of Uncle Vanya, and you just know that the gun is going to go off later on? Well,” he said, “this is the same thing. Every goddamned time we go to the vegetable garden, you point out to me that the leaves on the rhubarb are poisonous. Every time. As if you think I’d eat them! You were basically setting it up that something had to happen with those leaves, and that something finally happened. Thank God, just like in Uncle Vanya, nobody really got hurt.”

Not that Steve hasn’t asked for daily reports on Doodle’s condition ever since. But as I’ve told him, Doodle four days later continues to be perfectly fine. He is now forever banished from the vegetable garden, however. One shot of Chekhov’s gun is enough.

Steve and Doodle ensemble

Doodle Nuzzles Steve, selfie by Steve Gutierrez


Horseradish root: $2/lb. 
Sorrel: $3/bag 
Rhubarb: $5/lb

EGGS ARE BACK! Nature destroys but it also regenerates. Egg production is back in full swing. $6/dozen

Lambs went to market. If you ordered, stay tuned for pickup. 

Coming soon: Mint


Email us your order at, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464


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