Monday, September 29, 2008

Once upon a time, with sheep

Once upon a time, I had this fantasy: I would move to Northern New England, raise sheep, spin their wool and weave blankets on a 19th century loom (and I'd make a living at it).

Well, I did all of that, except for the part in parentheses.

It's been quite a while, but I miss those sheep. Getting up with the sunrise and tending to the animals, though sometimes a chore, was mostly a pleasure. I'm not looking back with rose-colored glasses. I loved raising sheep.

The second year that I had sheep, we saw a crazy cold winter. One month (I forget which one) the temperature never rose above zero. One morning, I looked at the thermometer and saw it read minus 28. I bundled up for my trip to the barn. In one hand I had a bucket of grain and in the other, water. A part of me wondered if those sheep would be frozen to death.

They acted like it was any other day. Some of them were in the barn and others were out sitting in the snow. They all had mustaches of ice. As I entered the barn, I sloshed the water around and got one of my mittens wet. Stupidly, I put my hand on the metal handle of the door to steady myself. Thankfully, that was one tough mitten I had knit. It immediately froze to the door, but my hand was hot inside of it, and I didn't lose any skin. I would have, most certainly. There were "freezing flesh warnings" on the radio. I had never heard of such a thing before.

It felt warm in that barn. The smell of hay was strong. I sat down on a hay bale and remember wondering if I'd knit a replacement for that mitten. It was a scallopman's mitten, designed to be worn by hands that got wet in the cold waters off the coast of Maine. For you knitters out there, these mittens were 90 plus inches around, knit with worsted weight yarn on size 2 needles and to top it off, they were lined with loops of wool (thank you "Homespun Handknit") I knit them before I even moved to Maine, while I was dreaming up this fantasy. I could not wait until I moved to a place cold enough to warrant wearing such things.

But no, I never knit a replacement.

I really miss those mornings with my sheep. I don't miss the anxiety I sometimes had after I started hearing coyotes on a regular basis. I once saw one at the edge of the woods. The sheep knew it was there before I did. I was wondering why all of them were standing at the edge of the electric fence, all turning their heads in the same direction. I looked where they looked and saw a coyote, its head down low to the ground.

Thankfully, no coyote ever got one of my sheep. I think they would have outrun any coyote, actually. The first time I had these sheep sheared, the fellow who did it came with two sheep dogs. Those sheep bolted right out of the shearing pen. I am not exaggerating when I say that the dogs chased them for two hours before the fellow called them off. He was afraid his dogs would drop dead from exhaustion. He came back the next day and did it my way, which was pretty funny, for I was a city girl who didn't know much. But I knew my wild sheep. They'd be cooperative for a bucket of grain with molasses in the middle of summer, when all they usually got was grass.

I remember these as lazy days. I'd spend time sitting in the barn or up in the pasture. I'd sit on the picnic table near the vegetable garden and shoot the shit with the fellow who owned the property. We'd talk for hours and then go back to whatever we were doing, me weaving or spinning or moving the fences around. There was a lot of work, with the sheep or in the garden, or with something or other, but I just remember a sort of langorousness, as if the days were longer than any days that preceded it or days that have come since.

I really miss that piece of property. It was a quarter of a mile down a dirt road and had acres and acres of rolling pasture, surrounded by a woods with a meandering path that lead to a large pond with an active beaver dam. It was perfection. Unfortunately, it wasn't my own property.

I feel like I live in suburbia these days, but that surely is a joke, for if I wanted a few sheep in my backyard, I could have them. There's no zoning against it, as far as I know. I'd be surprised if there were. I thought perhaps we should get some chickens, at the least. Somehow I don't think any of these things are going to happen on my little half an acre, but who knows?

Tonight I started spinning again after so many years. A wonderful woman lent me a wheel and it felt great to practice the simple art of spinning wool. I wonder why I ever stopped.

Painting note: This is a first - I had another image gracing the top of this post that I disliked so much I had to remove it. Instead, I offer up:
Gerard Dou's "Woman Eating Porridge" 1637
Beautiful spinning wheel - Dou was a stickler for detail, and probably would be diagnosed with something (OCD, perhaps) in this day and age. He made his own brushes in order to work with such precision on a small scale.

Addendum: I am quite smitten with Dou's paintings. His use of light and attention to detail are spectacular. I highly enjoyed the paintings I saw on line. I'd love to see some in person. Once upon a time, I lived in a place where I could go to a museum and see great art. Ah, there are tradeoffs in this life, aren't there? At least, now, I've got the Web. If I didn't, I doubt I could managed to have lived in Maine so long.

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