Friday, October 29, 2010

Sheep and their discontents

Tomorrow I'm taking a 3-hour class from Leslie, the lovely and patient woman who taught me to use the drop spindle; this time, she's doing a workshop on Fibre Prep. I'll be learning to choose and wash a raw fleece, use handcards and combs, and all sorts of other nifty stuff, I'm sure.

I've been looking forward to the class for ages now, in part because I know it'll be taught well, but in part because the smell and feel of raw wool never fails to evoke a very particular part of my childhood.

My aunt and uncle used to run sheep on South Pender Island, and one of my earliest memories is the sound of hand cards scraping together, as Aunt Hope sat in the huge kitchen of their hand-hewn log house, brushing out the wool before spinning it on her creaky and recalcitrant wheel. The smell of the wood stove, combined with the scent of lanolin-rich, coarse wool (these weren't exactly merinos we're talking about) still bring back a sense of absolute calm and serenity.

I think this might be where my love of all things sheep-related first started—although I must confess that sheep, as a species, are not particularly impressive.

Especially when you're trying to round them up for a bath, or shearing, or whatever: they have a nasty tendency to rush off in the wrong direction, looking back with this kind of sullen dullness that makes you think they're doing their best to be stupid. I remember some very long days spent chasing the foolish brutes through fields, up hills, and along cliff-edges, trying to convince them that it really was time for a haircut.

I used to find sheep skeletons in some very unlikely places when I was wandering the island as a child—this one would have fallen off a cliff, or another would have got stuck in some brush, and by spring, the ravens would have picked the bones clean. Not that I was particularly sympathetic. The sheep had only themselves to blame, really: after all, the biggest known predator on South Pender is the wasp.

(Oh, wait, I'm forgetting the bald eagle that used to nest on the cliff above Aunt Hope's house; each spring it would claim a lamb to feed its young. But really, it's not like the sheep on the island had to worry about bears or coyotes or anything. Their main threat was their own sub-par IQ, and a kind of dimwitted stubbornness.)

While I nursed a healthy disrespect for sheep as a child, I remember my sister was dead terrified of them. I think this stemmed from an incident involving a doorless outhouse, which she was afraid to use because, in her four-year-old words, "The sheepses are lookin' at me." Wendy was never fond of outhouses at the best of times; I think the idea of an outhouse where sheep might peer at her was just too much to take.

As for me, I appreciate sheep for what they produce; and for that, I'm willing to overlook their inability to do advanced calculus.


Kathleen Taylor said...

We raised sheep for a few years- they ARE stupid (they were startled by the sunrise, I swear). In order to herd them (or get them to go anywhere you wanted them to go), you had to sort of out-stupid-think them, and fool them into going in the proper direction. I got pretty good at it, which likely says nothing good about me.

Kathleen Taylor said...

I love the smell of a raw fleece in the morning. Or any other time, come to think of it.In one book, I thanked Terry for surviving in a house that always smelled like wet sheep.