Our fortnightly Silent Hour starts with a short reflective reading and for this mornings I was drawn to Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Daily which is from Tender Spot. it reflects on all we do on a daily basis with our hands. She cites simple things which we all do but which we, all, I think can do with more intention. Just the act of folding washing can be seen as a spiritual act rather than as one of those necessary chores.
Yesterday I walked on the Long Mynd and I was suddenly conscious (probably due to the poem) of how frequently I use my hands to gather information about the landscape. I know the temperature of the water, the texture of the hawthorn trunk, the flexibility of the reeds as they parted to enable my trailing fingers to pass.
It was my Mother’s hands I most minded being cremated. I saw my Mother thorough the generosity and wisdom of her hands. She used them to create our landscapes through art, baking, polishing, gardening, clothing us and by showing love. She protected us with the strength of her hands.
Today I will endeavour to do the same.
I bristle at the mention of the “M” word. I have nothing against the sheep or the use of their wool in the country where they are farmed. What irks me, in fact, infuriates me beyond words, is that people have been brainwashed into believing that it’s the only desirable wool worth wearing, mainly due to the powerful marketing of large high street retailers.
Merino is not a breed commonly found in Britain and for good reason. Our climate and topography are unsuitable. In some countries of the world, such as in Australia, the breed is subjected to mulesing, which has long been banned in other countries. Google it, look at the pictures, and make up your own minds as to whether this causes the sheep to suffer.
Sheep welfare aside I simply cannot understand how we can live in a country where sheep are ubiquitous to our landscape and yet we eschew the wool and have steadily devalued it. And yet King Edward lll commanded that the Lord Speaker in the Houses of Lords sit on a wool bale known as the Woolsack as a symbol of the importance of the wool trade to the economy of the land. This tradition continued until 2006. Such was the value of wool that locally it was known as Leominster Ore.
We have all been seduced by clothes made from synthetic fibres and this has affected the market value of wool.
I do have a Merino wool in the shop. It is produced by Manos de Del Uruguay which was created in 1968 to help women in Uruguay’s countryside to generate income. It is a non for profit organisation owned by rural women and all the sheep are shepherded using traditional methods. It is a Fair Trade organisation. I buy into that package.
But my real desires lie with the yarns produced from British sheep. I have just finished a “forever” sweater using Shetland wool and am now eying up the Cambrian range spun from Welsh sheep fleece and dyed to replicate the colours of the Welsh landscape. The sweater I know I will have for decades and I’m glad because an oversized garment is a real labour of love and I buy into the concept of heirloom knits. I had a jumper of my Fathers when he died and it is far more than an item of clothing to keep me warm; it is a woolly memory.
I could be torn between West Yorkshire Spinner’s Blue Faced Leicester skeins, Blackers North Ronaldsay or Whistlebare’s wonderful yarns which come from animals pastured on fields planted with herbs. But which ever I finally choose the yarn will contain echoes of our wool history, our landscape, our shepherds and their flocks and the present day people who are committed to keeping our wool heritage alive and using the local products of our landscape.
I am a ‘smeller’. I instinctively move items to my nose as a way of processing and assessing information and am never happier than when I am in a garden and can ‘nose’ my way around.
I was at a talk recently about rare and old books and the speaker was a ‘smeller’ too. Interestingly he honed in on me and said, “you’re a sniffer, aren’t you?” and he allowed me to bury my nose in a book which was at least a century old.
So unsurprisingly I have always smelt my sheep, right from when they were lambs, as I did my horses. I always said that if I was blind -folded I could discriminate, by smell, my own horse from a line up of 20. In the same way I can distinguish my individual sheep fleeces when I’m working with them.
My use of smell has carried an additional bonus lately. I was discussing alternative fly repellents with my vet as I seldom, if ever, use chemicals. The next day I smelt one of the ewes and was puzzled by a bitter aroma coming from her skin. As I scanned the field I saw the Elder had been stripped of its lower leaves and the penny dropped. They all smelt the same and had all been grazing on the leaves. I had used elder in the brow band of my pony to act as a fly deterrent and here were the sheep ingesting it for the same reason. As they have now grazed the available branches and I sense the pungent aroma declining I cut them a branch to feed on. This certainly seems to be doing the trick and means that I will have chemical free fleece for next year’s spinning and weaving.
I guess not a lot of people sniff sheep but doing so has allowed me another insight into their wisdom.