Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Grandchildren and fiber

Although grandchildren have a direct line to my heart, they also engage my fingers and my fibers.

“The baby’s room will have an insect theme,” my daughter, Amber, said. And so, two months before our second grandson is due, I spread a piece of rug canvas on the floor and begin to imagine. Kieran’s rug held three goldfish in a purpely blue underwater world. For our next grandson, I drew a scene from a bug’s (or a small child’s) perspective. A lady bug climbs a grass stem; a honey bee hovers over a dandelion blossom; and three stages of a monarch – caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly, inhabit this bug’s eye world.

I spread five shades of green carded roving, yellow, red, orange roving and neutral brown, gray and tan around me on the sofa. Then I slip my locker hook through the first hole on the canvas, catch a loop of dark brown alpaca roving and pull the loop through to the front of the canvas. I hook another loop through the next hole in the canvas and repeat. When I have five loops of brown on my hook, I pull the locking thread on the end of my hook through the loops and begin again.

The rows accumulate slowly, only two per hour. There are one hundred rows of canvas in my design. I will listen to lots of books on tape as I create a rug for a baby to lay on, a tired mother to stand on, and a small boy to imagine himself within.

I appreciate the rovings as they slip through my fingers. The coarse gray-brown was from Fair’s fleece, my very first sheep. The variegated sage green was naturally dyed with common mullein from our fields. The roving for the monarchs wings simmered in orange Kool Aid for half an hour to turn a brilliant orange. Memories of dyeing with friends over wood fires mingle with anticipation of a new addition to our family as I create something that has never existed before – possibly an intriguing image, hopefully a beautiful rug, certainly a gift from my heart.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What are we going to do about Carly?

Carly is a people dog. When I work in my study, she lies patiently in the doorway. When I go downstairs to start supper, she follows me down. If we aren’t in the house, she lies next to the sofa awaiting our return.

Although we live on a farm, Carly really isn’t a farm dog. She certainly enjoys farm life when we leave the barnyard gate open. She slips in to eat sheep poop and scavenge the compost pile. She barks protectively when a strange car comes down the driveway, and used to enthusiastically chase squirrels. We noticed this summer that Carly wasn’t able to keep the squirrel population under control. They got all our sweet corn and nibbled almost every single squash. I know Carly would really love to chase squirrels, but this summer, her breathing didn’t allow it.

In the last two months, it has gotten worse. Even when she lies perfectly still she takes loud painful sounding inhalations and exhalations. Night times are the worst. She breathes heavily, stridorously, and then seems to stop. Seconds later, the stridor begins again. We’ve wakened half a dozen times now to her panicked movements as she wakes from an apneic spell and tries to control her body enough to rise or run away. I get up in the dark and snuggle her, stroke her head, murmur platitudes. When she calms, I return to bed, sure she’ll be dead by morning.

Carly is thirteen or fourteen years old, ancient for a Rottweiler. We took her to our vet and explained that we’d like to ease her discomfort, but not do anything heroic. Dr. Weckwerth put her on prednisolone and for a month she seemed a little better.

But now, her breathing is bad during the day too. It seems rational to have her euthanized, but when she settles beside me at meals quietly waiting for the intermittent rewards we’ve used to train her to sit quietly beside us at meals, she seems content. When she tracks me in the kitchen, hoping for a dropped tidbit, she seems herself. When she eagerly joins us for a walk, short tail wagging, she seems fine.

How can we take an alert, content dog to the vet to be euthanized?

Part of the problem is that Carly is an anxious dog. She came to us twelve years ago, in the middle of a blizzard, starving and afraid. Afraid of loud noises, raised arms, squeaky drawers, and new situations. Afraid she wouldn’t get enough to eat.

Over the years, we’ve reassured her, taught her to trust people, and to relax in her home even when it is full of activity and people. For a long time we kept her on a leash when we had company. She now runs loose even on fiber days, enjoying the activity, the crowds and the spilled plates of food.

As her breathing has worsened, so has her anxiety. She paces beside the bed as soon as Dave or I whisper in the morning. She follows us frantically around the kitchen, hoping we’ll feed her. She pants continuously, pausing only to lick nervously.

You can’t euthanize a dog because she licks her paws and pants, so Dave and I are learning to dial down our responses to Carly’s anxiety. Besides, our irritation just makes her more anxious.

But the day is coming when we’ll clip on her leash and lead her to the vet’s office. That will be the day when our estimate of her discomfort exceeds our grief at her loss. Until then we try to appreciate Carly for what she is and set aside our discomfort at the idea of euthanasia. Then we can make the decision to have Carly put to sleep. I know that’s not the proper word. I know I should say euthanize or put down. But that’s not what I want for Carly. I just want her to go to sleep, one last time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Kieran's sweater

I like to make things from scratch. We bought our first four sheep so that I would have a source of wool to spin. I planned to knit the spun yarn into scarves, hats, mittens and sweaters. I'm good at scarves, hats and mittens, but in twenty-five years I've only knit two sweaters from my hand-spun yarn. They each took about five years from shearing the sheep to blocking the finished sweater.

I knew I didn't have five years to knit a baby sweater for my grandson Kieran. The day after he was born, I found a cute pattern and scavenged some washable acrylic yarns. I don't like to use acrylics, but my wool isn't machine washable and it’s crazy to give a baby a sweater that can't be washed.

I knit three fourths of the sweater in three weeks and then quit. I hated the feel of the fiber and the color range I had found was too babyish - pale green, pale yellow, pale pink, pale blue and pale orange. My daughter, Laurel, and I went to a nice yarn store and found a colorful self-striping wool sock yarn. The sock yarns are machine washable and this one was soft. Unfortunately, the yarn was also very fine and knitting on size two needles was slow. I finished the sweater in three months, but Kieran had already grown out of it. I began again, using the six to twelve month pattern this time. I didn't sew the pieces together until I got to Kieran's house last week because I wanted to make sure it fit. Good decision. I had to add an inch in length to the body and an inch in diameter to the sleeves. The sweater now fits him perfectly at six months. His height and weight are those of a twelve month old. Maybe, he'll grow more slowly until he doesn't need the warmth of a wool sweater anymore.

When I begin making Kieran a sweater out of hand-spun yarn, I think I'll plan it for a twenty-one year old and he can help me spin the yarn over the years.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Last week we put the last two loads of hay in the barn. It wasn’t great hay – mostly grass with a little bit of mold. We had placed an ad for hay in the newspaper, but nobody responded. So when Dave ran into a friend of a friend at the elevator who had some extra hay – we bought it.
We feed small (50#) square bales of hay to our sheep. It’s easier to keep their fleeces clean when they have to reach down to eat rather than burrow into a big round bale. But baling and feeding small square bales is labor intensive and hard work, so most farmers use the big round bales. That means if we don’t bale enough ourselves, we have a hard time finding hay to buy.
This year, we didn’t bale enough and we haven’t found enough to feed the sheep over the winter. We’re lucky this year that our pastures are still lush and green in October; we’ll probably be able to put off feeding hay until November. But even with that saving, we only have 1100 bales in the barn. One ewe will eat an average of a bale of hay every ten days. That’s 18 bales per sheep until we can put them out onto fresh pasture in May. Eighteen bales times fifty sheep is 1300 bales to get us through the winter. We’re 200 bales shy. Doesn’t seem like many, but that means shorting the sheep about 22% off a really strict diet for anyone, much less a pregnant ewe. The only option we see right now is to sell some of our ewes.
Logically, I would sell the older ewes who are more apt to have problems lambing or feeding their lambs. But those ewes are my friends. I know their names. They know me. When they lamb, their lambs aren’t afraid of us. We have two wethers, both friends, but they produce no lambs and their fleeces aren’t great. They will go to the butcher this fall. The one and two year old ewes are the ones I should be saving, but they aren’t friends yet and they still have their original ear tags, so I still know exactly what their breeding is. They will be the easiest to sell.
My spread sheet listing all the ewes, their ages, fleece characteristics, lambing records and breeding lies on the kitchen table. Every day I look at it, trying to settle on ten ewes to sell. I can’t make up my mind. Saturday, we turned the rams in with the ewes. It won’t make my decision any easier, but it might make the decision easier for a buyer.
While I debate with myself, I hope for a late, late frost so that we can keep feeding the ewes on growing pastures and fields and put off beginning on our hay for as long as possible. With enough procrastination on my part and a late enough frost, I might not have to sell any sheep at all.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Under the trees

I love to gather wood in the fall in a forest full of drifting leaves. They crackle underfoot as I make trails through the trees, carrying armloads of wood. The leaves are dying, but the woods are alive. Mushrooms appear overnight, rising through the leaf duff – white, black, brown – always an interesting puzzle because I recognize so few of them.

This last weekend, our 11 year old niece, Becca, helped us gather wood. As we rounded a tree, we almost stepped on three patches of mushrooms. The first were tall, white and soft looking, like pale pronto pups. Next to them was a cluster of gray and black parasol shaped mushrooms, the black edges glistening in the sunlight. Finally there was a group of three mushrooms with tall, thin stems and tiny, flat black and slimy caps.

I know these shaggy mane or inky cap mushrooms; they frequently grow in our barnyard. The first day they push their way through the earth, white or tan, with soft scales, growing inches in twenty-four hours. The second day, the entire mushroom cap flattens out, begins to darken and the edges fray, becoming black and wet. Finally, the mushrooms deliquesce, dissolve, into slimy black spots on the ground, unrecognizable as mushrooms.

Becca had never seen anything like it; she didn’t think they could all be the same kind of mushroom. We picked one from each cluster and took them into the house to make spore prints. Becca laid each mushroom cap on a piece of white paper and set a glass over it. Then we went back to gathering fire wood, giving the spores a chance to drop from the underside of the mushroom onto the paper.

Back under the trees, our eyes saw mushrooms every where we looked. Each armload of wood included a stop to pick a new variety of mushroom for a spore printing. After we stacked the last of the wood, Becca led me back to the tree her father had just cut down. She knelt beside the stump of the trunk and pointed. Dozens of little brown mushrooms sprouted from the rotting wood. The smallest was the size and shape of a brown pearl. The biggest had a curved brown stem and a flat, slimy brown cap almost two inches across. Becca gently picked one of the bigger mushrooms and ran back to the house for a spore print.

Before she left for home, Becca lifted the glasses and then the mushroom caps from the prints. Most of the spores were white and she had to hold the paper up, for the sun to shine through it, to see the radiating lines of white on white. One rusty brown mushroom had spread a print of brown spores. And the three different stages of shaggy mane mushrooms were soaking the paper, but a dusting of black spores had settled out from each cap. Under the trees, the rest of the mushrooms would release their spores as they died, beginning the process of life all over again.