Devoted Tolkien fans will recognise “Flies and Spiders” as the title of the chapter of The Hobbit wherein Bilbo and the dwarfs enter the dismal forest Mirkwood on their way to reclaim their hoard of gold from the dragon Smaug. In Mirkwood, the flies are a nuisance, but the spiders are a fatal menace. This season in Tasmania, the roles are reversed.
This is a mini-skein of a Yarn, one I wrote alongside “Epiphany”. Although I wanted to include it somehow, it would have made Epiphany much too long. So you’re getting it as a bonus track. I didn’t take any photos of this episode—I was too busy trying to manage it. Instead I’m giving you photos of wildflowers blooming on the property at the moment, in defiance of extremely dry conditions.
Not the religious sort, more the “uh, duh” sort. Wikipedia describes this kind of epiphany as “an enlightening realisation that allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective”. Sounds better than “uh, duh”, huh? It started a few months ago, though I didn’t recognise it for the turning point it has turned out to be.
Life on the farm was pretty intense all winter, and particularly so after my trip in July. As I finally sit down to write this, shearing has come and gone and four tiny cygnets are swimming with their parents on a much-depleted Swan Lake. I’ll give you the shearing and end-of-winter shepherding report in the next Yarn, hopefully fairly soon. Meanwhile, here is the belated trip report.
The working dogs are so much a part of my everyday life on the farm that I’ve neglected to give them their own Yarn. A friend recently asked me how the dogs were coping with the abrupt onset of winter (two big snowstorms in the last 2 weeks), and particularly whether the dogs were allowed in the house. They aren’t. But their kennels have floor heating, so I don’t feel guilty. Plus, Oscar and Skye, the house cats, would have plenty to say, none of it politically correct.
Continuing my jazz and shepherding analogy (new subscribers click here for the previous Yarn), there’s a wonderfully apt line from “Birth of the Blues” (1941), set at the turn of the century. A ridiculously young Mary Martin is quizzing Rochester about how to sing the new jazz and blues. Rochester says, “Well, it’s like this. You listen for a note, and when you find it…you don’t play it. Instead, you listen some more, until you find another note…but you don’t play that note, either. Eventually, you find the right note to fit into the music.”
As I continue my apprenticeship in shepherding, the subtleties of flock social dynamics are becoming more and more apparent. I’m on the cusp of shifting from the usual approach of “driving” the flock, with the dogs and me at the back, to “leading” the flock, with me at the front and the dogs where they need to be to hold or steer, but not pushing. Don’t get too excited about this cusp—I fully expect to teeter on the point of it for months, as the relationship of trust between me and the flock develops in fits and starts.
If over the last few months I’ve given you the impression that growing White Gum wool is all sweetness and light, November was certainly a counterpoint. It was a tough month, and December followed suit. The refrain has been “desperately dry”—we have had only 60% of our annual average rainfall, and our official 12-month rainfall deficit is sitting in the “severe” category.
t is undoubtedly too early for me to write this Yarn. In fact, I’m not supposed to be writing at all today, on two counts: first, it’s meant to be a shepherding day, and secondly it’s a weekend and I’m supposed to turn my computer off for the weekend, to help break the "dumb gas thrall" syndrome. I’m not shepherding because it’s snowing and blowing a gale (this on the southern hemisphere equivalent of the first of May) and I just plain wimped out.
I used to think design was an endpoint: a place you could hold clearly in your mind, once you had it figured out. The easy part of the job. The hard work was then finding your way to whatever it was you had designed. Farming and knitting have, between them, blown that concept clear out of the water.
In his 1943 classic “The Little Prince” Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote (more poetically in French, mind you): "The flowers have been growing thorns for millions of years. For millions of years the sheep have been eating them just the same. And is it not a matter of consequence to try to understand why the flowers go to so much trouble to grow thorns which are never of any use to them?
Just for the last short while, I’ve felt confident enough to run my pack of working dogs using my electric Polaris ranger—the farm “buggy”. I’ve always been wary with the youngsters, but they’ve finally developed enough sense to run well away from the buggy. A few days ago we were trundling up the track through the lucerne, not far from the boundary fence, when Jax, the youngest, scared up a big black feral cat. She was more than a match for him in speed, and I watched in trepidation as they dashed away up the paddock.
Had I any idea of the pivotal role she would play in my life, I would have given my lead ewe a better name. Boadicea, for instance. Or maybe Elizabeth. Or even Frances Darlene after my difficult and undeniably contrary mother. But at the time I saved her from the usual fate of 5 year-olds on most sheep properties, I only knew that she was a pretty good leader, at least at times. So she became simply “Old Leader”.
Last austral spring, my lovely, talented friend Anne Downie (retired woolgrower and textile craftie extraordinaire) knitted a pair of socks from White Gum Wool 4-ply for her son Peter. Peter was headed for a walking trip in Bhutan, something he’d wanted to do for years, and he was delighted with his socks. (Bhutan, by the way, is a country worth paying attention to: any place that worries more about Gross National Happiness than Gross National Product is on the right track as far as I’m concerned.)
Have you noticed how sometimes the universe and your subconscious conspire to bring your attention back repeatedly to something you don’t particularly want to examine? Recently I’ve had that experience with regard to herbicides. While I’ve succeeded in keeping pesticides, chemical fertilisers and fungicides out of my management practices, spot spraying the major woody weeds (gorse, briar rose and horehound) has seemed like the only solution.
One of the best things about going feet-first into the yarn business, and one I didn’t anticipate at all, is getting to know and work with a wide range of talented, creative, determined independent fibre artists: indie pattern designers, hand-dyers, knitters and shop owners who are artists in their own right. I’ve been in awe of the spectrum of ability and the passion for fibre encompassed by the women I’ve met so far.
Last Sunday, the 9th of February, we had the worst fire weather day we’ve had so far this year—38o C (100o F), gusting 60 kph (40 mph), zip in the way of humidity. Thankfully, there were no serious fires in the state, but with a fire danger rating of severe to extreme, it was a fairly nerve-wracking day. It was worse in Victoria.