Notes from a Shearing in rural NH
Starting at the beginning of wool production and the rhythmic beauty of shearing
To start my challenge and create community around a farm to closet movement in my region, I need to understand what's involved in growing, capturing, and processing fiber. I decided to start my journey by learning about sheep's wool first. One day in March I joined a community of sheep, farmers, a shearer, and dogs to learn about the first step in processing wool and gathering raw fleeces.
Step One: Understanding how wool is gathered from sheep, the most plentiful raw fiber in New Hampshire.
"Keep your face to the sun and you will never see shadows." Helen Keller
Alice Funk who owns, Sunnymanse, a historical farm in Roxbury offered to let me watch her nine sheep be shorn.
A Day at Sunnymanse Farm circa 1767
The weather was lovely as I approached the farm; the winding driveway rutted from the recent snowmelt reminded me of what I have yet to truly experience in my four years in rural New Hampshire - mud season. Alice is there to greet me. Friendly and inviting we move my filming equipment to the barn where I learn to my dismay - sheep shearing will be inside the barn. I had not brought extra lighting. This ex-suburban gal has lots to learn about fiber production and what to always pack for filming. Alice opens an extra barn window and glorious light shines in.
The shearer is delayed at a previous farm. This is common in the world of working with animals that may have different ideas about time than we humans. I walk the property and learn about this historic farm. Entering the home, I walk up the steep thin stairway so common in old homesteads. I am reminded of many of the historic homes I’ve visited in Virginia. My mind wanders to the cyclical nature of this land and the generations that have farmed it. How lucky to find its most recent owners' dedication to preserve the fields and forest beyond them.
We walk the fields that grow hay, the sheep's feed during the winter. I notice it is filled with clumps of sheep waste, but this isn’t just natural droppings. Alice speaks of an ancient waste spreader her husband uses, that like a fan spreads the barn captured waste throughout the field. The sheep's waste re-nourishes for the next growing season. The cycle of nature slightly augmented by efficiency. The spreader covering the ground more evenly.
As we walk, I learn the shearer, Gwen, is a woman - a bit of a rarity in this field of work - trained by her father in a family business. A business built around the community of farms and animals that make up life for many rural dwellers. She travels throughout New England and New York and even goes down to New Zealand, the mecca of sheep. Today she is in the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire - her home. I look forward to seeing her work. My exposure to sheep shearing being snippets of speed competitions aired on TV lack the beauty and rhythm of the art I will soon experience.
Doughal the farm dog, a border collie, is always at the ready to catch any piece of wood, frisbee, or sheep he can find. He is active and alert, and darn cute. He is my almost constant companion while I walk to film the lands and buildings on my own. I return to the barn as Gwen arrives. She is already a bit tired, as someone often is when planned activities take longer than expected. It is near 5 pm after shearing the nine sheep here, she must travel to the neighboring town to do three more before she is done for the day.
"It is the duty of a good shepherd to shear his sheep, not skin them." Tiberius
As she sets up, the fellowship of purpose is seen between Gwen and the farmer, easy conversation from years of knowing her and her father. Just yearly contact but kindred in spirit; talk is meaningful about current affairs and the sheep themselves. Is one too old for giving birth, should she be taken to slaughter? It seems like harsh language, but nature can be. She is an old lady and has enjoyed a good life on this farm but still the idea of sending her away tugs at the farmers. All life is important, the ending like its beginning.
Gwen begins her work standing slim but powerful. She is a silhouette of a cyclist with a bit too much upper body wearing a buff to keep her hair back, the immortal symbol of runners. Not today, the buff is for work. She moves the sheep gracefully to the proper position and all but one obliges for the entire shearing if not always happily. She trims the hooves first, all four before picking up the shears; she starts by feeling their bodies as she moves the shearers which look like large electric hair clippers. This is a two-hand operation with the sheep balanced between her legs. I learn that sheep can have excess skin, like Shar-Pei dogs and therefore the shearer must move across the skin with their hands to prepare the skin to be sheared and not nicked. The hum of the motor and the movement of both her hands are like a dance across the sheep’s body. Each time the same rhythmic motions, a sign of spring, a shedding of weight to accept the warmth of the sun.
A Community of Communities
"We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us to our fellow man." Herman Melville
As I watch, I witness many levels of trust and community.
The sheep have community with each other. They call out “bah” as others are sheared - what are they saying? "Me next it’s hot", or are they asking "Are you OK"? We don’t know but it seems like a voice in the music of the buzzing shears.
The sheep have community with Gwen. The sheep for the most part sit and let her shear them, even the yearlings that haven’t experienced this before. Like wild animals when trapped by human conveniences, do these sheep know this is good for them? Are there instinctual lessons learned during domestication?
A community of dogs is also present, Gwen brought her dog, Lyle. He is an Australian Shepard, maybe a mini as he is rather small, black and white with a touch of brown on his back paws giving him a distinguished look. His caring eyes say pet me, but he moves away when I try. Does he smell my cat on me? He chooses to run the fields with Doughal and growl and snap one time. Protecting his human, or just feeling less confident away from home?
Finally, the community of people, what keeps the farm and way of life present today when so many factors work against those who strive to keep traditional holistic farms alive and honor a way of life. Even in rural New Hampshire, the stressors of letting go are present - financially it is costly and physically it is hard work that gets harder each year humans get older.
The Rhythm and Dance of the Shearer
"Dance is creating a sculpture that is only visible for a moment." Erol Ozan
As each sheep comes up to meet its fate, the loss of its fleece, I notice how carefully Gwen protects their body from harm.
Each sheep is sheared with the same motion.
The tummy wool is coarse and dirty, not used by weavers it is cut first and goes into the compost pile. Then while tenderly protecting privates, Gwen shaves around and onto the back legs. Moving toward one side of the sheep, the clippers go up toward the back. When one side is shorn, she takes the shearers and goes from the chest to the throat and mouth, to cut its wool blanket in half. With a gentle tap of the clippers, she gives the sheep a quick trim on its head, then moves to the other side of the sheep's body and the small tail. She ends by reviewing her work and hits a few spots missed near the head or legs. The ewe or ram is now ready for the spring and summer, wearing manmade blankets if the weather dips too cold for their woolless skin.
As I pack up I marvel at the simplicity of Gwen’s motion and her strength. The two rams were well over 200 lbs and she maneuvers them quite easily, only once asking for the farmer's hand, or actually leg. I never saw someone use a shepherd’s hook on a sheep. I've seen movies with shepherds with one but not use it. Now I understand it is more than a walking stick and its effectiveness to corral the sheep.
I laugh at my ignorance while I take images of the raw wool laid down and being picked over by Alice. She will go over each fleece again and remove any wool that is too oily or dirty to turn into yarn or felt. This first working of the raw fleece is called skirting and essential before sending it to a mill for processing or handwashing it. Alice discusses how she washes the wool and then processes the wool for spinning or felting at her home. I need to find some instruments to do this properly - she shows me her old wool brush to begin hand carding. This is what lies ahead for the fleece she gave me, a beautiful grey color from one of her yearlings and the other six fleeces sitting in bags in her barn.