Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Meet Me at Maggies

It is hard to put cancer and good time in the same sentence, but it is possible. One of the reasons that is possible for me is that we were lucky enough to discover Maggie's centre at Inverness. Not every hospital has one, but wherever they are, it is a lifeline for folks with cancer and, in my case, the hapless sometimes overlooked carer. I was terrified and angry and confused and lost. Maggies is a place where you can be all those things in your own time.

In marked contrast to the matter of fact rectilinear, shiny, no nonsense carefully contrived green walls of the hospital, Maggies is rounded and soft. From the moment you cross the threshold, you begin to relax. There are folks to talk to--if you like--and the kettle is always on. There are little rooms where you can curl up on a little sofa or armchair and have a nap or a dwam. There are pamphlets on the wall if you need or want to know more.

And it is a collecting place. A man who had himself been on his cancer journey came by and sat around the table and talked with folks about the things they needed to know but didn't want to ask about--wills and trusts and contingency plans. A nutritionist comes by, too, as well as a stress management tutor and other experts.

So when our friends from Maggies came up to Thurso (at the local cancer resource centre), we went along to have a glass or a cuppa and talk about good times. We went to support Maggies and to have good craic. So if you happen to be in the hospital in Inverness or know someone who is--stop by and say hello. Next best, they now have online chats. Here's the link to Maggies central:

and here's the link to our Maggies--"our local"

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Filled In Day

A rejection email for one of my non fiction pieces--albeit a very nice one--sent me scurrying from my keyboard into the consolation of wool. One batch--the cheviot fleece that, according to friend who gave it to me, was not folded properly, is still on the lawn having experienced several rainwater rinses now.

The remaining fleece has been retrieved from the lawn and we have been stepping over or around it on the floor of the laundry room.

I spent the past couple days in between chores reading two felting books, both of which I can wholeheartedly recommend to those of you given to idling away hours thinking of colours and patterns in wool.

Felt to Stitch: Creative Felting for Textile Artists by Sheila Smith ISBN 97807 13490084 is probably better for someone who already knows the fundamentals both of knitting and of felting although she includes the basics so that even a beginner ought to be able to do all the projects mentioned in the book. This book has an index, which I always like because I may often need to track down things that I have read somewhere, and an index is a lifeline for me. She provides additional resources, which I also like so that the learning from the book extends beyond the first or second reading. Her instructions are very clear and straightforward--the tech writer in me always pays close attention to that, and the photographs are both helpful and beautiful. Since she includes a very helpful chapter on colour and dyeing, this is a good book for background info for those of us who have had no formal art instruction since about 4th grade. There is also a brief list of different types of wool and their respective features for felting. Pretty much all you need is in this book. The chapters on shibori and other techniques incorporating stitches and non wool are great even for beginners and allow the reader to dip into those techniques without investing in more books or lessons. A good all around book.

Complete Feltmaking, as the title suggests, is another all around text. It is written for beginners with a subtitle is intended to reassure: "easy techniques and 25 great projects." Although it has a different look and feel about it from the more artistic, Felt to Stitch, it is an equally useful resource. I bought it on nothing more than the title and a quick peek at the contents on Amazon as a gift for a fellow textile-buddy. I was relieved to discover that it lived up to its name. Although intended for beginners, the projects range from simple to much more complex but all the techniques are limited to felting. The instructions are accompanied with large photogrpahs and easy step by step numbering. The book has no index, but it does include an additional resources page, and templates that can be photocopied for some of the projects in the book.

So yesterday was filled with reading these two books and looking at the slightly different approaches they take to felting. I made a list of projects from each to try and made one of the templates. Yesterday was what is called a filled in day--basically a day in which sky and ground combine to make a cloud blanket. The wind is still and the air reminds me of a supersaturated solution. If t6he sun comes out or the wind picks up ever so slightly, the day is said to "lift, " usually taking my spirit along with it.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Drying Wind

I learned the term "drying wind" before I needed one. Although I learned it in the agricultural context, a drying wind helps get the fields ready for the new season, I knew it had to hold meaning also for the inside of the house. Yesterday was a perfect example. My fleeces were ready for gentle drying on the lawn and the wind obliged.

In Caithness there is always the danger of a drying wind being too close a cousin of a boisterous wind or a hurrying wind. A hurrying wind once took my laundry into three fields over the fence. A boisterous wind steals it off the line and takes it wherever its mischievous heart desires no matter how many pegs you've put into it.

So yesterday as I lay my fleece on a sheet out on the lawn in the walled garden, I took the precaution of weighting it down with plasticized grills that are meant for the wings on a drying rack designed for more civilized climes.

They were almost dry by last night, but, tempting fate, I thought to leave them overnight.

OK somewhere there is lore to suggest that a fresh rainwater rinse makes better wool. If not, I think I'll start one.

So probably no carding or fleecing til tomorrow. It all depends on the clouds, and, of course, the wind.

Monday, April 20, 2009


The first time I got a free fleece--a lovely black one--it was because the black would could not be included with the rest of the fleeces. I was delighted. I also had a lot of labour to help me clean it--exuberant pre-school age children who thought tromping up and down on something in the bath tub was great fun. I spun the wool back when I had a spinning wheel sitting in the living room of my three bedroom apartment in a brand new development in the southern half of the state of New Jersey. To say that folks thought I was eccentric would be understatement.

Now I live in the middle of sheep country, those preschoolers are on the cusp of middle age, and I don't have a spinning wheel in the house. Spinning is one of the things I have decided is not for me. I do, however, have a fleece. Well, two actually, plus a bit of black wool from a third fleece.
Now rather than spinning, I am hoping to use these for felting.

Merino wool is what most crafters use for felting. It is a very fine wool and has good sticky properties--the fibers will catch easily on each other and make a good, strong fabric. And it is soft and readily available in many colours or undyed for your own dyeing at about £3 for 100 grams--if you buy it in quantity, or, as I did, you get the smaller bits you need from a tutor who bought hers in quantity and passed the savings on to her students. Merino sheep, however, are not the kind of sheep that thrive in Scotland. Up here we have mostly Cheviot and cross breds and mules (Blue faced Leiceister daddy on a Swaledale ewe). They are raised primarily for their meat. Their wool is a byproduct and for some time--at least since I have been up here, producers have been saying that the price for wool barely covers the cost of shearing them, but both for kindness and by law they must be sheared.

As with many of the things up here about governance--official government or quangos, administration is centralised. The wool marketing board has the responsibility of promoting that wool and selling it. All the wool goes on a lorry and away from here.

Of course there have been comments made about the relative effectiveness of the wool marketing board. These comments have even appeared in the usually mild mannered, a-politicized hand knitting magazines, prompting a defensive letter from the wool marketing board saying that they have not been able to do much because they are short staffed.

The wool board is not alone as a centralised administrative organisation with little local presence or perceived effectiveness. The local food produce movement has had its funding pulled because the quango designed to encourage local food production decided that it needed to concentrate on larger markets "outwith the local area"--leaving the very strong impression that both as producers and consumers we are overlooked.

So despite the passage of time and distance, I am back to my first black fleece experience and looking for the value in something small enough to be overlooked by the big guys.

The fleeces are in the big plastic tubs that cattle mineral supplements come in. They are soaking in warm water with just a touch of detergent in it. The nastiest bits of the fleece were removed before it came into my hands for which I am very grateful.

I have the fleece in tubs to be washed to see if local wool (Cheviot in the tub on the right; Crossbred in the tub on the left) can be felted with good effect. Next, I want to see how much effort is involved in washing the fleeces. I'll give an update tomorrow.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Spring is the time for heath burning. It is meant to be done no more than 1/7 of the overall land every 7 years and is meant to have people watching and so on.

Dunnet Head burned for 4 days and 4 nights. I could smell the smoke all the way to my house. My friend watched the flames from her window. She lives near the village of Dunnet. When the flames got out of control and threatened the village--the "village did what the village does" and everyone went to help try to put things out.

The BBC reported the fire was under control two days before it stopped burning.

I don't recall this flavour of vandalism up here before. Perhaps this one was an accident. I hope so. It would be too sad to think that someone purposely set this in motion.

An article in the regional paper suggests that several fires have been intentionally set and local fire fighters--part time volunteers for the most part are hard pressed to respond.

I'll drive up to Dunnet Head myself today and survey the damage. Skylark and other nesting birds have lost their nests and eggs. I don't know if there is time enough for them to start again. The season up here is short.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Woods Walking

There is enough wildness even in a managed forest to quiet a restless spirit. My imagination has always roamed more broadly than my feet, so a patch of woods is enough for me to find solace and reclaim whatever parts of me the unforested part of the world has knocked askew. I am a shy person and risk aversive, so how did I wind up here on the edge of the earth? From time to time throughout my life I have walked into patches of woods to get lost to find out where I was.

When I was a school girl in Indiana, the burgeoning population had pushed the city into the country. In the ambiguous zone between the turkey farm and my shiny new school was a patch of woods--an afterthought, perhaps, or an offering to the great woodlands that had once covered the land. At any rate, it was enough for a small girl to imagine that it was a wilderness. I liked to walk into the middle of it and enjoy that frisson of lostness. The woods was small and even with my poor sense of direction and intentional aimless walking, I was in no real danger. The light from the open fields beyond always peeked through the edge--I had only to tilt my head one way or the other or to take a step or two in any direction. but that sense of being out of space and time even for a moment is an important one.

Up here a woods is an especially wonderful place to duck in out of the wind on an otherwise pleasant day. The first step into the woods offers the stillness from the wind and then an insouciant welcome. This woods, though tamed and managed, with well bred paths through it, is not a living room for humans. I am a guest. As has often been the case with my woods walking, I am alone. At first I regret not having a companion. I would like to ask the names of things or to talk about the intriguing pattern of the bark and how that pattern might be imitated in knitting or weaving. But as I move further into the woods, that regret eases out of me and I begin to listen to a deeper voice talking of things too often overlooked outside. I sigh into the soft light air of the woods some of the concerns I brought in with me. They settle into the fine layers of needles on the forest floor, not gone, not solved, but part of a larger fabric.

I follow a path with no regard for where it leads or where the paths fit into the larger pattern. I enjoy the silence of my footsteps, greeting the occasional visitors, and finding the statues tucked into corners of the woods. When I reach a clearing, I admire the recycled art there but choose a path leading back into the woods. Another day I might walk in the bright light. Today I prefer the soft dull browns and greys to the vivid artwork.

At midday the woods is sleeping. The birds are quiet, the trees creak and groan as they rub against each other in their sleep. In this quiet time, I want to think about the tiny details of this world--the lichens, the moss, the bark.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Good Friday

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Holidays based on a faith tradition are an opportunity for anyone and everyone to take advantage of a time for reflection, introspection, and celebration. Today here and now, I have the song of a blackbird outside the window, tiny catkins on the willow just barely visible against their stems, and that for which I am most grateful, a sunlit sky--not altogether clear but warm and light enough to see the two Benn's as silhouetted mounds on the horizon.

Wherever you are, I hope you can enjoy the beauty of it and find cause to reflect and celebrate the things that are important to you.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Wild Goose Chasing

I have spent countless hours in many positions with a variety of titles that came down to nothing more than wild goose chasing of the metaphorical variety. Until my current position of farm wife, my life was mostly confined to classrooms and offices. A wild goose chase would involve tracking down a document that didn't exist or validating a system that was about to be retired or some such.

Today I took up my literal role as wild goose chaser. I bundled up against the drizzly rain that I knew would get wetter the further I got from the farmhouse, and, armed with a wind whirling toy, I headed for the fields. The geese saw me long before I saw them. That's their job. And without my mysterious whirler, they would have startled, maybe lifted off, flapped about, and then settled back down. With my high tech armament, they were dazzled into flight--not just the requisite lap around the field, but up, up, and away. They have probably gone across the road to our neighbour's fields. Well, I'll offer him my services, too, if he likes, now that I am an experienced wild goose chaser.

Of course the first skirmish is not the entire battle. I need to up the arms race. I am turning my creative talents now to a cross between scarecrow and installation art. I envision a ballerina with a tutu on the breeze in the middle of the field. Arms and legs need to be separately jointed so as to look more like a ballerina-scarecrow. If the geese are not put off by it, we can call it art and share it with the tourists who are beginning to appear now that the season is lifting. When I was a tourist on the bus going past the farm, I daresay I would have liked to see a ballerina in the field, but then I am quirky.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Six Roundabouts and a Bridge

Roundabouts are a logical way of dealing with several roads coming together in one place. I struggle with the underlying logic of having roads running into each other. I am from Indiana. I grew up in a land defined by a surveyor and laid out for the most part in a Cartesian grid. Roads were straight and usually stayed that way. And also they were flat.

So after 4 years I have learned how to drive on the wrong side of the road, shifting with my kleft hand, I might add, and I have driven several times now over the hairpin curve of the Berriedale Braes without going into a panic, a case of vertigo, or over the edge of the precipice.

Yesterday, however, was a new personal best for my driving up here. I did not one or two roundabouts, or rotaries as they are called in Massachusetts, but 6--with one very large bridge and a trip over the Braes thrown in for good measure.

I drove all the way to the big city of Inverness.

Ironically, whenever I speak of going to Inverness the first question people ask is "Are you going shopping?" That is also logical because there are many things that are just not available here 120 miles north of the self-styled capital of the Highlands. But shopping is not recreation for me and I have reached the stage in my life where I am trying to de-clutter. Instead I went to Inverness for my writing habit.

I attended a free (to me) workshop on travel writing. Hugh Taylor, experienced travel writer and great storyteller, spent a day showing nine writer wannabes how to do it. The group ranged from very experienced writers in other genres to two closet writers and a young student. I put myself in the middle now that I have 11 published articles. Well, OK, just barely above the bottom, but if you make it into the usual published vs non-published, then I could count myself with the people who know their craft.

More to the point, it was a good crowd, and we worked hard. All the questions I had about travel writing were answered: where do you find it, where do you get ideas, how do you do it, how much do you get paid, and so on. Also, it pushed me in the direction of answering the BIG QUESTION--Can I do it? With hands on exercises, we all took that first step toward becoming real travel writers: we generated our own ideas and after a lunch time walk to find our own story idea, put pen to paper and drafted an opening paragraph, which Hugh evaluated, making some editing suggestions and offering much encouragement.

And then it was time to face the 6 roundabouts and bridge and Braes and head back North.

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