About Sarah

Posts by Sarah :

History

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story, too.” –Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

Watercolor of Belle Vue Sheep Farm by Richard Schlecht, National Park Service collection

Three years ago we decided to take up a farm on my little home island. This place has been changing rapidly during my lifetime. Looking across our central valley now, I can see large houses on every rocky knoll commanding a view. Our ferry system carried more than a million passengers last summer. Venturing into farming—or more accurately, learning what’s required to do right by a piece of historical farmland that we love deeply—was a choice we made to participate in a sector of the island community that feels vital to maintaining the character of a landscape in danger of being loved to death. We feel the weight of the many forms of privilege that allowed us to choose this life in this place, and we feel gratitude to the more experienced farmers and stewards of the land who continue to guide our steps. We try to come to the work humbly and eager to learn.

The more we learn and make mistakes and learn some more, the more our appreciation and respect for farmers has grown. And the more I’ve listened to the stories of elders in our community, the more I’ve wanted to know about the longer story of farming on this scatter of fertile wooded islands in the Salish Sea.

The “old farm families” in this part of the world—as in much of the American West—can claim five, maybe six generations here. Our island history, as I was taught in school and in community lore, began in the 1850s with a boundary dispute between the British and Americans, a Hudson’s Bay Company pig shot for ransacking Lyman Cutlar’s garden, twelve years of military posturing, and then a peaceful arbitration after which the American settlers got on with platting townships and claiming farmland and felling trees and growing crops, as their brethren were doing all over the Pacific Northwest. These things happened, but they are only the dominant story. Whose story were we missing?

The Hudson’s Bay Company saw an opportunity to establish a farm with sheep and pigs here because the native prairies and woodlands had been kept open by careful stewardship, including the periodic use of fire to clear underbrush and favor desirable species. The settlers who staked their claims to the land called Oak Prairie by the Hudson’s Bay Company and now called the San Juan Valley didn’t have to carve their farms out of the forest. Their fruit trees and vegetable gardens thrived in part because farmers had been sustainably cultivating the soil for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Lummis photographed in ceremonial traditional dress circa 1900, Library of Congress

Those first farmers were Northern Straits Coast Salish people—Lummi and Samish, Songhees (Lekwungen) and Sooke (T-Sou-ke), Saanich and Semiahmoo, all having a common language and much intermingled by marriage and other relationships—sharing use of these islands in their seasonal rounds of hunting, farming, foraging, and fishing, with large permanent settlements on the more sheltered bays. The women did most of the agriculture, tending gardens that were handed down generation after generation, amending the soil, planting the edible varieties of camas, weeding out the white-flowering death camas. They were also fiber farmers and artists. They bred white, long-coated, curly tailed dogs known as Salish Wool dogs, keeping them on specific small islands to maintain genetic purity, and sheared them annually with razor clam shells to harvest the fiber for spinning and weaving textiles. According to Captain George Vancouver, who observed the woolly dogs in 1792, they resembled large Pomeranians. “So compact were their fleeces, that large portions could be lifted up by a corner without causing any separation,” Vancouver wrote, adding that the dogs’ coats were “composed of a mixture of a coarse kind of wool, with very fine long hair, capable of being spun into yarn.” The Coast Salish women blended the dog hair with more valuable mountain goat fiber to bulk up their yarns for blankets and other textiles that saw daily use.

The woolly dogs are gone now. The forced relocation of the humans who tended them disrupted the husbandry system that protected their genetics, and the availability of sheep’s wool supplanted the need for their fiber. During the 1850s the Belle Vue sheep farm quickly grew to almost 4,500 animals, and the Hudson’s Bay Company employed Cowichan, Hawaiian (Kanaka) and possibly Chinese laborers to build roads connecting the prairie grazing grounds and to tend the sheep. Our town, Friday Harbor, most likely takes its name from a Kanaka shepherd named Friday. The wages paid by the Hudson’s Bay Company, though too meager to support a family according to complaints of the day, were attractive enough to draw Native American men from beyond the immediate region to work on annual contracts. But the meticulous diary of the Company’s Chief Factor Charles Griffin refers to his laborers as “men and Indians,” suggesting a clear perception of race-based hierarchy, and only employees of European descent were awarded supervisory roles at the several sheep stations around San Juan Island. It’s important to acknowledge that even here in the Pacific Northwest, a continent away from the cotton fields, our earliest story of commercial agriculture is about a white-owned company relying on cheap labor from people of color.      

Colonization of these islands was complete down to the ecological level. The Hudson’s Bay Company turned out pigs, brought from their Hawaiian station. The pigs ate vast numbers of acorns, impacting the native Garry oaks and collaborating with the sheep to rapidly alter the native prairie. According to company records, in the first season the pigs ate the wild-growing death camas and died, but pigs are smart; the survivors quickly learned to eat only the edible plants and soon decimated the Coast Salish crop. The Hudson’s Bay Company introduced Ozette potatoes that quickly replaced camas in the indigenous diet, solving the problem they’d created by introducing the pigs, but only by also creating a dependency on a non-native species and breaking an ancient relationship between humans and native plants that signified a cultural loss as well as blow to the local ecology.

This is all part of the history of the farm my family is stewarding now. Most of the stories that unfolded here are lost, and we can’t mend the rupture of a hundred and fifty years ago. There can certainly be no repair without acknowledgement, so sharing this story and asking myself many questions about how to be a caretaker in this place is my first step. There are parts of Oak Knoll Farm that could be managed to promote reestablishment of native prairie species, and that might be a way to begin. On the human front, we can ask why our children’s Native American studies in school still don’t include the stories that took place in their own backyards. We can attend to the indigenous stories still unfolding here, and we can heed and amplify the native voices that are speaking today. In our neighborhood, for example, the Lummi Nation is leading the fight against the installation of a coal-shipping terminal on their Cherry Point lands.

And in the immediate mean time, I have more to say on the role of sheep and the romanticizing of pioneer and ranching history, so I’ll craft a separate post (or posts) for that. There are stories upon stories to find.

Last of the year

A clear and sunlit close to this circle ’round the sun. The children slept over with friends, so it was a queerly quiet day. I spent a pair of morning hours learning marimba parts to play with a new band and then we fell to chopping firewood. We’ve been building German-style round stacks that we roof with pieces still wearing their bark, so the whole stack can season for next winter without needing shelter.

At three I rode a horse up a hill for a glimpse of the sun winking low over the sea. It was the first time the mustangs have been separated in years and they were not pleased. Horses rely on their herdmates to feel safe, so my mount was anxious and jiggy, pirouetting and bending to nibble my boot toes in her need for connection and reassurance. The one left behind was wild with worry and spent our whole ride tearing around the field. Every inch of her winter coat was soaked with sweat and she wouldn’t come to me for a rub down.

I walked back down to the pasture after we put the kids to bed. It’s a chilly night, almost freezing, and I wanted to be sure Yahzi had cooled down properly. A still, calm night, with Orion pricked over the barn amid the thin clouds. I wore my headlamp to find the horses by their eye shine, but Yahzi mistrusts the bright light and kept her distance. I brought her a pan of minerals to lick and fetched towels from the lambing kit to dry her a little more. With the headlamp stowed in my pocket, there was still starlight and the glow from Victoria and the gleam of houses across the valley—so many more houses on Little Mountain than there used to be—and I could work over the horse’s rough and muddy coat by feel anyhow. She accepted the toweling with relish, stretching her face to the sky so I could rub harder beneath her neck. The barn cat ghosted along the hedgerow nearby, pale and formless in the dark.

I remember being just a little afraid of the night woods as a child, secure in the knowledge that there is nothing dangerous abroad on this island but still tingling with imagination, straining to hear beyond the drum of my own heartbeat and to categorize any scuffling whisper in the trees. A flashlight makes it worse. The dark is less knowable beyond the limit of its light. I have learned to switch off my lamp and love the darkness on this farm. I stand with the horses and listen to them licking and grazing, I breathe the falling damp and scry among the wan stars—yes, the clouds are thickening, the temperature is climbing a very little, the bright weather is done and the rain will be coming tomorrow or the next day. In a couple of months I’ll be making this night journey to the barn to check the lambing ewes.

The year is turning. The wood is stacked high. The family is sleeping. I stay up late to stroke the dog as she quivers and pants at the fireworks. I have too much steadiness, too much wry self-knowledge (I am to be forty next summer, after all) or some combination of the two for resolutions, so I make none. I have no reasonable expectations that the coming year will be better or worse in sum than the one we’re leaving. On we hurtle through space, and if I have a wish it’s for clear eyes to notice the good and open hands to extend the good to others. A soft night to you all and joy in the morning.

Sprouts

Some knitting projects volunteer themselves and prove as delightful as flowers you didn’t plant.

The vision of a new design can grow from almost any seed—from the yarn itself, from nature, from history, and sometimes from all of these braided together. In April I found I couldn’t set aside the remnants of a skein of Spincycle Yarn I’d used for a hat for my father; the earthy tones still wanted my attention, and they wanted prominent display on the yoke of a sweater. As it was spring, I had flowers dancing before my eyes, and as I was leafing through a book of Scandinavian mitten designs, I chanced across a thumb motif I thought might be the right scale for a child’s sweater if worked at the larger gauge I was imagining. I fossicked in my stash for likely partners for the Spincycle—namely a main color—and found three plump fingering-weight skeins of Catskill Merino in the springiest watercress green. Another remnant skein of heathered brown Raumagarn was just right for the flowers’ roots (and I loved that the flowers had big strong roots in the original mitten). I knew I hadn’t enough of the Spincycle to carry me through the foliage in the motif, but lo, there was the skein of BFL/silk I’d made in my first year of spinning practice, featuring the same olive and golden greens with burgundy. It could easily pick up where the Spincycle would leave off. I auditioned a whole raft of neutrals for the yoke background and wasn’t satisfied. Everything was the wrong weight or looked too flat or too stark against the lively color play of the handspun contrast colors. But when I popped into Wild Fibers in Mt. Vernon for some buttons, there was an intriguingly flecked pale golden skein of Noro Kumo that leapt out at me. Everything was coming together.

I’ll have to steal it back to block the button band!

In the middle of my merry progress, I learned that Catskill Merino had lost Eugene Wyatt, its founding shepherd. I wrote on Instagram, “Once in awhile in life you brush against someone with a truly original spark and it kindles something in you that burns for a long time, perhaps unnoticed. Eugene was one of those—and a good writer to boot. That I’m a shepherd now is, perhaps, a little bit due to him.” Eugene certainly expanded my sense of what kind of person might choose to devote himself to sheepkeeping. He kept one of the best blogs on shepherding, equal parts poetic and practical. He punctuated his market days selling wool and lamb at Union Square with jaunts to the cinema; he read a lot of Proust. Even in a brief conversation you could sense the depth of the living and thinking he’d done.

I think about Eugene Wyatt whenever people are surprised that we’ve shelved our city life in favor of a sheep farm on a tiny island. I think about the assumptions I once made that farmers were mostly folks who’d inherited a way of life and hadn’t escaped to anything more intellectual. Eugene made me consider that you could be a passionate intellectual and a farmer all in one. And now I know from experience that learning how to farm uses every intellectual skill you’ve got—and then some. Writing about it as well as Eugene did clarifies your purposes and precipitates beauty out of the daily soup of humble chores like mowing, moving fences, scrubbing water troughs, trimming hooves, mucking sheep sheds, battling weeds, and making up fecal slurries to count worm eggs.

Eugene and Dominique, who dyes the yarn and helps with the flock and now carries the work forward alone, were also at the beginning of my awakening to the farm-to-skein story of the wool I choose to work with. Most knitting shops weren’t carrying yarns like theirs when I took up the craft, and it was fresh and marvelous to sink my fingers into wool raised just a few hours away and dyed with botanical extracts. Since I first discovered Catskill Merino, the market for locally grown wool has really begun to flower, and that’s wonderful to see. I’ve had the chance to knit with many more single-flock yarns over the years, and I’ve loved most of them. The beautiful green skeins in Ada’s new sweater only rekindled my appreciation for the quality of breeding and craft at Catskill Merino: this is really excellent wool, terrifically soft without sacrificing character. It’s still head of the class even now that the class is larger.

The true testament? My kid didn’t take this sweater off all day when I gave it to her, even as the mercury climbed to eighty.

Someone’s going to ask when the pattern will be available. I’m going to revise the motif a little bit—maybe take out some of those three-color rows with long floats—and grade it up to adult sizes. I might make a pullover for myself. I may chart a shorter version of the flower so the yoke depth can be shallower, allowing for smaller kid sizes. I’ve got another design project on my needles right now, but I’m looking forward to picking this up in September.