Wildcraft

Hello to new folks arriving here as they work through the Quince & Co. Wildcraft wrap and Novae hat and mittens! First, a word of apology. These patterns were commissioned by and created in consultation with a creative team that’s left Quince & Co., and I didn’t receive advance notice from the new employees that the Quince Quarterly boxes were shipping. I haven’t been on Ravelry more than once a week and didn’t see that people were finding errors and asking questions until this morning. I take knitter support seriously and want to be available for fast replies any time you need help with one of my patterns. So I’m really sorry this release snuck up on me and I wasn’t there for you right away. Quince has issued errata for the Wildcraft pattern to correct a mistake in the chart symbol key and in the transition row from the brioche edge to the lace panels. You should have received an updated digital file in your Ravelry library, but if you’re not on Ravelry you can also find the errata here:  https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0559/2913/files/wildcraft_errata.pdf?v=1610545484

Please see my Tutorials tab in the top banner if you’d like to watch some videos that might help with the fiddly bits of the brioche bract motif in the Wildcraft wrap.

I also want to state publicly that I believe and respect former Quince employees who have called the company to account for racist and exploitative behaviors. I have the highest admiration for Leila Raven as a creative force and as a human, and her coaching led these designs out of the wilderness when I wasn’t feeling any inspiration to knit pretty things during the Black Lives Matter uprising of last spring and summer. I encourage you all to seek out her independent designs; she’s got some drop-everything projects in the works. All my future design collaborations will be with individual fiber folk or companies I’m sure are working for justice and equity in our craft community.

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.