Welcome back to Magnetic North on Feb. 11, where the warm sunny days of February find me most mornings perched on a green resin lawn chair in the midst of a herd of six goats - four of whom I watch with an eagle eye.
Hay flakes are strewn about on a new coat of sparkling white snow. I space them far enough apart so that the youngest goats get their fill without being butted by the older ones.
Two elderly hens, a recently widowed tom turkey and a reddish-brown llama who moves with a ballerina’s grace, compete for the choicest part of the morning meal - a few handfuls of goat chow scattered in five black rubber feeding tubs.
I sit absolutely still, my eyes darting between the cashmere goats, Bunny, Bosco, Daisy and Dolly. Bosco looks a bit frowsy. Tufts of fluff stick out all over Bosco’s legs and back. And what’s this? At the end of each of his curved horns, telltale wisps of fuzz cling and flutter in the breeze.
I grip the fine-toothed comb in one hand and tuck the brown grocery bag under my arm and approach Bosco. He barely acknowledges my presence, so intent is he on eating more hay than the others. I scratch his head with my free hand, then pluck gently at the nearest puff of fleece. Ahhhhh, it’s time… time to comb out the goats. And gather my winter harvest - soft, luscious cashmere.
Ever since my first herd of cashmere goats arrived, I’ve spent late winter days - and more than a few nights - in the relaxing pursuit of their fleece. Sometimes I net less than a shopping bag full from one goat. Sometimes three times that much. And sometimes, nothing - either because I waited too long and the fleece is matted and dirty. Or because of some fault, like scaly flakes of dead skin clinging to the fleece.
But no matter the quality or quantity of the harvest, the combing and plucking must be done. Otherwise, the fleece works its way to the surface and hangs off the poor goat’s body like a beggar’s rags. Quite disreputable. Not to mention embarrassing.
My goats like to be combed. I seldom have to restrain them with a leash and yet can work on each for an hour at a time. I simply mingle with them during their breakfast. Gingerly pluck and comb and exclaim breathlessly over their great beauty and amazing forbearance. And, should their patience grow short or a stubborn mat require me to use the dreaded scissors, I offer a bribe of plump raisins or apple skins.
Bosco takes four morning sessions before I abandon what little fleece seems glued to his hide. I deeply regret robbing him of his insulation right before we are about to dive into the deep freeze with below zero temperatures and wind chills. But he’ll be fine. With his fully fuzzed out sister, Bunny, and the walking fur furnace, Summer the llama, to cuddle with, Bosco won’t even notice the cold.
Banging in the back door of the house with my precious grocery bag full of Bosco’s fleece, I sort through it hastily. Nighttime is the time for teasing the straight, bristly guard hairs out of the valuable cashmere. But I can’t wait to see how good the fiber is. This is my first year with Bosco and I worry that he is not as heavily endowed as my first goats. I shouldn’t have. Spread out on the top of our cast iron wood cook stove, I see Bosco’s fleece is a delicious creme brulee color. Better yet, it is fairly long and crimped like an expensive salon perm: wonderful spinning attributes.
His late great-great-great uncle Lucky produced more cashmere in his prime, but Bosco will get bigger and so will his fiber output.
I’m happy, but anxious too.
This morning I noticed that Bunny, my pewter gray doe, is about to “blow” her coat. That means shed it before I can get a comb on her. And Dolly, the 6-month-old white kid, is similarly frowsy-looking. Her beautiful brown sister, Daisy, looks good for another week, thank heavens. But I need to clip a clump of something yucky off her back. Suffice it to say that Daisy likes to sleep under the tom turkey’s perch.
And did I mention that when I fed the seven angora bunnies last night it appeared that five were on the verge of blowing their precious coats too?
If this all sounds ridiculously tedious, more trouble than it could possibly be worth and, yes, even nuts, I assure you that it is not. Not for me anyway. The harvesting of fiber from my critters is a tether I wear willingly, attaching me to this earth, this life Paul and I have chosen for ourselves. It’s my touchstone. My lifeline. And the only siren song that could possibly draw me away from my books and knitting out into the February sun to sit on a lawn chair in a goat corral.