Chapter Seven Dags, or how to clean a freshly sheared fleece
The warming days of October brought shearing season to New Zealand. We contacted a farmer named Henry Abbott, who lived near the northern shores of South Island, and got ourselves on his shearing crew.
Henry's homestead straddled a ridge above Thompson Valley, near the city of Nelson. Late one afternoon we hitched up the dirt road leading into the valley, then hiked up to the ride and the house. Henry greeted us at the door. He had trim gray hair and a slender gray moustache in the manner of English matinee idols, but his hollow cheeks tightened his face into an bony triangle, and his thin, taut voice sounded as though someone was sitting on his chest. I couldn't decide whether he looked scrawny or not--the muscles may only have been compact, and the skin shrink-wrapped around them. But he definitely didn't look like the meaty, rugged Kiwi farmer of lore.
He differed from stereotype in other ways as well. New Zealand's first Pakeha farmers were English laborers who had been driven from their rural homes by the decline of agriculture, only to suffer amidst the Dickensesque squalor of the cities. A colonial reformer named Edward Gibbon Wakefield called them the deserving poor, because they deserved to escape the evils of the industrial revolution. Henry came from England also, but it was not the horrors of industrialization that sent him to New Zealand but rather the idealism of the 1960's. Henry wanted to help build a better world. Though trained as a schoolteacher rather than a farmer, he wanted to work the land, and the land he decided to work was in New Zealand.
It was a natural choice. New Zealand had long served as a platform for attempts at utopia, dating back to Wakefield's concerted effort to establish a perfect colony in the 1830's and '40's. Wakefield envisaged an ideal form of agrarian capitalism which would avoid the mistakes made by other struggling colonies such as Australia, where land was so cheap that every settler could buy their own parcel and none were left to help work it. The key to Wakefield's utopia was his concept of a "sufficient price" for land. By setting this price carefully, he postulated, an ideal proportion of laborers and owners could be maintained. Land should cost more than laborers could afford to pay outright, but not so much as to discourage their long-term hopes. Thus laborers would be encouraged to work the land for capitalists, who in turn would be guaranteed a dependable work force. And money from land sales would pay for the transportation of more settlers from England, to replace those who had finally bought their own land. Capitalism, Wakefield thought, only needed to be properly designed for it to succeed.
Times had changed by the time Henry Abbott decided to go to New Zealand. Karl Marx had devoted an entire chapter of Das Kapital to a scathing analysis of Wakefield's plan. As the world grew more industrialized, however, the appeal of an agrarian utopia flourished. Marx's own proposals inspired intellectuals like Henry to seek a perfect form of communism rather than of capitalism, and in 1970, he and some fellow idealists formed a commune and went to New Zealand to implement their dreams.
They settled in Thompson Valley and scattered themselves across its floor, up its steep slopes, along its framing ridges, and far back in its upper reaches. They practiced permaculture, a horticultural technique which respects the needs and capabilities of the land. They planted trees for windbreaks. They grew guava and babaco on the frost-free slopes, carob and olives on the drought-prone slopes, and kiwifruit and berries on the mild valley flats.
Wakefield preferred to populate his colony with young married couples, to spare his Utopia any sexual frustration and social instability. Similarly, Henry came to New Zealand with a female companion, but the labor didn't cement their relationship. They broke apart, and the split plowed through the valley, uprooting friendships, loyalties, principles, and ideals--everything that the commune was sowed upon. Most members of the commune left the valley. Henry, along with a few other tattered idealists, stayed, but the empty house and broken valley seemed to constantly remind him of the debacle.
Henry told us none of this; we learned it from a visiting acquaintance of his. Though Henry tried to be hospitable (upon learning of our quest, he brought out several books about New Zealand birds for us to browse through), he was essentially not communicative. He drew his face as tight as a fist. I watched him nervously, wondering whether the pressure would rupture through in our presence. But he never relaxed his grip, and little else escaped either; wit, tranquility and even the pleasure of casual conversation were muzzled.
"He scares me," Susan said after we had retired to our loft bedroom the first evening. "It's like being around an unexploded bomb. I feel like tiptoeing whenever I walk and whispering whenever I talk." In the days that followed, however, we found it far better to chat constantly and mindlessly in Henry's presence, to battle the oppressive vacuum. And we turned to the kitchen for relief. One of our jobs on the farm was to cook, so we foraged through the storage bins and whipped up a flurry of meals--potato soup, asparagus quiche, kiwifruit muffins and spaghetti. Henry showed more pleasure over our cooking than anything else we did on his farm--it had been a long time, he implied, since he had eaten so well.
We came to the farm on Henry's invitation. Perhaps to lighten the rafters with human voices, he had joined a consortium of organic farms which invite the curious to work for room, board and lessons about permaculture. "Do organic methods mean higher prices for food?" Henry's flyer asked. "Why do radicals/intellectuals so often fail to set an example themselves? Are fashionable ideas consistent with man's biological nature?"
At the moment, Henry shared his house with only one other 'student', a travelling fireplug from Germany. Irwin had a black pubic beard and glossy black hair. Tucked back between the two were a pair of eyes, gazing bleakly out at the world. He had been on the farm for over a month. For nearly as long, a silent feud had been simmering between himself and Henry. At dinner, Henry and Irwin faced each other at opposite ends of the heavy wooden table, studiously ignoring everything but their bowls of potato soup. Susan and I sat between them, facing the window. Outside, the ridgeline sloped downhill until it was absorbed by the darkness.
"My money should be here soon," Irwin said, staring into his soup, "and then I will be able to leave."
"You're welcome to stay as long as necessary," Henry replied stiffly. He finished his soup, cleaned his bowl and went upstairs to his room. Irwin slouched slightly in his chair.
"How soon are you leaving?" I asked him.
"Very soon, I hope." He spoke in a baritone sing-song with an accent that had lost its power over the words but still weighed down the cadence. Every third word buoyed up briefly before Germanic fatalism pushed it back down with solemn gravity. "I would not stay so long but I have no money. My father in Germany sends me money, but the banks here do not receive it."
"You're stuck here till you get your money?"
"No. I can stay with a friend, he lives on a farm south of here. But I am afraid to leave. I think Henry will not send my mail to me. I must wait for it to come here."
"That's silly," Susan said. "He wouldn't keep your mail."
"I think maybe. I do not know. He is crazy; I do not know what he would do. He saw me talking to his neighbor, the man who lives across the valley. I was working down there and this man comes and talks to me, so I talk to him. I am free to talk to who I want. Henry was up here watching, spying on me. When I come back here he yells at me: 'I do not want you to talk to that man. If I ever see you talking to him you must leave. That man is crazy.'" Irwin recounted Henry's ravings in his plodding, hopeless sing-song, waving his fist listlessly in an apathetic parody of Henry's fury. "I think Henry is crazy."
The man across the valley had been a member of the commune until it collapsed. Henry, in a continually livid state over the man's fondness for marijuana, had held only enmity for him ever since.
"This kind of hate," Irwin philosophized, "It is not good. There is no reason for it. It poisons the valley. Henry makes everyone choose sides. He will hate you if you choose the other side. I think I am a free person, I can talk to who I want. But Henry does not allow this."
At breakfast we sat through another silent meal, and then Henry instructed us to hoe the garden. We cut the weeds, shuffled them about and dumped them into a plastic bucket. The following day we picked fruit from the orchard. Lemons the size of grapefruits hung from the trees; we carried several dozen in the fronts of our shirts back to the house to squeeze into a pitcher for lemonade.
The next day was shearing day. Irwin revealed no new measure of excitement but Henry seemed momentarily refreshed. Shards of a dried-up romanticism clung stubbornly to the rituals of shearing for him, and observing them linked him with the traditions of the land. He offered the hospitality of the house to the shearer, pressed the shearer with food and referred to the shearer in third person.
The shearer, a laconic fellow named Gavin, shrugged off Henry's hospitality. He was about twenty years old, with loosely curled hair and a face so soft it looked like he rubbed lanolin from the fleeces into his skin every night. He drove us down to the valley floor and the woolshed, a hut-like building assembled from rough planking. A few minutes later Henry's neighbor Ross showed up. Ross was incredibly vital at 70 years of age and had wavy white hair, athletic eyebrows, and an irrepressible Scottish twist to his smile. Though retired from farming, he often came over and helped Henry just to keep his hand in the trade.
Henry owned 197 sheep--merely a handful by South Island sheep station standards but adequate for his needs, which were primarily to keep the grass mowed. The previous day, Henry and Irwin had collected forty sheep and locked them inside the woolshed. The sheep were quartered overnight within four wooden-slatted bays inside the hut, next to the electric shearing apparatus. Along the hut's opposite wall was the fleece table, on which we would clean the wool.
Gavin clipped his razor to the articulated shearing arm that was jointed to the wall. The sheep began to stir. Gavin slid up the gate to one bay, grabbed a reluctant sheep and hauled it out. He rolled it on its back, tucked its head between his legs and plowed the razor deftly through its belly wool. Strips of wool peeled away, baring the sheep's ribbed skin. The animal soon quit bleating and yielded to his blade. Gavin firmly rotated the beast, shearing its flanks and then its spine.
In the transformation from coat to fleece, the wool somehow stayed in one piece--a piece that was growing swiftly as the sheep shrank in size. Gavin mowed off the last strip and severed the fleece from the flesh. Ross gathered up the wool and tossed it onto the table, where we three 'students' went to work on it. I found it difficult and occasionally painful to extricate thorns and twigs snagged on the bristly fibers of the chest and flank wool, but these were a true pleasure compared to the delicacies that accumulated on the sheep's backside.
Whenever excrement tumbles out of a sheep in a cavalcade of blackish-green, pea-sized pellets, a few globules, or dags as they are colloquially known, are snared by the dense thicket of wool around the anus. Over time, a colony of dried manure-balls is established, which betrays a running sheep not quite as gracefully as windchimes on a bicycle. "Rattle your dags," Ross would tell us with a grin: hurry up.
Gavin sheared off the thickest clusters of dags and set them aside for special handling, but plenty of "the shitty bits," as Ross also called them, remained in the fleece for us to pick out by hand. Most were hard and dry, tearing off in a woolly clump, but fresher specimens were still soft and smeared easily. They and the woolly filaments stuck to my fingers, which were greased with a sheen of lanolin.
As Gavin emptied the first bay, the lone remaining sheep panicked. "Observe sheep mentality," Henry said professorially. "That one alone in the pen--it wants to join the others. I've known sheep to break their necks trying to jump over to the other pen where more sheep are." Apparently even this fate sounded better to the sheep than its current isolation. It leapt over the gate into another bay full of unshorn sheep.
Ross pulled me aside to explain how to toss a fleece onto the table, and Gavin slid a freshly-shorn fleece over to me. "Grab the back legs," Ross advised. The legs hid anonymously in the pile of wool, so I grabbed two likely mounds, lifted the fleece, and tossed it as if it were a basketball. It was a perfect throw. The fleece landed flatly on the table. It was luxuriously soft and beautifully unblemished--the color of clotted cream. An embryonic car seat cover. My fingers squirreled into the wool looking for dags.
"Notice something odd about this fleece?" Ross asked. I studied it obtusely and shook my head. "It's upside down," he said. "That's the inside showing there, not the outside." No wonder it looked so clean and pretty. I tried to flip it over and tore a gash in the wool.
"Tossing is an art," Henry observed. Ross handled the next fleece.
When Susan, Irwin and I had tugged most of the twigs and dags off the fleece (somehow Irwin usually ended up removing the shitty bits, but he never complained--this, I suspected, was what he had expected from life), we folded it in thirds and rolled it up like a sleeping bag. Susan handed it to Henry, who packed it away for shipment in a burlap bag.
"Would the shearer like another sandwich?" Henry asked Gavin at the morning break. "Ah, nah, thanks," the shearer replied.
Back inside the woolshed, Gavin hauled an outsize sheep from the bay--the sole ram for all these ewes. Gavin earned 75 cents for shearing each ewe but twice that for a ram. "Are rams twice as hard to shear?" Susan asked him innocently. "Do you sometimes need help?"
Henry, Ross and Gavin stopped and stared at her. "The shearer never needs help," Ross said simply.
"It's just tradition," Henry added kindly.
Next up were a dozen wethers--castrated males. I asked Ross why they were called wethers.
"Well," he said, "you know what's been done to them."
Yes, but why are they called 'wethers?'
He pondered the question. Half his mouth began stretching into a smile, but he put it on hold until he had thought up a funny answer. Surprisingly, none came. "Good question," he finally said, admitting defeat, and turned away. Then he was back, grinning. "It's because you can't tell 'wether' they're male or female."
In another bay was the flock's lone black sheep. Henry swept the floor carefully before Gavin sheared it, and again after we had cleaned and packed it away in its own bag, to avoid contaminating the white fleeces. Time had turned against the black sheep. In antiquity it along with sheep of varying grays and browns had been in the majority, while the occasional bright, white-wooled sheep stood out, attracting predators like the flashing blue light of a discount store special. But shepherds protected all in their flock equally, perhaps even favoring white sheep for the better price their wool brought, and eventually the faulty white gene came to dominate the species.
The novelty of picking soft dags and sharp twigs out of greasy wool soon faded, and with it the appeal of our task. By 11 a.m, Susan and I had begun to appreciate that this was an experience best relished in recollection. As an unskilled laborer, I was stuck in this job for the day, but Susan sensed an opportunity and offered to fix lunch for everyone. Henry was delighted and sent her up to the house to start cooking.
"Isn't it funny," Irwin droned after she left, "that in this day it is still the woman who cooks the dinner."
After lunch ("Would the shearer like more soup?"), Henry took we three students out to bring in the last sheep. We located two dozen lounging in an upvalley pasture and began to chase them toward the shed. Henry clapped his hands in bursts of three sharp bangs and waved a branch at them. "Assert your personality," he shouted at us. Irwin picked up a long branch which splintered into a dozen sharp tips. He hefted it, and Henry glanced at him uncertainly. Susan and I grabbed smaller branches and, by shouting, clapping and waving our branches, asserted our personalities.
Henry left us with the job of mustering the sheep to the woolshed. Unfortunately, the animals scattered widely across the hillside as we approached them, so we huddled together to design a better strategy.
Susan remained on the dirt road while Irwin and I scrambled up the hill to get above the sheep. The steep ground was lumpy with decaying tree stumps, and I had to divide my attention between the sheep and my own footing to avoid tripping. We positioned ourselves above the flock, then descended on it. The sheep galloped onto the road, exactly as we had planned, and I grinned--prematurely, as it turned out. We were novice quarterbacks facing professional sheep. When the beasts saw Susan stepping forward to send them scampering along the lane and down to the woolshed, they sought the hole in our defenses. Instead of trotting blithely down the road for Gavin's razor, they slipped off the side of the road and headed far down the hillside, out of range.
Time and again we regrouped, and time and again the flock eluded us. While chasing those sheep up and down the hillside, however, I realized what a perverse place this farm truly was. Henry had founded it on a dream that soon soured, and he had to live with the dregs for the rest of his life. The land itself had been burned barren, the wild and fearless birds exterminated. The animal replacing those birds was notorious for its timidity. Here on the farm, the utopia of New Zealand, it seemed as though everything joyful in life had been shorn away, and all that was left were dags.
Shearing day was an amphetamine for Henry whose effects soon wore off. At the heavy wooden table the next morning, he once again presided over a grim refueling.
"This would be a good time to ask any questions you may have," he announced.
I groped for something coherent to say. Irwin stared vacantly and chewed his sandwich, obviously not tempted to respond. Susan opened her mouth and closed it abruptly. I mumbled something about trees as windbreaks. Henry identified the trees he planted along the ridgelines as kanuka and waited for the next question. I stared at Susan, who appeared engrossed in the ripples her spoon made in the runny porridge.
Then Irwin spoke. "My money has come, so I will leave tomorrow. I must go to the bank and get it before I can pay back what you lent to me. So you do not think I am leaving without paying you, I will leave my bags here and come back to pay you before I go."
Henry whispered, "That's all in your mind, Irwin."
After Irwin left, his money and melancholy both in hand, Henry's house felt like a prison of the silent treatment. Susan and I baked bread, squeezed more lemons, and promptly decided end our incarceration and head for the wilderness.
We filled a water bottle with concentrated lemonade, grabbed a loaf of bread, and hiked out of Thompson Valley. A pickup gave us a careening ride over the Murchison mountains, eventually dropping us along a lonely stretch of road. For the first time since Northland, we stood for hours without catching a lift. A dead sheep lay rotting across the road, upwind of us. Late in the afternoon the rain came to drench us, so we walked up the road to find a cheery farmyard. Two farmers, an equally stout man and woman, were battening down the shutters of their roadside raspberry stand. We asked to camp in their yard. They at the yard and then at me and Susan. "She's pretty wet," the man said noncommittally. I was about to say "We're both pretty wet" when I realized he was referring to the yard. The yard, however, was more than wet, it was a wetland.
"Maybe we can find a dry spot," Susan suggested brightly.
"Ah," the woman said, sizing us up. "We've got a caravan in the barn. Go ahead and stay in there."
She recruited her son to lead us through the swamp to the dilapidated barn. Holes punctured the roof as if bombarded by bird droppings and one whole set of doors were missing at the end, opening the barn to the elements. Crouched inside was a gleaming aluminum camper trailer. Susan unlatched the door and climbed in. I handed her the packs and then, feeling like a refugee on an underground railway, I stepped up and slipped inside.
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