There are three Jacob sheep across from me, big, gray and alert with curling horns. When one of the rams baaas, it sounds exactly like a person imitating a sheep. The other livestock in the tent sound like the animals they are, but not him. He’s quiet most of the day, but as evening falls he becomes much more active. Sometimes my co-worker and I reflexively baaa back at him; we are people sounding like sheep that sound like people.
This marked the fifth year I’ve worked the Island Alpaca tables in the fiber tent at the Agricultural Fair. I sold gloves, socks, hats, scarves, mittens and blankets made of alpaca fleece. In between, I stepped into the pen to help people pet the three alpacas we brought. The two youngsters — Atticus Rex and Mozart — were mostly indifferent to the fair experience. The three-year-old, Carlo, hummed nervously at the newness of it all. He, along with the other animals, was especially alert on Sunday morning when the dog show was underway and canines were everywhere (all dogs, even tiny Chihauhuas, are still seen as dangerous threats to herd animals).
Assorted memories come back when I take up my post behind the table. Like the rest of the fair, the fiber tent is great for people watching. Once, a teenage boy and girl came to the table, and the girl tried on a pair of black wristlets. She put them back on the display. They left. Then a little while later, the boy returned alone and bought the wristlets. A gift for later. Once Meg Ryan bought a blue hat with stars for her daughter, but I’m terrible at recognizing people and didn’t know it was her until I ran the credit card.
One year a cage with Angora rabbits in it was set up between me and the Jacob sheep pen. The rabbits were huge, bigger than my cat and fluffier than Persians. On the final day of the fair, as we were packing up, I asked to hold one of them. My fingers got lost in its long fur, which felt like a cloud.
It’s something of a revelatory experience to pet a fully-fleeced or furred animal for the first time. It doesn’t really matter how old a person is, but as with so many experiences it’s most striking with young kids. On the first day of the fair, I watched a father help his daughter, who couldn’t have been more than two years old, pet a patient Romney sheep at the far end of the tent. The toddler’s hand went into the thick wool and her face lit up and she giggled. The father-daughter duo repeated this again and again, and the girl’s delight never faded. She kept stretching her hand back toward the sheep, which continued to eat its hay.
These days, most people only see the end product of wool. Jackets, blankets, socks, scarves, like the things I’m selling at the alpaca table. But to actually feel fleece in its raw state on an animal, to recognize that this impossibly useful material is a natural thing, that is something else entirely.
A small boy who visited the alpacas summed it up best after he reached to pet Carlo’s soft fleece. His eyes grew wide.
“How can it be a stuffed animal and alive?” he asked.
I told him that sometimes nature does that, which was not entirely true, but I don’t think he was interested in the six-millennia-long history of alpaca domestication. For sheep, it is an even longer history, about ten thousand years in the making.
The animals in the fiber tent, like all livestock, have been shaped by humans, bred over centuries to produce the quantities and the qualities of fleece they are known for today. There is no such thing as a wild alpaca. There are few species of wild sheep. They’re dependent on us, and we have been dependent on them, in turn, to get where we are today.
This is what the fiber tent is for. It presents the total package, from start to finish. At one end are Andy Rice and his border collie Meg. Andy shows fairgoers how Meg does her roundups and gives shearing demonstrations. There are spinning demonstrations, as the shorn fibers are fed onto a wheel, becoming yarn. There are pots of dye set up, where the spun yarn soaks in colors. People weave on looms. They knit and crochet, connecting the final dots.
It takes time to get to the wristlets and the hats.