One of this year’s “big reads” through the NEA is Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. I read this in college and have lugged around a copy for about two decades. I decided it was time to read it again, and I’m glad I did.
I remember almost nothing from reading it the first time. It truly is an excellent book, and I think very original, especially given it’s publication date (1984). I noticed that it seems more dated and even historical than the first time I read it. Her childhood happened in the early 60s, and that was 60 years ago! However, some things about childhood never change.
Rereading this book made me realize that I am now old enough to reread books, which I never did before. I’ve lived long enough now to have forgotten books I read in my early 20s. I’ve lived long enough now to gain completely new and different insights from some of the books I read in my early 20s. I was also an English major, and so I read a lot of books during that time! I find myself scanning my bookshelf wondering what other old gems could be rediscovered.
The Lais of Marie de France are real bodice rippers, so to speak. You can see how these stories of ancient romance have influenced everything from Shakespeare to Rom Coms since. There is a strong sense of love and loyalty in each story. The same intensity of life and death love stories, like Romeo and Juliet, are played out repeatedly throughout the lais.
I read through these relatively quickly, after learning about them from a dear one’s scholarship. First, I was looking for significance in fabrics and cloth. I also frequently thought about the fabrics having just read A Short History of the World According to Sheep and learning more about the wool and processes (and abuses) that went in to making these fabrics.
Eventually, I just got caught up in each story–the excitement and intensity of the love, the suffering, and the joy. (Though, as with most romance, the “ever after” is short changed, and I think most of us are left wondering how that part’s supposed to work.)
The lais capture an intensity that is unique to human love and courtship, and honestly, I think it’s a really intense thing worthy of our focus. The main characters aren’t being cool or dealing with their baggage. They’re just strong and perfect knights, who win all of their tournaments, and fair and beautiful women, who are kind and loving and good, so much so that a knight would sacrifice his life to her, a life that many other knights had tried taking many times before. That they are already married to someone else or in some way betraying someone else is a liner note.
These lais are over the top, sometimes to the point of being ridiculous, but they are entertaining. And, they have literary merit too, not only because of their rich history and staying power, but because, as I read them, I was also inspired, for the first time in a long time, to write a few poems myself!
My first book of 2022 is A Short History of the World According to Sheep by Sally Coulthard. This isn’t necessarily my genre, but it’s about sheep, and it was recommended somewhere online, and so I read it.
It’s an interesting book, and it did increase my appreciation for sheep and my understanding of the history of sheep and just how closely they lived and evolved with humans. The closer I am to livestock, I continue to be at peace with the omnivore diet. The relationship feels symbiotic, like we evolved together for this sacred purpose. Domestic animals changed significantly living alongside humans and vice versa.
The human relationship to wool was particularly fascinating. Understanding just how much wool has been produced over the years, and how that wool very much helped the evolution of the human species, and the rise of empires, was shocking. It was also difficult to read about the child labor that was used to produce so much of the woolen fabric that was used very nearly every purpose, especially 150 years ago.
Thinking about the domestication process of sheep, and other livestock, was also interesting to me. I had never thought that centuries ago, humans caught newborn wild animals, women may have breastfed them to imprint on them, and that is likely how the domestication process began. It’s shocking to think about.
I found Coulthard’s writing to be somewhat challenging. I would have appreciated a more linear organization. The chapter and subject titles are creative, but don’t add much to the understanding of the content. It’s a work of nonfiction, and those titles didn’t quite seem to fit. Additionally there were many missing transitions throughout, and so I sometimes had a hard time following. By the end, either because I was trained to it, or because the linearity improved, I started to enjoy the organization of the book.
It’s a book worth reading, but this is only especially true for us who really appreciate sheep in the first place.
I read twice as many books this year as the year before, and although this year still felt very hectic, wrapped up entirely with child care, farm prep, and work work, I feel like somehow I hit my stride and was able to read a few books during key breaks throughout the year. Here’s hoping I can continue this pattern into the year ahead.
When I reflect on 2021, I think of the losses from covid, both my cousin and my friend and daycare provider, and the sudden and tragic losses of my “online” friends, Lauren and Kamel. I think of the vaccine! But, then I also think of the conspiracies surrounding the vaccine and the ongoing political strife.
I also think of my beautiful babies, and watching them grow and getting livestock for the first time in my adult life, starting with the bottle calves and ending with the Icelandic and Shetland sheep.
I planted seeds and watched them grow and wilt and die, and I built fence with my own two hands, and sheared sheep, and applied for tenure, fed sourdough starter, and fed my babies, and put them down for naps, and felt overwhelmed and over extended, and also, sometimes, I carved out time for myself, and I made a little time for creativity and joy, and I’m hoping for more of that in the coming year.
The favorites from Instagram this year were a photo of lichen on an old wooden fence, bringing home my Shetland ewe, Lavender, Melody, looking very dark out in the pasture, a blue stripped flower from my great grandma’s garden, which I lost access too this year, unearthing my decades old chore coat to bottle feed calves, orchids reblooming, a new year’s day landscape taken from my home, grape hyacinth in springtime, and a light blue chicory flower that grows like a weed here on my little farm.
When I was a little girl, I was given a bummer lamb (a lamb that needs to be bottle fed) and the 1976 copy of Raising Sheep the Modern Way by Paula Simmons. I named the lamb “Sweet Pea” and loved taking care of my little pet. Growing up on a cattle ranch, I found the size of the cattle to be a little intimidating. I’ve never been a huge horse or dog person (although I’ve met many lovely individuals). Sheep, on the other hand, were just the right size!
I used my birthday money savings and bought two purebred Montadale ewes and started my little sheep herd. I did 4-H and FFA and quickly transitioned to Suffolk and Suffolk cross sheep, since that was primarily the breed used for market lambs in my area. Over the years, I read Raising Sheep the Modern Way many times as a reference book.
I enjoyed every minute of my time raising sheep and always hoped that I would be able to raise them again some day, although, with the price of land and so many other factors, I had a hard time imagining how that would ever happen. My mom kept a little herd after I graduated, but sold them nearly a decade ago. As for me, it’s been over 20 years since I personally owned sheep. Now, so many years later, I am finally at a place where I can raise sheep again. I have a little farm of my own, and this year I began the process of building sheep-tight fences, researching the breed of sheep that would best suit my situation, finding breeders, and, yes, purchasing sheep!
I decided on two polled Icelandic ewes, Frida and Freya, an Icelandic ram, Duncan, two Shetland ewes, Lavender and Melody, and a Shetland ram, Hugh. I wanted a multipurpose breed of sheep, and I wanted to keep the numbers small. The two breeds of sheep, Shetland and Icelandic, are quite similar, both have great wool for spinning in a variety of colors. I will also be doing all of my own shearing, so I also need a smaller breed that is manageable.
Since I have sheep again, I dusted off my old copy of Raising Sheep the Modern Way and read it front to back. This time, I was much more interested in reading about fleeces, recipes, and other sheep-related products that I was less involved with the first time around. It’s a great reference book with an author who is clearly knowledgeable about sheep and loves the species. Over the years, I have read several other sheep reference books, and they are not as good. Frequently, the author has much less experience with sheep, raising them for only a few years before attempting a book, or raising hair sheep, which are far less common, with much different management needs, or they aren’t specializing in sheep, but raising a small flock, alongside many other species of livestock. Meanwhile, the author of this book, is deeply specialized in sheep, with decades of experience.
This book obviously isn’t for everyone, but if you’re raising sheep, or interested in raising sheep, this is the book I recommend.
The author is a friend and colleague, and I’ve enjoyed reading his individual poems here and there and so was pleased to finally sit down and read his latest book, Not Your Happy Dance. And what a delight it was. Each poem was full of beautiful imagery and the kinds of thoughts and feelings that are difficult to name, but true and recognizable in the poems.
Once again, this is a short reading year for me, and so I was grateful for the reprieve that this book delivered. Now, having been read, it sits happily on my campus bookshelf. That’s where I’m keeping most of my books these days, the bulk of my collection having spent the two previous winters in my garage, neglected and still boxed up from my last move.
The place where I work has a relatively large population of Micronesian students. In fact, a summer program for work put this book on my radar, and I’m so glad it did. I find myself wanting to learn more about this population. From the book I read about the indigenous connection to place, language, racism, climate change, climate refugees, refugees from US nuclear testing, food, love, religion, womanhood, family, and more.
I found myself searching for plane tickets. Just how far away are the Marshall Islands?
The Beadworkers by Beth Piatote brought back memories of gingham table clothes and picnics near Clark Creek with Grandma, trips to Omak, where I learned about suicide races, and the smell of tender beef stew from the crock pot, sliding in Grandma’s passenger seat as she accelerated over the railroad tracks, the proper way to make a flowerbed, the importance of reading, assimilation because your life depended on it, adoption.
Piatote knows the inland northwest well, and reading her work is like learning that someone else has the same secret you do. I have a similar feeling when reading authors like Sherman Alexie and Raymond Carver. They know these places and these people too, and it’s so nice to feel seen by them.
Reading is one thing that renews me and gives me a stronger sense of who I am. That sense of who I am has changed in wonderful ways in the past few years as I’ve become a mother, but also in worrisome ways. There is a daily grind, a constant sense of work to be done, no rest for the weary. Reading Piatote’s bio, I saw that she is also a mother, and I felt even more reaffirmed. She is able to remember. So can I.
The book made me feel creative and curious and revitalized, and in reading it, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my job, my colleagues, and my students and the life I get to live that puts me in the way of this literature.
The Nez Percé language throughout the book was powerful to see and sound out.
I’ve long been a fan of her blogs, especially Honey Rock Dawn, and read her second book about raising a coyote, but have really been looking forward to Meditations with Cows, which is about, well, cows and Shreve Stockton’s relationships with them.
The book is beautifully written. New York Times-style think pieces about the environment, the importance of grass, our relationship to food, and especially meat, and the nature of cows are interspersed with personal essays about milking cows, calving cows, and dying cows.
The book helped me think more about the importance of having personal connections to specific pieces of the land, to watch over the same path as the seasons change. There are dreary statistics: “[T]he amount of land owned by the one hundred families with the largest holdings totals forty-two million acres. And this is a 50 percent increase from 2007.” The arguments are absolutely true about our unhealthy and unsustainable relationship to the planet, but I found myself overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it all. Still, the book encouraged a “meditative” approach. One moment, one breath, one choice, and one relationship at a time.
While reading this book, I am currently bottle feeding a little group of calves that for one reason or another could not be raised by their mothers, and so bovines have been heavily on my mind. I grew up on a cattle ranch and ate a lot of red meat growing up. As I grew up, and moved away from the ranch, a choice I made primarily because it is impossible to make a living raising cattle if you’re starting from the ground up, I naturally ate less red meat. I had less access to the good stuff, and store bought meat is just not as good. Finally, after years of work, I have a little place of my own that allows me to have livestock (though not nearly enough to making a living). I wondered if working closely with the cattle again would make me want to stop eating meat for good. Instead, the opposite has happened. I have been surprised to realize that the closer I am to the food source, the more at peace I feel about consuming beef (and chicken and eggs).
Not everyone can raise their own food, and not everyone wants to, but many of us now can have relationships with our farmers, can follow blogs and Instagram to see the life of a farm, the early lettuce sprouting, lambing season, the richness of July, and the cool autumn harvest. Connecting to the place and the food makes it all so much better in every way: spiritually, but also nutritionally, as we know now that foods produced outside of monocultures are more highly nutritious. Our taste buds can also confirm the difference.