After plans fell through to trek to a herding village that’s accessible only by foot, I decided to go visit some folks in a slightly less remote area (2 hours by bus from the main highway, and for one village, another 2 km walk past the last stop). Since this is a higher altitude area than I was in before, it sees less rain during monsoon, and heavy snowfall in the winter. So whereas life was slow and mostly home-bound when I got on the bus, by the time I got off it again, I was in the midst of hustle and bustle to prepare for the winter. On the bus we passed trucks packed with cauliflower and cabbages making their way from the distributed patches of smallholder farms to the vegetable market where individual harvests would be combined and redistributed to roadside sellers. But as important as the cash crops were, the organizing force structuring the day’s work was, you guessed it, the household cows.
Every morning in the household where I stayed, the adult women would be off at sunrise to go cut grass from fallow farm plots. Purshotam and I would spread out the previous day’s grass to finish drying on every flat surface available in the courtyard outside the house, and then he would cook breakfast for the kids and get them off to school. By the time we finished that, Budhi Devi and Mohini would be back with enormous loads of more grass. After a rest, it would be time to fluff up the drying grass, prepare lunch, and maybe for someone to sling a conical basket on their back and head out to another farm plot to harvest cauliflower, or to the horse stables to gather manure for fertilizer. After lunch Purshotam would hike up the mountain to take the cows out to graze, and after some domestic chores, Budhi Devi and Mohini would sharpen their sickles for another round of grass cutting. If the sky threatened rain in the afternoon, whoever was still at home would run outside to quickly pull the grass under cover before it got wet. All this grass, once dry, would be bundled up and stored in the attic to feed the cows through the winter, when they all (bovine and human) might be housebound for days at a time depending on snowfall.
Why do I keep going on about cows and grass? Well, as I mentioned in the last cow post, wool production is part of a whole ecosystem, a web of relationships among plants, animals, and human caretakers. A tense or broken strand in one area can affect strands that are not visibly connected at all, through the redistribution of tension across the whole web. So for example, farmers who have started applying chemical fertilizers to their crops no longer welcome herds of sheep and goats to chomp and poop in their fallow fields. They may, in fact, not have fallow fields at all, as they may be planting crops continuously with no break for regeneration. This reduces the amount of grazing grounds available to herders and changes the nutrient mix that the animals are metabolizing into wool.
And participating in non-wool tasks within people’s daily routines never fails to teach or remind me of something related to wool. Even something as seemingly simple as spreading out grass to dry actually involves a fair amount of skill and detailed environmental knowledge. As I untied bundles the first day, Purshotam demonstrated how to hold them from one end and thrash them against the ground to separate out the longest and thickest grass, the most nutritious of the grasses growing close to the village. He pointed to a slope where lots of it grows, and said that the cows run when they know they’re heading up there to graze. That kind of grass-knowledge is also crucial for shepherds (and I should mention that Purshotam is also a shepherd, and a sheep shearer—I just happened to be visiting when another aspect of his multi-faceted livelihood was predominant). Many herders I’ve talked to have mentioned particular types of grass that grow in the high-altitude pastures where they take their herds during monsoon. They’ve told me things like, an animal eating its way across a field of neeru grass will be noticeably heavier when it reaches the opposite side, or a sheep that eats neeru grass once will not get sick for the whole year. That grass is one of the reasons why the wool from the fall shearing (which I’m still waiting for right now) is the most valuable of the 2-3 yearly shearings.
While I seriously considered chucking it all and becoming a cabbage farmer on those slopes, I did eventually decide I needed to head back down to home base. When I called to let Babli know I was on my way, he sang “we have a surprise for you!” While I was gone, the long-awaited new member of the household had arrived—Jumki’s calf. So my new tangentially-wool-related lesson is how to make ghee, and what to do with all the by-products created along the way. It will certainly prove to be, if nothing else, a tasty tangent.
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