More Cows! And Grass

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.

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Mangla and Purshotam on their way up for an afternoon of mountainside ruminations.

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 Moyni 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 Moyni 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.

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Kidney beans and grass grow at the edges of plots of cilantro and cabbage.

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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I’m tasked with naming this little one–any suggestions?

“Shepherds and Shawls” Paper and Video Now Online

I just submitted my proposal for the next Textile Society of America Symposium in 2020. Fingers crossed that it’s accepted. In the meantime, papers from last year’s symposium are now available online in a couple different formats. My presentation was part of a recorded session, so you can actually watch the thing on Youtube. It’s not as multisensory as the live presentation was–my arm will not break through your laptop screen to hand you a sample of wool. But there is some stuff in there that’s not in the written paper, notably the moment when I bust into song.* I’d highly recommend checking out the whole playlist of video presentations–I saw many of them in person and they were amazing.

Even more really excellent presentations are available in written form in the Proceedings (my paper specifically here). And they are all open access! I am so grateful to TSA for making their symposium proceedings available to the public. When I was considering going to grad school, TSA papers were pretty much the only textile research that I could take a look at to see if it was something I wanted to pursue. And now that I’ve graduated and am no longer able to access most scholarly literature, I’m really reliant on the few open access sources that are out there. Thank you TSA and everyone else who makes it possible for me to continue this work outside academia!

*The line that I chose to sing was a bit of a private joke–it translates to something like “it was time for me to go, but I remembered and I forgot the way.” I thought it sort of applied to the situation I was in, of having to give this presentation after my research went in a completely different direction than I expected when I submitted the proposal. In the context of the song it’s from, it has rather a different connotation, as you’ll be able to infer from this somewhat melodramatic music video.

Cows

I know, this is a business built around sheep, but hear me out: Himachali wool production is part of a diversified agropastoral system, and understanding how all the pieces fit together is important. And right now, it’s all about the cows. More specifically, this cow:

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Meet Jumki. Twice a day, someone (usually Sumnadevi) has to take Jumki out to graze. During the morning grazing, it’s also time to cut grass to store for the winter.

The afternoon graze is a little more relaxed, allowing for some ambulatory knitting and village gossip shouted from one meadow to another.

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Then there’s mucking out her stall, bringing her a bucket full of kitchen scraps, and…probably plenty of other tasks that I don’t know about. All this, and we’re drinking black tea every day–there’s no milk. Why? Because Jumki is pregnant. After she gives birth, I’m told there will more than my host household can use on their own–even after teaching me how to make yogurt, and lassi, and ghee.

Most of the households I’ve stayed in when traveling in Himachal include at least one cow. I’m often instructed that I need to meet the cow, and there’s a certain smile of pride and fondness that seems to always come to my hosts’ faces when I ask what the cow’s name is. The same pride is evident in their voices when they inform me that the heart-palpating quantity of ghee that they are pouring over my plate of food is home-made. It’s a relationship that can’t be summed up purely in terms of production or economics. And it’s not just cows and dairy, either–I’ve been served home-grown rice, wheat, corn, vegetables, kidney beans, tea, and honey, all proudly identified as “desi.” I learned that word as meaning “local” or “native” but it seems to have much more complex connotations, which I’ll be exploring (especially in relation to sheep breed identification) over the coming months. Hopefully over many cups of milk tea and piles of home-grown rice doused with freshly made ghee.

Monsoon!

One question I get a lot every time I am getting ready to come to India is, “when is monsoon?” And since 4 out of 5 trips I’ve come in August, the answer is usually “now.” As evidence, I present the view from the verandah:

Apparently it was dry for a few days right before I got to this village, which is fortunate because it meant I was actually able to get here. The afternoon after my arrival, Sumnadevi and I stood on the verandah and watched the courtyard become a pond. “How will I go to my maika?” she asked, as she was preparing to go visit relatives a 2-hour bus ride away. “Swimming!” I replied. “Yes! I’ll go by fish!” she laughed.

So for the moment I’m mostly house-bound, both because there are only a few hours of clear sky per day in which to get out and about, and because with Sumnadevi gone (she did eventually catch a bus, not a fish) I’m tasked with rolling out the morning roti and keeping an eye on Jumki the cow while she grazes the slope just above the house. I don’t mind—it’s still a few weeks to go before the herds come down for shearing, and learning how wool-producing households function is part of why I’m here. Plus I have ample opportunity to ponder non-capitalist engagements with time as I make and drink chai, weave in the ends of yarn on hats I’ve knit to give out to folks, and pull drying clothes off the line and then hang them back up again. That’s totally standard business practice, right?

Collaborations: Kullvi Whims

It was like a game of musical chairs in reverse, only with no chairs. And no music except for the chorus of cheerful namaskaars that erupted each time another woman entered the shop, causing whoever was sitting on the one cushion to shift over onto the floor, imploring the newcomer to sit on it. The resulting volley of refusals led to a second chorus of laughter, the whole round beginning again when the next woman arrived.

This was the beginning of my meeting with members of the Kullvi Whims Self-Help Group to debrief with them after our first round of developing knitwear for sale in the US. We gathered in the small shopfront from which one of the members teaches sewing and custom tailors clothing for local women. When I arrived before the meeting, Kusum was assembling coin purses made from tailoring scraps while her youngest sons tried their hands at the sewing machine.

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After all nine women had arrived, we passed around my phone to show photos of the craft booth I had set up last month, discussed customer feedback, and planned for future orders. Tea arrived from a nearby snack stall, and talk turned to a proposed day trip up the mountainside to harvest dye plants. The conversation unwound into multiple strands of chatter as Lata outlined the medicinal uses of a tea made from tree bark that also produces a salmon pink dye, Sapna schemed to collect a particularly prized mushroom while we were up in the jungle, and Mamiji mused about what refreshments to bring along.

Eventually, everyone got up to leave–they were needed at the temple, where preparations were underway for an evening celebration. On the way back down to my homestay, I stopped to snap a few more photos of them, now circled around hot griddles flipping roti after roti and laughing just as much as before.

I returned a few hours later and squeezed into one of the rows of villagers seated on mats, waiting to be served by men and boys roaming the area with kettles, pots, and ladles. My out-of-practice fingers struggled to scoop up soupy kheer (rice pudding) and tear off pieces of roti with which to enfold bites of aloo and chana. I thought about the skilled hands of my friends, grateful to be included in their circle and looking forward to learning more from them in the days to come.