Rancho Borrego Negro is home to white sheep, black sheep, black fish, a black-and-white sheepdog, and a couple of near-black llamas, but for Kathy Gluesenkamp, the hardest thing to produce on the Ranch of the Black Sheep was a brown sheep.
“For years I tried to get a brown,” Kathy told me on my first visit to her farm in Fallbrook, “and I did foolish things. I paid sight unseen for two sheep to be flown out from Indiana because the guy said they were real browns, and they weren’t. They got here and they were just dirty.”
The couple of dozen brown and not-brown sheep in the corral were dirty, as sheep tend to be, and I tried to picture the Indiana tricksters on the plane. Probably they passed the time snacking, as they were doing now. A few llamas stood regally in their midst and studied us through porn-star eyelashes. It was a sunny morning in June, and the air was so clear that the hills were cobalt, which meant that soon it was going to be searingly hot.
After the Indiana brown-sheep fiasco, Kathy tried a wild species called Barbados. “They’re really just kind of hobby sheep,” she said. “They’re not good for meat and they’re not good for wool, but they are brown. So I bought some of those.”
That didn’t work either. She still couldn’t breed any real browns. So last year at the Los Angeles County Fair, “a woman I know was showing these, and she had managed to develop a really nice brown strain, so I thought, Screw it, I’ll just buy some.”
Kathy Gluesenkamp does and doesn’t look like a person who spends most of her leisure time in pursuit of naturally tinted wool. Her hair is long and naturally silver, and she wears half-glasses and natural cotton blouses and natural shoes. As for natural wool clothing, she doesn’t wear much of it because this is, after all, Fallbrook. When I first met her nine years ago, Kathy owned the only bookstore in town, an occupation that proved even more romantic than raising sheep. The bookstore closed in 1999, so now she has just two full-time jobs: teaching high school and middle-school resource classes and fiber ranching.
Like most romantics, Kathy has a hard time throwing anything away. The first time I visited Rancho Borrego Negro, a blob the size of a Labrador sat heaped on the patio of her red-and-white farmhouse. The blob moved in the breeze like a big dust bunny. It was, to put it mildly, filthy. It turned out to be the wool that came off one of her ex-husband’s sheep, and although it was too dirty to spin, she couldn’t quite bring herself to toss it out. Kathy has spun everything over the years, including fox fur, llama wool, goat hair, raw cotton, and dog hair, so maybe a use for the blob would present itself, as it might for her daughter Ivy’s ponytail.
Ivy, who is 24, had just departed for a seven-month stay in Guatemala, in preparation for which she had dispensed with most of her hair. Kathy showed me the snipped-off ponytail, a slim blond hank like what you sometimes see on humorous ball caps, and she joked, at first, that she might try to spin it, then said they could donate it to one of those places that turns hair into wigs for pediatric cancer patients. Anyway, she said, human hair makes really nasty yarn.
Kathy knows this sort of thing — what’s spinnable, what’s not — because 25 years ago, one of her three children couldn’t drink cow’s milk. For most people, this means either a life without ice cream, cheese, or cold milk or a constant supply of Lactaid tablets. For Kathy, it meant farming. The Gluesenkamps were already into what Kathy calls that ’70s thing, by which she means they raised rabbits for meat and made their own bread, so why not buy dairy goats? They fed them. They milked them. They enjoyed that. So when a college-bound 4-H kid wanted to sell his sheep, Kathy bought them.
Then it came time for the sheep to be sheared, and Kathy had a bunch of wool on her hands. It wasn’t good wool because they were Suffolks, the big, meaty sheep that you see on the auction block at the Del Mar Fair, but it looked too good to throw out. Kathy painstakingly, laboriously cleaned the Suffolk wool with carding paddles (imagine leaving your hair uncombed for a year and you get some idea how long this would take), and then she learned to spin on what’s called a Navajo spindle — a stick you roll along your thigh until you’ve pretty much worn through your pants — and then when she finally had enough yarn, she knitted a sweater for her father.
“He felt so bad for me,” she said, “because he saw how I did it, that he made me a spinning wheel the following year.”
That wheel was persnickety — too hard for a beginner, Kathy said — so she bought another one, and then another, and now she has nine. She kept the animals even after her children, for whom they were ostensibly bought, had grown up and earned Ph.D.s and begun traveling to places like Ecuador and Guatemala.
Since one Ph.D. is a herpetologist and the other is a biologist, I just assumed Kathy had passed her enthusiasm for beasts to her children, but I was wrong.
“They don’t like this life at all,” said Kathy. “They think it’s wasting my time and energy and that it’s killing me, which it might be.” After thinking it over, she joked that they furthermore “see any hope of an inheritance being quickly processed into big piles of poop.”
It’s true that the life of the shepherdess is not Bo-Peepian. In the spare time left over after teaching, Kathy must herd the Jacob ewes in with the Lincoln ram for a breeding session, tie canvas coats on the new merinos so their wool won’t get matted with hay, shear 350-pound llamas who don’t want to be sheared (and who express this by slamming her against the pen), and feed, feed, feed them all. She must find shearers for the sheep, butchers or buyers for the lambs, freezer space for the meat. She must bury the sheep when they die of natural causes, and if she wants to avoid throwing the skins away after the butcher comes (which, of course, she does), she must dry the bloody, salted skins on a table and ship them to a tannery. Then she must find a customer for the fleeces, because otherwise how will she pay for all that hay, and the shearing, and the tanning, and the little canvas coats? And besides the everyday jobs, there are the bizarre ones, as when two of her llamas recently conceived twins and miscarried.
Llamas, Kathy told me, don’t normally twin. So when hers did, she went online and wrote, “Is this weird, or what?” to the people in her wool chat group, and someone at the University of Washington wrote back to say she was studying this very thing and would Kathy please send it?, meaning the aborted fetuses and related tissue. So Kathy, unrepulsed, called the herpetologist son for instructions, and he told her to get a beer cooler and pack the fetuses in dry ice and label the package “live specimens.” Then she sent them by overnight mail at her own expense.
“I was hoping that if I contributed to the research,” she said, “I would hear something informative,” and by sending it away, of course, she was not throwing it away.
At the end of each sheep year and the start of the long hot summer, Kathy throws a shearing party. She invites other spinners and those who long for a more elemental life to come watch wool flow off the razor into a luscious brown heap. For Kathy, the party means catching, penning, and somehow dragging each of several dozen sheep up the hill to a shady, clean platform, called “the boards” in shearing parlance. When the shearer’s finished, Kathy loads a syringe, gives each sheep a booster shot, sets the sheep upright again, drags it back to the pen, and comes back up to shake off the good wool, put it in a bag, label it, throw the dirty wool in a trash can, sweep the boards for the next sheep, and start all over again.
Meanwhile, spinners spin, knitters knit, farmers buy lambs, children ask how, exactly, Sleeping Beauty pricked herself to death, and everyone eats roast lamb. Last summer, Kathy envisioned a rustic, rotating spit, so she had the butcher just cut the carcass in halves. The barbecue man then informed her that he didn’t know how to spit-roast.
“So the night before the shearing,” Kathy said, “I’m there with my little paring knife, chopping this thing.” She got it into roastable chunks, and everyone had a nice, elemental meal, but like spinning your own wool, the whole process was more work than most people like to take on. It was also more work to find a shearer than it’s been in previous years.
“It’s very hard to find anybody to butcher the sheep or to shear the sheep,” Kathy told me. “It’s when I feel like a real dinosaur.”
Yes, Sir, Yes, Sir, Three Bags Full
San Diego County has never been sheep country. In 1940, the earliest year for which the state Department of Agriculture has data, there were 53 farms here supporting about 4000 sheep. In California as a whole, there were 7755 farms and nearly 2.5 million sheep in 1940, meaning that less than one quarter of 1 percent of the state’s sheep grazed here. By 1997, there were half as many farms in California, and the number of sheep had dropped by nearly 70 percent. In San Diego County, meanwhile, a curious thing had happened. There were, as you would expect, fewer sheep (990), but there were more farms than in 1940 — up to 77 from 53. That suggests that a lot of people are doing what Kathy does — raising Moorits, Lincolns, Jacobs, Corriedales, merinos, or Suffolks as a hobby.
Shearers, consequently, aren’t numerous here, but scarcity is just the beginning of the problem if you want to throw a shearing party. Most shearers, Kathy said, “are just guys who do the meat sheep or the range flocks and they just get the wool off and clean up the sheep, and they don’t care what the wool looks like.” Hand spinners, of course, do care what the wool looks like. The wool is the whole point.
Kathy thought she had somebody fastidious last year who didn’t mind spectators, but he called two days before the party and canceled. It wasn’t just the party. He said he wasn’t going to do any more shearing ever again for anybody. He was old now and he didn’t want to heft sheep anymore.
“That’s where the Internet comes in,” Kathy said. She found another fellow, again quite old. Kathy thought shearing was his main occupation, but it turned out he works nights in a prison. He came, but he nearly killed himself shearing Kathy’s sheep and now plans to retire his clippers.
In the interest of seeing what makes prison guarding look easy, I went to watch 19-year-old Erica Pelke, who’d been in the running for Kathy’s party gig but had a bad neck at the time, shear four or five sheep on a Friday morning in late June.
The Pelkes live in Poway, off one of those long, planned suburban parkways with sidewalks that wind through weedy eucalyptus trees. Beside a Mormon church and stucco tract houses, the Pelkes’ long driveway pops with old-fashioned dust and gravel, and the suburb turns, rather abruptly, into the country: horses, sheep, pickups, horse trailers, and a row of Dogloos.
“We trial sheepdogs,” Terry Pelke, Erica’s mother, told me. That’s why they have sheep — to give the Border collies something to practice with at home. The collies led to the sheep, the sheep led Erica to try shearing as a part-time job, and three years later, here she was, in a pen with a small herd of bleating ruminants.
Poway isn’t any cooler than Fallbrook, and the Pelkes live on about six acres, most of it sun-cooked dirt. In the slightly cooler shade under a metal awning, two horses snuffled alfalfa dust and took big alfalfa flakes between their lips and dropped soft clumps of consumed alfalfa in polite heaps that Terry Pelke quickly, in the manner of a housewife tidying up a kitchen, deposited in bins.
Between the paddocks of the calm, snuffling horses, Erica Pelke pinned a decidedly uncalm 140-pound ewe between her legs, wrestled the ewe to its back, and pushed a whirring toothed razor along a cream-colored belly until the ewe smacked the wooden platform with her hooves and writhed so far out of position that Erica had to yank a cord and turn off the motor, which was mounted on a pedestal beside her. After enough cord-yanking and sweating and sheep-grappling to exhaust Sylvester Stallone, the sheep was naked, the wool lay in a lathery heap, and Erica was making not entirely jocular remarks about barbecued mutton.
While Erica dragged the next one over, I mentioned Kathy Gluesenkamp’s shearing party to Terry Pelke, who reacted with what I can only call shock. The notion of partying with your sheep, especially while shearing them, had not previously occurred to her, and wouldn’t, I would guess, occur to her in the future.
Terry and Erica tossed out bits of information between rounds, such as that Erica had attended a shearing school up in the Bay Area, where she worked in wooden pens fitted with curtains. There she learned the New Zealand style, in which no ropes are used to tie skittish feet.
“I learned it up there where they have hundreds and thousands of Rambouillets that need to be done,” she said, “and I come back down here and I’ve got Barbados crosses, I’ve got Dorsets, I’ve got Karakuls…”
“A lot of mixes,” her mother added.
“…and every sheep’s different. A lot of the Barbados crosses, like 90 percent of ’em, just want to get away — they don’t want to have to lie there. So you’ll get one that’ll kick you in the face.”
“Well,” her mother said, “Barbados don’t ever have to be sheared, and then they cross them.”
“And the position,” Erica went on, “they just get themselves out of it, and so that’s when you have to tie ’em up, but I never learned that way, so I don’t want to try it because they can pull their feet out of rope really quick.”
Erica drank some water and coaxed the next cranky Dorset to the platform. While she tussled and shaved, Erica’s mother pointed out how Erica changed her feet and body positions so the wool would roll off in one piece. In competition, Terry Pelke said, “We have graders who come in and pick the wool up, and they’ll throw it out and grade it. They’ll have, like, three — A, B, and C — piles. They’ll look at it and they’ll throw it on the table and they’ll pull the guck out of it and you get more money for the premium wool. They compete at this all over the world,” she said. “Piles as high as the barn.”
The pile of wool I’m watching now is as high as the terrier who’s sniffing around underfoot. The Pelkes don’t spin, and neither does the sheep owner, a chatty rancher in a ball cap.
“I’ve got a whole shed full of it,” he said. “Bags and bags.” He said he used to put the wool into 300-pound burlap bags, stomp ’em down, and haul ’em up to Corona to sell. But that was when the wool was worth $1.70 a pound. Now it’s worth about 25 cents.
Hand spinners wouldn’t take it, even for free, because the wool was chock-full of hay and guck to begin with, and when Erica shaved it off the ewes, it curled down onto a small wooden platform, where it got still dirtier. Once the ewe was naked, Erica tossed the fleece on a pile in the dirt, where it mixed with more dust and hay.
This wasn’t bad for everyone. The little terrier, seeing his chance, nipped a hunk of sheep manure and carried it stealthily away to chew on. Terry Pelke, meanwhile, held up a hunk of wool for me and pulled it apart, saying the kinky look of it meant the ewe had lice. Lice gave me pause. Lice, along with the guck, persuaded me that I was not too romantic to leave this wool in trash bags on the curb.
Meanwhile, the Dorset kicked wildly. With help from her mother and the chatty rancher, Erica flipped the ewe back down on its back, yanked on the cord to fire up the electric shears, and started shaving. The sheep kicked and wriggled out of position again.
“This wool does not cut worth a damn,” Erica said, and yanked on the cord.
If you saw Erica at the Olympics, you’d peg her as a swimmer, or maybe a speed skater. She’s freckled and cheerful and strong and American, the type of teenager you see in the barns at the fair and then feel hopeful about Today’s Youth. Her hair is short and wavy, cut to about chin length, and curling out in a clean, attractive way from her ball cap, which darkens with sweat as the shearing wears on. Bits of wool stick to her dark blue T-shirt, and sheep oil and grime stiffen her Wrangler jeans, which will not come clean, her mother informed me, without a whole bottle of Simple Green detergent.
The peculiar thing about Erica’s shearing outfit is her footwear. From a distance she seems to be wearing elf shoes: little moccasins that curl up at the tips. How charming! I thought. How organic! I assumed that the sheep, feeling Erica’s feet through shearling moccasins, would be soothed by a sheep-to-sheep sensation, even when she had to step on their heads a little bit.
“Generally you don’t have to step on their heads,” Erica said, and although the sheep do respond to the fact that she smells more and more like a fellow sheep as the shearing wears on, they don’t find the shoes — which are felt, not lambskin — especially soothing.
“My grandma made ’em,” Erica said. “They were kinda just like a prototype. They’re really, really big so I had to duct-tape ’em.”
If it hadn’t been for her grandmother’s gumption, Erica would have had to buy shearing moccasins from an Australian company for $40.
“When you’re shearing, you’re on the outside of your foot, you’re on the toes, you’re kind of, like, all over the place, and when you’re in sneakers, it can really get painful, because they have a sole in there.” Career shearers can buy shearing jeans (tight and smooth like riding breeches) and shearing belts and whatnot, but Erica is already $2500 into shearing equipment and this is just a summer job.
People ask her all the time why she does it, and sometimes, she told me, she doesn’t know. Initially, she thought it would be fun. She’s gotten to the point now where she can pick and choose her clients, and it’s a nice, flexible job that earns her a couple thousand dollars per summer. She gets to travel — up to Northern California, and as far as New Mexico, once, but mostly to rural places in the county, such as Julian.
“What’s cool about it,” she said, rolling the cap of her water bottle back and forth between her fingers, “is it’s something to fall back on if you’re in between jobs or something. But I’m looking into going to college and doing something else.” Then she got up and went to wrestle another sheep.
The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker
As grimy and exhausting as shearing is, it looks fun beside slaughtering them. You would not, under any circumstances, hold a slaughtering party. Still, if you own as many sheep as Kathy does and you’re not a vegetarian, it’s going to occur to you to use them for more than a yarn source. There’s moussaka and paté and stew meat out there, so why buy the same thing at the grocery store? One hundred seventy-six lambs were auctioned off at the Del Mar Fair last summer, and every one of them was sold for its meat. Most of them were then killed and cleaned by Paul Schaner or Jason Stone.
Paul Schaner lives with his wife and seven children on a farm in Placentia. When he drives around Orange and San Diego Counties to kill and clean the cows, sheep, and hogs raised by farmers, 4-H kids, and Future Farmers of America, he and his two oldest sons sit in the cab of a truck he bought from a butcher in Oregon. The long, ribby carcasses hang on hooks in the back, but you wouldn’t know that Paul and his two boys, 13-year-old Justin and 10-year-old Josh, are hauling meat back there unless you looked very closely at the side of the truck. The words “Custom Butchering” and the old phone number in Oregon have been sanded off the side. Paul says that people tell him he ought to get his own name and number painted on there to attract more business, but he doesn’t want an animal-rights activist to follow him home. He says butcher shops have been burned down. Anyway, he gets as much work as he can handle by word of mouth.
Paul learned how to butcher, he told me, from an old guy in Orange County who’d been doing it since the ’40s. Although he and his family raise beef, sheep, pigs, and chickens, he didn’t learn the trade just so he could prepare his own animals.
“My dad has an auto-repair shop,” he said, “and I just got tired of working on cars. They weren’t fun to work on anymore — computerized stuff.” He might go back to cars in the future, though, because he’s putting a lot of miles on the truck driving to Poway, Valley Center, Fallbrook, and other towns where kids raise animals for the fair. The driving means he’s gone from home a lot, which he doesn’t like.
“And then I have trouble with my elbow. I remember one of the old-timers said that this will make an old man out of you. But these boys are such good help now, if I hang on and do it till they’re 16 or 17, it’d be a pretty good Saturday job for them.”
For Paul Schaner, butchering is part of a disappearing world, one in which it’s not crazy to have seven children or eat meat you raise yourself. He moves and talks with the confidence that comes from knowing how to do things with your hands that other people are afraid to do. On the day that I watched him clean three sheep at the far end of a Valley Center orange grove, he was unfazed by the searing noonday heat or the way it intensified the smell of wet dung, wet wool, offal, and digested alfalfa. Hosing down his hands, he said that when he was growing up, his parents warned him what was going to happen to their animals, but it didn’t sink in until he saw what I was seeing.
“I was pretty mad at the butcher when he came and butchered our first one when I was five,” he said. “That’s when we learned.”
I had meant to arrive before Paul killed the sheep, to see it all unflinchingly from start to finish, but I got there too late, and all three sheep lay dead on the ground.
“We used a stunner,” Paul said when I asked. “Right into the brain and it kills them. They’re brain-dead. Then you slit the throat.”
This more or less eliminated the need for me to be mad at the butcher. There’s a big difference, I would learn later, between watching someone clean a sheep and watching someone kill it.
But now it was time to skin the first one. Paul hung the carcass by both legs on a winch, stringing it there between tendon and bone like a heavy pendant. Then he did what butchers call “fisting”: instead of cutting the fleece off with a knife, he pushed his hand between the flesh and the skin.
“There’s no market for them now,” Paul said, meaning the fleece he was going to such pains to remove in one piece. “We’re getting a lot of stuff from New Zealand. It’s cheaper to have it tanned and shipped over. And now, see, the U.S. has such strict rules on tanning solutions — like, I ship them to San Francisco to have them tanned, but if you get one out of Brazil, the hide guy says that they’re so much better. It’s cheaper and they’re better-quality leather because they can use all those toxic chemicals.”
As he worked, Paul used water constantly, spraying his hands and the carcass every few minutes. In all that water, the suspended carcass looked like something you’d have on your kitchen counter. The skin was pearly and pink-white. It glistened in the sun. The smell was stronger than the smell of chicken flesh in a package but otherwise not that bad, at least not until he gutted it.
The boys stepped in to help when Paul directed them to do something, as he did now that it was time to do the gutting. Like their dad, Justin and Josh wore rubber aprons, boots, and knife belts. They’ve had their own knives, Paul said, since they were about six. Despite the heat, the mud, the splattering water, and the blood, despite the fact that they had been working all morning and would work all afternoon, they neither sulked nor complained. One matter-of-factly slit the enormous four-chambered stomach to pour the soft, slippery alfalfa into the bushes. Then he dropped the stomach into the renderer’s barrel. Gray intestines, like ropes of wet dough, followed the stomach. In Scotland, the stomach, liver, heart, and lungs would have been supper material, but ours is not a haggis-eating culture.
I asked if Paul had personally been pursued by animal-rights activists. “Not really,” he said, though once when he was slaughtering animals at a school, someone called him a mass murderer.
Paul stopped to dunk his hands and shoot water on the sheep’s now-empty interior. Over the hiss of the hose, he said, “There’s a lady that did this thing about the fifth quarter — that’s everything I throw in the barrel — she’d go around to these schools and drive through the parking lot and see a bumper sticker that says ‘Meat is Murder,’ and she’d go to the people and tell them that what holds that bumper sticker to the bumper is beef blood to make that glue.”
Paul has heard people say they don’t need farmers because they can just buy the food at the store. People say, “Oh, you let your kids see that?”
“Yeah,” he tells them. “It’s an art.” He sprayed his hands again and slid the sheep, which had weighed 120 pounds on the hoof and now hung at half that, into the truck, where 200-pound pig carcasses were already suspended.
“I like the pigs the best because — just the artwork.” He showed me the long, even stroke marks where he’d scraped off the pig hair.
“For some people,” he said, “they do it, it’s just a job, but I treat it like people’s food. I always treat it like I’m going to feed it to my kids.”
Jason Stone, the guy Kathy Gluesenkamp calls up-and-coming, and also, jokingly, “the killer,” lives in Hemet. Jason is 27 and wears a goatee. He drives an old, faded, unmarked truck to jobs in Banning, Cabazon, Perris, Winchester, Temecula, Fallbrook, Vista, and as far south as Rancho Santa Fe. He’s been in the meat business for eight years — five of them at a butcher shop in Perris.
When I drove up to Rancho Borrego Negro one morning a month or so after I watched Paul Schaner clean sheep, a brown ram lay dead in the maroon, blood-soaked dirt. I thought — with some relief — that I had once again arrived too late. But an apologetic guy in a T-shirt that said “Jason Stone Butchering” was dragging a reluctant hundred-pound lamb from the corral. I mistook him, at first, for Jason, but it was Brandon Stone, Jason’s younger brother, who normally works construction. While I stood by my car, Brandon and Jason struggled to get the lamb down on the ground. Then Brandon held her still while Jason matter-of-factly thrust a knife into her throat and cut across it.
No stunner, no instant brain death. This wasn’t quite what I expected, and everything that happened for the next few minutes was disturbingly loud. At first there was so much blood that it actually went glug-glug-glug. I’m an enthusiastic carnivore, I wear leather, I wear suede, and I pad around the house in shearling slippers, so I felt a responsibility to watch, but the blood flowed out quickly and copiously from the neck of a very alert lamb for what felt like a very long time.
Meanwhile, it was Brandon’s job to hold the sheep. He pressed gently down on her side with his knee, and Jason went about his business, which was to get the hose and the winch ready. Neither of them spoke. They were waiting for this part to be over, and it wasn’t over. The blood kept pulsing out onto the dirt, and the ewe kept stretching her jaw out as if for air, and Brandon kept holding her legs, gently, apologetically, with what looked like unwilling resignation.
Jason pushed a switch on the back of his truck and the winch — loudly, gratingly — descended. The sheep heard it, and I heard it. Jason dragged the water hose over and tested the sprayer. He looked at the sheep. She wasn’t dead yet.
Finally, though, she stopped pushing her head forward and exposing her white teeth. Her legs stopped moving. Brandon checked her eye and visibly relaxed. He stood up. It was clear that we could talk now. I introduced myself, and he said he was Brandon, not Jason. He said he didn’t like doing that. Killing them, he said, is the worst part.
They dragged the dead ram, the one that was dead when I arrived, closer to the truck, and Jason started skinning it on the ground instead of in the air. I flipped on my tape recorder and tried not to sound like a peta activist when I asked why he doesn’t use a gun.
Too dangerous, he said. Once while he was watching the butcher who trained him, the butcher shot a lamb in the head, “and the bullet went in and came out the side and went into another lamb that he didn’t want to slaughter that day.”
The forehead of a sheep is very thick, Jason said, because they butt up against fences and “it gains cartilage and then the cartilage turns into bone, but the sides, they remain fairly thin.” A .22 magnum, which is what Jason’s trainer used, will kill pretty much anything, he said.
“Now if this were out in the middle of nowhere,” he said, “and I couldn’t catch it, then I would shoot it, but because I can catch it, it’s so much easier just to cut ’em and not have to deal with a bullet coming out.”
Before he started driving around as a custom butcher, Jason cut and wrapped meat in a Perris shop. Now that he has his own truck, he kills more pigs than any other animal. He also does a lot of beef. The only thing he’s ever been squeamish about, he said, was the part I just watched him do: killing lambs. When I asked how he got over it, he said, “You look at it as dollar signs. Money. A job. And, you know, ‘If I didn’t do it, somebody else would.’ ”
Jason worked, like Paul had, as we talked. You could tell they learned their trade from different men: Jason cuts off the skin instead of fisting it, so he has to sharpen his knife constantly. The sound of Paul butchering is the sound of water; the sound of Jason butchering is the sound of a knife swishing back and forth on a file. Overhead, the crows called to each other monotonously. Kathy’s dogs barked. Caw, caw, caw. Swish, swish, swish.
Jason sends the hooves, heads, and hides to the same Los Angeles rendering plant that Paul uses, and the same company, Styles Animal Removal, comes to pick up the parts every Wednesday and Friday. For this reason, Jason said, he no longer butchers on Mondays. Too long a wait till Wednesday.
I mentioned that I tried to talk to Steve Styles of Styles Animal Removal. “We don’t want to talk about our industry, quite frankly,” Steve had said and referred me to the nra. I thought this was a strange suggestion until he told me it stood for the National Renderer’s Association (who also ignored my phone calls). All Steve would tell me is that wool is useless now and that he had to dump the hides of sheep — had to pay to get rid of them.
For a while, Jason had his own disposal problem after he argued with Steve and told Steve, in a fit of pique, to go shove it. Steve, in turn, told Jason to find someone else to pick up his inedibles, knowing, perhaps, how impossible that would be.
“There is nobody,” Jason said, “from L.A. to San Diego County. There’s nobody. So I had to take it to the dump for a long time. And then finally he started picking up again.”
When Jason had finished removing the fleece, he tossed it aside and strung the carcass on his winch. Brandon had the same job as Paul Schaner’s boys — stomach disposal — but he carried it the way you might carry, well, a sheep’s stomach, and when some of the goo splattered his shoes, he looked down in obvious disgust and tried to wipe it off in the dirt, thinking, probably, about the joys of construction work.
Kathy uses more of her sheep than most people. She likes to make paté, so she keeps the liver. She sells or gives away the fleeces, so Jason would salt them before he left, and she would stretch them out to dry under screen doors and chairs (to prevent coyotes from dragging them away). Once, Kathy told me, one of her friends even came over to fetch the innards for a batch of homemade haggis, so Jason (who said, “You’re going to make what?”) obligingly saved the windpipe (which is draped over the pot as a chimney for impurities), stomach, liver, heart, lungs, and kidneys.
Remembering Terry Pelke’s comment about how much Simple Green detergent it takes to remove lanolin from denim, I asked Jason if he had a hard time cleaning his clothes.
“The only thing that I wash is my shirts,” he said. “I send my pants to a uniform company. But my hands smell — I’ll wash my hands 15, 20 times and they still smell.” He’s tried lemon juice, lemon soap, and Lava soap. “I even sprayed, like, perfume on them, cologne, and still you could smell it through the cologne.” The worst offender is pig. Pig really lingers.
Like most Americans, Jason doesn’t eat much lamb. He doesn’t eat much pork or beef either. “I eat a lot of chicken,” he said.
I left before Jason hung all five sheep. I left, to be more specific, before he bled the last three. I said it was because I had to nurse my baby, but I knew it was mostly because I didn’t want to stand there in my leather shoes and watch again. As I drove away, I thought about what Jason had said when I asked, “Do you think you’ll do it your whole life?”
“No-o-o-o,” he said.
“What are you hoping to do after this?”
“Right now,” he said, “I don’t know. I’d like to do what my dad does. He’s in real estate. There’s not the money anymore in this” — custom butchering — “that there was ten years ago.”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked.
“All the new tract houses,” he said. “All the city folk coming in.”
I drove, as Jason and Brandon Stone would do an hour or so later, past the pristine new tract houses on Green Canyon Road. Most were still unfinished and pure-looking, but come fall, new families would move in. Footsteps would echo across clean linoleum floors, and someone with a hand that smelled of cologne, not pigs, would select a nice pink package of meat. No blood, no winch, just the rip of plastic, and overhead, if the windows were open, the caw of crows.
On a cloudy morning in mid-July, I took my baby and a bag of dirty wool to a meeting of the Palomar Handweavers’ Guild. The wool, like that blob on Kathy’s patio, had come from Kathy’s ex-husband’s flock. A friend had washed it five times in her washing machine, but it was still sepia and gamey-smelling, perfect raw material for der Rockenstube.
The Rockenstube was to 15th- and 16th-century German villagers what massage parlors are to us. According to a historian named Linda Stone-Ferrier, the city fathers intended the spinning room to be a nice, warm place where women could spin and wind yarn beside the same fire, thus saving a few Deutschemarks. But men began to collect there after hours, and everyone had a little too much fun spinning and winding. The Rockenstube became a house of ill-repute. The mere notion of a German spinning room was so erotic, in fact, that Dutch artists — who had no spinning rooms of their own to visit — made racy woodcuts of bonneted women cavorting with men among the distaffs.
No one was cavorting at the Vista Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum when I arrived for a guild meeting, but there was a nice pink box of donuts on the table. A half-dozen women — gray-haired, white-haired, and unbonneted — had brought their knitting needles or their wheels. A rogue male sat among them, but he clearly wasn’t there to meet chicks. His name was Bill Rafnel, and he was there to work.
Bill Rafnel is a former Navy chaplain who became a professional weaver when he retired 15 years ago. He once built his own loom and sold it for a month’s rent, and to the handweavers’ meeting he’d brought a basket of yarn balls and fluffy lengths of ready-to-spin wool called roving. He set up what looked like an antique Saxony spinning wheel, and then, upon hearing that I was iffy about my carding technique, he pulled out a pair of hand cards and started whipping the wool back and forth.
A hand card resembles a Ping-Pong paddle but with tines. The tines are curved and pushpin sharp so that you can, in raking them together, comb knotted-up blobs of wool into locks. Had Sleeping Beauty been warned about the danger of pricking her finger on hand cards, she would have kept her distance. Bill, however, paid no attention to the blood that soon beaded on his finger. He just kept whipping that wool into fluff.
In what felt like seconds, he’d whipped out a puni — a six-inch, cigar-shaped roll that’s ready to be stretched and spun into yarn. (As a point of comparison, in the time it takes me to scrape out a puni and disinfect a lacerated knuckle, you could go to the kitchen, make yourself a sandwich, and eat most of it.)
Then Bill began to spin with a Turkish drop spindle. Essentially a wooden ball with dowels poked through it, a Turkish spindle looks, when it isn’t moving, like a nice artifact for museum types. In Bill’s hands, though, it seemed like the next big thing from Mattel. The spindle flew below him like a yo-yo while he stretched and stretched the yarn, and if Bill had been an itinerant merchant stopping by my yurt, he could have sold me a spindle in less time than it took him to roll a puni.
While he spun, Bill dispensed historical data. Turkey, he told me, was the cradle of civilization, and the drop spindle was used there in the early Bronze Age, meaning it dates back 5000 years. The great, or walking, wheel, the next big step in spinning technology, wasn’t invented until the Middle Ages, and the smaller Saxony spinning wheel, which has a foot pedal, was invented 300 or 400 years ago.
Bill finished his demonstration and went to help some women thread a loom, so I had no choice but to work my wool. In my flimsy plastic bag, I carried probably a fifth of the wool from a single sheep. It was not quite “in the grease,” as unwashed fleece is called, but it was still, as I mentioned, an unpromising mass of hay sprigs and lanolin. I had to card it, spin it, and ply it before I could knit something, and since I’ve neither spun nor knit anything in my life, I felt like the miller’s daughter when the king tells her to spin a roomful of straw into gold before sunrise.
I set baby Hank down in his slipper-shaped car seat and rocked it with my foot. I did not, I can tell you, expect him to lie there placidly, even though the textile historian Elizabeth Wayland Barber theorizes that spinning became women’s work because you could do it while you tended the kids. But, like some Bronze Age baby on a dirt floor, Hank calmly accepted his place in textile production. He watched a woman named Cheryl stretch angora and silk together into long, thin, glossy thread. He watched Kathy Gluesenkamp, who sat on a chair padded with one of her own brown fleeces, spin wool sheared from the backs of her own Moorit sheep. The looms along the wall went clickety-clack, clickety-clack in the cool dark air.
Still rocking Hank’s slipper-bed with my foot, I stretched a blob of greasy, gamey wool into the requisite “cloud.” I tried to make it cumulonimbus, but it looked more like a bad cirrus. Dung and litter and dust fell out of it and collected at my feet, more or less missing Hank’s head. I attached bits of the cloud to the tines of my borrowed carder and tried to mesh the tines.
“Just make them kiss,” Kathy had told me. “I used to tell my students to think of it like combing somebody’s hair.”
I combed and I combed and the wool stretched out into reasonably fluffy locks. More hay and gummed-up dirt and crumbling dung fell onto the floor. I had a whole bag to go and Rumpelstiltskin was nowhere in sight. All around me, the spinners talked about toothaches, babies, cooking, and husbands. Good wool, bad wool, good sheep, bad sheep. I rocked the slipper-bed with my foot, and my baby, lulled by the wheels and the wool, fell asleep.