A few days ago, at the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, NY, I purchased a six-ounce skein of fine, reddish-pink mohair bouclé, directly from the woman who’d dyed it using the natural pigments cochineal and logwood. My plan is to make a soft, long winter scarf with it.
I recently started knitting again, lured by some thick, heathered purple wool yarn I’d glimpsed in a farm store in upstate New York. “Is this wool from your sheep?” I asked the farmer. “No, but it’s from a farm down the road,” she assured me. “Her sheep and mine are related, and I know those sheep well.”
I was delighted to be knitting an afghan with wool carded and spun from the fleece of sheep that graze not far from the nineteenth-century farmhouse where my husband and I have begun to spend much of our time. But I was worried about the purple dye. Where did it come from? What chemicals had been used to make it? What waters might they have polluted?
We pick up our organic vegetables at a local CSA and buy delicious honey from a beekeeper who teaches our yoga classes here. Our fresh eggs are laid by chickens that peck and scratch a few miles away. It feels good to be living just a little closer to the earth and to our neighbors, to be just a little more connected to the material, mater, of life. Of course we are privileged to do so, with time and money to spare . . . yet our choices still seem significant. And they have me thinking about the life we share with the other animals and with one another in a new way.
That mohair, for example: it comes from angora goats, and although I talked with the woman about the dyes she used, I didn’t think until later to wonder about the source of the delicate, silky fiber itself. Where did it come from? PETA has published horrifying accounts of the mistreatment of goats in the mohair industry, as well as the mistreatment of sheep in the wool industry.
Yet there are ethical ways to treat the animals from which we get our natural fibers, and various organizations and individuals have dedicated themselves to setting standards and making resources available. I now realize it’s up to me to do sufficient research before I buy anything. Anything.
Even at the Sheep and Wool festival, where we could run our hands through freshly shorn fleece, watch men and women peacefully spinning, gaze at exotic breeds of sheep, goats, llamas, and alpacas, there were dozens of vendors selling novelty yarns dyed in outlandish colors that could not possibly come from natural sources. Does it make sense to buy such yarns, especially as we take pride in reviving our foremothers’ crafts? Lovely-looking people of all ages, wearing all kinds of lovely handmade knits—sweaters, shawls, hats, skirts, gloves—wandered through the fairgrounds, enjoying a cloudless autumn day. The small farmers at the festival struck me as people who truly loved and cared for their animals, many of whom bore charming names. But what about the yarns and crafts being sold by vendors? Was it all ethically produced? What about the yarn for the intricate shawls and skirts and sweaters so many were wearing?
It happens that the week before I attended the Sheep and Wool Festival, I watched Robert Bresson’s astonishing 1966 movie, Au Hasard Balthazar, a film Roger Ebert called a “heartbreaking prayer.” It’s the story of a donkey, a donkey named Balthazar–a donkey that simply endures whatever treatment it undergoes at the hands of humans. At first it’s much loved by a young girl named Marie whose family adopts it at her request. And then . . . it’s very much abused by random human “owners” who beat it, set its tail on fire, try to teach it circus tricks, fail to care for it when it falls ill. The humans are no better to one another. The donkey, as Ebert notes, endures. The humans do as well. And then the donkey lays down and dies, in an open field surrounded by sheep who gently nuzzle it, their bells softly tinkling.
In “The Voice of an Animal: Robert Bresson and Narrative Form,” my colleague and friend Rochelle Rives suggests that Au Hasard Balthazar leads us to contemplate “what it might mean to move beyond human-mindedness.” Drawing on the work of Eric Santner, she proposes that the film initiates us into an experience of “creatureliness,” enabling us to feel the “neighbor love” that “diminish[es] the ‘I’ that divides us from our fellow creatures.”
All I can say is that I’ve been unable to stop thinking about or feeling with Balthazar since I saw the movie. As I gazed at the sheep and goats gazing back at me in Rhinebeck, I saw Balthazar. As I pet my two orange tabby cats at home, I feel Balthazar. As I spend time with my husband, my friends, my neighbors, I’m also with Balthazar. And what Balthazar teaches me is the depth of our shared creatureliness, our shared physical and spiritual presence. We’re all here together: donkeys, goats, sheep, cats, friends, lovers, spouses, neighbors, even enemies. And we get to choose how we will treat one another. I’d like to think it is with love and compassion. I’d like to think it’s with a constant awareness of our mutual inter-relatedness within the web of life.
And now, as I wind those possibly problematic wool and mohair yarns around my fingers and my bamboo needles, with each loop, each knot, I bind myself more and more firmly to this earth and all its creatures.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey (Feminist Press 2008). She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She is the recipient of a 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award for her work on Ce pays qui te ressemble by Tobie Nathan. Her translation of Henri Bosco’s Malicroix is forthcoming from New York Review Books.