Travelogue LXI: Gotland III: Landscape

Yoga under a sea stack on Fårö Island.

Yoga under a sea stack on Fårö Island. As far north as I’ve ever been in my life. 

September 24, 2015 One final post on Gotland–I’ve written about the people and the farms, but nothing about the natural landscape itself, which is, after all, the backdrop to and shaper of everything that goes on on the Island.

Gotland makes Mainz seem tame and domesticated, civilized to the point of complete docility. In Germany, the pre-Christian, pre-modern past is hidden behind layers of growth and technology and gorgeous Baroque cathedrals. You can almost fool yourself into thinking it never existed–that Germany has always been this post-Enlightenment land driven by progress and the Church. On Gotland, however, it all feels very close–the Vikings, the wooden ships, Odin and Valhalla and all the rest. Portrayals of Mary are more similar to Freia than to anything Christian. On Fårö, the tiny island to the north of Gotland, farmers still raise their livestock in thatched barns and behind stone walls.

One of the 92 (!!) churches still in weekly use on the island. They were built between the 11th and 12th centuries--Romanesque or Gothic architecture, sometimes with a defense tower in front.

One of the 92 (!!) nearly-identical churches still in weekly use on the island. Nearly all were built between the 11th and 12th centuries–Romanesque or Gothic architecture, sometimes with a defense tower in front.

Cathedral ruins in Visby. Many catholic churches on the island were abandoned after the Reformation.

Cathedral ruins in Visby. Many catholic churches on the island were abandoned after the Reformation.

The museum in Visby had a fascinating collection of engraved stones, both pre- and post-Christianity. Here, a woman holds a snake as part of a pagan ritual.

The museum in Visby had a fascinating collection of engraved stones, both pre- and post-Christianity. Here, a woman holds a snake as part of a pagan ritual.

Christian and pagan imagery combine.

Christian and pagan imagery combine.

Boats outside of a small fishing village.

Boats outside of a small fishing village.

Fishing huts with stakes driven into the ground for drying the nets.

Fishing huts with stakes driven into the ground for drying the nets.

Thatched barn on Fårö Island.

Thatched barn and windmill on Fårö Island.

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Another fishing village on  Fårö.

Another fishing village on Fårö, only accessible by a winding track along the edge of the ocean. The rental car took a bit of a beating, there.  

White limestone beaches.

White limestone beaches.

The northernmost point of  Fårö is lined with Sea Stacks, limestone towers formed over millennia by wind and water.

The northernmost point of Fårö is lined with Sea Stacks, limestone towers formed over millennia by wind and water.

Lilla Karlsö Island off the eastern coast of Gotland, where one farmer we talked to grazes several hundred sheep.

Lilla Karlsö Island off the eastern coast of Gotland, where one farmer we talked to grazes several hundred sheep. There were dozens of white swans swimming in the Baltic along this stretch of the coast. 

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Travelogue LX: Gotland II: Sheep People

Gotland sheep grazing near a fishing village on Fårö, a tiny island off the northern coast of Gotland.

Gotland sheep grazing near a fishing village on Fårö, a tiny island off the northern coast of Gotland.

September 20, 2015 Most people come to Europe for the high culture, or the art museums, or the ancient buildings, or the cuisine. My parents, on the other hand, come to Europe for the sake of a tiny, wind-swept island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Or, more specifically, for one particular breed of sheep on that island. Gotlands–small and hardy, with a lustrous silver fleece prized for both pelts and yarn–are inseparable from the natural landscape of the island, a beloved part of Sweden’s national heritage. Everyone, it seems, raises sheep.

Gotlands are incredibly rare in America, and my family owns one of the only farms with the breed on the East coast. My parents, and my mother in particular, were thrilled for the chance to travel to the island itself–a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and look behind the scenes and ask questions that only Gotland farmers know the answers to.

The flag of Gotland Island.

The flag of Gotland Island.

The sheep graze right down to the edge of the Baltic Sea.

The sheep graze right down to the edge of the Baltic Sea.

And so we spent a long weekend on Gotland traveling from farm to farm, visiting shops and talking to people. I am, I admit, usually the fine-cuisine-and-art-museum type, but I surprised myself by loving the entire trip–not, as in the case of my parents, because of all the technical sheep-talk that went on, but because of the way we travelled. This was no superficial tourist trip: stay three nights in a youth hostel, hit the big sights, and never speak with a local. Instead, the four days on Gotland were gritty, real, in-your-face–dialogue after dialogue with the people who make their living there, raising sheep in thatched-roofed barns on 1,200-year-old farmsteads. This is how I want to travel.

Thanks to local advice, we strayed pretty far from the beaten path. We attended, for instance, the island’s annual ram auction–dozens of Gotland’s most gorgeous animals selling to buyers from across Sweden, prices up to 8,000 dollars. I mean, how many of your average summer visitors can boast of that?! “It’s like Christmas for sheep people!!” one shepherd told us with utmost enthusiasm, wrist-deep in the fleece of one particularly handsome ram. You don’t get that every day.

Ram auction ahead!

Ram auction ahead!

Before the start of the ram auction--potential buyers have the chance to examine the sheep and talk to the shepherds.

Before the start of the ram auction, potential buyers have the chance to examine the sheep and talk to the shepherds.

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Our personal favorite, a perfect example of the traits of the Gotland breed.

The sheep are ranked in multiple categories (weight, color, wool luster, curl depth, etc.), and the results are printed in a booklet handed out to all buyers. The scores are consulted and the animals carefully examined before the bidding begins.

The sheep are ranked in multiple categories (body composition, color, wool luster, curl depth, etc.), and the results are printed in a booklet handed out to all potential buyers. The scores are consulted and the animals carefully examined before the bidding begins.

The official scoring booklet, published by the Gotland Sheep Association.

The official scoring booklet, published by the Gotland Sheep Association.

The whole event was a family affair--much laughter and greeting of old friends, a communal lunch, white-blond children playing in the barn, a communal lunch.

The whole event was a family affair–much laughter and greeting of old friends, a communal lunch, and dozens of white-blond children. Older shepherds we talked to expressed delight that so many young families on the island are interested in raising sheep.

In the end, the best part of the trip were the people themselves: the farmers, the hand workers, the proud owners of small businesses that, ultimately, weren’t all that different from those in Vermont. It seems that farmers all over the world speak the same language–a language that I find myself eternally drawn back to, even after falling in love with the European metropolis. Farming people are somehow real, connected to land and tradition in a way that makes city life seem sometimes overblown and overcomplicated.

The hospitality of the Gotlanders we met was staggering. It began at the tiny airport in Visby, where an online knitter-friend of my mother’s  surprised us with a home-cooked lunch, a map of the island, and thirty  minutes of helpful advice. On every farm we visited, the shepherds opened their barns, stores, and studios to us, overcoming sometimes-limited English to answer hundreds of our questions and to ask their own. Family secrets were spilled and tall tales were told, and a whole lot of very technical sheep discussion took place that went right over my head.

A small wool mill that spins yarn for many of the farms on the island.

A small wool mill that spins yarn for many of the farms on the island.

The owner Eva talks to my mother about evaluating fleeces.

The owner Eva talks to my mother about evaluating fleeces.

The studio at the farm Lamm och Bi, where owner Annette sews fleece vests for boutiques in Visby.

The studio at the farm Lamm och Bi, where shepherdess Annette sews fleece vests for boutiques in Visby.

Annette and Dan, the owners of Lamm och Bi, standing in front of shelves of their products in the farm store.

Annette and Dan, the owners of Lamm och Bi, standing in front of shelves of their products in the farm store. The two of them care for some 600 sheep (without outside help!!), making them one of the largest Gotland farms in the world.

Sheep pelts displayed at Sindarve Farm.

Sheep pelts displayed at Sindarve Farm.

At Sigsarve Lamm Farm, shepherd Curre went out in the field and brought back a sample of different types of grass so we could see what Gotland farmers feed their sheep.

At Sigsarve Lamm Farm, shepherd Curre went out in the field and brought back a sample of different types of grass so we could see what Gotland farmers feed their sheep.

Besides raising sheep, Curre also grows and preserves several types of ancient grains. Here, fresh crackers made with spelt and served with sour-milk cheese.

Besides raising sheep, Curre also grows and preserves several types of ancient grains. After we arrived, he rushed back to the farmhouse to bring us fresh crackers made with spelt and served with sour-milk cheese.

Curre and his wife Lotte. "She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!" he said, at which point my father decided they were secretly brothers.

Curre and his wife Lotte. “She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!” he said, at which point my father decided they were secretly brothers.

Curre and his wife Lotte ("She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!" he said) talked with us for nearly three hours over lunch.

Curre and Lotte talked with us for nearly three hours over lunch and coffee. Crazy sheep stories were swapped and hilarity ensued.

Most of the farms we visited were run by a husband-wife team, usually entirely without outside help. Everyone we talked to loved what they were doing, despite the work and the dirt and the isolation of living on a tiny island in the Balticum. “Gotland sheeps are fantastic animals,” we heard again and again. And because we also had Gotland sheeps, and because we were speaking the language, we were automatically a part of their inner sanctum, welcomed with open arms by people we had never seen before in our lives.

In the end, Curre put it best. “You know, we have the big problem today with the refugees–many Swedes say, they come in here, they take our jobs, they are so different. But I say, you have the cultures, religions–but underneath, the people are all the same. You just have to find something, some–what is the word?–connection, and you are all the same. The connection bring people together. Just like having sheeps,” he concluded, looking out into the pasture, squinting into the sun, real pride in his voice. “Sheeps bring people together, too. And that’s a real gud thing. Real gud.”

Curre and Lotte's flock, the most beautiful we had seen.

Curre and Lotte’s flock, the loveliest we saw.

Travelogue LIX: Gotland I: Cottage

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September 19, 2015 My dear parents are visiting from Vermont, and the last stop on their journey is a week on Gotland, a tiny island off the coast of Sweden and home to the breed of sheep they raise on the farm back home. We’ve spent the last couple days driving from one gorgeous end of the island to the other, networking, gathering information, talking and talking with the farmers whose entire lives revolve around Gotland sheep.

I think I’m in love with the entire place. In many ways, it reminds me of Vermont–the strong connection to the Land, the agriculture-based community, the feeling of being a part of the natural world. But somehow it is all entirely different: the air smells like cow manure and fresh-cut hay, like Vermont, but also like the sea and like something damp and vitalizing I can’t quite place. There is a whole island mentality, too, which is new to me: the rich tourists who keep the place going aren’t flatlanders and city slickers, like they are in Vermont, but rather mainlanders. The people who don’t make their living on a tiny island in the middle of the Baltic Sea.

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Our first meal on Gotland Island, thanks to a wonderfully kind friend of my mother's--rhubarb lemonade and Saffranspannkaka, a saffron cake made with almonds and raisins and served with fresh cream.

Our first meal on Gotland Island, thanks to a wonderfully kind friend of my mother’s–rhubarb lemonade and Saffranspannkaka, a saffron cake made with almonds and raisins and served with fresh cream. Dangggg.

And Lakritz.

And Lakritz, the tiny black cat who, exactly like Moses the Barn Cat at home, spends his days schmoozing off gullible tourists and trying to break into the guest quarters. Not that I have a problem with any of that.

We are staying in a tiny, white-washed cottage on a dairy farm, surrounded by climbing roses and a tangle of flowers and apple trees in desperate need of a good pruning. As I have written before, it is very strange to find oneself on the other side of agritourism for a change–especially for my parents, I think, who are normally themselves the working farmers with the guest rooms, courting curious strangers who want to experience “country living.” In the end, though, I think they are loving it. When we arrived, the barn was full of the sounds of chore time: cows, sheep, grain in buckets and milking machines in place. “We don’t have to do ANYTHING!” my mother said. “KICK BACK!” said my father. Strange, and somehow wonderful in a Schadenfreude sort of way, to be on a farm and simultaneously to not work.

Eating Saffron Pancake and NOT WORKING.

Eating Saffron Pancake and not doing chores.

The cottage.

The cottage.

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So we, the leisurely paying guests from the mainland, unpacked the rental car and grilled Baltic salmon and watched re-runs of the Big Bang Theory dubbed into Swedish. The last time my parents took a real vacation from the farm, I was ten years old.

It's the best feeling in the world, SEEING livestock and not having to DO anything about it!

It’s the best feeling in the world, SEEING livestock and not having to DO anything about it!

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Travelogue XXXII: Inside the Studio

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarch 15, 2015 My family owns a sheep farm and Bed and Breakfast Inn in the backwoods of Vermont. I grew up making beds and serving meals to guests from all around the world who, along with the hundreds of thousands of others who make up Vermont’s tourist industry, travel to the state to look at leaves or ski or learn about sustainable living. The constant presence of The Public on our farm means that the place has to be spic and span during the busy months–flower boxes on the porch, mowed lawn, the rusted-out farm truck banished to some back-40 field drive or another.

Our beautiful studio in the barn, too, is quite presentable during the summer months. It’s the seat of the farm store, where we sell yarn and fiber from our animals, and the space we use to teach classes or host visiting weavers and felters. There’s always something going on–a wine tasting or a children’s camp or an open studio day of some sort. My mother runs a tight ship, and the studio is usually an orderly and welcoming place.

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Photographing yarn for the online store, with the help of Moses.

In the winter, though, that all goes out the window. It’s the off season–no Public, since only the hardiest of guests want to stay on a farm on dirt roads in the middle of winter. That means that the studio no longer has to be orderly. It becomes the workroom for new projects and patterns, a storage space for boxes of yarn and raw fleeces in plastic bags waiting to be sent off to the mill in the spring. It’s half photography studio and half construction zone, full of inventory waiting to be shipped or listed online, and a winter’s worth of odds and ends and new ideas which will be brought to fruition when the weather turns warm again and the guests return.

That’s winter in Vermont, though–taking stock, resting, waiting, planing for the return of the warmth and the work of the summer. And despite the mess, the studio is still an absolutely fascinating place.

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Carding combs.

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Samples knit with patterns designed specifically for our yarn.

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Drop spindles, waiting for the next introduction to fiber arts course.

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A mural from past years’ children’s camps.

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Moses claimed one of the felted purse samples for his own.

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Looms in storage.

…And then back out through the barn, full of grain sacks and lumber and tractor pieces and bikes. Outside, though, everything is clean and white. It has been snowing more or less constantly since I arrived.

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