My husband and I (and our dog, of course) recently spent a weekend in Asheville, NC, to enjoy a mini-vacation celebrating both the fact that tax season was over (you’d think this would only affect me, since my husband’s job has nothing to do with accounting, but since he has to live with me during tax season he’s just as glad to see the rear end of it as I am) and the fact that in some parts of the state spring has actually started to manifest with no take-backs.
Here in the mountains, spring is a tease* – we’ll have balmy temps for a week (maybe two), and all the plants feel the soil warming and suddenly pop out of the earth.** Spring, fickle mistress that she is, then invariably heads south for a few more weeks, at which point the temps drop back to 18° F (roughly -8° C), everything green is instantly blighted and we all fall into a deep depression. It’s at this point that all of us in the mountains head in droves to lower elevations to remind ourselves that there is hope.
So following this tradition, we headed to Asheville, where we endured miserable cold and rain for the first two days of our vacation, desperately checking the weather forecast every hour or so to make sure the promised sunshine and warmth were still on for the weekend and hoping the single pair of long pants and jacket each of us brought “just in case” would last until the weather broke.*** Sunday the long-awaited sunshine finally arrived and we drove over to Biltmore Estate to have a picnic among the glorious spring blooms.
For those unacquainted with it, Biltmore Estate is the largest privately owned residence in the United States, a 250-room chateau built by George Vanderbilt in the 1890’s in the French Renaissance style. The grounds and gardens – originally totaling 125,000 acres but reduced now to approximately 8,000 – were designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York City’s famed Central Park. Olmsted turned the over-farmed, over-logged, nutrient-depleted expanse of misused land purchased by Vanderbilt into a marvel of landscape architecture considered to be his most successful project.
Still today, a team of over five dozen full-time arborists, gardeners, foresters, and assorted horticulturalists work to further and maintain the vision he had for the property, which included extensive conservation work to reforest the property and turn the estate into a sustainable, functional, and self-sufficient model of beauty and utility.
It’s pretty incredible to read about the history of the house and grounds, as well as the strides still being made on the estate in the area of conservation and sustainability, but that’s not really what was on our minds as we settled in for our picnic. It was 70° (about 21° C), we were sitting in the (slightly damp) grass in the shade of a huge tree, and this was our view as we drank wine from the estate’s winery and nibbled on grapes and cheeses:
Technically we were in the Azalea Garden, a 20-acre# area containing one of the largest collections of native azaleas in the world, but none of the azaleas save one were blooming while we were there. I managed to sneak up on the one and snap a pic, but I couldn’t tell if it was just over-eager and burst happily into bloom a week too early or if it was a late-comer to the party and blossomed after the others had turned in. It’s possible a late frost caught a lot of the azaleas – some looked as though they were past their peak while others looked as though they were just forming buds, so it was hard to tell, but our timing was obviously off in one direction or the other.
We didn’t really want to hike down through any more of the Azalea Garden after eating, so we walked up toward the house to check out some of the other gardens that were bursting with spring color. On the way, we passed this random Staircase to Nowhere charmingly tucked into a shaded hillside and I had to take a pic (one of my most fervent desires for our home landscaping## is to someday be able to incorporate stonework).
The Italian Garden, the most formal garden on the estate, isn’t too exciting this early in the year as none of the water plants are out, so we strolled through the Shrub Garden. This area, also known as the Ramble since its meandering paths take visitors through four acres of native and exotic plants, connects the formal Italian Garden with the English-style Walled Garden and was designed to showcase a succession of color throughout the year. I have a particular fondness for spring-flowering trees and the Shrub Garden delivered these in spades – we saw absolute riots of blooms high and low, much to the delight of my winter-shriveled heart.
We also saw this, which wins the prize for best visual of the trip (they were delighted to pose for a picture, but I’ve cropped out the man’s face since I’m sure he didn’t anticipate being plastered on the internet for international readers to enjoy):
* * *
* This will be important later, when it comes time to understand certain oddities of my gardening habits.
** It’s literally possible to watch things grow – we’re talking an inch-and-a-half of new growth in a day.
*** The original forecast had been for warm temperatures and sunshine the whole time we were in Asheville, then the lovely weatherpersons suddenly announced the unexpected arrival of a cold front as we were driving down.^
^ In other words, right when it actually hit. Was this really not something anyone could see coming in advance? Really?
# Some sources say 15-acre, but our official Biltmore Guide says 20-acre so that’s what I’m going with.
## Perhaps an overly lofty word for the state of affairs currently surrounding our house.
Being at a fiber festival like Wisconsin Sheep & Wool can be tiring. There’s a lot of standing around on hard concrete floors, and walking from building to barn to the next barn. So it was a relief to be able to sit down and watch the sheep shearing demonstration.
The man giving the demonstration was full of information about everything from the importance of good shears to wearing the right kind of footwear to how to keep the sheep as calm & comfortable as possible during the shearing process.
He got the first sheep out of the pen ready to be shorn, and immediately said, “Oh! I shouldn’t have picked this one! It’s slower, and less impressive for demonstrations.” The sheep he’d chosen had fleece all the way down its legs. Some breeds of sheep don’t grow wool on their legs (or heads, either), and they are easier for the shearers to work with.
(It’s very hard to be dignified if you are a sheep being shorn.)
“Does this position make my neck look fat?”
The second sheep he pulled out of the pen was a different breed, and easier to shear. If you look closely, you can see that the wool is coming off in one blanket, almost, instead of lots of little fluffy pieces. That’s good, especially for handspinning, because it means the shearer knows his business, and the wool will be of even lengths that will be easy to work with. (The wool from a single sheep is called a “fleece,” until you process it & mix it with wool from other sheep.)
By this time, the fleece judging had started in another part of the fairgrounds. This was the part my friend Carol was especially looking forward to. You could practically see her drool as she sat on the very front row to listen to everything the fleece judge said. After judging, the fleeces were going to be auctioned off, and Carol was plotting which ones she wanted to take home. (I had almost no fleece lust. I know what it takes to clean one of those suckers, and I’d just as soon let someone else do the dirty work. Literally.)
I’d seen a fleece judging once before, but this judge was fascinating. Different breeds of sheep produce wool with different qualities, so there were a number of different categories in which shepherds could enter their fleeces. As the judge looked over each fleece, he would talk about its strengths and weaknesses, and whether or not it ran true to breed. Often he’d pick up a lock of the fleece and look it over carefully. Most wool, if you look closely, looks like a tiny crimping iron was used on it, and he’d look to see if the crimp was uniform over the whole fleece.
If a sheep has been sick or stressed during the past year, there will be a weak spot in the lock, and the fibers may break as you try to spin them. To test the strength of each lock, he would hold it up by his ear and snap it tight, listening to the sound. It looks kind of funny, but it’s the best way to see if the lock is strong.
A lot of the fleeces looked like beautiful clouds, and I just wanted to go up to the table and stick my arms down in all that lovely wool!
After the judging came the auction. Carol made out like a bandit, coming home with five fleeces! (I never did get to see the spinning wheel she bought. She’d already buried it in sheep fleeces by the time I got to the car.)
By the time Carol picked up her fleeces, the festival was closed for the day and we needed to leave. We made a detour by the lambing barn, though.
Lambs are usually born in the spring, and September is definitely fall in the northern hemisphere. But the nice people at the University of Wisconsin breed specifically to lamb during the Sheep & Wool festival, so people can see new lambs!
“What are you looking at? Don’t you know it’s time to go home and leave us in peace with our babies?”
I generously offered to drive most of the way home, since it was too dark to knit while someone else drove.
And yes, I did pick up some goodies in the sale barn before we left the festival. Apparently I was having a purple-y kind of day. Sometime soon I will have newly-spun sock yarn!
“Hey, I’m going to Wisconsin Sheep & Wool to pick up a spinning wheel. You guys want to come along?” asked my friend Carol. Silly question! Of course we wanted to come along to one of the biggest sheep & wool festivals in the central US!
So in mid-September four knitting enthusiasts packed up our travel knitting and our water bottles, and headed for Wisconsin. The festival is held in Jefferson, a small town near Madison, WI (a few hours north of Chicago). A sheep & wool festival isn’t just about knitting. It’s about everything related to sheep, including herding, shearing, baby lambs, and (most importantly for Carol & me) spinning wool into yarn!
When we made it through the front gates of the fairgrounds, our first goal was to go through the barns where the vendors were set up. So much brightly colored yarn! So many squishy braids of wool waiting to be spun!
Though many vendors were local, there were also vendors who’d come from across the US to be a part of Wisconsin Sheep & Wool. There were spinning wheels and spindles and buttons and ceramics and finished shawls and pretty knitting notions.
There were even spinning wheels made from PVC pipe!
The aisles in the vending barn were crowded, but if you accidentally bumped into someone it wasn’t usually too bad, because most of us were well-padded by our purchases!
After I’d wandered through the sale barns once (you have to scope things out before you commit to purchases!), I headed out to watch the sheep dog trials.
I’d only seen sheep dog trials in arenas before, so it was fun to see them in a big field. It made photographing the trials a bit challenging, however!
(“You’re not REALLY going to make us go in that pen, are you?”)
While I sat & watched, a man & his border collie came over near the bleachers, and started answering the crowd’s questions about herding dogs and herding trials. It was especially interesting to hear him explain how shepherds use dogs’ natural pack-hunting instincts to train dogs to herd. I knew about the slinking-low-to-the-ground being a hunting thing, but I didn’t realize the dogs bring the sheep back to the shepherd because in the wild they would bring the sheep back to the rest of their pack. It made sense, though!
Still unable to decide what I wanted in the sale barns, I wandered off in search of food. On my way, I found the rug displays.
Who wouldn’t want a wooly hippo wall calendar?
The felting projects in the crafting competition were also fun.
Then it was time to head over to the sheep shearing demonstration!
(To be continued!)
View the PDF: Spring_is_here
Did I mention that PB was selling his house? This was a large four-bedroomed section of a Georgian house which has been inhabited by himself, two of his delightful sons, and occasional tenants. Those of you familiar with Georgian architecture will immediately think “large, beautifully-proportioned rooms”. Those of you who know a particular type of man will think “infinite junk store”.
His house sale was trapped between lawyers, but in the interim one of his sons (tall, good-looking and clean) came to stay with us for a few days. PB immediately thrust him into work, moving interesting and important items from his house to mine (there seems to have been a magic portal at some point on the road where interesting and important items transformed into something quite different).
You may wonder why I was so emphatic about son’s cleanliness. As I mentioned before, the new house has one avocado bathroom. Which contains the single (avocado, obviously) loo that had to service three adults and a teenager. And no shower. So the clean and good-looking son had to maintain his status with frequent baths. I would arrive home to a pleasant fragrance, a waft of steam and a sense of tightly-crossed legs.
The requirement for a second loo increased its importance. You will remember the space under the stairs. Well, a hole was put through its wall. And a new sewer was dug. This is extremely exciting. I am ashamed to admit that it had not occurred to me that a new loo meant a new sewer and another inspection pit and all these other things that take a ridiculous amount of time and all you get out of it is an apparently empty flowerbed. Here is another picture of that space. There is a pipe! A pipe! Coming through the wall! Ready for a loo to be fitted.
The thick line on the wall on the right is a massive slab of insulation. The pipes are going to run along the top of it. There is also insulation on the left-hand side, underneath the plaster, but not so much, because it’s not semi subterranean.
You can see the full glory of the insulation in this photo. It’s not just insulation. It’s also stairs. Real stairs that you can stand on. And a newly built wooden floor. Those reclaimed planks have been reused (one of them – I’m not saying which one – is in fact a piece of skirting board. It’s OK. It’s on a solid concrete floor). The stairtreads themselves were taken from the old staircase cum ladder. You will also recognise that familiar orange wire of an extension lead running up the wall. Yes, we haven’t quite got as far as lighting.
As proof that gods do play dice (or if they don’t, they have an exquisite sense of retribution), his moving date was the day before the party (it should not have been, but it was). A day on which he was also fixing someone’s boiler and my daughter had a day off school. I was not prepared to sacrifice the planned day with my daughter cooking party food and clearing boxes out of the sitting-room to pack boxes in his house while he repaired boilers.
To do the man credit, he was sitting up the night before, installing stuff in the space below the stairs. A space I now feel that we can honour with the name “loo”. Look. It has vital porcelain equipment. It has a radiator. It even has a roll of loo paper. The more acute among you, gentle readers, will have spotted that to take this photograph, I must have been standing outside the loo. Yes. It doesn’t actually have a front wall. Or a door. There is of course a door between you and the rest of the house (the one with the cat hole in it), but I did feel that guests at the house-warming might require a little more privacy than that. And possibly (given that the party was going to be an evening event) a light. I knew that we could illuminate the loo tastefully with candles in jars, but the stairs would be rather more difficult. Torches handed out at the door perhaps? One of those stick on LED things? Hanging lanterns? We would cope. Somehow.
While he went off to pack up his house and mend a boiler, I started clearing the sitting room. It is really amazing about the transformative powers of cardboard boxes. You put in a standard quantity of delightful treasured items. You take out, a proportion of total rubbish that you cannot understand why you didn’t throw away years ago; a proportion of useful items that look a bit tatty and a proportion of treasured objects that have been irretrievably damaged and must be thrown away. If you’re very fortunate, there will be one item in each box that you are very very pleased to see again and hurriedly find a space for. The only exception to this rule is boxes of books. It’s like coffee. The amount of books that come out of a box bears no relation to the amount that went in and is in inverse proportion to the shelf space available.
I also got the house ready for the party. Here is a beautiful piece of cardboard that I have cut to fill up the hole in the floor where the hall tiles have been removed and not yet replaced.
While my daughter and I tested the quality of our new Italian oven (remember the oven) and beat up dips and taste-tested cheesy biscuits, PB packed the last remnants of his house up, and discovered all the items that his sons had left idly in the hall, the back bedroom, the front bedroom, the sitting room, the hall and the cellar. He arrived back, discarded his loaded van (so abruptly that his son’s bike was left on the roofrack for three days) then converted himself into SuperBuilder. This involves a costume consisting of a pair of sturdy trousers with knee-pads and multiple pockets and a paint-spattered shirt. SuperBuilder may be seen swinging around on lengths of dangling flex, aiming drilldrivers at escaping screws. He works without food with the aid of a plasterer’s lamp and an infinite supply of extension cables and power tools.
He sawed, he drilled, he hammered, he built. And lo, just before the party, we had a loo that you would be proud (or, at least, willing) to use.
There is a door. It may be rather narrower than our initial plan, but that was merely due to the washbasin being slightly more extravagant than our original ideas. There is a wall. There is a door handle. There is even a lock. And if that was not adequate, observe the fabulous light quality in the stairwell. It is coming from an actual light. With a shade. Carefully chosen (smother your laughter please) to co-ordinate with the tall rectangular shape of the space.
We have lift off. We have house-warming. We have perfectionist builder being concerned about the quality of his floor joists due to the number of people standing on them. (They did nobly.) And just to give you a full flavour of the party, I will give you a close-up of the door. The careful writing that notifies the casual visitor to its function (comments that it says “Zoo” will be treated with the contempt they deserve). This was created with quick-drying nail polish after PB was concerned about the clothes of visitors brushing against anything less durable. Note the subtle, distressed finish; a texture created from the ripping off of plywood and fake wood panels from the original pantry door. I believe that it gives off a sophisticated design ambience of a little French estaminet. I’d better believe this. I think we will be living like this for some time to come.