10 Ex­tra­or­di­nary Years In Search Of Wild Fibers

Wild Fibers 10th Anniversary - - Features -

From In­dia’s high Hi­malayas, to the foothills of Tran­syl­va­nia, the search for wild fibers has touched nearly ev­ery cor­ner of the planet.

Can 10 in­cred­i­ble years of trav­el­ing to some of the most re­mote parts of the planet be sum­ma­rized in a few short pages?

Prob­a­bly not, but it’s a worth a try.

Ten years ago, be­fore there was a mag­a­zine called Wild Fibers, be­fore my pass­port col­lected so many stamps I had to up­grade it with 36 ad­di­tional pages, and be­fore I had teetered out of he­li­copters in New Zealand or swal­lowed hand­fuls of crispy worms in Zim­babwe, I was a goat farmer. I was liv­ing on 30 se­cluded acres near the coast of Maine along with my mod­est herd of cashmere goats, two dogs, and two cats: Bill and Elvis. At age 45, I’d had the re­mark­able good for­tune of achiev­ing my dream, or so it seemed. It may not have been a grand cor­ner of­fice with a petu­lant as­sis­tant tak­ing irk­some cof­fee breaks. And it may not have been a snappy sports car ( I did own a dandy red truck), and it cer­tainly wasn’t an im­pres­sive stock port­fo­lio. I had my farm, my an­i­mals, and most im­por­tantly, a bro­ken heart.

Bro­ken hearts are the sharp edges that teach us that life goes on in spite of un­stop­pable sad­ness. I was fairly cer­tain that life would, even­tu­ally, con­tinue. I just wasn’t con­vinced.

Eat, Pray, Love, the run­away best- seller by El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert, was spawned from her own bro­ken heart, caused by a dra­matic di­vorce re­plete with fist- pound­ing hys­te­ria on the kitchen floor and other signs of dire dis­tress. Al­ready an au­thor of note, Gil­bert took her sor­rows around the world, even­tu­ally mak­ing her­self nearly as rich as the Sultan of Brunei, ( a po­si­tion that en­ti­tles to him a res­i­dence with 1,888 rooms, 290 of them bath­rooms).

Not that I wish to ap­pear small, but Eat, Pray, Love was pub­lished two years af­ter I started Wild Fibers. I think Ms. Gil­bert owes me.

I wish I had El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert’s tal­ent— not to men­tion her bank ac­count. But if some­one had handed me ten mil- lion dol­lars on the con­di­tion that I could never leave the coun­try, I would have to say, “No thanks.” With­out hes­i­ta­tion, the re­wards of be­ing the ed­i­tor of Wild Fibers are price­less, and it is thanks to you.

Un­like Gil­bert’s dreams ( and fre­quent flyer miles), which were funded by an ad­vance from Ran­dom House, ev­ery page of Wild Fibers since the sec­ond is­sue has been to­tally sup­ported by its read­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers.

And so as I look back over the past ten years and all the things both good, and not- quite- as- good that hap­pened, I not only have to thank cupid for a bro­ken ar­row, but also a spin­ning wheel man­u­fac­turer whom I will sim­ply re­fer to as “GB.”

Be­fore the first is­sue went to press I needed ad­ver­tis­ers, so I reached for a re­cent copy of Spin Off and started call­ing some of their ad­ver­tis­ers. I wasn’t ex­actly look­ing to steal Spin Off ’s ad­ver­tis­ers; I was sim­ply of­fer­ing them a chance to “en­hance” their mar­ket­ing pro­gram.

It was a Tues­day af­ter­noon when I phoned GB, and to my de­light he didn’t im­me­di­ately hang up. In fact, he be­gan ask­ing some very thought­ful ques­tions about this wild dream of mine, and I took that as my queue to give him the full sales pitch.

Again, he asked more ques­tions. And again, I con­tin­ued with my exuberance. And just about the time I thought he was get­ting ready to take out an ad he said, “Well, you seem pretty ex­cited about this idea, but I’ve been around for a long time and I see a lot of peo­ple like you come along with big ideas. They never last.” And then he said good- bye, good luck, and hung up. My heart broke. GB wasn’t a friend, let alone an ex- lover. In fact I wouldn’t have rec­og­nized him if the FedEx man had de­liv­ered him to my doorstep.

But it didn’t mat­ter. I stood in the kitchen steady­ing my­self at the stove be­fore col­laps­ing on the floor into Gil­bert- style sob­bing.

Even­tu­ally, I walked into the liv­ing room, sat down on the sofa, and cra­dled my head in my hands. “This whole mag­a­zine thing is just one big stupid pipe dream,” I kept re­peat­ing as I wiped yet another stream of snot away from my nose. And then I cried some more. Some peo­ple be­lieve that of­ten the best way to get some­one to do some­thing is to tell them they can’t. I would like to think that GB had that in mind, but I doubt it.

Mov­ing on up

By the fol­low­ing morn­ing I got my mojo back, and once again started flip­ping through the pages of Spin Off. Strauch Fiber Equip­ment had a nice full- page ad, so I picked up the phone and called.

Otto Strauch an­swered the phone, and once again I started down the road of my wooly zeal, and once again, I got a line of thought­ful ques­tions. For the next hour, Otto kept ask­ing, and I kept an­swer­ing.

“It takes a lot of guts to start a mag­a­zine,” Otto fi­nally said, “but you sound like you’re just crazy enough to make it hap­pen. I’ll take out a full- page ad for a year, just send me an in­voice.”

When I am asked how I came to start Wild Fibers, I typ­i­cally of­fer a re­hearsed re­sponse about sit­ting in my spare bed­room with a sec­ond- hand com­puter, a bingo ta­ble I “bor­rowed” from my town of­fice to serve as my desk, and a boot­leg ( oops!) copy of Quark soft­ware. I used up al­most ev­ery penny of the less than $ 7000 in my sav­ings ac­count to pub­lish the first is­sue.

It wasn’t re­ally as sim­ple as that. Not only did the ge­n­e­sis of Wild Fibers take more than six days, and not only did a trio of men con­trib­ute in their own unique ways to its birth ( may their never be a pa­ter­nity suit to sort it all out), but I am still wait­ing to rest on the sev­enth.

On the mag­a­zine’s tenth an­niver­sary I can’t think of a more op­por­tune time to look back at the top ten mo­ments from the past ten years, cel­e­brat­ing, re­flect­ing on and shar­ing some snip­pets that have never made it into print.

1. Scot­tish cashmere

In 2004, my first of­fi­cial in­ter­na­tional trip as a “mag­a­zine ed­i­tor” ( a ti­tle that felt both un­com­fort­able and un­de­served) landed me in the board­room at John­ston’s of El­gin Cashmere in Scot­land. If ever there was a time when some­one was go­ing

to call my bluff, this was it.

A few months prior to my visit I had read an ar­ti­cle in The Wall Street Jour­nal ( manda­tory read­ing for the se­ri­ous fiber en­thu­si­ast) cit­ing a Mr. James Sugden, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of John­ston’s Cashmere. The ar­ti­cle dis­cussed re­cent changes in Chi­nese ex­port reg­u­la­tions and their im­pact on the cashmere in­dus­try, in­clud­ing Scot­land’s only ver­ti­cally in­te­grated cashmere mill. There was just enough fer­vor in Sugden’s words to make me muster some key­board courage from my bor­rowed bingo ta­ble and send him an email.

Sev­eral days later, Sugden’s sec­re­tary replied and said that he would be happy to meet with me briefly dur­ing my up­com­ing visit to Scot­land.

Now armed with the sec­ond is­sue of Wild Fibers ( which of­fered only slightly fewer ty­pos than the first), I met a charm­ing re­cep­tion­ist wear­ing ( so help me God) a light blue sweater set. She ush­ered my pho­tog­ra­pher Don Moore and me into the board­room to wait for Mr. Sugden.

I was ei­ther too ex­cited ( or stupid) to be ner­vous. I sus­pect it would take this Mr. Sugden a mat­ter of mo­ments to re­al­ize that the mid­dle- aged lady who had con­tacted him was not an il­lus­tri­ous mag­a­zine ed­i­tor but no more than a goat farmer with clean shoes.

Shortly af­ter we were served a cup of tea, Mr. Sugden en­tered the room wear­ing a per­fectly tai­lored tweed sports coat, a pale blue cashmere vest, ar­gyle socks, and a stately grin. He pos­sessed a cu­ri­ous blend of pro­fes­sional el­e­gance cou­pled with coun­try charm, as if at any mo­ment he might sug­gest we take the af­ter­noon off to go grouse hunt­ing, steal­ing nips from a flask of sin­gle- malt scotch along the way.

I slid a copy of the mag­a­zine across the board ta­ble. Mr. Sugden picked it up and be­gan turn­ing the pages as if they con­tained baby pic­tures of his first grand­child, ex­claim­ing “Ex­tra­or­di­nary!” “Bril­liant!” and “Ab­so­lutely splen­did!”

I had been told that af­ter my meet­ing with Mr. Sugden, the plant man­ager would give us a brief tour of the mill. But at the end of our 30- minute in­ter­view, Mr. Sugden in­sisted that he per­son­ally show us around. Seven hours later we parted com­pany. For the first time I saw how cashmere was pro­cessed from fiber into yarn, and from yarn into sweaters, socks, and beau­ti­fully woven cloth that is sold un­der some of the top haute cou­ture la­bels. It is what John­ston’s is fa­mous for.

But what I re­ally saw that day was how one very busy man gave up his en­tire day to show a fledg­ling mag­a­zine ed­i­tor how much he be­lieved in her. Mr. Sugden’s kind­ness and sup­port has helped pro­pel me for the past ten years.

I will never for­get that first meet­ing and the courage it

gave me.

2. Alaskan Knitters

Al­most a year to the day from my Scot­tish so­journ, I boarded a plane bound for Unalak­leet, Alaska. A small vil­lage 148 miles south­east of Nome on the Ber­ing Sea that is rarely vis­ited by any­one from the Lower 48 un­less they are car­ry­ing a ri­fle or a rod. There were six seats on the plane and mine had the most duct tape se­cur­ing it to the floor. “Meal ser­vice” was pro­vided in a small wicker bas­ket, the kind typ­i­cally used for din­ner rolls, and once we reached our cruis­ing al­ti­tude the cap­tain turned around and passed the bas­ket aft.

“Take as much as you like,” he said, so I grabbed two bags of po­tato chips and two choco­late bars. It was like fly­ing busi­ness class with­out the flatbed seats.

A woman on an ATV met Don and me at the air­port.

The two of us man­aged to strad­dle the ATV’s rear shelf ( typ­i­cally used for dead an­i­mals or small chil­dren), cling­ing to our lug­gage as we took off down the gravel road. The cold wind gust­ing off the sea made my eye­balls ache, the metal bars be­neath us were dent­ing my cheeks, and there were some spec­tac­u­lar bumps along the way. I was glad the trip to the mo­tel took less than 20 min­utes.

Two hours later, three na­tive Alaskan women from the Oom­ing­mak’s Knit­ting Co­op­er­a­tive ar­rived at the mo­tel and told me about life in Unalak­leet and the im­por­tance of knit­ting qiviut items for Oom­ing­mak. The line I re­mem­ber most came from one of the women, who told me that she got up at four o’clock ev­ery morn­ing to watch her soap op­eras ( she re­ferred to them as her “shows”) and knit be­fore get­ting her chil­dren ready for school.

I can count on two fin­gers the num­ber of times I have in­ten­tion­ally watched tele­vi­sion in the wee hours of the morn­ing: Neil Arm­strong’s moon­walk and Princess Diana’s wed­ding. And I sus­pect even the most pas­sion­ate soap opera en­thu­si­ast would es­chew a rou­tine 4 a. m. ris­ing. But this woman’s story wasn’t about catch­ing the next episode of All My Chil­dren. It was about the im­por­tance of earn­ing ex­tra money for her fam­ily in a place where the op­tions are few and the hard­ships are many.

John Teal, the late founder of Oom­ing­mak, had an ex­tra­or­di­nary vi­sion of uti­liz­ing musk ox fiber as a means of sup­port­ing Alaska’s in­dige­nous peo­ple. Un­til I met with th­ese three re­mark­able women I had lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of its true im­pact.

As the women took off on their ATVs with a cloud of gravel dust trail­ing be­hind, I waved good- bye, re­al­iz­ing that from that mo­ment for­ward just how much the world of nat­u­ral fibers could teach me about the lives of oth­ers.

3. A farm­ing rock star

Not long af­ter my first Alaskan trip, I met one of my per­sonal “rock stars.” Ev­ery in­dus­try has its rock stars, and speak­ing from a fiber per­spec­tive there are count­less ar­ti­sans who knit, weave, and felt spec­tac­u­lar cre­ations that now be­long in mu­seum col­lec­tions.

Yet it is never far from my mind that Wild Fibers evolved from my ex­pe­ri­ence as a farmer, and in that realm, there is a rock star of un­par­al­leled stature. Tem­ple Grandin is an autis­tic col­lege pro­fes­sor whose height­ened senses have of­fered new in­sights into an­i­mal hus­bandry

Six months af­ter meet­ing Tem­ple at an un­re­lated venue I de­cided to in­ter­view her for the mag­a­zine. At that time, she was an es­teemed fig­ure in the world of an­i­mal be­hav­ior ( Claire Danes had yet to pop­u­lar­ize her in the Hol­ly­wood ver­sion of Tem­ple’s life.) We talked for more than three hours, not just about an­i­mals and what they like and what they don’t, but about her life, her childhood, her views about war, and per­haps the big­gest ques­tion that faces ev­ery

one of us: what does it all mean?

Peo­ple with autism have vary­ing lev­els of func­tion­al­ity, and Tem­ple’s is ex­cep­tion­ally high. Much of her abil­ity to cope in the “nor­mal” world has come from rep­e­ti­tion. For ex­am­ple, she ex­plained that when she first be­gan trav­el­ing through air­ports, one part of her brain saw planes com­ing and go­ing, another part saw peo­ple com­ing and go­ing, and still another part saw all the bag­gage com­ing and go­ing. But in Tem­ple’s mind, it was all a se­ries of dis­con­nected ac­tiv­i­ties. The con­cept of an air­port didn’t ex­ist.

“My brain is like a com­puter with a folder for each sub­ject,” she ex­plained, “but it doesn’t share in­for­ma­tion in be­tween fold­ers.”

It is only af­ter hun­dreds of air­port vis­its that Tem­ple has now cre­ated an air­port “folder” where peo­ple, planes, and bag­gage are in­ter­con­nected. Yet her abil­ity to con­nect with an­i­mals has been flaw­less from the start, a cu­ri­ous segue into my next mem­o­rable mo­ment in In­dia’s high Hi­malayas, where no­mads have been com­mu­ni­cat­ing per­fectly with their herds of yaks and goats for cen­turies.

5. A Ro­man cri­sis

4. An In­dian no­mad

As a child, I re­mem­ber hear­ing about the Hi­malayas, but they sounded so ex­otic and des­per­ately re­mote. The no­tion of ever go­ing there was in­con­ceiv­able. My first flight from Delhi to Leh alone would qual­ify as one my most mem­o­rable mo­ments, but it is the gen­tle­man who would meet me upon my ar­rival that has be­come one of the great­est gifts of my life.

Kon­chok Sto­b­gais is a no­mad from Pan­gong, a vil­lage that lies within whistling dis­tance of the Chi­nese bor­der. I first met Sto­b­gais at a con­fer­ence in Bishkek, Kyr­gyzs­tan, and was in­trigued not only by his bronze skin and Ti­betan eyes, but by his un­fail­ing good hu­mor ( think Dalai Lama laugh­ter with a shep­herd’s crook). Amidst the crowd of in­ter­na­tional pro­fes­sion­als as­sem­bled for the con­fer­ence, Sto­b­gais was by far the youngest. He wore a tra­di­tional chupa, a heavy blue robe that fell be­low his knees and belted at the hip with a pink silk sash. While the other at­ten­dees were dis­cussing fash­ion trends and trade agree­ments, I was ca­su­ally in­ter­ro­gat­ing this unique- look­ing young man.

“Are you re­ally a no­mad?” I asked, which in hind­sight is about the equiv­a­lent of some­one stop­ping me out­side of Wal­mart and say­ing are you re­ally an Amer­i­can? In Sto­b­gais’s world, nearly ev­ery­one is a no­mad. And in my world, there are none. Unperturbed by my bla­tant re­mark, Sto­b­gais smiled and replied, “Yes, I am real no­mad; you come to Ladakh and see.”

Seven months later I was in seat 2A head­ing to Ladakh. When I re­turned to the States two weeks later, some­thing had for­ever changed in­side.

I am not the first per­son from a Western coun­try to be en­chanted by the tal­ents of an in­dige­nous cul­ture, but I sus­pect I am among but a hand­ful of cashmere goat farm­ers who has ac­tu­ally trav­eled to the cra­dle of cashmere and wit­nessed ten thou­sand goats de­scend­ing from the moun­tains at sun­set, with­out ben­e­fit of herd­ing dogs, horses, or a fence line or two. The no­mads of Ladakh com­mu­ni­cate with their an­i­mals in a way that seems more spir­i­tual than stud­ied. I have of­ten won­dered if they would re­gard Tem­ple’s teach­ings as ev­ery­day com­mon sense.

In 2008, just four years af­ter the start of Wild Fibers, I flew to Rome, Italy, for the launch of the In­ter­na­tional Year of Nat­u­ral Fi­bres ( IYNF); a United Na­tions ini­tia­tive spon­sored by the Food and Agri­cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion ( FAO), ded­i­cated to pro­mot­ing the im­por­tance of nat­u­ral fibers through­out the world. ( Isn’t there al­ready a mag­a­zine about that?)

I re­mem­ber flee­ing early Sun­day morn­ing from the New York Sheep and Wool Fair­grounds for the air­port, and step­ping off the plane in Rome 20 hours later wear­ing a black skirt and high heels. Un­for­tu­nately, I had suf­fered a slight wardrobe mal­func­tion in the air­plane bath­room, try­ing to change into my Ital­ian fash­ion en­sem­ble. This re­sulted in an im­pres­sive run down the front of my panty­hose.

Any morsel of ego I dared bring to such an au­gust event was im­me­di­ately erased by my ar­rival in a pair of torn stock­ings. For­tu­nately, by the time I ar­rived at the UN build­ing, the meet­ing was al­ready in ses­sion. I qui­etly took a seat in

the back, hop­ing to make my en­trance un­ob­tru­sive for mul­ti­ple rea­sons.

Dur­ing the lunch break, Brian Moir, chair­man of the IYNF, asked me if I had re­ceived his email over the weekend. I ex­plained I had been knee- deep in ummm… fiber(!), the past few days and un­able to check it.

“No prob­lem,” he said, in a fine Aus­tralian ac­cent. “I would like you to chair this af­ter­noon’s panel dis­cus­sion. Righto?” And then he just walked away be­fore I could re­ply.

When some­one asks you to chair any­thing at the United Na­tions, the an­swer is al­ways yes. But how was I go­ing to make it all the way up to the stage with­out any­one see­ing my tat­tered legs? Alas, the per­ils of a short skirt and a high- al­ti­tude snag.

Many things came out of the IYNF, in­clud­ing the Cam­paign for Wool spon­sored by Prince Charles. But with my fem­i­nine van­ity fully in­tact, the mem­ory of the panty­hose in­ci­dent sadly seems in­deli­ble.

6. Lost sheep in New Zealand

The start of 2009 marked the mag­a­zine’s 5th an­niver­sary, along with one of the most crazy- ass adventures I have ever had.

Sev­eral days into the New Year I made an im­promptu trip to New Zealand, thanks to David White­man, a good- na­tured sheep farmer from the South Is­land whom I had met a few years be­fore. David had writ­ten to tell me that a he­li­copter pi­lot had spot­ted four of his sheep roam­ing about the alps. Ap­par­ently, they had eluded their an­nual shear­ing for sev­eral years and if they weren’t cap­tured soon, their fleece would soon be­come so cum­ber­some in the deep snow that they would surely die.

There were no roads any­where near the “run­aways,” and it would have taken sev­eral days

by horse­back to reach them, and then sev­eral days back to herd them home. Ac­cord­ing to David, the best op­tion was to have a pair of bull­dog­gers ( peo­ple who jump out of he­li­copters for a liv­ing, typ­i­cally to fight for­est fires) cap­ture them and bring them back home sus­pended in a net from be­neath the he­li­copter.

“I think it will make a good story for your read­ers, eh?” David said when we chat­ted by phone. I couldn’t deny it. “In­ter­est­ing” was just one of the things that it was guar­an­teed to be. I left my house in Maine at 4: 15 on Fri­day morn­ing in a hor­rific snow­storm. My flight was can­celled and I was re­booked through a dif­fer­ent air­port. Even­tu­ally, I landed in Bos­ton, then flew to Philadel­phia, then to Salt Lake City and on to Los An­ge­les, where I waited seven hours to board a plane to Auck­land.

From Auck­land, I flew to Christchurch, where David’s son had been as­signed to meet me. The two of us took off for a two- hour drive to his home, where his mother took over the next leg of the jour­ney. We drove al­most three hours to their sheep sta­tion on twenty- nine thou­sand hectares that David rents from the Queen.

David was an­tic­i­pat­ing our ar­rival and met us at the pad­locked front gates. From the en­trance gate it was another half- hour drive to the cook’s camp. A he­li­copter soon ar­rived there and off I went, feel­ing bleary- eyed and dopey.

I buck­led my­self into the he­li­copter seat. Just as we were pre­par­ing to take­off, David an­nounced with great en­thu­si­asm that I could get far bet­ter pho­tos if he took off the door, and so off it went!

There is a fine line be­tween risk and stu­pid­ity, and I sus­pect I had just crossed it. I was too tired to ar­gue with David, and in truth, I re­ally would get much bet­ter shots with the door off. But I also had very lit­tle faith in my abil­ity to hang on as I leaned out the open door, thou­sands of feet above the ground snap­ping mag­nif­i­cent pic­tures while look­ing for four lost sheep.

Ob­vi­ously, I sur­vived to tell the tale — and I would do the whole thing all over again, even if the lost sheep ul­ti­mately turned out not to be David’s!

7. An­go­ras in China

One of the big­gest chal­lenges over the years has been de­cid­ing what is ap­pro­pri­ate to share with my read­ers. For all the joys and won­der of in­ter­na­tional travel there are equal amounts of heartache. It has not been easy to aban­don my Western heart, which has the lux­ury of of­ten treat­ing an­i­mals with more care than is af­forded to mil­lions of hu­mans. But an­i­mal suf­fer­ing, star­va­tion, and care­less death are an un­de­ni­able fact of this vast world we all must share. I sim­ply can’t re­call the num­ber of times I have been driv­ing in a car, a taxi, a truck, or sim­ply walk­ing along the side­walk, and en­coun­tered an aban­doned lit­ter of dead pup­pies, mu­ti­lated don­keys, de­cap­i­tated goats, and other hor­rific ca­su­al­ties of both man and na­ture. When I trav­eled to China in 2010, I tried to keep my jour­nal­ist’s eye open and the eye from my heart shut.

It is no more just to cat­e­go­rize the be­hav­ior of the Chi­nese in a sin­gle sen­tence as it is to la­bel the French, the English, or 300 mil­lion Amer­i­cans. Un­for­tu­nately, some of what I saw there ( and I still choose not to share) will never be erased from my mind. But there was a bright side, too. One of my fa­vorite mo­ments ever was on an An­gora rab­bit farm.

I had not ar­ranged for the in­ter­view, as I was re­ly­ing on a con­tact in Switzer­land to set things up for me. I ex­plained that I wanted to see how An­go­ras were still be­ing raised in tra­di­tional coun­try set­tings and I also wanted to visit a fac­tory farm, which housed up to 30,000 rab­bits.

The cou­ple at the coun­try farm spoke no English, and I, speak no Man­darin. But from the mo­ment the woman pulled the first rab­bit out of its cage ( they have 500) and handed me a mass of white fluff the size of a But­ter­ball tur­key, I knew we were kin­dred souls.

There is such ex­tra­or­di­nary magic that takes place when two peo­ple who would seem­ingly have lit­tle in com­mon be­yond the air that they breathe sud­denly form a last­ing bond from the heart.

In­vari­ably, in the direst of sit­u­a­tions, I have been mirac­u­lously blessed with the light of the universe. It is a phe­nom­e­non that hap­pens to us all, but it seems to hap­pen with un­com­mon fre-

quency for this mag­a­zine ed­i­tor. I will al­ways re­mem­ber be­ing par­tic­u­larly grate­ful for its bril­liance on an oth­er­wise dispir­it­ing af­ter­noon in north­ern China.

8. Bu­dapest and be­yond

To­ward the end of win­ter in 2011 I found my­self in Bu­dapest, sit­ting naked in a sauna next to an Arab. Now, this is not a stan­dard prac­tice of mine. In fact, to date, it’s been a once- in- a- life­time ex­pe­ri­ence. Like the run in my panty­hose it re­ally has noth­ing to do with pub­lish­ing a mag­a­zine other than giv­ing me more fod­der for inane cock­tail con­ver­sa­tions. I have a vi­sion that some­day I will find my­self amidst a crowd of well- heeled en­trepreneurs nib­bling oys­ters on the half shell and sip­ping clarets of cham­pagne. Sud­denly I’ll blurt out, “Did I ever tell you about the time I was in Bu­dapest sit­ting naked in the sauna next to an Arab?” And the per­son be­side me will po­litely chime in, “Yes, Linda, you’ve told us re­peat­edly.”

Just two days af­ter my sauna “date” I trav­eled to Tran­syl­va­nia and met Ni­co­lae, a Ro­ma­nian shep­herd who had lost more than 30 lambs within days of my ar­rival.

It was one of those bleak days that make ev­ery­one won­der if the sun will ever shine again, and clearly, for Ni­co­lae, one truly doubted it ever would. He in­vited me into his home, a sin­gle room with a kitchen ta­ble and a few shelves from where his wife pre­pared our meal. His three chil­dren slept next to a wood­stove.

We sat down for the in­ter­view, Ni­co­lae on the edge of one bed, and I on the other. He be­gan telling me his life story in a man­ner un­com­mon among to­tal strangers, much less two peo­ple sep­a­rated by miles of ocean and cul­tural dis­par­ity.

He spoke slowly, and thought­fully, al­low­ing enough time for my trans­la­tor to find the right words, and within min­utes the tears be­gan to fall from Ni­co­lae’s eyes, and soon, from mine as well.

The tragic and sud­den deaths of so many lambs was by no means the first ache to strike Ni­co­lae’s heart. Start­ing from childhood, Ni­co­lae suf­fered abuse and aban­don­ment be­cause of his fa­ther’s al­co­holism. But un­like in the U. S., where ad­dic­tion has come out of the closet and sup­port groups and ther­a­pists of ev­ery de­scrip­tion can be found in the most re­mote out­post, Ni­co­lae has held the shame of his fam­ily back­ground for all of his life.

He told me that when he was twelve, his fa­ther died. As my trans­la­tor re­peated the words to me I looked at Ni­co­lae with com­pas­sion. But there would be no sor­row about his fa­ther’s pass­ing. In­stead, he looked down at the floor and whis­pered, “I was relieved.”

And then he looked back up at me as if his lack of feel­ing some­how cast a moral blight on him, but I just nod­ded gen­tly back and said, “I un­der­stand,” and we cried to­gether softly.

Be­fore I left that day I emp­tied my wal­let and asked my trans­la­tor to en­sure that Ni­co­lae re­ceived some com­pen­sa­tion for the loss of his live­stock. I knew that no amount of money would re­place the loss in his heart. Per­haps the fact that he was able to un­bur­den even part of his story served to lighten his load even for just a few hours. I’ve al­ways hoped that it did.

9. Ladies in Ladakh

As I men­tioned ear­lier, my meet­ing with Sto­b­gais dra­mat­i­cally changed my views, not only about rais­ing cashmere goats, but about my role in life, and how I could be­gin to “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” A daunt­ing com­mand from Gandhi that few

of mor­tal stature dare to ful­fill. But in Sto­b­gais’s pres­ence, and in the spirit of his sweet Bud­dhist na­ture, some­how that dic­tate seemed within reach.

In 2012, Sto­b­gais trav­eled to Delhi to meet with me. We hadn’t seen each other for a few years, and in the in­terim, he’d had his first child; a beau­ti­ful daugh­ter named Yang­dol. We rode around Delhi to­gether in the back of a tuk- tuk with me clutch­ing Yang­dol on my lap. She seemed com­pletely at peace with the chaos of Delhi traf­fic as cars and cows passed within inches of our open ve­hi­cle.

At the end of our visit, Sto­b­gais asked if I would once again con­sider the idea of lead­ing a tour to Ladakh. Not only to help sup­port him, and now his daugh­ter, but to bring light to the women in his vil­lage, with whom I had been work­ing to de­velop a cashmere hand­spin­ning in­dus­try for the past sev­eral years.

The idea of lead­ing a dozen strangers around the Hi­malayas bor­dered on the ab­surd, if not the mildly ab­hor­rent. But I thought about Gandhi’s words and what I had learned through all of my wild and won­der­ful wan­der­ings, and re­al­ized that none of this was about me.

How could I turn my back on Sto­b­gais, his daugh­ter and the women in his vil­lage, whose only op­tion for em­ploy­ment meant work­ing by the side of the road crush­ing rocks into peb­ble?

One of the big­gest chal­lenges

over the years has been de-

Six months af­ter Sto­b­gais and I met in Delhi, I ar­rived in Ladakh with twelve wild fibers en­thu­si­asts in tow, and for the next twelve days I shared not only a deeply im­por­tant part of my world, but also one of my dear­est friends.

I know that when my group boarded the plane to re­turn home a new place had been for­ever etched in their hearts. It wasn’t just about the ou­tra­geous land­scape dot­ted with mil­lions of sweet goats. It was about dis­cov­er­ing another part of hu­man­ity that all too few ever see, thanks to one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary peo­ple to ever roam the peaks of the Hi­malayas: Kon­chok Sto­b­gais.

10. Suzanne

cid­ing what is ap­pro­pri­ate to Please take a mo­ment to watch our brand new video cel­e­brat­ing 10 years of what makes us wild. http://vimeo.com/79159565

share with my read­ers. For all

the joys and won­der of in­ter-

na­tional travel there are equal

amounts of heartache.

Ten years of run­ning around the planet has meant two things: I am rarely home, and some­one needs to run the of­fice in my ab­sence.

Suzanne La­casse has not been with me all ten years, but she did come on board early enough to work in my spare bed­room and “in­herit” my bingo ta­ble. Suzanne is truly the rea­son Wild Fibers has sur­vived. I may have some skill at string­ing a few fancy words to­gether, but Suzanne is the one who en­sures that the busi­ness runs flaw­lessly. She han­dles the books, the sub­scribers, the ad­ver­tis­ers, the dis­trib­u­tors, and of course, me!

Al­though peo­ple of­ten as­sume that Wild Fibers is pro­duced by a staff, my “staff ” is called Suzanne. We both are apt to chuckle when some­one writes to me and says, “Please have some­one on your staff check my sub­scrip­tion,” and I turn to Suzanne and say, “Well, it looks like it’s your turn to check the sub­scrip­tions to­day.”

In some ways, we are like a hap­pily mar­ried cou­ple who have sorted out our dif­fer­ences and come to ac­cept each other’s idio­syn­cra­sies. I couldn’t ask for a more kind nor com­pe­tent part­ner to raise this child I have named “Wild Fibers.” And I couldn’t have known that ten years back, a bro­ken heart could have one day found so much love in the universe.

Ten Top Mo­ments (page 24)



The au­thor with James Dracup (plant manger), and James Sugden, head­ing out for a tour of John­ston’s cashmere’s mill.


A gi­ant vat of scoured cashmere ready to be dyed (which looks sur­pris­ingly like a big pot of mashed pota­toes.)

Tem­ple Grandin with some of her herd.


The ladies from Oom­ing­mak’s knit­ting co­op­er­a­tive ar­riv­ing for an in­ter­view in Unalak­leet, Alaska.


The au­thor with Kon­chok Sto­b­gais on her first trip to In­dia.

Cashmere goats com­ing home in Chang­tang Val­ley, Ladakh, In­dia.


Look­ing out on David White­man’s sheep sta­tion, South Is­land, New Zealand.

The au­thor look­ing mildly dis­pleased by the re­moval of the he­li­copter door. A newly res­cued ewe sus­pended be­neath the he­li­copter.

“Pass the bunny” in China.


Ni­co­lae wear­ing his tra­di­tional bunda in Tran­syl­va­nia.



Ni­co­lae seated on his son’s bed dur­ing the in­ter­view.

A few of the women demon­strat­ing their cashmere spin­ning for the first Wild Fibers Tour to In­dia.

Yang­dol wear­ing tra­di­tional dress to wel­come the first Wild Fibers tour to Ladakh.


Suzanne La­casse fi­nally gets up­graded from a spare bed­room to an of­fi­cial of­fice.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.