With a fair amount of glee, we bring you Franklin Habit. He will report regularly on books of note, bringing his wide-ranging taste and boundless curiosity in an intrepid quest for what’s new and good. Or old and good. With Franklin, you never know. We can’t wait to see what he finds next.
—Kay and Ann
Of all the many species of memoir, none is tougher to cultivate successfully than the Inspiring Personal Journey. Too little inspiration along the path, and you have a ho-hum string of mild anecdotes. Too much, and you have a braggypants Instagram feed from which even your dearest friends will rapidly unsubscribe. #shutupalready
Debbie Zawinski’s In the Footsteps of Sheep should, by rights, be completely insufferable. In her early sixties, Zawinski set out from her home near Edinburgh determined to realize a dream.
She would travel the length and breadth of Scotland, visiting every native Scottish sheep breed in its original habitat. She would cover as much ground as possible on foot, sleeping for the most part in a tent carried on her back. She would gather loose fleece (“henty lags” or “henty leggits” in Shetland parlance) from each breed, spinning it on a spinning stick as she walked. She would knit this handspun yarn into a pair of socks, striped in the natural colors of Scottish wool.
And you thought waiting in line for the restrooms at Rhinebeck was an adventure.
This could be fertile ground for the sentimental faux-philosophizing and twee rhapsody that too often infect writing about the fiber arts; yet Zawinski avoids false steps as nimbly as a sheep on Boreray Isle negotiating a seaside cliff.
Mind the Cows
The circuit takes in ten breeds: the Shetland, the Scottish Blackface, the Hebridean, the Boreray, the Soay, the North Country Cheviot, the North Ronaldsay, the Castlemilk Moorit, the Bowmont, and the Cheviot. (The two Cheviots, despite the name and a common ancestry, are considered entirely separate breeds.) The watery, hilly geography of Scotland compels her to travel by foot, bus, rail, boat, and the occasional lift from a kindly driver. In between, she pitches her tent on whatever patch of ground seems most promising.
As you might imagine, this is not always a comfortable way to travel. To her credit, she doesn’t shy away from frank descriptions of the unpleasant. It often rains—and rains, and rains, and rains. Buses are late, seas are rough, ferries fail to materialize. She is plagued by clouds of midges and repeatedly threatened by cows. Yes, cows. In fact, only cows seem to inspire a genuine throb of fear, possibly due to an encounter on an earlier journey:
“Once, a few years ago, I awoke from a bivvy beneath the meager shelter of a length of wriggly tin and a wire fence to see an entire herd of cows arranged in a curious semi-circle around me munching contemplatively and gazing fixedly in my direction with limpid-eyed wonder: it was a disconcerting start to the day.”
The Fine Art of Talking to Strangers
Zawinski is good at talking to strangers (a skill which I lack and envy), and frequently parlays a chance conversation into a fascinating encounter. Her deft portraits of these people are admirably economical, not a word wasted. And her penchant for exploring on foot leads to some enchanting descriptions of the intimate joys of the landscape, the details that elude the tourist postcard view:
“Beside the track the water dribbles down peaty banks overhung with heather; trickles erode the ancient blackness between exposed roots and coalesce into larger rivulets which gurgle happily along in ditches below. We are all heading towards the sea.”
Too large a dose of this could become tiresome. But the overall tone is bracing and forthright; she never over-sugars the mixture.
The socks knit from fleece gathered on the journey are proudly displayed at the end of the book—which is lavishly illustrated with her own color photographs, sketches, and hand-drawn maps. If you would like to follow in her footsteps (without the midges and cows) there’s a pattern for the “Scottish Sheep” socks, too—along with the patterns for ten pairs of socks she designed and knit as gifts for those who helped her along the way.
These are pleasantly varied, from cables and colorwork to a cute flock of intarsia sheep gamboling around the leg.
In the Footsteps of Sheep: Tales of a Journey through Scotland, Walking, Spinning, and Knitting Socks by Debbie Zawinski. 191 pages, softcover. Published by and available from Schoolhouse Press.
(Photographs by Debbie Zawinski)