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The Work of Our Hands

I decided to come up to the farm the day after Shavuot, one of the Jewish harvest festivals. I went into the backyard and wanted to plant something. There were a few planters full of dirt, left by my landlady before lockdown started. One of them was full of lavender. One was full of dried weeds. A few looked empty. In any case, I had no seeds and nothing to plant, short of the innards of the peppers I had eaten the night before, which seemed a tad ambitious. I dug my hands into the soil and felt around, running my fingers through the tiny stones and clumps of dirt. Two days later I got on a train and headed up to Dalmally.

Farming is who we are as people, both as Jews, but also as human beings. The basis of our civilization stems from agriculture. Even before that, when we were hunter-gatherers, we were still engaged in the deep work of our hands. Today we don’t use our hands particularly often. We type on computers, and drive cars, but this is not that material touch. I’m talking about the deep touch, the immersion of our hands into material substance - doing of work of our hands.

At the farm we do a lot of work with our hands. We dig holes in the ground, we feed sheep, we shear sheep, we cook food, we harvest plants, we dye wool, and we spin wool. Most of these things are also done by machine at bigger farms, or in factories. But there’s something to doing it with your hands - pushing my fingers deep into piles of raw sheep’s wool, pulling apart the fibres bit by bit, feeling the greasy lanolin sink into my skin. It’s a whole new experience.

At home I like to be clean. I shower often and wash my hands regularly. Here I’ve come into contact with so many new substances and materials. But I don’t see them as dirty. I see them as materials of the world, meant for us to explore.

Sunday morning I was just pouring my coffee when there was a knock on the door. It was the neighbour from down the road, bringing over some fish that her son had caught in the loch. Graham brought them into the kitchen in a plastic sack, and got to work.

First the fish had to be gutted. He sliced open their stomachs, pulling out their egg sacs, which he assured me were a tasty delicacy when fried in butter. When he split them up the centre he remarked on how clean their innards were, ingesting the cool waters of Loch Awe. The smell was a bit overwhelming as the four fishes were gutted and washed out in the kitchen sink.

Then Liz got to work, carefully cutting the skins off their bodies. She was learning about fish leather, and was going to try and tan the skins to make buttons. I sat with her for almost an hour as she carefully separated the flesh from the skin, cutting around the fins and tail. The skin had a beautiful drape, soft and delicate, yet surprisingly tough.

As she worked, tiny flakes of iridescence chipped off and clung to her skin. I never knew fish scales were like that - individual pieces of cartilage forming a tough coating on their bodies.

In Jewish belief we see fish as holy beings, because they sleep with their eyes open. This reminds us of G-d’s ever-present protection. But as I collected the fish scales in a little jar, to clean and dry and turn into sequins, I thought of the midrash of Adam HaRishon being created covered in a layer of fingernail. As he came to life, the nail coating rescinded, but we still wash our fingernails every morning, cleansing them for the day, and remembering that primordial state of being when humans and fish were just little bits of flesh covered in cartilage.

Fish aren’t the only new thing I’ve been touching. Last week we sheared the sheep. Sheep grow their wool for a whole year, building up a thick coat to keep them warm through the winter. By late spring, the wool begins to peel off, in preparation for the warm summer months. It falls off in chunks, covering the Highland hills in little puffs of white. A new layer begins to grow underneath, already preparing for the next winter.

Then Farmer Graham comes with his giant metal shears. He cordoned off a section of the farm with bits of fencing, cornering the Shetland and the Cheviot. He pulled them up one by one, balancing them on their bottoms, so they couldn’t move. You have to shear in even, long strokes, to keep the fibres as long as possible. Long fibres make for even spinning.

The wool separated in one piece, revealing an entirely new sheep underneath. Graham lay the fleeces out on the platform for inspection. We then got to work.

The Cheviot fleece was picked through to remove dirt and brambles, then soaked in soapy water. After drying, I fed it through the carding machine, and then tore it into long strips for spinning on the wheel. The Shetland fleece we left raw, and picked through with our fingers. Each curl had to be pulled apart, releasing the crimped fibres from a year’s worth of nature. Dirt and brambles are picked out. The wool is full of lanolin, the perspirated fat which comes through the sheep’s skin. It covers your hands in a thin layer of grease and smells strongly of sheep. But it holds the fibres together beautifully, spinning into fine, even wool. It left my hands feeling soft and sheepy for days.

Back in December, when life was as it used to be, I presented a session at Limmud Festival in Birmingham called ‘Textiles as Ritual Practice’ about the correlations between making textiles and our Jewish experience. It was an amazing collection of passionate fibre people, all sharing their Jewish and textile journeys. I remember one man who wove talleisim, or prayer shawls.

He would carefully design patterns and choose fibres, and spend weeks constructing the fabric. I asked if he wore them afterwards, and he said that his personal Avodah, his way of worshipping G-d, was through the making of the shawls, not by wearing them. Just as the repetitive nature of prayer draws us into a meditative state, the repetitive nature of weaving, the immersion of our hands in substance, draws us into a state of connection.

Doing things with our hands isn’t always fun, but it is meaningful. We pick rocks with our hands, or move them with shovels. I crouch in the midge-infested air, plucking marigold leaves to dry and turn into beautiful dyes. Liz taught me about eco-printing, where we soak papers in tannin and iron, and steam tiny flower remnants into them. Everything around us, every flower, every bit of lichen clinging to the trees, is a source of inspiration or something or other. It’s a constant process of looking and making and trying new things.

I’m reminded of the vastness of the world - how I’m a finite being, camped out in a little caravan set amongst the Highland hills, with an infinite amount of world to explore, an infinite number of things to learn, and an infinite amount of substances to dig my hands into. Each object I touch, each substance I get to know, is an inch deeper into my understanding of the world I inhabit and my place within it.

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