When I stepped off the plane on Gotland island, Sweden, I felt my whole body relax. The air was full of salty mist, ocean breeze, and sea weed. We were greeted with open arms by a Swedish friend I had made via instagram. She unexpectedly met us at the airport, embracing us with Scandinavian hospitality, maps, and a bag filled with saffronspannkaka (a dessert unique to Gotland Island) and other delicious Swedish delights. Just 5 minutes off the plane, and we were already immersed in a community rich in tradition and strong in pride. Over the next 5 days, Swedish sheep farmers would welcome us onto their homesteads and into their lives, as we would drive from one end of the island to the other, to learn about the sheep they raise.
Lamm och Bi – A Sheep Farm on Gotland
Passions unite people. The work of our hands bond us, one to another, crossing all cultural and language barriers. Annette spoke tentatively with us, searching for the English words to express herself. Leading me to her table of pelts, she put them in my hands to help communicate her story. She, wife, mother, artist, and shepherdess to a large flock of Gotland sheep, had much to share. She struggled with the words to answer my questions about animal husbandry.
We stood in the farm store, a wing off of their old farmhouse. Pelts, yarn, and hand crafted items filled two rooms of their Scandinavian home. Annette takes the pelts from their sheep, and turns them into clothing, and household accessories. “What kind of sewing machine do you use?” I asked. Her eyes lit up, and she motioned for me to follow, and we headed into another part of their home. She stopped, turned and said, “they will want to see too,” pointing to my husband and daughter. The three of us followed her up a stairway and into her studio.
I gasped when I walked into the immense work room! Large work tables centered the room, piled with work in progress in assembly line fashion. Tall shelves stood on either side of the tables, piled to the ceiling with pelts of all colors. Against a window, a long low desk held three sewing machines. Off to the side, I saw a small table with one machine with the word “Toyota” written across the side of it.
Annette turned to look at me-at once, I knew we had crossed that awkward stage of trying to communicate. From one hand crafter to another, she shared her work, her story, her equipment, her leather, and the very stitches that held her life and her clothing together.
Footsteps climbed the stairs and Dan, her husband, entered the room, coming in after doing the evening chores. Annette’s face lit up when she saw him. At first I felt it was because she would have help, translating her life into English for her American guests, but afterwards, I felt that much of her glow must surely be because of the love and respect that is so evident in their relationship. I guessed, that her face must light up every time he enters the room.
Dan, with sleeves cut from his shirt, bare strong arms folded, and shirt buttoned askew, grinned as he greeted us. His face was gentle, yet obviously a man who knows hard work. He must have wondered if we really did own sheep and a farm, as we were dressed in what I call our “town clothes”. We left our ragged flannels and worn work pants, hanging in the closet at home, the scent of sheep manure, long washed from our hands. He proudly said that they have a flock of 600 Gotland sheep. (Many farms on the island, raise a couple different breeds of sheep, but Lamm & Bi strictly raise Gotlands.) He said with much pride,that he believes that they have “the largest Gotland sheep farm in Sweden if not the entire world”. “How many Gotland sheep do you have?” he asked. After hearing the size of his flock, I quietly, almost hoping he would not hear me, said, “seven”. His grin grew larger and before he could laugh or remark, his wife turned to him, touched his arm and said, “but in 20 years they will have 200 ewes.”
Having worked in the United States on a farm when he was younger, Dan spoke with us in English with much confidence. He shared his story, and his love for his sheep. He told us that they graze 250 ewes on an island off the coast of Gotland, Stora Karlsö, in the summer months. They take the sheep over by boat in the spring and go back for them in the fall. Dan, wise in the ways of shepherding and people, knew the struggles of upbreeding Gotlands in America, even before we spoke. He would knowingly nod and grin, and then tell us similar stories.
Before we left, Annette measured me for a vest. She would custom make a vest for me, using a pelt from her sheep, and using her hands to craft it. I also filled a bag with yarn, head bands, and honey to take home with me. When I invited them to come to our farm in the states and stay with us, Annette’s face, once again lit up, and I saw her quickly glance at her husband. I hoped that perhaps it was a persuasive glance in his direction and that he would consent under her gaze. She said that she had been to the states many years ago and would like to come again.
As we turned to leave, my daughter asked if they would mind posing for a picture. Together they stood, side by side, in front of a cabinet filled with Annette’s hand crafted clothing. Their posture so perfectly telling their story- Dan, with his knowing grin, gentle face, and strong arms revealing his years of shepherding hearts as well as sheep, and Annette, with one hand placed on her husband’s arm, pulling herself in close to him, as his lifetime partner in farming.
I am confident that we will meet again, because passions unite people, and when a passion runs strong between people, little can keep them apart….not even an ocean.