Monday, July 9, 2012

The Catskin Blanket

Two Aprils ago, I traveled around the Welsh countryside, working on small farms in exchange for a bed to sleep in and food to eat. I pruned blackberry and hawthorn in the hedges, chopped up branches of ash wood, milked goats, clipped sheep hooves, walked by cold dark Welsh "rivers" (which to my eye looked like streams), knitted by a woodstove at night, slept clutching a hot water bottle and two hot stones wrapped in old yellow envelopes, because it is bloody freezing in Wales in April. Nothing was as cold as this chapel, my bedroom at Old Chapel Farm, a 45 minute walk outside of the 1,200-year old town of Llanidloes.

It was a rough and drafty chapel, with sharp raw rock walls, rooks living in the belfry, a nightly drip leaking down through the roof onto the plywood floor of the sleeping loft, where I made my bed. I slept under four comforters that smelled of sandalwood, holding to my chest a hot water bottle stuffed in a felted wool case, and still I woke up shivering. That early spring air, sharp with frost, damp with the exhalations of those ancient sloping hills, that early spring air baby lambs were birthed into and crocuses bravely popped up their heads above the cold earth to greet, it slipped through the stone walls and windows and turned my nose red. 

None of this is to say that I was unhappy. On the contrary, I had been struggling with insomnia at school in Rhode Island, but in that chapel loft bed, shivering at dawn, surrounded outside the window by 18th and 19th century tombstones, and below the slate floors with 13th century graves disturbed no doubt by the construction of the building, I slept deep and heavy. Even though when I turned the light out and plunged the rafters with dark, the stars a thick map like snow outside, I was terrified of ghosts. I muttered for them to just come on through, so long as I didn't have to see them. I hid my head under the covers and didn't peak until light, until the rooks began to scratch and chortle in the belfry, and the hills sighed out their cold morning breath as the sun rose. Then I would get up and feed the sheep, dodging ewes' horns as they clambered for the food, check for baby lambs born over night, who needed their umbilical cords dabbed with iodine and their tails bound up with a rubber band. 

When I found them they were mostly still damp with afterbirth. They smelled of womb and new fur, the tenderest creatures you can imagine, and so much more clever and playful than their mothers. 

Some were orphaned— mothers died or refused to give them milk— so we took them inside and bottle-fed them. They slept in the kitchen in cardboard boxes. 

Or lamb-piles. 

One of them, named Tamarisk (or Tammy for short), behaved like a puppy. She followed us everywhere, on walks to the hills or down to the stream. She liked to be held. Her nose always smelled of dry milk.

A big bell was rung at 11 and 4 for tea. We all ate dinner in the dining room of the 16th century farmhouse, by candlelight, drinking home brewed elderflower wine.

I was calmer, more peaceful, sleeping in that chapel surrounded by graves, tending the sheep and laying floor tiles, planting potatoes and other such things, than I could remember being. 

The point, however, of this post, the story I meant to tell, was of the Catskin Blanket. After several nights of cold, after hoarding most of the blankets left in the house, Fran leant me and another girl sharing the loft her catskin blanket, given to her while she was traveling through Ethiopia in the 1970's. One side was a quilt of the softest catskins, the other dark green felted wool. It smelled a bit musty, and was very heavy. The first night, I let my chapel-mate use it. I was a bit wary, a bit alarmed, by all those pelts, so reminiscent of house-cats. The next morning, I was up early, shivering, my cheeks icy, and she was buried under the cat and felt blanket, toasty and warm. 

 We switched that night, and I became a devout convert to the Catskin Blanket, which kept me warmer than a woodstove could have, and filled my thoughts with faraway deserts and wildcats. It was a magic thing. It kept out the Welsh cold, it made me feel safe at night from the ghosts I was sure were there, slipping through the night, threading between stars. This blanket gave me a deep appreciation for the power of animal skins and furs to ward off cold before the invention of heating systems, particularly in those lands further north than Wales, were snow is deep and long. In the Arctic Circle cultures of the world-- from Saami to Inuit-- animals and the bounty of their bodies were and are revered in a way that I think is hard to fully comprehend in places of warmth and plenty. The body of a reindeer, for example, can provide everything-- fur for warmth, muscle, organ and blood for nutrition, sinew for cordage, bones for tent structures, leather for shoes. Its fur is thick and insulating; it was made for withstanding polar winds. Catskins were made to keep those sweet feline bodies warm, perfectly, gracefully, more fully than any down comforter or woven blanket that human hands might make. I was deeply grateful to them.

English Fairy Tales. Arthur Rackham, illustrator. New York: Macmillan Company, 1918.
I thought of the deep warmth of that catskin blanket again today, after all these seasons, while re-reading one of my favorite fairytales, Catskin, an English story in which a young girl, unwilling to marry the leering old man her father wishes her to wed (or, in some versions, her own father, gone batty with the loss of his wife), goes to the hen-wife for advice. The woman tells her to demand dresses for the wedding that should be impossible to create-- one made of moon, one of sun. This doesn't work. In the end, the girl has to escape by night in a coat made of catskins, and travel alone, on foot through the woods and mountains, until she finds a place to sleep and work as a scullery maid. In some versions she wears a donkey skin, or rabbit skins, rushes, a bear skin, a suit of leather, a mossy coat. In all versions, she becomes a thing of the wild for a while, protected by cat and moss and rabbit. Here's an excerpt from the beginning of Catskin, collected by Joseph Jacobs in the late 1800's.

"Well, there was once a gentleman who had fine lands and houses, and he very much wanted to have a son to be heir to them. So when his wife brought him a daughter, bonny as bonny could be, he cared nothing for her, and said, ‘Let me never see her face.’ So she grew up a bonny girl, though her father never set eyes on her till she was fifteen years old and was ready to be married. But her father said, ‘Let her marry the first that comes for her.’ And when this was known, who should be first but a nasty rough old man. So she didn’t know what to do, and went to the hen-wife and asked her advice. The hen-wife said, ‘Say you will not take him unless they give you a coat of silver cloth.’ Well, they gave her a coat of silver cloth, but she wouldn’t take him for all that, but went again to the hen-wife, who said, ‘Say you will not take him unless they give you a coat of beaten gold.’ Well, they gave her a coat of beaten gold, but still she would not take him, but went to the hen-wife, who said, ‘Say you will not take him unless they give you a coat made of the feathers of all the birds of the air.’ So they sent a man with a great heap of pease; and the man cried to all the birds of the air, ‘Each bird take a pea, and put down a feather.’ So each bird took a pea and put down one of its feathers: and they took all the feathers and made a coat of them and gave it to her; but still she would not, but asked the henwife once again, who said, ‘Say they must first make you a coat of catskin.’ So they made her a coat of catskin; and she put it on, and tied up her other coats, and ran away into the woods.

So she went along and went along and went along, till she came to the end of the wood, and saw a fine castle. So there she hid her fine dresses, and went up to the castle gates, and asked for work. The lady of the castle saw her, and told her, ‘I’m sorry I have no better place, but if you like you may be our scullion.’ So down she went into the kitchen, and they called her Catskin, because of her dress. But the cook was very cruel to her and led her a sad life.

Well, it happened soon after that the young lord of the castle was coming home, and there was to be a grand ball in honour of the occasion. And when they were speaking about it among the servants, ‘Dear me, Mrs Cook,’ said Catskin, ‘how much I should like to go.’ " 

For the rest of the story, go to Sur La Lune , a wonderful site full of European fairytales and their variations.


  1. A superbly wonderful post Sylvia, and blimey - that catskin blanket!! How extraordinary!

    1. Oh, thanks Rima! So glad you enjoyed. Yes, it was quite a marvelous blanket, something out of a story, soft beyond imagining and, most importantly, incredibly warm! Sometimes I miss those cold mornings a lot, how good a hot cup of tea felt against my hands. I'm sure you know the feeling, from your adventures in the traveling horse-box. You probably could have used a catskin blanket yourself! Thanks for visiting. :)

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks so much Lynn! Your work over at Beneath the Bracken is completely lovely.

  3. This is so wonderful to read Sylvia. Your words and photos perfectly complement each other and bring your adventures to life. Your post about California too and tracking (below) is so powerful that it fills me with terror, awe, and even nostalgia as if I am there, as if these were my memories. There is something especially vivid about your description of the mountain lion followed by your experience of the land as a giant animal. Lovely! xx

    1. Thanks so much Elizabeth!! Such a nice surprise to find your words here. Miss you and can't wait to see you soon in that hotter southern side of this strange state! LOVE.