Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Alpacas, Cats and Patience

Selling handmade accessories crocheted from alpaca fiber in a small city in Vermont holds you to a high standard.  Anywhere else, the handmade aspect alone would be impressive, or the fact that I am the sole proprietor and entire staff of an extremely small local business, or that all my items are one of a kind and designed by me, and I sometimes, but not always, source from small local businesses for my materials. I even walk the three mile round trip to market and back each Saturday carrying a duffle bag full of wrist warmers and scarves, some of which I just finished that morning. It doesn’t get more honest, natural and down to earth than that.  

But this being Vermont, I know the next question to follow “do you live here?” and “do you crochet these yourself?” will be “are these made of fiber from your own alpacas?” And my proud yesses will be followed by a somewhat apologetic “no, but” followed by what I hope is an earnest friendly explanation that hopefully redeems my fiber artisan cred, because while, no, I do not own my own alpacas, or shear them, or spin or dye my own fiber, I did once apprentice at a farm where I spent a lot of time with alpacas, and even trained them, which has to count for something.

You may be wondering where I’m going with this, an essay on the politics of the fiber world, or the importance of supporting small local businesses, or how much I love doing the weekly Vermont Farmers Market, or exactly why it is that I am not the owner of an alpaca farm using my hands to care for the herd and process their fiber instead of typing on a computer as the sun rises. But actually, it’s about what came to me as I was lying in bed in the pre-dawn dark this morning with my cat Henry standing on my chest and holding his nose to my nose with the kind of trust not often found among felinekind, about what my time with alpacas taught me that I can apply to life beyond the farm.

Alpacas, although they are a prey animal and find safety and comfort in numbers, are a lot like cats, highly intelligent and extremely resistant to training. You get to know pretty quickly that this is not an animal whose will needs to be broken to get it to do your bidding. It will never follow you around obediently like a dog or set aside its wild nature to work for you like a horse.  You won’t get adoration or service from an alpaca.  But you can get a surprising amount of affection, and you can even get them to do what you want them to do, provided it is also what they want to do. Which pretty much makes them large fuzzy cats with very long necks.

I think my experience with cats helped me a lot when I worked with alpacas. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere with a bold imposing approach. I would have to let them come to me on their own terms, that patience and consistency were key. In the mind of an alpaca, anything sudden or different can pose a threat, and words and gestures mean nothing. They can’t be lured by treats or coerced with discipline or domination. The way to earn the trust and acceptance of an alpaca is just by being there, alongside them, and proving to them that nothing bad happens when you are around. And once they accept you, and behave in their natural way, you can slowly direct those behaviors towards what you want them to do.  They don’t even notice that they are wearing a harness and are attached to you by a leash because you’ve become part of  their movements and their comfort zone and not only is there no reason not to trust you, they even kind of like having you around.

Henry has been with me for only 3 months and even for a cat of great confidence, he has already accepted me with a depth of trust I did not expect for several months, maybe even years. The more I leave it up to him to figure out the boundaries of our relationship, the more permeable those boundaries become. Cats love routine and an unchanging environment and I am such a big part of that formula he now frets when I leave the house for a few hours. Wherever I am in my apartment, he usually picks a nearby spot to recline. This does not mean he wants to be approached and attended to, just that having me where he can see me makes him feel good. And that makes me feel good too.

I have not always been a patient person, waiting for things to come to me. I much prefer the active approach to life, reasoning that any gesture, declaration or initiative is better than just sitting around doing and saying nothing. But some situations call for the less is more approach, and I am glad I have had experiences in which that approach proved so successful and rewarding. I have been living on my own in this small city in Vermont for a few months now, and I have found that people are accepting me not because I have gone forth and cultivated friendships aggressively, but because I am simply, consistently there. Vermonters are a lot like alpacas, they stick together, do not respond to the heavy-handed approach, and they are slow to trust, but once they do, you are one of them. 

Lately, as I move through my days, I am remembering that first day I went out into their enclosure on a snowy day in Maine with my camera and walked among the alpacas I was going to be working with for the next few months. I walked with even steps and made myself very quiet inside. I stood motionless a lot of the time. They stopped running away to the furthest distance they could manage and eventually forgot why they were trying to get away from me. Then something magical happened. I was in the middle of a herd surrounded by these magnificent creatures and moving among them as if I were one of them. I could feel their strength and heat and hear their low humming vocalizations. They were looking me in the eye, at first with misgiving, then with curiosity, and then with what was clearly approval. That day, I brought back some amazing photographs, and so much more. And now I am getting that feeling again, that things are on their way to me, and if I am just very quiet inside, magic is going to happen.