If there was one thing my father couldn’t tolerate, it was bad manners. And once, he punched a sheep in the face.
I’m not condoning animal violence and I know my father wouldn’t either, this occasion notwithstanding. One February morning, at 5am my father trekked through snow to the barn to feed the animals, before commuting to his day job. Bucket in hand, he leaned in to pour the feed in front of 50 hungry faces, their warm breath forming a thin a fog in the cold barn. The ‘bad-mannered sheep’ was trying to be the first fed, while causing the grains to scatter wildly with it’s erratic movements. A short fuse, a fitful sheep, and the damage was done. If you’ve ever been close enough to a sheep to touch their snout you will know that under the thin layer of short fur is a thick layer of cement. The sheep, seemingly unharmed, carried on eating the grains that had just been poured. My father was treated for a broken wrist.
The bandaged wrist was as much a symbol of his misplaced principles on manners as it was his naiveté. As a child, I thought everything was running as a farm should. Now, almost the age my parents were when they bought the farm, all I can think is “HOW?!” This was more than a hobby farm – this was a full-time job on top of full-time jobs. For the next 3 weeks he had to disclose to his family, then to his colleagues, then to local farmers how he had acquired the injury. There was a resounding and knowing nod from the latter group. The farmers, who had been tilling the earth for generations, had been aware of the many adventures this young family was experiencing as they awkwardly shifted from city-dwelling 30 something’s to back-to-the-landers. Adventurous they were. Born farmers, my parents were not.
As a commercial airline pilot, my father had bitten off more grass-fed beef than he could chew. With 5 cows, 50 sheep, a flock of geese, some chickens and a donkey, the young family of six were quickly learning the ropes. The animals stayed with us for a good 15 years until my parents downsized, then downsized a little more until the only animals left on the farm were two Newfoundland’s and a house cat. In the end, the reason for the scrap with the sheep was not because ‘it was all too much’… or perhaps it was. My father loved the farm, the animals and all the messy, beautiful surprises and mistakes that came along with it. But all of the Super 8 footage and sepia-toned photographs don’t always disclose a teething process. Helping my family along were the patient neighbouring farmers who offered up countless tips and straight forward advice. My parent’s go-to farming bible was a well-thumbed book called ‘How to Raise Sheep the Modern Way’ offering graphic details and images of everything from helping a ewe deliver a breech lamb to removing maggot-ridden wool.
When I decided my next homestead project would be soap-making, my mother dropped a dusty, hard-cover book on my lap and said, ‘Here. Ze old roolz still apply.” Flipping through ‘The Harrowsmith Reader’ from 1978, I felt like I was looking at an old family album. Lots of beards, plaid, and overly quaint chapter titles like ‘Here’s to Thee, Old Apple Tree!’ that suggested it was speaking to an entire starry-eyed generation who could live off of unpasteurised milk and dreams alone.
The chapter about soap-making was useful but pretty barebones, using only lye, water, and tallow. Readers could learn how financially viable soap-making could be for a large family since purchasing a bar of soap could ‘set you back as much as 50 cents’. While I appreciate great savings as much as the next homesteader, over the years I’ve also developed an appreciation for luxury soap. With a bit more research and a dig in the garden for some natural abrasives and scent, I had what I thought would make an excellent bar. I also purchased a variety of oils including coconut, olive, and almond; each one carrying different properties to contribute to the lather. I opted for a process that used lye as opposed to what is considered the slightly more ecological glycerin-only bar. I prefer the milkier/richer product of a lye and oil-based soap but it’s a bit nerve-racking using a caustic chemical like sodium hydroxide (if you are ever to use it make sure you use rubber gloves, goggles, and step far away from the emitted fumes). Once blended and set, the original properties of the chemical are altered in a process called saponification and you’re left with a harmless product – one that cleanses and if measured correctly, should not burn the skin.
It was around 8 pm, when I tucked myself away in the shed adjacent to the house, to make my first 300 gram bar of soap. I felt like I was in an episode of Breaking Bad, only I know nothing of chemistry and there was a very real possibility that I could unwittingly cause an explosion. Also, I had very few prospects of making any money with this project. By 10 pm, I was still wearing my protective eyewear(florescent orange cyclist sunglasses from the early-90′s I found in a drawer that, once upon a time, I may have worn for real ), rubber gloves, and swatting at mosquitos with my free hand (at this point, they must have been hitting me for sport as there was no blood left) while mixing the oil, lye and water with the other hand. I was also trying really hard not to inhale deeply for fear the chemicals were still active. I thought to myself, ‘between the blood loss and shallow breathing, soap-making could very well be the end of me’, then I briefly considered switching eye-gear.
I couldn’t get the mixture to saponify like it should. On some dreary soap-making forum that hadn’t been visited in 9 years, I learned that an electric eggbeater was not a useful instrument for making soap. What I needed was a stick blender. A trip to the kitchen and 5 minutes later a miracle happened. The almond, lemon-thyme, and eucalyptus mixture looked perfectly like soap! But then a sad thing happened. As the soap cured, it lost it’s smell entirely and I discovered that all of the ground almonds had settled to the bottom and had turned black. But I was not entirely thwarted.
Last week, my friend Ayla paid me a visit, armed with lavender and cardamom to make a few new castiles. The two of us made 6 varieties of soap using a combination of bought and farm-picked seeds, herbs and flowers. .
With each new batch that Ayla and I made, we adjusted the oil, water and lye content, and experimented with different scents and abrasives. The results were mixed. We had a winner with cardamom, Assam tea, and lavender, but scrunched our noses at the coffee and vanilla bar and had trouble setting another made with buttermilk. Grapefruit and poppy seed, on the otherhand, was a hit and I will soon make another batch using poppy seeds from the garden. I have found a new love in soap-making as the possibilities are endless and when you get it right, the results are very satisfying. For the ones that didn’t work, at least I didn’t break a wrist. Also, I can guarantee there were no animals harmed in the making of this product.