Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Girl and the Borrowers

We were reading The Borrowers, that charming book about tiny people living in the walls of Victorian-era London houses, and she wasn’t buying it.

“If they are so small, where do they get their clothes?” They must make them, I said, as everyone used to. We still do, a little – your Oma makes her own clothes, and your mama made her wedding dress.

“Then where do they get the knives to cut the clothes? Where do they get the patterns?” she asked in increasing frustration. We had talked in the past about the different kinds of material people used – linen from the flax fields that grew all around here, wool from the sheep we see all around us in the fields, and cotton from the seed pods of a subtropical plant. We also have a spinning wheel and a loom, so she understands the basic ideas, and she was just tracing patterns earlier that day from a stencil.

The book, I said, says they stole pins and blades from the big people, and of course people did create their own clothes before they had patterns.

“Our knives would be far too large for them, and they’d need a whole set – they have to cut potatoes too!” The Girl said with increasing exasperation.

I’m really proud of you for thinking about all the little details, I said, but sometimes you have to put things like that aside for a story. It’s called “suspension of disbelief”—you know when Jerry the Mouse hits Tom the Cat, and for a moment Tom’s head is completely flattened? I asked. His head wouldn't really be that flat, but it makes a good story. She wasn’t having it.

Cutting potatoes brought us to the farmer down the lane, whose fields we often stop at on our bicycle rides. He’s harvesting, I said, and piling up the potatoes in his wagon. I haven’t seen any smoke, so perhaps he’s composting the tops rather than burning them.

“Why would he burn them?” she asked. People often did that because the tops are poisonous, I said, and to prevent the blight.

That brought us to talk about what the blight was, without burdening her yet with an explanation of the Famine – she’ll hear about that soon enough. I explained some people spray Bordeaux mixture -- copper sulfate -- and you'll know it when you see it, because it's bright blue. 

“Like the blood of horseshoe crabs!” she said. I’ve been talking to her a lot about the first animals, the weird and amazing experiments of the Creation, so she knows names like Opabina and Ammonites. We also talk about the few remaining members of that menagerie that still live, tucked away in the Ocean Deep or the crevices of the world. Horseshoe crabs are one of those – far older than real crabs, so old that their blood uses copper rather than iron.

It’s also why the Statue of Liberty is bluish-green, I said; it was originally copper-coloured when it was built, but then it rained.

“I can imagine the first time everyone came out to look at it,” The Girl said, “and then the clouds started coming overhead, and suddenly everyone realised – Oh No! It’s made of copper! Do you think it was just like that?”

It might have been just like that, I said, but I don’t know – we should find out.

For almost as long as my daughter could speak, I have been writing down our conversations. At first they were sweet, the cute exchanges you can imagine with a small child. Now that she’s eight, however, she asks more questions to which I don’t have an easy answer, and I have no idea who, if anyone, would. Did the people who built the Statue of Liberty realise it would turn green? Is iron better than copper for oxygen, and is that why we all have red blood now rather than blue?  

Such questions are precious, and I want to cultivate them even as they separate her from her peers. Most children I know begin asking such questions early, and feel them subtly stamped out by annoyed adults, and learn to accept what they are told. Not coincidentally, I meet many adults whose political and religious faiths seem loud and fragile, anagrams of the opinions around them, and un-strengthened by tough questions.

I decided not to bring up suspension of disbelief again, but encourage questions about everything, and I will acknowledge the limits of what I can answer, and help her find out on her own. Eventually we returned to The Borrowers with pleasure, knowing that a new question would arise and take us on an unexpected journey, and it wouldn't matter how long it took to finish the book.

P.S. Last night we couldn't find the book at first. 

"Maybe they Borrowed themselves!" she said.

PPS: I talked with the farmer recently - he lets the potato tops dry for a few weeks, and then burns them. He doesn't recommend anyone compost potato tops. 

Photo: The Girl in front of the potato field.


Kristen M. Hughes said...

Hello, Brian,
you have a spinning wheel and a loom? I'd like to hear more about that, and local fibre arts and sourcing fibre where you are.

I spin yarn myself, I took it up because of the implications of Peak Oil and climate change.

Brian Kaller said...


Yes, my wife has a spinning wheel, and my mother-in-law, who lives with us, has a loom but doesn't use it much. This winter I had hoped to start using them more. Fibre is surprisingly difficult to get here, even though we are surrounded by sheep, but Avoca in County Wicklow is a good source. Let me ask about more and post again.

Kristen M. Hughes said...

thanks, Brian!
interesting, I know Avoca Handweavers from the shop of finished goods they have (had?) in the city of Victoria, Canada.

I'd be curious to know the cause of the difficulty getting wool. In my experience these are some reasons: wool is sent to a pool with no direct sales (either for economy of scale or because it's required by law), the sheep give wool handspinners don't want to work with so there's no market demand (breeds with coarse wool, too much veggie matter), or the area lacks custom processing mills.

Handspinners can get pretty much anything here, both local and imported stuff, by mail order, from a store, or direct from a producer. But I haven't found a really good flax strick (line flax) yet.