Spinning back the bison

  • Bison

    Steve Collector
  • Louise Wagenknecht


The trouble with being a handspinner is that people are always giving me bags of fiber: a plastic bag full of hair from their ever-shedding malemute; a paper sack containing coarse waxy hanks of hair from a pet Angora goat. I never turn them down. Most handspinners are hoarders by nature; we go to fiber festivals and buy more fleeces, even as we realize that we will never live long enough to spin what we already have.

So last winter, when I was given a large box full of shed bison wool from a bison ranch on the Idaho-Montana border, I stared at the dirty mass in dismay. But I took it.

It was filthy with the dust in which the animals had rolled, so I left it alone in my storeroom for a few weeks, thinking about how to clean it. Then one day I pulled the box out and, sitting cross-legged on my living room rug, picked up a clump of the wool and began to tease the fibers apart. As I pulled and shook, dirt and grass and bits of dried hay rattled down. I repeated this process several times, noticing that the hair itself was delicate, and soft, and in spite of the dirt, there was no grease, no smell. That a 2,000-pound behemoth should wear a winter cloak so fine, so light, over its massive head and shoulders was startling.

I live on the upper reaches of the Lemhi River, a tributary of the Salmon River, in eastern Idaho. The "mountain buffalo" of the Salmon River country were gone by the 1850s, driven down onto the Snake River Plain, it is said, by a terrible winter, and there wiped out by hunting.

The remnants of the population sought refuge on the Yellowstone plateau, and to this day some of the bison that try to leave Yellowstone in winter will head, as if by memory, toward the west.

As I pulled and shook the bison wool, I looked out at the grey masses of the Beaverhead Range, and at their sisters, the sharp young peaks of the Lemhis. I realized that I held in my hands the first bison tissue to see the winter sun here in 150 years.

Bison skulls remain, of course. I saw them in almost every ranch dooryard when I first came here, surrounded by zinnias and nasturtiums, their massive structure instantly recognizable. One day I found half of the upper part of a skull, protruding from the edge of a small stream in Railroad Canyon, strands of watercress draped across the blackened horn bosses. As I pulled it from the silt, an earthworm wiggled from the black mud clogging the sinus cavity and fell at my feet. To the Indians and trappers who traveled through the Snake Country in the early 1830s, these animals were their commissary, their slaughter meticulously noted in the journals of men like John Work of the Hudson's Bay Company, as he led a party of almost 100 men, women and children up the Lemhi River in November 1830.

At the present site of Lemhi, Idaho: "Some herds of buffaloe were seen, but only one was killed."

Seven miles further up the Lemhi River: "Some of the hunters killed two or three buffaloe. These animals are very scarce though they used formerly to be very numerous in this quarter."

And on Nov. 23, while camped at Timber Creek, a major tributary of the Lemhi: "Formerly buffaloe used to be very numerous about this place, now scarcely one is to be seen, probably this arises from a party of Nezperces Indians having passed not long since and driven the buffaloe off to the great plain, where they have not yet returned ..."

Over the next several days, as I begin to spin the bison wool, I look out at Timber Creek, and beyond it to the swamp that is now an alfalfa field, a house, a road, a cattle pasture. The shortness of some of the fibers and the soft slickness of them make them hard to draw into a continuous thread at first, but it grows easier, and except for many pauses to pull bits of vegetable matter from the wool, it goes faster than I expect. When I have a spindleful of one-ply yarn, I unwind it into a ball and lay it aside. I spin another ball, and another, and another.

When the wool is all spun, I twist the balls of single-ply yarn into two-ply by pedaling my spinning wheel in the opposite direction while I feed two single-ply strands through a metal eye and onto the whirling spindle. Then I unwind them from the spindle and, with my little hand-cranked skein-winder, wind them up once more, creating a cylindrical skein of yarn. My box of bison wool has created four of these skeins.

I look at them. They have something I never expected to see: a gloss, a certain glow, coveted in wool and seldom seen except in the best wool from Romney sheep. The brown wool glows with textured highlights, red and chocolate and yellow. It looks good enough to eat. I open the back door to let the cat out. The moon that John Work hated, because it gave the Blackfeet light to steal horses, rides above the shoulder of Orion. I step out to look at them, high in the sky in this place still far beyond city lights.

I hold a strand of the bison yarn looped between my fingers. On impulse, I open my palm and hold the wool out to the night. The north wind catches it and whirls it away into the dark, blowing it southward, under the blazing white horns of Taurus, under the red eye of the bull.

Louise Wagenknecht spins and writes in Leadore, Idaho.

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