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Dinosaurs and Lullabies
Story and Photos By Linda N. Cortright
Why has no one ever rated fiber festivals? I don’t mean one for awful, and ten for outstanding. I mean a moving rating. I’m going to start investigating this option so I can rate Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival -R; Children under the age of seventeen should be accompanied by an adult due to sex, violence, drugs, and nudity. If you don’t know why any of these are a distinct possibility then you have either never been to Maryland Sheep and Wool (MDSW) or, you have omitted a visit to the sheep barn.
After a two-year hiatus shoppers descended on this year’s show filled with an ache that can only be likened to drug withdrawal. It’s not just the wool they wanted (the fleece building offers its own euphoria). And it’s not just the line for t-shirts (it takes less time to cross the George Washington Bridge at rush hour.) It’s the synergy that comes from thousands of fiber folk convening like the hajj to Mecca. And so, when you take hordes of people in search of an overdue fix, things can get a little crazy. Not to say I have actually seen a punch thrown at the yarn sale bin, but that’s not to say it hasn’t happened.
I arrived at this year’s show intent on capturing some great moments on video. Not only does The Sunday Read’s online format allow for expanded content, but if I am going to plead my case for a cinematic rating, I need footage.
Already accustomed to lugging an appalling amount of camera gear, I have recently added a modest audio set to enhance the quality of my videos. I had all good intentions of conducting farmer interviews, stalls filled with cuddly lambs, and who knows . . . maybe a bit of sex. (It isn’t long before little lambs start turning into little rams.)
Well, let’s just say that was my plan, and God laughed.
Some of you may have heard that it rained at this year’s festival. But saying it “rained” doesn’t capture the magnitude of the event. I arrived at the sheep barn on Friday afternoon anxious to use my new audio equipment (full confession: it was a low-budget item) and all I could hear was the rain pounding against the tin roof. It was louder than a dinosaur vomiting ten penny nails into a metal bucket. I couldn’t hear the farmer and the farmer couldn’t hear me. My hope of capturing some naked —I mean freshly shorn—sheep also began circling the drain as many of the little dears went from full frontal nudity back into their winter coats. It was wet, raw, and cold—call it miserable. And yet, despite my failed video efforts, my walk through the barn was still infinitely gratifying. Particularly when I came across a sensational Jacob ram with all six horns sprouting like calcified fountains.
Historically, Jacobs have always garnered attention for their unusual appearance. English farmers used to keep them as “lawn ornaments.” There was a certain prestige associated to owning these rare and rather odd-looking creatures as passers-by would stop and stare. But as I stood in the dank cold admiring this stunning ram (who seemed quite aware of his unique magnificence), I was reminded of a story I wrote about the Jacobs vaunted position in modern medicine.
Flashback to 1999, when Texas farmers Fred and Joan Horak are enjoying cocktails on their porch one evening and Joan notices two of their Jacob lambs walking with an uneven gait. They whisked the pair off to Texas A&M and after extensive testing, a busload of veterinarians soon arrived at their farm and began collecting blood samples from the rest of the flock. More time and more testing eventually revealed that that the two lame lambs (who subsequently died) carried the same genetic mutation found in humans with Tay-Sachs disease, a fatal neuro-degenerative disorder. Prior to the Horaks' two sheep, the condition had only been found in flamingoes. Any hope for treatment, much less a cure, would require extensive clinical research. Flamingoes may be lovely to look at, but they are a poor choice when it comes to keeping them in the laboratory. And the shared physiology between humans and flamingoes is a short chapter.
The Horaks agreed to try and breed for the mutation, understanding the potential to modern medicine and human life. It took several years but eventually they succeeded, and the studies began.
According to the National Tay-Sachs & Allied Diseases Association (NTSAD), results to date indicate a two-year survival rate (in sheep) using adeno-associated viral (AAV) gene therapy. Although human trials have not been conducted, there is cause for hope where previously there was none. A remarkable story from an event that initially seemed relatively inconsequential.
By Sunday morning the rain finally stopped, but my window of opportunity for interviews had closed. I had just fifteen minutes to spare before I needed to man the Wild Fibers booth and so I dashed back to the sheep barn. It has been almost eight years since the last goat left my pastures and I rarely pass up the opportunity for my own fiber fix. Within moments of entering the barn where curious eyes poked over the gate, and ears that pointed up, or out, soon greeted me, I detected the sound that makes my own farmer heart ache with delight, the cud lullaby. That unmistakably sweet tune that comes from a contented beast grinding its teeth from side to side, over and over, and over again. In a quick forty-eight hours, the mood had shifted from prehistoric reptilian destruction to benign ovine melody. It’s quite possible MDSW might be G-rated after all.