I was searching my archives for a particular photograph tonight when I ran across the shots I took during a trip to the English Lake District back in 2002.
I was there for work, believe it or not, acting as The Smiling Face of the University on a tour for alumni. It was a dream assignment, as I'd wanted to see that part of the world almost since birth.
Beatrix Potter (one of the District's two most famous residents, the other being Wordsworth) was the first writer whose name I learned and sought out, and her drawings are undoubtedly one of the reasons that my retirement fantasy includes a stone hearth under a thatched roof in a green valley. I'm not sure how I'm going to get there, or when, but one of these days I'm moving to some part of the UK or another.
My pictures from the trip are a source of frustration to me now. I'd only had my first camera for about three months, and I had no idea how to use it. I saw shots all around, but I couldn't capture them. The most advanced picture I took was a self-portrait at Ruskin's grave in Coniston. The remote-release is hidden in my right hand.
Most of what I got was decidedly in the tourist snapshot class. Such wasted opportunity. Sigh.
If you know the Lake District at all, you know it could just as truthfully be called the Sheep District. Aside from a petting zoo or two, I don't think I'd ever in my life seen a sheep up close and personal. Now, I was surrounded by...millions? At least tens of thousands, surely. I shot about 600 frames during the week, and if you look carefully you can see at least one fluffy, grass-munching poop machine in most of them.
We had a fantastic travel director, a local woman named Janet, who was so deeply in love with her part of England that even the stuffiest members of the group fell under her spell. She was passionate about local farming and husbandry, and so we learned an awful lot about sheep breeding and the sad state of the local wool industry. In this day and age, she told us, the modern demand for Lake District wool was so small that most of the annual clip was burned instead of being sent to market.
I'll give you a minute to recover from that one.
All those sheep, all that wool, and the only evidence of its use that I saw was in a small National Trust Shop not far from the Beatrix Potter Museum. In an effort to find some outlet, any outlet, for local wool, the shop was offering knitted garments made from local fiber and a small selection of yarns spun from same.
I distinctly remember looking at the yarn, and remarking to a fellow tour member that "I used to knit," and then walking out of the shop without buying any yarn.
"I used to knit." I think about that now, and I wonder how I can have said it. How I can have used the past imperfect with such finality. As though the idea of never picking up the needles again could be contemplated with anything other than shuddering horror.
I think there's a line one crosses, a subtle line, on the day one changes from a person who knits into a knitter. It's not quite the same as Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's distinction between knitters and Knitters, because I'm not necessarily thinking of the acquisition of technical prowess. I'm thinking of the difference between a person who thinks knitting is a nice way to spend some time, versus a person who becomes actively disturbed when kept away from his needles.
I'm thinking of the man who looked at those skeins on sale in Hawkshead, dark and lustrous in the light of a watery English September, and walked away because he had no use for them. I wonder what ever happened to him?