"Eye of the Grouse" was first printed in KnitLit the Third. Linda Roghaar and Molly Wolf, editors. New York: Three Rivers Press/Random House, 2005. Also published in a slightly edited form in, "Spinning Around - Spinning, Dyeing & Knitting Elizabeth Zimmermann's Classics," by Jeannine Bakriges, Schoolhouse Press, 2010.
Eye of the Grouse
The projects I knit from the yarn I spin and color with natural dyes are as much my personal signature as when I write my name with its own flourish. Ideas for fiber arts can vary from the in-your-face obvious to the unexpected and ethereal. I enjoy combining diverse elements. The components brew and simmer until a cohesive, if still somewhat tentative, design evolves. The process can take hours or years.
Sometimes I find inspiration in relationships, human or otherwise. Grouse entered my life as the latter. He arrived as southern Vermont's glorious autumnal colors were darkening to a damp, earthy brown. Out of the dense forest and marshy area below our yard, Grouse purposefully climbed. I was busily tending a pot of water filled with black walnut hulls. The rich liquid would dye lustrous, scoured Romney wool, destined for some skillful spinner's hands. Grouse sidled up to me and began earnestly chatting as if we were the oldest of friends. Clearly he did not believe that he was supposed to be a wild bird. At first I called him "Madame," but later apologized when a naturalist neighbor corrected me. He was a male ruffed grouse. After that, I simply called him Grouse.
From the start, as I went about my dyeing work, he would scurry to stay by my side, always talking nonstop. I knew without a doubt that a profound friendship was forming ~ the kind one didn't know one needed until it happened, but also the kind one never forgets.
Grouse would sometimes show up daily, but it wasn't unusual for a few weeks to go by between visits. He would generally stay for several hours. If I had to go inside, he would wait, disgruntled and impatient, by the door. He was truly a pitiable sight if he realized I was leaving in a car.
Grouse was cordial to visitors and would perch on their car like a welcoming ambassador. As time went on, he would crawl on my lap or climb to my shoulder, though I never attempted to touch him with my hands or make him a pet.
As the sun faded, Grouse would make his way down into the marsh, heading for deep forest. I'd wish him a fond farewell, always telling him to be wary of the predators who were sure to be lurking.
One crisp and sunny day, I was tending yet another dyepot, passing the time with my nose in a novel. Grouse arrived quietly and grazed on tender grass shoots near me. For the first time I became truly aware of the patchwork of patterns decorating his body. The colors varied, from satiny beiges and weathered rusts to saturated browns. Each section of his body boasted a delightfully different combination, showing off his intricately detailed feathers. Topping off all of this splendor was a flamboyant crown that Grouse raised or lowered according to reasons only he knew. I asked him to sit tight while I ran into the house to get my knitting idea notebook. He seemed pleased by the positive vibes exuding from me. I sketched the beautiful patterns and noted the color combos. As I looked into his eyes, I saw that they were the richest, most soulful brown of all ~ eyes that knew a forest I could never be part of. These were eyes and feathers beckoning to be handspun, hand-dyed, and hand-knitted.
Winter came and several months went by without a Grouse visit. Just as a spring snow blanketed my yard, he tapped his beak on my deck window. I ran out, happily proclaiming, "Grouse!" He was equally happy to see me, going by his chatter and his crown's frantic popping up and down. I saw him almost daily thereafter.
I wish I could give this true story a fairytale ending. I cannot. One terrible day Grouse showed up with an eye missing. He cried and I cried. He told me the story of the horrific event over and over. I gathered that the culprit was a fisher. I wrestled with the idea of building him a shelter and then thought otherwise. Grouse was wild, whether he knew it or not. Penning him up was not how he was meant to live out his life, especially with me as jailer. He would never have understood I aimed only to protect him. I did realize the bitter reality that we didn't have long together because his injury made him a very vulnerable target. He came back a few more times, but in the end he vanished.
Caring friends told me how some Native American tribes viewed animals who come to humans. Such an event is considered sacred and incredibly special. Celebratory dance and drumming are the hallmark of a grouse/human relationship. Grouse was a symbol that all human activity is a form of dance and ancient ritual. His visits represented dealing with change in a way that would allow a surge of positive energy to flow into my life. Grouse's memory lives on in my heart and in the knitting, based on my sketches of him, that I felt deeply honored to create.