Who am I eating?
And, who am I wearing?
These are two questions that Jefferson City writer Melissa Kwasny hopes you’ll ponder.
She raises them in her new book “Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear,” released in April by Trinity University Press in San Antonio.
The book is a deep dive into those items we humans have been clothing and adorning ourselves with for centuries -- leather, wool, silk, fur, feathers and pearls.
Kwasny, an essayist, novelist and award-winning poet, takes us along on what became for her a five-year adventure of discovery.
She will share some of her stories and photos at a reading 2 p.m. Sunday, April 14, at the Montana Book Company.
Tracing the journey
So just what is “putting on the dog,” anyway?
It’s an American phrase that means putting on fancy clothes for a special occasion, says Kwasny in an interview at the General Mercantile.
One story traces the phrase’s origins back to the 19th century when wealthy people flaunted their riches by having expensive lap dogs.
Among the places the reader travels are to the Alaskan village of Kasigluk; on a silk tour in Gunma Prefecture, Japan; then to a pearl farm near Guaymas, Mexico; a Danish mink farm; and a down factory in California.
Montanans may particularly enjoy a number of Montana stops -- Sieben and Hilger ranches outside Helena, High Plains Sheepskin in East Helena and Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company near the Bridger Mountains.
Creating complex clothing allowed our ancient ancestors to migrate out of Africa, writes Kwasny, and disperse far and wide across what can be hostile landscapes with harsh weather from deserts to the Arctic.
It’s a history stretching back at least 100,000 years that’s rich with relationships between humans and animals.
Respect for tradition
Having spent much of her childhood on her grandparents’ farm in Indiana, Kwasny loves and respects rural life.
She has sought out farmers and craftspeople who have a deep understanding of nature and the animals they raise and work with.
In the first few pages, Kwasny and her friend Lorna embark to a remote Alaskan village to meet Yup’ik “skin sewers.”
Kwasny spends days visiting a village classroom where children are learning their lessons in both English and Yup’ik.
The focus is not just teaching language, but also their essential traditional stories.
Kwasny writes that there are Yup’ik words for each species of seal, but also for each age of the seal, plus names based on the seal’s behavior and appearance, such as their color when they rise in the sea.
Here, people practice subsistence living by harvesting salmon, picking blueberries and salmonberries, and gathering cut greens or “mouse food” from mouse nests -- careful to leave enough for the mouse.
The Yupiit “developed a set of responsibilities to ...(the animals),” writes Kwasny, “attention, respect, gratitude, conservation, care.”
Care is a guiding principle in her book.
Guarding the flock
On the Sieben Ranch, Kwasny watches sheep woman Stephanie Sater skillfully move a flock of ewes and lambs.
“Sheep are wicked smart,” Sater tells her. “They can remember the face of someone who has treated them poorly or well.”
Sater’s job is to gently guide the animals without shoving them around. She speaks of the importance of “low stress handling techniques.”
In contrast to small scale Montana operations she visits, Kwasny cites a domestic goat population explosion in Mongolia, which went from raising 2.4 million animals to 25.6 million, due to the worldwide demand for cashmere. As a result, some grasslands there are turning into desert.
In Japan, Kwasny delves into some of the secrets of silk, which she describes as “clothing made in the image of heaven.”
Kwasny learns that in other areas of the world disease wiped out silkworm farms, but not in Japan where “they had all the ancient ways of dealing with the silkworms and raising them and talking to them and rituals they did.”
She describes the hand reeling of silk thread as well as the steps artisans take to dye and paint the silk and transform it into a kimono.
With Kwasny, the reader also ventures into the Allied Down and Feather Company in California to learn about down feathers, to the Kvist Jensens’ family mink farm in Denmark and to Perlas del Mar de Cortez, a sustainable pearl farm.
At each stop, Kwasny shares the personal stories of those doing the work, as well as the environmental and economic impacts of these businesses.
She’s not a “maker” herself, Kwasny says, “but I totally admire those skills.”
“There’s the agricultural skill set -- it’s ancient and really detailed. There’s so many skills in how to raise sheep or how to raise a silk farm.”
Wear with care
What does she hope readers get from reading her book?
“I hope people think about what they’re wearing. ...We’re not even thinking of where things come from. ...Clothes are one of the things we consume the most of and don’t think about it.”
She also hopes people “care about it.”
And for those who wish to shun the whole topic, opting to just buy humanmade alternatives, it’s not that easy.
As a book review in Quartzy points out:
“In 2010, the majority of textiles produced in the world, 85%, were woven from cotton and polyester. Neither of these fabrics uses any animals — one is natural, and the other synthetic.”
“‘Both are responsible for widespread pollution of waterways, soils, and air,’” the review quotes Kwasny. ‘“Both consume enormous amounts of resources.’”
Kwasny’s conclusion and advice: “Buy clothes. Not very many. Made mostly from animals and plants. Then cherish and care for them.”