Downhome Fibers: A River of Creativity, Care & Quality

Story by Rebecca Burgess, photos by Alycia Lang

Clear decision making accompanied by determination and hard work has landed Kim Bethel into a life extraordinarily well suited to her. While in her presence you can observe and viscerally feel the satisfaction and contentedness that emanates from someone living a life rooted in place and grounded in earth-based wisdom. Bethel tends a beautiful purebred herd of angora goats, a prolific food and dye garden, and a fiber mill business—all set on a remote 20-acre land base situated on the edge of the upper San Joaquin River.  A little after leaving a remote paved road outside of North Fork, California–we travelled another mile down a rock and oak studded dirt road to find the Bethel’s quiet homestead.

The San Joaquin River inlet, one of Kim Bethel’s angora goats

“I became more deeply connected to the earth and natural processes at age 14 when my parents took me out of the city and dropped me off at the Finegold Ranch Boarding School… after getting situated there, I realized I’d found heaven.” It was the 1960s when Bethel’s parents decided to send her to Finegold.  The school was not your typical boarding school for the time–the school’s founder, Susie Hickman, started the institute as a place where her own long-haired children would have an educational space that wouldn’t condemn them for not conforming to ‘crew cut’ norms of the day.  The school was a haven for students looking for an integrated educational experience. In addition to a full suite of academic classes, Bethel was given the freedom to explore and learn wheel thrown pottery, hand-spinning, gardening, caring for goats, and natural dyeing.

Kim learned to work with Lichen dyes at Finegold—a practice she continues to this day.

Bethel’s early relocation to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada cultivated a land-based imprint of ‘home’ that led her to remain and dedicate herself to this beautiful part of the world. “I love this community, and because I’ve spent little time elsewhere I guess I don’t question if the grass is greener somewhere else, I just dig in where I am and nurture what I have.”  Immediately after Finegold, Bethel became a teacher’s aide at the local Spring Valley School—at the time it was a four-room kindergarten through 8th grade facility. Time went on, Kim married and had three children. She began teaching first and second grade and worked hard to support her three children, when she later became a single parent. This was an era of life that Kim reflected on from time to time during our visit: “I got scared as a single mother, thinking I had to provide all this “stuff” for my kids, which caused me to think I should have a regular job. When in reality the kids and I would have been so much healthier, and happier if I could have been home to garden, cook and care for them. It is amazing how little money you need when you stay home and make do…”

A mohair dye experiment, the dye garden

Kim made the leap to work from home and tend the land where she and her second husband now live, just six years ago.  “I’d always cared for goats and gardens, even during the most difficult times of my life—but now, unlike before, I am able to put all my imagination and energy right into my work of the garden, goats, and the mill.”

Kim described the long-term manifestation process she experienced on the way to living the way she does now. “I’d see this ranch from across the little river beach that my children and I used to swim at… and I’d say…one day I’m going to live on land like that.’” Thirty years later, Bethel and her husband Brother now call this land home. It was no small feat that they ended up there—the land had other interested buyers at the time it went on the market, but Bethel made it known to all, including the land-owner at the time, that she was going to take care of it and nurture it like no one else could. Once they were assured ownership and moved in, the state threatened to flood the region for another damn project. Bethel’s response to the proposed development: “We would just buy a houseboat—we weren’t moving anywhere.” The appropriateness of Kim and Brother being on this ranch is layered. This part of the river was, for thousands of years, Brother’s family’s traditional salmon run gathering and acorn processing spot. From the living room of the ranch house Brother waved his hand in the direction of the water, “In my grandmother’s time the land was dotted with tepees when the salmon where moving upstream.” The people’s acorn grinding rocks remain, now submerged under the river’s dammed waters. The salmon are completely gone. However, the acorn harvest does remain—the evening we arrived we were blessed to share a supper of traditionally processed acorn, ranch-raised and harvested braised rabbit, garden harvested heirloom tomato salad, and lightly herbed homemade goat cheese.

Brother in the entrance to the ranch mudroom; Brother’s mother with the acorn harvest, soap root brush used for cleaning
Brother in the entrance to the ranch sunroom, Brother’s relative with the acorn harvest, soap root brush used for cleaning

Brother is one of thirteen children—and was named for being the first son born after a series of daughters. He is a member of the Mono Tribe and works actively in tribal affairs. The Mono ways are alive in the Bethel home—the food, stories, tools, and knowledge remain as pure expressions of the surrounding ecosystem—mirrors of ‘right relationship’ that seep into your experience while at the ranch…. leaving lasting and significant imprints that illuminate the real possibilities for human interactions to function symbiotically with natural living systems.

Kim holds an acorn stirring spoon now appropriated for her dye work
Kim holds an acorn stirring spoon now appropriated for her dye work

Kim’s work to incorporate fiber and dye into this respectful and responsible land ethic is emphasized by her use of 100% natural dyes grown entirely in her own fertile garden. She raises: black-eyed Susan, two coreopsis varietals, zinnias, dahlias, comfrey, woad, yarrow, hollyhock, tansy, gilardia, goldenrod, yellow cosmos, marigold, mint, chamomile, and purple basil for color. All of her plant dyes are used on angora fiber direct from her own herd. Brother shears the goats twice a year and the fiber is carefully washed in Bethel’s on-site ‘Downhome Fiber Mill,’ that channels all gray water into the garden. The system is heated through solar-thermal—Bethel runs the mill system with an eye for detail and efficiency on every level. “I process all of my herd’s fiber and have a growing number of clients and would like to expand this fiber processing business to more people.” Bethel takes careful documentation of every animal’s fiber weight and keeps records of changes in the fleeces over the years. She keeps each animal’s fiber separate—so you can literally receive processed fiber and remain knowledgeable as to exactly which animal it came from. If you have mohair, alpaca, or fine sheep’s wool we highly recommend the Downhome Fiber Mill for your processing needs—the quality of her roving is unparalleled.

Kim in the mill, mill entrance, mill equipment
Bethel’s mini mill

From the point of milling her roving—Bethel then hand-spins all of her fiber into soft and sheen rich yarns (a total treasure if you are a knitter, weaver, or even jewelry maker). Her yarns, roving, and other goods can be found in her online store. If you would like to meet Kim and Brother Bethel in person we highly recommend coming to this year’s Fibershed Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium on November 15th, 2014, where she will be sharing her remarkable life’s work in our Fibershed Marketplace.

If you have interest in experiencing ‘Rancho Seldom Seen,’ in person—the opportunity will be arising on September 14th, 2014. Kim will be giving a tour of the ranch and mill as part of the launch of her fiber CSA.

Some of Kim's naturally dyed hand spun yarn, the sign for the Kim and Brother's ranch, one of their angora goats
Some of Kim’s naturally dyed hand spun yarn, the sign for the Kim and Brother’s ranch, one of their angora goats

I’d like to thank Alycia Lang for making the long drive to the Bethel’s with me, and for documenting their life’s work through her lovely photographs. And a huge thank you to Kim and Brother for their extraordinary (and that is an understatement) hospitality… The kayak trip was incredible…it was an honor to share a day in the life with you all.