Tuesday, April 15, 2008

the practice of keeping chickens

Keeping chickens isn't just a hobby, it's a practice. There's a definite ritual you develope every day with them, or at least I do. Every morning after the dogs have been out, before breakfast or a shower, I bundle up, throw on my wellies and trudge uphill to their coop by the garden. I walk inside and pour fresh mash and scratch grains into their trough, and make sure the frost is removed from the water stations. I say Hi. I tell them about the world news events on the radio. I check for any signs of lameness or discomfort, and leave with an egg or two in my hands.

But nightwatch with the birds is my favorite. I love the last check right before bed. I go outside with the same boots and warm coat as in the morning, but it's after a long day at work, a walk with the dogs, and a healthy meal. I'm tired and have a content stomach. I grab my lantern and walk into the night, which in rural areas is black and dark without the luxury of streetlamps or neighbors windows. My eyes darting for fisher cats or a fox in the brush. Sometimes I see one and yell, shaking the beams of the lantern in the rucus.

Needing to bed them down means I get to breathe in fresh dark air, see the stars, and smell a mix of wet leaves and burning fireplaces from other cabins in the village. Three things I am grateful to do, and those birds make sure I do it every night.

But besides being outside with a purpose, keeping chickens means taking care of something, knowing that they rely on you for protection and food and their general well being. It feels really nice to provide that. It really does. And it's not all giving either - the ability to collect fresh eggs, a source of protein that doesn't require taking their lives, is unique and special to the hens. I don't know many other bi-species relationships that can offer feelings of responsibility, enjoyment, and a killer slab of French toast. Well maybe ducks, but we all know ducks are assholes.

So chickens, thanks.

hipster homestead

I'm a designer who wants to be a farm writer. And since designer comes first in that sentence, I feel obligated to share some kickass stuff I found on Etsy. There's no rule that the rural life means overalls, tobacco tin signs, and plaid sundresses. Etsy has thousands of cool options for those of who adore, aspire, or just plain like country stuff and want something beyond average. Here were some of my recent favorites. The links below take you to their shop pages.

snap pea necklace

steer print

gardener shirt

tractor painting

rabbit shirt

beehive totebag

Monday, April 14, 2008

friends, chickens, coffee, and bio fuels

Meet Benedict, the 11 month old White-Crested Black Polish rooster. Ben and his entourage (two Polish hens) were introduced to their new home this weekend. Thanks to Team Mack, we were able to convert the old garden shed into a four star poultry home. Complete with hay storage, feeding stations, natural roosts and nest boxes made from whatever we could find (some winners were old drawers from the garage and a hay filled dish rack). I don't think I could've finished the coop Saturday without the help of neighbors and my weekend guests, Sara and Tim...

Sometimes it really does take a village. Katie, who lives literally down the hill from my place, gave me some spare wood. And with her resources we were able to build a frame and open wire door that was fairly predator proof. All three of us were holding beams, nailing, giving our two cents. What we ended up with was a fence wall and a flush door and it only took about an hour. The next day we rolled through southern Vermont and upstate New York, listening to music, taking in the sites. We crossed the Hudson and ended up in Saratoga, college town extraordinaire. We had lunch in a nice coffee house/cafe and picked up the hens at a small hobby farm outside of town. We brought home the hens and rooster in the station wagon and set them into their new coop. Want to know what feels great? Seeing productive animals bed down and eat a meal in a house you built them. I was a happy gal. That evening we retired to th cabin. We played music and watched episodes of Northern Exposure. All weekend had warm fires at night, home cooked meals, pie, ice cream floats. (Not great for the diet but grand for the camaraderie.)

Also, Sara taught me how to purl, which completes my basic knitting course and showed me the sweater she was working on. I looked on with wide eyes and utter amazement. I can whip out scarves and hats and the occasional mittens, but an entire sweater knit by hand seems epic. Tim helped by doing what men do, he chopped wood, broke in the outhouse (which has electricity?!?) and found a telescope in the woods behind a shed. Something I hope to check out soon and set up on my porch.

The two Pennsylvanians pulled up in their vintage Mercedes, which they are converting into a bio diesel machine. They drove up on that stuff and Tim is learning how to cook up his own. It's a weird mix of chemistry and planning, but they are in the process of making their own fuel, which is hands down commendable from this girl.

This weekend was wildlife central. I saw toads, song birds, herons, vultures, deer, a porcupine and the highlight - a king coyote trotting along a streamside on my drive into work. He was beautiful. There was also goats and chickens and we passed a big Belgian and his rider on the dirt roads by my house, where a lot of the locals use horsepower to get around still. Speaking of horses, I've decided I adore and want a Fell pony someday. Just a head's up if you're thinking of the perfect birthday present when I'm 30. Solid black please.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

heather's garden

Heather, a good friend who went to Design school with me and now lives in Knoxville, sent me some pictures of her southern garden. (I'm green with envy because it'll be weeks before I can start planning for my own garden. Because Vermont's the coldest state in America*) But for the past few weeks she's been prepping soil, mixing in composts, raising seedlings and now her 4x20 foot mega box garden is seriously on it's way. She's focusing on heirlooms and herbs, which is awesome. Come fall, her, Sara and I will be trading recipes and sharing photos and complaining about zuchinis like old salts. If salts had anything to do with semi-urban gardening that is. Which they don't. However, we will use salt in the recipes, I'm sure. Or I will. Oh dear. Anyway, I like that my friends get their hands dirty.

*probably not.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

poland invades vermont

This weekend, Sunday to be specific, I'll be picking up my first Vermont livestock! The animals in question are a trio of chickens, all one year old Crested Polishes. One rooster and two hens. Polls are white egg layers, so they'll be a nice mix when the big girls come in may. A nearby farmer in New York is selling them and I'm hoping Sara and Tim are interested in picking them up with me and helping set up the coop. I always wanted a few of these, but never thought it was practical to get a bunch at once like other more logical breeds. This is a golden opportunity to have some rare livestock that looks ridiculous from the porch. Plus, I miss waking up to a crow.

Country Sayings I made up and encourage you to use in urban settings

Put a muzzle on your bird dog

I'd sooner punch my woodstove in the throat
(I strongly do not want to do that in which you requested)

Pasterns belong in pastures!
(keep your animals, or kids, in line)

Drink up the tall grass
(calm down)

Passing a highway tractor on the right
(Are you %@#^% kidding me?)

Those hawkfeet could pick up my veal calf on a Tuesday
(think you're right about that, but wish you weren't because I enjoy being correct)

Peas are born shut in the dark
(consider thinking before speaking)

Hey there
(there's some animal feed in the form of dried green grass over there)

beer and cream

I started home brewing soda a few weeks ago, and the first result wasn't great. I read the recipe wrong, used too much water and not enough sugar. I ended up with this root tonic that didn't hurt anyone but wasn't the root beer we know and love. Well, I did some research, bought updated supplies, and redid the recipe correctly and now have 2 gallons of soda fermenting as I type back at the cabin. One gallon of root beer in an antique whisky jug with a metal handle (thanks Ebay) and a 2-liter bottle and two liter glass bottles of birch beer also fermenting. By the time the weekend rolls to an end, and the chicken coops been built and my new birds are resting on their roosts, I hope to have the beer ready to serve. So we'll see.

But this post really isn't about root beer. It's about what root beer egged me on too. I was emailing heather, like I always do throughout our workdays, and she brought up the point of, "if you're going through all the trouble to make your own soda, why not make your own ice-cream for the floats?" Well, the answer to that was pretty logical. Because homemade ice-cream is expensive. A decent maker barrel costs at least 200 bucks and that isn't counting the bags of rock salt, ice and ingredients. But then I remembered a gadget I first saw on hiking blogs. The ice cream ball (by now, it's so common I think they sell it at Target.) I ordered one for eighteen dollars.

The ice cream ball is like a mini factory/soccer ball. You fill it with ice and rock salt and then fill the little metal vessel with cream, sugar and flavoring. What you end up with is a clamped shut ball you just kick around the yard, let the dogs play with, and roll down the hill and after 10 minutes you'll have a pint of fresh ice cream. I only did this once before in girl scout camp, and we used 5 pound coffee cans with one pounds cans inside them for the same effect. Sadly the ice-cream turned out salty as hell and gross (coffee can lids aren't very good barriers between the salt and cream). So there's this morning's update. Adventures in home brewing, part two with Vermont hill ice cream to boot.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

dogs and oxen

Here is a little story about a book cover designs and how the three locations I've lived in have come full circle.

When I was over at Storey last weekend, I walked into some office which I assumed was an AD's and on the wall was, of all things, Yee Haw prints. Yee Haw Industries of Knoxville Tennessee is a traditional letterpress design firm, and my good friend Leif worked there. Leif used to come over to my apartment in Knoxville, bake pies and lay out prints he was working on. (My favorite was a werewolf driving a truck, wearing a hat like Leif's, which I made him sign) Anyway, there I was, standing in an office looking at two book cover designs for Storey called "OXEN" and Livestock Guardians" Both done by Yee Haw. So, friends and readers, I was standing in a New England Office because of a book I wrote about Idaho looking at posters from an old haunt in Tennessee. It's a small country, no matter much of it you see.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


For those of you who don't know her, meet Sara. Here she is with her seedlings, she wanted to send me the picture to show me she too is getting her garden started. And since she lives below the arctic tundra of the Green Mountains, she'll probably actually get to plant those seedlings. It's still winter here. Can't say I'm not jealous of her more temperate climate, but I think a cool breezy mountain summer will pay off come July. Or so I hope.

Anyway, Sara and I met in college and have been friends ever since. She's an art teacher outside Philadelphia, and has made the effort to visit me in every state I ever lived in! Sara (along with her awesome husband Dr. Tim) will be coming up to see the cabin and hang out in Vermont in about a week. Which is exciting for me because I miss these cats when they aren't around and I have a lot of projects I could use help on. There's a garden shed piled up with chicken wire, hay bales, wood chips, paint, and roosts. Soon I'll be knee deep in projects like building the chicken coop, painting the beehives, setting up a chick brooder and turning up the compost pile. I want to turn the now barren shed into a farm center complete with potting and gardening area, hanging egg and vegetable baskets, buckets of feed, a rain water barrel for the garden, and piles of garden tools and stacked soils. I'm really looking forward to working on something three dimensional and useful. After weeks of staring at a computer screen, nailing and painting outside feels remarkably satisfying. And when you first introduce those new hens to their pre-built home you feel REALLY satisfied.

Friday, March 28, 2008

my books coming soon!

You can pre-order Made From Scratch now on Amazon! If you're mildly interested in mountain music, Idaho, farming, chickens, beekeeping, jerk bears, gardening addictions, baking bread, sewing, county fairs, japanese bantam chickens, dog sledding, people I meet or my blogs you'll enjoy it. It's half memoir and half instruction and I hope it gets a whole new crop of future farmers insprired to grab a chicken, bake a pie and generally get their hands dirty.

Preorder here son!

Awesome image by UK artist, Lucie Summers.

backyard chickens

Backyard chickens is a great resource for anyone thinking about getting a few hens. It has free information, a downloadable care guide, images, a forum, questions and more. It's for new chicken people, crazy coop designs, poultry lovers and gawkers alike. If you get inspired by it, and live close to me, I'll have about 3 little hens up for adoption in a few weeks. I decided to only raise nine of the twelve since I have the four big girls coming. So I'd be more than happy to help a friend get started. Most towns and cities allow chickens long as they are female and in a confined area like a chik-n-hutch (150 bucks!) or an eglu (about 500, but damn cool). This post is pretty much jabbing Kevin, Sara, Tim and people from Palmerton who want some farm fresh eggs in town. But hey, if your local or work with me, even better.

click here for the site

Thursday, March 27, 2008

another one

This morning a co-worker stopped by with some of her handspun wool and we somehow got around to talking about bees. I explained to her how easy it was keeping bees, how you could get everything you need to get started for less than the cost of an ipod. Generally just how important it is that people start keeping more bees to help with the decline in their population. Did you know one hive can pollanate an area as wide as ten miles? Anyway, within the hour of our conversation she had ordered her own hive, gear and bees online! This is exciting stuff for me guys. For the first time ever I'll be helping someone else set up their own bees. The student becomes the teacher. I'm excited for her, and more pumped than I was before for my own hive.

You know what my hive is going to say across it in giant black letters??


Friday, March 21, 2008

hens on the way!

I just reserved four red star pullets for delivery the week of May 12th from my favorite hatchery! What that means is, I just set up for the mail order delivery of 18 week old hens, all the same breed. They are called Red Stars, a high production brown-egg layer like my old Mindy and Mary Todd Lincln were. I still plan on getting my chicks but they won't be producing until October, and I am tired of buying eggs in the store.

So, these older kids start laying in about two weeks. By mid June we'll have a fully set laying hen mini-operation. Incidently, these girls come the same week my bees arrive. Which means by June everything will be back to my new normal. A garden started, hens scratching under the sugar maples, and bees buzzing round the creekbed. Not to mention the goslings honking along with the chicks, should be a fine set up. Now the excitment, research, planning and preparing of coops and hives to keep me busy in the meantime. It feels great to know the farmlife is on the way.

oh, i love bluegrass!

When someone tells you they play old time music, and you say ‘Oh I love bluegrass’ it is the equivalent of someone telling you ‘I liked the Godfather part two” and you saying “Oh I loved the third one!” (Or at least to me it is.)

I can not tell you how many times I have heard this after people find out I play the fiddle. The thing is, I don’t play anything bluegrass. I listen to it on occasion. I appreciate it for the talent and history it has in American music. I respect that lifestyle. But Bluegrass isn’t anything like Old Time music. Bluegrass was the gateway drug to the plight that is modern pop country. Which too, has some merits but has covered it’s heritage with so many suffocating layers of plastic cowboy hats it’s hard to believe there was ever time when the music wasn't accompanied by an electric guitar.

Modern Bluegrass has nothing to do with modern country music, and the two camps seem fairly arms-crossed and certain about that. But behind both of them is Old-Time. Which, whenever I say that to people who aren’t familiar with it, seem to get this glazed-over look of arthritic sarsaparilla drinking Alzheimer patients clapping their hands at a flat picked guitar.


Old Time music means exactly that. That is comes from an older time in musical history than recent acoustic mountain incarnations. Old Time is the merging of Scotch/Irish reels, jigs, hornpipes and slides and the rhythm and energy of African music. Like all great American music. Throw in some old English Ballads about murder, love and vengence and you've got it. This blending of white and African sound made mountain music what it is. Energetic and heart racing or somber and lonesome at others. It has it’s own heartbeat of deep African drums and it’s arteries and ventricles are immigrants like the Italian mandolin, the Irish fiddle, the Cuban guitar and the German dulcimer. For an “American” invention, it is completely non-native. But like most things that are great about this country, it takes the best things of so many different cultures and fuses them together to create brand new animals. Think jazz, baseball, and the south beach diet. (I kid about that last one)

So, no disrespect to Bluegrass, which I recently would happily prefer to listen too than 70% of other types of music, but it is not old-time. To us historians it’s the excessive dressing up and nickel plating of something already utilitarian in it’s perfection.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

my home brew creeps up

A few days ago I was paroozing the shelves of Wayside and came across a novel item – root beer home brewing extract. It was a little dusty and hidden behind more popular items but I was intrigued. Home brewing has been on the radar for a while now. I was asked by my editor if I wanted to add it to the book, but told them I had no experience. But being asked about it has sparked a hell of an interest. I now have a growling desire to learn how to make hard cider and mead (I have bees coming, you know) but it seems like a long and hard to learn process. Not that that’s deterred me before, but the horror stories of people having over yeasted bottles exploding in their kitchens or poisoning themselves seemed like good enough reasons to let this practice to the experts. But Bruce and Diana brewed their own wines all the time, racking them in their basement and serving up delicious and potent drinks whenever I visited ( I still dream of their apple Riesling). Anyway, the root beer project seemed harmless. I didn’t need any complicated vats or tubing and the whole process from stovetop to cold in your hands took only 2 weeks. I could use regular kitchen yeast and ferment it in a 2-liter soda bottle. Pretty straight forward right? Also, trying something non alcoholic first seemed like a safe start.

So last night I was in my kitchen mixing a concoction of water, sugar, root beer extract and yeast on my range with a big wooden spoon. When I felt confident I followed the directions right, I poured it into an empty 2-liter and watched the foaming yeast rise to the top, which would in theory, carbonate it. After it was ready to drink, I would pour the plastic bottle into a nicer serving jug (yet to found on ebay, but you just wait) and place it in the fridge to serve cold. Technically, I should have bottled the beer right in their own bottles and let them ferment naturally by their. lonesome. Next time.

So if all goes as planned their will be Vermont Homestead Ben and Jerry’s root beer floats here when the Macks come. Hopefully sipped with a chorus of chirping chicks.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

friends heading north

Those little seedlings I showed you are now up to seven inches tall, and even my desk at work as a peat pot with two young snap peas making themselves at home. This weekend I'll order the chicks and goslings and get to work prepping for the bees. I need to paint and varnish their hive body (I think teal) and find a place suitable for the hive. I think I’ll put them right in the garden actually. It’s protected by a fence, and large enough that the bees on one end wouldn’t bother someone harvesting pumpkins on the other.

Sara and Tim, good friends from outside Philadelphia are coming up to Vermont to visit in a few weeks. I’m hoping by the time they are here there’s some headway in the garden (hmmm, maybe I can put them to work helping me hoe? I’m 80% kidding) and I also hope the chicks will be settled in as well. Sara has this thing where she has to pick up a chicken when she comes to visit, (I think a chick is a good stepping stone.) Regardless of how much physical labor I squeeze out of them, it should be a nice weekend with plenty of good food, fiddling (Sara plays too), the grand outdoors and a fancy meal maybe in Manchester.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My heros

My editor tipped me off to this story, and I thought it was wonderful. Meet Kaycee and Benjamin, two Williamsburg kids turned shepherds. The New York Times covered their story about leaving NYC to move upstate and raise sheep. The story reads:

Their Carhartts are no longer ironic. Now they have real dirt on them.

Until three years ago, Benjamin Shute was living in Williamsburg, where he kept Brooklyn Lager in his refrigerator and played darts in a league.

Raised on the Upper East Side by a father who is a foundation executive and a mother who writes about criminal justice, Mr. Shute graduated from Amherst and worked for an antihunger charity. But something nagged at him. To learn about food production, he had volunteered at a farm in Massachusetts. He liked the dirt, the work and the coaxing of land long fallow into producing eggplant and garlic.

He tried growing strawberries on his roof in Brooklyn, but it didn’t scratch his growing itch.

And so last week, Mr. Shute could be found here, elbow-deep in wet compost two hours north of New York City, filling greenhouse trays for onion seeds. Along with a partner, Miriam Latzer, he runs Hearty Roots, a 25-acre organic farm. Read more here