Monday, July 14, 2008

So the rest of my life starts with a four dollar whistle…

Sunday morning I sat on a wet hill watching a dog named Cato expertly run through the course at the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trials. Unlike the day before, the weather was cold, windy, and well, as anglocentric as the event itself. After two days of watching, eavesdropping, and asking complete strangers stupid questions – I knew that Cato had just completed a beautiful out run, executed a fine lift, ran down a straight-lined fetch and was in the middle of a decent cross. He had penned and was about to shed. His handler, a tawny ex-rock climber, yelled out commands into the wind. When the wind proved too much she blew into the whistle on the lanyard around her neck. Cato darted, flew, and balanced the sheep like a pro. Not too far from where I perched a man in his mid-sixties stood in an oversized blue sweatshirt (now he didn’t look like an ex rock climber) and on the end of a frayed lead his border collie sat beside him. They were next. I was so envious of him I sunk a quarter inch into the ground.

These people are living my dream. Regardless of who they are or what they do with their lives they all managed to figure out how to become shepherds in the modern world. They all spend their days with ewes and rams and these amazing dogs. I want to be one of them so much it hurts, but like the dogs waiting their turn to pump up the hill to their flocks. I need to be patient, even though every muscle in my body quivers to get a border collie and a couple of sheep as fast as I can.

But I need to be realistic and that’s killing me. I rent my land and owning that Vermont farm and transitioning to a full time farm career seems so impossible right now. The hundreds of thousands of dollars in a mortgage, the start up capital, the high credit score, hell even the electric fencing seems so out of reach it’s the emotional equivalent of Mafiosos breaking my legs with a baseball bat. And apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment because I went back both days.

Regardless, standing on that hill was a horrible/wonderful mix of joy and anxiety. Joy that I was now physically there. Standing smack dab in the middle of this world I need to be a part of, but equally scared shitless it won’t happen. Or worse, I’ll be my own worst enemy and keep putting it off and making excuses because friends or family don’t approve of another dog or a few ewes. I clutched the cheap plastic shepherd’s whistle on it’s lanyard like a rosary. I don’t have to tell you what I prayed for.

Also, I arrived at Merck dogless. For someone who owns two amazing working dogs, and was going to a working dog event, this felt wrong. But I didn’t have the heart to bring Jazz and Annie. Besides the fact that the day before was in the 90’s (scorching hot for two huskies with heavy under coats to handle) – I couldn’t bear sitting there with two dogs who had to be held back on leads while they watched countless other dogs scamper around leashless inches away from the animals they desperately wanted to devour.

I could just see Jazz shaking his head at those sheepdogs. Like an old Baptist preacher watching wayward youths rob a liquor store he would surely be despondent seeing his own kind having fallen so far from the faith. Siberian huskies keep the Gospel of Wolf alive in every fiber of their being. I could just imagine me on the trial field with my Sibes and yelling out “Away to me Jazz! Come by Annie!" and the crowd would see the fastest sprint clocked in sheepdog trial history as my sled dogs ran towards the flock. They would be in awe at the grace and beauty of my dogs as they loped with the bliss and agility of Russian ballerinas rolling on E. And then scream in horror as Jazz and Annie ran down and began eating the ovine contestants.

Sigh.

No, the dogs were at home. I felt like I was cheating on them and all I was doing was window shopping. I want to be a shepherd and I live with wolves. It’s a complicated situation, but a contradiction I find beautiful. Anyway I’ll figure it out.

I’m not naïve enough to think sled dogs aren’t a part of my life that I love and that won't go away. I know damn well that if I was that ex-rock climber in my mid-40s and saw a 26 year old kid with two beautiful sled dogs on the hill watching me in miserable weather with my sheepdog - I would want her life. I'd feel the deep pangs for the wildness of huskies, the blinding snow, and the feeling of runners over ice. I'd wish I was holding a brushbow and not a shepherd's crook while a ewe plowed into my shins and fell on my butt.

I am in love with two opposite ends of the working dog spectrum. Great.

There is a reason a wolf with antlers is all over Cold Antler Farm. He's painted on chicken coops and garden signs, and his image is all over the blog. It's because he's the symbol of how I feel about my passions. The mix of opposites, the chaos of contradiction, the need for balance when you love things so different that seem so unbelievable - is why you see him. And the possibily of seeing a wolf with antlers in the wild feels just as unbelievable as the possibility of me becoming a shepherdess with a trial dog...

So where do I go from here? Well, I joined NEBCA. I joined and as a member I’ll get the newsletter and trial announcements and meeting information and start getting involved. As a member I have full access to their book and video library and just like I’ve been with sheep, I'll start doing serious research. I’ll attend clinics and classes dogless, shadowing handlers with their border collies and listen in as an observer. Then, someday in the next few months, years, decades (who knows) I'll get a started dog or pup from herding lines and start taking those classes myself.

While all this was churning in my head, I bought a shepherd’s whistle at the merchandise stand. A small souvenir to some, but to this girl it’s the crucial turnkey to a life I know I want but have no idea how to attain. But right now, it’s all the start I need. Maybe someday a wolf with antlers will trot by the farm afterall. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

today, was perfect

Friday, July 11, 2008

pointers in the fields, shepherds on the hills

Yesterday, for my birthday, my co-workers took me out for ice cream and I got to ride home from the Dairy Barn in a retro motorcycle's blue sidecar. It was the most whimsical thing I've done in a long time. I felt like an extra in a Wes Anderson movie.

Me in a little black beetle helmet and windshield smiling like an idiot. It was bliss. It was a perfect Vermont summer day too. Breezy in the low 70s, sunny with a bright blue sky set against the saturated green mountains. We drove back to the office the long way on back roads by the Roaring Branch River and Arlington farms- passing cows and dogs. It is impossible to be unhappy in a sidecar when ice cream is in your stomach. Physically impossible.

When I got home I packed the dogs in the car and we headed off to Manchester for pie baking supplies and laundry errands. The next day was out monthly potluck at work, and I always promise a different pie (this month it's apple berry.)

Manchester, I discovered, has been inundated with birddogs. 'Birddog' in the sense of people who act like birddogs - not actual upland hunting dogs (who also act like birddogs, because they are.) But birddog people are much like the dogs they own, they appear to be outdoorsy and sporting but actually prefer porcelain bowls on tiled floors and are rarely of any actual use. They prefer to be paid attention too, be adored by their peers, strain for approval of their masters, and be waited on by others. These are not my people.

Anyway, The town is a scamper with horse show people* here for the 5-week long equestrian event in Dorset. I have never seen a small town Laundromat with that many luxury sport utility vehicles parked outside it in my life... But hey, it's nice to be a local when all the hubbub is going on, telling people to enjoy dinner on the porch at the perfect wife, or hit up for breakfast if they want to taste a badass omelet or venison sausages in maple syrup (real Vermonter dishes, for sure). Regardless of a town full of birddogs, I will not be hanging out among the sporting life this weekend. I'll be on a steep hill of grass in the forest with my people - sheepdogs.

Back at the farm, the bees are my top priority. ever since their arrival in early May they've been hard at work in the little lime-green hive building comb and starting a healthy brood. They've pollinated the garden, added some adventure to the geese's life (by the way, geese hate eating bees, they learned), and make the homestead feel a little more alive. But my 12,000 tenants are hurting for more living space and first thing tomorrow morning I am driving to Betterbee (our local beekeeping store) in nearby Greenwich, New York for a new hive body. I'll paint it that morning and while the paint dries I'll be heading over to Merck for the sheepdog trials, which I am dizzy with excitement over. You can expect pictures and a fancy post about that. I already have been in touch with the folks at the NECBA to start learning to apprentice shepherds and stock dogs. You won't see me with a border collie pup anytime soon, but when I am in the market for a working herder I'll be damn prepared.

*I am well aware not not all horse people are birddogs, and not all shepherds are sheepdogs. Some shepherds are complete birddogs and some equestrians are sheepdogs through-and-through. If you can follow this logic and have a sexy beard we should probably hang out more, possibly date.**

**unless you're a birddog, but how many birddogs have beards? like 4.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

sheep weekend coming up

Summer's been loping past me. The once fluffy chicks I could hold in my palm are now gangly teenagers living outside. The geese look like, well, geese. And the once humble garden of seedlings has waist high corn and flowers on my pumpkin vines. Daylight's starting to get lost on it's way to Autumn. And there are some exciting things in store for me over the following weeks.

Starting with this weekend's sheepdog trials. I'll be driving up to Merck Farmland and Forest Center to watch New England's best in a big outdoor two day sheepdog trial! Which I am over the moon about, because Border Collies and Merino rams are my future. Seeing those dogs in action, and meeting the trainers, shepherds and people already leading the life I aspire to will be a pretty big deal to me. So here's to a hot day full of wool and dog hair.

Also, my folks mailed me a hammock for my birthday. I love it so much I almost called in sick this morning to nap in it till it rained. If you're my boss and reading this, note "almost."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

bird party

the new guys

Here's a picture of a very young french angora rabbit. He's one of six being raised here at cold antler to be sold to spinning homes. Angora rabbits grow a super soft long hair and when brushed, carded, and spun, makes the softest wool in the world. Having angora rabbits is like having miniature sheep, perfect for smaller spaces. Yup, a city-knitters very own fiber producing livestock.

I have a breeding pair of these guys, and Bean Blossom (my doe) gave birth about two weeks ago. It's her first of two litters she'll kindle before fall. This litter I'm calling the lettuce litter, since they came in when the salad harvest was in full bloom. The next litter will be the corn litter. Then she'll have a long quiet winter of just getting fat by the furnace by her man Benjamin.

I'm fairly new to the world of rabbits. But between the books I've read, shows I visited, the ARBA's help and guidance, and visiting a local rabbitry - I feel pretty confident about bringing these guys into the world. In a few weeks they'll be registered, have their own pedigrees, and be tattooed (with the runes algiz, wunjo and jera plus their litter numbers 1-6) I hope to keep at least one doe, but we'll see.

Monday, July 7, 2008

chick and a turkey

back from pa

Back from a long weekend in Pennsylvania. Three days of family, gardening, fireworks and French toast. Now that I live in New England the drive home is considerably less of a big deal than it was in Tennessee or Idaho (10 hours or 4 day's drive respectively) I hit the road at 7:30 Friday morning and was home around lunchtime. Not too shabby.

The big project was my parent's garden. This is their first year planting any substantial food-garden. Not that they are strangers to fresh veggies, by any means. I grew up in a house that always had tomatoes plants by the back deck and my mom, who would happily eat out every meal of the rest of her life, knows there is no excuse to put canned pumpkin in a pie (plus, she tends a mean flower garden). So, they have grown and cooked with their own food before. But we were expanding the operation to mythic proportions for our own family's humble backyard history.

My neighbor here in Vermont is a retired botanist for a New York City college. He has a heck of a garden at his house, and he overestimated his flats of seedlings - leaving him with more food than he could plant. He graciously gave me a crapload of free veggies. So in the back hatch of station wagon I had corn, pumpkins, pole beans, peas and Russian yellow tomatoes. All going to 330 Columbia to meet their new home in PA soil.

We weeded, mulched, shoveled, hoed and planted as a family. My mom commented that she felt Amish, what with the neighbor's raising a barn next door and all (they are loudly rebuilding a new garage from the ground up). After our work was done we had a nice little patch of corn, two hills of pumpkins (two plants each), pole beans in stakes, peas along the fence and heirloom tomatoes planted in containers around the perimeter. I was proud of it. When all the work was done and the ground was watered we all sat outside on the porch with lemonade and the banjo. Good times.

By the end of the weekend we were bickering over stupid things and I was ready for a quiet log cabin. But it was a nice little trip back home and when I returned all my poultry was healthy and well. But there was a small tragedy. One of the bunnies had crawled out of the hutch and had made it to the chicken's fencing. Where it got it's head stuck in the wire and perished. No chicken had touched it, much to my relief that it didn't meet it's end at beaks and claws. But It was still a sad site to come home too. Now we're down to six bunnies, and if I end up with five I'll be content. I lost one to natural causes, and two to wandering away from home.

There was the somber realization that had I been home to watch them maybe I wouldn't have lost the little guy. But what is done is done, and now it's my job to make sure the rest grow up healthy so they can start helping other spinners get their own wool from their own herds. As Catherine Friend put it in her book, "Hit by a Farm", where there's livestock there's deadstock. Keeping animals means sorrow and joy every day. It's a reality I'm learning more and more as I expand my own homestead every year. And one i'll wrestle with personally as I raise my first ever animal for the table - our family's Thanksgiving turkey.

I am sorry though, little bunny.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

i'll be back

With high summer bringing the garden into overdrive, 22 chickens running around, a new litter of rabbits and all the adventures and small crisi that go with it (we did lose one of the bunnies) I've been very busy. Work's been good and exciting and between my office life and farm life it seems like I haven't had as much freedom to write. But I'll update soon with notes from VT and PA (going away this weekend to my folk's house) Hope you all have a great 4th of July!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

newborns and hailstorms

Last night during a rainstorm, Bean Blossom the Angora rabbit kindled a litter of baby bunnies. (Kindle, if you're not familiar with the term, is the rabbit business's word for giving birth to a litter of bunnies and has nothing to do with electronic reading aparati.) This morning, when I went to check on her hutch, there were 8 (possibly more, hard to count right now) little pink bunnies breathing under a pile of soft angora wool. Poor ol' Bean looked half her size. Between the fur she pulled to make a nest for the newborns, and the weight loss from the birth, she was a shadow of the giant fluffy rabbit I knew the day before. But her eyes were bright and as of this morning all of her newborns were alive and well (keeping fingers crossed). In about ten days they'll open their eyes and be covered in a coat of soft fur. In three weeks they'll be hopping around the hutch and ready to be registered, tattooed and sexed. When they are about 8 weeks old they'll be sold to spinning and 4-H homes. I'm really proud of her. This is her first litter ever and she did everything by the book and right on time. I can't wait till they're old enough to show pictures of...

Also, yesterday Ol' Bitch Nature* was one angry broad. A hail storm came and ripped apart the garden. I came home to lettuce and pumpkin leaves shredded. But I think everyone will make a full recovery. The picture above was taken by my neighbor during the hailstorm. All my hens (and Rufus Wainwright) took refuge on the porch to watch the weather turn.

*My little holler to Logsdon there

Sunday, June 22, 2008

important business

Yesterday started, like most Vermont summer Saturdays do, in the Battenkill river. I was standing in my waders out in hip deep water, trying to roll cast to some promising trout holes under a fallen log. I have yet to catch a fish out on the river, but those few hours on Saturday mornings aren't bothered by that. I like the way it feels to feel strong water rush over your hips and be surrounded by the flapping songs of ceder waxwings and scarlet tanagers. I like the sound of the river. The herons stopping by or waving to kayakers that paddle past. There's this whole community on the Battenkill like that - of anglers, paddlers and the occasional tube floater. River people.

This morning I wasn't in the river. I slept in, and then after morning dog-time I walked over to the coop. Inside Cyrus and Saro (my goslings, who are now as large as the rooster) were chasing the hens around the coop. Great. That's what I need, stressed-out birds that won't lay for a whole day because of some smart ass posturing geese.

I shooed the pair outside with the duck into their special waterfowl hotel next door and went about the business of scooping grains, pouring fresh drinking water and letting the hens into their outside pen. Within moments I heard the "kaPlop" of a fat gosling jumping into the metal tub to swim and clean off his chest feathers from the night on hay. The hens were cooing happily with their scratch grains in their beaks. Rufus Wainwright crowed a mighty crow. All seemed back to relative calm when I turned to the garden.

The gardens are looking good, with a few exceptions. My onions and eggplants seem to be drooping and not growing much at all compared to the other vegetables. But they are the only crappers. Other veggies are going gangbusters. The snap peas, lettuce, and broccoli are all ready to harvest - and harvest I have. I've already enjoyed stir-fries, quiche, and salads from their spoils. The pumpkins and watermellons seem to be vining just fine. The corn is knee-high. The zuccs have big fat orange flowers. Life rolls.

But now I'm back inside, and the way the rain's been coming down, looks like I'll be in most of the day. It's thundering and the coffee's hot. So I'm going to get back to the very important business of doing nothing. Y'all have a fine Sunday. Don't pull anything.

Friday, June 20, 2008

like the ravens in the corn

A few months ago I was given a copy of Sew What, Fleece, a book about small projects you can make with polar fleece using instinct over patterns. I loved the book. It's simple, fun, and has some cool stuff in it I could make for gifts or myself. I found a bunch of ideas, but none as cool as the hooded fleece vest. I wanted to make one for myself so I got some warm brown fleece and hand-sewed myself a zip front, giant-hooded version of the one in the book. For kicks I took an old pair of blue cords and made a giant raven patch for the back of it.

I've never lived in a place without crows and ravens. I like them, always have. When I drive to work or walk the dogs in the morning they swoop and dive through the maples like acrobat fighter planes. Beautiful pagan angels. Here in the hollow they seem to be watching over my place. When a hawk comes through, they swarm and chase it away - making the world a little safer for my chickens. While I know it's because they don't want to compete for food, I like to think of them as my own security force. And so, in homage, I wear one proudly on my back every morning when I go out to feed the chickens and haul water to the garden.

Monday, June 16, 2008

romania eh?

The longer I live in Sandgate, the more I think I'm in Romania. Sandgate feels like a pre-industrial farm society nestled in big dark mountains. The roads are dirt, and there are more horses on them than cars. There are more farm animals than people in general. Ravens and crows are more common than sparrows, and the rolling hills of ancient farmhouses (some I'm sure older than America itself), make the place seem ancient and worldly. I adore this place. I don't even miss the sounds of trains.

So yesterday, while on my usual Romanian jog, I stopped at a barbed-wire fence by the side of the road to pet some neighbor's horses and give them a big fistful of green grass just out of their long neck's reach. I was patting their heads and tussling with their manes when I heard a "Ba Buck BAWW!" and turned around. Behind me, Alfred Hitchcock style, were about seven chickens. All just staring at me on the dirt road. They had snuck up behind me from the farm across the way while I was in horseland.

Now, these aren't the docile dumpy chickens I'm used too, but like, a gang of underprivileged youth chickens. They should've all had matching bandanas and switchblades with the way they looked me, casing me for a weakness. The horses behind me I swear nearly laughed. "You're on your own kid," and they trotted away to the other pasture. At my thigh was a giant white rooster, looking up at me with little dinosaur eyes. I reached down to pet him, tell him I'm okay with his bad self, and "BAW CAAAAAWWWWW BUCK BAWW!" He jumped up and slashed at me with his spurs! he cut open my hand and then started coming back for more. I yelled, sweaty and stupid in the pastoral Eden "WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM BIRD!" and he strutted and hissed circles around me. The dairy goat and her kids on the hill watched, amused I'm sure, with muted thrills. Not wanting to temp the jerk by fighting back or running, I just stepped over him and continued my jog. Apparently, not all roosters are nice as my Rufus.

As I jogged back to my cabin, I came across a neighbor with two draft horses on a cart. The little rhinos without horns were plodding along in what looked like it had once been an old tractor converted into a draft cart. They ambled on past me, hand bloody as I waved, and headed back to their farm with polite but concerned looks. Now I've never been to eastern Europe. But I have a feeling on the backroads 45 minutes outside of Prague, a similar event probably went down.

P.S. The top image in this post is Sandgate, the one below, Romania...

just say no to powder mix, son

I'm a big fan of fresh lemonade and real brewed ice tea. But since I'm usually the only one drinking it, it's silly to make a giant piutcher for one. I found a way to make my own single serving version in portable containers. Which is great when you're on the run into town and want a cold drink for the road, or have been out in the garden and need something instantly cold and sweet to boost up your blood sugar. Enter - MasonAdes.

Ingredients
Box of pint mason jars (with lids)
Fresh lemons
Water
Ice cubes
Sugar
Lemon juice
Black tea bags
Fresh mint or lemon verbena from the garden

MasonAdes are soda-can sized servings of hand-squeezed lemonade or iced Tea. You can make enough for a whole weekend in about 5 minutes, which makes me wonder how powdered mix ever even made it in the public market?

Take your jars and fill them up half way with cold water. Then cut half a lemon and squeeze it's juice into the jar and then plop the whole half into the jar as well, making the water tart and filled with little bits of pulp and flavor. If you really want to kick the tartness up - add some fresh lemon juice (about a teaspoon) to it as well. Then add as much sugar as you feel appropriate (depending on mood and heat it could be as little as a teaspoon or as much as 2 tablespoons) and then top it off with ice. Seal the lid and shake the hell out of it till it's one big frothy delight.

I make a few of these and stash them in the fridge. Instead of grabbing a can of soda, I grab a cold jar of real lemonade. Which not only tastes amazing, but feels a little more authentic than most beverages. MasonAdes can also be made into iced tea - which is a healthier alternative. I just pour hot water from a kettle into room-temperature jars with a black tea-bag and let it cool on the kitchen counter. Then I add in a little lemon slice and a pinch of sugar, some ice, and a sprig of lemon verbena or mint and let it sit in the fridge alongside the jars of lemonade. When it's cold enough to condense water off the sides, it's manna from the still.