Tuesday, August 19, 2008

fancy! electric!

We can do it! We have the technology! This weekend I bought 100ft of outdoor extension chords and a christmas light timer. Because of those two items (and a handy clamp light) I was able to rig up a automatic lighting system in the coop. Now, every evening at dusk the coop's light automatically turns on, and then shuts off at 9:30pm. This guarantees a full 14 hours of light for the hens, who were starting to slack on laying as the days were growing shorter. As nights grow chillier (we're already dropping into the 40's some nights!) I'll start adding winter prep. A full storm flap over the coop and some insulation too. These birds will have a heat lamped, toasty winter. Well, at least the ones that won't be dinner guests.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

the great ox roast

Last night around dusk, I left the cabin for the ox roast with two very important things in hand. A pie and my fiddle. Generally, people who show up with fiddles and pie are welcome in nearly every enjoyable place in America. (And as a rule, not welcome in every horrible place.) This is a truth to live by, friends. If these two items are not welcome where you spend your free time, you messed up somewhere along the road.

So when I crested the steep rocky driveway of the farmhouse, I knew instantly that the night would be pro-pie/fiddle. Sprawled out before me were old colonial buildings and a big white barn. All over the lawn were picnic tables with fresh flowers. Sandgatians smiled and nodded as they sipped iced tea in mason jars. The twilight sky was lit by table lamps on wooden pillars or set high in barn windows. (Extension chords were the workhorses of this fine evening, that much was true.)

All around me were hundreds of people, kids, and the occasional dog running around off leash. In the center of the comotion were three musicians in red plaid shirts playing a fiddle, guitar and upright bass. They were sawing out a version of Blackberry Blossom, a beloved old time fiddle tune. My heart swelled.

These were my people now; Vermonters. A feral group of New Englander’s who square dance in tie-dye or tap their Maples in stoic red plaid. They’re farmers, loggers, small businessmen, bookkeepers, and florists. Pretty much any odd job that lets them be the boss of their own lives. But most of all, they were a happy wild-eyed people who wanted to be outside with their neighborhood instead of inside with their televisions. For that, I wanted to kiss them.

This is not a group of people who drive their garbage bags to the curb and don’t know how house next door pays their mortgage. This is a community, and now I as a true blue newcomer, was going to get to spend a night getting to know it a little better. It was a bonafide first date. My mom always asks me if I’m “seeing anybody” because she hates that I’m 26 and still single. Well, call me a hussy but that night I was on a date with the whole 247-year-old town. I stood there in my old hat, holding a cast iron skillet of apple pie, a fiddle over my shoulder and walked into the beehive smiling. I told myself men will come in time darling, but tonight - let there be food and music!

Food and music there was! The smell of a steer on a spit put everyone in a potent last-hurrah-of-summer mood. It was chilly for August. You could see your breath as you talked to people. Which got me all wound up (if you don’t know me all that well yet, you will soon learn I live all year for the month of October. Dogs, sheep, and Autumn are my whole world. My three pillars.)

A huge potluck spread filled rows and rows of tables. There was a giant cantina of iced tea and an outdoor freezer sporting our local hero's product – Wilcox Dairy Ice Cream (which is all southern Vermonters around here eat, since Ben and Jerry’s is from Northern Vermont, it’s not local enough!)

Of course, there was also a full cast of characters live and in-person. People like the maverick genius who wired up the UN’s initial phone service. People said they drove people in his DC suburb crazy with his antics and backyard projects (He belonged in Vermont, one older lady said as her flock of old lady friends nodded in silent approval. She said this as matter-of-factly as if he had broken a leg and needed a cast.) I spent most of the night hearing stories of the people who lived here. My favorite was about an Original Norman Rockwell Painting found in someone’s deceased parents house jammed behind a false wall. And there were the two women who built the Sandgate covered Bridge (by themselves!) I listened wide-eyed and enamored.

How the hell did I end up in this amazing town? What fates had me find my cabin in a random want ad from 3,000 miles away? By pure chance I landed here. Like a baby that falls out the second story window in the arms of a mailman – I was blessed.

As the sun went down and my stomach was full of good food and maple ice cream, I pulled out my fiddle and my neighbor’s beau Sam and I played music while other people digested. Simple guitar and fiddle tunes in lonesome chords. We stopped when the paid-band started up again. Slowly, people made their way to the dance floor, which was lit up by a tiffany-style lamp hoisted up by a ladder from a tractor. People twirled around while the string bands’ bassist called out square dancing maneuvers. The local kids knew all the words to Red River Gal. There is hope for America yet, I tell ya.

We stayed for a few more hours. Mostly to talk, sip wine, and hear this and that. I left pretty late and folks were still dancing when I pulled away in the station wagon. But I was happy. As far as first dates go anyway - I’d say I’ve got a serious crush on this place.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

a view from vermont

Here are some photos taken over the last few days. Thought you fine readers might like seeing my world of south western Vermont in high summer. There's Annie in her forever spot in the front seat, always by my side. And a view of my big ol' layers in front of the cabin. An heirloom tomato from the garden, and sunset at roadside.

sick as a third rooster

I stayed home from work yesterday because I feel like I fell off a horse (which, I have once or twice, his name was Cezak, that’s another story.) I have a sore throat, headache, and an intense urge to nap. The chickens however, don’t care. Even if their keeper feels like sleeping in - they still require their daily routine. So at 6 AM I was out in the coop sorting the morning poultry and feeding the giant overly-hormonal turkey. I came back in the house, called off of work, and dove right into…baking.

When I feel sick, I like making my home feel homier. I read under blankets, but only after something is in the oven, filling the house with it’s warm aromatherapudic scent. So I baked my father’s apple cake and then drove to Wayside for Dayquil. (I am certain this combination will heal me.) In the meantime, I am swilling lemon tea and watching bad movies with the dogs. The farm has a definite activity deficit, but a strong surplus in apple baked goods.

In more interesting and sexy news. I found out two of my pullets…aren’t. Two of the Ameraucana “hens” are actually growing up into roosters. Not good. I found this out yesterday morning when I witnessed one said rooster trying to have sex with my duck. The duck's name is Henry.

Now, this farm is a hate-free zone and if my poultry wants to dabble in mild youthful sexual exploits – that’s their business. But three roosters means fights, blood, and eventually… two dead roosters*. I learned this last year and have no interest in repeating the experiment.

I might keep one. The young birds and older gals are two separate corporations right now. The young gals could use a stud to watch over them while Rufus is down the creek with his concubines. But the other has to go. If anyone around here wants a free alarm clock, come pick him up.

*Yes, I understand many small flocks have more than one male, but it’s well understood those males are more tense, aggressive, and annoying when they are always on alert. No thanks.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

ox roasts and widows

Living in a rural community signs you up for things you don't always expect. Some of these things are good. Like when my neighbor asked me if I was following her to the Ox Roast, or would I drive up on my own? And what was I bringing for the potluck? There was no question if I was attending - even though no one had invited me or asked me if I cared to go... of course I was going. This was a simple truth. I lived here and since I was one of the few hundred people who drives by the farm with the whitewash sign telling us the day and time - it was branded in our psyches' that we'd all attend. If you didn't you were riff raff or snobs with summer homes. I told her I'd follow her car. I'll bring a pie.

But not everything is swell in paradise. Yesterday when I stopped in at the Wayside (our country store/social networking hub) I found out one of our neighbors became a widow as of 1:30 that afternoon. Her husband was out mowing the lawn and died of a heart attack. It was the silent hum of the whole store. When your village has only 381 people in it, you find yourself signing up to cook a strange widow's casseroles or watering gardens. No one asks if you'll do it - it's expected. Just like attendance at the ox roast. This is just how things are.

There are a lot of stereotypes about New Englanders. That they're a cold, closed off people. Maybe some are, but when you live in the mountains you need people. you need them to jump and tow cars, feed and care for animals during vacations, and help with small crisis. We're not Amish, and we're far from ideal, but Sandgate is a place where people keep an eye on each other. It's a good feeling, to be cared for like that. Like we're all in one big barn together being fed and cared for by the community. There is little difference between the care I give the chickens in the coop, and the food I'd make for the women grieving. It's just being aware of what's going on around you, taking part in it, tending to it, and keeping everyone as safe as possible.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

a dry afternoon

Last night it wasn't raining. A novel approach, since it has been pouring in southern Vermont for weeks. But yesterday, when I pulled into the driveway after work, I stepped out of my car into the... not rain! It wasn't sunny but there were bits of blue sky and the ground was dry. I'll take it. I went about the business of random chores I'd been putting off till the rain stopped. I lugged a bale of fresh straw from the covered porch to the coop. Within moments the crew had a fresh clean bed to sleep on. While my birds have never said thank you, I can only imagine their relief to come home from a long day of mud and rain to a soft, safe, and dry place to fall asleep in. Creature comforts.

After all that, I cleaned out all the water fonts and buckets and refilled the feeders with fresh grains. I grabbed a pitchfork and removed the soggy old gross hay and put it on the compost pile. While I was doing this, a clunky old Subaru pulled into the driveway. This is pretty common at the farm (when you have a giant "FRESH EGGS" sign up on the road by your driveway you get used to meeting locals.) This particular local was one of my favorites. An elderly ex-patriot of some "old-country" with a thick European accent, a friendly beard, and a gentle smile.

He told me he had a spare half gallon of milk, and would the animals use it because he would hate to waste it? I said yes and thank you, and he proceeded to buy a half dozen eggs (I offered a trade, he put his foot down on paying for the eggs, in quarters.) Before he rolled off he insisted I come up to their cottage for coffee and to "meet the wife" I told him I'd love too. I want to hear their story. Everyone in the hollow seems to have one equally exciting and weird set of circumstances that brought them to Sandgate, or keeps them here. I want to know them all. Specially when it's not raining.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

every type of poultry on the farm

Here at Cold Antler, we have four types of poultry. Chickens, geese, a turkey and a duck. This weekend one of those moments happened when they were all hanging out in the grass together. That's a Toulouse goose, an Ameraucana hen, a Magpie duck and a Broad Breasted White turkey. How about it!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

today was brought to you by the letter A

Today I sold my ever first farm-raised animals. Two angora does went off to their new home upstate. Thanks to the sale, I was able to put some gas in my tank (something usually reserved for errands, sheep-related activities, and driving to work.) But since we had a little pocket money we went on a road trip.

We started in Arlington, the closest Vermont town to my cabin. Arlington was having “Norman Days” a kind of street festival in honor of Rockwell - with tag sales (Vermonter for yard sale) and local crafts. While walking around the spinner’s stands and fried dough booths, I bought a beautiful hand-thrown mug from a local potter (also on the bunnies.)

Jazz and Annie loved the street fest. That was until they met a giant Newfoundland, who greeted Jazz by gently placing his slobbery mouth directly on top of his head. Jazz was revolted, and snapped his head away from the Newf with a soggy head and wet ears. He looked up at me for help, utterly disgusted. Annie seemed ambivalent to the slobber accumulating on her face as the lug kissed her. That pretty much sums up my dogs.

After Arlington, we crossed over the state line to New York and visited Gardenworks, a localvore’s dream. Therein was everything from handmade mustard to sheep cheese. I splurged and bought a hand-felted alpaca wool blanket. It was five feet tall and sang me a tune of $18, by god a steal. While checking out the women at the counter told me the local farmer who provided the wool I was holding was hosting an open house. I love living in farm country.

We continued our tour home, driving from West Hebron to Cambridge and then back up 313 to the farmstead. Annie hung out the front window like she does; two elbows over the edge of the door, her lips flapping in the wind. Jazz laid sphinx like in the back seat, contemplating whatever it is he contemplates.

After our touring was done, I called a local feed store in Shusan. It’s not really a feed store as much as it is an old barn where a sweet couple sells everything from dairy cow starter to chicken scratch. I asked if there were open for business since they keep odd hours. They were. I drove over and filled the back of the Subaru with 175 pounds of feed. Again. Thanks to the pair of angoras.

What money was left from the bunnies went into the Border collie fund, a small mug that I put an extra five or ten bucks into every week. There’s barely anything in it, but just placing money in the jar makes me feel like I’m working towards my lanolin-soaked destiny. Which feels good.

Tomorrow night (I think) VPR is holding a star gazing event. You take your radio out with a blanket to your chosen destination, and listen to a local public radio host talk about what’s overhead. All over the region random Vermonters will be doing this. This might beat Chicago Public Radio’s Thanksgiving ‘Poultry Slam’ as my favorite radio event of the year. I like good television as much as the next American, but you can’t take Everyone Loves Raymond to a dark hillside with your dogs and stare at stars.

Friday, August 8, 2008

the story of a hat

I bought the hat in Idaho. It was during one of those awful wet months in late winter when snow in the Pacific Northwest is just various forms of slush. Slush that freezes momentarily as it falls to earth only to return to slush again soon as it hits ground. I wanted something to keep my hair dry when I took the dogs out on walks or was fumbling around Diana’s farm. Something better than a beanie and not as jocky as a baseball cap (which I generally abhor for no good reason.) So one day I stopped into a clothing store in Sandpoint and found a wall of wide-brimmed felt hats. Not quite cowboy hats, but not quite gardening hats either. They looked like something off the set of Cold Mountain. A mountain hat. I instantly reminded me of Brian in Tennessee, and the old hat he wore as he strolled barefoot on trails through the Smokies. I miss him all the time.

Nostalgia aside, it wasn’t going to happen. It cost sixty dollars. Too much. But I tried it on anyway. Damnit, it fit perfectly. And it was decorated beautifully - all along the brim was a line of leather with pieces of deer bone and metal discs decorating the crest. The primitive part of me loved that men, sheep, cows, and deer had all come together to make this hat. Four animals I either planned to raise one day, or had a connection too. I took it off sadly, and as I was putting it back I realized it had a black stain on it. Like someone with a small paintbrush of shoe polish had wiped against it by accident. Score.

When a sales clerk asked me if I needed help, I showed him the stain and asked, how much for a hat with an imperfection on it? Fifteen dollars, was his answer. I could barely hold myself together. I bought it right then and there, cash on the barrelhead.

At first the hat was used only for what I intended. Dog walks, trips to Di’s Farm, walks in the rain – you know, outside stuff. Since I was using it as a rain hat it took a hell of a beating. After a few months the Rocky Mountain winter had turned it lopsided. The moisture had bent the rim so it turned up only on one side. I tried to set of the aesthetic by shoving chicken and crow feathers in the opposite side. It was undeniable that it was getting some character.

I realized as spring rain turned into summer sun, I was wearing it more often. It kept the glare out of my eyes. So I started wearing it in the garden and around the farmhouse, forgetting about it on trips into town and wearing it into grocery stores by accident. But people loved it and told me so. They didn’t know I was a design student from the Mid Atlantic. They saw me as any other Idahoan in a fine mountain hat. I got more compliments on that hoof-and-mouth-disease-lookin’ beast then I ever received in my life in a dress.

So I kept wearing it, all summer and through the fall. After a while I learned to love it. I wore it everywhere. It had molded itself so much into me that people would ask me why I wasn’t wearing it if I left it at home. I couldn’t lose it either. Over the years I had left it at friends’ houses, outside on porches, in strange cars, restaurants… but it always came back to me. It’d be at my desk on Monday or the restaurant would have it behind the counter. It never lost me.

When I left Idaho, I wore that hat as I drove away. I wore it when I was sick across all of Montana (I threw up on a mass grave at the Little Big Horn in it. Unintentionally of course.) It flew with me to Pennsylvania and Tennessee. I played fiddle in it at last year’s Old Timer’s Festival (Which for the first time since I set foot in Knoxville, I won’t go to this fall. It’s unfortunately too expensive.)

That hat has seen where I’ve been, and will come with me where I am headed. When I am standing at the post at my first sheep dog trial - you better damn well believe that hat will be on my head as I shout “Away to me, Knox!” a shepherd’s crook in my arms. It’s an avatar for my life of animals and dirt, of snow and rain, of Tennessee and Idaho. It’s been with me everywhere. I consider it a friend.

A few months ago I had to go to a photo shoot for the book. The publisher wanted pictures of me for the website and promotional materials, as well a back cover. I was talking to girl friends back in Sandpoint about what I should wear and was asked, flat out by Diana -

“You’ll be wearing your hat for the photo shoot right? No one here will believe it’s you unless you’re wearing that hat.”

If you pick up my book this winter, you’ll see the me in that hat on the jacket. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

rain and sara

The month of July has been rainy in the North Shire. Really rainy. I’m talking high-river-soft-ground-weeks-of-never-drying-puddles rainy. The bird yard constanly wafts the scent of goose poo on wet hay (not as charming as it might sound.) You’d think all this weather would be great for the garden, but my drainage in the raised beds wasn’t ready for this kind of pounding. While some veggies thrived, my bumper crop, tomatoes, hates my guts. I only have a few bags frozen for canning into sauce, and a few fresh heirlooms for slicing and salads. Nothing like I planned. I’d say this rain made the 2008 season one of the weaker ones. Think Buffy season 5, only with slime on peas.

Also, the chickens have eaten most of the young pumpkins. Pecked right into them like heroin addicts 'chasing the dragon'*. My fault. I didn't fence them off. Rats.

And in other somewhat sad news, Sara happened. Or I guess, didn’t happen. Sara was a young tri-color Border Collie in need of a home. the wonderful folks in the Northeast Border Collie Assoc had her waiting for me. Not only did she need a home, she was a stock-proven working dog. She had two months of herding work under her belt and was in need of a girl with plans for sheep...

I had to turn her down. Right now the practicality of heating oil, car repairs, and just day-to-day living expenses proves that it would be irresponsible to take on a fully loaded dog (specially without ewes on the property.) So I’ll save and wait. Mark my words though, in the future there will be better tomatoes, dog broke sheep, and a border collie to wrap up into my life here. Tonight however, it’s just me and my current roommates. And we’re going to cozy up on the couch with a movie. They can't herd worth a damn but they are gangbusters at the couch.

*I have no idea if my naive drug slang makes sense. We're over it.

angoras for sale!

If you ever wanted to spin and knit from your own livestock, but are pretty sure a sheep can't fit into the breakfast nook in your apartment, consider a French Angora rabbit. These guys are beautiful, pedigreed, tattooed, and ready to go to their new homes. Comment or email if you live in the area and want to take a bunny home this weekend!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

i got a wheel, son!

Holy Moses! My friend and co-worker Trish gave me one of her old spinning wheels! (Jazz and Annie are not impressed. Since it isn't alive and can't produce food - it can rot in hell far as they're concerned.) The wheel is in need of some repair. Trish and her husband Drew (who gaver her the wheel) agreed it deserved to be fixed and used in a home instead of wasting away at theirs. So I gladly accepted their gift, and I think after a little tlc and elbow grease it'll be up and running in no time. Homespun yarn, watch out!

mark 'em up

A strange piece of farm equipment was delivered to the cabin this week. A tattoo gun. Well, I guess "gun" isn’t the right term, more like a tattoo pen. I ordered it from a rabbitry supply catalog from the Midwest. It came in a little blue case along with ink, wells, and instructions. The box had a Dutch rabbit on the front with the logo “Rabit-tatt.” It cost 45 dollars, practically the price on one of the bunnies themselves, but it had to be ordered. Here’s why:

I’m taking this rabbit breeding business fairly seriously. I’ve kept Angora rabbits as pets for a few years now, but Vermont was my chance to go from an owner to breeder. Between the egg sales at work and the two litters of bunnies planned for the summer, a little income was coming out of the homestead. A nice change. I did the math and found out two litters of fancy purebred French rabbits would pay for all the chicken feed, rabbit pellets, and straw for nearly a year! So I wanted to do it right, to help support myself here, and to learn the whole process of breeding small livestock.

Rabbits are my training animals for sheep. Like sheep they produce wool, create offspring, and require care and feeding. If I could learn to manage the rabbits as livestock - I could take the lessons from them into those first couple of sheep. That's the plan at least.

Thanks to the farm library I had a lot of help. While consulting the books “Barnyard in your Backyard” and “Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits” I learned every aspect of breeding and raising the six healthy bunnies on the porch right now. But now those bunnies are over a month old and that's when small-livestock management comes into play. Which included tattooing, writing pedigrees, and photocopying and filing paperwork for each individual rabbit. Paper work was one thing, any schmuck can buy a file box and some folders – but tattooing was something I was nervous about.

Why tattoo? Even though this litter is for spinners and pets, they were still the offspring of two amazing parents. Parents who had been meticulously bred and trucked to rabbit shows all over New England ( in fact, a rabbit show is where I got them.) My bunnies were the newest generation of that line, and deserved the same attention to detail as all the rabbits that came before them. They needed to be marked so their owners would have proof they were the animals on the paperwork. People who bought them for shows or their own breeding programs demanded it. It was my job. So here I am, tattoo apparatus in hand.

Tattooing went like this. You poured the ink into the small plastic well and then placed the tip of the pen into it. Then you turned on the needle and let it run a few seconds to scoop up the ink and load it with ink. When it was loaded, you took a bunny in your arms, braced it tight against your body and wrote it’s number in it’s left ear. The first rabbit was so aloof I thought I didn’t do it properly, but when I wiped her ear with a wet paper towel the sequence BB01 showed through in my own handwriting (it’s equally weird and neat to see your handwriting on an animal.)

BB stood for Bean and Benjamin, the bunnies’ parents. And 01 through 06 would be their identities in the litter. Within ten minutes every bunny had a light tattoo on his or her left ear. It went fast and painless, and another small first happened at the homestead. While branding livestock, even adorable tiny livestock, I joined the ranks of people bringing animals into the world and preparing them for market. Yes, it's a long call from sheep (who wouldn’t be tattooed, they’d be ear tagged) but it’s what I can do now in my little rented cabin, at least today it is. I’ll take it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

me and cyrus on the porch

*this photo and one below by Tricia Weill

out of the ground

The garden is nearly ready to be cleaned out. After months of work, all the early-season salad greens, peas, peppers, onions and herbs are nearly done. Either they've been eaten down or are ready for the jar or freezer. As I remove them from the rows, I'll replace them with lettuce seeds and some winter squashes. While the new plants are getting started, the watermelons and pumpkins will be maturing on their vines. The sunflowers and sweetcorn will be reaching to the sky. I'm so happy to report that this year my jack-o-lanterns will be from my own garden! A little personal goal finally achieved.

Last night I pulled the first potatoes out of the ground, which was actually a pretty big deal. They were grown from seed potatoes I grew myself in Idaho. Which means that the food I pulled out of the ground last night has seen more of the country in it's collective genealogy than most Americans ever have the chance to see in their lifetimes... It also makes them the first completely homebrewed veggies on the farm! Between them and the bunnies, a new level of self-sufficiency is rising up at Cold Antler. These aren't commodities I bought to grow and feed, but created right here. Tomorrow's hash browns with sided to my own hen's eggs - what a breakfast. Top that off with ridiculously strong coffee and a walk with the dogs, and you've got the happiest girl in Vermont.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

how we do business in Sandgate

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

a day in the fields

Saturday morning I was on the road to Massachusetts by 6 AM. It was foggy, and that only added to the authenticity of the day. Since I would be spending the entirety of it with British dogs and a British man - a foggy chill morning seemed appropriate. I was driving to a small farm in the western half of the state to observe a sheep dog clinic held by Dave Sykes. Dave's a bonefide UK trialer and trainer. He's worked hundreds of dogs and had over thirty years of experience. Myself and a dozen other people signed up to watch him train our dogs, give tips, and help spot problems. I was floating I was so excited.

Well, as floating as I could be. As you all know, I don't have a sheep dog or sheep. I was going to watch and learn, find out how to get started. I had met up with some people from the NEBCA at the Merck Forest Trial a few weeks ago, and they said if I wanted to get into the real world of stock dogs, to show up for this event. I filled out a registration form and mailed it in the very next day at work. If you knew how bad I wanted to be out there with own dog and crook, you'd understand. Really.

I pulled into the farm's driveway next to a line of dog cars. People with minivans without back seats, SUVs with breed bumper stickers, and station wagons laden with crates. Folks were walking down the hill to a round pen in the pasture below. Inside the 50-foot pen were two blackface ewes. They seemed calm. I hiked down the hill with my backpack, following people with their black and white border collies or leggy Kelpies. It felt weird, coming without my own, but I certainly couldn't bring Jazz and Annie to an off-leash sheep pen. Besides, non-herding dogs weren't welcome on the farm strictly as a liability to the livestock. So I already felt out of place, which only added to the nerves of being new in a field full of shepherds.

The day went like this. We started out by doing introductions and then people brought their dogs into the field one at a time to be observed by Sykes. For about half an hour each, they let their dogs show him their stuff. Some dogs worked in the round pen but most had the full pasture and more ewes to chase around. I learned a lot watching him, but learned more listening to conversations around me and asking questions on the sidelines. Halfway through the day we had a picnic lunch under an apple tree, overlooking the sheep below us down the hill. Sitting under that tree, with the puppies rolling around, the smells of grass and wool in the air, I felt comfortable for the first time in New England. It was bliss.

The shepherds were a wild bunch, mostly women. A drastic change from the world of mushing, where I was used to being the gender minority. If mushing was the dog sport of men, herding (at least today) was the dog sport of women. But they weren't timid gals. They were as energetic and sharp toothed as the dogs they worked beside. They had that Northeast farmer harsh wit, saying things like "Romnies make horrible herding stock... but they make a great carcass!" Not exactly the language you expect from 60-year-old women in sunhats. Like their dogs, they smile with a wolfish flair.

During one of the sit down talks, Sykes joked, wiping sweat from his brow, about how shepherding with border collies is a 40-year apprenticeship to get it right. He then looked at me, by far the youngest pup in the crowd, and pointed "So you better get started soon!" If someone handed me a puppy, no questions asked, hell, I might've.

We ended the day with a potluck dinner. I brought a pie, which was a hit. Everyone talked and bullshitted like old college friends. There's a bond between people in subcultures like these, something that lets you open up a little about yourself, more so than with co-workers or acquaintances. We talked about families, jobs, sheep, and our dogs. Everyone wished me luck, some even mentioned a dog or two I might be interested in. If you're wondering what shepherds drink, the main tap was hard cider(though that might be a New England thing...)

The best part of whole thing was just watching the dogs work. We'd sit in chairs listening about techniques and dogs and all around us the dogs just worked, happy as can be. It was grand, seeing a preview of what's ahead for myself. But also intimidating, knowing how much is involved. But the day gave me the chance to grow familiar with more and more with the names, faces, dogs, and the history and folklore around the sport. I had a wild time, and certainly there will be more to come.

When I picked up Jazz and Annie at the kennel the next day, they were thrilled to see me. And the guilt of dog-cheating on them sunk back in. I'm torn between them, and our established life's comfort - and the excitement of a new world of dogs. We pulled out of the parking lot with the windows down and Janis Joplin blaring. Annie hung out her head while Janis Cried "BAAAAAABY!CRRRYY BAAAAABY!" After a few miles I turned down the music and looked over at my roommates Then, serious as a heart attack, I aksed them "hey guys, how do you feel about getting a dog?" Jazz yawned, Annie ignored everything that wasn't outside the window.

I knew they'd been ambivalent to a new dog. Siberians are made to work as a team. Well adjusted dogs like these that were raised in packs could handle a new dog fine. It was my friends and family that wouldn't adjust well. They'd say it was taking on too much, too small of a space, wait till I own a farm someday, and so on. I understand this, and quietly drove home, certain a puppy could induce havoc.

Then havoc did happen...

The next morning, a crazy man walked into my old church in Knoxville and shot nine people, killed two. I used to sit in those pews every Sunday and had I never moved to Idaho I would've been sitting there that morning, watching my Sunday School students put on their play.

I am in no way comparing the loss of human life to getting a dog. That would be awful, tactless, and horrid. Please don't take this that way. Yet I couldn't help wondering how many of the people in my old congregation who were fired at were waiting on the approval of their friends and family to do the things that made them happy? How many of them put off bits of their lives because they were worried about making things uncomfortable for the spectators? Would they feel different now?

I did. I certainly did.

My mind is reeling.

Monday, July 28, 2008

a hell of a view

Friday, July 25, 2008

dogs and blogs

Tomorrow at the crack of dawn I'll be driving to Massachusetts for class. Herding class. Dan Sykes, the famed British Shepherd and Sheepdog trainer is holding a clinic in Greenfield. I'll be going to Tanstaafl Farm to observe the dogs and their lessons, chat it up with sheep people, talk dogs and join in their potluck dinner. I'm new to this sport and just starting out. I have no sheep, border collie, hell I don't even have a barn. But these people will help me get started when I do. Meeting them, learning and observing, and hanging with their dogs will help me be more educated when those first three ewes show up at my farm and my border collie pup is asleep by the fireplace.

While hooves and sheep dogs aren't currently in my life, I am a bonefide member of the organization. Being new to New England - it'll be nice to hang with a club I belong to. It'll also be interesting to see what they think of a twenty-something without a dog in their midst. I have no idea how the shepherds will feel about me, but I hoping to win these titans over with pie.

In other news, you can now find a running blog column of mine on the Huffington Post. There's a link to it on the right sidebar. I'll be in their green section writing about homesteading and the environment. It'll be a mix of content from this blog and new stuff you'll only see there (like the long thanksgiving turkey post). Please feel free to check it out, comment, "buzz up" articles, and read it. You know, support your local writers and all that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

hazy morning

I slept in this morning.I didn't get up till 5:45. The sun was up though, and in the streaming light of the cabin's bedroom Jazz was sprawled out beside me, his paws against my sternum and his mouth open. I wake up to two dozen white sharp teeth inches from my eyeballs. Sometimes I wonder if it's normal to wake up to wolf jaws and smile? But I do and scratched Jazz on the head. His big yellow eyes opened up, he yawned a mighty yawn, and then curled his head deeper into the pillow and went back to sleep. Somewhere in the kitchen I heard Annie's nails scratch against the cork floor as she stretched and sighed. She wasn't getting up either. My dogs are not farm dogs. Without snow on the ground or a harness on their chests they are as useless as house cats. I love that about them.

I however, had a lot to do before work, so I was getting up. I let my roommates sleep in. I slipped on some jeans and crocs and went outside towards the coop, grabbing a bale of straw from the porch and throwing it up on my shoulder as I went. I knew the birds needed fresh bedding after all the mud and rain from yesterday's storms. It also couldn't hurt to reline the nest box. I forgot to perc some coffee and cursed under my breathe. What the hell is happening to my priorities?

When I got to the coop and hutches I checked on the rabbits and then went about the business of sorting the morning poultry. Geese, ducks and turkeys spend the day outside so the chickens had the coop to themselves. Inside they were safe from hawks and predators and would lay better without the stress of loud goslings (the other poultry was way too big to be picked up by raptors) so I let them spend the whole day waddling around the creek and trying to break into the garden. So far all attempts have been thwarted. Let's hear it for old fences.

When everyone was fed, watered, had a clean place to sleep and was pecking in the sun--I went back in to check on the dogs. Both of which were now up and ready for a walk. We went out into the field and watched the hazy clouds sit on the mountains. It reminded me of Tennessee. I don't know if I can make it back this fall for the mountain music festival (and heat my house this winter) so it tugged at my heart a little. It also reminded me to work on All the Pretty Horses on the dulcimer that night. If I nailed it on the dulc I could record both the fiddle and dulcimer parts together for kicks. I am a very exciting young person.

Starting your day like this - with animals and misty mountains and good dogs beside you, makes getting ready for work harder and harder. Every weekday I get in that car and drive the ten miles to the office. I do it with loud music and plenty of coffee, so it's not too depressing. But the deeper I get into the world of small farms, sheepherding, animals, and gardening the more it starts to feel like a farce. A front I put up to pay rent and buy dog food. Something that drains energy from the real work of growing food, collecting eggs, planning a sheep farm and learning to shepherd. I'm not trying to sound ungrateful. I have a good job I enjoy. I work with fine people with manners and perfectly normal haircuts, but if I could find a way to support myself at home and still be able to walk into an emergency room insured, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Or, you know, marry rich.