Tuesday, September 9, 2008

colder days, warmer hearts

When I left the office last night, the Subaru's thermometer read 76 degrees. In the valley the trees were green, the sun was out, it felt like the high end of summer. Twenty minutes later when I drove up the mountain and turned onto West Road I looked at the temperature again. It was now 66 degrees, shady, and my car rumbled over a bed of brown maple and oak leaves. It really is more like fall in the hollow. This is where I belong.

Fall is the greatest. It's my favorite holiday - the most exciting time of the year. I thrive in crisp weather. I am beaming in hooded sweatshirts and beat jeans. I was miserable in the 80-degree Octobers of Tennessee (Its only true downfall.) Halloween is hands down my all time favorite holiday. Which sounds like I adore slasher movies and tacky faux zombie lawn decorations. I don't.

No, I'm an old fashioned gal when it comes to Halloween. At Cold Antler it's a celebration of a year well done. A true harvest party with a heavy focus on remembering those we lost. Old traditions like memory bonfires, storytelling, and serving a silently observed meal that was a deceased friend's favorite are all still celebrated here. The lurid stuff is not. I have no interest in a graphic Halloween championed by the horror industry. To me that modern interpretation is horrible, and makes a warm and beautiful Celtic tradtion a creepy mocking of mortality. (Honesty, I am more unsettled by spring, which is to me the creepiest time of the year). But Hallows is a happy time. A day to soak in memories, sit fireside, tell the kids about people they'll never meet, pet your dogs, and laugh with those who are lucky enough to be still among the living. It's nature's best last party before we all crawl under quilts and watch the snow confuse the hell out of the chickens.

So on that note, Vermont is really starting to feel like fall. Tonight they want the temperatures to drop into the low 40s, tomorrow night into the thirties. Which means I'll snuggle up by my fireplace with the dogs and read a cheesy mystery or watch an equally cheesy romantic comedy. Knowing that outside the sheep, rabbits, and poultry are all safe and warm in their keeps. I am looking forward to this so much it's making it hard for me to type a sentence without randomly adding words like PUMPKIN and FIREWOOD. Which apparently, I just did. Sorry, I am swept up in the magic.

I think it's important to look forward to the things that you know are coming. The guaranteed. To get pumped about the changing seasons, a sunflower's bloom, a holiday on the calendar. Putting stock in these simple things is healthy and rewarding because they can't let you down. If you put the proper levels on value on them it's hard to feel languid about life, or bored with the routine. I find that if all your priorities lay in things outside nature's control your certain to be disappointed. You don't always get promoted at work, or approved for that new car loan, or can afford a plasma tv screen without eating spaghetti for a year. But you can take fall to the bank. It's coming. And Vermont might be the greatest place in all of this small world to watch it unfold.

I am blessed over and over. I tell you there's no justice.

Monday, September 8, 2008

all my armour on

Preparing for Monday mornings is an ordeal. I need to put all my armour on. The coffee pot is loaded, and on the stove ready for me soon as I get up. My outfit for work is picked out, at grasping distance. I set the alarm extra-early (4AM) So I can hit snooze a jillion times before 5. All of this is required to mentally prepare me for the 40-hour corporate work week I truly don't belong in. But I am okay with. Because right now, I do belong there. It's what pays rent, bills, and feeds me and the animals. It might be years, decades, before I can afford to buy a farm and make that my full time job. It makes my stomach turn if I think about that too long. But let's be honest - working for an outdoorcentric company in Vermont is world's away from the same job in downtown Chicago. I am lucky. I know this.

Lucky or not - I still wish my workday was outside, with rams and lambs and a border collies named Knox and Saven. This sometimes tears at me. Am I asking too much when I strive for this rural life? Am I being foolish praying to foresake a comfy 9-5 job so I can work my ass off in the pastures? I don't know. Some people have been telling me to slow down. Not to expect too much. They have my best interests at heart, but their warnings make me lower my ears and run into the wind like Jazz and Annie do when we're mushing in the snow. I'm still finding all this out. I do know I'll happily work more hours, pour buckets of sweat, and come inside so tired I can barely stand if its what I know I should be doing. Farming and writing is the world I am clawing uphill into.

The coffee is perking now. Thank god.

I'm still somewhat tired from the weekend. I drove down to my hometown of Palmerton, PA for the annual festival. which was all but rained out. I still had a nice time. It's a small event with crafts and rides. Local community churches and girlscout troops selling their wares as a giant public fundraiser for dozens of clubs. Sadly, it fell the same weekend as the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival. But some priorities still soak in traditional waters. So The dogs and I drive the five hours to my homeland. My kind neighbors watched the farm.

Back in Palmerton, the food and familiar faces were there. My best friend Kevin drove up from Newtown to spend Saturday with the Woginrich's (his favorite thing, ever) and between Kevin (who, by the way, decorated an apple pie with a perfect likeness of Kermit the Frog, and make a human cel inpired pastry) and my family, four dogs, and deep fried twinkies. It was a grand 'ol time. I wish I took a picture of that pie.

Even though Palmerton was a nice break from farm and worklife. I kept wondering about the the chickens and sheep. Were they okay in the storm? Did Katie get them enough water? Did Dean remember to shut the coop's door at night? When you run a small farm, it's impossible not to take your work home with you. I have to go to Boston in two weeks for a book event and while I'm excited to see my friend Erin and her city, I loathe having to prepare. Having to ask the neigbor's to walk up here and care for the animals again, vaccinate the dogs for the kennel, and leave my animals. People do not get into homesteading to up and leave it every two weeks. I am excited and grateful for the book, I don't mean to sound like I'm not. I will happily promote it into the ground. But at the end of the day I just want to work hard and then relax harder, and that happens best where sheep chew grass, fiddles play, maple leaves turn red, and roosters crow.

When I came home to Cold Antler it had recovered from the storm. All the sunflowers that had yet to bloom (I planted them late) were now bursting with yellow from the rain. They seemed to say 'welcome back'. Marvin and Sal bleated a hello (Maude ignored me like usual), the chickens scurried about the yard. Jazz and Annie sat next to the car, waiting for dinner. Everything was fine. I don't know why I worry about them so much. I guess that's just how I'm wired.

Friday, September 5, 2008

farm fundraiser coming soon

There will be a farm fundraiser coming up! The purpose is to help pay for feed, fencing, and save for my own real piece of non-rented dirt. All the items will be either handmade crafts by me, in my personal antique collection, or original works of art. I'll post them soon. If I can do this without using an auction site I will. Whoever comments first under the post for a certain item, gets it. The "winner" will then send a payment that includes shipping and I'll mail you whatever it is you won. 25% of all items will go to the charity Heifer.org. So you'll be helping your girl Jenna out with her farm dreams, as well as people all over the world with theirs.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

media updates

So big news folks. I'll be featured in the upcoming issue of BUST magazine, which will be out in newsstands mid September. The issue I'll be in will have Sarah Silverman on the cover, which I am thrilled about. I don't think it's a huge article, but there should be a write up on my journey from suburbia to farmburbia. If you've been enjoying the blog, it'll be worth picking up the issue.

Since I'm talking about media, I might as well plug my Huffpo and Mother Earth News archives, which can be found on the right sidebar of this blog. (By the way, if you need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the blog to see the links, your screen resolution is set to low.) Huffington's bits are usually a little more about green living and sustainable farming in modern culture. Mother Earth News articles are more about farming and farmlife. I think the most recent ones are about the future of farming in America, and sheep, of course.

I am also considering having a farm fundraiser on the site. I have some homemade crafts and paintings that I might sell to make some extra money for the farm. Things like hand-painted signs, a real-antlered wolf mask (our farm mascot), and water color paintings and original drawings. The cash would go right into feed and hay and paying off bills I need to wipe clean before I can buy my own farm. So if anyone would be interested in owning a piece of Cold Antler, and helping me get a few steps closer to my farm, let me know and I'll post some items!

Also, if this whole post was obnoxious let me know and I won't do anything like this again. I'm not sure if outside-the-farm news should even be on here?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

the animals we chose

Whenever people ask me what kinds of animals I have, I shoot off the list (sheep, chickens, geese, rabbits, bees etc.) When I finish they always seem confused and say something like "Oh, but you seem like such a dog person? I'm surprised you don't have a dog?" and I am taken aback. Of course I have dogs! Why didn't I mention them? Then I remember the initial question. They asked me what kinds of animals I have. My dogs aren't animals. They're roommates.

Of course that's not true. Dogs are animals. Happy, blissful, dependant animals I couldn't live without. But my own dogs are so removed from farmlife I forget about them when I rattle off livestock in my keep. Probably because they aren't sheepdogs or free-ranging farm mutts. They are housedogs, hiking dogs, car dogs, sled dogs. They are either with me on the couch, riding next to me in the car, or out in the middle of the wilderness hiking under pack or pulling me on a sled. Ever since I adopted them from Tennessee Sleddog Rescue in 2005 - Jazz and Annie have been with me for three states, two cross country road trips, and one book. They've tolerated Tennessee summers and Idaho winters. They've walked on crowded southern city streets and endless New England dirt roads. They've eaten chickens, broke into National Parks, and ran away at weddings. They've kept me warm on cold nights, gave me an excuse to flirt with guys at dog parks, and helped me meet so many interesting people in the mushing world. I am humbled by all they give me.

A home without a dog is a dead cell to me. A place you sleep and eat inbetween work and little trips you think are more important than they are. But having dogs changes your address (and life) in a way cats and goldfish can't. I'm sure cats and goldfish are perfectly fine pets, but let's be honest, anyone can feed your cat and goldfish. Those animals really could care less where their food comes from.

Dogs however, need us. I once questioned this, assuming most dogs would happily shack up with other owners that treated them well and fed them on time. That is until the dark day I saw a Siberian Husky waste away and die in a rescue volunteer's arms. It had been perfectly healthy a few weeks ago, but when it's owner died in a car accident it stopped eating and drinking. It committed suicide out of misery. As the withered girl's head dropped, all the other sleddogs howled together in one mournful song. It shakes me up to remember it. I can still hear the 40 other malamutes and Siberians in their runs, all wailing in unison at the death of the little girl. Never again would I see these amazing dogs, certainly not Siberians, as pets. They are the animals we choose to wander through life together. We created them to live with us, bred out their wildness, made their ears floppy, and now they need us.

And I need them.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

david bowie covers and escaping sheep

The weekend delivered on its promises. All three evenings had me in front of campfires playing music well into the night. Saturday night being the greatest night of all. At a Hebron bonfire there was a full string band assembled by random participants from all over the Northeast. I had my fiddle, another gal had an upright bass, and other folks had brought a mandolin, guitar and banjo. We played for hours till the kids went to bed and embers burned in the grass. My favorite musical moments were bluegrass renditions of Leroy Brown and Bowie's Under Pressure. I laughed and laughed.

Sean was also there, the friend from Illinois I had mentioned in an earlier post. He seemed to have a fine time Saturday night, and had a front row seat for all the music and festivities. Sunday morning we had a giant brunch feast of farm omelets (thank you chickens and garden), pancakes with Vermont maple syrup, and copious amounts of coffee in large mugs. The morning was far from ideal though, the B&B style breakfast was interrupted when we realized I was out of milk (yay me). So we jumped into the station wagon to pick up some at the Wayside store. Upon returning into my driveway, I was instantly greeted by an unsettling site. A giant wooly body entered into frame and trotted across the lawn to the cabin. Oh shit. All three sheep had escaped.

Sean and I reacted quickly, like a decent brace of border collies. He ran one way and cut them off at the pass, stopping them from walking down hill into the neighbor's property. I ran back to the sheep shed to grab the coffee can of grains. soon as their giant ears heard the rustling of grain in metal they turned on a dime and ran at me at a full charge. Sheep aren't cows mind you, but seeing three 140-pound animals running toward you, eyes locked on the can in your hands was intimidating. I slowly walked backwards into the pen. All three followed. When they were back inside heads deep in the grain bucket, I checked out the escape route. They had learned that one side of the gate rested on hinges. So they simply lifted it off them till they were free. Whoever says sheep are dumb animals doesn't live with them.

Sean headed back to the Midwest on Sunday, and the rest of the weekend involved smaller scale neighborhood cookouts. But I found the most enjoyable time at home was spent out in the pasture with the flock. I set up movable fencing in the field closest to the pen, giving them an extra grazing room. I'd bring my fiddle, some books, and my alpaca wool blanket and lay out with them for hours at a time. I'd play a few tunes or read a few chapters, sometime I'd doze off or sip a mason jar of lemonade. It was relaxing as it sounds. Every now and then I'd be interrupted by Marvin's nose if my elbow or fiddle was in the way of his foraging. When the sheep had eaten for a while, and I was ready for something a little more active, I'd get up and call them inside the gate. They'd come trotting in, expecting grain for their amazing diplomacy. I delivered.

Friday, August 29, 2008

fiddles, fires, and fleeces

This morning when I was outside doing normal-outside-morning things, I heard the strangest noise. I've heard it hundreds of times, but regardless it always throws me off. The young roosters are learning to crow. Long before they can crack out a cock-a-doodle-doo they cough out these pubescent moans and groans. My cabin sounds like a bunch of loons after a hard night. You can't help but roll your eyes. A three-day weekend is coming up, god bless it. It'll be a busy one too. My friend Sean, who hails from the Midwest, is stopping by for a visit. Sean might be the only person I know more into folkways than I am. As a matter of fact, he's building a wooden boat right now in his Illinois garage. (Take that inflatable rafts!) I'm hoping he'll help me set up some electric netting for pasture rotation, trim hooves and score the sheep (check their weight.) When farm chores are done, I think together we'll head over to Shelli and Allen's labor Day weekend jamboree. Their hosting a 3-day camping event at their farm. It's an annual shindig they hold for all their city friends. There will be musicians, and bonfires, and sheep. A triple threat of awesomeness. I'll be bringing my fiddle and dulcimer and a good attitude about meeting new people. Sean also plays the fiddle, so I hope he packed his for the weekend.

The sheep are doing just fine. They're a pleasure to have here at Cold Antler. There was one incident with a neighbor's dog but the sheep were unaffected. They didn't even flinch when the black dog ran right up to their fence and barked. good sheep, them.

Have a great holiday weekend folks. Take care of each other.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

give fleece a chance

The sheep have arrived. While the coffee's brewing on the stove and it's still too dark out to be morning, I'll tell you all about it. I'm writing this at 5:18 AM, I just came in from giving them their morning hay and grain. Sweet Sal, the most gregarious of the trio came right up to me. Marvin, followed right behind. Maude.... Well, Maude was hungry but doesn't trust me. (She's the one in the car photo post below.) She's the only purebred of the lot (the boys are half Romney.) Maude's a Border Leicester Ewe, and the only hope for lambs come spring. She's a true sheep too. Cautious, alert, and slow to trust the schmuck who loaded her into a station wagon and kidnapped her for some countryside joy ride. I can't blame her. Maude and I have work to do.

Waiting for the workday to end yesterday was pure hell. Of all the days to have to sit in a two and a half hour meeting, yesterday was the worst. I was wired all day. I just wanted to be in the car driving to Shelli and Allen's and loading wool into the car. When I broke out at 4 PM, I cranked up the fiddle music in the car and hit the road. In a few hours, I would be a shepherd.

When I did arrive at the farm, loading them up was easier than I thought it would be. With the help of Shelli, Allen, and a coffee can of grain we got them into the Station wagon. We had to throw on halters to do this (some poorly, as you can see by the photo of Maude below) but we got everyone in. Closing that back hatch with a car full of sheep felt damn good.

The drive home was downright pleasant. There was the occasional 'baa', but Marvin laid down instantly and Sweet Sal and Maude stood close to me, often sticking their head right between the front seats like Jazz and Annie do. I'd reach up and scratch their chins. Their sideways eyes blinked at me, confused.

On the drive home to Sandgate, I drove past a farm with a loaded hay truck and a few barns. I pulled up next to a blue pickup that I assumed was the honcho. He was. He saw me pull up with three sheep in the back and laughed. I yelled "Do you have hay?!" and he guffawed back, "Yeah, Do you have sheep?!" and we agreed I'd come back that same night to load up with some second cut hay for my flock. I had some first cut a friend gave me, but second cut hay is greener, richer, and fresher. I couldn't believe my good luck. The four of us puttered home.

Unloading went fine with the boys, but Maude, bless her heart, panicked. She bolted out of the car so fast I could barely hold onto the halter rope. Instead of giving into the leash like the boys did, she bucked and lunged, causing the poorly fitted halter to slip like a noose around her neck and choker her. The first of many shepherding mistakes. She gagged and fell to the ground like a roped cow in a movie. She laid on her back, legs in the air. She was helpless and I quickly ran aside her and undid the halter, fixing it like a collar instead of a torture device. I stroked her head and told her to calm down. She was passive as a pup on her spine. I felt horrible. But she stood up, recovered instantly, and ran into the pen to meet her men and dive into the grains. I doubt she was over it.

After the flock was safe, penned, and eating hay like they grew up here, I being ever the vigilant shepherdess, promptly left. I prayed my fences would hold and some dog wouldn't charge at them and cause them to bolt through it. Putting my faith in the day, I left my brand new sheep and went back to the Hebron farm for the hay. There I was introduced to Nelson Greene and another shepherd named Sarah. We talked and joked and Sarah egged on the retired dairy farmer (who hated sheep. I am quickly learning people either hate or love sheep.) By the by, If your curious how many large bales of hay you can fit into (and onto) a Subaru - the answer is 10. I was shocked too.

By the time I unloaded the bales into the garage, checked on the sheep again (they were still there), phoned friends and family, and walked the dogs - I was beat. I came inside to collapse with the dogs, but every few hours I'd walk back outside with my lantern, checking on the gang. They stood in the moonlight, chewing their cud. Observing the all.

Even though I wanted this so long, and was so excited to finally have it... it's too much to take in. The sheep are here but that reality is still so new and utilitarian I haven't soaked it up properly. But I do know walking out at 5AM to feed them under the waning crescent moon and the starry early Autumn sky was beautiful. Fall-down-the-stairs beautiful. And Sal came right up to me in the lantern light, and his fleecy face met mine. That felt good all over. There really isn't a better way to explain this. I am a happy woman.

Now, soon as this coffee is down, I'll go out and take some pictures and feed the birds. Rufus Wainwright is wide awake, and crowing to be let out. Morning is a very busy time here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

riding in cars with sheep


photo by katie kenny

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

white knuckles and a tarp in the back seat

So the sheep arrive here Wednesday night. After work I'll load them up in the station wagon and drive them the short twenty minutes back to my place. This will involve pulling the seats out of the back and laying down a tarp so the two (three?) of them can hang out. The animals will be restrained and hopefully calm. I guess we'll find out. I was assured transporting them in the car would be fine long as they can lay down and it's not a full day on pavement. It should be an interesting road trip. I am tempted to stop at a drive through and order four salads.

I have gotten quite a few emails from people asking me how I knew shepherding was the thing for me. I don't know if there's a satisfying way to answer that. I do know that ever since I've been making a concentrated effort to become a shepherd I've felt profound relief. For some people they might get that same feeling from a hard-earned promotion, a wedding ring, nailing the 4 minute mile, or anything that gives them a sense of milestone accomplishment. For me, that comes from focusing on a life outside with these animals. Yeah yeah yeah, marriage and a 4-minute miler's body would be nice. But it wouldn't be satisfying, comforting, or make me feel content in the world like shepherding can. How and why that is wired in me - I'm not sure.

I kinda like not being sure. It gives the sheep an almost supernatural ability to give me purpose and joy other lifestyles can't. Hell, that other lifestyles hinder. Their simple presence at Cold Antler will wash calm over me like dulcimer music did in Tennessee. Ever since the barns been I've even slept better.

A giant weight is being lifted off my chest as fences get installed and hays loaded into backseats. Just knowing hooves are hitting dirt here feels like I'm finally moving forward with my life. That feeling hasn't been attained for years. Not from jobs, not from writing a book, not from moving around the whole goddamn country. The lack of forward momentum has been shutting me down and off from the world. Not in a scary way. Subtle.

But with their arrival in my life I'm more happy, alert, plugged in. There's an irony in all this because people keep telling me livestock traps you in one place. For me, keeping lifestock is a release from so much. And If you can get that from anything that doesn't involve hurting yourself or others, hold onto it as tightly as you can with everything you've got. My knuckles are white.

So there's that.

Monday, August 25, 2008

weekend barn raising!

In two days my the entire sheep empire was constructed. Four brave souls spent the weekend at the homestead making it happen. Besides myself, there was my neighbor Katie (who supplied most of the tools and wood she rescued from the floor boards of an old Vermont sawmill) and my two friends (and co-workers) Phil and James. Together we raised a barn! We are sheep-ready now at CAF!

In 48 hours we were able to construct the sheep compound from start to finish. We built it, stained it, pounded fenceposts, put up fencing, installed the gate, built a hay feeder, and other odds and ends I can't remember. There was no way I could've done this without these people. I'm so lucky to have co-workers who not only have tools, but like to use them. While I might be I great with animals... when it comes to knowing how to lay foundations and use powertools... let's just say I'm learning. But I learned a hell of a lot, and even built the back wall of the shed by myself! So, enjoy the fruits of our labor folks. Here are some photos of my new reclaimed-wood sheep barn from start to finish.




Friday, August 22, 2008

a night with rams

Good morning. It's around 6:30 here and outside all the morning work is done. The yard birds are fed and watered, straw's been cleaned up and replaced, and the rabbits are all in clean cages. So before I hop in the shower I thought I'd tell you about last night.

It was great. I drove on old back roads to Hebron, winding past end-of-summer farms high in corn and sweet-smelling in freshly cut hay. I can't wait to drive that same road in high fall. It wil be like rolling through Narnia. After this road love, I pulled into Shelli and Allen's place in New York. I was greeted by the sight of a few sheep grazing on the hill. Wonderful, that. Past them was a big old farmhouse, a giant barn, and a small pond. Lucinda waved and shouted HELLO JENNA!. She's their wild curly-haired four-year old who was standing on her cliff of a front yard like a little goat. I get a kick out of this kid. We have developed a secret handshake. You will never learn it.

After farm dogs were calmed and greetings and wine bottles were exchanged, we took the tour, and I met the two rams that would most likely be mine. Their names were Sweet Sal and Marvin. Two castrated guys who were hand raised, and very friendly. Sal stood beside me like a golden retriever, Marvin bleated hello. Besides them there were a few ewes and two Angora Goats (which looked amazing, i would love some one day, but hey one step at a time!)

So we toured the barns and poultry houses and all the while Lucinda and her little sister ran around with ducklings in their arms or climbing fences. I felt kinda proud of them. I like these brazen country kids. It's a good feeling seeing 20-month-olds who smile while they climb fences with sheep poo on their little wellies.

After the animals were set we came inside and Shelli cooked an amazng Thai dish. Friends, it had been far too long since I had curry. It was fantastic. I left full of plans and food. A good feeling. I regret not getting a chance to see Allen's new mandolin. Next time.

On the way home I stopped by my co-worker Nadine's farm. She has a herd of long-haired sheep lead by a giant ram with horns named Gregory (Sal and Marv are debudded, no horns.) She loaded up my subaru with a bale of hay (to get me started, she is a sweetheart) and we went inside to meet her husband Dave and the dogs. Dave met me with a smile, a white beard and overalls. I liked him on the spot. We talked dogs, fences, hay, farm stuff. I left happy and grateful. The drive home was musical. Drives through the dark summer woods are what Iron and Wine writes music for. I sang Passing Afternoon like it was the song at the end of the world. It probably is.

This weekend I'll either stay in town to build the sheep shed - or I'll drive up to Strafford to watch a NEBCA novice trial (A beginner trial for new border collies). So it's either going to watch sheepdogs or stay at home to prepare for sheep. A fine problem to have, if I may be so brassy to say. And Saturday night is Storey's 25th Anniversery dinner, which I get to attend as a fancy author. if you live around here you should check out their Country Fair tomorrow afternoon in North Adams. I'll post the flyer when I'm at work.

So, fine readers, all of this is so new to me. All of it kinda exciting. I'm not ashamed to admit I'm more excited about the sheep than the dinner. I think Storey would prefer that I was anyway. Which is why I love them.

Hey, stay tuned. Sorry I forgot to take pictures last night!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

taking stock

So tonight I'm heading over to West Hebron, NY for dinner with friends. I'll be over at Shelli and Allen's place, a small farm in a quiet mountain town. I met them through fiddling (both of them play) and what started as lessons turned into a new friendship, which is nice when you still consider yourself the new kid. But there is an underlying agenda to this meeting, and we all know what it is. You see, Shelli and Allen are not only fiddlers - they're shepherds. They have a small flock of Border Leicester/Romney cross ewes. Tonight's dinner is going to focus on one thing - sheep. And here's the big news folks...

I might be taking two of them to live at Cold Antler.

I've been dreaming about sheep for years, but never considered them as an actual reality. Not because of any work involved (sheep are actually less upkeep than a flock of chickens) but just plain money. Good stock could cost hundreds of dollars an animal, fencing just as much... Not to mention building a small shelter for poor rainy weather and shade from the sun and making sure the landlord and neighbors were okay with the occasional bleating and bahhing of ewes.

These were the things keeping hooves off Cold Antler ground. But then little things started to percolate. Things like Shelli offering me two small sheep for fiddle lessons (what?! free wool stock!), and then another woman sold me some used fencing for the exact same price as an Angora rabbit I sold the same day, the money literally went from rabbit to fence within minutes). After I found the free sheep, and free fencing, I was told by my landlord sheep were perfectly okay (encouraged even, she wanted a cow when she lived there) as long as they didn't live in the cabin with me.

Then, my amazing and handy neighbor Katie (carpenter extraordinaire) told me she had a pile of scrap wood and plywood and would help BUILD ME a small shelter. And as if that wasn't kismet enough, my co-worker Nadine who has sheep, knows where I can get great second cut hay locally and cheap.

The perfect icing on this wooly cake...all my neighbors said if I was away they would happily throw down some hay and pet the sheep over the holidays. A built in sheep-sitting service while I'm with family or out on book events! If I agree to the sheep, it'll be practically free and everyone's on board.

Things are really working out for me - I tell ya there's no justice.

Tonight I'll go see them. I will eat good food and drink some wine and then go outside to meet the girls. Will this all happen? Will I finally be able to say I'm a shepherd? Who knows, it's not certain. But for the past year I've been working towards this goal single-mindedly and every peice of the puzzle has fallen into place. I've done my homework too. Read books, taken classes, attended workshops, visited shepherds, watched herding trials, held border collie pups in my arms... and just the fact that it could happen has me walking on cloud nine. I haven't been this happy and excited since college! It feels amazing.

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!