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.