Tuesday, November 18, 2008

in our dark

When I come home from work the farm is dark. I pull into the driveway and the only light is the glow of the chicken coop and the small solar lights that circle the sheep pen. When I get out of the car the only sounds are the dinner bleats from the flock and the occasional coo from the roosting birds. There are no streetlights, or lamp posts, and if it's cloudy like tonight: no stars either. So it's dark. Which is fine.

I go into the cabin, take out the dogs, and then when everyone's empty we come inside for their kibble dinner. While they chow down, I change from my work clothes into my farm clothes and light a fire in the fireplace. I do this to warm up the joint, and because I like the way it looks to see and smell smoke coming from the chimney while I'm bringing hay to the sheep or collecting the day's egg deposits. There is something correct about being outside moving after so much time indoors sitting still. Wearing my father's old red and black plaid coat, I go about farm work with cold breath in my face. I think it might snow tonight.

There is something very special about smelling woodsmoke in the dark of a moonless Vermont night with hay in your arms. There's no particular virtue in it. It won't shake the ground or even make me smile. But it is special. If I could describe that better to you, I would. I can't.

I think I'll need to sell the sheep, exchange them for some dogbroke ones. I need to talk to my friend Shelli about how she wants to work it all out, but I can't train a young herding dog on angry sheep. I think it's the only recourse in my current, limited situation. I'll wait till spring when the flock can go right on someone's pasture. That seems like the sensible way to go about this, and bring in some border collie ewes who won't kill my Sarah.

It's not fair to have the clueless leading the blind leading the blind and violent. If you could follow that you may have been reading my blog too long.

Monday, November 17, 2008

a must have

There are a handful of things I would consider must-haves on a small farm. Little tools you use nearly every day, but in themselves seem kinda of ubiquituos. Some that come to mind are those stretchy gloves that are partly dipped in latex that help you in a the garden and picking up chickens. Another would be a t-post pounder (which I use nearly every week when a sheep uproots a post of bends one over). But the most vital of them all happens to come in a little green tin, and without its aid I may have gotten into a lot of trouble.

Bag Balm is a salve that I use on everyone. If I have a bug bite that itches, I slap on some bag balm. If Jazz gets a cut on his paw, I clean it and then slap on some Bag Balm. If I trim a hoof too close to the quick and it bleeds, I shout to the friend next to me "Go in the house and bring the Bag Balm!" After I tattoo the rabbit's ears, you guessed it - they get a layer of Bag Balm over the fresh ink. I remember my mentor Diana from Idaho telling me about a cow who lost an udder on a barb wire fence and thanks to Bag Balm, healed up just fine. I tell you this stuff is top shelf.

Bag Balm is a tan salve that has the consistency of a "clean" petroleum jelly. So it's less gross. It includes a mixture of lanolin and hydroxy and together as far as I'm concerned, they can heal the world. (By the by, as a shepherd-in-training, I also like buying a product that uses lanolin). It was invented in 1899 right here in Vermont and I doubt the mixture has changed much since. And the top of the tin bears the same dairy cow and roses that most companies would have considered out of date sometime around 1964 and changed to some godawful typeface and laser treatment. But they didnt cave to the times, and as a designer who loves old stuff, I appreciate that.

If you don't have a tin of this in the house, and you still have pets, livestock, skin or live in a world of bugs. Go buy some.

Friday, November 14, 2008

warm wind

Warm wind on an unseasonably balmy night has a way of exciting and unsettling me at the same time. I can't put my finger on it but something has me very uncomfortable lately. It's not a bad thing. I think it's a mix of nerves about the book coming out and my own doubts about the farm. I think too much about things I can't anwser.

Tonight I spent a good chunk of time in the hammock. It's going to rain tomorrow so the world's all saturated here, about to burst. I was in a pair of light cotton pants and a hoodie and I was as comfortable as if it was August. Which is not a correct way to feel in mid November. But I was glad to have the company of weather as out of place as I felt. So I swayed out there thinking of nothing in particular and everything in general.

I'm grateful for this little farm. It gives me a sense of purpose in a world I'm not sure has one. Here at Cold Antler there are certainties no one can argue with. The animals and garden depend on me to care for them. Eggs need to be collected, drinking water hauled, food offered, wool sheared. You work hard and plant often and hope the sun and soil will carry the general burden and your back will shoulder the deficit. Or something like that. I am very new at this.

I do know that the more you build up a thing the more dissapointed you will be if it doesn't work out. I worry I make the farm too much of myself. I don't want this not working out to crush me. I don't want to be working in an office in ten years and hating myself for not getting my dream of a working farm as my livlihood. Which sometimes makes me wonder if I should be in a loft in Philadelphia and not in a cabin in Vermont. Maybe I should have stayed somewhere safer? Some place where the farm remains a far away dream and not something I am constantly crawling uphill for. I wish I had more faith in this thing. But I never had much faith, I always preferred hope. Which always gets me in horrid amounts of trouble.

I remember an old friend telling me that some people have faith and others have hope, and that difference was what seperated us. He was right. The whole world seems to be divided by people who have questions and those who have anwsers. A dangerous divide, probably the most dangerous.

But I figured something out. When I am at work at this farm my hope churns and writhes until it becomes faith. At some point durring the chores around here a transition takes place. It's as weird and uncomfortable as the weather is right now, but like the creepy wind outside it is ridiculously wonderful. the change happens when I am deep in the work of planting vegetables or fixing fences or working with Sarah and sheep - all my questions become a practice and not an idea. Worry becomes work. Things become clear. And all of a sudden the world falls into my version of order and I get my anwsers. Or something that I allow to pass for anwsers. It really doesn't matter.

I don't know how many people spend perfectly good Friday nights swaying above the world and questioning how hope evolves into faith given the right ratio of dirt and hooves and Octobers and thunderstorms in late July? I hope the number is just enough to keep things interesting, too many of us and nothing gets done except some novels and the occasional garden.

I really should get a TV. Christ.

mad sheep

I have a problem. My three sheep are wonderful animals, but I don't think I can keep them. See, the point of having the sheep is two fold. They are here to train me, and for me to train a dog on. I put all my eggs in one basket when I took on my flock. I just had to hope they'd let me learn animal husbandry and livestock handling, and let my future sheepdog train with them. guess what? My sheep hate dogs.

They aren't dog broke. Dog broke means they know how to move and act around a working sheepdog. But Sal, Marvin, and Maude aren't about to be herded. They stomp, charge and headbutt when Sarah is around. When I have tried to work her on the sheep they have either scattered in a panic or tried to stomp her down, which only didn't happen because I would smack them on the head with the training stick (lightly, don't go thinking I beat sheep now) But my admonishing didn't matter. They just won't stand for a dog in their pen.

And that was really driven home Tuesday morning when Marvin nearly killed Sarah. Sarah was with me in the pen around morning feeding time and Marvin charged her in a space so tight she barely avoided getting hurt. Had I not stepped in and broken up the encounter I think I might have a dead dog (Marvin never touched her, and Sarah didn't seem to mind dodging a large Wether, so at least she wasn't spooked). But I was angry at myself for letting that happen. My own stupid off-leash fear had her too close to me on a leather lead. Had I the sense to have a stock dog free to move as she needed off leash, this wouldn't have happened. But Sarah being too close during food time made them livid.

So that was it. I need to get sheep who know dogs aren't monsters. The usual anwser is to just add dog broke sheep to the mix, but I don't have the shed space or resources to keep adding to the flock. I need to replace them with sheep that can be worked. But that weighs heavy on me, because I don't just give-up on animals if there is any chance to mend the issue. But in this case it could get dangerous for me and Sarah if I don't exchange them. I'll have to talk to the farmer I got them from and see if she wants them back, or if she wants me to sell them to a spinner's flock. It just stinks for all of us. The best solution would be to get a great sheepdog in here far better trained (and more confident) than Sarah and have him "break" the sheep. But no handler will offer their dog to be possibly hurt just so I can herd in my backyard.

Most likely the sheep will stay this winter and in the spring I'll either have them sold as pets to a spinner, or make room for two more who are broke and Sarah can herd. But since the second option requires construction, money, and fences, I will mostly likely just trade them out and in the meantime kepp getting us to lessons with workable sheep. Man, this is my first laying hens all over again...

Photo of Maude by Sara Stell

Thursday, November 13, 2008

iron and wine

Music is the force that drives me. I am never without it. If I'm not listening to it, I'm making it. If I'm not making it, I wish I was. When I drive to work in the morning I depend on it to sing along with to keep me sane for the ten hours before I can get back in the car, roll down the windows, and sing again. When I sit in my little chair in the office, I never go more than an hour without headphones on. I am an addict. It's what keeps me going. I'm okay with that. Now, with that said...

Out of all the amazing musicians available to sample in this modern world I have one favorite - Iron and Wine. There are just a handful of albums out there, maybe five or so, but I doubt there's a song of his I don't know by heart. Those cds have been the soundtrack of my adult life. Starting with the summer of 2004 when I went to a small concert in Philadelphia. It was there I heard the Trapeze Swinger for the first time (hands down my favorite song of all time) and it was also the first time I ever cried alongside 500 strangers. The entire place was brought to tears by that one honest song. Makes me shake, that.

Since that day I've never gone anywhere without his music. Which in my case means most of this country. Those songs held my hand through Tennessee, plodded along the Smoky mountains I hummed tunes off the Sea and the Rhythm. I was listening to Passing Afternoon when I first drove cross country alone (which is in that video above), and came around a corner to see the Rocky Mountains for the first time. It was the wafting verses of Sodom South Georgia that were laughed through while I planted my first garden. Upward Over the Mountain is the song I sing with all I have to friends at campfires. I want to whisper Faded through the Winter to someone I love so much it hurts everytime I hear it. That is a song meant for whispering fast to lovers. Damnit.

I own many of Sam Beam's Albums on vinyl, because it feels better to hear it on a record player. Yes, you can still buy records from new artists for those old turntables. Dust them off and go buy The Creek Drank the Cradle right now.

Iron and Wine's songs are without time or consequences. They have no interest in being trendy, light, or reaching a wide audience. The lyrics are biting, raw and poetic - the emotion behind it rusted and naked. The music is an old front porch in rainy autumn, with pealing white paint and a candle in a mason jar. I can’t really explain it but the words of Resurrection Fern (the link below), could have been written a hundred years ago deep in the Carolina hollers, but are sang in clubs in Miami and Boston instead. The saws and slides, the simple guitar strumming, the almost annoying lack of fiddles...

I’m not saying you should like it. I’m not even saying you should listen to it. But I am asking you to buy it. If you like me give it a try, if you dislike me buy it anyway and break it with a short-handled ax for spite. I just want him to keep making music. It scoops me up. And I am a girl who desperately needs to be scooped up from time to time.

Also, I dig his beard.

listen to him

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

morning edition!

So I just got off the phone with NPR, they are running a story about turkeys for Thanksgiving on Morning Edition. I was asked to talk briefly about my adventures as a vegetarian turkey-raiser. If you get a chance, listen in that Thursday to hear your favorite farm gal flap her gums. ( I'm sure you can download it that same day online, if you're so inclined). I've been somewhat overwhelmed lately by work and general winter prep around here. But as things cool down my typing fingers will heat up. That's a promise. Stamp and seal it.

Sarah and her offleashness has been less stressful. I decided to pretend in my own mild way that incident didn't happen. I let her out offleash, but only 75% of the time and never at length like before. We'll work back up to it. And thanks for all the kind suggestions in the last post. I will be using them!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

chores and a runaway

Yesterday, when I got home from Sarah's herding lesson, it was a little after noon. We had stopped at Tractor Supply and Whitman's feed (both allow dogs, which I adore, since it gets Sarah around a lot of people). We loaded the haytruck with a giant 65-pound compressed strawbale, a mineral block for the sheep, and some chicken feed. A pretty anticlimatic end to our dances with ewes, oh well.

While the herdng lesson was the big event of the day, weekends are the time to take care of farm stuff I can't fit in durring the work week. So I spent most of the afternoon mending the fenceline for escape routes, laying down fresh straw in the sheep shed and coop, collecting eggs, hauling water to all the menagerie and saying hello to the farm gang. But the big chore was prepping the four angora bunnies for their new homes. They are 7-weeks old, fully weaned, and ready for a new place to live. I brought them in the cabin one at a time to shear off any dirty wool, tattoo their ears, and make sure everyone was sound and healthy. When they were set, I winded down the night writing pedigrees by hand and getting the rabbit's paperwork in order. In the morning a woman was driving to pick up a pair. A nice morale boost since it meant the farm would get in enough income to cover the week's groceries, laundromat run, and firewood. Sweet.

So okay, a pretty calm Saturday, sure. But Sunday we had a mini crisis. Sarah ran away.

She's never liked the car. When we go outside together she gives it a wide berth and hunkers away from it. Soon as she see's we're not going in it, she relaxes and stays by my side. But since I was unloading laundry baskets and groceries, I kept going back to that evil car, and she took off. She wasn't getting in that car.

She ran off into the woods which she didn't recognize, which confused her and took her nearly a half mile from the cabin. She ended up on the dirt road where my neighbor Ed nearly hit her, which scared the crap out of her and she ran up west road with the speed of a thousand angry comets. Now I didn't see this, it was all explained my neighbors who fortuately could point the direction she ran in. I ran after her scared, panicked, yelling her name. (Kind of made me wish her name was Stella) Finally, I looked up the hill across from the red barn and there she was, 100 yards or so away on a high crest, sitting, shaking. I grabbed a stick and yeller her name, trying to sound fun (even though I was shaking too. The idea I would lose this dog so soon after making her mine rattled my core) but she started down when she saw the stick and me. She came up to me, then rememberd "Hey, you're the one with the car" and might've ran off again had I not lunged and grabbed her by the collar.

I picked her up in my arms like a toddler, and walked over the bridge back home. My neighbors Dean and Nancy were coming out of their house with a collar and lead to loan me. I snapped the lead on Sarah's collar, and we chatted a little. The whole time we were by parked car in their driveway, and Sarah shook. I don't know much about Sarah's past, but I do know she spent much of her puppyhood captive in New York City. Her original owner had her in the country but when he broke his hip he left for Brooklyn to live with his daughter. So mabe she was nearly hit by cars there, or hated the noise, or tried to herd one and it knocked her down? I don't know. I do know I'm glad we're both in Vermont and not NYC.

I hope this doesn't happen again, it'll be a while till I build up the confidence to just have her offlead by my side again. Which is more me than her, but still. I can't lose her. She's too much to me already.

P.S> comic above by Marriedtothesea.com

Saturday, November 8, 2008

a morning to remember

I pulled into Denise’s driveway fifteen minutes early for my lesson. Sarah was in the front seat, but I asked her to wait. I walked back to the hatch and took out the giant canvas shoulder bag that was holding the 26-pound tom still frozen solid. I slung it over my shoulder with a loud “Ughhugh” and waddled up to the side door I remembered from the Dave Sykes Clinic this summer. The last time I walked through Denise’s gate, where the slate hung from the chain link saying Fall Foliage Top Ten Finalist I didn’t have a border collie or know what a “Fall Foliage Finalist” was. A quarter turn of the year later I have a Scottish dog in the front seat, brimming with possibilities. And to top off the incidentals of all this, I initially met her at this year’s Fall Foliage trial. I was becoming a New England shepherd, or at least learning the dance steps.

After I handed over the bird to her one of her family members, I was directed to go down past the barn. There was a lesson going on and I could watch while I waited. So I got Sarah out of the car and together we walked past the slate sign down the hill to the fields.

The first thing I noticed was Denise and her student with a Kelpie named Fizz. Kelpies are an Australian breed that are super athletic, fast, loud, and herding super stars. They are just catching on in popularity here in New England, but I've met a few over the months with the club. Nice dogs. They were working on Fizz’s outrun, trying to make his flanks wider.

The first thing Sarah noticed however, was the sheep. She turned into a different dog. Seeing a full flock in an open field, made her quiver with excitement and lunge on the lead. Ears up. Body taunt. High gear.

Uh oh.

We waited for our turn. I watched from above them on the hill. I saw the woman who was taking the lesson stride around the field with these black nylon pants over her jeans. Why the hell was she wearing those? She had a training stick and seem relaxed with her little Kelpie, who seemed to be improving his “Away to me” by not being so tight on the sheep. I can see these things now, but just barely. After a bit Denise waved me down, and called her Jess to take the ewes they were working with back to the pen. She said she was going to give Sarah the whole flock.

Uh oh.

I laid Sarah down and sent her after the sheep, which she circled around, frantic and too close. But after the initial gather round she calmed down. Her head low, her tail down. If dogs can smile, she had a shit-faced grin. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just tried to keep the sheep between us. She balanced them well, if I stepped right she stepped left. If I turned one way, she was always opposite me. Like a wire was between us.

Denise showed me how to handle, give commands, and use the stick to cut off her moves by making a small wall between us. I was walking backwards this whole time, trying to watch Sarah and not get over ran by the 4 large sheep in front of me, clinging to me to keep the wolf at bay. At one point I tripped over myself and the training stick jabbed into my stomach, I slid across the mud and was able to get up just in time to not get ran over. Covered in mud from the waist down, sore and tired, I looked up at Denise and the Kelpie owner. They yelled. “Welcome to herding! You’ve just been initiated!!" I stood up and looked down at my favorite jeans... covered in mud. Oh, so that’s what the nylon chaps were for…

By the end of the hour Sarah was learning to walk calmly (well, calmer) behind the sheep and drive them towards me as I walked away from them (herding hint, take long backwards strides, don't run backwards.) She did well. I was impressed. It was a morning to remember.

I was herding sheep with my own border collie. She was brilliant. She stays.

Friday, November 7, 2008

the test

Tomorrow Sarah and I are getting up early and driving to our herding instructor in western Mass. It's her chance to prove herself. We'll be In a big field with a lot of dog broke sheep so she'll be free to herd in the open with everythying she's got. We'll see how she works, and what talents for this sheep business lie within her little 36-pound frame. I haven't decided if she's staying yet. I really haven't. I have to decide soon though since tomorrow is the deadline. All this depends on her natural instincts. I hope tomorrow there's no question, that she blows me away. If all goes as I hope, her breeding and history, (two generations away from the hill dogs of Scotland and Wales) will shine through. Wish us luck, and expect full report tomorrow!

i am my brother's keeper

I recently finished up an article for Mother Earth News on livestock guardians. Livestock guardians are animals like dogs, donkeys and llamas that live with their flocks to protect them 24/7 against coyotes and other predators. During the research phase I got to visit some maremmas at Taravale Farm in Esperance, NY. Incidently, this is the same farm where Sarah hails from.

Maremmas (like Bella, that happy mug in the photo) are these giant white dogs from Italy that remind me of polar bears. I got to stand out in this cold, windy field next to these huge dogs and together we all watched the flock of sheep across the gate. What strikes me about this practice, of using animals to help other animals, is that it's so ancient yet still used in a world of ATVs and HBO. Dogs like Bella have been doing this since time out of mind. How wonderful to still be able to feel their thick fur and share a moment with them watching a flock in the 21st century?

These are the kinds of things I worry will slip out of the world. It's exactly why I harness Jazz and Annie up on a dogsled to get the mail or why I want to work with border collies indefinately on my future farm. It's why I want a fell pony to ride, goats to pack with, and and be able to plow a field with one day with actual horsepower... The human/farm animal connection is an ancient one that seems impossible today. Imagine a modern person seeing a tiger in the wild and saying "You know what, that would make a great guard dog" and then systematically breeding, raising, training and domesticating a tiger you can trust around your toddler while you run to the store? I know, sheer lunacy. But that's exactly what happened with wild horses, wolves and rough mountain goats. Someone brought them to us modern homesteaders and now we have percherons, pugs and pack goats. Talk about thinking ahead...

Someday (certainly not now) but someday when I have a flock over fifty, I will hopefully have a dog like Bella out in the fields with my charges. I'm fine with going old school, that's what this homesteading thing is all about.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

my zombie garden: still coming back to life long after I killed it

My garden has been pulled out and bedded down for weeks now. Piles of chicken coop straw, old broc plants, dead flowers, and frosty sunflower stalks now fill the compost bins that once only held food scraps and eggshells. Readers of this blog know over the last few weeks we've even seen the first snowfalls come into Vermont (a real slap in the face to gardeners...) But that doesn't mean I'm still not enjoying the summer's work. Between the tomatoes I put up and the pumpkins that have been sitting off the vine for weeks, I'm still enjoying those May seeds.

This past week I made pasta sauce and pumpkin desserts. Both done without canning since the toms were in the freezer and the pumpkins have been sitting on my porch since August. (In hindsight, I wish I had canned some of the big heirlooms only because of how much fresher they taste in a single-serving pot of sauce.) But my tomatoes were thrown to the freezer for a big sauce canning day up ahead. One future weekend I'll thaw them all out and make as many jars of sauce as I can stock my pantry with. I learned in Idaho how great it is to enjoy a bright red fruit from the garden on evenings so cold your pipes freeze.

I didn't get a harvest to brag about this year, but I'm not letting that discourage me. I'm a stubborn gal. If I had sweated and bitched a whole summer and only ended up with one potato, I'd still really enjoy that potato. I'm still new to gardening, and mistakes will be made, but I'm amazed that even a schmuck like me shooting from the hip with books and advice from friends can still manage a decent pile of food in a poor summer. So if you're considering a garden in the spring, but not sure you have the chops for it, don't fret. You can grow something. You should grow something.

The humble armful of pumpkins I did grow proved delicious to bake with and fun to carve on Halloween. Which was a big deal to me. Certain things like pumpkins or eggs seem surreal the first time you grow your own. Like you're cheating the system by getting them from the backyard instead of a market. You can't help but smile with a little homegrown subversive. I'll be celebrating more pumpkin anarchy by baking delicious pies and treats with what's left of my squash. I've been using the book Pumpkins, by DeeDee Stovel for other ideas too. It's a bang-up job of a cookbook just for pumpkins with all meal recipes from pasta to cookies in it. It's been living on my kitchen table for a couple of weeks now. Inspiring me to keep cranking through the orange kids on the porch. think I'll make the pumpkin sugar cookies tonight. Who doesn't love cookies? I bet they go great with coffee...

P.S. that image at the top is one of Yee-haw industries awesome handmade letterpress cards in their farmer's market series. I love these guys, I used to visit their shop in Knoxville and still remain good friends with one of their old printers (Hi Leif) Find them and their great art like products here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

paw and boot

Daylight savings is an appreciated change here at the farm. To be able to have an hour more of light before going to work makes morning chores a lot more enjoyable. And having a dog I can take outside with me, and watch her have the freedom to race into chicken coops and lope through the woods off lead, lifts the spirit a little before coffee gets into my system. I love Jazz and Annie, they have transcended the role of pet into full-blown roommates. Jazz is the best dog I will ever know, never to be surpassed. But they can't farm. I can't ask them to lay down and eye sheep while I dump hay into their pen. They wouldn't stand for it. But Sarah lives to oblige me, and herd, and hopefully all will work out with the lone Scott among all these Eastern Europeans in the little house. I'm Czech. My dogs are Russian. Sarah's a world apart from our worlds of gypsies and snowstorms. But she makes the morning fun, and does her part, and I look forward to our time outside together. Doing our work paw and boot side by side.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

so i have a confession to make...

There's a border collie here, right here by my side as I type this. She's been here for a week and currently is laying on the floor beside Annie watching me type. I just recently told my family about her, and about the possibility she may stay. Her name is Sarah, and if you read this blog you've heard about her before. She's six months south of being two-years old, a spunky tri-color bitch with tick marks on her face and a tan patch over her right eye. She hails from international champion lines (her great grandfather was the famed Roy ISDS 200199 - owned by Aled Owen), and currently his progeny is here with me on a trial basis. I have two weeks to see if the little scrapper will work - both as a working sheepdog, and as a part of my canine family. So far Jazz and Annie have no qualms, and the first week has been smooth, but again, this is a try-out. I need to see if and how she works, in every sense.

We did some herding work with Marvin and Maude (Sal learned he could clear a 4-foot electric fence when Sarah was in the field...so he stays in their pen instead of joining in the training), but I am new at this shepherding bit and worry my novice handling will screw her pre-training up. Sometimes the sheep are a little too ballsy and stomp or try to headbutt (they haven't done this, just start advancing, head down, so I tap them on my head with the thin metal training stick (which weighs about 5 oz.) to stop them from scaring/injuring the dog.

One morning Sal looked like he was going to stomp her down (another reason he doesn't train with us) so I jumped in-between them and smacked Sal on the head with my open palm to save her. I couldn't have a dog I didn't even own get crushed or scared of sheep. I didn't hurt him (I don't think a baseball bat would bother Sal), just confuse him while Sarah slid away..My neighbor who just moved here full-time from New York City watched me from his porch project. Great... I thought. Now the neighborhood will think I beat animals. Another neighbor is upset about the turkey.... The last thing I want to do is explain tapping a wether on the head isn't cruelty to animals, but letting 140-pounds of hoof slam down a dog is.

Sarah's a started dog, meaning she was trained by a professional before I laid hands on her. So she comes to me knowing more about this sheep business than I do. Next weekend I have an hour long private herding lesson with her over in Greenfield (I bartered it for the turkey in the freezer), and if she does well, and has the gumption to make a decent stock dog she may stay. I really am on the fence about her, a third dog, even one as well trained as Sarah, is a commitent I'm not sure I can make.

So we'll see. Nothing is written in stone. She may go back to the trainer I got her from, specially if it's too much for me to handle. As much as I want a working sheepdog, I need to be realistic about my life and all the creatures in it...

-Tangent -
Okay, so just as I was typing this, I heard loud rustling outside. Really loud. I looked out the window and saw nothing. I went back to typing and then heard louder, closer rustling. I looked out the window and there was Sal. Standing in the glow of the porch light, chewing on the lawn. I rolled my eyes, slipped on some crocs, and grabbed the lantern on the way out the door. I stepped off the porch and saw all three sheep standing there, staring at me in the dark. Jeez.

I used to freak out when the sheep got loose, panic, run for the grain can to bribe them back with anxiety in my eyes. Those days are over. I am now break-out broken. I just walked out, mumbled a hello/curse at them, and then told the jerks to follow me. Which they did, in the glow of the lantern they trotted behind me in a nice single file line back to the pen where they knew I would give them grain and they would no longer have to settle for crappy frost-bitten grass. I penned them and came back inside. Sarah stayed in. I worried if I brought her out she's just scatter them into the woods, uncertain if Sal would feel deer-like and take off forever with his fence-hopping gusto. A young dog new to herding isn't a great help yet. Maybe someday.
-End Tangent-

So I don't know if I'll keep her. But I thought you guys should know. There's a wee bonnie girl here curled up on the kitchen floor. Her papers say half her lineage goes back to Scotland, Wales and England and the other half, ironically, to Pennsylvania. So we share a collective commonwealth. If this is fate maybe I'll marry a Scottish fellow and bring this full circle? (I'm 67% kidding) But regardless, the shepherd, for now, has her dog.

photo of Sarah's face by Sara Stell

Friday, October 31, 2008

the book is here!

Yesterday at work an email popped up in my inbox, and email I'd been waiting for for a very long time. The subject line just said, "It's Here!" and I saw the sender was my editor, Carleen, at Storey Publishing. Oh my goodness, the book was finally here. After over a year of waiting I would finally get a chance to hold in my hands the same little hardcover that will be in bookstores soon. Maryellen, a Storey employee who lives in a nearbye town, would bring it home with her so I could pick it up that very night. Holy crap. I was an author.

When I got home to the farm, I did all the normal chores but with a little extra music in my step. I was so excited. I doubt that night you'd find a giddier person moving straw into a sheep shed anywhere in the state of Vermont. When all the birds, bunnies, and sheep were set I loaded Jazz and Annie in the car and we headed for Shaftsbury. I felt they'd been with me every step of the way, from writing that book proposal in Idaho to finishing the last edits here in Vermont this summer. They should ride along to come pick it up.

On the way I stopped at the Wayside for some coffee, and talked with Nancy, who owns the store and had become a friend since I've moved to Sandgate. We chatted a little and the coffee was fresh, even at 7pm, which obliged me greatly. I took my joe on the road and headed into Maryellen's neighborhood.

I pulled up to a long red barn and a farmhourse that was over 150 years old. It was such a postcard picture. I walked into her home where a woodstove was puttering along, and her son Ben and Fiance Roy shook my hand and said hello. She handed my book over with a hug. I was in a bit of shock. It was a fine little book alright. A green cloth hardcover with a golden embossed honeybee on the front cover. The jacket flap was a nice matte finish, nothing glossy for me, thank you. I felt like I just finished a race. Two thoughts came to mind. The first was "Who the hell am I?" and the second was "Man, I hope people buy this book. I really want to pay off the station wagon."

WIth those thoughts reeling, I thanked Maryellen for her hospitality and good coffee, and drove home. I stopped back at wayside to show Nancy, because I was in that sort of mood, and then took it home. The sheep were still out in their little pasture, heckling me, as I pulled in (a sound Jazz and Annie's once perked ears has grown numb too.) I stuck the book outside the car window, yelling to the flock, "Hey! Look what your good-for-nothing- shepherd did!" which Maude bellowed back at me in the sheep equivelant to "shut up, bring us hay, it's friggin cold." WIth her proper admonishment throwing me back in line - I brought the dogs in, carried the gang some hay from the porch, and then came inside and lit a fire. I stayed up till midnight reading. Not my book, but a memoir about a man's journey through Scotland for the right border collie. When I finally did fall asleep, I did with a proper balance in place in my mind. Congrats on your little book, I thought to myself, but make sure in the morning you get a new bale from the garage and clean out the rabbit hutch in the morning. Literature and litter pans. A good balance.

Okay, that's all the shallow book posts for a while. I just wanted to share that little bit since so many of you have been with the blog long before the book was even a possibility. I have gotten a request about spinning, and another about gardening - posts I hope to write soon. I also want to tell you about a great pumpkin book, and tonight, Hallows, I'll carve my own pumpkins! Which I think I'm just as excited about as I was to get the book!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

book tour dates!

So there's a small book tour in the works. If you live in the New England area see if you can make it to one of these readings. Most of these events will include a ratty old hat, a dog, or a dulcimer... possibly all three (lambs not included.) So set your Tivo for your stories and spend a Friday night or Saturday afternoon with your buddy Jenna. You can read about the Stuyvesant store visit here

Northshire Books in Manchester Vermont
Friday, Jan 9 at 7 PM

Market Block Books in Troy, NY
Saturday, Jan 24th 11 AM

Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, NY
Saturday, Jan 24th 1 PM

anya would be so scared

I have four kits ready for their new homes. If you live around Vermont, and always wanted your own fiber animal to spin or knit with, I have four gorgeous bunnies in need of new homes right in time for the holidays (cough gifts cough). They come ARBA pedigreed, tattoo identified, and from champion lines if you're into showing your livestock. Email me if you're interested. They can be picked up here at Cold Antler in about two weeks. Payments are needed in advance to hold your animal.

hello winter

I woke up yesterday morning to a few inches of fresh snow. I took a shot of the chicken coop and the bunny hutch, you can see the little kits' eyes peeping through the hutch's den. I've never lived in a place where winter beat Halloween to the punch. But Vermont sees to have that down. This morning snow is still on the ground. The sheep have little iced-dreadlocks around their faces. The dogs are beside themselves with joy. I think snow brings out the soul of a Siberian huskie. Jazz and Annie hold their heads higher when I bundle up. This morning in the dark of our morning walk we broke out into a run when we hit our lane and that sense of silent cold running came back to me. The way it feels to run dogs at night. Soon enough snow will fall to coat the roads and my little team will harness up our dogsled. We'll meet with my neighbors team of siberians and we'll rip up these Sandgate roads. Soon Enough.

Also, I'm sorry but I won't be writing about the turkey here anymore. It opened a huge can of worms with my family. I know this is a homesteading blog but I'm not going to keep talking about things that constantly upset my loved ones. I just know when lambs go to the butcher in a few years it'll be a lot worse! Writing about the processing won't help that. Perhaps in the next book (knocking on nearby wood as I type this)I'll tell you about that morning, and blackie the pet calf who was by my side.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Well folks, the turkey is in the freezer

Yesterday morning I drove him to be processed and oversaw the whole event from start to finish. I'm glad to say that it all went quickly and painlessly, and was done outside at a neighbor's farm so there was never any scary-indoors time or extra stress put on the bird. Now all 26-remaining pounds are fillling up my freezer and we'll have a humanely-raised natural bird for the table come Thanksgiving. I'll write more about it later, right now I am getting over (or through?) a sinus cold and trying to take the day as easy as possible. But after a few hours of sleep, and copius amounts of orange juice, I'll tell you the whole story.

Friday, October 24, 2008

the coup outside the coop

My little chicks I brought home Memorial Day weekend have spent a long summer growing into big fat hens. Now that it's nearly November, they are due to start paying their room and board. Which is why I was so confused that out of the four new gals (three turned out to be roosters. Great) I hadn't found a single new egg. Chickens start laying eggs around six months old but even though the birds were of age I hadn't found a single new egg. Not in the bird yard, not on the porch, not in any of the older gals' favorite spots. No new eggs at all. Anywhere. That was until tonight. I found a whole nest of eggs in a very odd place. The farm animals at Cold Antler are conspiring against the farmer. A bi-species coup was going down. Oh boy.

The new hens are laying alright, but their cluster of eggs isn't in the coop. The gals have been sneaking into the sheep shed and making a nest in the far back corner. I was in the shed tonight laying down fresh straw bedding for Sal, Maude and Marvin while they were out in their pasture munching on some fresh hay, when I saw something in the corner of my eyes and did a double take. There on the old straw, in a perfect little nest, was a pile of tiny pullet eggs. I was amazed that three 140-pound animals hadn't smooshed them, but they were there. Like a pile of dirty golf ball rejects. Which explains why I've seen the new gals spending so much time under foot of the flock. I just thought they just enjoyed each other's company. Turns out they were shacking up. I think I just shook my head and laughed.

You know, nothing really happens here. But I am constantly amazed how entertaining nothing always turns out to be.

the interim

Vermont is caught in this weird time after autumn and before the first true snowfall. An interim. All the trees in the hollow are bare and brown, and when I drive down into the valley every morning to go to work I can see white caps on the mountains higher in the distance. That photo above was taken a few weeks ago at the crest of what Sandgatians call "the notch." The notch is a steep widow-maker curve that looks over the valley below. Things are a lot leafier in the photo than they are now. I moved here last winter, so my initial interpretation of the state is a cold one. And when snow covers this cabin again, I'll have made a full circle. I feel like a Vermonter. I put in my time.

Vermont is the fourth state I've called home. My home state, the one that raised me, Pennsylvania, is close by like a watchful old friend. PA was a place of ultimate safety. When I go back to my parent's house to visit, I can completely relax because notions like curling irons setting the place on fire or leaving an iron on seem like sheer lunacy. Which how I think you can tell if you're parents were great at their job. If just the notion that their home isn't safe creeps into you're mind when you're visiting, maybe they slipped up along the way? But not in Palmerton, and not my parents, which is where. Nothing could go wrong there. Not really. Because even when things do go wrong, it's still home. And that's a holy thing in itself.

After college I moved to Tennessee, and out of every place I've been it's still the only one that haunts me. The Smoky Mountains are what perked my ears to homesteading in the first place. Specifically, Cade's Cove, a preserved mountain settlement you can drive through on this awful tourist loop. But if you park your car you can get off that road and hike up to Abrams Falls or Spence Field and learn what a southern mountain bald is, or what jumping off a 30-foot waterfall feels like, you'll get a better feel of the place. Those are the my true Tennessee ghosts, those and fireflies. But that's another story.

After Tennessee I moved to Idaho, the wild west. Idaho was where I first learned to raise chickens, keep bees, plant a garden and sew up a pair of mittens. It was the place that cracked open all my personal dreams of homesteading that seemed so latent in previous lives. But living in that old farmhouse, set against the Rockies, I had the land and time to learn these things. A friend urged me to write a book about it, so I did. And soon a lot of people will know about that year in Idaho, and how it changed me, like all good states do.

I miss the people in Idaho very much.

As for Vermont, Vermont is letting my farm dreams turn into reality. Here is where hoofstock first hit the grass. I now have these sheep, something that was up until a few months ago, a far away goal. But now I have been so involved in the world of shepherding sometimes I think I'm going to wake up and a ram will be hovering over my bed. My world here is one of border collies and sheepdog trials. Phrases like "Did you see the cast on that outrun? He just had to glance at those Scotts at the lift and the fetch was a perfect line right down the slope" seems as common now as saying "Are we out of toilet paper?" Because shepherd words, and the shepherd's life is no longer this wide-eyed dream, but how I spend my weekends. If I'm not at a workshop or clinic learning about sheep and lambing, I'm out at a sheepdog trial learning more about these amazing dogs.

I find a lot of comfort in this form of farming. Sheep are large, but not too large. More like a pacifist gaggle of st. bernards than traditional livestock. They lumber along in a noble faux dopiness I have come to love. But unlike cattle, or a barn of 300 rabbit cages, one person can manage a hundred sheep alone. Well, one person with a good working dog and a vet on call can manage a hundred alone (Or will damn well die trying!) And while I don't want or plan on having Cold Antler Farm become a full fledged lamb and wool operation on my own, it might. There's nothing written in the stars that says I'll find someone I really want to be with. And I don't want to have to depend on a husband or investors to make my farm happen. Sheep are my hope that even if it's just me in ten years opening that pasture gate, that with the help of a really great pair of sheepdogs, we'll make it work.

But that farm is a dream, and I don't have a border collie yet. Just like the current state of the seasons in vermont, I'm at an interim too. But when I do hold the lead with a stock dog on the end of it, I will be investing a lifetime of hope and dreams into it's training with my sheep. The border collie will be the turnkey that opens that door. That if somehow good fortune turns my way and some farm opens up for sale in Jim Thorpe, I could afford it and get started on my life. That working sheepdog is my cowboy's horse, my pilot's plane, my living incarnation of hope for a better life.

Yes, I know that sounds corny and over dramatic. I'm a fairly over dramatic person and prone to corniness. And I don't say this to sound ungrateful for how fortunate I am here in Vermont today, and how much I love my dogs and this little farm. But like all things, this place is impermanent, and I am at an age where I want some true stability.

And due to my nature, and this weird calling of becoming a full-time shepherd in the 21st century, a sheepdog is not another pet, or even a farmhand. It's the first real step towards true happiness. Who has the right to tell me I'm wrong for wanting that?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Went outside this morning and saw the strangest thing... snow! Not a lot mind you, but enough to coat the sheep's back and require I clear my windshield off before work. Just took that picture this morning a few moments ago when I was outside with the farm. My goodness, fall is over.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

the miracle cure

Not every day on the farm is good, some days are just awful. Yesterday was one of those days. A day where you start off the morning sleeping in by accident, and so you have to scramble to get to work on time. And then the office seems to bring nothing but stress and concern and hours go by three times as slow for you as they go for everyone else. When you leave for the day you could just collapse in your car, but you know collapsing would be foolish because as soon as you pull into your driveway there is hay and water to haul, chickens to feed, and dogs that need a walk.

Yesterday was one of those days. It sucked. But I'm not telling you this for compassion. I'm telling you this because I think the miracle cure for the worst days is resting above my mantle. I can spend my daylight hours making every mistake a girl can make, get admonished, and have a bitch of a cold...but if I can pull that dulcimer off the mantle and take three long breathes before I play that sweet music I will be healed up. I think anything short of chronic disease and a broken heart can be sewn up by the drone of a dulcimer.

The dulcimer isn't a cool thing for a twenty-something to play, I get that. And like other mountain instruments the music they make can almost seem hokey out of context. But the context for slow fiddle songs and dulcimer music is a place, not a circumstance. And so it's hard to get the people who make fun of me to understand. They have never laid under the stars in the peak of a southern mountain summer. They don't know how tired you can be after a twelve-mile hike in 100% humidity. They don't know how that music matched with a moving stream, or a thunderstorm sounds, or how it can make the blood-flow in your own weary body change paces.

They don't know because they haven't been there. So all they think of is stereotypes, and make some off-color hillbilly joke and I laugh with them to be polite. But for the most part I feel a little sad they can't know the origins, or feel that soft grass, or smell woodmoke when they hear that music. Not an elitist pity, but a genuine sadness. I feel blessed that I've learned how to return to it, and so when I leave the office feeling 3-feet tall - I come home, light a fire in the fireplace, feed my flock, pet my kind dogs and play that old dulcimer till sad things in the world melt away somewhere in the D chords.

Here's a dulcimer song I wrote about Cade's Cove in Tennessee, or more precisely, about what it feels to sit by a fire after a day in the Cove. Besides mountain dulcimer, there is a drum, the Irish whistle and some shakers. Simple music. But when you listen to it, imagine being very tired, stretching on your back on cool blades of grass of the south, somewhere where the lines of black rolling mountaintops meet navy blue sky, and you'll get it. Of course you'll get it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

i get by with a little help from my friends

Here's Jazz and Annie helping with firewood duty today. Ah, the benefits of working housedogs...what could have been a horrid job was made easy by my canine work force. Together we brought in three sledges of fire wood. Not too shabby! We did it while the Vermont sun gave us a warm (well, warm for New England) afternoon, and now we'll have a fireplace going every night this week without having to buy any extra quick-burning pine that costs a jillion dollars and armload at stores. Now, the cabin doesn't depend on wood for heat alone, but a roaring fire means I can have the thermostat down to 50 degrees and the house can be warmed up to a toasty nest the rest of the way. Plus, who doesn't love a fireplace?

The work went like this. First I'd take the empty sledge (a kids snow sled, but sledge sounds more badass so let's go with sledge) and my trusty hand saw and spend about thirty minutes sawing up the fallen trees in woods near the farm. When the logs were loaded and tied down, I'd harness the dogs to the gangline and give them the ever familiar "Hike Hike!" and they'd lunge forward and drag the sledge back to the cabin (about 100 yards or so) with ease. The sheep seemed to think this made for very entertainng goings-on and watched from the edge of the electric fencing with intense interest while the sibes worked past them. (In that photo above, if you click it for the larger version you can see the wethers watching in the background.) Usually the sled dogs would do anything to get a bit of wool in their teeth, but in harness they are all business and ignored the flock. I'm certain Maude would have mocked them if she had the ability. But regardless of possibly jeering sheep, they got the wood in like rural superheros. Jazz and Annie may be useless at herding, but they sure know how to work as a team.