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

snow!

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.