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.