Saturday, November 29, 2008

sarah's gone

Sadly, Sarah is no longer my dog. The decision to return her to the trainer came after weeks of incidents I didn't share online. In the past month Sarah has bitten four people five times. She didn't do it out of malice, or even rip a pair of pants, but after running across the kitchen Thanksgiving morning to bite my father's leg, I had to step back and let logic punch pride in the stomach. I'm still reeling from the gut.

Sarah's an amazing working dog, but when I adopted her she had less work to do. She was too cooped up in my cabin and when I found out I couldn't work her on my sheep, that one real outlet she had fell apart so the stress in her just built and built till it hit a breaking point. She became anxious and ended up herding people instead. At first I made excuses for it or blamed circumstances, but after one person threatened to sue me and then my father got hurt in such an unprovoked way, I knew keeping her wasn't fair. She was too much dog for a beginner shepherd with such few unworkable sheep. If she stayed here she'd go crazy, maybe really hurt someone.

So today I returned the little girl, crying like a four-year-old. I feel so guilty for failing her as an owner. Besides those random acts of stress-invoked bites she was a good dog. When I was leaving the farm and she ran back to me instead of going with the trainer into the barn stalls, I almost buckled at the knees.

Dogs are important to me. I don't expect people to stick around, and generally keep folks at arm's length. But I give everything to dogs, knowing it's safer there. I can trust them. When the dog does what it can with me, and I can't return the favor it tears me up because I broke this one solid thing two species have created over thousands of years. I drove most of the way home in silence. Jazz and Annie, knowing I was upset, were silent too, letting me scratch their ears when I needed to know they were there.

This was a pretty crappy Thanksgiving guys.

This is my fault. She needed a handler with more land and stock for her. Now that she's back at her old farm she'll have that, and keep working till a farmer who needs a bullet of a dog can take her home. I wish I could've been that person. I was not that person.

I only had her a month but it had been an adventure. We'd been to sheepdog trials and herding lessons and did farm chores and work side by side. I was getting used to her tempo. Now the cabin seems empty and quiet. She was more than a pet to me, she was a step towards a goal, a team mate, and had become a trusted friend. I let her down.

I really wanted this to work out, you just can't know.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

sheep feet, bees, bunnies and borders

Right now the farm is a sorry, soggy sight. While some parts of New England are getting hit with storybook snow for their holidays - we're getting rain. A lot of rain. Which makes for slightly different chores around here. Did you know sheep hate wet feet? Well they do, and to preserve their hooves from disease and rot, I line their pen with fresh straw to keep them above the mud. Which takes some finese. I've learned when to time this, and how to get the most out of a bale of straw. Not exactly riveting news, but news just the same, and a lesson in shepherding I can only learn from experience. Not that strawfeet is something larger flockmasters do, they just let the sheep find their own high ground. But space is limited here. So we do what we can with what we have.

Besides the sheep's pedicure procedures, other parts of the farm are adapting to the changing weather. The bees are still active, but only when the world hits 45 degrees or higher. Given that window they come out of the hive for water and pathetic foraging. Honestly, I'm just happy to see they have survived a week of temps in the teens and lower, and I'm debating wrapping the hive in insulation. Something a lot of beekeepers do here but was never done in Idaho. I doubt it's necessity to keeping bees as much as it's necessity for the peace of mind it gives the beekeeper.

I have two nine-week-old Angora bunnies left that really need to go to new homes. So far no one is buying, even at lower prices. I'm hoping they sell as Christmas gifts for spinners because I don't want to invest in two new hutches to get them through winter. Soon they will be too large to share the cage with their mom. If anyone out there wants a great deal on a fiber animal, I'm your girl.

And of course, there is Sarah. Unlike Jazz and Annie, Sarah is a handful. A young pup with a lot of energy and sheep she can't work. Which leaves us poultry to herd instead, which is working out fine. Sort of.

This weekend while wrangling geese, Saro (the female in my pair of Tolouses) took off flying away to safety, and Sarah tore after it away from the farm. She ran well over a 100 yards away from me, below the flying bird. If I wasn't so goddamnc scared of losing her I would've appreciated how beautiful the site was, her loping like a gazelle below outstretched gray feathers, convinced she would herd the airborn charge. Chills ran through me, panic lurched in my throat. She ran away before and it was a disaster. But when I yelled her name she ran back to me, and that is proof positive this relationship is working uphill - no matter how slowly.

I refuse to give up on this little dog. Bad sheep, bruises, and carpet accidents be damned. Our obedience training is paying off. Sarah now can sit, stay, shake, come when called, and lie down. We work on her herding commands when she's out with the birds. And of course, we'll get back into lessons soon. But with the holidays and other things slowing me down we haven't been back to our instuctor's since that first lesson, but we will. We certainly will. Afterall, Sarah's my insurance policy in this farm-dream. If I can come out of this Vermont rental with a working sheepdog and some knowhow about my own sheep I'll be one step closer to my goal. And when you've got so many steps ahead of you, you treat that far walk with the same conviction as anything else around Cold Antler:

You do what you can with what you have.

Monday, November 24, 2008

our chances

Right now, while you’re sitting in your desk chair reading this sentence, over 100,000 things are happening in your body to keep you alive. 100,000 separate little actions that are totally unrelated are sparking and pumping and flowing so your eyes can see this and transport it to your brain. And even more things are going on in that brain of yours to decide how you “feel” about what it is that I write. And those "feelings" are just how you have trained you synopsi to trigger from repeated events. Which I know is getting into sketchy quantums but I don't care, it's Monday.

And you know what? All those 100,000 things happening right now aren’t even really “human” because almost 90% of what makes our skin and bones and muscles "us" are collections of bacteria and fungi that trace back 400 million centuries to the same bacteria and fungus that started life on this planet. So what we call “human” is pretty much 90% stuff you blow out of your nose on a bad day that happens to be inside you next to the right atoms and protons. Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight.

And did you know that there was a one in a million chance (some estimates say 2 million) that the sperm that fertilized the egg you came from created you? And that if any other sperm or egg collided you would look and sound and possibly even think completely different then you do today? And the chance that you ran into me on a planet of over 6 billion other flukes is so slim that I couldn’t even type the number on this page because of all of the decimal points? Nuts.

What I’m getting at is it’s pretty insane how much had to converge for you to sit in your chair and read this. And what’s even more insane is that two people can stand in line at the supermarket and have drastically different ideas on what reality is, or the right way to organize power cords behind a desk chair, or whether of not ham is okay to eat on certain days of the year. Which is all sheer lunacy when you look at it on paper. It’s hilarious, the stuff that distracts us.

And what’s it distracting us from? Hell if I know. All I know is that you’re sitting there and I’m typing here and that it took over 400 million centuries of random chance for this moment to happen and instead of basking in the awe of it, we’re arguing about how much wasabi to mix in our soy sauce. Which I don’t get, and I’m really tired of people telling me "how to get it", and I can’t think of anything sadder than needing to get it, because just being here should be enough, right? Well, regardless of what I should think, the whole train wreck of the human animal is pretty great. Keeps things interesting.

Anyway. Thats some of what's been on my mind. So, don’t get pissy with the people cutting you off on the highway when you're driving home for Thanksgiving - because far as the facts go that little blob of water and fungi is just as lucky as you to be here today. Given our chances, that in itself is something to be thankful for.

Have a great Holiday folks.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

the best laid plans

Last night I was rescued from failed-date plans by my friend Dave. Dave's a carpenter in Cambridge and somehow knows every single person who owns a chromatic tuner in our collective zip codes. He's a birddog mandolin player (a really good mandolin player) and when I get an invite to hang out with him there's a good chance music will happen. Actually, a 100% chance since he knows every house or apartment with a musician in it from his work as a builder or volunteering at the co-op. So Dave's got a lot of friends. He's a hip cat to know.

We ended up in North Bennington at Joe and Alisa's house, local artists who work in metal and moved up here from Jersey. Inside their warm woodstove-heated home about twenty random musicians, kids, food lovers, and a black dog named Scruffy were enjoying a potluck meal and carrying cases into the music room. When stomachs were full, we all got together to play some tunes. From Cash to Dylan, to songs so old Cash and Dylan never heard them*, we were holding our own.

By the height of the jam there were four guitars, a banjo, two mandolins, two fiddles, drums, an electric bass, and a harmonica. It was a lot of people. I tend to like smaller groups where everyone gets their chance to show off a little, try a new thing, really get put on the spot. Mostly because if you pull it off (I pull it off one in five times or so) and get that smile and nod from the other pickers - you know you've really done something right. It feels good. But in a large group it's hard to even hear a soloist, much less get a chance for that humble nod.

But there was this point when just myself, Dave, and Justin (a Bennington College grad-student banjo player) got together for a few chords, and I must say that was a fine time. In smaller groups you can focus on the little parts of old-time songs that have preserved them. The parts where the mandolin rings out and the fiddle cries and the banjo grabs a slide and we all sink into this place with an address like DAG, CGC, or EBD. It also helped that Justin sounded like he was born in the wrong century and wanted us all to know about it. And he did, and I loved him for it.

I'm glad I went out, as a homebody (a very unfashionable thing for a younger person to be today) I rarely just venture out like this on whim. But the farm was already bedded down for the night. Animals were penned, cooped and fed, and firewood was stocked by the firepace for when I came home to it. And I was already dressed for a night on the town, so I felt like I had some stolen freedom, and it came out in some tunes like Wagon Wheel and Old Joe Clark.

Anyway, I'm telling you all this because at this random session there was a guy in his mid-forties with a brand new gorgeous Guild guitar who had never played with people before. He was a grown man but as nervous as a freshman frat guy during rush week. To his credit, he was there. He knew a few chords and really held his own. I love, LOVE, going to jams with new people. I feel like I'm an old Mason or Elk shaking the new pledge's hand and welcoming him into this secret society of old songs and coffee and music festivals and firesides. To see someone brave a jam like that, and go home standing a little taller is truly rewarding for me. To witness this subtle transformation of a new musician holding his case like it's the reins of a trusted horse and not a ticking time bomb, is a little whimsical snack the world throws up in the air for this sheepdog. And I will leap in the air to catch it, and chomp down on it with all I've got.

Music like this knows no class or priveledge. It doesn't matter if you're a plumber, a prostitute, or a doctor when you're in that circle. What matters is how hard you practice and what you earned on your own time. This equality rarely seems to thrive in the modern world, and I long for it after a week in a desk chair where I am constantly reminded of my place in the world. But when you leave a good jam, bonefide from it, you sleep better at night.

As I get older, and become more and more of a citizen in this world of 401k plans and dinner parties, I am noticing all those little rights of passage fading from adult life. There are no more ceremonies, caps and gowns, or anything remotely like that. But playing music like this, brings some of those old rights back. It gives us a place in the world where you need to work hard and earn those nods, and each one is a little black cap and gown. "Conratulations Jenna, you just graduated from Dorian University -you may turn your tassle to the other side". Maybe I just see this because I want too. But I doubt that matters.

So, point is, pick up that guitar you always wanted to play son, even if you're sixty-five and never took a lesson. Get some beginner books and CDs, give yourself 15 minutes a night, and if you want to play, you will. This isn't like watching the Olympics and wanting to be a speed skater in six months. This is possible, practical really, because for such a small intial investment you have this tool that is your social network, best friend, and boredom remover all in one. Maybe in few months you'll be at your own first jam? But even if you're not, being able to pick up a fiddle and play Blackest Crow just for yourself beats most scenes. Or so I say, but I can't get a date, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

*they probably heard them