Saturday, January 3, 2009

well, it's about time

From Jeff, who's 1953 Willys CJ3B Jeep owns face.

jenna hearts grant

I'm turning into quite the Civil War buff, thanks to the influence of my friend Heather, who originally sparked my interest when we lived together in Tennessee. Her excitement for the history, music, and culture of the war got me hooked on it. Over the past three years I've studied it here and there, the occasional documentary or book, but recently I can't get enough of it. It all feels like it just happened. There is no "long ago" to it for me. The peoples' faces in the photographs look as if I could be waiting in line behind them for coffee. The places where once thousands died, are places I've walked across, driven across, or have had touching memories with friends at. The fact that I sat under a statue of Warren at the Little Round Top, and was there with some of my favorite people to catch fireflies at sunset (till the park rangers made us leave) goes to show all their efforts and suffering created something. That it let something breathe. The more I learn about it the more upset I get that I missed it. That I missed the most exciting time to be alive in American history.

Surely, that is pure ignorance. Since who wants to live through a war in your backyard? But the more I read, the more I digest, the more I wish I could've heard the conversations and been there to see it. To see Grant (who I am getting kind of a crush on to be perfectly honest) on the night before a battle where 6,000 men would die—admonish a teamster for beating a horse and then tying him to a post for 6 hours - now that's something I wish I could've watched. The little things that happened behind the scenes engage, no addict me, to learn more. That man was a failure at everything in life except love, war, and writing - He was horrible with money, with jobs, with even his wardrobe - which to me, speaks of this deep passion for things that actually matter, and I can't not think about that everytime I read about him. What a guy.

Grant hated the marching bands that followed him around. He didn't like contrived music. He used to say, "I know two of those songs. One is Yankee Doodle - and the other one isn't." Which shows he was kind of a smartass, which makes me love him even more. What a beautiful, miserable, intense, and complicated mind. That photo up there, probably the second worst day of his life, was taken at the battle of Cold Harbor. That same day, 7,000 men died around him in less then twenty minutes. My god, I can't even understand that. I can only try to make sense of it with recent events.

Now, let's think about this. A few years ago 3,000 people died in the World Trade Center attacks and it nearly brought us to our knees. I am not in anyway, at all, saying that event wasn't epic, or belittling the suffering of those who lost loved ones. But keep the intensity of that day, what you felt as someone watching it all happen, in your mind when you look at that picture above. There Grant stands after watching double the carnage of 9/11 in less time then it takes us to watch a standard sitcom. But he had to watch people die one at a time and all around him, in person, under his command, and yet he still stands. I would be shaking, throwing up, falling apart and yet somehow he still manages to stand... He looks like the world might swallow him, that if he lets go of that tree he might collapse from the weight of it all. Who could blame him if he did?

I can't see these photos without wanting to know what people went though that day - what they ate, where they slept, what they hummed to stay awake the night before they died. I think I may know more about 1863 than I do about 1982. I mean, I know E.T. lost best picture to Ghandi at the Oscars, but the rest is kind of a blur...

I'm telling you, that is when men were men. Now most of the guys I meet would rather play video games than pick up the reins of a horse. I would give anything to sit down and have coffee with him. I bet he'd like Sigur Ros's album Parenthesis, or if he didn't like it, he'd be relieved to hear it instead of those marching bands. The quiet piano, cellos, and bass sounds of it. When I look at that picture of him, all I can hear is track three off that album. Of course he'd like it. It's a far cry from Yankee Doodle.

I wish I could've seen him ride past my house. I would've given him a high five. Or something more appropriate to the period, like a kiss on the cheek or a shot of brandy. Or both. Grant was a man who deserved all three.

see how they run

This is the first Saturday in weeks where I haven't had to get up early, pack the car, and go somewhere. The last few weekends have seen trips to the dentist, holiday travel, and frantic early-morning errands. But today, I slept in (sleeping in for people with livestock is around 7:30AM) and when I woke up, I only put forth enough effort to start the coffee on the stovetop, and get dressed to see to the farm. You could sit me down for hours and try to convince me there are better things to do with your winter mornings than sleeping in a small cabin at the end of the world and feeding sheep - and I will listen politely and nod - but you will never win me over. Mornings like these, are pretty damn great.

On weekends I let the sheep have their full pasture to explore. They can't be out in it all day when I'm at work because they are too clever for the electric netting, and will escape into the neighbors' yards to forage. I've come home to messages on my machines saying "Jenna, It's 5:30 pm - Do you know here your sheep are? Roy says they're eating his lawn..." So my sheep's playtime is limited to days I can keep an eye on them. Anyway, this morning, after a cup of very strong coffee, I put on my winter gear and went out to their fencelines with hay over my shoulder. When sheep see me with hay they jump and bleat from their pen. But instead of taking it to them, I dumped it on the far side of the field, about 30 yards from their enclosure. Then I walked, through the snow to their back gate, where Sal and Marvin were beside themselvs hopping up and down. The back "gate" isnt really a gate as much as it is the place where the end of one piece of wire fencing ends and is tied to a t-post with bailing wire. It works though (and hey, we aren't fancy).

I take out a knife from my pocket and snap the green twine, opening their back door. Then all three bound out, like cotton balls on stilts who's team just won the world series, and run through the snow to their breakfast. I love seeing those sheep run like that. They seem to glide over the snow, while their hooves pound into the ground like muted drumbeats. They plunge into the hay, and stand there for a long time munching.

Then I check on the birds, who already laid two eggs (which became my morning omelet), and went about the usual tasks of feeding scratch grains and layer feed to the crowing throngs, and petting Saro, the goose who I've really grown to like. Near the chicken coop is the large rabbit hutch where Bean Blossom lives. She's the French Angora rabbit (named after a banjo I someday hope to own) who is the biggest financial contributor to the farm after me. This past year she raised ten angora kits which I sold to other spinners and knitters, all beautiful healthy bunnies. Her little rabbits paid for most of the hay, and feed, that got us this far into winter. Her water bottle was frozen, so I brought it in to set by the fireplace to thaw. Benjamin, her mate, lives on the porch of the cabin, and I grabbed his on the way in as well. With everyone tended too, I went inside the now warm cabin to do what I'm best at, which is nothing in particular at great length. Which, as you can see in the photo above, Jazz and Annie are experts in.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Hampshire, son!

Thank you Vonnie!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

the fallen ash

I should've known something was wrong when I touched Annie's fur. I had just woken up, and was warm as could be under my electric blanket, but her coat was as cold as if she had just been outside in the snow and not sleeping beside two large animals. I then noticed how cold the air was outside my little nest. I pulled off the covers and could see little clouds of breath coming out of the dog's mouths as they panted. Oh no.

The oil tank was empty.

This is a big deal people. It was -7 outside, and if the pipes froze they could shatter and burst and havoc would consume us. The cabin's heated by a great big oil tank, and it was running low. I called for a delivery earlier in the week, anticipating this, and knew the truck would be here Friday. I just prayed we'd make it till then. We didn't. The furnace had shut itself off. There was ice in the dogbowl in the kitchen. We were in trouble. Very cold trouble.

I checked the faucets, which I had let drip all night to keep it moving. Luckily, they were still running. Thank goodness, at least we're okay there. But the best laid plans...

By the time the dishes were done, the dogs and sheep fed, and the chickens were laying their morning eggs - all the pipes stopped. Whatever had remained in the water heater had been used up and no new groundwater could get into the tanks. This was getting serious. I was freezing, the inside tempterature was 37. What could I do?

WARM UP! Was all I could think. I am a person of action. I need to do things. So I started working to heat the place up with what I had around. I had a small pile of wood left outside on the porch, and I instantly revved up the fireplace. I lit every candle, turned on the stove, blow-dried the sink was a pathetic struggle really. However, I was actually able to boost the heat indoors and take off my parka. A small victory, but a victory none the less.

I then called my neighbors Katie, Dean, and his wife Nancy. I felt awful calling them at 9AM on a holiday, but I needed their help. I wasn't really sure how to tackle this. So I left a message for Dean and Nancy to please let me borrow some firewood from their huge stack so I could keep the warmth going. And since Katie is my quasi-landlord (not really, in my head she is) and has restarted this tank before, I left her a message begging her to help rescue the joint from flooding and hypothermia. Let's hear it for me.

While I waited to hear back from them, I paced around the house. My fire, the only thing keeping the place tolerable, was almost out. I called two emergancy oil services and they both quoted a trip and fuel to cost somewhere around 500 bucks. Impossible money for me to drop for one thing. I was getting scared now, but then, a small series of amazing things happened to save me from panic, and it began with a ringing phone.

Dean and Nancy had heard my pathetic message. But instead of lending me some logs–Dean went out in the the now balmy 8 degree weather with a chainsaw and chopped up a dry fallen Ash into fireplace-sized logs. Out in the freezing cold he cut enough fire fodder to fill the back of the subaru, twice. After I thanked the hell out of him, unloaded all the wood, and had the fireplace going strong again, I cried. I couldn't help it. I was sitting there by the fireplace all teared up because I was so touched by the huge gift, the effort, the goodness of these neighbors. The cabin was warming up, and I felt a little better. Gratitude melts misery.

Then Nancy called and offered me a space heater from her art studio if I wanted to go pick it up in Arlington. I couldn't believe their generosity. Hundreds of pounds of firewood, heat sources, instant service! and all from the same people who watch my farm when I go away and who let me borrow a knee brace when I got hurt last month and was limping for days... If I was a general, they'd still rank me.

Soon afte rall this. Katie and her boyfriend Sam arrived, another pair of rural superheros. Usualy when I am around them Sam and I are playing music together (he's an amazing guitarist) at some warm bonfire or at Sandgate events like the Ox Rost. But here they were in my kitchen, ready to rescue me from my cold home. Within the hour they were checking the faucets, looking at the oil tank, figuring things out. They made half a dozen trips back to their place to get things like extension cords, funnels, and tool boxes. We decided to get through the day by dumping 10 gallons of fuel in the tank to kick it back into action. The heat should help melt the icy pipes. She also brought up two 5-gallon tanks I could borrow to fill with Diesel from down at Chem Clean (a local gas station/furniture restoration business owned by neighbors, fellow mushers, and good friends, Suzanne and Allan) The fuel would tide the tank over till the oil man came tomorrow.

We all got to work, putting heat tape on the pipes, shutting off breakers, figuring out how to bleed the line, and get the water moving again. Katie set up her space heater in the furnace room to warm the place (and us) up. These people could've, should've, stayed home in bed after their late night of dancing, but instead they were here, giving me their holiday. I could have kissed them both.

When everything was in order, I ran down to Chem Clean for the fuel. Jazz and Annie came along because they adore driving and I adored being in the warm car. When I pulled up the gas station I could see Allan's dog sled and knew he had been out running his three Siberians that morning. Sure enough, inside the store were his three dogs, all asleep, curled up on fleece beds. Sherman, Nina and Leera all came up with their blue eyes and wagging tails to say hello to me. Even though they were tuckered out from their morning run, they were happy to greet some company. It's nice to see happy working dogs like those, and in the middle of a very hectic day, giving good dogs a scratch behind the ears is like a 45-second shock treatment - getting your head back in the right place after all the stress. Oh, dogs.

On the way home with the fuel, I stopped at Wayside for some fuel for myself. I got a hot coffee and a muffin, extension cords, and a can of lamb dogfood as a treat for my roommates for putting up with me. (Good coffee is essential to this story, as it is essential to all things.) On the way back to the farm, I called Ed Gust, a neighbor with a plow, to come clear the driveway if he would please. With the oil guy coming tomorrow, they demand a clean route to deliver or balk and drive away. Ed obliged and that afternoon he came rolling into the driveway on his 1952 Ford Tractor. With his red plaid hat and beard, he looked like something from a Norman Rockwell painting. His dog, Juno, a tawny black lab mix with wild long hair (that by the way, runs like the goddamn wind...I have never seen a dog run like Juno. He is but a black blur in the birches) was with him. Loping aside the tractor like a personal assistant (which I suppose he was).

We love our dogs here in Sandgate. They are everywhere with us, always.

Juno was an impressive dog, but the sheep eyed him like he was a spy from the old country. Maude stomped her foot and bitched at him with angry low bleats. Juno pissed on their fence and trotted away. This made Maude bitch louder. I laughed out loud while Ed plowed the drive. Moments like that have become hilarious to me, and a few yeras ago I doubt I'd even notice the antics of sheep. Now I thrive off it. I wish Maude drank coffee. We'd get along so much better if she did.

Together Katie and Sam refilled, restarted, and repaired all the problems. I thanked them over and over, wishing I could do something to repay them. I need to think up something really good, but the only plan I have so far is those two are getting the first scarves I knit from the sheep's wool. They certainly deserve it more than I do.

So, now the house is a comfortable 62 degrees with a roaring fireplace, and the shower spews hot water and soon the kitchen sink wil catch up and do the same. I am here still in awe of how blessed I am to have people like this all within shouting distance of the farm. The day started out terrifying and ended with this sense of home, and comfort, and this weird Vermonter-insurance that we all live by. I never really knew a single neighbor in Knoxville, but here I know everyone and they know me. This is key to me not freaking out or giving up on this farm life. Well, this and really good TV on DVD.

Just recently, Nancy and Dean called to check up on me, offering me some warm soup if I wanted any. Katie and Sam talked to me too, making sure the water was back on and all was well. I offered them all fresh baked cookies, but all four declined the gift. Which shows they not only are helpful, but healthy. Pillars of humanity, them. Surely if life has something to be winning at - they already won. Cold Antler Farm is back in order, and thanks to this small town, it'll stay that way. Mostly because they wouldn't have it any other way.

When I went back into the furnace room to check on the water tank I noticed Katie has taped up a laminated copy of the story of the grasshopper and the ant to the wall. Her version of a lecture for not ordering fuel sooner. I smiled, and loved her for it.

p.s. image above is a screen print by New England artist Dan McCarthy, who does amazing work, usually with trees, winter, and dinosaurs, look him up. He seems kinda dreamy

chicken approved

Happy New Year from the freezing-cold hollows of Southern Vermont. Hope all of you are getting over your hangovers and enjoying a quiet holiday. Mine however, wasn't exactly relaxing. Stay tuned because man, have I got a story for you. CAF had a mini-crisis this first day of 2009, and had it not been for the amazing people of Sandgate, your friend Jenna could've been in very very deep trouble. Four intrepid neighbors saved the day with helps of diesel and chainsaws and tool belts and good additudes—and I'll tell you the whole thing later on tonight. Right now I need to go outside before it gets too dark and get the sheep back into their pen and check on the chickens. Before I do, I thought I'd share this photo from Lisa in Indiana. She assures me the book is approved by her Midwestern livestock. Her small flock of eight hens and a rooster named Rico keep her stocked in eggs and entertainment all year long. Right on sister suffragette, and that's a swell looking bird.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

fair memories

If you read Made From Scratch, you may remember a story about when I entered my Silkies at the Bonner County Fair. It was a big time. I got to wash the chickens in my kitchen sink with Seventh Generation dish detergent and blow dry them on the counter. The humming whrrrrr of the hair dryer played back up to Spokane's Backporch Bluegrass show on NPR. I wrote in the book about how I remembered thinking how different my life was from the people I graduated design school with. That I hadn't traveled the globe, or bought a fancy car, or even got a promotion in the office - but I had blow-dried Japanese miniature chickens i raised from poofballs in my kitchen. Which was a whimsical experience. And hell, that beats a postcard from Paris. After all, Paris doesn't lay breakfast for me everyday.

I showed up at that small fair with those birds in a cardboard box and no clue how poultry shows worked. But after some paperwork, help from others (there was a very confusing cage tag system), I had officially entered my first ever livestock in a fair! I loved it. I just loved that I could even say I did it. If I ever have kids, I'll probably want them all in 4-H just so I get to do it more often. Showing the chickens was downright fun. I didn't really care about the contest, but hanging around the hall and talking to fair-goers and other entrants was this instant community of friendly people that seemed to come out of nowhere (just-add-chickens). If you have some birds and a fair close to home, go for it. At the very least you'll meet some interesting people and maybe come home with a ribbon. And there is this great parent organization called the APA. I ended up joining just for the sake of being in the show loop and getting their newsletters and such. I tell you, chickens are a pretty hip scene.

That stupid smile my face is half awe that we won something, and half bliss that I was even holding a chicken I raised in the first place. Just a year before that photo was taken, farming was a pipe dream. Now, a year after it was taken, I have 16 birds and supply my co-workers with free-range organic eggs, just like my mentor Diana did at my old job. Things happen like this. You'll see, when you get your own birds it all just falls into place. Usually without the aid of blow dryers though.

If you're new to homesteading, or maybe just thinking about it, I can not tell you how enjoyable poultry is to have around. If your town allows hens, seriously, don't waste another Spring without them. Chickens are easy, clean, quiet and their lives are full of personality and vigor. Here we have twelve laying hens and four roosters. The four roosters (Winthrop, Chuck Klosterman, Sussex and Rufus Wainwright) all get along. This is because Saro and Cyrus, my geese, will not allow fighting among the birds. If two roosters even consider fighting, the geese break it up and honk them away. They are CAF riot patrol. Now Chuck and Sussex are actually friends, and roost side by side every night in the coop. So peace can be made between hormonal angry men, I have proof with claws on a stick right outside.

velveteen rabbit and the skin horses

I am getting restless to start a band. I don't know if it's possible, mostly because this band would be a whole new animal. It's a convergence of old and new music, but wild and wraspy and unspecifically rusted. I'd need to find people who dab in everything, and love it all. But locating musicians (who aren't already in bands) and play music from the civil war and yet, also own the new Ryan Adam's album aren't exactly common in towns with populations of 641. Or maybe they are and I just haven't pulled away enough of the carpet to get to the real hardwood floors yet. I've said it before, I am often wrong.

In my mind, we cover modern pop or indie music with old time instruments. Instead of a drum kit and electric guitars we have a stand up bass, fiddle, banjo, guitar and a mandolin. I'd call us Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horses, mostly because I adore that old book, and it's one of those stories that has become a mantra here at the farm. The point of the Velveteen Rabbit (something you may not have read in a long time, so don't be offended by the summary) is to believe so strongly a thing can happen, that it does. Which is all Cold Antler Farm is right now.

It's a place, sure, but it's more of a dream. This small rented homestead is just the first hit to a long life of messy-rural addiction. It's the first chapter in a girl's book that needs to be bound together in lanolin, and quilts, violin strings and bailing wire to be read correctly. I don't own this farm. I don't know what it's like to really own anything. The bank and I even still share my subaru... But someday, somehow, this toy farm will become real. I'll own something. And when those first farm raised lambs's hooves hit the ground it'll mean so much to me. It will swallow everything, like distance*. There is just no turning back at this point. I need it more than I could possibly explain. You know, I have always looked up to the skin horse.

So anyway, me and skin horses, we'd write our own tunes, but also recreate new ones. We'd lasso up these modern techno and pop hits and bring them back down to the ground, cover them with brick and soil. Things like a Madonna's Like a Prayer with banjo, fiddle, and shape note singing instead of that gospel choir, yes! Or more recent songs, like beautiful Iron and Wine tunes or the Postal service. We'd play Dylan, and Cash, and the Beatles, and songs people hummed to stay awake durring the battle of Cold Harbor (Well, you'd hum them if you were Southern anyway, since all the Northern boys couldn't hum much of anying since they were pretty much all dead. Way to go Grant...)

And we'd sing little sweet songs, like Tegan and Sara's Call it Off, which I can't help but wish I had some scruffy guy to sing that with every time I sing it in my car. Just a guitar and my fiddle and our voices. I think I'll make that my birthday present. I want to be at a campfire somewhere this July with someone who wants to sing Call if Off as if it was written in 1863 and not 2007. I'm not asking for true love, I'm not even asking for a date, just a guy who wants to play that song by a fire in the Vermont woods. Let's get on that, Universe. I don't ask for much, but that would be fall-down-the-stairs good.

Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled.

*Neruda. Read the song of despair, son!


Thanks Terry and Gloria

dogs and goslings

People have been emailing photos, and stories, and sharing their own experiences and it has been lovely. One reader sent me a picture of my book glowing in the light of non-electric kitchen. Another sent a photo of their car being dug out of a snow storm (with their copy of the book safely inside, a shout out to all the bumper shots) and some just send pictures of their dogs. Here's one said e-mail dogs, with a copy of the book! This is Dante, a border collie cross a reader said she was inspired to get after reading about my canine adventures. Which blows my mind and makes me ridiculously happy. Good luck to both of you.

So as I get emails, photos, what have you - I'll start posting them on the blog in-between farm updates. If you don't see your images for a few days don't be discouraged. I just want to temper reader stuff with CAF updates, which today includes a gosling named Saro.

While I was heading out to work this morning, I noticed Saro near the cabin, Henry the duck was waddling close behind. I walked over to her, and instead of walking away she just sat down. Which at first worried me, because my geese aren't exactly oozing affection. They aren't mean, but like most farm animals, feel no need to cuddle. But Saro leaned her gray body against my leg and nestled her head in my chinos. For a few brief moments she just wanted to be out of the wind, or warm, or near the gal who raised her (I'll tell myself this for kicks.) I pet her head, and then patted her on her way, which she wobbled off too, bright-eyed. It was sweet, and why I live like this. Because no matter how crappy the workday may be or whatever else happens, I started my morning with a goose hug. Which is pretty hard to top.

I'll post more about this later, but if you are in the area and want to day hi to me and Jazz, we'll be at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT on Jan 9th at 7pm. It'll be fun.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

ohio, son!

Another CAF reader has sent in her bumper-shot, and I thank her. This comes from Amanda in Ohio, who wrote about her own future mushing adventures with her dogs and inquired about kicksleds - she was a fun person to get email from. If you have been reading and hestiate sending an e-mail or writing a comment, don't. Come in, pull up a chair, say hi. Most of my inbox is about enlarging anatomy I don't have, so when an actual person writes to me, it's great. Three down, folks. Not too shabby for a shack in Vermont.

storm birds

Most of the poultry around here prefer the comfort of the coop. The coop is windless, well lit, and has a pile of fresh straw, barrels of food, and a source of fresh water. It's all a chicken, turkey, or duck could ask for. The geese however, do not wallow in creature comforts. They flat out refuse it. They love being outside, even durring last week's snow storm. Here they are walking around the yard, head into the wind, as the snow flew past them. Their names are Cyrus and Saro, and I don't think they've spent more than a few minutes of their lives apart from each other.

They can fly away, but don't. Together they waddle around, sticking their heads in windows or coming onto the porch to lap up the sun. During the summer they are expert weed eaters, great use around the garden and cabin walls - but during the winter they are just honking lost souls searching for corn that fell off the station wagon's back hatch. Not a rivetting life, but a pretty entertaining one to watch. I've grown used to them, and all their goosey quirks. The screaming, occasional hissing, and the neck-stretch-check-out of all things new. They really have become the background characters of this life.

Did you know Toulouse Geese can live to be 40? That's a good long life for those storm birds. I hope the pair follow me to every farm I land on from here on out. I'd miss them if they weren't around. They kinda give me a morale boost. Whenever I have to brave a storm or go tend to the animals in the pitch black, I can say to myself, "Hey, the geese could do this. The geese would do this." And outside I go.