Saturday, January 24, 2009

two dog trails

This is a video I made in Idaho last winter. It's nothing fancy, but shows Jazz and Annie and I doing our thing at the old white farmhouse in Sandpoint. I took these mushing videos while on the back of the sled, so needless to say it's a bumby ride. Also, I am slightly embarrassed about the music in it, but I chose that song because of it's association with one of my favorite episodes of Northern Exposure. Refrain judgment please.

Friday, January 23, 2009

lonely banjos

There's an ongoing question that keeps coming up on book reviews and blogs. People read about my life here, or read about it in the book, and keep asking the same thing: isn't she lonely? They aren't judging my whole single-farm girl status—they just think having a full time job, running a small farm, and writing all the time may be a bit of a drain for one person without the help of a spouse or family. I just wanted to say this...

I'm fine. Really.

I guess I would be lonely if I was homesteading full time. There might be some cabin fever if the cabin was the only place I could complain about a fever in—but 40 hours a week I spend daylight in a busy office. Soon as I come home from work I throw myself right into farm chores, dinner prep, dog walking and barely remain standing by the time couching rolls around. My weekends are packed with neighbors, music jams, rural adventures, baking, and fiddle lessons. I talk on the phone with friends and family daily. Loneliness doesn't really have a chance to factor into the equation. Sometimes it creeps in, like the Christmas I spent a lone in Idaho, but even then I live with two kind dogs who've been by my side since Knoxville. Yes Virginia, she isn't a total recluse.

As for men? Well, there isn't one. But I'm not in some mad rush to land one either. I don't date for sport, and wouldn't want to be with someone just for kicks or to fill up conversation time in the car. I feel like dating is a lot like getting a dog. You shouldn't do it unless you're all in - ready for when the shit hits the floor but optimistic about the long haul. I'm not talking about marriage or mortgages here - just a general loyalty to making it up as you go along. Which, turns out to not be what most guys around my age are into, and I'm not much for the text message, strappy shoes, and bar scene...

So yeah, a guy would be nice, but I need to keep my head down and ears back. My eye is on the prize, which isn't a husband, but another type of marriage, my own farm. What I really need is good working sheepdog to make my future bliss a reality. I'm just saying, gotta keep those priorities in check. I think I just caused a collective-furrowed sigh from mothers of single women across America.

Oh well. Like I said, no rush. I'll know him when I trip over him at some point (I am a klutz). Also, finding a guy equally excited about the Daily Show and dairy goats isn't exactly a cake walk. Whomever he is, hopefully he's not allergic to wool. That could be problematic... but there are hair sheep. Anyway, we'll work it out.

I am lonely about one thing though. I miss my banjo. I miss having it when I come home from work. I miss seeing it propped up against a chair or out on the porch catching a tan while I'm in the garden. I sold it when things got really tight a few months ago, and I justified hocking it because it was a resonator banjo, and I needed an open back for the clawhammer style I was learning. I have my eyes on this Morgan Monroe bruiser called the Hobo. It's nothing top of the line, but it looks perfect for slinging over my shoulder and walking into the woods with the dogs. I can't wait to have one of those five-string wonders back in my hands again, and this time I won't let it go so easy. I started setting aside some cash, just a little a week. But I promise you all by Spring I'll have a banjo at Cold Antler again. I'll need it to calm me down after sod breaking. I get all worked up when I'm with my hoes.

Tonight's Farm Chore Playlist
Blind Dog - Norman and Nancy Blake
In the Devil's Territory - Sufjan Stevens
Sixteen, Maybe Less - Iron and Wine with Calexio
God Bless Mom - The Frames
Bixby Canyon Bridge - Death Cab For Cutie
Nothin' But Nothin' - Yonder Mountain String Band


This is an illustration I'm working on of two characters that have been haunting me for the past four years. Their names are Saster and Adah, and they are the ghosts that I can't shake. I'm trying to write a novel about them, their world, and their story.

I can't stop thinking about them. They have been the background of this whole life of mine on the road. Every car ride I'm in, every song I putter around listening to on headphones creates scenes and events for these two dogs. The basic plot came together years ago while listening to a myriad of Iron and Wine tunes. Last summer, when Sam Beams new record came out and was called "The Shepherd's Dog" I nearly stroked out. Someday I'll get the whole story down. Till then, I'll keep writing and drawing to flesh them out a little more. Just giving you a taste of the haunting.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

jam night at floating leaf farm

*photo by Ben Anderson, taken may 2007

quiet time

Things are quiet. Things are calm. Winter on a small farm isn't exciting. Most days are a logistical breakdown of chores and routines. Morning feeding is cold. Nightime feeding is colder. Everything is stagnant in the way winter is. Nothing is being born, no plants are asking for water, the farm is pateintly waiting to come back to life. To get stirred up with young chicks and seedlings. But I can barely remember that life now in the heart of Vermont's bitchiest season. Seems forever ago I used the push mower.

There are hints that spring will come back. Seed catalogs are starting to show up, as are hatfchery and bee booklets. The short days are starting to feel slightly longer. I can sense it when I come home and there's a little more light in West Sandgate. But besides slightly (ever so slightly) warmer weather and a little more daylight —the farm is in its winter lull.

Sorry guys, nothing riveting to report.

I've been staying late at work to focus on some personal illustration work, and when I finally do get home I'm tired. A full office day doesn't wind me up, but it does make for a sharp transition when I go from high-tech office land to the homestead. But that's what the drive home is for. I crank up my music, I clear my head, I focus on the night's chores. Who needs fresh water? Everyone. Who is due for fresh straw this weekend? Everyone. The checklist goes on and on in my head. Human like a House, a Finches Album is what I've been listening to recently in the car as I roll home up into the mountains. It's lovely music. And the last track is called Leviathan's Home! Which, quiet frankly, is fantastic to me. Any sweet song about riding a biblical sea-beast gets a nod from this gal. We need some whimsy in our lives when the most intense thing going on in our evening involves feeding sheep dead grass.

But with music, all work becomes scenes to a soundtrack. I have a hat I knit out of icelandic wool that I put a pocket on that perfectly fits my little ipod nano. I do my chores around the yard with tunes in my head (literally) and sing along. Some I just get lost in, like Sigur Ros. Others I meditate on, like the Trapeze Swinger, which may always be my favorite song. I'll never forget hearing it live (which is where I heard it the first time). That was years ago. My goodness.

This weekend will see some book tour events. If you live around Troy or Albany check the dates in the right sidebar. I hope some of you can make it out to say hello, hear some fiddling, buy some books. You know, the works. Sunday my plans aren't half as exciting. All I want to do is listen to old records I've collected over the summer and bake bagels. That's right. Just me, some dusty vinyl I foraged from garage sales, and high gluten flour. I think a Hipster in Flushing just got his wings.

Tonight's Farm Chore Playlist
Step Outside - The Finches
White Winter Hymnal - Fleet Foxes
California Stars - Billy Bragg and Wilco
Flume - Bon Iver
Track 4 off ( ) - Sigur Ros
Trapeze Swinger - Iron and Wine

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

my wayfaring stranger

This was written Februrary 9th 2008. This was posted as a goodbye to the people I still miss in the northwest. They knew me as Jenna-of-Tennessee- a scrappy girl with a pack of dogs and iron and wine on the kitchen record player. I'm sharing it because I don't not think enough was written on this blog about the transition back east. It is a little emotional, but you'll have this.

The song Wayfaring Stranger is incredibly old. Its lyrics tell the story of someone returning home (or hoping to at least). But sadly, the person in song realizes death is much more realistic than the possibility of ever seeing familiar faces again. The few verses of hope, memories, and the acceptance of suffering with unwavering faith is what has kept this song alive for hundreds of years. From the 18th century to today you’ll find people humming it on dirt roads and midtown elevators alike.

This is the story of my Wayfaring Stranger.

The ballad didn’t become familiar to me until I lived in Knoxville. Maybe I heard it in passing, but it didn’t stick. However, my good friend Brian (an ex-New Yorker who's life I fell into because we shared a love for the mountains and happened to work in the same office) introduced me to it’s lonesome beauty as if for the first time. When we were driving through the Smoky Mountains, bobbing his black pickup over the winding cove roads he’d turn it up and sing. Not just sing, but really sing it. Meaning every word of it for all it was worth. I’d hear his voice on those southern mountain roads and for the first time listened to what the lyrics meant. Just thinking about Brian makes me miss him like crazy. He introduced me to trout streams and hidden hikes. He got me into Pablo Neruda, and shared the front seat of his truck with me often. We were just friends, but both hopeless romantics when it came to our love affair with the mountains. So it made our friendship a geographical thing. Which, was neat. I can't see a black pickup truck and not think of him, I haven't spoken to him in years.

It was like going to a monastery. Simple. Poignant. As we rolled through the hollers, passing dilapidated barns and cabins long-abandoned, their emptiness and rot echoed the lines of the song. If the world had anything else to say to me, I couldn’t hear it while that song played.

Wayfaring Stranger became Tennessee. It became every state I've lived in since home. I adopted the song. I memorized the words. I learned it on the dulcimer. When someone else played it at a concert or campfire I became quiet. Church was in session.

When I left Knoxville to move out west. I knew I was repeating the story of thousands of Tennesseans who also left their cities and farms for the Homestead Act of the mid 1800s. How many others had loaded up their wagons with their family like I was? Grant it, my wagon was a station - not a Conestoga, and my family was two sleeping sled dogs in the backseat and not seven children, but hey, at the root of it I loved them and together we were heading into unknown territory. And on the car stereo as we rolled out of town with tears streaming down my face we listened to Wayfaring Stranger. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that in 1887, a family from Knox country mouthed the same exact same words I did as we headed past St. Louis and up into the plains.

There was comfort in the repitition, and while it may sound silly, it brought me immense comfort. They sang that song and were okay, Denver and San Francisco and Seattle are standing testament that for some it all worked out. I would be okay too.

When I was established and at home in the Rockies, and the violin became my musical love interest, I learned to play it the way it was meant to be played – on the fiddle (then on the banjo sometime later). I learned to close my eyes and mean it when I played that tune. I learned to let the whole song fill me up and even if an accomplished musician told me it sounded like garbage I didn’t care. The song was too good for one bad musician to screw up. It could soar out of my bow with right intentions. That’s all that mattered.

Monday I head back East, back home. With me will come my two dogs, my musical instruments, and again we’ll be singing Wayfaring Stranger as we drive past Deadwood, and Wall Drug and Chicago and back into the place where thunderstorms and fireflies are writhing all summer long. We’ll stop in Palmerton for a few nights, and when we do we will be living the hope that that song so strongly conveyed—to go out into the wilderness and come back again.

And that’s what I plan to do. After all, I’m only going over Jordan. I'm only going over home.

my first chick

Photo shown is of the first chicken I ever owned. He was one of five black silkie bantams, that came home with me from my mentor's farm back when I lived in Sandpoint, Idaho. This image is from early spring of 2007, and shows just how small those little guys were. I adore these birds. Silkies are small, goofy, gentle, and quiet. They don't mind being held, they are amazing parents, and come in all sorts of solid colors. These chicks were solid black right down to their black bones. Pretty badass.

Monday, January 19, 2009

burning off the fog

I found this photo from September 2006. It was taken at the end of an early morning hike in the Smokies, back when I lived in Tennessee. In the picture all the smoke is burning off from the sunrise, and light is coming back into the trail, making things clear again. Earlier that morning there was so much fog that when you took a few steps down the path, whatever you left behind you vanished within moments. You could tie a bright red bandana to a tree and then watch it disappear as you backed away from it. All you could really understand was what was right around you. Everything from the past fell apart, and you couldn't see a thing ahead. I suppose that's how it always is though. If you only knew how often I thought of Tennessee... That state changed my whole life.

I used to have another blog, it was called Dogcoffin. I named it after a small wooden box with a latch I found on the side of the road when I first moved to the South. It was such an odd box—too small for a chest and too big to be a breadbox, so I called it a dog coffin. I still have it, my foot is on it right now since it currently resides under my kitchen table. Like me this random object has traveled all over, never sure what it was or where it was going. So I thought that was a good name for a blog about a person in the same condition.

Now I rarely update it. It was kept from 2005 on. Everything about Tennessee, Knoxville, the move out to Idaho, and starting Cold Antler Farm was recorded on that other blog. When the book was coming out I made it private since it was far more personal than this one is. But I think I'll be posting pictures and stories from it here from time to time. I'll let you know when the proper dates are, like this one. I just think a lot of the things you read from Scratch started on that blog and you'd be interested to see photos of those first chickens in the northwest or hikes in the Smokies that gave me this homesteading infection in the first place. Let me know if posting older content bothers you, since it wouldn't be "new" technically. And new updates are really what blogs should be about, no?

the night we burned christmas

Before I dive into this story, I want to say that all is well. People have expressed concern over those past two posts. I apologize if I sounded grave or despondent. I was just reeling from the past few days. There was a death in my family, and a lot of lay offs happened at work. In one week I sat on the sidelines while a lot of suffering happened around me in which I had no control. But my family is healing and I still have a desk—two things I am very grafeful for tonight.

Now, with that said, let me tell you about the night we burned Christmas.

Saturday was busy. I spent most of it baking in the kitchen. I was trying to make three apple pies for the night ahead. I was invited to a community potluck, and was going to bring what I alway do, a pie. However this time I also baked two smaller ones in little tins for the men I was meeting pre-potluck to play music with. A coworker was nice enough to invite me to play fiddle with him and his friend Phil. Both guys play guitar, and they wanted to mix things up, bring a fiddler in. For welcoming me into their homes and their music, I thought pie was in order. So I baked them each their own to take home. Since I was on a roll I also baked pies for three other guys at work and my new friend Chris. So all in all I baked six men their own little pies this weekend. I am quite the pie hussy.

I can't help it. I love baking for men. I don't mean that in some scary anti-feminist way. I just love the way a guy's face lights up when you hand him a pie you made for him. When I met Chris for a coffeedate in the bookstore, and handed him a little blueberry pie as a thanks for driving down to meet me, you would think I handed him keys to a new car the way he beamed. I selfishly love it that simple look. So really, to be honest, I bake pies for guys for my own eyes. Hot damn, say that three times fast.

Later that evening, I rolled into Phil's place late with a basket of pie and my fiddle case. I apologized for the tardiness but tried to explain that being late with pie is really like bing ten minutes early anywhere else. The guys seemed to buy that and invited me to join them. Inside on a chair in the living room was Steve, the guy who invited me to play. He was sitting there in his socks and a sweatshirt by the fireplace plucking his guitar. It's weird seeing coworkers in their natural habitats, far from khakis and twill shirts, but you get over it quick and focus on the task at hand, which in this particular story, is beer and music.

Phil handed me a cold Long Trail Ale, and we tuned our instruments by the fire. For two hours we played through a pile of songs. Both guys had a lot of talent, (much better on their guitars than I was on my fiddle) but I kept up best I could. I wasn't doing as good as I hoped with those birddogs. It's hard playing modern pop songs when the entire climate of music you hold in your heart thrives in some dark hollow in East Tennessee two hundred years ago... Or at least that's my excuse for not playing as well as I felt I could. But hey, I was nervous. Steve offered to learn a few traditional songs to balance the scales a little. He was able to belt out a respectable Wayfaring Stranger, which he learned that very night. Earned my respect, that.

After the music we all piled into my Subaru and drove uphill to the homestead hosting the big event. Cars lined the snowed-in dirt roads for a long way before we reached the house. We shuffled inside and what a sight it was to behold...There must've been a hundred people, kids, and a few dogs mulling about. A spread fit for some Arthurian court was laid out on the tables. Everything from venison and wild turkey stews to vegetarian quiches was laid out among the chiles, breads, and cheeses. Piles of cakes and pies leaned over the edges of the wooden table. Hot cider and a giant apple crisp sat on the cast iron stove behind it, making the place smell like heaven on earth. Tonight we were rich in food.

The house was hundred's of years old. Really packed with that New England colonial-clapboard character. Narrow stairs, old wooden beams, a giant fireplace in the kitchen. I was in heaven. This was exactly the kind of house I'd pray to call a home someday. If the people who lived there knew I was secretly planning out locations for chicken coops and sheep sheds, they may have asked me to leave. It is kind of rude to walk around a place quietly imagining your own weird antiques on the walls and Maude out in the backyard bitching about something or another while the dogs and I napped on the couch....but I can't help it. If you give me an old farmhouse, I see a farm. Hell, I see my farm.

We ate and ate. The kind of non-stop plate filling that happens at these things. Steve told stories about his family, Phil talked about his kids, we all talked about music and the food. All went well and we were so into our little corner of conversation we were almost shocked when we were told to put on our coats and come outside, the bonfire was starting.

Everyone else was prepared for this. I wasn't. I was prepared for baking and playing the fiddle. In my excitement for manpies and music I forgot the whole main event. I didn't have coveralls and a parka - I had on comfortable jeans, a cowboy shirt hanging over a green paisley sundress, covered by a mere leather jacket. I was wearing my brown Chucks, not the best footwear for a winter bonfire, and my scarf and gloves were all I had for my extremeties. Regardless, I went right up to the blaze. I didn't want to miss this.

The host's lit the torch and piled on the old Christmas trees one by one. I stood there by Steve and Phil watching the embers fly up into the dark. I watched the neighbors' kids and dogs run around the woods in the corners of my eyes, throwing snowballs and barking at the giant flames. I ignored the cold and hugged my own arms as I watched the pine trees explode into flames one at a time. People cheered as the burst of warm air would hit us.

It sounds harsh doesn't it? Burning Christmas But it was far from vindictive. It wasn't a night of malice or darkness, just a nickname for an excuse to have a nice get together when Vermont is at it's least social. It's been so cold here, and to spend a night defying it, outside smiling in it, was downright warm all over. When I felt I had grasped the experience enough (and couldn't feel my legs) I plodded back inside for more food and drink and a spot right next to the woodstove.

We ended the evening with slices of pie and Northern Comfort (booze in hot cider). We also lapped up some more conversation. It was nothing fancy. I have long since rescinded my need to be fancy. My cool has died. I used to scamper around galleries in Chelsea with the ferver of a design student, or spend nights in crowded shows in Philly watching Indie bands at the Troc. Now I am more content to spending my Saturday nights with a few people, some guitars, and plates of food instead of more intense plans of just a few years ago. You go out to the parade, I'll be here. I know a guy with a mandolin and a campfire, and he wins everytime. Heck guys, I don't even like going into bars. Thank god for internet dating or I'd never even meet men, but I am a firm believer that everyone I want to meet is staying at home with Netflix anyway.

I don't know if the farmlife did this, domesticated me. Probably not. I think I was always more inclined to fireplaces over fireworks, but living here in Sandgate has certainly given me more chances to practice. Come next month I will have spent a full year here in the Green Mountain State. It took a while, but now I feel part-of. I really hope that I can stick around for another year at my little farm here. It's becoming home.

a short one

No matter where I end up—I will never forget waking up in this small cabin in my bed of fur and teeth, and walking out into the wold to feed the animals in the dark before work. If you let them, everyday chores become a legacy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

winter socials

Last night was quite a sight. After a few hours of playing music with my new pals Steve and Phil—we headed over to a neighbor's place to take part in the big bonfire/potluck. A huge pile of dead trees were sacrificed to our festivities. I can't really put my finger on it, but there is something unspecifically cavalier about outdoor parties in winter. Like you're breaking some unwritten rule by hanging outside and laughing when it's 7 degrees. The paths to the house were lit with candelabras, christmas lights, and the huge blaze. Whimsical things to see when you're fighting off frostbite (Note to self: Do not wear chuck taylors to bonfires ever again) I'll write more about it all later—but I just wanted to share this photo I took coming into the house after leaving the bonfire. I just thought it was neat.