Saturday, March 21, 2009

refugin, if you will

My weekends are my refuge. I spent the morning lazy as hell. I slept in, rolled over the the stove to make coffee, and then spent the whole damn time playing guitar, baking bread, and doing my farm chores. One task melded into the other, and the only armor I needed to be outside in the sunshine was a trusty beat sweater. I used to wear polar fleece all the time, but now that I have sheep in my life (and always will) it seems hypocritical. I'm back to wool, indefinitely.

The proposal is coming along. Soon my writing time will be all back to the blog. I have a meeting with my editor Wednesday night, so after that you can expect big ol' updates about all things Cold Antler. But right now your patience and dedication is appreciated, very much so. And while you politely wait for me to get over myself, I'll post some old stories from Idaho.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

cold morning dogs

It's a cold, rainy morning here at Cold Antler. In a few minutes I'll be outside in the morning dark feeding the chickens and sheep by lantern light, but right now I'm trying to prep the percolator and wake up the dogs. Jazz and Annie are still curled up on the bed, watching me with mild interest and raised eyebrows. They know it''s cold, dark, and rainy outside. No part of them feels the need to rush out into the wet just yet. But dogs don't feed sheep, so they can revel in that luxury. I throw on my jacket, pull my hat over my eyes, grab the lantern and go.

This week has been dedicated (writing wise anyway) to preparing the proposal for another book, so I apologize for the thin attention to the blog. But don't fret. Soon that will be in the mail (with my fingers crossed) and I'll be so deep in spring farm work you'll quickly grow tired of all the updates. That's for certain.

I did post a small update to the Happy Homesteader blog at Mother Earth News, so if you're interested in that just click the link on the right hand side of the blog here. Enjoy your day folks, hope yours is dryer.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

hay addict

following the flock

Daylight savings gave the sheep a special gift. The extra hours of sunlight allow just enough time to let the sheep out into their pasture every evening. For a few hours they can play in the yard. Then before I turn in for the night, I brine them back inside the safety of their wire pen for the night. Most of the winter they've been stuck in their enclosure since the heavy snow took down most of the electric netting. But now the snow is nearly gone, and the flock can run in the field again. You should see them go.

So after work I walk across the field to the back gate and with my trusty Gerber blade slice my shoddy baling-wire knots that held them in. Then they happily trot to their hay I dumped at the far end of the field. When I first open that gate Sal comes bounding out, followed by Marvin, and then Maude scuttles past in an angry shuffle. Then comes the best part. I turn and walk behind them into the sun. A shepherd and her small flock at sunset. If you knew how long I wanted this, you'd understand how beautiful those three minutes are to me.

This weekend brought days in the 40's and is slowly melting what's left of the ice crusting over the garden. In a few weeks I'll be able to start turning soil, and getting my early season veggies in. Lettuces, peas, broccoli, onions... (you get the idea.) But there is so much to do outside right now, the garden is mostly haunting the back of my mind.

Yesterday was a hard core farm day. I spent most of the afternoon working outside. I had to clean out old straw in the sheep pen and chicken coop and replace it with fresh. I hauled 50lb bags of livestock grains over my shoulders. I carried bales of hay and buckets of water. I also moved a pile of firewood my amazing neighbors cut down for me. And when I wasn't doing intense physical labor I was tending to the bees, who are running on fumes right now and need my help to make it till first pollen. I also collecting eggs and checking on the birds general health. I looked over the sheeps' hooves, and cleaned out rabbit hutches. Needless to say, I came in at the end of the day and was hurting. Sore, tired, and happy. A long hot shower and some fiddle tunes did the trick to remedy the situation, but this morning my back still feels like Maude did Shiatsu ala hoof.

It's all worth it.

I'm brewing a pot of coffee now, and listening to the roosters outside greeting me to this day. In a few moments I'll go out to feed them and the sheep and then drive over at Nelson's farm in Hebron for more hay. But right now I think the dogs and I are going to enjoy some morning radio and Vermont Coffee Company Dark roast. We'll let the birds holler for a few more minutes. It's not like the town of Sandgate isn't used to their song. You folks enjoy your sunday.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

this place is a musical flophouse...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

mud season

And so it's Mud Season. That wonderful time in Vermont where the top layers of our dirt roads thaw and the base remains frozen. This creates a foot of waterlogged garbage with ruts deep enough to lose a Jack Russell terrier in. Driving to work is like trying to find the right set of tracks to hook your tires into and hope you don't bottom out. But crappy roads mean temperatures are rising, that things are changing, and I'll put up with them because of what happened after work last night.

I came home to a relatively warm, and sunlight porch. It was 52 degrees, the stream down the hill was roaring. I grabbed a bottle of hard cider, put on a heavy sweater, grabbed my guitar and banjo, and went out on the porch to play a few songs outside. Since the porch is screened, I can leave the door to the cabin open and the dogs can pad in and out from the fireplace to me. So we had this weird twilight time of open front doors, a fire inside, a bubbling creek, a waltz on the banjo, and dogs milling about at the same time. With the chickens strutting about, and the sheep finally back in their spring pasture the whole farm seems to be stretching its arms into daylight savings. That deserves a few songs.

I hate how far away from October we are, and how long ago fall was. But to know the seeds of summer and a lot of change are getting planted, well that feels good. Really good. Mud be damned.

P.S. My peas are a foot tall and climbing up my desk at work and my kitchen window. So front porch dog concerts aren't the only signs of spring.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

annie always rides shotgun

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

the backyard homestead

So there's a new book out for us front-lawn farmers and I highly suggest it. It's called The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan. I actually know Carleen fairly well since she was my editor for Made From Scratch. She's visited the farm in Idaho, and I've met her a few times down at Storey's HQ. (She has a paint-by-number of Monticello over her desk, which is awesome.) So if you liked my book, and after reading it considered gardening, baking, chickens or any homestead skills I wrote about, this book is the next step. It's a chunky info-packed volume going into the details you'll need to take on this farm life one step at a time. And the great thing about it is it isn't meant for people with acreage and rural mail boxes—it's a book written for people working with a quarter acre or less. I have my copy on my coffee table at the farm, and it's been the first book to make me seriously consider pork in the backyard. Not this season, but in the future for sure.

So I think it's a dandy, and here's a little more off the Storey website:
With just a quarter acre of land, you can feed a family of four with fresh, organic food year-round. This comprehensive guide to self-sufficiency gives you all the information you need to grow and preserve a variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, and grains; raise chickens for eggs and meat; raise cows, sheep, and goats for meat or milk; raise pigs and rabbits; and keep honey bees. Simple instructions make it easy to enjoy canned, frozen, dried, and pickled produce all winter; use your own grains to make bread, pasta, and beer; turn fresh milk into delicious homemade yogurt, butter, and cheese; make your own wine, cordials, and herbal teas; and much, much more. It truly is possible to eat entirely from your backyard.

Monday, March 9, 2009

farm update

A lot of people have been asking about different aspects of the farm. I've received emails about the sheep, comments about Saro, and questions about the chickens. Seems like it's high time for a status report. Here's an update on all things Cold Antler. Make sure you're in a comfortable chair. This may take a while.

The Sheep
So my trio of Romney crosses seem to be ready for sheering and some possible de-worming. With days hitting the balmy 50's now, and all three of them still wearing their winter coats, it's high time for a trim. I'm quietly thrilled about this. CAF's first ever sheering day is hopefully going to be attended by friends and musicians. I want the day to start with hard work and end with a campfire and friends with instruments. This may not be a possibility, the whole post-fleece shindig, but if it isn't this year for certain it will be in the years to come. My life as a shepherd-in-training has some very specific goals and the annual fleece and fiddle night is one of them.

The Hive
They made it. My first ever fully-wintered hive of bees survived. I'm proud to say that the whole backyard colony of Italian bees is now flying around the hive and drinking their spring sugar water I already have on tap for them. Come May I'll throw on another super and by late summer I hope to get my first ever backyard honey harvest. This is also a big deal. As you can see, my bar for "big deal" is pretty low. Bee vomit, fiddles and sheep hair and I'm over the friggin' moon.

The Flock
All the birds made it through this brutal winter save for one. The old Dominique hen died last night. When I walked into the coop yesterday morning she was there on the straw as if asleep. I gently removed her and thanked her for all her hard work. One chicken isn't a big deal, and I certainly wasn't brought to tears over it, but if I lined up the breakfast platters of omelets, quiche and baked goods just one hen contributed too I'd have a buffet. I want every animal here to know they did good.

The goose is still sitting, but I think Saro's egg is a lost cause. It seems like it should hatch any day, but she has left it for hours at a time (I recently found out) and I've already touched it when it was cold. If nothing comes of it in the next few days I'll remove it. Even if her laying was in vain it doesn't mean she won't try again this spring. I hope she does.

I'll be ordering a few chicks from the feed store again, just some Silkies because I miss them. I switched to bigger homesteader breeds when I moved to Vermont to be more serious about production animals. But I miss those quirky little birds. Plus they were amazing at eating garden slugs and I have big plans for that garden in the next few weeks. I can use all the help I can raise.

The Rabbits
My breeding pair of Angora rabbits have been mated and Bean Blossom is expecting her kits in mid March. Six weeks after that, early May, they'll be ready for the open arms of you fine people. It's been a long winter for those two troopers. They've been stuck in their hutches for months, riding out the snow and storms. When the weather got really cold I brought them into the furnace room to ward off the bitter—but mostly they've lived their wooly lives outside. Soon the snow will melt in the fenced in garden and they'll be able to hop in there and stretch those long legs. I look forward to that as much as they do.

The Writer
I've been okay. I think this winter wore me down a lot. I found myself feeling stretched thin between the book, the blogs, the office and the farm. In a way it made me run into the arms of my music, and for that I am beyond grateful. Because of music I have grown closer to neighbors and coworkers, and our little band (By the way, we named ourselves Swearing Hill, after the steep, miserable, Sandgate Road we all know and love) We played at an Open Mic Night, we practice regularly, and this fiddler sleeps happy with that thought. We cover songs right now, mostly things you guys have heard on this blog like Iron and Wine and Old Crow Medicine Show, but we also mix it up with some stuff like Dinosaur Jr and the Cure. It's fun.

I might be heading to Brooklyn for the BUST Craftacular in Williamsburg. I need to figure out if that's something I can pull off, but I hope it is. I have some friends from design school living in that town and I would love to get a drink with them and catch up. Plus, I think Williamsburg could use some old-time fiddling and banjo frailing. I'll tear the place up with a fiddle on my back and a banjo on my knee.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

we're so fancy

This week my Books for a Better Life Award came in the mail. It is by far the fanciest thing I now own. I brought it out to the sheep and chickens to show it off, but no one seemed to care. Well, Marvin was possibly interested in eating it, and gave it a lick, but that was the closest thing to an ovine accolade I got. Maude hates anything that has to do with me, including acrylic book-shaped objects, and so she just gave me her trademark glare. Oh 'ol reliable Maude. Surely you will live forever.

I showed the chickens and Sam perched on it without defecating on it, so I guess that's a thumbs up. Besides that little pat on the back, none of the other birds seemed to notice and/or care. Aren't I a classy broad? I get a fancy award and walk around my muddy farm shoving it in livestock's' personal space. I bet Michael Pollan just put his on his mantel like a reasonable person. But Pollan doesn't live with vindictive sheep and codependent poultry, so really comparison has no merit. I tell myself things.

P.S. Big farm update to follow later tonight.

the best company has 3-inch incisors

Saturday, March 7, 2009

little sam

While I love raising and living with chickens, it wasn't until this winter that I allowed myself grow attached to one. It's not like I have any reservations about making friends with poultry, it's just that those beady little eyes never gave me much to work with. The sheep and dogs have a little more depth to their personalities, so I've been able to meet them as individuals. The birds however seem to live in my mind as a lump sum of eggs and feathers. The birds and the bees were always...the birds and the bees. That was until Sam came along.

Sam, this scrappy little Ameraucana has won me over. She's proven to me that a chicken can not only hang with her farmer, but become a sidekick. Sam's probably become my favorite because she runs to me for solidarity. As the lowest ranking bird in the coop, my presence means safety. No one can peck on her if she's in my arms, so my arms is where she likes to be. It is a splendid thing to hold a laying chicken you raised from a 72-hour old hatchling, that actually likes being held. You can't help but think, "Hey, I pulled this chicken thing off. She trusts me." A homesteader right of passage.

Her place at the bottom of the chicken social scene is proven by her back, which is nearly naked of feathers. Chickens peck at each other, and if you're the outcast of the clan, you get picked on a lot. So maybe it's her underdog status, and maybe I'm making to much out of a pathetic little bird. But I can't help it. She's such a sweetheart.

When I go into the coop for morning feeding or post-office egg collecing—Sam is right there at my feet. She looks right up at me, and jumps onto my hand or shoulder when I pet her head, and she stomps around the yoke of my shirt looking for the correct placement of her little dinosaur feet. When I carry out hay to the sheep she follows behind. When I come into the coop she flies right to me, literally. Tonight she launched perfectly from the roost to my left shoulder. I was so pleased with her I grabbed a fistful of layer mash and fed her right from my hand. What a gal.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

maggot from scratch

So a Dutch newspaper reviewed the book and sadly, I don't speak Dutch. So I took the link into an online translator and this is what was fed back to me. It is fantastic. Enjoy this with your coffee, and if someone out there speaks Dutch, you can read the correct review here.

I weet or it by the recession do not come, or by approaching spring, or by my current shortage to hobby (I have stopped with gitaarles and now threaten a serious hobby lacuna), but I have been all of a sudden interested touched in everything itself make. As in: everything. Itself makes. That came by Article concerning Jenna Woginrich in an American illustrated magazine.

Jenna Woginrich are one woman of a year or twenty-five which make everything itself. In the illustrated magazine empty them how you had determine deodorant. There also a recipe assisted. That recipe I have not succeeded, because I find that you must take no risk with deodorant. But I found Jenna intriguing, therefore read to the end I in one evening its book maggot from Scratch, Discovering the Pleasures or a hand maggot life. Jenna do in that book what I always, but where I to be stopped 1. work. intense idleness have wanted do 2. circumstances and 3: they is on a farm will live and make everything itself. She cultivates vegetables, sapwood wool, keeps chickens and bakes bread. Sometimes she conducts it something too far by: thus she plays in the book approximately in each chapter a tune on its banjo whereas them on the loading platform of its pick-uptruck sit and to the sun perdition looks at. She does also inept things, such as its dogs learn how they must draw a luge, what is according to me simply an excuse for always `Gee! (`Rechtsaf! in dog wear eel) and `Haw! (`Linksaf! ) to call. But well, that her has been granted.

In maggot from Scratch lay Jenna from how its sluice-gate truss has started them, and goes fortunately thereby much wrong. Especially the animals must pay for it. Its chickens opgegeten become firstly by its dogs, then the twenty thousand bees in its itself-built hive are driven off by a bear, and then must them its angora rabbit with a gun from its suffering release after that rabbit has been scared this way of the barking of Jenna dog, which it has pootje have been sprained and the wounded pootje themselves have aangevreten and has paralysed has touched. Yes, said nobody that always nice it was, an own farm have. But after I book from had, seemed it me still nice. What this way well is: Jenna have there simply negen-tot-vijf a job beside, on an office. She makes Internet sites. Furthermore of kitchen garden and banjo you cannot touch almost. There is therefore hope, also for me.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

love is hell pt 1

I should have died in Tennessee. Back when I lived in Knoxville I jumped off a 35-foot-tall waterfall in the Smoky Mountains and missed the rocks below by six inches. It wasn't a suicide attempt, I want to make that clear. I was down at the base of the falls and saw a handful of college-age guys jumping off and having a big time, and I wanted in. By dumb luck I grazed them and crashed into the water, my body akimbo. When my head burst out of the freezing cold skin, the other hikers standing at the water's edge all said they were certain they would have to go in after me. No one watching thought I would make it. I shook as I hiked back to the car that day. Sometimes I wake up cold and sweaty from a nightmare of that memory. No sound or distance exists in the dream. Just the vertigo-induced rush of boulders slamming up towards me.

I see those rocks every once in a while. Try as I might - I can't shake them. In a way they've become a saving grace. When things get heavy for me—I see those stones and realize just being able to recall their memory is a goddamn blessing. We all know well - dead people don't remember. Anxiety is a luxury for those lucky enough to still be among the living.

I'm telling you this to explain what's going on with me. This month marks a year in Vermont, and while it had a rough and fairly anti-social start—I am now falling in love with this place. I'm making friends, finding my niche, making music and getting invitedinto living rooms. Sandgate is becoming home. I just attended my first town meeting Monday night and sat there like a proud parent watching her kids at a recital. I don't really recall the particulars but the whole messy night of politics was laced with a whimsical feeling of happy placement.

Here I am.

I'm writing this from a quilt in front of my fireplace, which is spitting and hissing as I type. Annie is here with me, Jazz is in the bedroom. I was just outside doing the nightly farm work in the dark and something happened that made me think of that waterfall again. I was listening to my ipod and carrying out feed to the animals. I had a 50-pound bag of layer mash over my left shoulder and an armload of hay under my right arm. It was about 15 degrees outside but my body is hardened up to cold now, and all I had on was my blue hoodie and a scarf. My head was wrapped up in a simple hat I knit this past fall. The sky was clear, the stars out, and I was walking towards the coop and sheep shed. Then as if on some celestial cue, the instrumental section of Ryan Adam's song Shadowlands off the album Love is Hell Pt. 1 keyed up.

The song is beautiful, and it stopped me mid-stride. I was standing there in the dark alone with this music. My tired body weighed down by hay and grain, and I was nearly moved to tears. I had to just stand there and breathe and take in the stars, and the snow, and sounds of cooing hens and shuffling sheep voices. I should've died in Tennessee. was all that came into my mind. So there I stood with Ryan Adams and my bag of chicken feed and if the president needed me to move, I could not. Sometimes the world just turns around three times and lays down at your feet. I'm falling in love with a world I don't get to keep. none of us do. Love is hell, pt 1.

I don't know how I got here. I can't draw a line in my memory from Kutztown to Knoxville to Sandpoint to Sandgate and have it make sense to me in any logical way. All I know is that somehow I made this farm out of naked willpower and anxiety and a paycheck-to-paycheck budget. When I moved in a year ago it was an empty cabin covered in ice and now there are outbuildings and fences, gardens and rabbit hutches, coops and a dogsled parked on the front porch. Right now as I am wrtiing to you there are hooves resting on straw, eggs incubating under breasts, and seedlings growing in the windowsill. The transition floors me. A year ago I was 2,000 miles away....this place got a second chance a life to.

That horrible leap changed the timing of my life mid-song. It stopped me just like Ryan did tonight in the Vermont woods. It's why I read Neruda's love poems on lunch breaks. It's why I get excited about things like snap peas and chickens. It's why I started this farm life. Folks, I'm simply excited to be here. Farming seems to be the closest you and I can get to directly participating in our short lives. I want to grow, raise, and know the things that keep my heart beating. This makes sense to me.

I think someday I'll go home to Tennessee. It's a place that haunts me, that wrote it's name across my lungs. I think about that state like people think about first loves. It isn't right for me to go back now, I know that. It seems like it should have me. After all, everything you know about me, this whole farm, this whole struggle to become a shepherd is on borrowed time from a temperamental waterfall in a southern state. I owe it.

On another note, I started a proposal to write a second book. Wish me luck. So far luck's all I've got.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

hey! snap pea planters!

Isn't that necklace fancy? I dig it. I found it on etsy while looking for antler necklaces (don't judge). You can click on the picture to go to the sellers page if you're so inclined. Jewlry aside, I just wanted to remind all you container gardeners that it's probably time to transfer those peat pots and seedlings into larger containers. That is if you haven't already. Once those suckers hit about 4 inches they need new cribs.

You'll also start to see these guys grasping for something to climb onto. I suggest placing them near a window that won't freeze them so they can climb up the wall. But you can also plant them in a large floor planter a few inches away from one another and buy one of those tomato baskets you see in garden stores. Or you could be like me and just rig something out of chopsticks and dowel rods. Whatever works guys. Burn the Buddha if you're cold.

Oh, and a short PSA. If you are using the peat pots with the panty-hose type webbing around them, make sure you remove that mesh before you plant it. I've known too many seedlings to get choked by that stuff, regardless of what the instructions say.

somewhere in kansas

Since I started writing about homesteading I've been lucky to meet a lot of great folks I may have otherwise never ran into. Readers, bloggers, authors, farmers and a slew of random people I never thought I'd know on a first-name basis. The fine people down in Topeka who staff Mother Earth News are said people. Since I started blogging for them, and writing the occasional web or print article for the magazine—I've come to know some of the gang there through emails and conversations. Yesterday, when I came home from work there was a congratulations card signed by the whole staff for the Books for a Better Life Award, how amazing is that?! You kids...

Aubrey sent me this photo from the office. The fact that somewhere in Kansas there is a magazine staffer rolling her mouse over an image of my angry sheep, well that's a fantastic little nexus. I just wanted to thank you guys here, and let you know how excited I am to be considered a twice-removed part of your family.

Also, the next issue of M.E.N. will have an excerpt from Scratch in it, with over a dozen color photos of the the farms in Idaho and Vermont, including...Maude, the champagne of sordid herbivores.

jazz in the smokies

Monday, March 2, 2009

beautiful, him

Sunday, March 1, 2009

garden gate

livin' on a prayer

Vermont is still freezing cold with nights back near the single digits. They are calling for snow all week, making me roll my eyes everytime I look out the window. Listen I love winter, I do, but enough is enough. All relationships need some space and I think winter and I need a solid six-month separation to keep things healthy. The silver lining to all this ice-coated misery are my peas. My flower pot here on the kitchen table has seven four-inch sprouts and seeing them every morning with my coffee has been an answered prayer in a very very cold winter. (Which goes to show you can create small miracles with the winning combination of patience and seed catalogs). Oh, and before I forget, someone emailed me this photo of their peas from their phone, and I have no idea who's they are, so somebody better fess up. That's a fine set of sprouts you have there. Be proud.

You know you're a blog person when you're annoyed you can't update. Maybe "annoyed" isn't the right word, because I wasn't upset or anxious, I just missed my daily sit down with the laptop to unload the farm news. It's just that the last few days have been really busy. I actually had some company up here at Cold Antler. My friend Kevin took a train from Philly and together we lived it up like the old days, junkin' around antique malls and catching up. Not to brag but Kevin found me a hideous porcelain decanter in the shape of the state of Tennessee (which I of course bought). It now sits on my mantle. Oh, Tennessee.

The real focus of the trip was going to see Sarah Vowell in Massachusetts Friday night, which was fantastic. If you're not familiar with her, Sarah's a regular on my favorite radio show, This American Life, and she's the author of a pile of books talking about history, pop culture, and us. For a good time, pick up her travel bit Assassination Vacation. It's a hilarious book about visiting the history and locations of the assassinations of Garfield, McKinley, and Lincoln. Sounds dark, but I promse it's hilarious. And if you dig history half as much as I do you'll lap it up like the tall sarcastic drink of water that it is. I also gave her a copy of Scratch, and never felt lamer in my life doing so. But hey, how often do you meet Sarah Vowell?

I have some big personal news...I played the fiddle at an open mic night last night! My bandmates Steve and Phil and I played at a small comfy bar called Kevin's in North Bennington (no association to the previous Kevin, for there are many), and I even had friends show up to support me, which in all honesty, made the night. There is profound comfort in knowing I'm starting to make friends with people who'll sit through a guy in a bathrobe playing a flute behind a pair of congas long after their meal was spent to wait for me to play. Dedication from saints like that is proof positive I'm getting somewhere socially.) As for the playing, I wasn't nervous, but mostly because three bow strokes in I realized there was no way anyone (including me) could hear my fiddle over the noise of the bar and electric instruments. So my performance was really just me pathetically miming with two guitarists... Regardless, I still got up there and I'm proud of myself for taking that step as a homegrown musician. I've been hoping to do this for a long time, and just like planting peas - sometimes you need to be a little proactive about your big plans. It's amazing what we call make ourselves do with some potting soil and a few Guinesses in or bloodstream.

Okay, coffee is done on the stove. You know me.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

an interview with zhenya senyak!

I want you all to meet Zhenya Senyak, the author of the recently published book Banjo Camp! Zhenya hails from Asheville, a town I love and used to frequent when I lived in Tennessee. Banjo Camp! is a gem folks. It's a beginner's instruction book for teaching yourself the basics, but it's much more than that. This colorful and friendly book is a tour on the backroads of America's roots music. You'll see photos, hear stories, and learn about all the ruckus happening in camps and shindigs all around the country. It makes you want to sling your banjo over your shoulder and start waling to the nearest campfire jam.

Zhenya has been kind enough to stop by the farm for an interview. We'll be having a friendly conversation about old-time music, his love of openback banjos, and some advice for all of us new pickers out there. If you are even mildly interested in making the banjo part of your life, pick up his book. It comes with a CD too, so you can listen to what you should be playing as you frail along at home ( a must-have for all us self-taught folks.) Okay enough yakking from me, everyone pull up a chair and gather round.

Zhenya, thanks for stopping by. Welcome to the farm.
Hi, Jenna, appreciate the invitation. Love the farm… and thanks for the mug of coffee. If Jazz and Annie are willing to move over a little, I can put down my banjo case.

So you've been playing banjo for how long now?
That’s hard to pinpoint. Six years ago I started Blue Mountain Schoolhouse, a teachers cooperative that offered all kinds of classes around Asheville, North Carolina. And in the course of interviewing teachers I got turned on to old-time music. I found a little hand-made banjo at a garage sale, , cracks filled in with bondo, strings high off the fretboard and some assorted tuning pegs screwed into the peghead. The guy said it would look good hanging on my wall but that was my first banjo. I paid $12 for it, about what the Pete Seeger banjo book cost me.

That part of my banjo career lasted about two weeks, maybe less. But I did hear some banjo sounds before I got discouraged. It was three years ago, when I was about to start a newspaper job, that one of the Blue Mountain teachers traded an open-back banjo for one of my acoustic guitars. And there was something magical about that banjo. I played it first thing in the morning, lots during the day and last thing at night. I’d wake up hearing that jingle jamming plunking sound in my head and couldn’t wait to start picking. So I’d say, yeah, I’ve been playing about three years now.

I gather you started as an adult. Was that intimidating?
I don’t know about being an adult, but I know I was surely getting on. I finished that newspaper job two years ago when I turned 70 and figured it’s now or never. I just leaped full bore into banjo and mountain roots music, spending an intensive year studying, visiting banjo camps, jamming. Yeah there were some intimidating parts. I got started playing bluegrass where, beyond learning the rolls and repertoire, there’s a whole routine of lead breaks and backup that you have to know before feeling reasonably comfortable in a jam. Plus bluegrass is a lot more of a performance.

Old time music is mostly people sitting in a circle, putting their heads down and playing together. When I found my way to old-time music banjo playing kicked into a whole new gear for me, more soulful, rhythmic, communal. I’m lucky, living in the heartland of old time music, to be surrounded by great old time musicians. For now, that usually keeps me at the edge of the circle at fiddle conventions and the many old-time jams around town, but I can play along and get into the groove and be part of the music.

Do you think making your own music can be considered a form of self-reliance?
That’s a good question. The flip side of picking with friends – and strangers – is your relationship to your instrument and to music. What I love about the banjo is its transformative power, the way it can jack me up or calm me down, keep me company on the road.

With my banjo, I don’t have to depend on MP3 players or CDs, on an electrical hook-up or batteries and ear buds. I love music, all kinds of music and, play lots of instruments… somewhat. Most any instrument, for that matter, most any way of producing music or rhythm gives us the ability to create an environment. The open back banjo, to me is alone in its range as a solo instrument. It can be mellow or insistent, ring out or just sing along softly on a single string. It’s a drum on a stick with stringed intervals that encompass all musical forms.

Why do you think old-time and bluegrass music feel so kindred to living close to the land?
Old-time music, country music whatever its form, is really folk music, music people make when they come together. Sometimes the music is about current events but often it’s a variant on old tunes passed along in families and communities. This is music that sustained people working long hours on the farm, when maybe the only refreshment was picking up a banjo at the end of the day or coming together with others for a fiddle and banjo dance.

Handmade music as the accompaniment to rural life is the natural way it has been for many centuries, long before cities and concert halls arose All that living history of folk music only started being collected in recordings and published and passed along recently. It’s great that that work has been done because now we have some historic record of folks who are gone, music we might never have

Returning to the roots or roots music is not a big leap. We may take our Blackberries and other electronic gear for granted, but the World War One was less than a century ago and at that time radio didn’t exist. Television, in any form, has only been around for 60 years or so and personal computers only go back a little more than 25 years.

You did mention to me you recently picked up a fiddle. Are you saying mountain music has some inevitable side-effects
When I was researching Banjo Camp! I interviewed many old-time banjo players who also played the fiddle. Maybe it’s not right to say “also,” since you’re talking about some of the best old time fiddlers in the world, like Brad Leftwich. Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham are good old-time examples of the nexus between fiddle and banjo. When the fiddle bug bit me, I understood immediately why these instruments are so bonded together. Of course they’re both light and portable, but their voices just naturally blend. When played together, fiddle takes the lead and banjo provides the beat, but it’s more complex than that since rhythm is an important part of fiddling just as dropping melodic and harmonic licks into a solid frail is part of banjo. It’s a conversation and now that I’m past that first squealing sour note stage of fiddling, it’s a conversation that’s fun to listen to . Bob Carlin and John Hartford made a fiddle/banjo CD called just that, “Conversations” that’s worth listening to if you get a chance. An old-time musician, playing fiddle and banjo is a little bit like Pinetop Perkins playing boogie woogie on the piano, the parts just come together.

What has been the biggest reward since you played your first tune on your banjo?
Hard to say. There have definitely been some highlights, long sessions with David Holt showing me the clawhammer ropes, conversations with Pete Seeger and Tony Trischka, listening to Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn at an Obama fund-raiser, the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Joe Thompson on fiddle at the Swannanoa Gathering, weekly Shindig on the Green events in Asheville or the Wednesday night jams at the Jack of the Wood Tavern. For all that, I’m pretty much a loner. The biggest rewards for me have been the break-throughs, the empowerment, feeling close enough to my banjo to make the music I hear in my head, or maybe even close enough to let the banjo lead into the music.

What advice do you have for the timid-wannabe-banjo players out there?
It’s called playing the banjo…and that’s the attitude to take. If you just sit down and mess around for awhile, get some good old-time banjo music in your head and learn a few basic chord positions, it will all come together. You’ve got to just do it, knowing it’s about the music and playing and having a good time. You can work hard at it because it’s fun but if you start getting all grim about it, might as well take up insurance sales or something.

Think you'll ever stop picking?
That’s my epitaph: “Finally stopped pickin’”

Thanks Zhenya, 'preciateya.
So… you ready to break out your banjo and pick a couple of tunes?

two lives and the big why

This morning I had an interview on Martha Stewart's radio show Whole Living. It was a fine, polite interview. Nothing out of the ordinary. But the host asked me something that gave me pause. She asked me what I get out of working so hard at Cold Antler? She wanted to know why any sane person would work a 40-hour office week and then come home to churn butter, feed chickens, and sew clothing? This is not an unreasonable question. I get it a lot.

I tried to give her a quick answer about wanting to transition my life into one supported by full-time farming and writing, and that seemed to appease her—but it didn't stop my wheels from turning. The real answer to why I live the way I do is much more complicated than that because it's so ridiculously simple. And I'll explain that more in a minute.

It's never easy to explain to people why sustainable farming has such a hold on me. But ever since it first dug those raven claws into my brain - my life as a regular person has been split in two. One half is a world of high-brow design and corporate culture and the other world is one of potting soil, bee hives, and turkey feathers. Together these two lives collide and make up the everyday goings-on of Jenna Woginrich. I'm okay with splitting my life in half. Things are never boring around here, that's for damn sure.

Now, as to explain why I dance this dance—here's something I wrote for Mother Earth News. This is just an excerpt but you can click the link at the bottom for the whole story. I think it explains the addiction just fine.

From the article Why Homestead
Why would a perfectly normal middle class gal, who had a nice city job, and a pleasant apartment pick up her life and shake it till trowels and feed sacks fell out? Why spend a year learning to raise chickens and keep bees and nearly pass out of heat stroke in the garden when eggs, honey, and broccoli are all for sale at the grocery store for less than the cost of that hoe in your blistered hands?

There are a lot of canned answers to this and you know them already. As fellow homesteaders (or friends there of) you get the whole “homegrown-satisfaction-quality-of-life-green-living” bit. All those reasons ring true for me too, but there’s something else writhing below those surface answers. Something deeper that makes me smile in the garden or laugh from my belly in the bird yard.

It’s the honesty of knowing what I do everyday directly helps keep me alive.

It’s that simple.


You can read the rest of that story here

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

saro sits

If you walk into my birds' coop right now this is the rump you'll most likely see. Little Saro brooding near the feed bin, living on a prayer. She rarely leaves her post, not even getting up to eat or drink. I worry about her, and hand feed her grain and water to make sure she takes care of herself while on duty. Cyrus (her mate) guards her and egg like a proud father, hissing whenever anything gets too close. I have no idea if the home team will pull it off, but there's a slight chance a gray gosling will honk in this spring melt. For now, our girl sits and waits and we do to. Stay tuned.

right proud

John from Washington sent me this photo, and I had to share it. Look at this triple threat! An antique coffee grinder, a Fire King Jadeite mug,* and a stove-top percolator. Readers of this blog know I am a firm believer in the power of green mugs and strong bean water. It is understood by all of us here that this trifecta has the combined power to help the timid take on anything that comes their way.

I love coffee. It's responsible for slaying four states in four years with all my limbs intact. Every morning I look forward to that first mug. It gets me started in the world. It's also what makes feeding sheep in a blizzard at 5:30 AM a conceivable reality for someone who used to think not having a blow dryer was roughing it... Anyway, John also wrote that while his Montana dreams are a ways off, he can have a good cup of coffee while he plans his great escape. Made me right proud, that. Glad to be of service John. If you're ever in Vermont, I'll buy you a drink. Thanks for the picture.

*Greatest coffee mug on the planet. This is indisputable. Sorry potters.

books for a better life awards...

I won!

Monday, February 23, 2009

everyday antiques

award shows, banjos, and guests

So right now while I'm writing barefoot in my cabin, adorned in a blue hoodie and brown bandana... somewhere in New York City Made From Scratch is nominated for an award at a place where people are far better dressed than I am. The Books for a Better Life Awards are going on tonight, hosted by Meredith Vieira. I'm up for the Green category, and if I win it'll be the first award I received as an author. If I don't win, it's still the first award I was ever considered for. That alone makes me feel a little fancy, even if my entourage consists of a pair of sled dogs, chickens, rabbits and some bitchy sheep.

Yesterday's storm blew in ten inches of fresh powder. I woke up to a world covered in white. Every tree branch, every fence post, every sheep had its own pearl coating to greet the day with. This morning I took this photo near the cabin looking down the hill at my outhouse. Yes, I have an outhouse. Don't worry, the cabin has plumbing, but I kind of like that I have a functioning old-school option. I think it looks kind of pretty out there in the snow.

I spent the blizzard in front of the fireplace, plucking the banjo and reading between regular trips outside to take care of the animals. I dig my Morhan Monro Hobo, and our happy progress together. I have moved onto my second tuning (sawmill), and am learning a new mess of songs. I am not as quick a student in clawhammer as I was with the fiddle, but I am getting it. I really don't take my backwoods education too seriously. Mostly I learn at my pace as I go, taking what I can and not letting myself worry too much about nailing it in one sitting. Unlike the fiddle, this isn't about love and passion - this banjo stuff is more like adopting a really great goofy dog. I enjoy its company, it makes me smile - but it's not going to make it into my wedding vows. But damn folks, learning a new tune is a fine reward.

And hey, when you can't grow anything in your garden - cultivating music is a perfect substitute. I highly suggest this banjo business for any frustrated/impatient gardeners out there. You'll be glad you learned a few licks when your tired and happy on the back porch after those first few days of planting. A cold beer, something on the grill sizzling, and a happy banjo frailing at sunset makes all that dirt and tilled rows seem so worth it. I look forward to that night so much it hurts. Snow melts, right?

And speaking of banjos... I have some interesting news for you pickers (and future pickers) out there. On a lark I emailed Zhenya Senyak, the author of Banjo Camp. I told him how much I loved his book, and that it was the perfect introduction to the instrument, the community, history and modern goings-on of us banjo-folk. I asked if he'd grace this blog with an interview about learning the banjo as an adult, and mountain music's role in simpler living. Shucks guys, he agreed! So this week the blog will have it's first ever bonefide guest interview! If you're new to the farm, you can click here to read my post about his book. I'm really excited to have him join us for a day. He'll be a hoot.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

sal

People who assume sheep lack personality, dignity, or character have never met my Sal. He is my favorite of the flock, and I say that without apology. Sal's a lion of a sheep, and every time I look at him I wonder what he has already figured out about me. I was outside feeding them this morning and he hung beside my waist to get scratched on the head. In the wind his dreadlocks blew around his face as the storm picked up. I scratched his head and noticed a small cut. I thought about the bag balm inside, and made a note to bring it out at evening check in. There was probably a haiku in there somewhere, but instead I took a photograph.

before the storm

Took this photo right when the wind was picking up. A storm is coming in today, with a minimun of eight inches in the forecast. I was supposed to drive an hour south down the mountains into Williamstown for that event, but I had to call and cancel. I just don't feel safe driving back in the dark in a snowstorm. Not in Sandgate. The roads here won't be taken care of till the school buses have to drive on them tomorrow. So I'm holing up, and feel like a schmuck. I am sorry guys.

"You need to get a pickup, girl"

Were the words said to me yesterday morning as the proprietor of D&D Feed walked inside to meet me, pulling off his hat and mittens as he made his way into the main office. He had just noticed the current state of my transportation and did not approve. Outside the Subaru was in its usual train-wreck state. All the seats in the back were folded down to make room for the five bales of hay I just picked up in Hebron over at Nelson Green's farm. The back hatch couldn't shut so it was lashed down with dirty baling wire. The front passenger-side seat was already loaded with 75 pounds of Scratch grains and rabbit pellets. I had been waiting near the front desk, having just called the number on the door in case anyone showed up to pay for their stuff. I nodded when he made the truck comment. I'll get there eventually. We all know this.

After some conversation about tomorrow's snow report and a signed check, I left the feed store. I was a few short miles from home and trying to juggle a very loaded station wagon with the ice-covered back roads. At one point in my life an open back hatch might have made me cold, bothered me even, but I rarely flinch at anything over -4 degrees anymore. And to be honest, I was too wound up to consider the wind chill inside the car. I was still reeling from Nelson's place.

Earlier that monring when I pulled up to Nelson's giant post-dairy farm no one was there. So I walked up to the house to see if anyone was home. I was confused because I called and made an appointment, but was told by his wife he ran to town, and if I could, would I please load the hay myself?

Well, of course I would. I was just anxious about how to go about it. I turned and faced the giant hay storage barn across the dirt road. It was about seven times the size of my cabin. The only way to get in (that I knew about) was a small loft hatch one of Nelson's farm hands would crawl into to throw bales out of.

Okay. I was going in.

Now I've been buying hay from Nelson for months. The day I drove home with the flock in the back seat, he was outside this very farm as I drove past. He was loading bales into the back of someone's truck when I pulled over to ask him (then a complete strange) "Do you have any hay?" and he laughed out load at my sheep taxi and said "Sure! You have any sheep?" That same day I that I welcomed the first hoofstock ever to Cold Antler Farm, I went back to Nelson's and together we loaded the car with eleven bales. A partnership had been made.

But now I was left to my own devices. I parked the car near the hay barn, turned on my hazards, and walked to the hatch door. I crawled up into the loft, and for a few holy moments I stood there and took it all in. I was standing in the soft, dusty, beams of winter light in a giant wooden barn. All around me forty-foot walls of second cut hay towered over my head. It was beautiful. Moments like this are like farm pornography. For me they're blantant moments of self-indulged pleasure. A bit of fantasy come true. Someday I'll have my own barn loaded with hay like this. I stood in awe, ridiculously happy at the sight of it.

Sometimes I worry if it's normal to gain inspiration from piles of dead grass...

I recently saw a magazine at Wayside that made me do a double take. The cover actually had a headline "What to do with an old barn!" which instantly made my heart drop into my lungs. The idea that some people have perfectly good barns and have to look to their coffee tables for ideas on what to do with them, breaks my heart. An unused barn being converted into lofts or gallery space makes me livid. I can't stand the gluttony of unused farms. Not when I'm at a place in my life where I would do anything to work that hard on my own land. My problems would be fitting in all the animals, figuring out lambing jugs and creep feeders, not if I should hire a historical society to restore it for the state's collective rural nostaglia... Christ, why don't you start eating caviar around some Victorian-novel orphans?

But a barn is a long way off, and I shouldn't be so bothered by what other people do with their land. After all, it is theirs, and none of my business what they do with their land. Right now I need to focus on what is going on in my current farmlife. Things like a pregnant Angora doe, and a goose-in-waiting. I have fences to mend, bills to pay, feed to stack, mouths to fill, and hay to put up. A pickup, a border collie, a flock of Scottish Blackface sheep, and a million other dreams will all have to wait for now.

It's good to want things, but dangerous to need them.

roll uphill

If you ever get the chance to drive alone under cold stars while listening to Bon Iver's Blood Bank, please do it. Make sure it's in the middle of a New England winter while your dog hangs her head out the frigid window, the heaters blasting in your face. Listen as you roll uphill past ghosts of birches and sugar maples and the places you once lived. These are the small moments without consequence that infect a whole lifetime.

It was a great ride home.