When I drive over the state line to Hebron for hay—I never know what's in store for me. New York may only be a few miles from my door, but it's an entirely different world from Vermont. (Let's just say there's more tractors than Volvos over there.) Last weekend I ran into a small herd of young cattle using Nelson's (my dealer) neighbor's yard as pasture. To see twenty calves eating take out in a lawn is kinda great. As I drove by I rolled down the window and got a shot of this kid near the mailbox. He mooed back at me, and I drove back to CAF with a station wagon full of hay bales.
What a week. The bear returned every night, save last. He was a horror--taking out garbage cans, ripping down the sheeps ' fence, knocking over grain bins, and taking out the neighbor's bird feeders, hives, and more. The neighbors and I have been talking about our options on how to deal with the problem. Two of them are strongly against calling the Fish and Wildlife department, since they don't want the bear shot. I'm not for slaying bears either, but if I wake up one morning to a pile of dead poultry or bleeding sheep—I will be. I'll keep you posted.
Yesterday I had to run to Tractor Supply on my lunch break to buy replacement fencing. As I was leaving the store, trying to load the fencing into the back hatch (which was bursting with feed sacks, hay, a hose, and other homestead gear)a guy next to me in a pickup truck looked at the back of the station wagon and then his empty bed and said, "Wow. You need this truck more than I do.."
I sure do. He has no idea.
Last night, as the sun was setting and the farm was still feeling warm, I fixed the fence while the sheep grazed behind me in their pasture. I sang a little to myself, tying up the woven wire with green baling wire (the veins of this operation is green bailing wire)to make a sort of fence band-aid for the night. At least it will get the job done till I can replace the fencing later this summer. And so far, it's been holding the sheep in, and keeping Mr. Bear out. And right now, that's all I can ask.
I have become a great disciple of the hammock. Every night I sway out there, thinking about things that make my mind reel. Usually until they stop and all that's left is some gentle rocking and peace of mind.
Tonight I brought out blankets, pillows, and a banjo. And I plucked along my favorite waltz as I looked up at the waxing crescent moon over the pines. The wind picked up now and again, rocking me even more. The creek sang, the frogs chorused, and occasionally a sheep cried out in the dark, from across the pasture. I played my banjo and thought about my day.
Every time I do an interview, or a radio show, or go to a book event--someone always asks me if I'm lonely? I suppose I should be, but I'm not. There are of course people I miss when they're not around, but there is no blanket desire to seek out company for the sport of it. Things are how they are. I like being by myself. It allows for times like tonight. Quiet. Full. Completely engaged in the world without getting attached to it.
No, I am never lonely. I'm always thinking, and that bides all my time and borrows more I haven't yet earned. Tonight I swayed and I was glad.
I came across this song and wanted to share it with you guys. It's called Old Old fashioned, by the Scottish indie kids, Frightened Rabbit. I adore it. You can click this link here to listen to it. Here are the lyrics. I would consider this some great gardening music for the ipod. But I wouldn't consider the album 'family friendly'. Just a heads up if you buy the cd and have kids in the car...
Old Old Fashioned
I'll turn off the TV It's killing us, we never speak There's a radio in the corner It's dying to make a scene So give me soft, soft static With a human voice underneath And we can both get old fashioned Put the brakes on these fast, fast wheels Oh let's get old fashioned Back to how things used to be If I get old, old fashioned Would you get old, old fashioned with me?
Put the wall clock in the top drawer Turn off the lights so we can see We will waltz across the carpet 1-2-3-2-2-3 So give me the soft, soft static Of the open fire and the shuffle of our feet We can both get old fashioned Do it like they did in '43 Oh let's get old fashioned Back to how things used to be If I get old, old fashioned Would you get old, old fashioned with me?
So give me soft, soft static We won't need no electricity If we both get old fashioned We won't have to rely on our memories Oh let's get old fashioned Back to how things used to be If I get old, old fashioned Would you get old, old fashioned with me?
Yesterday was heaven. A perfect day of hard work, good music, a sunset jog, and then a long hot shower. It all ended with meditation in the hammock under the cold stars, swinging above the world, smiling like an idiot. The happiness I find in the refuge of this farm could make the ground beneath me shake as I walk across it.
The day started in town with errands and a dog walk. But on my way home I stopped by the Equinox Garden Center to see what they had in store for me. I came home with twelve baby broccoli and lettuce starts (budget is tight, or I would've came home with five times that!) and placed them on the floor of the passenger seat for the ride home. Annie hung out her window as we drove, such a happy girl. I sang to the Frighten Rabbit cd blasting in the car, and since it was lunchtime and 80+ degrees out I saw no reason not to stop for ice cream. Which I did, and to be driving up my green mountains with good music, happy dogs, garden hope, and a mint chocolate chip was all I needed to feel a slice of bliss. After I wolfed my treat, I stopped at wayside and bought some Coke in a cold glass bottle to wash it down. Perfect. All of that morning, perfect.
When I got back to Cold Antler I changed into my Rosies, work boots, and an insect repellent bandana. Time to work! I grabbed a pitchfork and went to tackle the chicken coop, mucking out the winter's bedding and moving it into the garden as weed control/fertilizer. When that was in fair shape--I set down the pitchfork and picked up my hoe. I turned over four raised beds, and checked on the progress of my little supermarket. Peas were rising from the earth, as were seed lettuce and potatoes. The rhubarb was coming up nicely, as were last years strawberries. I planted the new started plants I bought and then planned where the corn, tomatoes, onions, and everything else would go. Hours later, stood back with the hoe across my shoulders to take in the effort. I sighed a long sigh.
Beautiful. Nothing is more beautiful than turned earth and the promise of good food.
The sheep watched from their pasture. Marvin hopped the fence once and that was a hoot getting him back in. Bean Blossom, my pregnant Angora doe, also escaped from her hutch (I forgot to turn the latch after cleaning out her bedding) and that was another adventure in animal husbandry. But by evening all the animals were back in their clean pens. And my garden made my back and shoulders roar in that satisfying pain of a job well done.
So I decided to be a sadist and go for a run. Which was impossible, and silly of me. I was beaten down from the yardwork, but I wanted to end the day completely whipped. (I wanted that shower with mint soap to be earned, and when dark came and it was just me in my hammock, to sink into it as I swayed.) I made it half a mile before my body gave out on me, and walked the rest of the way home. The sunset over the Sangate hills was amazing.
A few years ago, had you told me I would find this level of contentment after putting my body through hell and only spending $5.98 on veggie six-packs. I would have laughed in your face. But I've come to love this homelife, and the responsibility and work that makes it all sing. To put down a hoe, and pick up a banjo for a few minutes costs nothing - just work and rest. Yet it gives me more satisfaction and sense of self than anything I read in any book or was told in a college class. There is freedom in this. Maybe our only chance at freedom?
Gary Snyder, might be my favorite person on the planet. He was the inspiration for Jack Kerouac's Japhy Ryder, a man who is all fiction but I can't stop spending time with. I love that man. I've read the Dharma Bum's a dozen times, and keep reading it because it makes me so happy to hear about the thoughts of those scrappy, wild, and searching men. Anyway, Snyder says this in his book, The Practice of the Wild:
"Wild and free." an American dream-phrase loosing images: a long-maned stallion racing across the grasslands, a V of Canada Geese high and honking, a squirrel chattering and leaping limb to limb overhead in an oak. It sounds like an ad for a Harley-Davidson. Both words, profoundly political and sensitive as they are, have become consumer baubles. I hope to investigate the meaning of wild and how it connects with free and what one would want to do with those meanings. To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are--painful, impermanent, open, imperfect--and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. For in a fixed universe there would be no freedom.
Well said, Gary. Well said... It takes a lot of shit to grow a garden. Be grateful for the manure--it's the cause of those first sweet bites of your harvest. Just don't get too attached to the taste. It will soon be gone.
While the coffee is heating up on the stove, and the farm is waking up, I thought I'd check in. Two eggs I collected last night are frying in a pan, and right now I can hear Chuck Klosterman crowing outside. He's usually the middle man of the roosters. Always running from the cabin down to the stream and back to check on his girls. The other boys stay at their posts, but not Chuck. He owns that stretch.
The hive is lost. The bear came back the past three nights and not only destroyed my entire box, but took out my neighbor's Chris and Katie's hives as well. It was a bear rampage around here. And last night I took Jazz with me on my farm rounds. I just feel safer with a wolf at my side, even if all he would do is lunge and howl if a bear did show up. I am very happy to say the sheep, birds, bunnies and garden are all safe as houses.
The day should prove beautiful. The forecast calls for 80 degree weather, a first for the season, and I am chomping at the bit to get into that garden. So far the rhubarb, peas, salad greens and some early potatoes are already poking out between the straw-lined rows. Today I'll be planning the broccoli and onion garden and getting it ready for started plants next weekend. Soon every day will be spent among those leafy rows. To look from the raised beds and see a sheep trot by, watch a goose waddle into the coop, or see a robin land on the grass... all little things, but there's nothing bigger.
I like these weekends where the whole goal is to just work. I know I have things to prepare, and by nightfall I'll feel whipped from tha hand tools and long hours--but tonight I'll have that hammock and some ibuprofen and sway. And with a banjo in my lap and the Vermont stars above me everything solid a few feet below will feel better all the better when my bare feet finally decide to return to land.
Have a great weekend guys. Plant something. But first, enjoy some coffee. Which is what I'm going to do right now.
Every morning I go out and do my rounds. I check on all the animals. I carry water and feed. I look things over. This morning when I walked by the hive on the way to the sheep pen, my heart sank. You just can't know how hard it is seeing a year's work broken like that ... To know those bees survived one of the coldest New England winters in recent history... that all summer they built comb, raised brood, and helped pollinate my forest and gardens...and now this; a pile of bear rubbish.
Sometimes all this farm business just takes your heart and throws it under a bus. This morning was one of those mornings.
Thank you to everyone who wrote, commented, or emailed me to say they're sorry about the hive. I am truly sorry if I haven't been able to respond to your emails. More and more have been coming and with a full time job, and a full-time spring on the farm, email has become a luxury. But I appreciate your writing me very much, and even if the responses are late, I'll get them to you.
And some good news: After this morning's drama, I did what I could to recreate the orginal green hive body. I put in the combs that were intact, and put the lid on, hoping the bees that swarmed off would return. Tonight, I checked and bees were back inside! No way of knowing if the queen made it back, but there is still a chance I could replace her from an apiary and keep the honey flowing this summer...cross your fingers folks. I'm living on a prayer.
Let's hope the bear doesn't return tonight for seconds. That hive is weaker than water right now...
If you'd like to see a bunch of photos from my old life in Idaho, and read an excerpt from my book, Mother Earth News has put the entire feature online! So you can check it out, write a comment, and click around their site. The crew at MEN is a fine bunch of folks, even Maude agrees with me there. I showed her the article when it came out and she stared right at it. Which may sound despondent, but since she didn't try to eat it or instantly defecate upon it's arrival. I consider that a glowing review.
So the farm is jogging into spring. In the next week weekends the garden will have seeds and started plants in the ground. The Angora Doe, Bean Blossom, will be delivering a litter of kits, and new chickens bought at the annual Poultry Swap will be strutting around the yard. Slowly the grass is starting to show up, and my arms are starting to feel the soreness of the rake. Evenings at the farm call to my guitar, fiddle, and banjo. I sit on my porch with the dogs and play and sing, sometimes with a hard cider in my hand, just to spice it up. A small prayer for fall, which I miss more than any of you know.
UConn yesterday was great. The University Bookstore hosted a fine author event, and about thirty people came to hear about the book. I got to meet some blog readers, shake hands, play some nervous fiddle music, and drive around campus (which was all green hills and beautiful). It reminded me of UT back in Knoxville, and a small part of me pined for Market Square and that old scene. Oh, Tennessee. The only ghost I'm haunted by...
My bags of wool are all awaiting processing. The plan is to hand spin some, and send the rest off to be processed at a small mill. The end result will be blankets, yarn, hats, scarves, and hell, maybe even a sweater if I'm feeling brassy. But just having the sheep shorn, and seeing them adjust to their new bodies has been an educational experience. This morning when I went out to check on the flock I couldn't see them. Usually, soon as daylight breaks they are pacing in the pen, yelping for breakfast. But this morning the chilly air and lack of wool changed their habits. They were all asleep in a pile in their shed, which had just been lined with clean straw. I had to yell for them to get up and watch them trot out baahing for hay. They look like goatdogs now, like a white Labrador and a goat were mixed together. Quite the combo, them.
I was in the kitchen writing when I heard the truck pulling into the driveway. I was already on my third cup of coffee, totally amped about the big day. I raced to the window and saw Jim McRae and his business partner Liz unloading gear from the back of their rig. I went out to meet them, slightly self conscious that I was about to help shear sheep in jeans from Banana Republic...
Whenever I am around professionals in the sheep world I get slightly nervous. I feel like a high school football coach about to chat with a guys donning Super Bowl rings. I worry about what I wear and what I say like I'm on some sort of date. I walked up to them, shoved my hands in my pockets, smiled, and tried to play shepherd. I asked how I could help and what could I carry? They handed me a toolbox and we were off for the pen.
The sheep were not excited to see the new company. They turned skittish. They knew this game. Jim and Liz went about the business of setting up their work area. They laid down some plywood to work on, and changed into shearing shoes. (These weird flat, wool shoes so their feet stayed flat and comfortable.) Then Jim grabbed Maude and Liz grabbed Marvin. Side by side they got their haircuts and manicures. To my complete surprise, Maude was an angel. She was limp as a ragdoll kitten in Jim's hands. Marvin however, fought a bit. He shook his butt on the ground and belted out a few complaints. Sal was last, and fought like a champ, but eventually let Jim finish the job. The whole time I tried to help best I could. I packed wool into bags, helped fetch gear from their boxes, plugged and unplugged stuff at their request...I just tried to be of use. I learned today what a big job this really was. I was grateful professionals were doing this instead of me.
I snapped photos as they worked them over, slightly amazed at how much wool was streaming off their bodies. My books say each 150-pound sheep was packing about ten pounds of wool each. I believed it. When the shearing was done, hooves were trimmed, butts were slapped (of sheep, not people), and the three very silly and naked looking sheep were all pacing in the pen. I thanked Jim and Liz, handed them their check ($49!) and let the trio out into their little pasture. I gave the troops a little hay, scratched their heads and necks, and watched them prance around like little does. They seemed happier without all that wool weighting them down. Then I looked over at my three bags full, propped against the fencing. I stood there grinning, my hands all oily from lanolin proudly on my hips. Sometimes things work out. Not always (hell, rarely) but sometimes.
I had a spring shearing of my own sheep under my belt. I felt rich.
Then, I heard a ruckus in the trees above. A pair of crows landed above me and apparently they had a lot to comment on. I waved to them smiling and went inside. Life rolls.
Thought I'd check in while I'm waiting for the sheep shearer to arrive. I am beside myself with excitement. Here's a shot of Maude (in front) and Sal taken moments ago. Say goodbye to that fleece kids. I can't wait to see them without their wool. They'll look ridiculous.
In a few hours I'll have three comfortably shorn sheep and enough wool to keep the people of West Sandgate in all the knit hats they can handle. I'm looking forward to hand processing a chunk of it, and also planning to mail off a bunch to professionals at a small mill who will send me back blankets and yarn. This summer I'll be knitting at campfires and on the porch, stocking up the pantry with next years Christmas presents. Friends and family will be wearing Maude, Marvin, and Sals' spring line.
This day: is a dream come true. For so long I have pined for sheep. I am so far away from the big dream, a full-time working lamb and wool farm. But today is the first time I ever helped clip my own hoofstock. I know it's only three sheep. I know Cold Antler isn't a big operation. But this is how things start. While no friends or family will be here this year to help, as the years go by more and more people will be a part of this. And someday it will end with bonfires and guitars and wine.
Yes, yes. This is the beginning of many good years with lanolin on my fingers.
The UConn Co-op, which is the University Bookstore, is hosting a Sustainability Fair this weekend. I'll be there Sunday at 2pm to talk about homesteading and living green. If you're in the area, stop by and say hi. I may even have Jazz and Annie with me (which would be appropriate, being huskies and all), but even if I'm sans dogs, it should be a nice discussion regardless. And the fair itself should be an educational event, full of interesting characters and helpful information. It's a green scene out there, for certain.
Also, sheep shearing tomorrow morning! Hoo! It'll be an exciting morning getting up early to prepare, get extension chords ready, find some plywood to work on. The shearer, a fella named Jim, is stopping by early. I promise to take lots of pictures, for certain.
After a few years of homesteading, I now know exactly what the sound of fugitive sheep hooves on a wooden porch sounds like. When a breakout occurs, the flock always make a run for the porch. It makes sense. That's where the hay is stored. And this morning, as a light snowfall covered the farm, I was shaken out of bed by a "clop clup Cluppy BANG!"- which is what clumsy hooves knocking over a water pail sound like. Very cumbersome antics, those.
As this happened, Jazz and Annie whipped their heads out of sleep. Jazz showed every tooth in his wolfy mouth. This is also, something I am accustomed. Waking up to fangs doesn't phase me in the slightest. I pet his head, half awake, and told him "That'll do.." He lowered his lips over his canines and placed his head back on a pillow, then curled his back for another round of sleep. My dogs are all talk and no consequence. I however, needed to wrangle some ovine...
I smiled, stretched, and went outside with the camera to get photographic evidence of the convict. There by the porch was Sal. (The only one who jumped the fence. The others were watching from the pen.) He was chewing on his pilfered breakfast, glaring at me. I laughed. Then I grabbed an armful of hay and asked him to follow me back to the pen. He heeled beside me like a golden retriever. The snow fell like cold ash around us as we walked back to the flock.
Every night I do the same thing. Around 10pm, the final rounds go on around Cold Antler and I put the farm to bed. It's just me, the stars, a small lantern, and my ipod. While listening to some slower, end-of-day music I go about the night chores I now consider as common as washing my face and brushing my teeth.
I feed the sheep some grain, and check on every bird in the hen house. I walk in the garden, planning my big plans. I carry out all the animal's water. I turn out lights. I scratch under the chins of Marvin and Sal. Sometimes I sing. I do these things and let the music swallow me, and I let myself get lost in whatever is on my mind at the time. Tonight I was grateful for the temperance of the music, and the full moon. Good company, them.
Tonight I was listening to a live concert Iron and Wine recorded for NPR's All Songs Considered. When He Lays in the Reins came on, I was particularly pensive. That song, even in all it's intensity, has the ability to consistently haunt me.
I was singing along tonight, checking on the flock when something fairly magical happened. From between the two wethers Maude walked right up to the gate. She was inspecting me, considering me. I kept singing along. "One more tired thing. A gray moon on the rise..." I carefully, slowly, put my hand out, still singing to the leery sheep. "When you’re all tuckered out and tame..." I stood there softly singing, my hand extended.
She touched it with her nose.
I nearly fainted. Then, recovering mid-stride, smiled like an idiot. What a win. What a perfect ending to a beautiful day. And the big lesson learned: Farming is infinitely more beautiful with a soundtrack. Burn the Louvre to the ground. Throw every book in the goddamn sea. But please, please leave me music. It's always everything.
I made an appointment with a sheep shearer to trim down the flock in the next few weeks. Calling about getting your sheep shorn on your lunch break at the office is kind of a surreal experience. Or maybe not surreal—more of a conflict of whimsical interests. Like watching TV in a lawn chair outside or sticking a couch in an elevator to hang out. But call I did, and soon Maude, Marvin, and Sal will hand over their three bags of wool. I think they'll be grateful too—as the days grow slowly warmer I can tell their lapping up a lot more water and spending their time in the shade. You'll have this.
P.S. Does that sheep engraving look like the rabbit in Donnie Darko to anyone else?
This is why I hate April. This fickle bitch of a month always keeps you guessing... Last night, Cold Antler got an inch of snow and just a few days ago I was outside in my garden, tilling the soil in a t-shirt!. You'll have this with April—but that doesn't mean I have to like it. She's ruthless, and keeps me so far away from October, my favorite month of the year.
As for the rabbit in the photo; that's Bean Blossom, my little angora doe. I had her bred recently but it didn't take, so I'll (well, I won't try. My Angora buck Ben will..) to breed her again this week. Hopefully there will be some spring bunnies here soon.
When I pulled into the farm after work last night, I saw a terrible thing.
Marvin and Sal, my two trusty wethers, were standing by the fence line baaing for hay. But behind them, a pile of limp wool lay in the shade. Oh my god...Maude.
Without even turning off the ignition, I bolted out of the car and raced to the sheep pen. Marvin and Sal watched me like a pair of golden retrievers behind chain link, sordid, quiet. Their mood made me worry more. I mean, they aren't usually wagging their tales and jumping at the fence, but they generally have some spark to them. Were they concerned too? Under the pine tree, Maude laid limp, her legs out, her head on the ground with her back to me.
"Maude?" I called, terrified. I was shocked at my own concern. Shocked that I ran to her like a toddler in front of a bus. Shocked that my heart was racing at the idea that something may have happened to her. Shocked I cared this much about this horrible animal. She still wasn't moving. Oh no...
"MAUDE!" I got louder.
Then, her ear flicked, and slowly she turned her angry face towards me. She stood up on her hooves, looked at me like I led the fourth reich, and baaed a low, pissed-off belch. Then turned around and laid down again in her shade, her rump facing my stance. She wasn't dead, she was napping.
I was never happier to be dissed by a sheep in my life.
The blog of author Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm. Where pop culture meets agriculture! Here she writes about her adventures following her feral life as a self-employed writer, homesteader, archer, falconer, equestrian, martial artist, hunter, spinner, brewer, geek, and real-life Game of Thrones Extra. She loves movies, music, running far, and eating animals.
On twitter @coldantlerfarm
And when the children are safe in bed, at one of the great holidays like the Fourth of July, New Years, or Halloween, we can bring out some spirits and turn on the music, and the men and the women who are still among the living can get loose and really wild. So that's the final meaning of "wild"- the esoteric meaning, the deepest and most scary. Those who are ready for it will come to it. Please do not repeat this to the uninitiated. -gs