Tuesday, June 23, 2009

on my mountain

I wish you could see the fireflies tonight.

a weekend's haul

I love junking. Going out on the weekend and finding old things. This photo is from a while ago, but I did find all those items on the same day. A day of driving past a garden center, some yard sales, antique shack and the such like. I found my fireking mug, a Tom Waits record, and a kickass suitcase. I also scored that fiddle for thirty bucks (and it came with paperwork from the turn of the last century). It needs some serious work from a luthier, but I'll fix her up down the road.

I like filling my life with these things. There isn't a lot of new stuff in my home. I have a computer, and a cordless phone, but everything else has switches and dials and tubes and cloth cords. They're just better. At least for me.

P.S. Thanks to the reader who sent me the link to that Wolfing Tag. I'm wearing it right now!

raisin' bread

This is my own recipe, adapted from a basic white bread recipe and some practice runs. But I have it down and, by god, it’s delicious. The whole process takes about 3-4 hours of time. But you’re only doing stuff for about 20 minutes, the rest is just waiting around. So it’s a great Saturday or Sunday errand-time thing to do. I decided to bake all my bread for the week on Sunday evenings. It’s a nice way to end the week.

White unbleached Flour
Butter (or margarine, or whatever)
2 eggs
Warm water
Light vegetable oil
Yeast packet

Step One: Yeast Party

Yeast comes in little packages for around 50 cents at the grocery store. If you’re new to baking bread (which I was) buying yeast is kinda novel. When you make bread you need to put two cups of warm water in a big bowl. The water has to be bath water warm, not scalding hot. When you accomplished this, dump in the yeast packet. Stir it up till it dissolves and then let the yeast set in there until it bubbles (about 5-15 minutes), which means it’s ready.

Step Two: Dough Party

Now that you have a pool of live cultures, add a teaspoon of salt and 2 big old tablespoons of honey and mix it up. Then add 2 cups of flour and your eggs and really beat it together into a sticky batter. It takes about 200 strokes or 2 minutes with a real blender. When that’s all mixed up add a 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of cinnamon (I like cinnamon, you can use less) and 3/4 cup of raisins. Spend some time on this and use your shoulders. Then add 3 more cups of flour one cup at a time. Mixing and mixing and making the dough more and more soft and not sticky.

Now take a half cup of flour or so and cover a clean table top or kitchen space with a fine layer of the flour. Dump your dough onto it and really knead it. Punch it with your hands, throw it in the air and catch it. Toss it on the table and then slap it. Press into it while you talk to your dogs about why Prince didn’t get electrocuted at the super bowl, whatever. Then when it’s all perky and in a nice weighty ball. Set it aside on your flour strewn table space.

Take either the first bowl you were using, or a brand new one and clean it out. (Wash and Dry it it if it’s the same bowl). Line the inside of the big bowl with butter or cooking spray and place your dough in there to rise. Make sure it can get twice it’s size. Cover it with a cloth and go do something else for an hour and a half.

Step Three: Dough After Party

Now this is my favorite part. You take the cloth off your bowl and see this giant glob of junk. You need to really punch it down and pop out all the air. I’m serious, just back up on that guy. Take out the dough and put it back on your table area. Hand knead it again and press out all the air pockets. Now you have this weird animal to work with. You need to cut the dough in half with a sharp knife. And these guys will be your two loaves.

Now here is where you can get creative. I like to take my one loaf and put it in a bread pan so it rises in that classic bread shape and it’s easy to slice for sandwiches and toast. But I like to take my other half and cut it into thirds. Then like play dough snakes I roll those buddies into long tubes and braid them together. I tuck the ends under and kinda twist them so they don’t unravel while baking. This really looks pretty.

Then you place your panned or braided dough on the counter, make sure you’re dogs can’t snatch them, and go do something else for an hour and a half. Weed that garden.

Step Four: Glazing and Baking

Preheat the over at 375 and then get some butter, sugar and cinnamon and melt and mix them together into a glass. Brush or hand wipe (that sounds dirty?) your glaze onto the second-risen bread dough. Filling in all the nooks and crannies with diabetes-inducing goodness.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until tops are slightly browned and hardened and a sharp knife comes out of the dough clean without any residual on it. Then, chompsville.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

jazz the pack dog

a dirty day

I write a lot about the things that make this small farm beautiful. I share stories that are important to me, or show me a better way to live thanks to these 6 borrowed acres and a cast of farm animals. This morning, however, I am not going to write about any of that. I am going to write about sheep shit.

It's been raining for days. The ground can only take so much. The soft, often-trampled dirt and straw that makes up the sheeps' pen had become a bog. I didn't realize how bad it was until I saw Maude and Sal laying under a tree in a rainstorm. I couldn't understand why they'd opt for a tree when they had a perfectly wonderful custom-built structure across the pen? Then I noticed the 6 inches of mud inside. And not just mud, but mud and rain water in a stew of sheep feces and rotting straw. I walked in there and it smelled like nothing I had ever smelled before. It was putrid. No wonder the sheep had been avoiding it. It smelled like the way a perm smells out of the bottle, but mixed with burning hair and rotting shit-soaked straw. Not a delightful way to spend your Saturday afternoon.

How did this decline so fast? Three days ago this shed was dry, the straw compacted and solid. But the rain and the slight grade downhill sent all the water into their bedding. This would not do. I had to roll up my sleeves, pick up a pitchfork, and get that stuff out of there.

Which I did. And it was exhausting. For everyone out there thinking about taking on livestock, know that while the lambs and wool are heavenly...there are days where you do nothing but exist in shit. For hours I pitchforked and shoveled their pen. he weight of the wet straw and mud was ridiculous. My back and arms screamed for me to stop, but I knew if I did I couldn't pick up that fork again. So I kept going till the entire shed was empty. I created a three-foot pile of the waste outside their pen. I looked down at my hands and new blisters were already opened and bleeding.

It was still better than any task at the office. Which is how I am certain I'm cut out to be a shepherd someday. You get me my land and some good fences and a border collie and I will be a force to be reckoned with.

When the ground was clear I laid down fresh, clean, straw. I will go back in tomorrow if the rain stops and do more, but at least I was able to get their shelter back in order. And I know my work was well worth it because Sal went right back in and curled up in his spot. And when the rain came that night, and was hitting the tin roof on the porch, I knew two sheep had a clean, dry place to wait it out. So that's something.

It's Sunday morning. I woke up feeling like I'd been hit by a truck. I covered myself in sore muscle badger balm and went outside to let the sheep into their little pasture and feed the chickens. Right now I'm going to take Finn for a drive down to Wayside to pick up the Sunday paper. He sticks his head out the window sometimes, which is a riot.

You folks have a nice day. Check back later for garden photos and a veggie update.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

i'll meet you there

The weekend of July 11th is the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trials. I'll be there volunteering with the club, running around to help however I can. But if you're in the area and want to see some of the finest herding in New England at a working farm center, please do come. It's a big time.

The Merck trials are beautiful. Two days of working dogs, sheep, and good people. The farm center is full of heritage livestock, local foods, and demonstrations. Last year there were sheep shearers, maple syrups, yarns, draft horse demos and more. There is even a "shuttle" from the parking lot to the trial fields (a pair of percherons pulling a wagon). It is lovely.

Someday I'll have my collie, and we'll be out there on that field. Mark my words good friends. I will get there. We may not win, we may not even compete, but someday this girl and a clever black dog will walk side by side among the lambs and tents. And I will kiss the ground to have made it so far.

Goodnight. I am so tired. I'll explain why in the morning.

Friday, June 19, 2009

finn's on mother earth news!

Here's a small excerpt from a new piece I wrote on Mother Earth News Online. You can click the link below to read the whole story and see Finn's lovable mug.

...A few weekends ago, I found myself at the equivalent of a livestock tailgate party. I was in the thick of the Schaghticoke Poultry Swap — a shindig that happens every spring. It's quite an event. What started as a small gathering to trade and sell chickens has evolved over the years into a parking lot festival of sales and bartering. Since the swap’s inception, the stock has expanded well beyond chickens. This year, there were ducks, geese, quails, rabbits, lambs, kids and more (I swear I walked past a box of puppies). And while it wasn't on the roster — had someone walked through the fairgrounds parking lot with a horse — I wouldn't have blinked an eye.

I was there with a short list. I needed some new laying hens to replace birds that passed away over the winter, nothing drastic. But I was also there hoping to find a very specific animal. I wanted to drive home with a young goat kid, hopefully a spunky buckling. I had been researching pack goats (goats trained to help carry gear on hiking trips via panniers or saddlebags), and if the stars aligned I planned to take home my own backcountry prodigy that same day....

Read the rest of the story here!
Photo by Tim Bronson

a little offense

So much rain as of late. It seems like every day when I wake up I hear it, and I know the morning chores will leave me soaked, sweaty, and barking for coffee by the time I stumble back inside. This sounds like a complaint, but it really isn't. I don't mind the rain, actually, I think I favor precipitation. I like a little offense in my day.

Snow, rain hail, sleet, wet winds—I like them all. When it's blustery outside on a crisp fall morning, and I get to return to a warm cabin and a hot shower I feel like I won something. Today was damp as hell, but barely drizzling. I went about the morning chores in my big brown boots and kept a running tab in my head of all the things that should happen this weekend. The sheep need their shed cleaned and the sopping mud removed. The birds need fresh straw. Finn's pen needs some dusting up as well. It'll all get done. It always does.

Right now as my pre-office coffee perks—I'm looking out the window at Finn chewing on the lawn and the two (now sold) remaining Angora bunnies in their pen on the grass. By wednesday the last kit will be picked up, and another litter will be on the way by the end of July. But today it feels good to have that job done.

I realize that the Cafe Press price might be too steep for those fiddlers shirts. If no one objects, I can replace some of the Snap Pea merch with the Fiddler's Summer logo? A 9.99 shirt seems more reasonable.

Okay. Time for coffee.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

fiddlers' summer organic shirts available!

fiddlers' summer update

Hello fiddlers! I'm checking in to see how your lessons are going and to announce an extension. We're going to move the final day of the challenge to July 31st. This gives people who signed up a little later a chance to catch up (and for all of you working shuffling on Ida Red, a little more time to practice). I also wanted to share a picture of my girl. That photo shows my fiddle—an early 20th-Century Czechoslovakian Shop violin that now resides at Cold Antler. I have been looking for an older instrument for a while (she's from the 20's) in my price range. I found her on Ebay, sitting in a small musical antique shop in Arkansas. Well, she's a Vermonter now!

Here's a video of Wayne Erbsen and some of his students (all ages on stage!) playing Wild Bill Jones at the Shindig on the Green. If you live in an area that has bluegrass festivals, please make it a Saturday afternoon project to go see one. And if any of you fiddlers live around New England, see if you can come visit Grey Fox. I hope to go, and maybe we can all meet there and have lunch, swap tips and play a little? It is a little pricey, but a day pass is cheaper and you get to meet thousands of musicians, see top of the line mountain musicians, and jam at campsites with new friends and fabulous people. It's a must-see (or so I'm told) this is my first year going.

a quick request

VPR is taking submissions for their summer reading show! If you want to help a farm girl out, visit VPR.net and suggest Made From Scratch!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Autumn is on my mind. I'm not sure why. Usually this type of longing doesn't kick in until late July, but I am ahead of myself, and pining. I found this photograph Sara Stell took when she visited last year. That's the road you take over the small creek that leads up to my farm. Right now all those leaves are green as June will allow, but in a few months they'll start to burst, and I will be glad.

You may never know a person who loves October as much as I do. Halloween will always be my favorite day, a big happy celebration of memories and a chance to get wild and remind yourself you're still among the living. I look forward to it more every year too. To temper my thirst—I bought some baby bear pumpkin starts on my lunch break. I'll plant them tonight. In a few months we'll see photos of them inside the cabin or on the porch and know we made it. I can't wait.

On an unrelated note: I think it's time I sucked it up and got involved in the world of sheepdogs and trials again. After the sadness of having a Border and then having to give her up, I have been distant from the club. But it's time to get back into the fields, and start learning again.

Monday, June 15, 2009

a stolen monday

I feel like I stole this morning. I took a vacation day from the office, and so instead of the usual commute I really took my time with the farm chores this morning. Nothing crazy—just a little extra time to glance over all the animals, sweep the porch, and brew some fresh coffee. Which, Incidently, I just pulled off the stove as it gurgled and pumped from its percolating. Oh, the decadent verve of an office farmer with a day off.

Just a few moments ago I walked outside and the grass was damp from last night's rain. Despite its sogginess, the sky was blue and the sun was out and everything was saturated, like memories. So I just breathed in deep, trying to savor it. But it's hard to feel Zen when thirty animals are baaing, squawking, and howling for breakfast. You can imagine the moment wasn't that serene. But hell, it was to me.

I started the morning chores like I always do, on the porch. There I fed and checked on Benjamin (my breeding rabbit) and moved the pen with the two remaining Angora kits off the wooden planks and under the big oak by the hammock. There they could feel grass under their paws and enjoy the shade.

I carried a small armful of hay out to my two sheep, walking past Finn's pen (who bleated at me to let him out). Sal and Maude seem despondent. I know Marvin's back where he should be, back to a big farm that misses him and will treat him to a barn and pastures I could never offer here—but I miss him. I can't believe I miss a sheep. Two sheep seem incorrect. They are not animals that should live in small numbers. I hope Finn grows up fast so he can join them and even the score.

Every morning I let the goat kid out of his pen, and give him a spot in the pasture to chomp away at via a chain tie out. He's too clever to stay in a fence and too curious to stay out of the garden, so the tie out seems like a fair trade. He gets sun and green grass and I get some peace of mind knowing my lettuce is safe.

I came inside refreshed, and now I'm writing to you.

My weekend mostly involved rabbit trafficking (sold two buck kits) and June gardening. I have learned that "June gardening" is just a romantic way to say weeding. This year's garden is the largest I ever attempted, and the weeds seem just as verdent and thriving as the veggies. I was out there for hours in the sun pulling between the rows. Vermont's a good place to be in this situation. I have never lived and worked with so many people who also grow their own food. Nearly every neighbor, co-worker, and acquaintance I have sows their own. I tele-garden as well. Last night on the phone with my parents, we were talking about the new live trap they bought to catch the rabbits their manic-depressive cat won't scare away from their garden. Seems like everyone's working for their salads this year.

Right now as I type things are quiet outside; a rare occurrence. Everyone's silent because their mouths are busy eating. From the kitchen window I can see Finn on his tie-out landscaping the edge of the garden fence. I can see Tthe sheep are eating hay in their pen. I know the rabbits, birds, and dogs all had their morning meals as well. And I—the magistrate of this scrappy empire—am enjoying a cup of coffee strong enough to varnish a coffin.

Not a bad way to start a stolen Monday. Not bad at all.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

cyrus & saro

quite the weekend

I do apologize for the thin updates this week. Annie has been a main focus and her extra care has gently lead me away from any writing while we're at home together. I know you guys understand, and she's recovering beautifully. We just got back from visiting a neighbor's sleddog kennel where she ran around a giant dog-run with Jazz and five other dogs. She's back. I can not thank you enough for all the kindness, emails, and comments.

So much went down this weekend. Marvin went back to his old farm (I'll fill you all in on the details soon, but trust me when I say I've loaded my fair share of sheep into the back seats of cars in my day...). I'm down to just one Angora kit. All the boys have been picked up or paid-for in advance, leaving just one little doe who may stay. Life keeps on going, everything is changing so fast around here.

Big news: tomorrow I have a meeting with Storey Publsihing to talk about some possible future projects, which I'm both nervous and excited about (wish me luck!) and I'll be updating soon with Fiddler's Summer news and that bread recipe you fine people have been asking on. I'll catch up. I always do.

Friday, June 12, 2009

she's okay

Annie did have Lyme, like they thought. She is getting treated, and is supposed to make a near-full recovery. She's here with me at work today. Tonight she eat's lamb with her kibble. She'll be okay.

Thank you so much for your well wishes and kind words.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

the concern of wolves

Annie is sick. Her disease came on suddenly. A few days a go she was barely limping, then overnight, she became nearly paralyzed with a stiff pain in her front legs. I called the vet, who thinks she has a crippling case of Lyme, and tomorrow we're going for antibiotics and shots. She'll be okay, but she's not herself. Last night she couldn't even move. It's so hard to see a dog you know can pump uphill in harness during a blizzard—barely able to stand. I have been beside myself with worry.

Jazz ran away this morning. You just can't know the panic. Sibes are not farm dogs. They run away. They can't be trusted with small animals. They are wolves on the lam. Anyway, he loped out the screen door I left open by mistake, and ran off towards the poultry and Finn. (Both of which he would've happily ripped apart). Yet, he didn't. Here's what happened: I saw him run off, but was so occupied with helping Annie hobble outside to relieve herself, I couldn't stop him. I gave up on him. All I could do was hope he'd come back to me and not hurt the livestock. But in my head all I could think was "One dog is dying, the other ran off" As Annie whined from the aches of holding up her own body weight, I started to cry. Sometimes everything happens at once. It's too much.

Then Annie howled from the pain of standing, and collapsed into my arms. Jazz heard this (and in a highly unSiberian husky way) turned on a dime and ran back to his girls. He trotted right through the threshold of the screened porch door, head high, golden eyes searching for the pain. Then he sat beside us. He watched me holding Annie, limp and whimpering. He saw me teary and breathing heavy. He gave up his golden chance at blood and freedom to make sure we were okay. I love him so much. He's a good man.

I hugged him and Annie on that dirty Vermont porch like they were the most important things in the world.

I have no idea how any of you are getting through this life without dogs. You're stronger than I.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

previous lives and eating like kings

I woke up this morning to the sound of pounding rain. In my previous life (before my world revolved around planting, feeding, and fences) waking up to rain was one of my favorite things—meditative and simple. Today however, I knew it meant sloshing in a downpour to take care of a lot of damp and hungry animals. But I have learned to blueprint my mornings out on such occasions. I'll play upbeat music on the record player while I cook up some breakfast. I put on good rain gear when I venture into the angry Vermont morning. And I make sure I set aside enough time when I get back in the cabin for a longer shower and an extra cup of coffee. It amazes me what patience, a hot shower, and coffee can get you through.

This past weekend was delicious. The photo is a small sample of the bounty that was my weekend. I'm now hitting that time of year when every meal comes out of the backyard. I spent the weekend devouring farm omelets with melted VT cheddar cheese, fresh salads from the garden, homemade breads and pies for dinner and dessert, and just savoring every bite. The best meals you could ever eat you pay for in sweat, blisters, and dough under the fingernails. I promise.

So, another Fiddler's Summer update is coming along. I'm going to tell you about my current fiddle: an 80-100-year-old Czech shop fiddle that has become my best friend. But before I do, I just wanted to make clear to all of you out there that there is no "official start date" to all this business. You can sign up anytime, and there is no real rules to follow either. I just set out the guidelines to help you teach yourself. We're all chatting about it together as we stumble along. It's the only way to learn. I want you to take that book, your fiddles, and a few minutes every day to get to know each other, and then please report back here with your advice, links, videos and comments. So far so many of you are already helping each other out, and I swell with pride when I see the back and forth in the comments.

P.S. Looks like two of the kits are sold and will be picked up by some blog readers in June. Two to go. Wish all us rabbit folks luck.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

a homesteader's porch

Saturday, June 6, 2009

the farm library

Before Cold Antler was up and running like it is now, I knew I had a lot to learn. I dove head first into research. I would pour over books and small farm magazines. Before I had any hoofstock or rabbit hutches—most of my energy was put into preparing, research, and trying to cook, can, and bake while dreams of sheep and chickens loped in my head.

But now, a few years down the road (and two dozen animals later) time to sit and read is at a premium. But I can't tell you how much those early days of research and library building helped me and continue to help me. Not a day goes by I don't use something I read, or have to run back into the house to look up gardening or livestock information. How much space do pumpkins need? How much milk replacer should a three-week-old goat be swilling? These are the questions that make a decent library the most important thing on a small farm since the pickup truck.

I am constantly in my bookcase. It has plenty of reference, but it also hosts memoirs, music, and inspiration for when things get low around here. It started in my kitchen, but has long since taken over the rest of the cabin. The porch, bookcases, and any free level space around here is overflowing with books. I need them. They're mentors and entertainers. There's no TV or cable here, just books and DVDs. I like movies as much as the next gal, but nothing beats a book in the hammock. Nothing.

Like I said, time for farm studies now is limited. But everyday I try to crack a book and read up on something. Maybe it's just an article on hay in The Small Farmers Journal, or maybe it's a chapter on growing Okra in the backyard. But still, I am constantly learning. I have so far to go.

If you're thinking about this life and dreaming about your own small farm—I can not stress enough the importance of starting a farm library. You might feel silly subscribing to Countryside if you live in downtown Detroit, but who cares? All those articles, books, and notes I took in classes or at small farms have become invaluable. And you'll be thrilled you did all that reading about chickens in your apartment when the time comes to put up your own backyard coop. So read up farmers. Read up and never stop. Books are our friends and it's hard to fit a Kindle in your coveralls and not break it.

rabbits for sale

This season's first litter of French Angoras is ready to go to new homes. The four bunnies are about six weeks old, weaned, and happily munching on solid pellets and chugging water. Right now they are small, can be held in one hand, but they'll grow up into handsome wool stock - their parents both weigh about 9 pounds. CAF is a member of the American Rabbit Breeder's Association. You get ARBA pedigrees and the assurance of a quality animal.

I have three bucks and a doe available (which I might keep for breeding). All Cold Antler Bred kits come with champion lined pedigrees, tattooed ears, and some wool blend high quality rabbit food for the road. They make wonderful pets, fiber livestock, or show animals. If you're interested, please email me at:jenna@itsafarwalk.com.

Friday, June 5, 2009

finn & flowers

photo by Tim Bronson

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

grab some rosin

Checking in and checking up on all you new fiddlers out there! Did everyone get a hold of the book and a violin? It looked that way in all your comments. I did a quick internet search and saw some folks already posted some videos! I hope those of you brand new to the music wold have found a local music store to help you if needed. Also, those of you still doubting you can play Old Joe Clark by July, well, watch and see. America's squawking today, wonderfully so!

Soon as everyone's ready to go we'll go over the strings and talk a little about starting out as a beginner. Right now you should be reading the intro sections of Wayne's book and getting aquatinted with Old Time music. If you can listen to the CD on your drive to work, it'll help immensely. Start filling your heads with fiddle sounds, new players. Trust me, it'll help down the road to already know what your tunes should sound like.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

collateral damage

The rain fell off and on all day. Generally things were gloomy. However, it seems the only animal on the farm who felt that way was me. The overcast sky and occasional shower seemed to invigorate the livestock. The sheep are jubilant out in the cool wet pasture. No flies in their faces and their new wool coming in seems to keep them weather-proof. They saunter around the wet, windy, field like rock stars while the waterfowl spread their wings into the raindrops. The chickens weren't as thrilled about the precipitation, but psyched for the rain-fresh worms that squirmed along the fenceline of the garden.

I spent the morning weeding and planting my sunflowers, which I grow mainly to brighten up the cabin and office or give as gifts. Those flowers make me happy. Right now the striped seeds are resting in a bed of mulch enriched by my rabbits' and birds' old meals. In a few weeks I'll have those high-summer yellow lions in vases. I can't wait. Sunflowers mean we're that much closer to fall.

Between spurts of weeding and planting—I came inside to bake while the rain made the former too much effort. The cabin smelled of baking bread and homemade pizza when I walked in from chopping firewood or adjusting the goat pen. The work seems endless here (and it is) but it flows through my day as normal as commuting to work does. It's a mean to a common goal.

Not everything is faultless here. I paint a picture of perfection, but only because I ignore the things that make this so hard. I attempt to cheat hardship by ignorance. But know my body is always sore and sometimes I feel like I'm the most tired 26-year-old in America. I have to get up before 5 most mornings, and sometimes I don't come inside for dinner till dark. When I go into the shower at the end of my long day I find I'm covered in bumps, bruises, cuts, scrapes, bites and bad tan lines. I'm currently adorned in scars from roosters, a bite mark from a rabbit, and a pinch-bruise from a pissy bull goose right on my stomach. Cold Antler, as humble as it is, is a full time job. And it shares a life with a person already working a full time job. It's hard. Consider that fair warning to anyone out there living vicariously through me...

But I feel the same way about this dark side of homesteading as I do about learning an instrument. You pick up a guitar for the first time and it sucks. You're not good, and it sounds it. Your fingers throb from the steel strings. Your neck gets cramped from holding your shoulders in a new way. You get angry and frustrated learning so slowly. But at the end of it all, you know there is the possibility of music. You've seen it before, and know the appreciation it can render. So you shrug off the pain, forget the bad things, and keep at it. Which is what I do with every scar and sore arm. Collateral damage.

wolves howl. dogs bark.

I wrote this last May, but wanted to repost it for the folks taking on the Fiddler's Summer Challenge. I'll be posted an update later for all you new musicians, but in the meantime if anyone has any videos to share, please post a link in the comments!

I do not know of anything that feels better than playing hundred-year-old songs in firelight with pleasant company. I don’t know of anything more beautiful than when you look up at low hanging branches, with green leaves tinted yellow and coal gray by the flames and smoke, and then look beyond them at a deep night and hollow stars.

I don’t know of anything more comforting than understanding that I can sing a verse, and you can sing a verse, and we can sing it together without knowing each other's last names or what cars we drive, or caring about those things. But understanding with complete certainty that those same words were whispered before us by long-dead people and will be sung by those long-alive. Because of this—it is forever.

Us musicians, singers, and storytellers know that every time we gather in the glow of a campfire, we're just a small piece of a bigger story. We happen to be holding the songs for a short time till we pass them on, and we're okay with that mortality. We drink and laugh and dance to it. And between songs we'll sip some libations and talk about the night we heard St. Anne's Reel shake Quebec, or how a stranger asked us to play a tune at a mountain lake in Idaho. And we'll do this like it's the most important thing in the world. Because at that moment, it is.

Wolves howl. Dogs bark. Humans sing old-time songs. These are the sounds animals make. You can disregard this music, laugh at it, or live your whole life without lifting an eyebrow at dorian strings. But regardless of you-it will keep on padding through our culture like a yellow-eyed sheepdog in high grass. Hidden and wild with a unwavering focus. And like a lowline dog in the grass, you can see it if you look for it. It is there.

This all happens, all this emotion and loyalty, because we all know the words. It's a language we picked up here and there. We did it without amps or outlets. We learned it by ear. We play it because of how it makes us feel. Old time music is, and always will be wet rocks and green moss in a shaded creek in Tennessee. It is bonfires in the shadows of Idaho hills. It is being alone in a blizzard in farmhouse owned by woman named Hazel. It is a campfire by a strangers garden in New York. It's Brian. It's Heather. It's Emily. It's Dave. It's even Erin on the indie rock lam.

I love this music. It writhes and quivers and will keep running uphill when I am dead and forgotten like a fast, fast dog. I don’t understand how it can be ignored. I shudder under thick skin when it is mocked. I feel bad, horrible even, for those who can’t hold it in their fists and know what it feels like. Like a clump of grass you just submerged in a creek.

It is absurd to feel this way about Old Time music and the matted old dog that is these songs. But this is how I feel.

And I love it with the all.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

good morning from cold antler

It's Saturday morning in Vermont. That's Annie watching from the porch as I shuffle about indoors prepping the percolator and listening to the radio. She took a moment to look inside after staring down the bird feeder. She has big plans to tear through that screen and eat a Cardinal. I can tell.

Coffee's on the stove, the sun is flirting with the clouds, and I'm back in from feeding the sheep, goat and birds. Today is dedicated to some time with friends in town but the bulk of my afternoon will belong to the farm. After the last few days of rain, I'll be hunched in the garden picking all the fresh weeds and watching Finn chase the geese. He's good entertainment for tedious work.

Nothing riveting to report, but I can share that yesterday I ate my first salad greens from the garden. I brought in a bag of buttercrunch, romaine, mesculins, spinach and oak leaf lettuce and my friend Andrea and I used it as a base for our salad bar attack at the office. There's no reason why farmlife and worklife can't team up from time to time.

Friday, May 29, 2009

growing up

Thursday, May 28, 2009

loft of these hills

I'm a homebody. I like the comfort of this place. Outside a blustery wind and cooler-than-normal temperatures have all the houses in the hollow pumping woodsmoke. It's almost as if Autumn stopped by uninvited and we all welcomed him inside for the evening. I am enjoying his company along with a cup of tea, a book, and a favorite sweater. He is always welcome. Always.

Here on the mountain in my little three-room cabin there's a fire roaring. Candles light up dark corners and my dogs are asleep in the other room. On the other side of that door my sheep, goat, birds and bunnies are all resting on fresh straw with full stomaches. Knowing they are all content, makes me even more comfortable. I too had a fine meal, and after a few songs on the fiddle in front of the fireplace—I am ready for bed. Because I'm a homebody, and I'm happy to be tucked away in the highest loft of these hills.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

it's not delivery...

I have been having a recent love affair with homemade pizza. I find that making a small pizza (dough and all) from scratch only takes about ten minutes. With fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, savory sauce, garden herbs and a pre-heated oven you've got yourself fast [farm fresh] food. The dough is incredibly easy and with fresh rosemary and basil in the garden...the final product is amazing. I like baking mine in a cast iron skillet, and here's how:

Makin' Dough
1 cup warm water
1 package yeast
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups flour

Take one cup of warm water (leaning towards hot) and pour it into a bowl, add all the contents of a yeast package inside. Mix and let stand for 5 minutes (add a tsp of honey if you want). Once the yeast has set, add your salt and veggie oil and then add cup of flour at a time as you mix it in.

Next, knead into a dough and then set it aside for a few minutes while you slice up your cheese and tomatoes. To finish it off, take your dough and make it into a circular crust shape that fits the bottom of your skillet (or your cookie sheet, pizza stone, or right on the grill). Add your toppings annd bake at 400 until crust slightly browns and the cheese melts. When I pull mine out of the oven--I set some fresh basil leaves on top. Enjoy!

Monday, May 25, 2009

trees are good for scratchin'

pasture rotation, farmers markets, and fiddles

By 8:30 this morning I'd already let the sheep out into their new pasture, bottle fed a goat, drove to Hebron and back on a hay mission, and was bitched at by a goose. Most people I know haven't even had their first cup of coffee (being a holiday and all). I however, had already slung giant bales of dead grass over my shoulder and fell through a rotten board in a hay barn. Thank goodness I was wearing knee-high boots, or I'd be cut up all to hell. I've learned farmers wear certain things for a reason.

My three-day weekend's been full of hard work, but I am starting to see the signs of repose up ahead. Thanks to this May's killer efforts, things are coming together and soon the workload will be lighter. The sheep are eating grass almost exclusively. Yesterday I moved all their electric netting to a fresh pasture and they were thrilled. Their new digs has trees, hillsides, and trees! (They love the shade and rubbing their backs on bark.) It was a bigger job than I anticipated. It involved lots of cursing and untangling Finn from unplugged netting while he followed me around the field.

But frustration aside, their rotation was so worth it. Usually I have to bribe them back into their pen at night but last night they ate so much they just trotted back to their little barn and went to bed. Easiest gate shutting in CAF history. And who doesn't like going to their beds at night, knowing those in their care are tired and happy?

The garden is almost entirely in. I planted 5 rows of corn, 12 plantings deep. That's nearly 60 stalks of sweet corn all by the wrath of one hoe over three days! My back still feels it. But it was the last big planting job. Now my time is open to just weeding and watering, tending and taming. Finns nearly off the bottle and is eating grass like crazy. When he's not on such a feeding schedule, I'll have time to possibly run back to visit my family for a weekend. I miss them.

So, with all that work put in—I decided to hit the Dorset Farmer's Market with Finn to celebrate. The kid was good at the market (generally speaking). He walked on his leash, and followed me around the stands. You'd think a girl and her pack-goat-in-training would be a novelty, but this is Vermont. He was one of three goats there...

He did try to jump on a bread table once, but I stopped him and bought some focaccia in apology... No bakes goods were trodden in the making of this blog post.

Looks like it's going to be a fine day. The sun is out, the sheep are already chewing their cud, and the garden will shortly be watered. Once that's done I think I'll finally hit the river and get some fly fishing in. Nothing wrong with ending your weekend chasing rainbows.

So thrilled to see so many new fiddlers out there! You won't regret it, and just wait till you're playing Blackest Crow on your porch. That song, and so many other mountain ballads, fill your heart up. You'll see. Before you know it you'll have a dozen tunes memorized, and you'll be ordering Gid Tanner CDs from Elderly. I can't wait to hear about your first tunes. You guys who are learning need to keep me posted.

...Speaking of Elderly, I see they have a bunch of vintage fiddles for sale in their used section. Some are reasonably priced too. If anyone of smaller stature is still looking—I though this one was nice. Too small for big hands, but perfect for a petite woman or younger teen. It's kinda pricey ($225), but in the land of violins, not bad for a great European handmade instrument. Click here to see her.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

may the fiddles rise again

In that photo you're looking at the twenty dollar student fiddle I learned to play on. That's my old lawn in Idaho, and three summers ago I learned how to play with that beginner instrument, and on that very grass. I never played before, but thanks to a great instruction book and CD (and a healthy sense of humor) I am now a happy addict. I play everyday, help new fiddlers get started, and can't imagine a life without rosin in my pocket and a violin neck in my left hand. I'm inviting you right now, to join our club.

Playing the fiddle is easy. It really is. Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise. There are just four finger positions, and one of the four isn't touching anything at all, just playing the string itself. So really, you only need to learn where to press down on three places. That's it. And get this: it's the same on every string. Cake.

I'm telling you people, if you're willing to laugh a lot, and put up with squeaks and squawks - you'll all be fine fiddlers in a few months. You won't have to spend money on lessons, and you don't need three hours a day to sit with your violin. Just a twenty dollar instruction book, a CD player, and fifteen minutes a day. Fiddler's Summer isn't going to be me teaching you. It's about you teaching yourself, but with the help of a whole community of beginners around the country, and a place to ask questions and get help when you need it. Above all, it's about learning some musical self-sufficiency. The ability to play a song without earbuds or an outlet. Hell yeah.

So, this is how we'll get started. If you want to sign up for Fiddler's Summer leave a comment in this post. In your comment leave your name and location, and your history as a musician. If you don't have any musical history, this will be easiest on you guys. Since the book we're using is meant for total beginners who can't read a note--you guys got it made.

After you sign up:

1. Buy, beg, or borrow a 4/4 violin and bow. Some people hit up Ebay and found some student violins under 50 bones. There is no reason to blow $400+ on an instrument right now. If you like playing your student model, you can always trade up later.

2. Promise me you'll dedicate fifteen minutes of practice everyday. That's it. You can play longer, sure, but you need to promise me that fifteen minutes minimum every single day if you sign up for Fiddler's Summer. It has to be a daily thing. It's that everyday dedication that makes music. Take it slow, and with a smile.

3. Pick up a copy of "Old Time Fiddling For the Complete Ignoramus" by Wayne Erbsen. It's an amazing intro to Southern Mountain style and reading it is fun and warm. Amazon's got it, as does his website: nativeground.com. This book will be your teacher. It comes with a CD so you can hear songs played slow and fast. It also gives a great introduction to the culture, history, anatomy, and world of Souther Mountain fiddling.

4. Get an electronic guitar tuner, some decent rosin, and a spare set of strings. None of this should be expensive either. A cheap guitar tuner costs 15 bucks, Hill Dark Rosin costs about 10, and Anton Breton Perlon strings can cost less than 15 a set. These three things will make your 50 dollar fiddle sound like a 350 dollar one. I suggest going to Janet Davis Music online for all three. If you're too worried to string and tune it up yourself. See number 5.

5. Find out where your closest music store is. You might need their help getting started with strings and tuning. Get out the phonebook, find someone around you who knows violins, and put their number on the fridge next to the ambulance and poison control digits. Google "Your-City-Name-Here Luthier" and see if anyone builds or repairs violins in your hometown. They'll be happy to help you get started.

6. Get excited. Go watch Cold Mountain or Songcatcher tonight. That'll be you kids in a few weeks. I promise.

From here, we'll start with tuning, and getting to know the instrument and the musical history. But we're not there yet. Right now we're just getting pumped up, and learning what a violin neck feels like in our garden-dirtied hands.

I will say this. Just have fun. Pride is dead, so let yourself fall in love with the idea of being a mountain fiddler. You don't need to be sawing out the Devil Went Down to Georgia to be a bluegrass musician--you need to love what you're doing, and make people sing or dance. Bonefide fiddlers are people who love to play, and play for that love. In a few weeks of practice there isn't one of you that won't be able to whip out a tune, if that's what you want.

The end of this will come around July 4th. We'll post links, audio clips, or YouTube videos of our playing--and for everyone who posts a clip or video of themselves, we'll all vote on the best new musician and that person will be getting a fine prize from me. I'll mail the 'winner' a CAF gift basket complete with Vermont goodness (Like Maple Syrup, a Wayside Country Store T-shirt, Some of my sheeps' fleece, etc) and a signed copy of Made From Scratch with some chicken feather bookmarks.

How's all this sound? And hey, if you tried growing peas, you've already done something harder.