Saturday, July 11, 2009

the society of lamb and wool

I arrived at Merck Forest and Farmland Center early. My car pulled into the dirt parking lot a little after 8AM. My heart was beating faster than usual. If you're new to this blog (and my story) know that being a full-time shepherd is the dream. There is nothing I want more than to own a little land, raise lambs, harvest wool, and herd with my collies by my side. I was about to enter the world of people I idolize: The Society of Lamb and Wool. A scrappy, but thriving subculture of the 21st century: modern shepherds.

I had emailed a few folks in the club letting them know I'd be there and willing to help, but I had no idea what was in store for me. Volunteering a sheepdog trial can mean a lot of things. Sometimes it means running water bottles and bagged lunches to judges across the field, and other times it means wrestling with Scottish Blackface ewes... (I know. I had done both over the past year.) Just in case I was asked to work the pens, I wore my favorite old boots and put a fresh change of clothes in the car. I would do what I was asked, and I'd do it gratefully.

I also brought my banjo. I did not know if there would be a time and place for music, but I feel that acoustic instruments are like guns or condoms—it's better to have one and not use it than really need one and not have it. I threw my 5-sting in the back and considered myself protected.

Anyway, back to this trial.

I walked the quarter mile through the forest into the open fields. As the trees parted and the morning light filtered through the branches—I stopped to take in the whole picture, like a still from a movie set. A team of horses was coming down the path in front of me, pulling a wagon (taxi service from the parking lots). I sighed the sigh of a woman who had found the life she yearned to live. Relief and panic swept over me like falling in love, which I was.

And it's hard not to fall hard for this world. It really is beautiful. Open Northeast woods with rolling hills of sheep and cattle. Footpaths going in every direction. A fishing pond with children and poles. Post barns with heavy horses in harness outside, waiting their turns to carry their loads. Under the white tents people sat and watched the trial as an announcer explained the course. Sheep bleated from side pens while border collies trotted everywhere—my future partners in labor and crime.

I wasn't there five minutes when Steve Whetmore walked up to me. Steve's been in the New England Sheepdog scene for years. He's one hell of a breeder and trialer. He smiled, shook my hand welcome, and asked me if I wanted to Scribe today? I told him I would be happy to. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I walked down to the judges area and let myself into the trial field to find out. The gate was nothing more than some bailing twine holding a plastic panel. I smiled warmly as I unraveled it to let myself in. This green twine from haybales has found it's way into every corner of my life now. It was only proper to find it at the gates of heaven as well.

Scribing means you sit next to the judge and write down scores as he calls out points being removed. You also keep time. The man of the hour: David Young (a Quebec shepherd and trialer of twenty years). David judged from the bed of his beautiful Ford 250 and I sat next to his tires in a folding chair with a clipboard and a kitchen timer. I was too shy to ask if I could sit in the truck alongside him. (To me trial judges are a form of royalty and pages don't ask to share the thrown.) I knew my role and set the clock for seven and a half minutes. I watched the dogs. I tried to learn all I could.

Scribing a sheepdog trial means you get a front row seat. It's like being the umpires water boy at a baseball game. You sit right by the post (home plate) and as the handler sends his dog out to gather the sheep you watch it all happening right in front of you. David was a friendly and easy-going guy. He answered all my questions and explained when a dog did something exceptionally well or horrid. I quickly realized how invaluable of a learning experience this was, and shut up as he explained about proper outruns and healthy lifts. I am learning this more every year. I watch the dogs like normal people watch fireworks - calm awe and constant wonder. Every time a dog was finished and the handler patted his hip and said "That'll do" my heart stopped. If they only knew how much the chubby girl in the bandana sitting behind them wanted to say those words to her own sheepdog...

I swear to god, in the field above us a man played the bagpipes. Perfect.

I did this all morning. For hours in full sun, I sat by David's truck and watched the advanced dogs work. When another scribe came to relieve me I took a short walk around the farm. I walked past the shearing demonstrations where Jim McRae was trying to explain to come summer vacationers why it's okay for lambs to be weaned from their mothers. Jim was the man who sheared my sheep this past spring. I said hello and chatted with him for a bit before walking up to the hog and chicken pens. Merck focuses on heritage and sustainability. The animals on the land are all historic livestock breeds of New England. Barred Rock hens, Randall Lineback Cattle, and Tamworth hogs. I walked around their pens and houses under the shadow of the giant windmill that generates much of the farms electricity. Grazing animals, renewable energy, farmers and happy people... If Vermont has any say in the future of this country it is very bright one indeed. I'm a proud patriot of this state.

It's hard to believe that last year, while watching this same trial, I was brand new to this life. I walked onto the fields as a spectator last July. Back then the idea of having sheep was ridiculous. Yet here I was a year later and so much has changed. Somehow I managed to get hoofstock and today I am shepherd. (Yes. I only have a few sheep, but I do indeed have them. And I promise you they are only the beginning...) And now after a year of clinics, and trials, and lessons and the failed-adoption of Sarah, I stood before that whole world mildly competent.

I stayed for the whole trial and ended up scribing the last ten dogs. I was slightly shocked to see Donald McCaig come out into the field with his bitch June. I read Donald's book Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men last winter and loved it. I was so very inspired by it. And here before me was the man who's story about finding a border collie in Scotland had kept me company in my cold winter cabin... (They say people never forgot seeing Elvis live? Well, McCaig's kinda like that for me, but with lanolin on his mustache.) I took down his scores like everyone else's. How the hell did I land here? I could not stop smiling.

Tonight as the thunder rolls outside the cabin I'm just plain happy. All the bad vibes from the past week are washed away and replaced instead with this pounding hope in my fiddle-stringed heart. A hope that I too will be a charter member in the Society of Lamb and Wool. But in the meantime I am here.

In the bathroom the next generation of CAF poultry is chirping away. (I can hear them as I write you.) Outside the garden is soaking up every drop of this summer rain. Another litter of rabbits is on the way soon, and so is the possibility of a new black ram lamb. On Monday Finn and I will hit the trail. On Tuesday I'll go back to work refreshed. Everything is happening slowly, but it is happening. And that isn't to say everything is perfect. (Hell no and far from it) But I see no reason to focus on the poorer half of my heart this weekend. Tonight I'll fall asleep tired and happy with kind dogs and a novel by my side.

Tomorrow I'll return to help again. Every day at a sheepdog trial is another step down the right road to life I can't wait to turn around three times on and lay down in. Which I will walk down past trotting horses and their carts in my comfortable boots. I'll find my farm, and when I do I'll meet you there.

i'll tell you all about it

Friday, July 10, 2009

a new year, a fresh start

As a birthday present to myself I brought home a small pile of chicks from the feed store. I went into the store planning to just pick up straw and scratch grains but saw that sign posted by the register: Extra Laying Hens: 2.80 each and ended up driving home with a small box of day-old poultry in the front seat. Since I lost so many birds from this fox it felt like a proper present, the thing to do. As I write you five chicks (four Rhode Island Red pullets and one Golden-Laced Wyandotte Rooster) and a Turkey poult (an heirloom breed called the Narragansett, also from Rhode Island) are chirping from the safety of their bathroom brooder box. The chickens are for Cold Antler, but the turkey is for my friend Phil's Thanksgiving (or Christmas, since it is already July) Table. I'd offer the bird to my own family, but that was a disaster last year. (Not everyone wants to meet their meat...)

Tonight I farmed with a rifle by my side and a loaded clip in my pocket. As I mulched and weeded the garden I let the birds out of their confinement for some armed supervision. No sign of the fox in days, but I am ready when he comes. I have a baited Havahart trap set near the coop (which I rented from my neighbor's gas station for a dollar a day) and have been hunting every morning. I go outside at dawn with hot coffee and my .22 and wait. I have no pity for the fool. I'll hang his pelt on my wall.

There was this moment when I was walking out to the garden with a rifle over my right shoulder and two tomato plants in my left hand and I thought to myself: this perfectly sums me up as a woman.

I propped the gun by the garden fence and let Finn out to romp on his tie-out. I watched the birds scratch and hunt worms and salamanders all around me while I cleaned out their coop. It was a back-breaking few hours of pitchforking old crap-lined straw, but the hard work felt good. I've been stressed out all week, and tired as hell. Not getting enough sleep and over-thinking too much. It was good to just dive into grunt work. I am covered in chicken poo and sweat as I check in with you. I am the picture of disgusting. Happy Birthday to me.

This weekend will be packed with things I love. My farm will be front and center, (there is so much to do here) but I have taken off from work Monday for my own mental health and as another small gift to myself. Instead of the office, Finn and I are heading on a local trail for his first-ever pack hike. It'll be short, and his pack empty, but a beginning none the less. (He's already walking on lead up to a mile every day by my side, and has been borrowing Jazz's dog pack as draft-animal training wheels.) I think It'll be fun. I might make him carry a sandwich for me. We'll do lunch. Clearly, I am a very exciting young person. Lunch dates with ruminants...

Tomorrow morning I am getting up early and driving over the mountain to Merck Forest for the Annual NEBCA Open Sheepdog Trials. I am hoping to either help in the pen or by learning to keep score. (In case I end up in the shoot, loading four sheep at a time onto the trial fields...I'll wear my boots) That day will be wonderful, and probably stir up all sorts of longings for my own lamb and wool farm, a dream that keeps me up at night and makes my stomach turn when I think it might not happen... But maybe someday I'll get my farm, and a good border collie or two by my side. That is the hope. I am big on hope. You have no idea.

Anyway, I'm sure you'll hear all about that tomorrow.

Tonight however, I turn 27. I'm covered in mud, sweat, chicken shit and smell like death—but I am happy. Not blissful. It's been a crap week, but happy. Now, I am going to shower like I have never showered before, slice into the watermellon sitting on my counter, tune my fiddle and guitar and light up the porch with as many candles as I can manage. Tonight I will throw myself a birthday concert. The theme: a new year, a fresh start.

merck trials this weekend!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

gardener's corn

I'm not a great gardener. Truth be told, I'm still a beginner. This year's garden is only my third, but naivete and mistakes aren't keeping my fingernails clean—I keep planting and learning as I go. I discovered when it comes to some veggies I'm hell at raising them. I can grow a fine mess of peas, beans, salads and broccoli no problem. Other types leave me guessing...For some reason I can not grow a heathy heirloom tomato in Vermont. My peppers seem to be stuck in their adolescent stages. And my watermelons and pumpkins never seen to grow beyond softball sizes....

But even with all the failures,. I find some foods are just plain rewarding in their simplicity. Some veggies you can just dig a hole, drop in a seed, and pass the summer watching it turn into something satisfying and delicious. For example: corn.

Corn has become a nearly dirty word in modern food talk. Since it's force fed in feeding lots, pumped into fructose syrups, and filling up puppy chow bags—people don't seem to appreciate it much. I get that. I understand all it's downsizes and know how annoyed it gets Michael Pollan...but I love growing my own. It's one of those foods I seem to have a knack for. Maybe because it already grows like a weed (since technically - it is a tall grass) but even if it has nothing to do with my own skills—I love seeing those stalks rise up taller than I am. It makes this place feel more like a farm to me. Come October I tie the brown stalks to my porch and everytime I walk by the big bushels I am amazed it started with a pile of seeds in my palm Memorial Day weekend.

Sweet corn is an honest trade. You put in a weekend of hard labor, swing that hoe, plant those kernels, and come late summer you have these delicious white cobs that sizzle on the grill or pop between your teeth dripping with butter. The taste of just-pulled-off-the-stalk sweet corn is hard to beat.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

it's on

Four more laying hens were taken today. That's it. The birds will remain locked in the coop all day tomorrow, and stay locked up till I stop this animal. Come dawn I will be up extra early with my rifle. If I have no luck taking the todd that way, I'll set a Havahart trap and call the game warden to remove him. Either way, I need to stop this. That's eight animals under my care dead. It's on.

someone save temptation

This is my favorite song. Ever.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

growing up

Monday, July 6, 2009

the fox and the fall

Yes, the marauder in question is a red fox. I got a call from my neighbor Katie, telling me our neighbor Ed witnessed a fox carrying a duck in its jaws and running down the hill and over the creek. This happened around dawn. As I write you, the chicken coop is latched and locked and I am glad to report no other animals were lost today. I now know what to look for, and hopefully I can stop this fox in its tracks or do something to better fence and pen my birds. I am already taking the dogs out at night to relieve themselves at the poultry house—hoping the scent of wolves will make the red one turn tail. I do what I can.

On a lighter note: The garden is thriving. What a glorious sight! Corn is shooting up towards my waist. The pumpkins vines are thick and dark. Squashes are starting to rise and peas snap into my mouth like sugar water candies. Tonight I dine on a dinner of skillet-steamed broccoli over an egg and couscous stir fry. Homesteaders work like dogs but eat like kings.

And I was able to share some of the bounty this weekend too. Before I drove south to Pennsylvania I loaded the car with my contributions to the family feasting. I brought a giant bag of vegetables and a dozen farm eggs. I baked all weekend. I made pizza and apple pies and a fine quiche with a buttery crust. It's a good feeling, taking care of people's hunger. Giving them something to eat and enjoy you are directly responsible for. I know that's an old song. It doesn't mean it's not true.

This morning when I woke up there was a slight chill in the air. Just enough to cause me to see my breath at 5:30 AM. I watched it rise up into the oaks and watched it come out of the honking geese's bills like smoke. With the solstice behind us each day gets just a little colder, a little shorter... Soon it will be October again and I will be so very happy. A season comes to replace another. My breath is always baited for the falls.

P.S. My camera is fixed. More new photos soon.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

back from vacation

Just in from a three-day vacation in Pennsylvania with the dogs. I was visiting my folks, and away from the farm since Friday morning. Thanks to the help of my amazing neighbors I was able to leave knowing the animals would be taken care of in my absence. It takes a village. It really does.

I had a wonderful time in Palmerton, but when I returned to Cold Antler I discovered my duck and another rooster (Sussex, my favorite, pictured above) had been swiped by the predator. This has me rather concerned since the animal taking my flock seems to come while I'm at work (not in the dead of the night). I am researching my options, but does anyone have any advice for a free-range flock? Is there something I can buy and spray, like a deterrent?

I've never had this sort of problem with birds before. Certainly not in broad daylight. And while I have no qualms shooting a fox or fisher if I catch one around the place—catching such an animal seems nearly impossible since it's happening while I'm earning my paycheck...