Saturday, August 22, 2009


Friday, August 21, 2009

the hard fall

I should probably be in a bar right now. I think that's where most 27-single-year-olds are around this time? It's Friday night and part of me feels like I'm breaking some unwritten rule by being here. Where I should be is in some booth with a coaster, a Brandy Alexander, and a band playing on some stage in the background I have to shout over. Let's be honest though folks—Cold Antler is about twenty miles away from the closest public bar and I don't want to be there. Everyone I want to meet is at home reading anyway.

Instead I'm just in from working outside and trust me, you would not be talking to me in any bar if you saw me right now. I'm disgusting. I've been spending all afternoon and evening trying to get the new lamb accepted by the other hoofstock. It's slow work. No real violence but the little guy isn't being welcomed with open arms. It'll take time. What doesn't?

It poured like the dickens today and the ground shape-shifted into a putrid mess. A sour stew of feces, rotting hay, and mud sweating in 90% humidity. The air around the farm was so heavy you could take off your soaking-wet shirt and hang it up in mid air. It would just float in the ether. Too hot to let even gravity take it.

I've been warned by people close to me that I'm wasting the best years of my life by dedicating myself to this farming business. That tying myself down to animals and gardens is creating a social prison: a place I can't leave. They do not say this with anger, just genuine concern. Some are worried I've turned myself into a hermit and others get frustrated when I don't know what movie trailers they're talking about (I don't have a television or high speed internet). Mostly, they just think I'm in too deep. Too many animals, too many gardens, too much balance of work at the office and home. They worry I will burn myself out. And their worst fear is none of this will ever happen. I'll never be able to afford the land and start a farm. They tell me they don't want to see me build up this idea to the point where it becomes everything. They worry I'll be crushed.

I'm 27 and I wake up at 4:45 and I'm outside by 5. It's still dark, even in the loping end of summer, and I am outside. It does not matter if it's a downpour, sweltering hot, or 20 below. I am outside. Running a farm, even one as small as mine, is a constant equal only to taxes and bad sitcoms. I work from 8-5 and then once again am out in my wellies. I do all this knowing bears have destroyed my hive, a fox has eaten half my poultry, and a storm has destroyed the corn crop I spent my entire memorial day weekend making blisters over. You'll have this. It's what I signed up for.

So maybe I am single, and over-worked, and not getting enough sleep. Maybe I should be in Madrid or Stockholm right now. I have no idea what it is I'm "supposed" to do. I guess travel and bars and such are it. And I would be into that but you see, there's this thing:

I'm in love.

I am completely in love. It can not be helped. I don't know when it happened, or how, but somewhere along the way I fell for this farming gig, and fell hard. My heart is now a throbbing piece of meat held together with baling wire and fiddle strings. I fall asleep thinking about lambing jugs and creep feeders. I sit in meetings at the office and my mind wanders over to sheepdog trials and October pumpkins. I have it bad. I have lanolin under my fingernails and hay in my bra and I don't care because I am so goddamn in love with this. All the mud and rain and hours in the heat mean nothing. Nothing at all. I don't think it's the honeymoon sweeping me off my feet either.

No darling, I am in love.

I wake up every single morning with a purpose and a reason. I understand that purpose may be as simple as a small community of livestock depend on me, but as far as I'm concerned they're as legit as any board of directors. And I know farming isn't exactly an uncommon dream. I am certainly not alone or special in wanting my land and workng for it, but that doesn't matter either. I am needed here. I am of use.

I'll keep listening to these concerns, and I appreciate the intent. But what the wary seem to overlook is that it doesn't matter if I get this dream. It doesn't matter in the least. What does matter is that I tried and keep trying, because just knowing what you want to do with your life is gift. It's a breathing hope you crawl towards every. single. day. And if I never get a giant flock, or a farm, or a sheepdog, or any of my big plans—I still know that I want them. I understand this. It is a natural law, as real as Newton's own. And I think that is a fine way to live. You don't have to obtain dreams as much take ownership of them. It's good to want things. It makes the world make sense.

I will always be a shepherd—three sheep, three hundred sheep, or none at all. I stand by the photocopier at work with a crook in my hand and a black collie by my side and even if you can not see them they are there. And that reality of desire makes everything else small. All my worries fade in the plaid fabric of wanting, and makes every day of work I put into my farm another rung on the ladder.

It's a very tall ladder.

I don't go to bars. I don't have a TV. I have this farm. I am in love.

It's enough.

what a bad storm can do to corn...

back to three

It was around 6:30 in the evening when I was leaning against the back hatch of the Subaru, shielding my eyes from the sun. I was in a Petco parking lot in Rutland. I kept checking the time. Any minute now a green Ford Ranger was going to pull to join me in the rendezvous. I was excited, couldn't help it. The farm would soon be back to three sheep: a proper small flock. Sheep are not animals meant to be paired. They need family. Three was the magic number, indeed.

To pass time I went into the pet store to buy biscuits and two cans of dog food for Jazz and Annie. (Consolation prizes for their late dinner.) Lamb, of course. As someone who's trying to become a shepherd in the 21st century—I try to support the sheep industry with every purchase I make. I stopped buying polar fleece (a dog hair magnet, anyway) a long time ago. I'm a wool-girl now. And whenever lamb is available for dog food, I always buy it. No part of me felt guilty walking back out to the lot to meet my actual lamb. The only reason their species is still around in America is because of products like the ones in my bag. Also: socks, sweaters, lambchops and such. I'm pragmatic when it comes to the animals that raise me and try to make them as much a part of my life (and in this case, my dogs' lives) as possible. We know each other's purpose.

Soon Sara and her husband Chris pulled up. The cab of the truck also held their three-year-old son Warren and a smiling big-eared dog named Jack. On the back bed was a truck cap jury-rigged for livestock transportation. The windows had been removed on one side and held wire mess instead. In the corner of the bed a small black ball was curled up in the corner. He was so much smaller than I anticipated. Just 24" tall and a light fame. His dark face and chocolate wool were strikingly handsome. His expression: panicked. I told him we'd be home soon.

After handshakes, hugs, and paperwork I placed Desperado in the back of the station wagon. He cried and bleated, confused about the exchange and the new vehicle. He instantly started to defecate all over the back seat. "Yeah. Get comfortable." I said. A sheep pooping on plastic lining in my car doesn't even cause for a change in inflection anymore. This is just my Thursday night.

I really need a pickup truck.

Des (name change possibly pending to Joseph or Tobias) slept in the back while the four of us headed back into Southern Vermont. Mike and Phil were with me again, and as far as human travelers go, were very patient. Phil kept Des from hoping into the front seat as Mike and I talked up front. The ride home felt quick. We stopped for pizza and left the lamb alone in the car while we dined from an outdoor porch. All of assumed he would remain in the back hatch, and sleep where he lay.

When I got back out to the car forty-minutes later he was standing in the front passenger seat.

It was dark and late (for a homesteader) when I got back. I knew the adult sheep weren't ready for a new tenet at 10PM so I placed him in with Finn. Finn was overjoyed. He jumped and play-rammed the new lamb with his horns. Nothing harsh or dangerous: kid stuff. But the new guy was bleating and crying and seemed to want nothing to do with frivolity. I left them alone with hay, grain, and water and hoped the clatter would calm down soon. By now the adult sheep, goat, and chickens were all carrying on. Soon the flashlight beam of my neighbor Roy was on all of us. We were like a gang of kids tagging a cement wall, up to no good and caught in the thick of it. He told us he heard the commotion and wanted to check out the scene. I assured him all was well and thanked him. I felt a small pang of gratitude for a neighbor who'd venture out into the dark Vermont woods to check in on a neighbor's stock. I made a note that I really owed him a pie.

All through the night I went out to check on him. I didn't get much sleep. Finn's horns had traces of dark wool on them but both of the little guys seemed fine. Des was shaken up. He stood in the same spot in the back of the pen all night, but Finn stopped trying to get him to play. The move from farm-to-farm is a lot for a little guy. He just needs to hold out in for a few more hours.

This afternoon he'll get to meet the big kids—his new flock. And hopefully, in time, become a member of Cold Antler, as much as anything else out there surely is.

Okay, time to head back outside and haul water. Looks like it's going to be another hot one. The coffee's almost done and the light's starting to stream into the hollow. The backyard needs me. I can hear it crowing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

he's here

meetings and lambs

Today features quite the goings-on at Cold Antler. I'm meeting with the bank around noon to talk about the possibility of owning a piece of Vermont. I don't expect much. Maybe a polite handshake and a list of tasks, savings, and ritual sacrifices to accomplish by date X. But even if it is a humiliating experience—it's most certainly the next step. 'What's next' is my new motto around here. No more poetry and prose about owning my own farm. Time to sign some paperwork and get very uncomfortable about big changes. Trying to figure out how to move 25 animals on to a new farm would be a wonderful problem to have.

After my flagellation I'll drive up to Rutland with some friends. The reason: a 70-pound black lamb named Desperado. Des will be coming home to take Marvin's empty place among the flock. He's also a Border Leicester/Romney cross just like everyone else. We'll be driving him home in the back of the Subaru and hopefully the gang will invite him in. If not he spends the night in the goat hotel with Finn. Regardless, I'll figure out.

What's next?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

the morning border

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

gristmills and used books

I took the day off from work for a day trip into western Massachusetts. The reason was a grand Idaho reunion—three good friends from Sandpoint were all converging near Amherst for some old-fashioned catching up. I was thrilled to see friends from across the continent, but also a little grateful for a day away from the office and the farm. I wouldn't trade my life for anyone's. That, I'd like to make clear. However, it's indisputable that the choices I've made make leaving Vermont (even for a day trip) hard. My escape into another state took planning and preparation and I was only gone ten hours.

Keep in mind that little events you may take for granted are big treats for me. For example: today me and two girlfriends putzed around a bookstore and ate out. Things like sitting in the cafe (a state away from the farm!) with an iced coffee and some sandwiches made me feel like a cosmopolitan wunderkind. Some crazy jet-setter with a hellbent agenda on free livin'. When you live in a town with more graves than residents, you learn to appreciate a day spent where people post signs for concerts on walls.

Holy Crow that that bookstore was heaven! The joint's simply called The Book Mill, and is actually a refurbished grist mill by the side of a river. The store's slogan: Book you don't need in a place you can't find. Perfect. I loved it and the bumper sticker with said slogan is happily pasted to my fridge as I write you folks. I really enjoyed myself there. Just walking around the place and sitting by its open windows overlooking the tiny roar of the waterfalls below reminded me of Jim Thorpe. Which, if you're curious, is the greatest place in America. This is also indisputable as well.

Seeing Marjan, Braden and Joanna was wonderful. Two years ago we were all residents of Sandpoint (Marjan and her fiance Atom, still are) but now I, of course, live in Vermont and Braden and Jo live in Greenfield, Mass. But to sit around a random New England picnic table eating ice cream cones together when just a few falls ago we were all hanging in the upstairs of Eichardts pub...was a little incredulous.

Now I'm back, and the dogs had their walk, the animals their feed and fresh water, and a wonderful thunderstorm is cooling off the humid day. I care for thunderstorms very much. I never want to live away from thunderstorms, crows, or book stores in old gristmills ever again. New England and it's creepy comforts suit me. I do hope to stick around. I just need to find a truck, a farm, some good sheep, great dogs, and hope willing: a very patient man who isn't scared of large animals with horns but is scared of missing an episode of the Colbert Report.

It's good to want things.

P.S. I posted a sidebar note about accepting some pertinent advertising on this blog. (Check the right hand side of this site if you or your boss might be into that.) I am trying to make a little farm-saving side money from all this writing business and I can assure you the money you may spend to place and ad here doesn't go towards anything but fueling one girl's dream for a more sustainable life and career. Which is something in today's economy.

good morning from cold antler!

There's our man Chuck Klosterman: rooster extraordinaire. He's taken to waking up the farm from the firepit benches. He waddles out there and a few hens in his harem waddle behind. He takes the stand and belts out a few loud three-part crows before returning to the coop for breakfast. Winthrop, the giant white rooster (AKA the Wererooster), doesn't make a noise until dusk. Then the howls come out. They seem to ignore the new guy, John, who is so small he doesn't reach Winthrop's knees yet. When John grows up he'll be be an eight-pound basketball of a golden rooster. If Chuck's a velociraptor, and Winthrop's a T-Rex—John will be a portly Triceratops. Low to the ground and round and look like some 4-year-old's drawing of a fat chicken. Wyandottes have their own thing going. I'll oblige him.

So far he seems like an okay guy and is already dedicated to the hens he grew up with. They travel around the coop like little explorer parties. Yesterday they disovered beneath the rabbit hutch. The day before: grass tastes amazing! Today: who knows.

Hey! Look what I found! You can click this link here and it will take you to an application that lets you follow CAF on facebook. It's a handy, free gadget. I had no idea my blog was even on here till someone showed me. And just a sidenote: if you emailed me through facebook, please email me at my home address. It is nearly impossible for me to access facebook at the farm (dial up) and at work being on such sites looks sketchy at best. So if you think I blew you off, I haven't. I just haven't been able to get back in touch yet, and I want to since I owe a kid a letter, another woman some dulcimer music, and some such.

Monday, August 17, 2009

sandgate black out

We had a power outage in rural Southern Vermont tonight. A lot of homes (2200 was the word on the street) around my area shut off. I was outside with Finn when it happened. It was nearly dark and I was hosing down some water buckets when suddenly the hose stopped? I went inside and noticed the fan was off, the fridge was dead, the cabin dark. I instantly worried I was late with the electric bill but then heard the hum of a neighbor's generator over the hill. Sandgate was dark, but a bulb in my head lit up: the grid was down.

Too many people needed air conditioning in NYC, or that was the rumor anyway. We did get an email at work saying (just in case!) of any surges in use in New York—we'd shut down to compensate. Some weird back-alley handshake between power companies. We were also told this hasn't happened in ten years. I guess we were due.

There are few people as prepared for a power meltdown as a homesteader. Even a part-time homesteader like myself is pretty ready for a night off-grid. I shrugged and went outside to put the goat away. Then I went inside and fired up the oil lamps and candles. I turned on the hand-crank radio for some news. VPR was running a special on the muskrat. I did the nightly farm chores by lantern—bobbing past the solar lamps drilled into the dirt all around the farm. Those little driveway lights are great for chicken coops and around the sheeps' fence. Tonight my little empire was well lit. I dined on some cold (but filling) dinner and drank one beer to enjoy it and relax before they all skunked. To cool off from my labors, I simply stopped moving. Letting my own body take over and regulate temperature as an animal should. Soon I was comfortable in the cabin.

People run from heat into air conditioning like corpses running back into the morgue. If you just stop running around, be still, wear something lighter and drink something colder—you don't have to depend on the air to condition you. You can condition yourself. If I'm still hot and bitchy I I think about January and smile. I was sitting with my back against the fireplace some of those nights, burried under piles of quilts and sleddogs. A little heat in August is okay. It made the tomatoes happy, at least.

I threw on a light sun dress and sat by the lantern to read. I surrendered to the circumstances, and happily so. I was engrossed in my book (The Kesslers were helping their Nubian goats kid for the first time. I'm still reading Goat Song) and then suddenly the power slammed back on right after the first twins dropped. I was shocked back into 2009 like a punch in the jaw. Damn. I was really enjoying 1892 for a little while there...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

salad bar

the great ox roast

Last night was the great Sandgate Ox Roast. A big community event held every summer at the same farm. A few hundred folks come to the annual potluck and eat, dance, and catch up with old friends. This was my second time attending so I knew exactly what I could expect–the homemade outdoor lighting, the dance floor with the ladder-hoisted lamps, and the roasting spit. I asked someone where this year's cow came from and I was asked this question:

"You remember the steer that kept breaking out of pen and standing in the road?"

"Yes" I replied. And I did remember since I almost hit him on the way to a sheepdog trial.

"Well, we're eating him."

Justice, quite literally, had been served.

This year I went with my two friends Phil and Mike. The boys showed up in Mike's truck an hour before the event because we had a music lesson planned. Mike just bought his first fiddle and wanted to learn to play. He showed me his new toy. It was a beautiful higher-end Cremona he bought from a local music store. It sounded wonderful, with a great tone and (as crazy as this sounds) a built in fade? For a brand new fiddler he had some serious talent. He bought it on Tuesday, learned Twinkle Twinkle by himself online, and then last night we learned the entire D scale, Ida Red, and began shuffling. I hope he sticks with it.

We all headed to the Ox Roast in Mike's truck, rolling down the notch and through the green roads. We passed a wedding at the Green Mountain Inn, and many horses and chickens along the roadside. Phil rode in the bed and I was a little jealous. I hadn't done that since Tennessee.

We arrived and set our contributions on the table. Phil and Mike made baked beans an corn bread. I made an apple pie with 1761 written on it in dough (the year Sandgate was chartered). We grabbed a table, got some food, cracked open a few beers and listened to the string band play. The guitarist had a 1930's black Gibson archtop that he showed me when I inquired about it. It was so beautiful—all busted up and scratched and still sounded heavenly. I have such a soft spot for old Gibson guitars. It made me want that dream J-45 even more. Some day. Right now my life goals go like this: truck, farm, tractor.

We didn't stay long, no one really does. We capped the meal with maple Wilcox icecream and pie and then jumped back into the truck. We were heading back to Cold Antler for a more intimate campfire and some more music. And let's all be grateful for small granted wished because this time I got to ride home in the back. This made my evening. The Roast was nice, my stomach was full, the Long Trail beer was perfect... but as we drove trough the Vermont dusk I played my fiddle from the back bed of the pickup truck and soaked up that small moment like it belonged in a snowglobe. Wind blew my hair all over my face and across my strings. I didn't care. I just sawed along, past the wedding a the Inn. Past the horses who looked up quickly then dove back into their salads. Past the whole world. A girl in a truck, a fiddle tune, and late summer.

As far as Saturday nights go. This one ended perfectly. Leaving behind the hoof prints of a memory I do not think I'll be able to shake anytime soon.

pumpkins & antlerstock

Remember that little pumpkin crawling along the fence line? Well here he is a few days later—heavy on the ground. I took my little Barlow knife and scratched my runes into his side. Those symbols stand for peace/protection, love/hope, and harvest/autumn. (They are all over everything on this farm, from beehives to chicken coops to witten on paper cups at sheepdog clinics so I know which one is mine.) The scars will stay with him till he's big and orange: a neat trick anyone can do with squash. Write your kid's name, Happy Halloween, or your house number and set it by the mailbox. Besides this beauty, all the pumpkins seem to be coming along nicely and have taken over most of the garden with their giant prickly vines. I saw another giant like this under the corn and a few more just getting started. Already this guy is larger than my biggest from last fall. I hope to have some nice heavyweights for the porch, pies, and carving.

So I don't think I'll be hosting a big weekend camping event, but this October I would like to have Antlerstock. I was thinking a Saturday in mid October. And the plan would be to have all of us meet at Merck Forest Farmland Center to tour the heritage livestock, visit the trails for a short hike (I'll bring Finn!) and that way we can all revel in Vermont's woodland fall at a working big farm and then come back to CAF for food, music, and a campfire. If you are serious about attending let me know and if the number is manageable I'll start planning! There might be a small fee to help cover the food, but besides that it'll be just a time to catch up, fiddle, and laugh.

P.S. If you like reading up on the farm, you can click a link at the top of the blog called "Follow This Blog." I believe it let's you get posts either emailed to you, or just notified of updates. Check it out.