Monday, October 12, 2009

my endless numbered days

I pulled out of the parking lot fast today. Peeled out, really. I turned up the truck's stereo as loud as it would go and let Radiohead's Ok Computer carry me home. Karma Police came on and I smiled coyly. The song, all their songs, are wonderful but tonight the ending bars of the last chorus were absolutely perfect. I left the office's driveway singing with Mr. Yorke like we were in the same booth of a bar and each owed the other something important but forgot it four drinks ago. The truck had been sitting in the driveway all weekend, and had accumulated a large collection of leaves that were too wet to fly out this morning. As I sped down the highway they burst out from the bed in a fury just as the music hit its peak. You can't construct moments like that. I was a fall machine and I knew the evening would be beautiful.

I got home and almost ran to the front door. I opened it and Annie leapt up into my arms, whining, begging for what was left of the sunlight. I told my fine dogs we were going for a walk and they howled and stomped their paws as we leashed up. We ran off and up the the dirt roads. The dogs love the dead leaves by the the edges and wade through them like creek water. With the dead children of oaks and maples up to their elbows, they'd stride like the grandest brace of horses. Thrush WOOooosh Thrish THRASH was the joyful noise their pace would echo. We walked fast, west, downhill. Into the sunset, racing it to the old cemetery where men who plowed these hills before the Civil War lie dead. We ran up over the grass that covered the brave that came before us, and looked over all of West Sandgate, like kings.

A girl. Her dogs. Her Fall.

We came home and I let the dogs lap water and eat their dinners. Then I went outside to feed the sheep. I was so happy this morning when I walked out in the 28 degree cold and watched all three emerge from their small shed in a pile. I had filled it with heavy clean straw the night before and knew they woke up safe and warm. Joseph, the black lamb, was welcomed in the barn with the others. He was last to come out, groggy, a baby.

I took Finn out too, to play and headbutt and run around the yard following me like the dog he always knew he was. I collected five perfect brown eggs and fed the rabbits. I stacked wood and felt my body get hot as the night grew chill. I felt lucky. I felt alive.

Indoors again—I immediately turned on the record player. Our Endless Numbered Days was on the turntable and I let side one play as I started a loaf of bread in the kitchen. The song On Your Wings came on and played with the hollow distance that only an old record player can really growl. I know nearly every Iron and Wine song by heart and sang along as I kneaded.

"How we rise when we're born like the ravens in the corn...On their wings, on our knees, crawling careless from the seas. God, give us love in the time that we have..."

I sing those words like my mouth isn't a human mouth at all. Like some wild dog with the ability to move its jowls in elegant ways could sing. I sing like the fox I want dead and as I sing I am happy he's not. Because if he could sing, he would sing those words too. This may sound odd but that song is like that—specially as it cracks on the record player—which is older than I am.

Dinner tonight will be a simple, favorite, meal. A small loaf of bread pulled out of the oven and sliced open like a baked potato. I'll sprinkle in a little seasoning and cheddar and eat it with slow and grateful bites washed down with iced apple cider from a mason jar. But that will be hours from now. First I have a couple thousand words to write for a publisher and hopefully I'll award myself every five hundred or so with a guitar break. I want to work on that song I wrote. I'll sway between projects as I stoke the fireplace. I may not be asleep until late.

But that's okay because tonight, darling, is all about Autumn. It's about being happy I'm not dead yet. Pretty simple. Which is what this month is all about to me. It's Thanksgiving in Canada today and Thanksgiving at a cabin at the end of the world. Tucked in a hidden hollow in a mountain in Vermont one girl, two dogs, a flock of sheep, a goat, some chickens, rabbits and music are all humming with October. Which I honestly think was born right here in Bennington County. We are blessed in ways we do not have the ability to understand. Nights like these really are my endless numbered days.

I didn't spend any money tonight. I didn't get drunk, or make love, or do any drugs. I didn't have a party, or plan a vacation, or even get kissed on the forehead. I just spent a day experiencing this holy season the best ways I know how: with sweat and animals and woodsmoke and good food. And because of that I feel like I did all those things in which I did not. Which in a way, just might, be better. At least tonight anyway.

At least tonight.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

he used to fit in the front seat...

or so, she hopes

I ended up staying up well past midnight last night. In front of the fire, on a big brown sheepskin I wrote a song for the guitar. I rarely write music with lyrics. Hell, I rarely write music. I like learning songs, but last night I sat with a blank musician's notebook and scribbled down chords and words and played around with finger positions till I figured out a song. It's nothing great, but it's mine. I know the progressions by heart now, and it made the end of the day seem correct and elegant. Some nights it's just easier to sleep when you stayed up as late as you could making calluses on your fingers.

I think I was wound from all the company and activities. After the folks from the workshop left—and some late afternoon guests stopped by for coffee—I found myself puttering around the farm in the new sunlight. It had been a soppy morning (the kind that you have to dodge mushrooms to get to your car) but by late afternoon the sun came out and the farm opened up into this orange and green world. Young hens playing tag around the still-green pumpkins in the dying garden. I let the hooves graze and chopped wood. I still have a cord to stack waiting patiently in a hideous pile. I'll get to some of it today. Maybe. Honestly, all I want to do when my laundry is done in town is come home to a fire and a good meal. I'm a simple woman.

I was going to (read: supposed to) drive north to Westfield for the Fall Foliage Sheepdog Trials, but I discovered it would be about a four hour drive one way. After the cold, the weekend of guests, and the fact I have a pile of seems unreasonable, which is a disappointment. But it also seems criminal to drive four hours to watch a trial when if you added another hour I could have dinner with my family in Pennsylvania if I drove south instead. So no fall sheepdog trials this year unless I make the NY sheep and wool Festival in a few weekends. But I'll catch up. I have a lifetime ahead of me of collies, fall trials, and stomping flocks. Or so, she hopes.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

this girl can grow a pumpkin

*Thanks for taking the photo, Jeff

we clucked and we strummed

The four people who came to attend the workshop just left, and I think they had an okay time. Jeff, Jillian, Bobbie, and Jordan came from as close as two towns north and as far away as outside Boston. We did spend time inside by the fire learning basic dulcimer strumming patterns and taking turns playing for the group. (I hope they left with a solid idea of how to play the basics and where to go next if they like it....)

We spent time outside in the chicken coop talking about feeding, housing, lighting, and handling some birds. It was chilly, so we didn't spent a lot of time outdoors. It was nice to be in the kitchen full of others of like mind—talking about goats and winemaking and sharing our stories about coops and big plans. While I do feel questions were answered and dulcimers were played, I think most of us just wanted to learn from conversation and enjoy our homemade pizza and local brews with other homesteaders.

I think it was a success. Chuck didn't bite anyone. Maude didn't headbutt anyone (though the sheep did escape and hung out with us for a bit near the coop. Maude, would not come near us. Humans are "below her," I think). No one complained about the food, beer, or hard cider. Jillian suggested I do another workshop on knitting and fiddling next, which I think would be a blast. That would be a great winter weekend in the cabin.

Thank you to the readers who came to the farm. Take care of those dulcimers and keep practicing. And thanks for all who donate, write, read the blog, check in on me, buy books and send emails. Workshops like today made enough money to feed my sheep all winter—which means I can save more of my paycheck for that someday farm. Which as we all know, is the dream I'm crawling uphill towards.

Friday, October 9, 2009

cold antler's gander of two

hard cider!

Homesteading has made it into every corner of my life, even when it's not necessarily welcome or invited. It's become the cat that adopts you, the guest that won't leave, and the rain that won't let up. During the most mundane situations, where the farm has no business being, it finds a way to sneak in. It happens subtly, usually. In the middle of an e-commerce meeting I'll realize I didn't clean off the bottom of my boots and everyone at the office can smell sheep as well. Or sometimes someone at grocery store a stranger will stop me to ask if I was hurt? And I'll look confused till they pick off pieces of hay and grass from the back of my jacket. Or Sometimes (like earlier this week) I could be sitting down at my desk at the office, minding my own business, when all of a sudden the phone rings at the and someone who works in shipping wants to know if I want to come to an antique hard cider press next Saturday?

There was a time I thought I could get out if I wanted too. I thought I could quit anytime. Sorry folks, that train track has been stepped over. I'm in this. And the lines between worlds are thinning. I have proof of this because now, even in the world of web design and spreadsheets, new fiends are beckoning me deeper into the world of farm shenanigans...

Come on! How could I turn that down? I think the only way to make an October weekend more Vermonty would be if I sat there eating a block of extra-sharp cheddar in red plaid while the granny smith's pressed. My friend Mike (who's friends with this gentleman of cider, named Dave) have both welcomed me to their annual fall ritual of collecting wild apples and spending a Saturday making their knock-out hard cider. Next weekend I'm to show up with as many apples as I could pick, borrow, barter, or steal and we'll meet to make the cider. Dave told me he had the recipe from an Vermont Old-timer, and ex Veterinarian, and it was the best and strongest he's ever had. I'll get to watch and learn the whole process, from apple to bottle. I'll be taking notes, pictures, and laughing the whole time. I think last year's batch may be involved in the festivities as well...

This isn't light stuff folks. I've tried it. It has teeth. It was like drinking concentrated autumn-bonfire-party in a bottle. Dave and Mike are both new fiddlers as well, so I am hoping while the apples crush we can take some time to play some old tunes. Should be a fine Saturday, next week.

win some homemade goodness!

I've been able to meet a lot of interesting people these past few years, thanks to this farming habit. One of them is fellow author and homesteader, Ashley English. Ashley has some books coming out soon about chickens and canning (more on those later) but in the meantime, check this out: She's doing a contest on her blog for some of her own apple butter. If you want in, or if you can't get enough of us crazy women at home with our chickens and goats. Check out her site as well.

Photo off English's blog

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

attention: cluck & strummers

Anyone coming to the farm this weekend, please email me. I want to send out a group list and check in. Looks like four of you will be here at the farm Saturday for the workshop. I wanted to let you know the dulcimers and books are in and the chickens are ready to do some hands-on teaching. Dress for inside and outside, wear boots, bring a blanket for the campfire, and if you want, something to share for potluck (though lunch will be made in the farm kitchen - pizza!). See you this weekend!

reading the whole thing

It's really dark outside and the wind is picking up into a fever. Annie is here at my feet as I type in my kitchen (Jazz is still in bed). Coffee is heating up on the stove top and in about twenty minutes, when the first blue cracks of light come, I'll put on an insulated vest and some work gloves and go out and feed the animals by lantern light. Daylight savings will come soon and I can't wait. I look forward to greeting the animals in natural light again and not tripping over the wood pile. A lot of folks will look outside at 5PM and get bummed it's already dark out, but those of us up at 5 feeding chickens and stock will be thrilled to stop having to buy so many bandaids.

Every now and then I get an email from someone who admits to reading through this entire blog in a few days. This is flattering as hell, but shocking to read. They start in August a few years ago in Idaho and end up here in October in Vermont just a few days later. I have never done this (read the whole blog), but think if I would It would leave me with only two conclusions: Either this girl is crazy and needs to get out more or making dreams happen without giant inheritances or trust funds takes forever.

Forever is a stretch, I know. In three years I've managed to find two homes, get some sheep, fall into some subcultures and make a lot of things happen. I'm proud of the book, the farm, the writing gigs I've managed to land...but that farm and financial security are a long way off. A really long way off... Like most of you I need to be in the office by 8AM and make my rent and car payments. I'm a regular gal with a farming disease.

To be frank, I don't really care about the financial security. I'm fine with getting by if "getting by" is figuring out how to make tractor and mortgage payments and deal with slaughtering fees and how to pay for a weekend competing at a sheepdog trial in Canada. Those will be glorious problems to have. But the farm of my own...I hope to get there in three years. That is the great big hope. I want to own a small piece of Vermont by 30. I want to be walking out to check on the lambs with my border collies at 35. And I want to be reading my the woodstove, sick of (but still addicted to) shepherding at 55. My high trial sheepdog curled up at my feet. If some bills get paid late, or I can't retire at 65, then so be it. I'll be out in the pasture till I drop.

I view this process, and I view it slow. I don't expect anything to come fast or easy. I never have. I can only imagine reading through this whole blog and seeing it move from a few chickens and raised beds in Idaho to the the hooved and truck-fueled farm it is here in Vermont must seem like such progress, so fast. But I assure you the days, bills, jobs, heart ache, paperwork, contracts, moves and sleepless nights in-between posting times makes it all feel a lot longer to me. So do all the things I don't write about. I'm not living some double secret-agent life or anything (I don't have the time) but you know what I mean. The everyday dramas and events that don't really have to do with Cold Antler or make headlines.

And honestly, most of the big things that happened (i.e. finding people willing to trade sheep for fiddle lessons or having coworkers help raise a small barn) are luck and chance. Hey, I'll take luck and chance any day, but right now I'm taking this coffee outside to feed a goat.

P.S. 6:35 AM - I just got inside from the morning chores. The world is still navy blue. I was outside filling water buckets when a high, warm wind filled the hollow. It was almost scary, the trees cracking and the leaves swirling, everywhere. I walked across the farm with my water buckets, watching the yellow and red leaves fly across the lantern beams and all of stuck in the awkward warm wind and blue world. If Cold Antler ever reminded me of a twisted snowglobe, one that's all black and blue and gold and red, it was just now...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

angora goats at the vswf

Monday, October 5, 2009

more sheep and more wool

The festival was larger than I thought it would be. Tons of cars filled the parking lot and as I walked into the fields the the first thing I saw was my shearer, Jim, giving a herding demonstration with some of his dogs. As he explained to the crowd the various commands and such, I walked past the border collies and into the barns. Not that I didn't appreciate the working dogs, it's still such a sore spot in my heart. At this time last year I first met Sarah, the border collie who was once mine. She was a cannon of a dog, but too much for me and my three sheep (who are not dog broke). So After some incidents and the phone explanation from an already saintly landlord that three dogs was unacceptable: Sarah had to be returned to the breeder. Bad timing. I'll get my collie someday, and when I do it'll be right. When I have the right sheep, and the right land, and the right life.

Here's something I noticed" if you're coming to a wool festival you better not be sporting any polar fleece. Everyone I saw seemed to have on their finest Irish fishing sweaters, felted Ibex vests, or smartwool coats. Some people had on the occasional fleece, but seemed to notice the faux pas and bought some yarn from a conspicuously leering vendor. I understood. It must be frustrating struggling to keep a dying market alive for a natural, warm, renewable fiber like wool and see people in synthetics. But I also understand how amazingly comfortable and non-itchy synthetic fleece is. It's hard for me to say no to those North Face Jackets on the outfitters racks, but as a future shepherd, a girl's gotta shop how a girl's gotta shop. My new winter coat is all wool. Right on, sister suffragette.

Anyway. I was very pleased to see that the long barns used to house and display the various fiber animals (sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, and angora rabbits) also had vendors between the animal stalls. You could literally buy wool and look at the sheep it may have been shorn from the season before. For people of a certain disposition, this is remarkably cool. I am of that disposition.

I ended up buying four skeins of hand-spun wool, a lambskin, and some new knitting needles. I nearly bought this awesome little Vermont-invented spinning wheel called the Hitchhiker, but remembered I had a car payment due and was able to resist. When I was all shopped and sheep-petted out—I went to watch Jim do a shearing demo. He had quite the crowd. I sat down and a woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder. "Are you Jenna?" And she introduced me to her family, explaining that she read my book and I was the reason they now had chickens. This was beyond flattering, and made me kind of blush. I really like that the closest thing to celebrity I have attained is being recognized at a sheep shearing demonstration by new chicken owners.

I got home from the festival and decided to accept my symptoms and take it easy. I was now feeling tired, and coughing a lot. So I went about the normal evening chores of feeding hay, chopping wood, carrying water, collecting eggs and breeding rabbits and then came inside to collapse in front of the fire on the new sheep skin and work on Wildwood Flower on the Dulcimer. Now that's a hell of a Sunday.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

the vermont sheep & wool festival

If you thought a bad cold could keep me away from the Vermont Sheep & Wool Festival, you'd be sorely mistaken. No cough or runny nose was going to stop this future farmer from jumping in her orange pickup and heading north to be among her favorite people, the wooly people. That weird breed of New Englander that still raise sheep, spin yarn, knit their own sweaters and know how to throw a good party.

I left the farm around ten. I stopped at Wayside to fuel up on pumpkin coffee and Dayquil. I'm pretty sure that was the magical combination that fought away any real sickness and kept me smiling as I turned up the radio and drove towards Killington. I've been listening to a lot of Deer Tick lately. A band that is hard to describe but easy to love. Their song, Smith Hill (which is beautiful as it is miserable) seemed to be written for my Ford Ranger as it swooped and dove over the mountain roads to the festival. I could not help but sing along. As the lyrics growled "I could drink myself to death tonight. I could stand and give a toast. Here's to the one's that made it out alive: it's you I miss the most..." When the violins kick into the simple guitar chorus...damn. Made me wish my truck had wings.

The obscure location of the festival meant a lot of long hidden side highways and mountain climbs. Vermont is near her peak and the foliage along the way was mesmerizing. If any sniffles remained, I had willed them away with sheer, stupid, love. Good music and natural beauty are proof positive a remedy.

More on the festival tomorrow. This cold I'm fighting has me wanting rest...

dinner, last night

Friday, October 2, 2009

my new dulcimer

Ever since I saw them on the shop walls of Wood-n-Strings in Tennessee, I've wanted a Walnut Creek dulcimer. I finally was able to get one, and she's beautiful. She has a richer tone that resonates in her larger body. When I ordered it, I asked for a redgum wood top and deer sound holes. You know me...always looking for my antlers.

I've been on quite the dulc kick lately. Probably because I'm planning this beginner's workshop next weekend, but also because as October rises my thoughts of the Smoky Mountains rise alongside. Last weekend was the Old Timers' Festival down in the park and I wasn't there. I wasn't at the grist mill, or sprawled out in the high grass of the cove. I wasn't hiking up to the Balds or standing on top of Chimney Tops. I have an old postcard of Chimney Tops at my desk at work. Sometimes when I glance up at it it turns into shrapnel. Hitting me hard, by accident, reminding me how far I am from home. Which is a ridiculous thing to say, having grown up in the Northeast my whole life. But some things can't be helped. You love what you love, and while finding a new home here where sap runs and creeks freeze...i'll keep playing mountain music. It'll keep the memories of that great state heavy. I learned I'll Fly Away last night. Sitting in front of the fire on a quilt and strumming that tune made me forget a lot of things. Sometimes, that's a blessing.

Living in New England, it's not uncommon to hear the occasional crack about the south. It's an easy scapegoat for mockery—always a stupid comment duct-taped to a corny accent. It used to insult me. Once a coworker actually said "Aren't you glad you escaped Tennessee" and had I hackles to raise, they would've. Now whenever anyone mentions Tennessee (even in jest) it feels like a how you remember falling in love for the first time, all hollow and warm.

Which, Incidentally, is what a good dulcimer sounds like. So the combination of a broken heart for a state that hardly remembers my footsteps and that sweet music warm me up tonight. I don't mind feeling hollow if it's warm. Even while the rain falls and fireplace remains ashes: I'll fly away.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

finally home

In celebration of October I'll be posting a photo from Sandgate everyday this month. This first one was taken by Sara Stell on her visit to the farm last year. We took a walk down my dirt roads and this one is in our old West Sandgate Cemetery. Most graves are pre-Civil War. (My town's older than our country, son.) You can see a mess of her photos from the farm in October here.

P.S. Thank you to the reader who posted one of Sara's photos in the current issue of Mother Earth News!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

a grand tomorrow

If I ever have a family of my own, tonight will be a great holiday. A night when everyone takes off work the next day and spends the early hours of the morning in front of a bonfire in the shadows of yellowing corn stalks. We'll have sheepdogs curled at our feet and hear the distant cries of fattening lambs in the fields. It'll be a night for dancing and laughing and stories and songs. Fiddles and guitars and enough food to shame Thanksgiving. A night to forget about everything save for what really matters, which is to say what keeps us alive: food, animals, friends, good dogs and great love.

It's the Eve of October: the greatest month of the year. Tomorrow we'll wake up and everything is different. Trust me on this people, I would never lie about such a holy thing. You'll wake up and feel the difference. If you can't feel it, the crows will show you. And if you can't listen to crows, then by god, you'll read about it here.

October is when nostalgia and hope grab hands and jump off cliffs together. It's a month of harvest and celebration, of history and agriculture and a hundred religions taking time to pause and pray and reflect. It's a time for memories and love, but also a darker time of faster nights and quicker shadows. Everyone has their own opinion of this month, but here at Cold Antler, this is it. This is why I kiss the ground I landed in Vermont. Around here we're jaw-punched with such relentless beauty it makes us pull over our cars at 7:48 AM on the way to the office just because a fiery maple deflated our lungs.

I can't wait for tomorrow, and for the next 31 days right up to Halloween. This is my month, our month. Grab your mugs of cider and toast the night with me friends. Tomorrow is October, and October is when everything happens.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

if they only knew

Another rainy day here in the hollow, but not an unwelcome one. The drive up into the mountains after work was gorgeous. Swirling panics of leavesm pairs of crows launching into the air like the ground was poison. The whole painting from the cab of the truck seemed comforting. I have never lived away from mountains, trains, and crows. God forbid I ever do.

I came home and before even walking into the house grabbed three logs off the wood pile and split them with a level of skill no one should obtain having grown up watching Night Court. I carried my kill inside, started a blazing fire, and hugged my kind dogs. I always ask Jazz and Annie the same question, every day. "Are you getting all the love you need?" and they oblige me with a nuzzle deep into my side. Siberians don't really lick or wag their tails. If they're happy to see you they bend back their ears and place their thick foreheads into your body, nuzzling like wolves. Lifting their heads only to have their eyes meet yours to ask for a scratch behind the ears or permission to nuzzle more. Sometimes when I walk the dogs in town parents drag their kids by the arms away from Jazz and Annie, as if they were indeed wolves. The kids always reach out and Annie licks a splayed finger as they go. If they only knew.

Joseph is now living with the flock full time. He is no longer sharing the kid pen with Finn. Maude and Sal have made him one of the tribe, in their own way, which is to say they aren't chasing him away from the grain bin or morning hay pile anymore. He sits at the big kids table now. He seems like a happy guy. This shepherd's work is done. At least for now.

They are calling for snow showers tomorrow night. No joke.

Monday, September 28, 2009

sometimes you're the horse

It's a miserable evening here at Cold Antler. One of those days you give up on by 3pm and spend the rest waiting for the next sunrise. It's been overcast, raining, and windy here in southern Vermont. Days like this I usually revel in, adore really. I like the comfort of the cabin and the fireplace, but today for some reason I'm not feeling too offensive with my attitude about weather. The gold, red, and orange leaves are being ripped off the trees and racing across the roads. Everything's damp. The kind of damp that makes your clothes, indoors, seem musty.

I do apologize for the thin posting this weekend. I had an impromptu visit from my old college roommate, Erin. We went to design school together and now she lives in Cambridge, in the heart of Boston. I think she enjoyed her self-imposed Urban exile though. We spent the two days driving, shopping, talking. Pretty much being college roommates again. We talked about shoes, men, and our jobs. The kind of conversations I can't have in Vermont unless they're imported. I've made some close and wonderful guy friends here, but so far, like always, finding women that I enjoy the company of has been hard. (This is completely contrary to Idaho, where most of, if not all, my close friends were gals).

So I'm back. Still fighting with Chuck Klosterman who has grown more and more violent and who I subdue every time with a shepherd's crook or rake. (Don't freak out, I just brush him away. I don't beat my poultry. That's tacky.)

Sorry friends, I give up on this crappy day. Some days you're the horse, and some days you're the cart. Today I was 100% buggy-fuel. Now I'm going to walk outside and make sure the sheep are all content and the gate is locked. Then I am coming back in for the diine therapy that is Wilcox pumpkin ice cream with crushed ginger snap button cookies. Then I'm going to crash in front of the fire and watch some Buffy (season 4, Hush, if you're in the club) and chalk this day up as a loss.

The bright side is this: October is almost here. And October, darling, is when everything happens.

October is cart time, baby.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

mountain dog

I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.
-The Dharma Bums

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Cold Antler farm's flock of thirteen laying hens is currently being watched over by two roosters. Here's the one I like, Winthrop. Named after the man who delivered the great sermon A Modell of Christian Charity—My rooster, like the venerable Plymouth puritan, is a pious guy watching over his own City on a Hill. He's huge, taller than my male goose. He's usually quiet and calm, but will on occasion let out a howl of a crow that sounds nothing like a normal rooster, thus his nickname, the wererooster.

Chuck Klosterman is the other one. He's an asshole. He is the only rooster I have ever raised that tries to hurt me. Only he isn't man enough to own that decision and actually try and spur me. He waits till I am walking away and then runs up to me, ready to attack. Then I whirl around and yell "WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM, BIRD!" and he backs down because I'm 15 times his height. Then he struts away and runs off to bang a hen or chase Winthrop around. Sometimes I wish Winthrop realized he was twice the size of Chuck Klosterman. It's like watching an angry velociraptor stalk and bite an autistic T-Rex. Winthrop is in his own little world of wolf sounds and slug eating. He abhors violence, and so he runs away from Chuck like a 4-year-old girl.

I keep Chuck around because while he is a mean bird—he is watchful and protective of his girls. He's sly and tricky and treats the farm like his jailyard. A place he rules with an iron fist, but also protects with one. He may not be the kindest cock on the block, but he keeps the trains running on time. For that, I'll keep feeding him no matter how much he looks like a pot pie.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

walking home

My neighbor Katie sent me this photo this morning. She took it in front of her home as the geese were walking back towards my road. Cyrus and Saro are never apart. They walk around my mountain hollow neighborhood as if it's their own. I'm lucky that the houses around mine are okay with the occasional visit from a pack of chickens or a pair of geese. Their open-yard policy ensures a free range life for my fowl. I'm much obliged.

I bought my first set of power tools yesterday—inspired by the collection of helpful gadgets Kathy and Marie brought when they helped build the fence. I didn't buy anything top of the line 9I'm on a tight budget) but I did procure a reciprocating saw, skill saw, drill and high-beam flashlight, all cordless in a set. Tools like these, and other hand tools have been a growing collection around the homestead. I had to buy my first ever tool box as well. It sits behind the seat in the truck, ready when I am to get work done.

I have three reserved spots at the Cluck & Strum and a few people I am waiting to get confirmation from. If you said you were coming and have yet to send in your information or donation, please let me know since I am ordering your books and instruments this week.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Monday, September 21, 2009

sometimes it's hard

I've been hurt by this farm. Really hurt. I've been bitten, butted, cut, scarred, and brought to tears from pain, stress and exhaustion. This happens over and over and I'm always alone. There are things I won't blog about because I don't want my mother to worry. There are things that happen that terrify me.

This year was the hardest yet. I planted my largest garden ever, raised the most animals, and took on more work and personal projects than any sane human being should. Now that the year is almost over, and the south side of October is days away, I can let out a long sigh and tell you it was all worth it. I found a balance in it all, kept my blinders on, and everything got done. The garden was tilled, weeded, and harvested. The two-week-old goat kid grew up into a spit-fire. The young birds are almost full-sized chickens now and the rabbit doe is due to bear kits any night. Yes, the hive was lost. And yes, I failed the sheepdog I once called my own, but you'll have this from time to time. And you and I don't have enough nights to list my faults. There are many, some are awful. Trust me.

If you read this blog and find it overly positive, dramatic, or analytical: that's because writing about my choices is my daily therapy. I don't see a shrink—I write to 40,000. Sharing my stories and photos on this blog is like a long exhalation. I depend on the people who read this because in the shower I lose count of the cuts and bruises and I want to know they belong to something bigger than my body. All things considered, I am quite small.

Some nights I barely fall asleep, isomniatic from worrying about the delicate balance that is my work life, family life and farm life. I am so grateful for Jazz, my old dog, who looks at me every day like the wise bodhisattva that he is and I will never be. A good dog can walk up to you, slowly, one paw in front of the other, and sit down next to you with great stillness. I feel him lean into me and I realize I'm not the only animal on this farm. I am never alone and it is bigger than us both. He rests and lets me scratch behind his ears and only when he knows I understand the world again, pads off. Jazz isn't my child and he isn't my pet either. He's a good dog. Nothing more.

For quite some time now, people without dogs seem broken to me.

I am a farmer without a farm, a shepherd without a sheepdog, and in love with this big, stupid world without a lover. That's fine. Sometimes I foolishly think everything would be better if I had a mortgage, a collie, and a man. But I know myself well enough to see the idiocy in such black-and-white thinking. I know better. We all know better. Maybe these things will come or maybe I'll be hit by space trash tomorrow. It really doesn't matter. It's the wanting that fuels us. It's the hope. That desire to attain the life you want, whatever it is, and to fold your ears back and run into the wind like you're in harness—is life. Cold Antler farm isn't a place—it is an idea. Knowing I want it means I am already home. Actually getting there, is moot.

queen of the hay pile

Sunday, September 20, 2009

i sing along when i drive

God made the automobile:
To pass all the things He made, and then never bothered to name
And no one will tell the truth, and no one will hide it from you.
Like birds around the grave.

-Iron & Wine

bolt cutters and apple cake

There was a stupid amount of pride that went into buying my first Red Brand Field Fence. The Pennsylvania-Based company had been publishing ads in homesteading and farming magazines long as I could remember reading them. I would read them while paging through Hobby Farm in college—wondering how anyone gets to a point in their life when they are deciding between woven and welded wire fences instead of foam or no-foam in their coffee. Now I was standing in the chain-link yard at Tractor Supply buying one. I watched the forklift ease the giant roll into the back of my pickup, swelling with quiet pride. As I pushed the monster into bed, I thanked the staff that helped me load it, and then slammed the tailgate shut. Slammed it the way I dreamed of slamming it for years before owning a truck. That satisfying "CligUNK". Now, I was going to build my sheep a proper fence.

I wasn't sure how though? The old fence was barely keeping it together and that took me a whole day. This heavy-duty job would require more help, proper tools, and I bought it just hoping it would all work out. Some times things do. At least if the right people show up...Three blog readers heeded the call for help. Jeff, Kathy, and Marie all gave up a beautiful Saturday evening to come here and work up a sweat. Thanks to their time, gloves, toolboxes, and good intentions we had the whole operation done in under three hours. Quite the accomplishment.

Kathy and Marie arrived first. They pulled into the driveway in a Prius wearing workbooks. (These were my kind of women.) We shook hands and said hello and I invited them inside. I was in the middle of baking an apple cake (which almost felt contrived) but I had been invited to a neighbor's house for dinner and was scrambling to make something to bring. My mother raised me to never show up as a dinner guest without a covered dish or bottle of wine. As I poured the batter into the bowls we chatted about their farm (WindWoman Farm, outside Albany) and about their own hope for dairy goats soon. They wanted Nigerians, and I was already excited for their future kids.

Jeff pulled up in his truck shortly after. He walked out to meet us in the field with bolt cutters in one hand and work gloves in the other. All four of us were ready to get to work. We moved Sal and Maude to electric netting in a separate area so we didn't have to worry about sheep running around us and started ripping down the old fence. In no time we were measuring t-posts and pounding in new ones. I did a lot of running around, helping really, these folks were experts. I tried to be of use but while they cut the wires and pulled the fences tighter I spent most of my time in awe of their efforts. I'd grab them a cold cider if they needed it, or would grab a hammer from the truck. Not that I sat and watched, I was in the thick of it too, but I have no idea how I could have done it without them. I am beyond grateful for their assistance. I made sure they knew I was there to help with any moving days or ditch digging in their futures. And since Kathy is taking a timber frame building course in Texas soon, who knows, there might be a barn raising in our future.

When the fence was up and our work finished, we retired to the porch for apple cake and cold beers. We sat in a row, our feet dangling over the porch while we chatted and ate. The geese joined us and waddled around our feet, judging us in their goose way. When the beer and cake was downed, the three heros watched as I let Maude and Sal back into their new pen. A small cheer went up, if not from the onlookers - perhaps in my own head. Closing that gate was a call for emotional applause. We did it and now the sheep had a good strong fence for winter. I had little to offer them as thanks, but made sure each of them left with a pound of pumpkin coffee and a hug.

A fine days work, that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

good morning from the farm!

This was the first day that required mittens with the morning chores. I'm back inside now, about to dive into an omelet and pumpkin coffee. Green Mountain Coffee puts out this Pumpkin Spice flavor that I look forward to every year. And Wilcox (our Manchester-based ice-creamery..which i think is amazing) has pumpkin out for sale in the grocery stores. Both make the end of September a holiday. I like how these pumpkingy things are showing up as my own are turning orange on the vine. I can not wait for October.

As for this giant omelet: I used the last of my humble tomato crop, homemade cheese, a local dairy's milk and my hen's eggs. Together, they sing. Every bite has a history. A hen, a seedling, an evening stretching curd. I'm hoping to find a big steel pot at some yard sales today for more cheese making. I think I'm hooked.

Today's a big day. I have errands in town, but then this afternoon a few folks are coming buy to help put up the new fencing for the sheep pen. I also have a cord of fire wood to stack and need to clean out the garage for winter hay storage. So it'll be a big long day (thus the giant breakfast) or running around and working, but hopefully by the end of this weekend there will be new strong fence and a garage stacked with hay bales. So here's to a crisp morning, hard work, and a warm breakfast.

Friday, September 18, 2009

woodsmoked life

There are things I do all the time on the farm, mundane things, and I can still remember the first time I did them. I have yet to lose that beginners rush. Pouring the scratch grain into a big metal 50-gallon container and mixing it in with the layer crumbles. (My recipe for warmer birds: more fatty corn in colder weather.) Watching the deep yellow pieces of cracked corn mix in with the lighter layer crumbles still looks beautiful to me. I swirl them together with my hands and feel the tiny grains slip through my fingers. A rush of sensations. Every time I bury my arms elbow deep in the concoction to really get it all mixed up. When you get a buzz from mixing up corn in a bucket—I think that's a fairly good sign you're supposed to be living this kind of woodsmoked life.

They want tonight to dip into the thirties. Tomorrow they want frost. I hope the pumpkins hold their own. They're starting to turn a loud orange and I can not hide my shit-faced grin everytime I see them. This is the best crop of pumpkins I have ever grown, some so large I doubt I'll be able to pick them up without help.

Anyway, this cold streak—it's a fluke early bite. By Tuesday night the weather report has nights back in the fifties again. Regardless, it'll inspire most Vermonters to continue stacking wood and ordering winter fuels. I'll be filling up the cabin's oil tank and am stacking up my second cord of firewood, just dropped off today. Someday I'll be on all woodheat and electric, but for now my rented cabin has a 275-gallon oil tank to keep the place snug and pipes from freezing when the nights drop below 0. I can't believe it's time to fill up already... Fall is certainly at our doorstep. That's a fact no longer up for discussion. I am thrilled to welcome him home.

I bought a new black and white checkered flannel shirt on my lunch break. There is nothing quite as glorious as a new flannel shirt on a crisp night outside. It's a men's medium and literally comes down to my knees, but it is so soft and warm. It's like being wrapped up in someone's arms. Soon as I pulled into the farm I changed right there in the driveway, and did my evening chores wrapped in it. I didn't even need a jacket.

I have 330 feet of field fence in the back of the pick up and hopefully I'll get it up tomorrow so the sheep will finally have a fence I can be proud of. I put up the last fence by myself but that cheap garden wire but it's nearly falling apart. The hot mess is being held together by bailing twine and luck. I put up that monster alone, (but those cheap welded wire rolls didn't need to be loaded into the back of a truck with a forklift...) so I'm hoping some friends come to help tomorrow. My friend James did offer to help next weekend, so maybe fence-redux will be postponed till then. I'll play it by ear.

Some friends invited me out for drinks but I don't think I'll be heading into town tonight. Between the long work week, a stalking fox, and the promise of a warm fire I think I'll be in for the night. (I blame the shirt.) It's one of those nights where you pull the dulcimer off the mantle and mindlessly pluck away at it while you watch a favorite movie. Tonight I'll watch Cold Mountain. If my father was visiting he'd demand an apple cake be baking on a night like this. If I had some apples, I would, just for the aromatherapy of it all.

photo by sarah stell

late notice: help wanted

Anyone in the area with nothing to do tomorrow? I need help building a new fence for the sheep shed. If you have two hours and can come by the farm please email me at and come on over with a tool box! Sorry, no kids. If Maude isn't behind a fence I don't want to risk her head-butting a toddler. Adults with gloves welcome!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

the end result

my first mozzarella!

Today a package of homesteading supplies was delivered to the office, and inside it contained (among other things) everything I needed to make homemade mozzarella. It was a success! There in the photograph you can see the fist-sized ball of fresh homemade cheese sprinkled with seasoning and a sprig of basil from the garden. It took me about 45 minutes and all I needed was a gallon of milk (any milk will do that isn't ultra pasteurized) a pot, and a thermometer. Right now the oven is baking up a small pan pizza made with my own cheese, crust, and veggies. I'm really looking forward to sitting back tonight with a movie and enjoying this first foray into the dairy world. From the smell of this kitchen, it looks like it's going to be a hell of a good meal.

And a few updates: The fox is still at large but hasn't returned. Last night's stake out just left me looking foolish and cold in the 43-degree dark waiting for a date that never showed. He stood me up. I should've been wearing a prom dress. On a happier note—the truck was returned from the garage yesterday with a new front end and brakes and she passed inspection today with flying colors! I now have my own pickup outside, and every step from the handshake deal to the final inspection has been cleared. My first debt-free piece of anything. (I'm proud of my Bess.) I was also able to pay off a small credit card this month, and while it's not going to shoot my credit score up into the stratosphere - every little bit helps and gets me closer to my farm. So cheese isn't all I celebrate tonight. This September is a month of small victories.

P.S. I have two spots paid and reserved for the Cluck n Strum, and awaiting payments from a few others. Not sure what the final head count is but I hope at least five of us will be there. So far there will be three of us for sure!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

at dusk

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

he's back

Last night while I was at the movies something happened in the chicken coop. A fox (or something like it) snuck in and took the silkie bantam chick. No other animals were harmed or are missing. I know this because I noticed the missing bird last night when I returned from town. Every night I do a count and check on the birds and the little black hen was gone. Today while moving the fences my neighbor Roy came out and announced he heard a big ruckus around 8PM.

Tonight I was inside watching a movie and decided to take the dogs out for a bathroom break. The speakers on the movie were dimmed and I looked to Annie who wasn't interested in the word "walk" at all. Her head was cocked to the window. Outside the geese were screaming. It was 8:30.

I threw on my boots and ran out towards the coop only to catch the red flash and tail running into the darkness. From the glow of the coop, the only light in the Sandgate black, I saw what had to be the largest fox in all of Vermont. It was possibly a coyote. Seemed to stand about 18-22 inches tall but was a dark brown/red. "AWAY!" I screamed, as if it was a border collie I wanted to flank, "AWAY!"

I ran back inside to get Annie and Jazz like a small canine police force. The three of us ran out into the night and walked around the coop. I made sure both dogs left clear and present danger right where the fox stood. I'm hoping my screams, the visit of dogs, and the thick smell of their markings and post-kibble will buy me a night without casualties. But one thing certain. Our friend is back. Guess what I'll be doing at 8PM tomorrow night...

Stake out.

you are what you eat

Last night I went to the Manchester to see Food Inc. (which was wonderful) and engage in a group discussion about food economies. Now, I knew I was going to the movies, but I had no idea when the film was over there would be a stay-in-you-seats discussion over community action. There was. I love this state.

A local group called Manchester Transition (a local environmental issues group) hosted a post-film talk. The MC walked with a mic down the rows, asking about changes that could happen in our area to help solve the problem. I was with my friends Phil, Sharon, and Jessie as an audience member. (I am certain no one knew I was involved in this life in anyway.) And I listened to the local organic and small farmers take turns talking about their issues. Horror stories about trying to sell to grocery store chains, the struggle to get apathetic people involves. We passed around the mic and when it got to me I had one question. "How many people in the audience have a garden?"

Everyone shot up their hands. We were preaching to the choir. We needed to get someone to see this movie who never would unless someone asked them too. That's where you come in. Go see this movie and take someone who doesn't give a damn.

The problem is that Americans have convinced themselves that cheap food, a seasonless selection, and endless variety are their rights—not healthy food, in-season crops, and correct variety. Some folks say a local organic diet is an elitist goal. That regular folks can't afford it. (Then you learn that only counts for prepared meals. We'd rather watch TV than cook a meal together). We've bought the lie that eating whatever we want of lesser quality is a good thing. Because it's easier. Because we don't have to connect the cow with the burger.

This is scary to me. Really scary.

Ask the average American if they'd rather buy feeding lot chicken that comes with a death warning then drive to a farmer's market down tha block and pay a dollar more a pound for a free-range disease-free bird. Most will prefer the healthier option, but few choose it. One hilarious section of the movie interviewed a well known organic farmer who was almost shut down for processing his poultry outdoors near the fields they free ranged on. So he sent a large sampling of his stock and sampling of the same sized animals from the grocery store shelves to be tested for bacteria. His came back ridiculously healthier and his animals never went through chlorine baths and a packaging plant. It's how the animal is raised, son.

I understand that we have a world to feed. The movie wasn't so much against industrial food as it was against the lack of regulation, safety standards, and lack policy. Food Inc. didn't want everyone to boycott the grocery store, they wanted you to change what's inside. Buy voting with every purchase for healthier food. Buy local, organic, and do your best. Not everyone can afford this, but most of us can afford one local meal a day. Experts say if every American ate one meal within 100 miles of their home a week the food industry would be forced to change dramatically. The organic wouldn't be expensive, it would be normal. Get some oats at the farmers' market and you've just eaten a breakfast that can change the world.

The base problem is most people don't want to think about where they're food comes from. They don't want to buy healthier meat for more money and eat it less. They don't care about local farmers, poisoned peanut butter, and salmonella outbreaks have become nothing more than background noise on the evening news. They have jobs, lives, and families to take care of. I get it. I have a job too. But I'll be damned if I'll sit back and watch the food my family eats hurt them. We may have our disagreements, even about blog posts like this, but they can count on me to produce meat, eggs, vegetables and energy that won't put them in the hospital.

You are what you eat. Be something better.

Monday, September 14, 2009

going to see this tonight

listen to this record

Sunday, September 13, 2009

in the shop...

There's Finn, checking out his new ride. Or probably his reflection in the back of the cab. He was actually pretty calm up there. I suppose growing up from the age of two-weeks-old in the back hatch of a station wagon helped...Finn's still small enough that lifting him up in my arms isn't a problem, but I imagine those days are over soon. You'll have this.

The truck had some drama. It's now registered, has shiny green plates, and the taxes are paid. It just needed to get a state inspection to make it road legal. So yesterday I took it to a mechanic to get it looked over. Turns out it didn't make it fifteen minutes into the inspection before the guy told me the front passenger side wheel was loose. It was a hazard and it needed to be fixed before Vermont allowed it on her roads. I contacted the dealer and they're picking it at the office tomorrow and repairing it on their dime. My friend and coworker Eric is going to take me back up into the 'Gate. Hopefully in a few days it'll be back to work. With jobs like fence reconstruction, winter hay buying, and trash bags needing to get to the dump... I need this truck. It can do in one trip what the Subaru can do in five.

Oh, I finally picked up that issue of Urban Farm magazine. If you live in a suburb or city, it's a must have for the resource lists alone. And the articles on beekeeping, goats, chickens, canning and small-space gardening are great and beginner friendly. Not too shabby for five bucks.