Tuesday, November 3, 2009

my new lunchbox

It's a 1962 Thermos metal barn lunch box. It has a matching thermos and it's what I use to carry lunch into the office. I scored if off ebay for less than what I'd spend on half tank of gas. Sure, its got some scratches and rusty hinges, but I'm comfortable with imperfection. I like seeing it at my desk while I'm typing. It reminds me that a few miles away, up a winding mountain road, is my farm. I carried this lunchbox from it and I'll carry it back inside—a comfort in stressful times and a nice thought even on the best of days. It's got moxie, and I like it with unapologetic gladness.

Monday, November 2, 2009

finn and his truck

established support

That first day of daylight savings always hits us, doesn't it? I left the office at 5 and barely caught the last blue moments of dying light. Driving home from work I realized I forgot to put the porch light on before I left, meaning the cabin would be dark as all get out when I got home. When I pulled into the driveway I stepped out of the truck and was instantly caught off guard. I felt the rush of moving animals and heard a mini-stampede of hooves about 30 feet to my right. Four white tails flashed down the hill. I didn't even see the does behind the trees. I caught my breath, but hardly. A great horned owl started carrying on somewhere down the other side of the creek. I realized then that crows are my morning birds and owls are my nightwatch. I love my tame poultry, but I also like the company of wilder birds. The song birds are okay, but the talon set makes me feel safe. Did you know seeing a pair of crows is good luck? Probably not since that's a personal superstition of mine, but it's damn true.

The full moon above cast enough glow to stumble around in but I still needed to grab the flashlight I keep in the truck. As I made my way inside I could hear the confused bleats from Finn and the angry baas from the sheep. "Why weren't you here before it got dark, Lady?" they seemed to say. They had no idea where I was an hour ago. I let them bitch, they still got plenty of hay.

I have this flashlight attachment that came with my powertools and I love it. I use it all the time. However, tonight I discovered that you can't carry a five-gallon bucket of water in each hand and a powerful spotlight. I didn't want to be off balance and I didn't want to make two trips either. So I got a little randy and slid it into my shirt, perfectly balancing it within the confines of already established underwire support. Not exactly a class act, but a girls got to do what a girls got to do. I made my way around the pens and coop in perfectly light. Now, had you seen me waddling around the farm in the dark with two giant white buckets and a spotlight in my bra you would've died laughing. I giggled myself. But hell, it worked. I just hope those creepy owls weren't watching.

P.S. If you were a finalist or winner of Fiddler's Summer, can you please shoot me another email with your address? I have not forgotten you. I want to mail you your winnings. Life just got lifey and it took the backseat. I apologize.

all souls

Sunday, November 1, 2009

saving daylight

It's been abnormally warm here in Vermont and most of the people in my hollow seem to appreciate it. I realized while bumming around the cabin that sun-dappled afternoons may not be long for this season. So In a last-hurrah-of-Autumn ferver I leashed up the dogs and took them for a two mile walk in the glow. We passed a lot of neighbors doing the same thing, which made me kind of proud. Us Sandgaters know how to appreciate satiation while it lasts. Jazz and Annie padded beside me like puppies and I didn't even need a coat. A light wool sweater, two dogs, the ipod, and my hiking boots and I was on top of the world.

We did lazy Sunday things all afternoon. I cooked some lunch, did some writing, and when the indoors made me anxious I went outside to carry split hardwood to the wood pile near the house. I bet I held twenty infant fires in my arms and my shoulders are reminding me how heavy fire-babies can be. (I'm pretty sore.) I did the stacking as the sun was at that close, hot, time. I knew it would be dark an hour earlier so I had to work fast. I don't save daylight. I spend it.

Later, I came back to the house and caught Annie panting in the sun on the porch. Jazz had retired to his dog bed in the bedroom but my girl wanted those rays. She sprawled on the planks till the sun was all but gone. I went inside to get back to work instead of joining her on the stoop with a book. I think she knows more about the world than me. I think this all the time.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

happy halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2009

out of idaho

I used to live in a town called Sandpoint. It was a little ski town in the northern tip of Idaho and it was beautiful. Giant mountains, an epic lake, amazing trails...This photo was taken on a hike with the dogs just two years ago. Taylor (an old design school friend) snapped it when she came out to visit one weekend in October of 2007. Sandpoint, the Rockies, all of it feels like it didn't happen sometimes. My rogue year on the west coast away from the Octobers I grew up with.

I have photographic evidence and stay in touch with old friends. I know I was there but it remains a ghost in a lot of ways. My year in Sandpoint was rough. Being that far away from everyone I knew and loved took a harder toll than I imagined when I first moved out. I didn't fall to the bottle or get horridly depressed, just heavy feeling, all the time. Even so, I'd so like to visit again. I miss the old farmhouse and the lake and the nights in pubs with clever friends. It's where I learned to do all the things you know me for doing: my first hens, first home-baked bread, first book...all of it came out of Idaho. I owe that state a lot.

maude in watercolor

A reader recently emailed me about making a donation to the farm in a really interesting way. See saw one of my watercolors and asked if she could make a donation in exchange for some artwork. I jumped at the chance. For her kindness I sent her this one-of-a-kind pencil and water color of Maude and now it's on its way to San Diego. If you'd like to help out with one girl's dream, feel free to contact me at jenna@itsafarwalk.com and put "watercolor" in the subject line. It'll take two or three weeks until I have time to paint and mail it, but what a cool way to support the farm. Plus, they aren't prints. They are all hand drawn, and hand painted originals of any animal you'd like, mine or yours.

hay vacuums

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Today was a bad day. Some days are. It was one of those days where everything's a second guess and you're too tired to be of use to anyone or anything. I know what my problem was: the goddamned arrows.

See, there's this old Buddhist story about a guy who gets shot with an arrow and starts bleeding to death. Someone walks up to him and offers to take the arrow out, but instead of accepting the help, he starts firing off all these inane questions. Who shot the arrow? Why did they shoot it? Where did they shoot it from? He's there bleeding, in awful pain as he continues on. Where did the person run off to? How deep is the puncture? How much longer until they catch him and bring him to me so I can shoot back? He's angry, distracted, useless—a volunteer to be a victim. And the whole time he's running his mouth someone is standing in front of him willing to just take it out. No questions asked. Just remove it. Heal. Move on down that dusty road, son.

Whatever feels like such a big deal won't for long. Your bills will get paid. Your car will get fixed. Your friends will forgive you. You'll learn from what you can't change. You lick your wounds, count your losses, and suck it up.

Today was a crappy day because I wanted answers for all my arrows—arrows coming from every direction. It made me a wreck all day. You want to know what's pointless on a small farm? Arrow wounds. One of the great therapies of homesteading is everyone else is a bigger deal than your own selfish thoughts. So I had a bad day? So what? You think the geese care? I came home to greater needs than my ego and it felt better to be humbled by it. I fell into my writing schedule, my animals, a walk with the dogs and a long phone call from an old friend. I still got prongs in my back but I'm learning to ignore them. It's not a clean break but I'll take what I can get.

The moral of the story is leave the arrows in and you'll suffer, possibly even die. You lose out when the whole time the remedy was right in front of your face. I don't ever want to forget my focus like that. I want to let the arrows go. I've got a long way before I figure myself out but at least the farm knocks some sense into me when I'm treading water.

I'll be okay. I have dogs and a banjo. It's the people without such resources I worry about.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

oh, finn

Finn's grown up into a polite, friendly, pack goat. He walks on a leash like he was born attached to one. He's good with strangers, calm with kids, fair to dogs (he did head butt Annie pretty hard last week, but she was right in his face barking) He's just a pleasure to be around. We don't hike as much as we did this summer, but he gets it. He has no problems carrying a pack. No complaints at all. (And trust me, if a goat doesn't want to do something, he'll let you know.) I know a few of you out there are dreaming of goats. I get emails from people who just can't wait for a Nubian and some laying hens. Well, let me vouch that a socialized goat is a charmer and easy keeper. Long as you have some patience, a big heart, and a good fence—you're set.

days away

Halloween is only days away and I am humming for it. I am so looking forward to that beautiful night. It is my favorite day of the year and I look forward to it as a farming adult like I looked forward to Christmas morning when I was six. As I grow older, I come to Halloween as my time for memories and reverence. I get quieter. I think more. I spend more time realizing I'm lucky just to be alive. Gary Snyder's great quote is always on this blog, but it rings truest on nights like tonight:

"...And when the children are safe in bed, at one of the great holidays like the Fourth of July, New Years, or Halloween, we can bring out some spirits and turn on the music, and the men and the women who are still among the living can get loose and really wild. So that's the final meaning of "wild"- the esoteric meaning, the deepest and most scary. Those who are ready for it will come to it. Please do not repeat this to the uninitiated"

Damn, Gary. I'd give up so much just to share one campfire with your grin and wisdom...

Already some of the CAF pumpkins have been carved in celebration. The one you see here is the same one I was holding in my arms earlier this month. It's a hell of a good feeling, enjoying your own homegrown pumpkins like this. Right now it's glowing at me as I type. Teasing me with that fox-toothed smile here in the living room. The fireplace is roaring, the record player is rasping, and Annie is asleep on the couch an arm's length from where I sit. The dishes are done, the coffee pot is ready for morning, and the magazine article I promised myself I'd work on is saved to my desktop. Outside all the animals are fat and happy, fed and sleeping. I did my day's work. It's all behind me now. Small reliefs like the end of a long day are welcome here. So very welcome. Throw in a few fiddle tunes, a long back stretch, and some hot tea and you've got yourself the happiest woman in Vermont.

I'm basking in the cabin's exhalations. I can't help it. It's damned near impossible not look around at the flickering shadows in awe. I lean back on the sheepskin in front of the fireplace and feel like the richest person in America. These silent nights of late October are the emotional postcards that are responsible for my addiction to homesteading.

They're also what I've have been waiting for, my fall, all year.

Monday, October 26, 2009

the magic hour

Sunday, October 25, 2009

a bloody sunday

My friend Steve does a lot of things: he fly fishes, he hunts, he plays guitar in my open-mic trio. He also kills roosters. Or at least, that's what he did today. As an experienced killer of many things with wings—Steve offered to help me slaughter my angry Ameraucana Rooster. We made plans to do him in this morning. Together we ended the reign of terror that was Chuck Klosterman.

By the time his Tacoma pulled up the farm I had already done my chores and had coffee on the stove. I did what I could to prepare. I had a large stock pot handy, a chopping block and axe at the ready, and breakfast in the works. Steve would be bringing his game knives and work gloves. We'd make the hour very productive.

After a breakfast of eggs, toast, and strong coffee we put the hot water on and I went out to collect the terrorist. I think Steve assumed he'd be the one to grab Chuck. He put on his gloves and was heading towards the coop, but I insisted I be the person who carried him to the stump. I felt that was my job. Also, I knew this bird inside and out. I played his games. I knew how he tricked me, clawed me, caught me off guard... If anyone was going to grab him quickly—it would be me. So I walked into the coop, closed the door behind me, and stared him down. I chased him for a short fever of squawks and hisses but eventually caught that awful bird. It took a few tries. To his credit Chuck only got me once on the gloved hand. Man, it stung. It would be the last beating I'd take from him. That much, I was certain.

Instantly after grabbing him I inverted him—holding him upside down by his dinosaur feet. You do this for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it lulls the rooster into a complacency best suited for transportation to execution. I walked out of the coop beaming, walking towards Steve with the bird's claws in my hands like a cavewoman who just settled a bet. He laughed and said the look of pride on my face as I stormed out of there was perfect. I understood the fox a little better, too.

So, to the stump we went. He would die by the same woodpile I used to heal. Farms are complicated animals.

I thought this would be the hard part. It wasn't. There was no prayers or sentimentality—no squirming or flinching. There simply wasn't time Almost as soon as I set his long neck down on the stump Steve came down with the axe and Chuck was no more. After some spraying and flapping we carried the bird over to our processing station (AKA my porch). We set up a long piece of cardboard, knives, the near-boiling stock pot, and a plastic bag for the feathers. Before we went about the business of scalding and plucking, Steve removed some select feathers from Chuck's cape and tail. We set them aside in an envelope to tie flies with this winter. "You can catch some brookies next summer thanks to this guy," he said as we slid them into an envelope. For all the trouble this rooster had cost me, he certainly was paying his way in the world. He'd be freezer meat, a story, and next summer's trout on the line. What a guy.

The whole ordeal was done in about twenty minutes. Steve and I plucked feathers and cut off the feet. He gutted and washed the meat and then we wrapped the jerk up in plastic. As all this was happening Winthrop, now the head honcho, walked around in what I can only assume was relief and joy. (Winthrop, by the way, did not so much as say boo to us.) Here's Steve posing for one last photo with the stew meat formally known as Chuck Klosterman. The rooster reigns no more.

As I write, Chuck is silently occupying the freezer. He'll be crock pot fodder one of these weekends, or something of that sort. His feathers are in the drawer, waiting to be flies. Steve suggested we have a fall bonfire up here soon with music and our friends and everyone can have some Chuck Stew. I like this idea very much—a party in his "honor". We'll call it Chuck's Wake and sing songs and enjoy what's left of October before the snow comes and carries her away from us all. Saying goodbye to October is always hard on me.

I now live a life where chicken blood can start a party and dead leaves are becoming a sign of true mourning. Vermont keeps teaching me lessons, and I have a feeling it's the state that's going to make me into who I'm going to be. A woman who can appreciate what she has while she has it, but can also tell when it's time to get rid of the ones who cause her pain. Godspeed, old girl, get me home fast.

I'm not happy to have taken a life today, but I am glad I did what was best for me and this small farm. I have no qualms with my choice. What may appear like a heartless act to some, I assure you, was not. An aggressive rooster is no comfort to hens he is over-working and no use to the farmer he is attacking either. It was a bloody Sunday, but a necessary one. I'm proud we were able to do the job that needed to be done and I'm grateful to have a friend like Steve who was willing to give up a weekend morning to help. I'm also certain Winthrop and the hens will all sleep better tonight. So will I.

We cleaned up the gut pile and I washed off the axe. Our work was done. Before Steve left I gave him the apple pie I baked for him as a thank you gift. On it was the head of a rooster and an axe. A little crass, but what can I say? I'm a little crass. He took it and headed out the door. "Blood money." was what he said with a smile.

I like the crowd I fell into here.

so it goes

Friday, October 23, 2009

before it all

When I graduated from Kutztown in 2005, my first post-college job was in Knoxville, Tennessee. I moved there by myself to work for a television network's website. I rented the bottom floor of an old boarding house in a historic district called Fourth & Gill. This was my old bedroom in said apartment. I laughed when I came across this photo because I'm pretty sure that old place could fit two of my present cabins inside it. Maybe three. If feels like ages ago. A past life.

This picture was taken the day I brought Jazz home, which was in July of that same summer. I was alone two weeks in the world before I adopted him. They were an awful two weeks. Women of a certain disposition should not be alone in a new city without a good dog. They feel awkward and pointless without a leash in their hands in public—but give them a large, kind, dog and they are sirens. She can get by without a good man just fine, but never without a good dog.

I am of that disposition.

I look at this picture and can't help but smile, tilt my head, and raise an eyebrow. Back then all I wanted was to be a designer. I wanted a board position in my AIGA chapter. I wanted to be out in Market Square with my dog. Jazz, by the way, was never intended to be on snow. He was a southern city pet. Sure, he might pack in the Cumberlands with me, but he wasn't going to be a sled dog...

Little did I know 18 months later I'd be in a farmhouse in Northern Idaho with him, another Siberian, and a sled parked in the garage. That all happened because of a Cove in the Smoky Mountains, a night with fireflies at an abandoned camp, and a jump from a waterfall where a young man died the following day. Those are all separate and complicated stories, but they are why I'm writing you from a small cabin in a New England Hollow. They are the alchemy that created the hope you know as Cold Antler Farm. (Which, if you're new to this blog, hasn't actually happened yet. Welcome to the ride.)

Life can change fast. It doesn't really change any other way.

Anyway, I thought this snapshot from a past life might give some comfort to those of you who dream of goats and chickens and a cabin in the woods but are presently sifting through take-out menus in your current metropolis. Please remember, It was just a few years ago I had one dog in a city apartment. Now I'm in this beautiful mess.

Tomorrow I'll visit a brewery and probably come home wanting to make my own beer. Sunday Steve and I are going to slaughter an angry rooster I raised out of the palm of my hand. Right now I'm going to go outside and close the coop door before the rain comes. If you wish you too were closing a coop door you can take a deep breath and rest easy tonight. I promise if it's something you really want—it'll happen. You'll find a way because you must. And when it does happen, be ready because it'll come fast. Life doesn't happen any other way. At least not the parts worth living.

open mic night

Just in from playing music. My homebrew band played an open mic at a tavern near Stratton called The Red Fox. We only played four songs, but the crowd clapped and my fiddle rang loud and clear over the amps. We even got someone to shout "Play that one again!" after we finished Wagon Wheel. (This is the closest thing to an encore I've ever experienced. I can't lie. It was kind of cool.)

I had a great night. I'll need about seven gallons of coffee to make it to lunch tomorrow, but still, a great night.

Frankly, it was just nice to be out on a windy October evening in a dark pub. If you're in this game, you get that. Us homesteaders know how to revel in basic comfort—really sink into that feeling of decadence you get from two Guinnesses, great people, and music cases under your feet. Pair that with a woodstove, a good dinner, and laughter from close friends and you've got yourself tucked right into the back pocket of heaven. Or at least, my back pocket of heaven. Which may very well be a dark pub on a windy October night with guitar cases lined up against the wall. I told you I was simple. And I'd never make it into the front pocket anyway.

And now darling, if you don't mind too much, I am going to crawl into bed with my two wolves and get some sleep.

Oh, and Chuck Klosterman meets his maker on Sunday.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

17 bales in one trip, that's my girl.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

the western side

There's my Annie in her window. It's her front-row seat for all the goings on here at Cold Antler. While I was snapping this photo she was locked on Winthrop, who was trying to engage some hens in a cheap thrill by the garage. I wish I knew what Annie thought of all the birds in the yard. She probably just thinks they look delicious.

Siberian Huskies are utter failures at being dependable farm hands. This is always forgiven because while they stink at chores—they are a force in front of the dog sled. I can't wait for the first real snow. I'll be out in lantern light whipping around these roads and we're not the only dog team around either. My neighbors Allen and Suzanne have five Sibes and mush as well. Sometimes I feel Sandgate was always waiting here for me. It's something I never forget to be grateful for.

I pulled the truck up through the notch* tonight and smiled. I live on the western side of the mountain, and every time I clear the pass I realized I just gain another hour of daylight. The sun sets below my mountain and the golden light seems to hide behind the hill. Every time I pull through and notice the new light I'm surprised and then profoundly glad. I watched a young doe race up the hill by Rupert Road and then turn around to look back at me in my loud Ford. The deer are all grayish now. Their summer coats look like they've been dancing in our woodsmoke. They now sport thick bristly mottled coats for the cold weather. They look like does in a badger fashion show. I wonder if the people at Project Runway know about me?

I kid. I'm a kidder.

So it has been decided: Chuck Klosterman gets the axe. Had I been on the fence at all tonight's episode in the coop would have put me in the stock pot camp for certain. Chuck flew across the coop from a resting position to spur me as my back was turned to feed the young pullets and John. I spun around to scream something I will not repeat here, and Cyrus, my male goose, screamed back at me for yelling in his monastery. (Which I think was both hypocritical and kind of bitchy). So I'm bleeding, Cyrus is wailing, Chuck is strutting around like an convict with a shiv, and I have yet to pick up one egg from the nest. I can't get to the eggs because Saro is laying again and sitting on a small clutch of her eggs as well as the chickens. If I get anywhere near her she hisses and Cyrus comes over to stand in my way.

Who knows? I might have a gosling on the farm soon? But this seems unlikely since Saro has approximately the same attention span for sitting on eggs as a Kool-Aid induced 4th grader would off her ADHD meds. Maybe when she's older...Toulouse geese live to be 40 so we're running out the clock on this one.

*The notch, for those new to the blog, is a 180-degree steep curve blasted through the mountain to get into West Sandgate. It's both loved and loathed by the locals and what makes a four-wheel drive car a necessity for anyone near my mailbox.

Monday, October 19, 2009

isheep and chuck's on death row

My plans to make hard cider this weekend fell through. My friends who invited me didn't realize that their apple trees didn't have a very good season. There wasn't enough on the branches to bear a day at the mill. So they stopped the presses (pun, unfortunately, intended) and instead I spent the day with friends in town. Which was much needed and enjoyable. We ate dinner, went to the movies, and just did the general mucking around that makes for conversations and the occasional belly laugh. I'm glad to have made such good friends in my short time here. New England can be a cold place without familiar faces from time to time.

So here's something mildly exciting: I am working on a Cold Antler Farm iphone app with my friend Phil. It'll be a small farm fundraiser sold at the itunes store. The app will let you get instant updates from the blog, and then other updates and recipes and such. Right now it's a fancy RSS feed for your phone with pretty pictures. It's only 99 cents, and seems to be a fun marriage of technology and homesteading.

Also, my friend Steve and I are thinking about eating Chuck Klosterman. I'm a vegetarian, yes, but only because I am against eating meat that wasn't properly raised on pasture by humane farmers. I am happy to eat animals I have raised, but haven't raised meat animals yet. Mostly because it's just me here and seems like a lot of bloodshed for one person's freezer.... Chuck however, has become so violent, so mean, he runs at me from across the farm. Cuts me with his talons. I now have scars from him. He's starting to hurt Winthrop and makes hens bleed. I'm thinking a swift death and a pot might be the proper course of action. Steve's a skilled upland hunter and has dressed everything from woodcock to turkeys. He said he'd do the dirty work (though I would be right there to help and assure everything went as I wished)—I am a little torn. As evil as the bird's become—I'm used to it and learned to avoid him. The slaughter wouldn't be for me, but for the hens and other animals here he has hurt. To some this may make me a monster, to others, a practical farmer. I'd appreciate thoughts and opinions from you folks. It would help in my decision, very much so.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

chuck klosterman does not care

*or can't read...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

days of grace

My friend Paul, who once operated a dairy farm here in southern Vermont, told me about days like this. He called them the Days of Grace. They are the stray dog days after the fever dream of foliage is over. That time when the leaves have all but fallen and everyone's holding their breath for the first snow. Paul said this is when the tractors are repaired and set into winter housing, when the feed rations change, when the wood pile is heavier: these are the Days of Grace. These are the days we slow down and let change happen.

I like that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

the wood pile

The wood pile has become one of my favorite corners of this homestead. It's located right outside the kitchen window, in a small inlet of space created when the original owners of this small camp cabin built an additional bedroom. It's a perfect, roof-covered, nook for my firewood. It's where I stack, chop, swear, laugh and heckle chickens. It's where Chuck Klosterman stalks me and scratches me with his spurs. It's where the occasional hen will hop up onto and look into the kitchen when I'm cooking breakfast.

I can thank my neighbor Lynn for pointing this grotto out to me. He's not only a coworker at the office, but a logger here in Sandgate. He delivered this locally harvested wood with his old truck. Every few days he stops by my desk and we catch up on each other's gardens and what's going on in the Hollow. When he delivered my first cord he asked me where I was going to stack it. I shrugged. I figured I'd stack it near the house, sure, but had no blue prints. He pointed to the natural bend in the wall and said "That's perfect. Stack it there." So I did. Some stories really are that short.

My neighbor Roy watched me split wood the other night and miss, twice, right in a row. He was walking his dog Champ and as he headed back up to his home I heard him yell "Three strikes you're out!" The next day we ran into each other when we were walking our dogs and we got to talking. He explained the proper way to chop. He told me I needed a stump, something to elevate the wood so my wrists weren't dropping too low. He told me stories of accidents from poor form and dull blades and things he learned growing up in the 40's. I listened, nodded, and thanked him. The next day a stump was next to my woodpile—a gift from Roy.

The axe was here when I moved in. It was one of the few things waiting for me, propped up against the porch. I've used it so much it's starting to splinter. It's served me two winters now, and I can't help but feel a sincere loyalty for it. I like seeing the roosters perch on its handle and crow in the mornings. I like knowing it could split birch in half or protect me from a mildly-retarded bear. (A bear with full mental capacity, let's be honest, I don't stand a chance.) I'll buy a new axe and leave it here when I move on. It'll be an unspoken cabin tradition.

So folks, that's my wood pile: a combination of neighbors, favors, friends, and stories. It's where I turn after a stressful day to stack until my back hurts or swing until my arms ache. It's what's causing the crackling fire next to me right now, keeping me warm as the temperature drops below thirty. The snow never did come here last night, but it sure was cold. Thanks to that wood pile I have a little extra insurance.

Which, incidentally, also makes this home a little warmer.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

the mantle

the dead hen and the pumpkin

I lost two hens. It seems when the weather really starts to change, when the first truly cold or warm nights hit in late fall or early summer—I lose some birds. Maybe it's too much for them? They can't adapt fast enough and their bodies fail? I don't know. But I do know I found a three-year-old and a three-month-old both belly up in the coop. Another hen is starting to droop just the ones before had. I hope she kicks back into shape.

I got home from work a little later than usual tonight, around six. Because they're calling for snow showers I had a lot of farm prep to do in case the morning met me with a layer of powder. For starters, I had to unload all the feed and bales from the back of the truck. If I left them out overnight the moisture could ruin the grain and make the bedding useless. So I shoved two 65-pound compressed bales of straw off the back of the bed. I took big piles to every corner of the farm and made thick, warm, beds for every hoof, rabbits, and chicken coop. Bags of feed were then hauled to the safety of the porch. Wood was chopped. I am getting to be Hell at chopping.

It was dark when the farm chores were finally done. I had brought two large armloads of wood inside, and was starting to get big ideas about pasta. (So big I could hear and feel my insides wail.) Understandably, thanks to all that business, I was distracted from the last thing on my list. Before I headed in for the night I needed to cut and carry the last pumpkin in from the garden. The behemoth in question was wider than two volleyballs and only half-oranged. I had let it sit out in the sun, hoping it would turn in time for Hallows, but if I let it stay feral the monster would be covered in snow instead of changing into fall. It was time to bring him to the porch.

I walked out in the blue-dark and sliced the vines with my knife. I lugged him up over my shoulder and breathed heavily as I carried him out of the garden. The stew-pot of hunger, chores, and desire to be inside made him seem even larger than he was. As I walked through the garden gate I looked down at the little brown dead hen I had placed there earlier that morning. I sighed. I set down the giant pumpkin and delayed my meal a little longer. I carried her softly over to the compost pile within the garden's fence and set her among the graceful decline. I'd raised that bird, eaten her eggs, and she served this farm well. She deserved a few moments and a proper spot in the quiet of the pile. Now she'll become next year's vegetables. I said a hushed thank you, heaved the pumpkin back over my shoulder, and went inside.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

annie naps on a cross country drive

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 laundry...it 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