Tuesday, February 9, 2010

i steal myself

I think the best investment I made in the winter of 2009/10 was my insulated waist coveralls. Which is a fancy farm-talky way of saying chore-time snow pants. They are thick canvas jeans, brown as Joseph's wool and quilted inside. I can step into below-zero temps, get nipped by geese, plop down in straw and not feel anything but warm, farm-proof, goodness. I pulled them on this morning to do the pre-office chores and for the first time in months, didn't need the flashlight. What a gift a free hand is! I was able to cut my morning rounds in half. I can carry out a fresh font of water for the chickens (pouring half of it into a basin for the geese) and a flake of hay for the sheep in the other. Warm and in the smoky pre-sun light I could spend hours outside, even at 10 degrees. But instead I go inside for the dogs and my morning ritual of coffee and a chapter of a favorite book. Coffee, a quiet dog breathing on my chest, and a chapter in the morning makes all the difference.

This daylight is creeping back into New England, and the lack of snow here makes us think it's almost spring. I was looking at seed packets and nest boxes on my lunch break. I am trying not to make any plans, but am thinking about pastured broilers and magpie ducks if I land the farm. I want to start raising my own meat, and get back into that old life. Oh, and the lack of snow means I can drive the truck to and from the office! It makes me so happy. I love hopping into that big orange rig, the color of fall. I love cranking up the Be Good Tanyas and singing as I roll down the mountain to work.

I'm feeling optimistic about this house. It's a long way from a sealed deal but I am moving forward with the rituals and circumstances that go into home owning. The offer contract is in the lawyer's hands. The home inspection is Monday. My mortgage broker thinks he has a back-up FHA loan in case the USDA falls through (cross your fingers it doesn't). I am closer today, right now at this very minute, than I ever have been to owning my own farm. That in itself feels amazing to this girl sitting in a tiny cabin. The hope itself is big enough to move into.

When this blog started, Cold Antler was a rented backyard in Idaho with a hive of bees, a few raised beds, some rabbits, and a small flock of chickens. Now it's on its way to becoming something substantial. A place of sheep and dogs and goats and geese. The bees are already ordered. Hell, who knows what's in store? I constantly find myself getting lost in the idea of the Jackson farm. I steal myself.

More than one person has recently asked me why I named this place Cold Antler. Cold Antler, darling, is a combination of things. The first part is actually a name. The famous Chinese Zen poet, Han San, was a wise mountain recluse. The English translation of his name is literally Cold Mountain. His poems make me laugh, and smile, and think for long gallops about my own place in the world. The second part, Antler, comes from the old pre-christian belief that antlers were a sign of man. The Celts put antlers on some male deities, a symbol of both the gender and of fertility itself. For me, the antlers (and I am some what embarrassed to share this) stand for someday falling in love. Cold Antler Farm is the hope that this crazy zen recluse will find her antlers. It is hopelessly romantic, foolish, and the complete opposite of the sensible and pragmatic work of living off the land. Cold Antler = hope for love. I don't need it, but that doesn't mean I don't want it. I'm certainly in no rush, and not even mildly interested in 98% of the men I meet, but I am always on the look out. Most men I meet are kind, and sweet, but not correct. But every now and then someone comes along with antlers, and the hope and excitement makes me feel rich.

It'll happen eventually. It's just not my time.

So that's what this place really is. One woman's work. My entire life goal is based on a hopelessly romantic notion of true love, sheep, good dogs, strong coffee, mountains, autumn and home-grown food. I don't want anything else but these things. The details mean little to me. Vermont, Tennessee, New York, Idaho... These are names. These are lines on maps we made up to make sense of the world. But dirt is dirt. A lamb is a lamb. A border collie flanking a flock in a windstorm is just as much pure poetry in suburban New Jersey as it is the hills of Scotland. Maybe even better.

I can't get hung up on details. Truthfully, I abhor them

Anyway, now isn't the time for romance or over thinking. Now is the time for big change, long sighs, and not looking down. I have a farm to buy, and then when I finally get in the door, the real work starts...

P.S. Snow tonight and tomorrow. We are due.

Monday, February 8, 2010

in the shed

Sunday, February 7, 2010

a book and the baa

As a thank you for the hospitality last month, my friend Diana mailed me a book I absolutely adore. It is pure fiber-farmer pornography and I page through it with wide eyes and a wider smile. It's called Shear Spirit: Ten Fiber Farm, Twenty Patterns, and Miles of Yarn. The book is so beautiful. It's about ten farms across America and their stories. The photography is stunning, and the personal history of the people who own these operations is so inspirational. There are sheep farms on the coast of Maine and goat ranches in Texas. Every chapter ends with a project specific to the stock and styles of that particular farm. As someone who aspires to join this tribe, I devoured it. It's a fine edification of a subculture. Check it out.

It also got me motivated to finally start working with my own wool. I'd been putting it off for months, waiting to mail it off to be processed by someone else. But ever since a reader donated me her drum carder—I lacked a decent excuse not to start making yarn. I had the wool, the carder, and my trusty Ashford drop spindle. (For those of you confused by what that is, a drop spindle is a hand held apparatus that does the job of a spinning wheel, slower and far cheaper.) So yesterday I carded and spun the raw wool. When I filled it up, I started knitting right off the spindle and when that was kicked I'd card and spin some more. The yarn came out greasy and super strong, lumpy and bumpy. Lots of character. I have about a foot knitted with size 15 needles and so far it is the thickest, warmest, thing I ever made. The plan is to knit it into a scarf—then either felt and dye it, or let it soak in a wool wash and research natural dyes. Even if it turns out to be some hideous long piece of fabric, it's my hideous long piece of fabric. It's still warm as all get out, and from a sheep right in the back yard. I'm proud of myself for finally getting started on my own wool. And hey, even if Cold Antler is a long cry from the farms in that book, I'm still grateful it crossed my path. Sometimes it takes someone else's efforts to ram you into action. Cheesy pun, intended.

P.S. If you ordered prints from me, please be patient. I need to find a new printer and then get decent copies made and signed. But I promise they'll show up eventually. It's a hectic month, February.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

of kits and goslings

Last night I visited in a friend in the nearby town of Shaftsbury. Mel and her family have been watching Bean Blossom, Benjamin, and four new French Angora kits for me. They've also been raising the goslings that Saro hatched before thanksgiving. The deal was she would happily watch the animals but would either keep the rabbits or the kits if a litter was born. Her teenage son Ben wants to learn more about what goes into raising animals, which I think is grand. I was stopping in to drop off the pedigreesm see the kits, and pick up the three remaining goslings. Two of the original five already had new homes, but the three left were still freeloading. Her new dog was giving them the eye, and they were now a canine liability, so it was time for them to move on. Mel has done more than enough for me already, and I was happy to take them off her hands. The trio would come back to the farm until I could find them new local homes or moved to a new farm. Honestly, I was thrilled to have them back in my arms.

To be in her beautiful farmhouse drinking coffee near her woodstove while her new Lab chewed on a rope toy on the floor-felt wonderful. As we sipped our coffee and went through some fiber books I brought over, I couldn't help but look around her 160+ year old home. Mel was living my dream. A loving family, her own farm, a good dog, and a barn and truck outside the door. I used to look up to famous graphic designers and Iditarod mushers as my role models. Now I look up to people like Mel. Everyday people who made their lives what they wanted. People who raise children, go to work, and come home to make sure the pipes don't freeze. Fame or fortune doesn't prove self worth to me like it once did. There is nothing more extraordinary than what happens every day when people choose to be kind. Amen.

When the truck was loaded, and hugs given: I drove home to Sandgate. The back bed was loaded with bedding straw and feed bags from an errand on my lunchbreak. A six-pack of hard cider was chilling between the bales. Up front in the warm cab I was singing with a backup of mandolins and banjos on the radio while three young geese honked in a box. I was wrapped in wool, from my socks to my scarf. In the Vermont dark, my Ford's headlights beamed across the birches and faded red barns. My eyes scanned for deer and suicidal cats. My head was warmed by the Jacob hat. I had just spent an hour with the animals of my farm being selflessly watched by a friend. Soon I would reintroduce children to their parents—to the place they were born where I held them as babes in one hand.

The concoction of emotion was thick. The drama of wanting this farmhouse and the nearness of it all makes my heart race. But the peace of this life as is, and how far I'd come to feel this way, was so comforting. The fact I was already a farmer—yet so scared and uncertain—made me break down and cry as I winded up the notch to West Sandgate. I want to know how this story ends so I can begin another. Sometimes it's too much.

It is hard to cry very long when your passenger seat has french geese children in it. Their honks made me smile.

I wish I had more to update you on, but right now it's a waiting game. Waiting for the score to rise, waiting to weigh all the financing options, waiting to show the farm to my parents when they come to visit next weekend. They're happy for me, but want to see the place for themselves. My dad has fatherly concerns about insulation and fuel consumption and my mom is convinced if I buy my own working farm I'll never meet a man. Both are valid concerns, but the house is sound and believe it or not—I've met more decent men since getting involved in agriculture than I ever did in the city. Between sheepdog trials, workshops, clubs, and trips to feed stores, you get to tip a lot of hats.

And last, thank you to everyone who helped out last post. Your many small efforts have saved this process. I am now prepared (at least on my end) to step inside this new farm. My own farm. There are still obstacles to overcome, such as getting approved for that loan, home inspections, and the logistics of transplanting all the animals—but as far as being sound in the bank - I am. I could not have done it without you, and I thank you with the echoes of a thousand future lamb's heartbeats.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Thursday, February 4, 2010

the hail mary

So here is the updated story so far. The house is mine. The mortgage is (by some grace of god) totally affordable. I could own my own farmhouse, acreage, and small barn for what my rent in Sandgate is combined with my old car payment. It is totally doable.

Paying my mortgage isn't the hard part folks—it is getting in the door in the first place. The realtor is moving forward as if all is perfect. The contract is on the way to the lawyer, the home inspection is getting set up, and the broker is frantically hunting down a mortgage with the USDA. But here in lies the drama. My credit score is seven points below the number the Lender wants to finance my loan. Seven measly points.

So, In a last ditch effort to try and raise my score, I took all my (non-house-buying allotted) savings and paid down my last credit card this morning in hopes it will report to the credit bureaus in time for the home loan to go though.

If I do not qualify for the USDA mortgage, it means I need to go through the FHA program. This is good and bad. It means I may still get a fixed rate mortgage and get the farm, but I would need that 3.5 percent down. I have that saved, but it's all I have saved. I was planning on using that money to cover the home inspections, closing costs, and all the other things you need to take care of when moving in. Things like U-Hauls and updating the outbuildings. If is use it to pay for the house, which I can, it leaves me high and dry. You get the jist.

It may very well come down to how much I can dish out. I am within a wolf's breath of this farm, friends. I can taste that Jackson Dirt. I don't want to lose out on the perfect home right when I need it because of seven points.

With all that said (taking a deep breath) if you are motivated to help. Here are some things you can do.

1. If you live nearby, and can help set up the new fences, move the sheep shed on the back of your trailer, help take down CAF VT, or lend a hand with boxes. Let me know.
2. If you want to sign up for the fiddle workshop the weekend after President's Day, please do. I only have two so far. It is a hundred dollar donation for four hours of instruction, materials, and an amazing first step in becoming a mountain fiddler. You just need to bring the violin.
3. Buy something off the Etsy Shop (though the wait may be a few weeks or until all this dust settles)
4. Order a watercolor (though the wait may be a few weeks or until all this dust settles)
5. If you own a business that caters to the homesteading community, consider advertising here. Email me for rates.
6. Or, if you are so motivated, just put one dollar in the donation jar. If each reader does that, I am home free.

I don't mean to sound selfish, crass, or rude. I am just trying to pull off some sort of Hail Mary at this point. I may get some mean emails for this post. In fact, I'm certain I will. But in the long run, owning my own farm wins over pride. A home for my flock, geese, chickens, Finn, and bees on the way is too important to worry about public perception. Farm > me. For those of you reading, know you're at the climax of this story. Let's try and change the ending together?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

this just in

Just got a call from the realtor. The house is mine if I can aquire the funding. The sellers agreed to my terms and the contract goes through to the lawyer on the tenth. Now, it's all about the mortgage. Wish me luck.

it's not looking good

I don't think my broker can pull off this mortgage, even if the offer goes through and the place is otherwise mine. I have to wait and see. Right now, it's not looking good.

in the back bed

Woke up earlier than usual. I think the stress and excitement sped up my metabolism and my body couldn't handle being horizontal anymore. I found myself outside in a light snowfall, moving hay bales off the back of the truck. It was dark. The only light came from my lantern and the glow from the dim garage bulb. Snow was falling in front of it, making it flicker. It was 5 AM and the world was quiet, but the farm was not. I could hear the sheep bawling for morning hay. The roosters moaned. I sang the words to Pretty Saro as I pulled hay from the back bed. While the rest of the nation is sleeping, and the forest is quiet–a farm is alive.

I felt like I was the only member of a secret society.
I felt like I belonged.
It's why I farm.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

worse than love

I should know better than to get emotionally invested in this house. I should be solid steel during these meetings. I should care about it as much as I care about the filing cabinet in the office. Poker face. Stiff upper lip. Walk away like a champ. But getting emotionally invested in my lifestyle is what got me where I am today. It's what drove me to move cross country (twice), start a renter's homestead, write this blog, author books, and try to make some sort of difference in how I consume. So I've been attached to this house before I even knew it existed, before I ever saw it. It's the embodiment of a life I crave so deeply—I'm certain my claw marks are already on the deed.

I just want to go home. I want it so much it physically hurts.

Another person is being shown the house tomorrow. I found this out moments ago. I made my offer, did my level best, and they countered. We came an an agreement that made them happy and only cost me fifteen more dollars a month. We're not out of the woods yet though. The other people can beat my offer, and take it to a lawyer or something. Plus, I still need to be approved for a mortgage, which is the razor's edge of this whole thing. Since I've been dedicated to fixing my credit I've raised it 20 points, but it's still twenty points below what the lenders wants. If they decide no, I'm basically out the dream. That's going to be a very bad day.

I just hate the thought of it going to people who won't use the land. So now I feel like a jr high girl who just passed the cutest guy in class a paper with Do you like me? Circle yes or No. and I'm waiting on pins and needles (more like a horizontal stegosaurus) to see if I get my dream or need to start figuring out another year of importance and renting.

This is ridiculously stressful. I know in my logical mind that there are other homes and everything happens for a reason, but to lose out on this place, at this price, near my work, with a ticking time bomb of eviction over my head....

Buying a farm is worse than being in love. Especially for me. At least with a house, I have a shot.

If you pray, please pray. If you meditate, please meditate. If you can send good vibes, voodoo dolls, spells, rosaries, nods to the east....anything, please do it with a scrappy girl in Vermont trying to find home in mind. People say they're pulling for me, well, It's time to start yanking.

things are moving fast

I have a meeting with a realtor today to talk about possible offers on the Jackson house. After the cabin fall out, I called a mortgage broker who specialized in USDA rural housing loans in Washington County. We figured out that if we use the Dept. of Agriculture's loan terms, get the seller to kick in closing costs, and get them to come down even a little on their asking price - I could be living in that 6.5 acre farm in Jackson for roughly what I spent here on rent and the car payment. It would be mine. Originally I thought the payments would cripple me, but with this program it's equivalent to what I spend here already. Not to mention the USDA program doesn't require a down payment, so that lets me save more of my money for starting the farm up again...

It's all hypothetical at this point. I'm still looking at other properties and part of me is foolishly worried about leaving Vermont. Jackson is literally two miles from my current cabin, it's not exactly like I'd be moving to Arizona, but even if it is just a line on a map—I'd be leaving a state I love.

However, I'd be leaving it by about seven miles, and finally able to live the life I always dreamed of at a property I can't believe I would be able to afford. All those doubts I shared with you earlier were half truths, said by a hopeful person who never thought she could live on that farm. My heart was set on the cabin because it was in a town I was comfortable with and it was a cabin: two things I love. But that small lot couldn't hold my dreams or even my current animals without renting more land from others, once again making my life dependent on others. This farmhouse in NY is more than enough room for Cold Antler and much more. I could own the land big enough for market lambs and a profitable garden. I'd be part of the most pro-agriculture part of New York. I could finally get my black puppy. I could put a few Scottish Blackface ewes in the pasture. I'd only be an extra twelve minutes away from work, with two coworkers of mine on the same road.

Is this actually happening?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

this just in

Everything is going to work out. I know it will.

losing my footing

I have some sad news. I just got off the phone with the sellers of the cabin. They aren't interested in any option but buying the cabin outright, as is. They do not want a rent-to-own situation and they don't want to invest in winterizing it either. Honestly, I don't think they want the place to leave the family yet. It's understandable, but heartbreaking. Sadly, their decision makes it impossible for me to buy it since no bank will approve a mortgage on it since it's not a full-year home and therefore would not pass an USDA/FHA-required home inspection. So it's a catch-22. Neither the banks or the owners want to bend even though I'm willing to become a contortionist to make it work. I tried explaining to them options like they hold the mortgage and me buying within a five year bubble. That this meant I would be the owner, and pay the taxes and upkeep and they just get a deal in writing that I will get it up to code and buy it in a few years. I also explained that I could winterize it this summer, saving them the cost and they'd still be getting checks in the mail. They just aren't biting.

There's a slim chance that they'll consider a mortgage holding proposal if I come up with a lawyer and the contract for their consideration, but even then, who has 600 bucks to hire a lawyer for a shot in the dark? I think I lost my footing on the Foothold. Which is emotionally devastating since I'd been secretly banking on it working out. It was my parachute in this foggy mess of finding a home. For a while there I had myself fooled that everything was going to work out and that was going to be home. I was already sketching out garden plans and talking to neighbors about renting pasture next door....

Maybe it just wasn't meant to be. I don't know. But New York State just started looking a lot better. That house I looked into today would be a perfect place to turn into Jenna Woginrich: Small Farmer. Maybe the sellers of that place will come down to my price range if the checks in their hands? Like I said, I really don't know anymore.

I'm back to square one, again.

another possibility?

I have an appointment with a realtor at noon. I'm going to drive over to a 144-year-old farmhouse in Jackson, NY and look around. The house is in amazing shape and the current owners completely updated it. All the electric, floors, and windows have been redone. It has a new furnace, a new woodstove, new artisan well, and over 6 acres with an orchard, pond, and pasture. The septic is nine years old. It has the original dirt-basement root cellar. It comes with a small barn, out building, chicken coops and a water pump. Once it was a thriving sheep farm, and if I moved there, once again lambs would return to those fields, which is poetry. It's only half-an-hour away from here. It could be perfect.

However, even at the discounted price it's about forty thousand dollars out of my realistic price range. The bank may happily approve me for the house, but I may be living by the skin of my coffee-stained teeth. If the stars align and I can get some sort of deal and a bank actually gives me a mortgage - well, maybe I have a shot? But part of me worries the bigger house, longer commute, heavier mortgage and taxes, and larger grounds may be too much for a single girl... And part of me doesn't want to leave Vermont. I'm torn even at the possibility.

The plot thickens: I came home from my errands yesterday to a message from the cabin owners in Oregon. All it said was, "Thanks for the package, and I've made a decision." I'm on pins and needles over this. If the cabin could me mine, my heart would be lighter. The place feels right. It just needs some hard weekend and friends to help get it ready. I could have my gardens, bees, birds, and hooves back. I could rent the neighbor's barn and land. I could (and my heartbeat speeds up just at the thought) finally get my border collie puppy and get back into the sheepdog club. I could become a real resident of Sandgate. The taxes are a joke.

I could do all this and more in New York too, but as pristine as the place is (I drove up to it yesterday, and it is breathtaking) would it be too much? Would all that land, all that space force this barnheart-infected woman to fill it up with too much too fast? Would I be house poor and then stuck with a flock of sheep to winter over? Would I be living in my dream house and not even able to afford the garden seeds to compost? Would the forty minute drive from the office mean I could never go there on my lunch break? But dear lord....all that land. It's also closer to my hay dealer and there's a tractor shop down the road... The pro/con list is a dead heat. This farm I'm seeing today is a place I could grow into, make a living off of eventually. But unless some act of god or amazing grace blesses the sellers...it probably won't happen.

Regardless, I have a date with destiny at high noon. I'll go there and either fall in unrequited house love or know it's not for me. On my side, I know the Jackson house has motivated sellers that want to move and soon. It may be perfect and I may be stubborn and scared. If I love this place, should I go for broke and just hope Nora Ephron calls me to make the Cold Antler Farm movie or Oprah suddenly gets into backyard chickens? Should I be simple and stick to that sweet little cabin with a hammer by the river?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

natural fibers

When I lived in Tennessee I spent a lot of my time rambling around the Smoky Mountains. She's the national park I know best, walked the most trails in, and the place that infected me with my love of homesteading. I was (still am) a hiker, and take great pleasure in five to fifteen mile walks in the woods. Back then, I was a bit of a gearhead. I liked going out into the wild with my technical daypack with its own hydration system built in. I'd have a multi tool, electric compass, and a water purifier to refill my Nagalene bottles with. I wore synthetic fabrics like polar fleece and abrasion-proof nylon with anti-insect chemicals soaked into them. I was in one of the most pristine, natural, simple places in all of creation and adorned in the modern hiker's equivalent of a space suit.

Now in my third year of homesteading I can see how much my attire has changed. Today I was standing about thirty feet above ground on a mountain of hay bales in Nelson's loft (My second-cut dealer) and noticed every single thing I was wearing was either made out of plants or ate them. Wool sweater, socks, hat, and gloves. Cotton flannel shirt and a heavy cotton canvas insulated vest. Denim jeans, leather boots, hell, even my undies were cotton. Wrapped around my neck was a scarf I knit from thick wool—another nod towards the ovine set. Everything I was wearing was a natural fiber, not because I woke up and made those conscious decisions, but because that's what felt right. And you know what? I was warm. It was 11 degrees in that barn and I was really, really warm. I find it odd and beautiful that being in the wilds of the southern mountain parks didn't open my eyes to simpler clothes—it was the domesticity of gardens and livestock that did that. My homelife made me feral. It was learning to live closer to my backyard that set me on a wilder course. Some people need to trek across Ireland to learn to appreciate a bowl of potatoes. I just needed to plant some.

Now when I need to carry water on a summer walk I fill up a quart mason jar and dump a lemon slice in it and screw on the lid. If I need to make it portable - I tie some baling twine around it and carry it that way. I don't want to be covered in plastic tubes and fabrics made by scientists. I'm not sure when, but that sort of stuff lost its appeal. I want to wear clothing that once lived in a seed, or on the back of a ram or steer. I don't see any fault in modern fabrics—it's just not who I am anymore. It's a wardrobe from a past life: one where a backpack needed hydration systems and fleece meant neon-space fluff.

With all that said: I still swear by Chacos. Which are nylon and rubber sandals made to handle rough terrain and slick creeks. There is nothing natural about them. That's okay. I'm mostly contrarian. It drives people close to me nuts.

Friday, January 29, 2010

high winds and new hives

We’re back in the sub arctic temperatures again. Bennington county had a high of 12 today, and last night 40-mile-per hour winds whipped at the cabin like something outta Oz. I knew those sunny days were all talk. I’m back to cracking ice off of chicken fonts and hauling buckets of warm water to the sheep. On my lunch break I picked up fresh bedding straw and some heartier feed for the birds. A mix of layer mash and cracked corn. Corn is like liquid heat for poultry. It’s not the healthiest of feeds, but it does help retain a warmer running temperature and throw on a little extra fat. Tonight after work I’ll be laying down straw, feeding the birds, and lighting a fire to write aside. Big plans for this girl.

But you know what? I love nights like this. A Friday night in with a set list of personal projects and a warm fire is grand. I can stay up as late as I want writing or playing music, and then know tomorrow is just a coffee pot and sleep-in away. This is my normal routine, actually. Most Thursday nights my little band gets together to play music. (You may know some of my band mates, such as Steve, killer of Chuck Klosterman.) So those nights in pubs are my big social adventures for the week. Friday is always a low key time to myself.

In farm news: I ordered my bees. They won’t be ready for pickup from the supplier over in Greenwich till May 15th so I’ll be living in my next home by then. Just ordering them felt audacious. Who do I think I am? Planning a colony without a place to even set up their hive? I’m just banking on this all working out somehow. And when it does work out, I want my gardens to have the help of those honeybees. Besides being a pleasure to share my life with; they really do make all the difference in a pumpkin patch.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

personal horizon lines

Thanks to the mild weather I'm back in my truck again. After weeks of hibernating in the driveway, she's returned to the now-iceless roads. I had forgotten the simple pleasures of a clean car (the Subaru is a science experiment of hay, dog hair, and random farm equipment/feed bags). I also forgot the way it feels to sit a little higher with that wide open bed behind you. Your own personal horizon line.

I never really understood truck love until I pieced together that it wasn't the trucks themselves most people adore: but the lifestyle it grants them. A truck is another draft animal. A horse you can ride by itself, or hitch to a cart. Sometimes the bed is empty, but usually it is loaded with feed bags, straw, hay, and livestock. Yes, I could do all this in several trips with the station wagon, or employ a hitched trailer, but I don't want to. I want to slam up the tailgate with a load of hay and climb into the front seat. I want to turn up the music and sip my coffee and sing. I want just enough room left in the cab for a black guitar case holding an old J-45, or a yellow-eyed jet-black border collie, or (god willing) a man with teeth as sharp as my own. (Feral men who still adore Wes Anderson movies are hard to come by these days, which is a shame.) Sometimes I look over at the empty seat and imagine those things. It's just not my time.

Anyway, just sitting in my pickup makes me feel more content and I don't mean that in any materialistic way, at all. It has nothing to do with owning a truck. I feel the same way leaning with my back against a tree with a banjo in my lap. I feel the same when Jazz curls up against me in bed and sighs before falling asleep. It is a sense of place and comfort granted by symbols that remind you of the person you strive to be. I want to be a farmer. Sitting in that used truck that carries hay and fencing reminds me of farming. That good work. Even on the busiest highway it retains its dignity as an elaborate gardening tool.

It is, quite literally, my vehicle of change.

Monday, January 25, 2010

rainy day

This seems to happen every January here. We get hit with a warm spell and all the snow melts and the rain comes pouring down and outside what used to be a winter wonderland looks like the spine of a dead rotting chicken. Everything is bare and ugly and black and brown. High winds and the roaring creek outside make it feel like a spring is coming. I know better. This is just a big gulp of selfish warm air before the next heavy snowfall. Still, it makes a girl wish she hadn't sold her banjo. Warm nights like this, with dripping rain, were meant for a dozen little candles and a banjo playing waltzes on the porch.

The warm weather also makes me a little nervous, mostly because while things are falling into place, I still have no home come May. I have some money saved and some offers to rent, but the goal of moving into my own place is still floating in the Battenkill down the road. I can tell you that I had an auspicious meeting with a local bank. After so many visits with firm handshakes and apologies for not being able to offer me a loan, this recent bank didn't tell me no. They told me, come back in one month. They said I should be in a position to lend if my credit score hops up thirty points. Since I recently paid off the Subaru and a few credit cards—I'm praying the debts repaid can hike it up. If they don't, well, then I just have to eat some crow and make other plans.

I am still hoping that I can make a home out of the Foothold (the small, rustic cabin I've been writing about). I just have to be realistic about it. It feels so perfect, and I want it so much, but I found out from all the lenders I've been talking to that no one will approve a loan for a house that isn't winterized. The cabin needs to be made ready for cold weather and I'm not sure I can afford the work. But I am also guessing. I haven't given up yet. I have a number of a local guy who can tell me exactly what the place needs, so who knows? I did find out from the owners they might consider a rent-to-own option on the property, which would be a godsend. I walked around the property this weekend (with the owner's permission) and stood between the fireplace and the small stream bubbling through the snow into the Green River. I could almost see the goat pen and the chicken coop if I squinted my eyes...

Trying to become a farmer, while still being a homesteader, while still working a day job I love = high stress. I'm blessed to have friends, music, and animals around me to alleviate some of it. Last night I went to Abi and Greg's for dinner and got to visit Finn. He's a little bigger and his coat's a little fluffier, but he still runs to me when I call his name. He's really growing attached to his alpaca friends though. I'm worried about moving him away. Will he go into some sort of caprine depression? All I know is he won't be alone ever again. When he comes home to me he'll have a friend waiting for him. Another kid or something. But that day seems eons from tonight. Tonight is just rain, uncertainty, and no banjo.

I have some exciting news to round off our night. A popular dog magazine called the Bark will be publishing the mushing excerpt from Made From Scratch in their next issue, which comes out in early February. If you find a copy you'll see our Jazz and Annie smiling inside. The magazine also inviting me to become a columnist for 2010. I'll be writing about rural living with dogs all year. So if you want to keep up with the canine side of things around here, pick up a subscription.

my jacob wool hat!

I did it! I learned to knit in the round and pulled off a scrappy knit hat. It has ribbing, a cinched top, and a basket-type pattern around the sides. I didn't use a pattern, just made it up as I went along. It certainly isn't perfect (actually, it's mostly imperfect) but it fits on my head and is a step above my usual knitting adventures. I'm wearing it right now and will stomp around the soggy farm tonight in my big boots with a toasty skull. Not a bad killing for a weekend in Vermont.

there's a facebook group for barnheart!?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

old guitars and black dogs

It was a very musical day yesterday. It started with a two-hour long conversation about vintage guitars and ended with a live concert where I watched one (a beautiful sunburst hollowbody. I'm pretty sure it was an early Gibson ES) blow me away in a jazz quartet. I'll start at the beginning.

I'm working on a magazine story about a guitar. In my research to track down experts and luthiers I found a proprietor down in Nashville known for his expertise on vintage acoustics. We ended up talking for hours. I felt like I was talking to an artist, historian, museum curator and musician all in one. Every question lead to more questions. Quotes lead to books, and photographs in those books lead to even more phone calls and interviews. I was inhaling sitka spruce yesterday, day dreaming about old jumbos and the people who picked them. I hope the story comes out as impassioned as the research gathering's been. It certainly had me stopping every so often to pick up my trusty Epiphone acoustic and pop in an instructional DVD to work on some fingerpicking or new chords. I'm not a great guitarist, but great guitars make me weak in the knees and inspire me to be better. Show me a pre war Southern Jumbo and watch me quiver like a fourteen year-old in a Twilight pre-screening. I don't want Edward. I want Dylan.

After a few pages of notes and a few hours with my guitar I got a phone call from a friend about a concert that was in town for one last night. Mads Tolling, a Danish Grammy award-winning jazz fiddler was doing a show at the elementary school with his guitarist, bassist, and drummer. It was fall-down-the-stairs good. He started with some spicy self composed numbers, the rolled into Monk and Miles Davis covers (though "cover" is hardly the right word when talking about improvisational jazz) and ended with a floor-shaking version of Zeppelin's Black Dog. His guitarist was amazing, working with that Gibson hollowbody (and if you click that link in the sentence before. You'll know what I mean). I watched this guy play one of the same guitars I had been talking about that very morning. It was like waking up and reading Black Beauty and then watching a black stallion show up in your backyard.

I was grateful Vermont has people bringing folks like this in to keep us bottom feeding musicians clamoring for our own evolution. A great performance makes me want to just go home and play. Not to sound like a fiddler like Mads, but to sound like a better version of Jenna. There is ample room for improvement. I'm never bored.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

joseph in the snow

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


There’s a condition that inflicts some of us and I can only describe as Barnheart. Barnheart is a sharp, targeted, depression that inflicts certain people (myself being one of them) as harsh and ugly as a steak knife being shoved into an uncooked turkey. It’s not recognized by professionals or psychoanalysts (yet), but it’s only a matter of time before it’s a household diagnose. Hear me out. It goes like this:

Barnheart is that sudden overcast feeling that hits you while at work or in the middle of the grocery store checkout line. It’s unequivocally knowing you want to be a farmer—and for whatever personal circumstances—cannot be one just yet. So there you are, heartsick and confused in the passing lane, wondering why you cannot stop thinking about heritage livestock and electric fences. Do not be afraid. You have what I have. You are not alone.

You are suffering from Barnheart.

It’s a dreamer’s disease: a mix of hope, determination, and grit. Specifically targeted at those of us who wish to god we were outside with our flocks, feed bags, or harnesses and instead are sitting in front of a computer screens. When a severe attack hits, it’s all you can do to sit still. The room gets smaller, your mind wanders, and you are overcome with the desire to be tagging cattle ears or feeding pigs instead of taking conference calls. People at the water cooler will stare if you say these things aloud. If this happens, just segue into sports and you’ll be fine.

The symptoms are mild at first. You start glancing around the internet at homesteading forums and cheese making supply shops on your lunch break. You go home after work and instead of turning on the television—you bake a pie and read about chicken coop plans. Then some how, somewhere, along the way – you realize you are happiest when in your garden or collecting eggs. When this happens, man oh man, it’s all down hill from there. When you accept the only way to a fulfilling life requires tractor attachments and a septic system, it’s too late. You’ve already been infected. If you even suspect this, you may have early-onset Barnheart.

But do not panic, my dear friends. Our rural ennui has a cure! It’s a self-medication that that can only be administered by direct, tangible, and intentional actions. If you find yourself overcome with the longings of Barnheart, simply step outside; get some fresh air, and breathe. Go back to your desk and finish your tasks knowing that tonight you’ll take notes on spring garden plans and start perusing those seed catalogs. Usually, simple, small actions in direction of your own farm can be the remedy. In worst-case scenarios you might find yourself resorting to extreme measures. These situations call for things like a day called in sick to do nothing but garden, muck out chicken coops, collect fresh eggs and bake fresh bread. While that may seem drastic, understand this is a disease of inaction, darling. It hits us the hardest when we are farthest from our dreams. So to fight it we must simply have faith that some day 3:47 PM will mean grabbing a saddle instead of a spreadsheet. Believing this is even possible is halfway to healthy. I am a high-functioning sufferer of Barnheart. I can keep a day job, long as I know my night job involves livestock.

Barnheart is a condition that needs smells and touch and crisp air to heal. If you find yourself suffering from such things, make plans to visit an orchard, dairy farm, or pick up that beat guitar. Busy hands will get you on the mend. Small measures, strong convictions, good coffee, and kind dogs will see you through. I am certain of these things.

So when you find yourself sitting in your office, school, or café chair and your mind wanders to a life of personal freedom, know that feeling is our collective disease. If you can almost taste the bitter smells of manure and hay in the air and feel the sun on your bare arms, even on the subway, you are one of us and have hope for recovery. Like us, you try and straighten up in your ergonomic desk chair but really you want to be reclining in the bed of a pickup truck. We get that.

And hey, do not lose the faith or fret about the current circumstances. Everything changes. And if you need to stand in the light of an old barn to lift your spirits, perhaps some day you will. Every day. For some, surely this is the only cure.

We’ll get there. In the meantime, let us just take comfort in knowing we’re not alone. And maybe take turns standing up and admitting we have a problem.

Hello. My name is Jenna. And I have Barnheart.

winthrop and his girls

These last three photos (my hat, bonfires, and chickens) were taken by Diana

Monday, January 18, 2010

fires and anxieties

This weekend was the annual Burning Christmas bonfire party in Sandgate. Locals bring their dead trees from the holidays and throw them on a blazing fire pit and watch them go up in sparks. It's a potluck, so everyone gets a plate of food and a beer and goes outside to be warmed by the flames and conversation. I brought an apple pie I whipped up before the party. Diana came along this year, and it was good to share the tradition with her. I liked showing her some of the quirky greatness of my mountain town.

I'll have a large update soon, so much is happening. There's a lot of potential in this cabin I'm hoping to buy...but it all seems too good to be true. I worry my heart is jumping the gun as I haven't even been inside yet and have no idea of its actual condition. Part of me is scared it's too expensive to winterize that summer home, and the project is more than I can handle. Any plumbers out there? Have a few minutes to talk to a confused woman in Vermont looking at a cabin?

Tonight I'm a little beat. The weekend was good, but exhausting. My emotions and anxieties seem to be constantly at a brisk canter. I miss those summer days where I swung in the hammock with the banjo, letting my imagination and music pull me into a nap. I look forward to those days again. Hammocks are exponentially more comfortable when you know where home is.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

my new hat!

jacob's ladder

Yesterday Diana and I spent hours in yarn stores, looking through skeins and talking about projects. When it comes to knitting, I know the basics and can whip up a basic scarf or hat without a problem—but Di is an artist and a professional. She knows tricks, terms, and yarn in ways I can not even fathom. She makes these beautiful and complicated projects that put my utilitarian work to shame. The night I picked her up at the airport she presented me with a beautiful ear-flapped winter hat. It was hand-knit from baby alpaca wool with delicate patterns of purple and blue on snow white wool. It was so comfortable I wore it to sleep.

Having a talented knitter was the inspiration I needed to expand my own knowledge. I wanted to learn to knit hats in the round (on circular needles) and for her to show me the right way to purl. Last night I got an all-out lesson but got horribly frustrated. I was trying to do too much at once, jumping into a project without even practicing on swatches to gain confidence. But this morning I started over with a deep breath and twenty stitches instead of sixty. I still messed it up, but I understood why. Practice is slowly making perfect. Every row gets a little easier and my fingers seem a bit more nimble. There's light at the end of this tunnel, folks. I'll get that hat made proper.

The real inspiration to get better at knitting comes from a line of yarn I found at Black Sheep Yarns in Dorset. Rowan Purelife has a series of skeins sold not by some whimsical name or combination of wools, but by the sheep it came from. The British Sheep Breeds series sells you beautiful 100% natural wool from heritage stock of Great Britain. I chose a coarse, brown Jacob. It was the same wool used for the sample hat—that just holding, made me want to jump on the back of a fell pony with a border collie pumping at our flanks as we'd ride up the hill to check on the lambs. Diana convinced me I could make that hat. I'm a sucker, so I believed her and bough the yarn to use to learn the new skill. My successes in knitting aside—as a shepherd in training I was thrilled to see yarn that actually talks about sheep. Hell, had their picture on the product itself with detailed information about the breed. Here's to keeping those old heritage boys alive. I'd wave a flag, but instead I'll attempt a fancy hat from Jake.

Friday, January 15, 2010

listen to this

Thursday, January 14, 2010

we'll rescue each other

First things first. A reader posted about the earthquake in Haiti, and how some of us may be able to help. While CAF isn't set up to take any sort of foreign aid donations like some other blogs are—I can direct you here. I'm not asking readers to donate, but I will say this. Many hands make work light. Even the worst work. I'll be making a donation tomorrow. If anyone understands the kindness of charity: it's me after this winter. If all of us with solid roofs over our head give something, even just a few dollars, it could turn this world around.

Now with that said, here is what's new in this small life. I'm feeling better. Tuesday night was a horrible argument with the flu and I spent most of it either in the bathroom heaving or in bed with Jazz. He'd lay his wold head on my chest and let me scratch his ears, telling him in a sickness-induced delirium that he's cooler than Han Solo ever was in Empire, even after the part when he told Leia "He Knows." Two days of rest and a gallon of orange juice later and I'm me again. I don't take back the Han Solo comment either. Jazz is cooler.

Tomorrow I will mail out a small package/fancy begging container to the family that owns the cabin. I've collected local references, will write a note explaining about me and my hopes for the property, and a copy of my book. I'm hoping my intentions and the positive things I want to do with their land will help them decide to give me a chance.

While in a perfect world they'd want to sell to me, and a bank would grant me the loan—I need to be prepared for kind denial, a poor home inspection, or a solemn head shake from the bank. So many things can fall through...But there are all sorts of plan Bs in the works, too. Perhaps the cabin owners will allow a rent-to-own deal if the bank says no? And if they don't, a local reader and his family offered to let me (possibly) rent a cottage on their land and bring the animals along too. Which means that even if I can't buy now (though I pray it will work out) I may have a meantime home waiting for me. Just knowing that these two options have the chance to happen, helps me sleep better.

I was writing tonight about taking that first sheep class two springs ago when I first moved to Vermont. While writing about it I remembered the friend who told me about the class in the first place. Her name is Trish, and ever since she stopped working with me, I fell out of touch. Inspired by the memory, I looked her up in the phone book and called her. We talked for a while, and eventually I told her about the cabin. I told her how perfect it was, and how close I felt to having a place of my own. That I could practiaclly see the clawmarks in the air around me. She stopped me mid-sentence and told me (serious as a heart attack) '"Jenna? Did you know my mother is a mortgage broker?" I told her I did not...but could I have her number?! "Of course! HA! There is a reason you called!" she said, citing the kismet, making us both laugh. It was so good to hear from her again. And the weird coincidence felt like a second bar of a song I started writing ealier tonight when I picked up my last reference letter from Nancy over at Wayside. Things are slowly starting to happen, people.

The last bit of news I have to share is very good. Tomorrow I am getting a visitor. If you read Made From Scratch you might remember my mentor, Diana. (She's also a common commenter and forum member over at the Locals.) She's flying in from Idaho and we're spending the weekend together! Just a short trip, mind you, but a good one. There will be lots to catch up on. We haven't seen each other in almost two years, but by this time tomorrow I'll be waiting for her at the airport. It'll be good to have her back in my life for a little. Two years is a long time. Trish may meet us for coffee and yarntalk at Northshire. So, hey, how great did that work out?

Tonight I feel invigorated with the small possibilities that are starting to unfold. I am realizing with the help of my readers, solid faith in the future, and some stupid luck—I will land on my feet. A week ago I felt like the world was pulled out from under me, and while I'm still a bit shaky, I am starting to find my Foothold. A little hope is all this girl needs to stand a little taller.

And just between you an me, sometimes I lose my balance from the gratitude. It's a drunk and lovely vertigo. I dance to it, even when I fall down.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

i do apologize

I'll be back soon, and updating you all on the story and the farm. But I'm currently dealing with a bad case of the flu. See you all tomorrow, perhaps. Today, sleep.

Monday, January 11, 2010

voice lessons

When I was outside tonight feeding the animals I heard a sound so bone chilling it took each piece of my spine and stuck frozen Jell-o in the orifices. I was out by the car and stopped dead in the snow path. I was certain I was a dozen yards from some murder scene. The sound was something like a banshee wail mixed with the death rattle of a mako shark. (I speculate. Don't judge.) After the initial spookiness was past I realized that, once again, the scary sound in my backyard was coming from the chicken coop. Why can't any of my roosters be like normal chickens? Why do they all have to audition for Spinal Tap?

When Winthrop (my reigning rooster) started to crow I was shocked by the sound he made. He didn't crow, he moaned, and then graduated to an all-out werewolf howl. I could not believe that noise came from a chicken and not a dog. (He literally howls people. When Winthrop hollers the neighbor's dogs holler back.) Now John (the new rooster I raised since I bought him as a chick in July) has followed in his footsteps. John howls too, but the difference is his voice it totally normal. It's the same rooster crow you've heard a million times in movies and on the Waltons, but stretched like taffy at a long, shrill, pitch. All I can gather is this little boy grew up listening to the man of the house bay at the moon, so he must think that's the way to do it? I'm possibly horridly wrong but unless there are some audio-linguists of the domestic avian practice out there to correct me, I'm going with my nurture over nature thesis.

I like this. We all howl around here at Cold Antler.

Even me, sometimes.

sal in the light

Sunday, January 10, 2010

brown baggin' it

Here's the messenger bag I made last night. (A few of you asked if I would post the pattern or instructions.) I didn't use a pattern though, just some basic outlines in a book called Sew What! Bags By Lexie Barnes. The book has instructions for everything from wine bottle covers to advanced carrying cases. (My favorite is the DJ bag - made for carrying your records.) I used a basic personal purse guideline and figured it out from there. The book is big on common sense and easy instructions, so it made it easy even for a beginner like me. I bought the fabric online: a thick corduroy for the outside and a pattern with birds and antlers for the inside. (I lifted the flap there so you could see the pattern better, but you get the idea that it just covers the front of the bag.) It also has little pockets on the side panels for my phone and a granola bar. I took it out on the town today for a test run and it carried my life around just fine. The bottom worked and no one asked me to remove it—so I think it passes!

fiddle workshop?

If you emailed me with interest about the beginner fiddle workshop in February, will you please email me so we can make arrangements? So far out of the original six interested only one has reserved her spot.


across the water

I picked up a magazine at Tractor Supply a few weeks ago because it looked interesting, but I had never seen it before. It was called Home Farmer, and was about small scale farming and homesteading, with a heavy focus on backyard livestock. I scooped it up, checked out, and then let it sit on my coffee table for a while before I really dug into it. Last night after sewing (and two episodes of HBO's John Adams - which is wonderful) I started paging through it. It was wonderful! Turns out I wasn't familiar with it because it's a British publication. But I was so thrilled reading it because it was like sitting in someone's backyard in England and being shown around their gardens and coops. (Let me tell you something, the British have perfected backyard bird homes. Check out Forsham.com and Framebow.) Anyway, my favorite take away from the magazine is how universal homesteading is. This was an English magazine, but could easily apply to someone in New York or Portland. Same animals, same desires, same understanding that freedom isn't in our bank accounts or the cars we drive—it's right past the garden gate.

This is one of my favorite things about backyard farming- everyone needs to eat, and we all want to eat a little better. To some that means a better restaurant and to others it means a hen house and a veggie garden. I'll always be on the second side of those options, but I'm just thrilled the later is so well understood 5,000 miles away.