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.