Saturday, July 17, 2010

border collies for public office!

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I had slated tonight as the day to buy hay. It was the first non-rainy afternoon of the work week and my supply was growing low. I'm already starting to plan for winter, so when I have the time and the weather is good—I drive north to Hebron to get whatever I can afford and bring it had to Cold Antler. Hay Day: I have been looking forward to it all week.

When the work day is over I go home and change out of the clothes I've grown so uncomfortable in. I slip into a tee shirt and wellies. I throw my hair up into a knit cap (yes, it's 89 degrees, but nothing keeps the bugs off and the sweat off my face like the natural wicking power of wool) and braid my hair into pig tails. I grab Annie (the best ride along dog at Cold Antler) and together a girl and her husky roll up 22 towards Nelson Greene's farm. Just past Tiplady road you can hang a right and weave uphill to Nelsons. I couldn't wait to be in that loft.

I only planned on buying half a dozen bales. Well, "buying" is a euphemism considering Nelson is rarely there when I arrive. I'm on a 9-5 part-time farmer schedule and on the late evenings when I show up he's either out or inside with supper. So I go through my normal routine. I open the loft and crawl up into the cathedral of hay and start throwing bales of his second cut down to my truck. I love that hay loft. I love the way it smells, what it means. It's an entire pasture in a rubik's cube of stacks. I can climb 30-feet high and feel safe. There is soft hay everywhere so if you slip (and I often do) you're fine. You land on the soft bedding and get up again. Today I stopped to take some pictures to share with you. I want you to see how my workday ends.

When the truck was loaded I drove us to Nelson's mailbox. I dropped off the check for the hay and then Annie and I headed south to Jackson. The wind felt good after the hot day. I drove with the windows open, my arm hanging off the edge. Annie hung the front half of her body out the window like she always does. Two girls and the open road. I smile a lot when hay is involved. I smile more in the company of dogs.

July is halfway over, and August is stalking us in tall grass. Before you know it September will be here and I will be barking for fall. I can not wait.

farm shape

I'm on a mission to get in better shape: for me, for the farm, and for my future. Contrary to what you might assume about me I could stand to lose about twenty pounds and they're holding me back from feeling more comfortable with myself, and more fit for the work of everyday farm life. It's a lot easier to buck bales of hay into a truck when you're not wheezing or panting. And it's a lot more fun pounding fence posts when your arms aren't ready to give out as you slam down the 30-pound weight driving them into the ground. I don't want to grow tired based on the fact I'm lugging around an extra twenty pounds; it's not sustainable or efficient.

So I started running again, just a mile a day. I balance this with yoga and even though it's only been five days I feel better. Even if starting a personal fitness program is just a placebo in itself: it's working. I sleep better, I eat better, and I hope that come October I have reached my goal weight while still enjoying the occasional slice of apple pie and bottle of hard cider. I could try and lose thirty pounds and cut out all the foods that I enjoy, but I won't. Life is too short to miss out on all that amazing, homegrown, and homemade food. So I'll check in every week and let you know how it's going. I started on my birthday and I'll share my loss or gains as I plod along once every two weeks or so. Feel free to join me if you too want to feel a little tawnier under your flannel come fall.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

onions drying on the attic door

a homeowner's tale

Once upon a time a girl bought a house in Washington County, NY—land of farms, sheep, tractors, and fly fishing.

Then one day she didn't have hot water. So she called the oil company to deliver more fuel for the boiler.

The oil delivery guy came, filled up the tank with a hundred new gallons (273 American dollars), and then watched flames shoot out into the basement. We jumped back.

He looked at the furnace, then at me, then at the furnace and said after three beats:

"You're going to need to get this cleaned."

So the girl called the service people, who came to clean the dirty furnace (119 American dollars) so to not blow up the little white farmhouse. Alas, he discovered a broken ventilation system. I could have hot water again, but would not be alive to use it since the house would fill up with carbon monoxide.

He looked at the vents, then at me, then at the vents and said after three beats:

"You're going to need to get this vent repaired."

So the girl called the service center, and another man came to test the fan motor. He discovered the broken circuit board (175 American dollars) but said he could not repair it. The house's ventilation system was not up to code. The house would need to have that replaced and up to federal standards before they could fix the vents.

So the girl called the service people once again, and they showed her the system she would need to take hot showers as a living human being, and it required a brand new ventilation system that rose 2 feet above ground level! (2,000 American dollars) or a new masoned natural draft chimney (3,000 - 4,500 American dollars).

At this point God laughed, and the home owner cried. She just wanted hot water. She did not realize she was breaking the law. She does not have 2,000 dollars.

So the girl called the home inspector, who should have seen this issue and arrangements could have been made to get the vents up to code before she and Chase bank bought the farmhouse.

The inspector offered to pay for the new ventilation system, because if people found out there was a body count in his home inspection process, it would be bad for business.

At this point the home owner smiled. Small victories get her through the day.

The hot water will be back in a week and the house will refrain from being an outlaw.

Monday, July 12, 2010

maybe next time

i hoped for a thunderstorm.
but i was wrong again.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

the trial

"So you're finally here with a dog." was what the smiling Barb Armata said to me under the yellow and white tent hosting our morning bagels and cream cheese. She had good reason to say that with such gusto. Barb was a sheepdog trainer and the woman who will be my mentor for our herding education. I told her I was thrilled to be here today, and I was. For three years I have been attending and volunteering at the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trial. I had been a member of NEBCA (North East Border Collie Association) since that first visit when I had only lived in New England a few months. Last year I kept score and helped where I could. This year I did the same (and spent a few hours releasing sheep from the chutes at the top of the trial field). I had been here for years, at club events time and time again, and now I was finally standing amongst my peers with a respectable pup of my own. I felt rich. Barb knew it when she saw it.

All of the shepherds knew who Gibson's father was, and respected his breeder. When Steve Whetmore (the shepherd I read about in books and the first NEBCA member I ever emailed) said to people under the tent "Hey, this is a Riggs puppy!" my chest swelled. I am still a fly on the wall to many of them. I've never proven myself with a dog (failed one actually, as most know and I am still ashamed of) and never stepped on a trial field. But I haven't disappeared either. I have been around for three years come bad and good, and now I had a prospect. A dog that might very well make it to these fields as a competitor someday. And while rarely did a club member talk to me, they seemed to nod a little more, say good morning. And I took every bone that was thrown to me. I respect them and envy them more than they'll ever know.

Day 1
I woke up to a thunderstorm yesterday. It made me so happy. I was 28, and comfortable in the lull of the box fan in my farmhouse. I was half-awake and listened to the rumbles, smiling like an idiot. I adore thunderstorms so much, you just can't know. It was the best gift a farm girl could have, and even though the day was to be overcast I didn't care: it was a day for a sheepdog trial. The heat wave had been sliced open by the storm. It was milder, and the rain a blessing.

I drove early that morning to the trial with Gibson shotgun beside me. I had been told pets could not come, but Gibson was not just a pet. He was my business partner, a regally-bred registered dog, and a someday herder. He would get in. I'd see to it. (He did. We walked right in like he was High in Trial. Take that, stupid website rules!)

I spent the first day of the two-day contest just watching and walking around with Gibson. It was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate. There was no greater feeling than to be amongst these shepherds at the site of my first-ever-visited sheepdog trial with my own pup. I watched under the white tents while the rain came and went. The fog played with the tops of the trees and the competitors all hoped it wouldn't hit the fields and block their view of their dogs. I spent most of the day silent, sitting amongst the trialers listening. I watched dogs around me and how they never left their master's side. I looked down at Gibson between my feet, sleeping quietly and understood. I listened to the hot shots talk about their land and trucks. I talked to some folks who just came to watch. I wanted to help them get excited and understand. To them I might look like the real deal, but I identified much more to the fanny-pack-toting spectators from New Jersey than I did with the contestants. I was still green and clueless, I just happened to have come this far. I told them about sheepdog trials as if the World Cup never existed. This was the epitome of competition and sportsmanship: I bet I seemed crazy.

Eventually I worked up the nerve to talk ask Don McCaig if he would sign my copies of his books I stashed in my backpack. (Nops Trials, A Useful Dog, and Eminent Dogs Dangerous Men) Last year I kept his score on the trial field star-struck and nervous. McCaig is a NY Times bestselling novelist who writes about shepherding and lives on a giant farm in the southeast. He's the only person to ever write an approved sequel to Gone With the Wind. He keeps sheep, writes for a living, loves the history of the south and Civil War.... he's one of my heros.

He signed two of his books to me, and my copy of A Useful Dog to Gibson. What a guy.

Before I left for the day I stopped at the visitors' center and bought some lamb—which I took home and pan fried in cast iron with spices. I ate it over whole wheat pasta with marinara and garden basil. It tasted amazing: the rare lamb so moist and flavorful...the spices so rich. I had a Guinness and some chocolate cake to top it off and was grateful for the year. It was a great birthday.

But today I left the house at 7, and was at the post to work by 8. I had permission from the club to drive my truck right up to the main tents, so Gibson could be with me again while I worked and not far away in the parking lots. I parked right by the other NEBCA folks and felt a little more included in the scene. While I watched the trial he lay at my feet, but when I was down on the field keeping score he slept under the tailgate in the shade with a bowl of water. I remember looking at him, snoozing in the sun under the truck as I walked to the fields to keep score by the judge. Three years ago I had no truck, no sheep, no dog. Now I was (in a way) one of them. Most of the shepherds here had 50+ acres, 25+ sheep, and several collies. I had one pup, 6.5 acres (lawn-size to most of them), three sheep and a used truck. I still felt part of. What I had obtained may be meager to those with 25-ft-tall tractor, but it's mine.

Day 2
The second day of the trial was hosted under sunny skies and I was there to help. I kept score all morning, writing down the points removed from the 100-pt perfect score all dogs and handlers start with. I kept time, chatted with the judge, and watched the pros at their paces. I braked for lunch, walked around with Gibson (sweaty and hot) and ran into some blog readers from New Hampshire. Bill and Nancy were gracious, and were kind to Gibson and said wonderful things about the blog. I was glad to meet him. I only wished he commented more so I knew who he was. I love it when folks chime back on here. It reminds me that I am writing to people and not my computer.

My afternoon was spent high above the trial field at the chutes. That photo at the top of this post shows you how high above the action I was. The white tent is where the spectators were. The smaller white tent is the judge's station I had been keeping score at earlier. And all that distance between them and the photographer was the trial field. A very large, hilly, and rough place to run a dog.

The chutes are the pens that hold the 60+ sheep (this trial ran Katahdins) which are released three at a time for the trial dogs. It was hot as hell. I spent a few hours wrestling ewes into pens and then letting them out onto the field. (Lanolin mixed with sun block to make a smell few can relate to, but I kinda enjoyed.) Then something kinda great happened amongst the sweat and angry sheep. A really attractive guy (a Merck staffer, 28, and tanned and built as a 1960's surf movie extra) was driving a red truck filled with water for the sheep. At first he mostly ignored me through polite conversation. But as the trial went on we got to talking about my farm, Gibson, sheep, border collies, and his role as the main farm worker at Merck. He seemed to think Cold Antler was cool and was impressed I was doing it alone. He too was managing Merck alone, so could relate (even if the scale was far greater). He said he wanted to rescue a border collie from a local organization and have it work the farm with him. He seemed interested in what I was saying, even though I looked like a horror. (I was covered in sweat, flushed, in a ripped shirt and blotchy from the sun). It was far from movie fireworks, and I have no idea if this guy is A) single, B) even remembers my name, or C) I'd even like him once I got to know him more. But I realized just a few days after asking for a man to come into my life I was leaning against the tailgate of my pickup watching a pastoral scene of heartbreaking beauty with a local man who was my age, loved sheep, and was dedicated to agriculture. I might never see him again, but the fact I was enjoying the trial around such amicable company did not go unnoticed. I smiled. And my blood is as red as any woman's.... (something about really tan farm guys with sandy blond hair and a love of sheepdogs kinda gets me.) I told him to google Cold Antler if he was ever online. He said it was a name he could remember.

By the by: I have gotten a few emails referring to my dating post, for those slightly interested. My scheme worked in getting a response, and who knows, maybe there will be a date or two?

On the way home from the trial I turned the wrong way and headed into Sandgate. It was the instinctual way to go since those backroads were the same ones I drove for two years buying hay for my sheep in Hebron while I lived in the cabin. It had been a few months since I really drove through Sandgate, and little things called out to me. I noticed farms with new animals I didn't recognize> I saw what had once been the raw frame of a barn's cupola was now being sided with red boards. Little changes, but enough to remind me it was no longer mine. I drove through the notch and it felt different than before, harder. It hurt a little.

But I do not miss Sandgate (or living Vermont) like I thought I would. Jackson and Cambridge are starting to feel like my own. People know my names in the bookstore and the in some town shops like Common Ground Cafe. I was asked to do a talk at Hubbard Hall in the fall, a place where authors like Jon Katz talk. And the farmers at Common Sense Farm wave to me when I drive by. It's still new, and I'm still a stranger with Vermont plates to most, but it is starting to feel like home.

And with all that, I'm saying goodnight. I'm sore and sunburned and tired. It's back to the office tomorrow, with its own stresses and such, and while I don't look forward to it I am glad for it. I must remember I am not a McCaig. I'm a girl with a day job, a used truck, a puppy, one mildly-sucessful book, and a very small farm. But I am happy. I like where I am. It's enough.