I was just outside in the pasture with the animals, playing the dulcimer, digesting the bratwurst and pumpkin beer from Cambridge's Apple Festival. It was a lovely, slightly chilly, evening. As I sat in the grass and strummed Sal trotted up to say hello. I scratched his back and waited for him to lie down next to me, but he just stood. So I stood up with him and realized his back was perfectly level for my dulcimer. I gently set it on his spine. He didn't move. I strummed a chord. His ears shot forward interested, but still, didn't move. I played Wild Mountain Thyme, and he just stood there as my living table in the middle of field. When I finished I took a bow to our horrible audience. The other sheep and cow just ate, uninterested in our performance.
The other day I was at Wayside—paying at the register for my morning coffee—and the two men ahead of me in line walked out the front door and scoffed at my truck's tailgate. "Cold Antler Farm!?" they said, with that tone reserved for every out-of-stater who buys land, gets some chickens, and names their backyard. They meant nothing harmful, they were just bemused. I smiled with them. (The fact I own a small farm is still incredulous to even me.) If you're a fourth generation dairy man and grew up on the lap of your dad's John Deere: you might find a Ford Ranger with a magnetic sign on the back...euphemistic. I smiled with them, but it took me a while to get to that point. For some new farmers though it can be downright unsettling: feeing a like a butt of a cosmic joke or a worn stereotype.
It's this experienced-local-vs-new-beginner divide that seems to make many a new farmer or homesteader uncomfortable. After all, if you're fresh from an urban back-lot and are more familiar with hot dog vendor umbrellas than breeds of laying hens...you have good reason to feel a little separated from the locals. I have been doing this a few years and I can share this certainty:
Don't. Do not let who you are presently get in the way of who you want to be. Embrace it and let it become part of what's ahead.
When I first moved from Knoxville to Sandpoint, Idaho: it bothered me a lot. I was thriving in a warm and social city in the Southeast. Moving to a frigid logging town of 5,000 was a culture shock, to say the least. Those first months going to the Co-op to buy chicken feed and rabbit pellets felt like a girl acting in the role of "Hopeful Homesteader" on a movie set, and not my real life. It was all so foreign: the lingo, the clothing, the words printed on the feed bags like another language. I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
I realized I had to decide to either be intimidated by the experienced farmers all around me or sidle up next to them and join in. I thought if I smiled, listened more than I spoke, and was polite I could at least learn something by osmosis. It turned out to be true, and slowly over the months I learned facts, stories, remedies, names, and tips the way you slowly pick up the Indian names for yoga poses if you go to enough classes because you're too stubborn to give up. I made close friends with a local sustainable farmer and spent hours at her farm learning the difference between honey bees' careers and pellet vs crumbled layer rations. It all rises to the top if you soak in it long enough.
Moving to the country is not an identity shift, it's a lifestyle change. You're still you regardless of what your zip code states. You can come here and worry that you don't fit in or that the people at Agway won't be friendly, but you're probably underestimating their apathy. You'll be "the new guy" for a while, sure, but that's not a bad thing. It's a clean slate, a chance to start every conversation with a smile. Unless your new neighbors were sorting seed potatoes on the Mayflower: they probably had someone in their lines start out as the new guy too. It's not a bad place to be.
If you want to be a local, then here's how. Move to a new place. Walk outside. Inhale. Exhale. Congratulations, as far as the IRS and post office are concerned: you're a citizen of your new town. It's that easy. If people give you a hard time and purposefully exclude, mock, or ignore a new person based entirely on their virginal status: then so be it. It's more a reflection of their own unhappiness or self-doubt than your character. Bake them a pie. All they can do is push it into your face, which is comic genius.
Belonging is a state of mind. Being part of something outside yourself can only start if you've already made it a part of what's inside you. It doesn't matter if it's your Bible Study class or your first day at a horse auction: communities are communities. When you, just little old you, accept the fact that you're a part of it your entire self relaxes into your new role and everyone else believes it too. Trust me on this one.
As for me, I do yoga among chickens. You haven't even begun to understand balance till a pullet launches and roosts on your Vrksasana. And I say that as a goddamned local of Washington County New York. If that made you cringe, come over and have some pie. We'll deal together.
It's a very rainy day here in Veryork, and I am home from work. I told myself if I woke up feeling better I'd man up and hop in the shower and head into the office. But I didn't. I woke up feeling swirly in the head and tired in the body. Outside was a steady downpour of rain and I knew I had three sheep, a goat, a calf, a cat, three dogs, two geese, four rabbits, and a flock of chickens to see too before I could even consider going back to bed. So I suited up into my new rain slicker (the best $27 I have spent this summer) and wellies and filled formula bottles, fed hay and corn, and opened coops. By the time the farm was up and running my energy stores were winding down. I cam inside and fed the dogs, took a long hot shower, put on one of my father's sweaters, and made a cup of Lyons with honey. I am happy to report I am indoors from the cold and about to go back to sleep. Today is about rest.
It is an absolutely gorgeous and warm fall afternoon. The sun is basking yellow light on every leaf. The farm feels like breathing embers. The creek is littered with golden maple leaves and the fresh winds send wafts of the last cut hay and apples ripening past their primes on the vine. It is heaven.
I pulled into the driveway and saw a calf curled up like a cat on the hillside in the dappled light. My heart melted. The sheep trotted past Tasty down the hillside for snacks (Finn was already there) and all the animals in the September light seemed extra clean, extra friendly, and extra hungry. They chattered at me, tails wagging. Behind me the back of the pickup truck was busting out with new t-posts for pasture expansion, fresh blooming mums, a bale of hay, and a blue bag of chicken feed. It was a perfect picture of rural America. It was everything I had ever worked for.
...Then I coughed up enough phlegm to choke an alpaca. What I spit out onto the pile of beautiful leaves could've well had a name and mortgage of its own. I'm sick.
I left work early, feeling guilty, and called to cancel my riding lesson. What started as a head cold has morphed into some sort of body-aching overall tiredness that made standing up too much work and walking a dizzy ordeal. When I feel like that, I go home.
So here I am, inside, on a beautiful day. At least the hoof stock are enjoying that dapple light. I'm going to bed. I better get this out of my system by October.
Sheep know how to savor. They may appear to be ripping grass and eating fast, but that's not the case at all. In fact they are just filling their gas tanks for a long day of happy chewing later on. Every time I drop down morning hay or let them on new pasture I see the same bit. Sheep acting like fools to get that first stomach loaded with food and then they slow down. They stop the frantic chase and start to sniff mint leaves and nose the ground for fallen apples. They know how to relax, ease into their long day of cud and comfort. They might start their days in a rush but once they realize they'll probably survive to see nightfall: they let go of all anxiety, sit on the hill, watch the world and chew. They aren't bothered by wind, flies, barking dogs across the street or the occasional rainstorm. They savor the morning's hay a second time and let the world worry about itself till morning.
I just spent the last twenty minutes outside in a downpour feeding a baby bottle the size of a gallon milk jug to a very excitable calf. I am amazed at how fast he sucked down the formula, and grateful for the calf feeding 101 lecture I got from Tasty's owner pre-feeding dates. "Don't hold it in front of your body like this" Tim said, as he held the bottle out with two hands exactly like I assumed I should "Cause they buck the bottle, and send it flying into your gut or face with enough force to break a nose. Hold it to the side, like this..." And that is exactly how I was feeding the youngest/largest animal on the farm tonight. In my slicker, while the wet chickens paraded around me looking for corn and June Carter wailed for her evening food. It was a very loud, very wet, scene.
Tasty was dropped off here Sunday morning, the last morning of my parent's visit to the farmhouse. I don't think either of us ever thought we'd get a chance to say the phrase "We'll put off brunch until after the holstein is settled in" but we did. And we did.
The weekend was wonderful: three days with my sister and parents. We spent it doing things I rarely do like eating out and watching movies with Chinese take-out. It was so nice to sit back with some lo mein and watch an action movie with the family, like when we were kids in our basement (which was converted into a family room/den of sorts). We also got to hit up the Southern Adirondak Fiber Festival and my dad bought me a 16x20" print of three sheep (two white, one brown) for the farm house. I bought some cleaned wool to card and spin. We spend the bulk of our time walking around around the festival enjoying cider donuts, catching up, petting sheep, and making dinner plans. I had a great weekend, and I miss them already
P.S. If you are coming to the wool workshop this weekend, please let me know? It's from 10-2 at the farm. And you get to meet a bonus cow!
P.P.S. I know the bull calf isn't a "cow". But I like calling all bovines cow 'cause it's a whimsical word to say at a sheep farm.
P.P.P.S I have been asked what kind of camera I use? A. The cheapest digital Kodak the Coeur d'Alene Target had before I moved to Vermont. It cost $103 dollars three years ago, and it's so worn out that all you can read of the original logo is "dak". Also, my iphone.
Before I share anything about the weekend, I need to stop and congratulate Patrick Shannahan of Red Top Kennels of Idaho. Yesterday Patrick (Gibson's breeder) won the National Sheepdog Finals in Virginia with his dog, Riggs (Gibson's father). What an accomplishment! I'm damn proud of the man responsible for breeding my dog and training his Dad. The farms sends much applause!
Enjoy the story of a young writer living in Washington County with her fancy dogs, sheep, lots of chickens, fiber & meat rabbits, geese, ducks, turkeys, a hive and a garden. Expect to hear a lot about mountain music, the civil war, local food, and my friends along the way. It's a big time folks.
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. -gs