A storm is coming. A big storm. The weather reports for the 12816 are calling for 15-30 inches of snow in the next 48 hours. In preparation I am making sure all the animals and I are ready this time. It's the second half of winter and I now have a plowman on call, a ride to work when the truck can't hack it, hay for the sheep under the side porch, wood stacked inside, water ready in the trough the night before, and am even setting up snow shovels by the front door. I have a roof rake. I have good boots. I have three warm dogs and an electric blanket. I am stacked inside with books, hot chocolate, coffee, tea, and a full larder. Pray the ice stays away, and the snow is only a foot or so so the buildings stay upright and the sheep aren't in need of a rescue dig out.
I have a feeling there won't be a lot of folks making it to the office Wednesday. If it's a white out even my ride in his giant Suburban won't want to fuss when he could work from home. Wish us all luck up here in Washington County.
This morning I had to go check the freezer to make sure the meat was still there. I wasn't entirely sure if this was a dream or not. I wanted to see proof that yesterday's work party had actually happened and it wasn't some crystal-mushroom induced frenzy triggered by a movie marathon of Babe, Witness, and Mystic Pizza (I'll explain later). But when I cracked open the chest it was all there and accounted for. Over a hundred and twenty pounds of roasts, ribs, hams, pork belly, sausage fixings, loins and chops. I realized I had never been in possession of this much meat before in my entire life. I was lousy with pork. I got a little dizzy and shut the lid.
Yesterday was quite the day. Eleven people, six dogs, and one swine made up the work crew that descended on Cold Antler. The mission: to turn a living Yorkshire Pig into food. The pork patrol was mostly limited to myself, my good friend Steve Hemkens, and Vicki Frost the traveling butcher. But other friends of the farm stopped by during the day to help with various aspects of a winter animal harvest, and their effort was greatly appreciated. Two families, the Daughtons and the McEnenys, arrived with their young children and did everything from help pick out a butchering location to climb on the roof to push off snow. It takes a village, darling. This post is the story of one farm's winter pork harvest. The entire day. Welcome to the table.
The rest of this post will explain the work, the emotion, and the images of a day making meat out of a living animal. Be aware that the content is graphic. Out of respect for the animal, there is no images of her slaughter, but much of the work of butchering. If this makes you uncomfortable, please govern yourself accordingly.
Yesterday morning I woke up to snow. Outside thick flakes were coming down, snow-globe style all over the farm. It was beautiful. I stoked the wood stove, put a pot of coffee on, and pulled a wool sweater over my braids and headed outside to see to morning chores. I thought about the Tschorns hosting dog sled rides today in Bennington, and my friend Tim's photography show I still had not seen. There was so much I could be doing with my winter Saturday. But today I wasn't going to be riding in a dogsled or looking at pictures on a cafe wall. I went into the barn to have some words with Pig.
It was warmer than I was used to. The day was already in the high twenties, and the comfortable atmosphere paired with the gentle snow seemed to soften the work ahead. Pig was just inside the old red door, standing up, looking at me curiously. She let out a few gentle snorts and I realized how quiet she had been this whole time. She never really made any noise unless something in her evening meal made her snort with glee. Despite eating a hen that flew into her pen, she was never vulgar. She didn't smell bad. She wasn't violent, or jumpy, and never complained—though her world was never one to cause much complaint. She had lived a peaceful and comfortable life in this barn. Her nests of hay, pan of grain, and red water bucket served her well. Compared to most of the pork in this world, she was living the life of royalty. Her little curled tail wagged as I scratched her ears.
I looked down at her eyes and told her Thank You. I had never meant those words more than at that very moment. I walked out of the barn. The next time I would go in would be with the butcher.
Inside the house I was preparing for the day. I baked an apple pie that morning, and put on more strong coffee for the crew. Steve arrived first with his bird dog, Cayenne. All four dogs played while we enjoyed a breakfast of pie and coffee, and caught up with each other. Soon the other families and the butcher arrived, and before long everyone was helping set up the work station and gathering supplies. I liked Vicki instantly. She carried herself with the authority of an expert in her field. She has been raising and harvesting hogs since she was nine-years-old. I was grateful she traveled all the way down here (over two hours) to serve the farm.
Even the children got in on the action. Ian Daughton (10) scoped out trees around the farm to use as our butchering hoist (I was silently hoping we could spare the neighbors the site of a bloody hog operation in the front yard) and his brother Seth (6) helped fetch cameras and bleach. Later during the day, little Eli McEneny (2) walked around the job site as uninterested in the carnage as he would be dry leaves in the fall. These were the children of sporting families. Kids that grew up learning where their food came from and helping with the process—they hunted, made sausage, had cows in the backyard. I however, grew up in gentrified Suburbia, and I couldn't imagine helping one of my parents' friends locate a slaughtering tree in second grade. They amazed me with their gumption.
As it turned out the only proper place to work was the giant Maple right on the front lawn. It was strong enough to hoist the animal, close to power sources for the electric saws, and had a flat area to set up the water and bleach stations, knives, and wrapping workshop. People who would drive by would see a carcass hanging from a limb. They'd see blood and guts and all sorts of things you don't plan on seeing when you drive into town to pick up a movie and Chinese food. "Oh well," said Steve with an air of stoic amusement, "This is the country. This is a farm. They'll just have to deal with it." I agreed. Goodbye Suburbia.
When the abattoir, butchering table, and supplies were all lined up and ready it was time to slaughter. Vicki had a 30-30 deer rifle, and explained that she would wait as long as it took to get her perfect shot on a calm animal. She had stood in pig pens for two hours before. She had no interest in a frenzy or chasing a wounded animal through the snow. I trusted her, and only the two of us went into the barn.
I stood just outside the pig pen while the butcher climbed in with the now loaded rifle. I had been asked to stand behind her and act as calm as possible. Pig seemed confused by the sudden roommate, but not in the throes of any existential crisis. Vicki spoke to her in a calm voice, explaining to her perfectly what was going to happen. "Your farmer has been taking care of you and feeding you for a long time, and now it's your turn to feed her." she said as she scratched the little girl's head. I was a little shocked at how okay I felt about all this so far. I was told it would rattle me. I was steady at the helm. 100% present and aware. And I felt lucky to have someone as experienced as Mrs. Frost on the job. The woman has been raising and butchering hogs for forty years and her mind was entirely focused. Her expertise and steady hand were all the affirmation I needed. This woman butchered over 500 swine a year, on farms all over New England. Both me and Pig were in good hands today.
If Pig did know what was coming, it wasn't jarring enough to stop her from eating the pan of sugar-soaked apples and grain that would be her last meal. I watched the scene with curiosity, but not remorse. Guilt and sadness wasn't on my mind at all, (but then again, she hadn't pulled the trigger yet). I had no idea how I would feel about the slaughter of my first hog. I was less than four feet away from the event. Slowly and gently, Vicki aimed her muzzle right behind the porcine ear and the shot rang out. Pig dropped instantly to the ground. Just like that, it was over. I did not cry.
Within a moment of the drop Vicki sit her neck and the pig bled out right where she had slept the night before. I watched her final moments of twitching and said a prayer quietly to myself. I was assured that she was already gone. The bullet had gone directly through her brain and that instant drop to the ground was the certainty we needed. Within moments Vicki's husband and Steve had walked in the barn door. They slid hooks through her back hock tendons and dragged her out to the giant maple. The work of making food would begin.
Vicki set to skinning first. She cut off the skin around the pig's feet and head, and gently pulled off the hide with the expert of a surgeon. It was many, shallow cuts, and took half an hour. Feet were removed, so was the head. What remained hanging was no longer anything like a pig at all. It looked like the hanging meat you've seen in movies and television your whole life. But you know, in your front yard.
While we worked with Pig, the Daughtons headed out to help a friend move and Scott McEneny became a homeowner's super hero and climbed on the roof of the house to push off snow. I had been so worried about the barns and animals I didn't realize my own attic roof was swelling. I told him I could rake it down, but he insisted that he had to do something, and was stunned at his kindness. His wife and their little boy talked to the sheep, and their two hunting spaniels in their Volvo sang back-up. I kept thanking them like an idiot. Not many of my friends in my previous life would come help gut a pig and shovel my roof. I decided right then and there, he was getting meat on Monday once we wrapped it all up. All who helped that day would leave with some. It was the least I could do.
We breaked around 2PM for pizza. I wasn't sure what Emily Post had written about the etiquette of hosting traveling hog butchers, but I decided in that mine would be well fed and have all the coffee or tea she could drink. We came inside and washed up before enjoying a thick-crusted pizza loaded with cheese. It tasted amazing. I had been fasting all morning, and we had been working non-stop. We talked for over and hour in there. About farming, our dogs, relationships, sustainability. Vicki seemed comfortable at Cold Antler, and I was pleased at that.
The next round of work was gutting and splitting the carcass. Vicki estimated the weight of Pig to be around 180 pounds. A third of that would become waste, and the rest would become food. The "waste" was mostly entrails and things like the head, fat, and feet. On future animals I might render my own lard and make scrapple: but this was not my intention with this first pig. I would take the hams and bacon to be smoked, but that was the extent of my adventures beyond basic pork. So entrails went to compost and the head went far into the woods for the birds. The skin was laid out for the chickens to pick the fat off and enjoy. The soil, the crows, the poultry, and several people would be fed by this one animal. How humbling.
Vicki explained the anatomy to me, and said that the inside of Pig was as healthy looking as the outside. The only thing we needed to be mindful was that she did eat raw meat (the errant hen) and that meant the meat would have to be frozen for twenty days or cooked to 160 degrees, well done, in case of any possible trichinosis. The chances were rare, being so few meals she acquired that way, but no reason to play it safe. I was so upset. Did I mess this up? Was the pork dangerous? Vicki assured me it was fine, that she would eat it and feed it to her grandchildren, just not rare.
We set the sides on the table and went to work. We cut up the liver, heart, some fat, and all the scrap cuts into a giant bowl for sausage making. We wrapped up the roasts, loins, ribs, and chops in cling wrap and freezer paper and stacked them on the table. Mounds of wrapped meat piled up, cuts I could never imagine seeing in a grocery store. Jowl steaks, Blade roasts, and stir-fry cuts would be in the freezer along with the hams, belly, and chops. The whole time we worked Vicki explained how to cook things, how to prepare them, and stories of past hogs and farm adventures. It might sound like a bloody mess, and it was, but it was also a happy practice. A bunch of kind people getting together, working side-by-side to achieve this goal.
Time went fast as Steve showed me how to wrap and mark the packages. As it got colder out we worked even faster to get everything in the freezer. I looked over at Vicki, in just a light sweater, snow pants, and a garbage bag apron and how cold she was among the knives and flesh and decided she was getting a tip. How could a four-hour round trip to dress one hog be profitable for her? I offered her pork as well (stupidly, she had plenty) but decided this was the best way to show my appreciation, and entice her back for the next pig. When you find help this good, at so good a price ($200 was her fee for the travel, slaughter, butchering, wrapping and bringing all her own supplies. Not to mention, over five hours of work...) you hope they'll like you enough to return.
A one point worked stopped to take in a scene. We all were stunned to see a group of robins in the well, just down the hill. I saw them splash at the stream and saw hints of green grass the water had washed the ice clean from. I felt as uplifted, better than I had in days. I took it as a sign that the worst of this winter was over. That spring, and lambs, and good things were going to come my way. Robins on slaughter day: a new folk saying was born.
Eventually, everything was wrapped up and cleaned. Knives were put away, the meat in the freezer, the station torn down, and all that was left was our footprints and the red pile of blood under the maple tree. Steve left with a hug, told me he was proud. I was proud too. That was the overriding feeling of the day. I had no regret or guilt for taking the life, and realized this would carry over to the lambs in the fall as well. This was my work, creating healthy meat, the food of the ages. I was proud that I completed this project, the first I executed alone. I needed help of course to do all the work, but the planning, the pen building, the finding cheap feed, the labor, the raising, the setting up the butcher date and the day's work...I did it. I felt like carpenter that finished her first house. This was a life to live in.
My life has changed from one that coveted material things and experiences to one that savors hand-made comfort. I used to want everything I saw at Crate and Barrel and dreamed of weekends in London. Now I am planning how to install a bread-baking wood stove and filling a chest freezer with yard pork. I still enjoy the Crate and Barrel catalog, I still imagine weekends in London, but they aren't what they were. They are distractions now from a better world. Amusements. When I realized the only reason people were shopping or vacationing was because someone else was making their food: it lost much of it's appeal. You can be the most strident anarchist and own your own indie gallery but you're as dependent as a suckling child if you can't fill your own fridge from time to time. I'll trade in my plane tickets for a weekend like this any day.
This morning when I was outside fetching water from the well for the sheep, I walked past the giant tree that was yesterday's scene. The new snow had all but covered the blood.
I've been resting, if you've been wondering. I come home from work, see to the dogs and the farm, and then eat a meal, make some tea, and get to bed. I haven't been writing here much only because it was one less thing to think about in a very chaotic squall of misfortune recovery. But things have been warming up, calming down, and I can feel myself feeling better.
Thank you for the letters, emails, donations, packages and kind words that helped pull me out of my winter funk. One person made me dinner and cookies (a chili mix and some ginger snaps), another sent me books and jam, one package from Alaska had an antique reindeer ornament that hangs in my kitchen. I appreciate them all, so much, and I hope to be mindful enough to send proper thank you notes (today someone sent me note cards, so I think that's the Universe telling me to get on that...). It is quite the feeling of kindness and looking-after I get from these parcels. All from complete strangers, too. It is wonderful. It is the community here that keeps me going some days. I am told by some people this farm is an inspiration, but the secret is it is easy to do the impossible when you have your own support group a few clicks away. From the baling twine of my heart, I thank you.
Tonight will be much like the rest of this week: some repose and a book. I still feel tired, but I think that has more to do with the end of the week than anything else. And hey, days are getting longer. It was sunny until after 5 here. Before you know it, it will be March and my heartbeat will be in the tempo of lambs.
Tomorrow: Pig. Check back for a pork post with pictures.
P.S. NPR's The Splendid Table will be airing an interview with me tomorrow, download it here!
P.S.S. I'm getting a Bun Baker Wood Stove! We're working out an advertising barter! Now I have to start saving for a chimney!
I found the photography of Danielle Shank online, and I adore it. Her ability to capture the heart and eyes of working dogs is amazing. You can flip through her galleries and almost taste the dust and snow in the air. Makes me wish I was on the trial field.
So despite the last few weeks of blizzards, dead transmissions, frozen pipes, sore muscles, truck repairs, frozen animals, office stress, ditches, drainage, and fatigue: I think it is finally coming to an end. The animals that made it through seem okay. I am fine. Really. I'm not losing heart, being poisoned by carbon monoxide, or falling out of love with this farm.
I think I just never anticipated this sort of cold-weather chaos. I have lived here for years now, but the game changed. I learned, pretty damn fast, how different the life of a renter in a 1950's cabin with a Subaru is to being the owner of a Civil-War era farm with a light pickup truck. The intense cold, and extra-heavy snowfall has been helping to underline these differences. I'm getting it though. With everything that goes undone, I'm learning who to call, how to react, and the right gear to slide into on a slushy decline. The only way to absorb these lessons is to need them. There's a lot of that going on around here. it's an uphill battle, and every experience is a little added elevation.
May your eyes be wide and seeing May your learn from the view where you're kneeling Know the fear of the world that you're feeling Is the fear of a slave May you know how the fire was started Want as much for the snake as the garden Wear them both like a glove that you can wave
May your mouth betray your wisdom May you get what they fail to mention May your love be your only religion Preach it to us all May you lose what you offer gladly May you worship the time and it's passing Stars won't ever wait for you to watch them fall
We're the smoke on a burnt horizon We're a boat on a tide that's rising both the post and the pig you're untying Butcher gone for the blade Someday we may all be happy Someday all make a face worth slapping Someday we may be shocked to be laughing At the way you behave
May your hands be strong and willing May you know when to speak and to listen May you find every friend that you're missing There's no check in the mail May you end up bruised and purple Know the pieces the shape of a circle Round and round you go Biting your tail
We're the journey and the wind is whipping Short hands on the clock still ticking Both the egg and the red fox grinning His belly full for the day Someday we may all want nothing And all together we'll get what's coming Someday all say the world was something That we just couldnt change
May your tongue be soft and wicked Know your part in the calf and the killing See straight through the captain you're kissing Helm loose in his hand May your words be well worth stealing Put your hand on your heart when your singing Choirs sick of the song But they still gotta stand
Got the Ranger stuck in a ditch today, driving down a slushy hill leaving the office. Kind coworkers pulled it out with chains. Benjamin didn't make it. He died yesterday. The pipes are un-froze but the drainage is still blocked and the septic guy who came by the farm yesterday said the proper fix would cost hundreds of dollars, so I'm waiting out the thaw and showering at the office before work.
I appreciate all the kind comments and encouragment. I'll make a proper update soon and snap out of this funk. To be perfectly honest though, all I want to do tonight is go home, make tea, and go to bed.
Some dead chickens outside barn, for some reason did not go into coop at night. Froze outside. Benjamin the angora buck is barely breathing or moving, limp to the touch, still warm. Sheep, geese, and Pig seem fine, but thirsty. Called into work, said I would be late. Going to try to start truck again. Plumbers on-call.
Something different happened today, and it made me a little uncomfortable. I was out raking snow off the outbuildings, checking on the animals, and doing usual winter chores when I got incredibly tired. I mean, buckling tired. It was how I felt when I was recovering from the campylobacter, and it scared me. I wasn't cold (I was really bundled up). I wasn't feeling sick. And I wasn't dehydrated or doing too much. I made sure to stagger chores to make sure the work was in smaller chunks, but damn, I was just done and it was only 2:30. I came inside, threw some logs in the stove, and made myself get under the heated blanket on the daybed with a book and sleep for an hourw with Annie. The alarm went off at 4PM and everything hurt. My arms sore from raking, my head swirling. I had a cold glass of water and felt better and went outside to use the rest of the daylight to line the sheep shed with clean bedding for the big freeze tonight.
I never nap. I just don't. It is really unusual for me to have to shut down like that. I just feel weak today, and have since Friday. I'm not coughing. I have no fever. My appetite is the same monstrous appetite I always have....I just feel thinner, like stretched out linen. I'm either getting sick, or getting some sort of winter fatigue.
Well, at least the farm is in good shape. I have a pile of dry wood inside for the night and tomorrow. Snow raked off the barn, sheds, and coop. The sheep have clean water in their defrosted tank and fresh bedding (plus all the hay they can eat). The chickens, rabbits, and geese got extra bedding and corn too, and so did Pig. The trucks is gassed up. The driveway is plowed. I did my level best. Now the only thing left to do is sip tea, rest, and curl up for the three-dog night. (For me, this is a literal as well as figurative statement.) Oh well, the only way out, is through.
Thank you for all your tips. I used many today. I hear there might be another big storm this week?
The National Weather Service has announced -23 lows tonight, and more snow next week. This is a cold I have never experienced before. I don't know what it will do to the house, the truck, the animals, or the little details that keep things running like electric water-tank defrosters on the farm. I do know that I'm staying home today to look after things and keep the stove burning all day and night. Does anyone have any cold-weather tips that could help around here? Should I run the truck engine for twenty minutes tonight to keep the battery alive? Should the sheep get bag balm on their noses? Do your dogs need more water to keep from a cold dehydration? And is it better to keep the wood stove roaring or down to hot coals all night, which has more of a heat output? I'll take on this cold and snow regardless, but advice that could keep my vehicle safe or animals more comfortable would be a gift.
My mother is reading James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, which is about Peak Oil and how he predicts it will change the American way of life. I haven't read it yet, but have read his two novels about a post-oil world. She did as well, and after doing so was intrigued in her very curious way to see how Kunstler found his characters in such dire circumstances. It's been kind of neat talking to her about it. I never thought we'd have such light hearted talks about the supposed end of civilization, but we have. Those novels and that book seem to make having a daughter with a small farm a little more appealing, and for that I thank James very much. I asked her what she thought about the book so far and this was her response. "Oh, God, it's going to be awful. We're all going to have to live like you, but without a DVD player."
I love my mom.
Two loaves of bread are baking in the oven. This kitchen smells heavenly. Lord in heaven, do I ever love hand-kneaded bread. I love eating it, but I think I love baking it even more. The house swells with goodness and butter-drenched comfort. It's one of those homesteading experiences we can all share. From Boston to Bolivia: we can turn grains into nourishing food. It just takes some flour, a little yeast, and clean water. You can get fancy like I did today and mix in a fresh egg and some honey, but really that's just icing in the dough. A good loaf needs little but heat and good hands. Try it, you'll like it.
I'm really, really, interested in this wood stove called the Vermont Bun Baker. It's a regular wood stove, but the bottom of the stove is an oven, and the top is a range. I'm already thinking about adding another wood stove to the farm for next year since I found a farm in Cambridge willing to trade lambs for cords of wood. The amount of heat a second wood stove could crank out in this small house would be epic, and to have one that takes up so little space. And I like the idea of being able to have a hot oven and a second heat source if the power went out. (Up here in Washington County, winter power outages aren't exactly a rarity.) So I emailed the guys who own this company to see if they would possibly be willing to work something out in exchange for advertising. I have learned it never hurts to ask. All they can say is no, but thank you. And even if they don't agree, I still want to show off this cool find. Any baker with a homesteading itch can't help but swoon a little at things like this, can they?
Also, I wanted to share a radio interview I did on the online show Beyond Sustainable. Host and Homesteading Supplier, Jerri Bedell interviewed me for the hour-long episode about homesteading, getting started, and why I made the choice to embrace this lifestyle. You can listen to the show here, but keep in mind it's the third show in a three-hour long series of shows on self-reliance and various other topics. I'm not sure what the first two hours are about, but you can stream ahead to Jerri's show and listen in on some of Cold Antler Farm's history.
Cold one tonight, way below zero and possibly as low as -20 tomorrow. Not a bad time to stay inside and bake to the radio. Not a bad time at all.
In regards to The Guardian article: I did not intent to aggitate so many people. For that, I apologize. I could have easily added the sentence: If you are a vegetarian such as I was, and have no moral issues with eating meat but feel consuming it is aiding an unethical industry: have I got an alternative for you... and then went on to explain my fervent support of pasture-based meats.
I removed the post from the blog not because I was ashamed of what I wrote, or because I changed my opinion, but because the conversation was quickly changing from "Why do you eat meat" to just plain mean. One person even suggested I only wrote it as a publicity stunt. I have a pretty thick skin, but I'm not a masochist. It is saved in my post log, as are all the comments. They were all read. Some really hurt. I agree to disagree, with respect to those who were upset.
What was most unsettling about the whole fray wasn't the argument for or against vegetarianism, but the fact that so many people earnestly dedicated to animal welfare were fighting amongst themselves over which was "correct", including myself. I got defensive of my choice of farming, and my personal choices when it came to diet. It shouldn't be the grass farmers vs. vegans. It shouldn't be tofu vs. free-range eggs. It should be all of us working together to support better agricultural practices for the environment, human beings, and all other animals. If all people who act compassionately towards their eating choices—be it bacon or berries—joined forces for a better system we could move mountains, and Monsanto.
If you are coming to the farm on in March or June, could you please post here and let me know your date? I think we might have an entire day open? So far most egg folks seem to be coming on the 6th? And I have a few openings for the meat bird workshop in June. Please let me know because I am ordering more birds tomorrow!
There was this moment in the barn last night when my memory took a photograph. To see it properly in your own mind you need to picture the small space of my red barn (about the size of a generous one-car garage). Since the back end has been boarded off years ago for cock fighting tournaments, I am currently only using the downstairs front third of the small building. You walk into this scrappy two-story abode and you are met by a loft ladder just to the left. I'm not using the loft, but I like this ladder. It's sturdy. Stacked next to it are about twenty bales of green second-cut hay for the animals. The hay stack was once a small mountain but now it's more of a wall-hugging Jenga. Chickens (about seven refugees) perch and glare from the bale ends and I can just see them in the light from the pig pen. This hay/chicken structure, it takes up the whole left side of the available space.
About six feet from the door, dIrectly in front of me is the farm trike, protected from the elements near the ten rabbit hutches that line the main wall. Last spring these were all full, and now only two rabbits remain. One hearty meat doe that was born here in late April, and my Angora Buck, Benjamin. I had come into the barn to bring them water, and this has become an ordeal tonight since I had moments before watched the Doe's bottle crack in half in the sink from the cold. So we were down to one bottle shared until I could buy a second in the morning. (Leaving bowls out was pointless. They freeze in ten minutes and freeze the noses of the rabbits too.)
Pig has the rest of the space, and it's fairly generous. She probably takes up fifty square feet of thick hay piles, feed pans, and red water bucket. I still turn on the heat lamp for her when I am home, and she lays under it like a Diva. On her tummy with her front, dainty, hooves splayed on the hay and her back legs crossed like a 1930's cigarette model on a beach-side billboard. She sees me right next to the pen near the rabbits and starts grunting and nibbling my jeans. I reach behind me to scratch her ears and she closes her eyes. She's so big right now she doesn't even resemble the little gilt I brought back in a dog crate. She's easily 150 pounds, maybe more, and her back arches like the pigs on the old-fashioned meat cut charts. She looks like, well, like a pig. I made a pig in this barn.
So there I was, living in a photograph for a few moments. I was holding a water bottle for a thirsty rabbit in my left hand, scratching a pig's ear behind me with my right, and surrounded on all sides by leering chickens in various cathedral-heights of hay and some such. The only light was the golden glow of Pig's lamp and it cast dramatic shadows on the small space. It was beautiful. Not only in the light and animals, but in the intention. I was breathing deep and happy in a space that just a year ago was storage for large, plastic, outdoor Christmas decorations and a lawn mower—now it was feeding me. This barn, hell, the front section of this barn housed dozens of rabbits, countless eggs, a mountain of lamb and wool producing hay, a freezer-full of pork, and happy little meat birds. I never kept score of exactly how many pounds of hay, dozens of eggs, or rabbit and chicken dinners came out of the space, but it was substantial. Substantial for a chick with a desk job, at least.
A hundred square feet of wholesomeness on a winter night. A hundred square feet of recipes and stories, hay trips and tradgeties, of future stories too. It's a good barn. A useful space. And even in my hay and shit-caked Carhartts, I shine in it.
Saro is sitting on her eggs quite diligently, only leaving for a short few moments to drink some water or scoop up some grains with her bill. Cyrus has become High Protector, and spends just as much time guarding the nest as she does. I do believe there will be some goslings at Cold Antler. And she's not the only plausible mother in wait. My lone doe rabbit has been building a conical little nest in her hutch, possibly for kindling, but she seems way past her due date. Phantom nesting? Is there such a thing?
I am a bit worn down from the winter, emotionally and physically. It's not the work of the farm, but the juggling of the farm with the office, commuting, shorter days, and brutal cold. This January has been an onslaught of heavy storms, and it is harrowing at times. Weather is something I usually charge through, but all the cards in the deck changed, Losing the Subaru means spending a lot less time jumping into a vehicle for cavalier trips into town for ingredients or to grab a cup of coffee with friends. Storms keep me put now. It's not a bad thing by any means.
Well, sometimes it's bad. They want a storm to come in tonight and that means I can't head over the mountain to Saratoga to go to the Greenhorns Mixer. But these things are held every few months so I will make the next one. It's a small disappointment, missing the event, but chancing a shoddy truck in a storm for a two-hour round trip just isn't a good idea.
I got a call from Mrs. Frost last night, we have to reschedule Pig's harvest for another week. With temperatures falling into the low teens (as a high) working outside without gloves to cut and wrap meat would be a bad idea. So Pig gets another week of rolling in her hay pile. I think I'll bake her a cake this weekend.
Iron and Wine has a new album out in a few days: Kiss Each Other Clean. I can't wait to put that record on in the farm house. Since I first started listening to Sam Beam in 2004, I have been in love with his music. Songs like Upward Over the Mountain, Sodom South Georgia, and Faded from the Winter have shaped moments of my adult life, been engraved into memory in ways that still make me shake and smile. I have seen him live in Philadelphia. I was lucky enough to hear my favorite song, The Trapeze Swinger, for the first time live. I still can not hear that song and not well up inside. For years Iron and Wine has been on the car stereo, iPod, or in the background of every step of this journey. He is the soundtrack to this farm, and doesn't even know it.
So I came across this blog online and adore it. The entire thing is based on agricultural literature. A couple reads and reviews books about all the things we love: farming, livestock, homesteading, gardening, chickens, memoirs, etc. They recently reviewed Made From Scratch, which is how I found them. (Thanks guys!) But my review aside: this is a great resource for those of us looking for some winter reads that fuel our barnheart. Check it out, and then head to the library or bookstore to stoke the fire.
Stop at hardware store on the way home from work to buy roof rake. Come home from work. Smell poo. Hear Gibson crying. See diarrhea all over crate. Open Crate. Take Gibson outside. Gibson poos out pie plate bits. Sheep need to be fed. Gibson gets a bath. Gibson gets dried off. Place towel down in living room. Feed wet dog. Wash and scrub plastic crate. Bleach crate. Start fire in wood stove. Take out other two dogs. Start to assemble roof rake. Get a call from Shellee. Talk to Shellee while assembling roof rake. Still have to feed sheep. Use roof rake. Success! Talk to Shellee while raking snow off barn. Gibson barks at barn snow falling off roof. Rake breaks. Drop iPhone in deep powder. Curse, a lot. Have to feed other dogs. It is -3 degrees and a storm is coming tomorrow. Find frozen iPhone after fifteen minutes digging with flashlight. Fingers ache from cold. Phone still works! Missed three calls from Shellee certain I was covered in roof snow. Add wood to fire. Feed other two dogs. Phone starts acting funny. Go dig out trash can from snowbank to pull to front of house. It is heavy. Curse women's liberation movement. Still need to feed sheep. Still need to feed chickens, geese, rabbits, and Pig. Come inside. Drink coffee. Worry abour needing more heating oil. Check furnace. Down to 1/3 tank. Worry about paying for more oil after 600 dollars in truck repairs. Focus on soliciting ad sales. Go back outside. Feed poultry in chicken coop. Pour fresh water into their font. Go inside barn. Turn on heat lamp. Collect frozen rabbit water bottles. Feed Pig. Scratch Pig's ears. Replace her bucket with fresh water. Realize truck can't handle commute in storm. Call Tim Daughton about a ride to work tomorrow. Ask if Gibson can come too, and avoid another long day in crate. Apologize to Daughtons profusely. Haul hay out to sheep. Refill sheeps' water bucket. Haul 20 pounds of water through snow. Decide women's liberation movement is effing bullshit. Scratch Sal. Come inside. Add wood to stove. Pour stout beer into glass. Starving. Make ramen noodles. Laugh at irony of homesteader-in-training eating ramen noodles. Say grace for dark beer and hot food. Change into pajama pants and old NEBCA sweatshirt. Turn on heated Blanket on daybed. Turn on Part 2 of Gettysburg. Cuddle with clean dog. Too tired to understand movie. Watch it presently with aid of memory. Decide that this first winter on the farm is humbling. Turn thermostat down from 61 to 58. Worry about what to do with Gibson tomorrow. Gibson is already asleep on my chest. His breathing is slow and no longer dirty, scared, hungry or panicked. All the animals are fed and safe. House has heat. Fire burns. Blanket is warm. Day was long. Early morning tomorrow. Another storm will roll in with ice and fears. Start all over again. Note on fridge says "NO PIE TINS ON FLOOR PLEASE."
Smile. I wouldn't want any other life in the entire world.
Missed the NEBCA annual meeting because the pony and I were down at Midas for two hours. That muffler I needed to replace... Well, turns out the tail pipe was shot too. Had holes in it scattered and rusted through like bird shot. I also found out why it was so horrible in the snow—the sway bar was broken, not even connected to the right wheel. So those things were repaired and I was silently grateful that they accepted staggering checks to be cashed after I got paid for the service. I also had fluids topped off, oil changed, hell I even washed the old girl to get some of the salt off her. After all that attention she felt like a new truck again, drove quietly and true. She still needs some other maintenance, but we'll get by for a while. Things like tires, a transmission flush, and some horrible issue with the back end's structure keeping it suspended over the wheels.
Looks like the money I'll get for selling the Subaru (once I get the title from the State of New York) will cover most of the repairs though, and that's a wash I can deal with.
It felt good actually. I was a little upset at first that I missed the only meeting of the year the Border Collie Club held (rumor has it I was nominated Newsletter Editor?), but to know I was taking care of something so important was comforting. The truck is like any other animal on the farm: needing attention, care, and regular check ups. Even though the repairs were more extensive than I thought they would be, hell, at least she's here. In all this chaos of the last week I kept forgetting how lucky I was to have this truck in the first place. I'd be lost without that scrappy beast.
It's snowing here pretty steady. The sheep are birds and fed and Pig is chomping away at her cracked corn and sow ration. It's hard to believe that in a few days she'll be inside the house. I picked up everything on Mrs. Frost's list of supplies after the car was freed: the plywood, bleach, freezer paper, ziplock bags, plastic wrap and such. It's odd shopping for someone's execution. I had no qualms.
The Subaru is gone. Now it's just me and the pickup. I feel like my Rhino died and all I have left to travel through the world is a paint pony. Not that there's anything wrong with ponies, I just really felt safe on the back of that Rhino. But what's done is done. I sold the Subaru for a couple hundred bucks, and it will start the savings pot for a new truck. I know some of you are shaking your heads at all this, but trust me, that Rhino was dead. Transmission ruined, cat converter gone bad, a destroyed interior, busted fuses, no working wiper fluid tubes, electrical problems...I ride them hard. My lesson has been learned though. Take care of your car and it takes care of you. I ran that Subaru into the ground.
So here's my plan. I will save up a couple thousand dollars over the spring and summer and by fall I'll have a new 4-wheel-drive pickup with room for my dogs and ready for winter. Now, when I say "new" I mean new to me. The plan is to buy an older truck outright for a trade in and cash. I'm past the point in my life where paying the bank for owning a truck for me sounds like a good deal. Cash for title, thanks.
At least that is the plan. If something tragic happens to the Ranger, it might all change. I have learned that "plans" on a farm are really just incantations. You can hope with fury and try your hardest, but sometimes weather, transmissions, and circumstance get in the way. Anyway, I hope to stick with Ford. I like buying American, and I've grown so fond of my little truck I can only imagine an F150 or 4x4 Ranger would suit me just fine. In the mean time, I have to start treating the Ranger like she's the sole vehicle that she is. Tomorrow morning she goes into the garage to repair her broken muffler, get her fluids changed and checked, and so forth. After that is the annual NEBCA meeting in Albany, which I will stay for just long enough to beat any afternoon snow.
The car crisis has been met and defeated in honorable combat. Sorry for the melt down. (You know I'm freaking out when there are a lot more grammar mistakes than usual.) Now back to your regularly scheduled bloggramming.
The Subaru was kinda running yesterday, but today I can't even back it out of the driveway. It just stopped working. It is blocking the pickup and the three feet of snow around it leaves no other options except removing the Subaru to back it out (which I can't). I am scared to drive the light truck, which I have to dig out and re plow the driveway by hand just to attempt driving it to work, which I am very late for. I have missed two days of work this week, and I might miss half of another one. I am sure I'm not a big hit with my boss right now. I'm on the phone with my roadside emergency service but the tow trucks under my plan are all busy with the storm...no one can get me out of here until this afternoon, and they don't want to drive up the mountain and risk getting their own tow trucks stucj. I can't just get a ride to work because, I have to be here to sign the invoice of the roadside assistance won't cover it, and I NEED them to cover it because paying for any extra expenses is totally out of the picture right now. I'm out of morale, and energy, and dog food, my cell phone is out of juice, and I have an embarrassingly low checking account till next paycheck two weeks from now due to heating oil and a mortgage payment. I'm worried and scared that I won't be able to get a new car with my iffy credit. I hate this storm, it is making everything a hundred times more stressful. The barn roof is buckling, the animals are stuck in small spaces, and hauling water is a feat that humbles you.
What do you do with a broken car you can't fix? Do you sell it to a dump? Do you hide it in your driveway till another day? Where is the how-to manual on everyday life?
I just want this week to be over with. I know things could be worse. I know I am lucky to even have these problems in the first place. But that doesn't solve such big problems. I'll be okay. I just need a miracle, or a dealership willing to finance a new truck for a humble trade in.
If you will be around Southern Vermont next weekend there's going to be a friendly little gallery event you should not miss. My coworker (and part-time Cold Antler photographer) Tim Bronson will be hosting his first-ever photography show at Izabella's Eatery in downtown Bennington. There will be food, music, and great prints on the walls. I don't think there will be any Cold Antler animal images on display, but there will be plenty of other compelling eye candies to keep your artistic gears grinding. See his work here.
Izabella's is a wonderful little restaurant that offers seasonal/local foods and supports local farmers and artists. It's a great place to eat, and Tim's award-winning photography will not only be on display, but for sale. So head on out and support good food, good people, and good pictures. Local food and pictures, hot dang.
January 23rd Izabella's Eatery 351 Main Street Bennington, VT 1-5pm
My day started with an exciting trip into Manchester, Vermont for a visit to a local NPR studio. Lynne Rosseto Kasper of the Splendid Table was calling into the station to interview me about keeping backyard chickens and how to deal with tough roosters. I had never been in a real radio booth before, and just sitting there with my headphones and the giant poofy microphone made me feel all sorts of special. It was a quick half hour, and I think it went well! The segment will air in two weeks, and hopefully spread the gospel of backyard chickens to the foodie masses. Before I said goodbye I gushed at Lynne about how much I loved her show. I really do. I've been listening for years. Falling in love with cooking is a side-product of growing and raising your own food. Cooking is a celebration. I am damn Mummer.
My day ended however, in a transmission shop. The Subaru is dead. The transmission is at a point where replacing it would cost about $3,500 and I don't even think the old girl is worth that much anymore, certainly not after what I put her through. Even if I wanted to replace her for sentimental reasons, I can't afford to. It was a hard blow to this small farm. It's the only four-wheel drive vehicle I have—and while I am damn lucky to have the pickup here to remain the lone workhorse—it's not a snow car. The Ranger just can't handle ice or any road covering beyond a dusting. Hell, I got it stuck in wet grass. To really frost the cake, they are calling for up to ten inches by tomorrow afternoon, starting late tonight. Most of it dumping in hard storm surges that make driving up a narrow, winding, mountain road in a light, 4 cylinder, 2WD pickup near impossible. All I can do is put weight in the back and hope the studded snow tires do their very best after the roads are cleared. Ugh. The sad reality is I need to sell the Subaru and find a replacement 4WD something. If anyone has a lead on an F-150, let me know.
I can't even really think about it tonight. It's too much. I know it's certainly not the end of the world, but It is times like this when I really wish I had a partner. When you're a team you simply figure things out. When you're alone you have to stress through it, become a burden to your coworkers, and lose sleep tossing and turning over the solution. There's no one to decompress with, or talk through it, or tell you things are going to be okay. On a new farm: 99% of the daily effort is based on convincing yourself that is true.
I made the sweetest, flakiest, sugar-coated bread this weekend and wanted to share the recipe. It came out perfectly, and it was one of those happy miracles amateur cooks come across among the many flops of an educational kitchen: but this, this bread was heavenly. I made some flourishes and variations on a basic farm loaf recipe and added a secret ingredient...goose.
Well, a goose egg that is.
You'll need: Good Flour Room Temperature Butter Honey Yeast Sugar Goose Egg (can substitute one and a half chicken eggs) whisk cake pan (or cast-iron skillet) large baking bowl large saucepan of water
Start your bread by placing a teaspoon of dry active yeast into a bowl, and cover it with about a tablespoon of good honey. Then add about a cup of hot water (like as hot as your tap will go) and using a whisk—quickly mix together the honey, hot water, and yeast into a dirty, frothy, water that looks cloudy and useless. Then set it aside and come back in about 5 or 10 minutes to see what's come of it. If you have a frothy head of yeast foam; then your yeast was fresh enough and your water was hot enough. If you just have the same exact dirty water your bread probably won't rise and be hard as a brick. (Try again with hotter (non boiling) water and fresher yeast.)
But if you got the frothy goodness... Crack your goose egg and whisk that in as well. (I add about a 1/4 cup of sugar at this point too) and about a 1/2 cup of flour. This is my starter. What you should get is a wet porridge of yellowy goodness. Add half a cup of flour at a time and mix/knead it in to thicken it up to the point where you can start kneading on a table top. You want a firm dough that still remains a little sticky. (You can sprinkle flour on your counter while you knead to keep it from messing up your table and to keep it intact.)
When your dough has been well kneaded (about 5 minutes of good arm working out), take some soft butter into your clean hands and literally rub your hands together like it came with a Jergens label on it. Then use that soft butter and massage it into and around your dough, really give it a coating like you're repairing cracked skin. Cover the thing in a film of real butter and let it set to rise in a clean bow with a damp cloth covering it. It needs at least two hours (egg breads rise slower, the dough has to work more) in a comfortable, undisturbed place.
When it's doubled in size you're ready to punch it down and knead it back into its original shape. When you got all the air out, break it into three balls, coat them with some fresh flour (as to make them less sticky) and roll them into long snakes of dough with your hands. (You want them fairly skinny, like as thick as your thumb.) Take all three snakes and braid them now. Make them into a long, beautiful, horse-tail braid and then coil that braid around itself so you have a gorgeous knotted circle. Make sure you really seal the ends and bottom by pinching the dough together so it is really connected and won't break apart while it bakes.) Now place your pretty dough into a buttered cake pan (or better yet, cast-iron skillet). Set it aside for another two hours to rise again. You want the skin to get a little hard to the touch, almost stale. that's when you know you're ready to make magic happen.
Next you'll get some water to boil over your stove. When it's bubbling, take your small circle loaf and carefully place it into the boiling water (like you would with a bagel) for about half a minute, and then flip it back over. Set it on a clean dish towel to air dry and then brush it with melted butter. Before the butter gets a chance to dry too, gently sprinkled sugar on top. (If you sprinkle from about ten inches above it your sugar will fall over your crust more evenly). Place it back into your greased up skillet and bake for about 25 minutes at 360. When it is a healthy brown take it right out of the oven, free it from its pan, and set it to air on a rack or towel. Eat with real butter. Smile like the happy beast you are and take a bite.
It's snowing pretty steady out there, the farm is gently buckling under the new weight. I came home from work thrilled at the forecast and my plans, which tonight meant firing up the wood stove, feeding everything that clucks, honks, barks oinks, and bleats and then retiring in for an evening the way only people in the middle of nowhere with Hoof-n-Heel in their cabinets can. I am telling you there is a different kind of peace of mind for the people who tend animals in a winter storm. You come inside from the cold and shed your layers, get a hot cup of tea, and sit down with movie or book knowing that the ones under your care are sheltered, fed, and calm. It infuses you, takes a regular snow squall and turns it into a nostalgia you drink in the present.
The peas in the kitchen are shooting up a good inch, and the goose is now sitting on seven eggs. The hens however have stopped laying save for one Rhode Island Red and one Leghorn, and I am lucky if I can find their egg in the dark barn at night. No signs of bunnies yet, but the Palomino doe is making a fur nest. I'll add more fresh hay tonight just in case. Pig is getting fat in new ways, growing even bigger jowls on her head, which is now the size of a basketball. In preparation for the big day I bought a chest freezer off Craigslist (used but in great shape) and look forward to filling all 6.9 cubic feet up in a few weeks. It gets delivered tomorrow from the guy who plows snow in Cambridge.
I ordered 84 chickens tonight off Murray McMurray. Just a few layers and ten meat birds for myself and the rest are for the Chicken 101 workshops (only four spots left, three in meat birds) and coworkers who added their orders onto mine. I decided to get Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, and Ameraucanas for the workshop since those are the birds featured in Chick Days and I thought it would be a fine treat to have a perfect comparison for the new hen mothers (and fathers).
And I have a bit of news for you, The Splendid Table will be interviewing me about backyard chickens for their weekly radio show, and I am thrilled. This is one of the three radio shows I can't miss on the weekends: and to be on it is almost surreal. I need to drive to a radio station in Manchester Vermont to record the half-hour conversation but how fantastic to get the word out about homegrown backyard eggs. Who knows, it might even inspire a random weekend listener to check out the blog or start looking up coop plans online. All the power to them. Chickens are a pleasant addiction.
When I came home to the farm yesterday I discovered a tall, skinny, box propped up against the red door. I knew exactly what it was and (to my recent memory) had not been that excited to rip through cardboard in a very long time. What lay under all that paper and tape was something I had wanted since I saw my first sheepdog trial years ago: a proper shepherd's crook. I have a simulacrum of sorts: a very cheap wooden livestock staff I bought for twelve dollars online, and it does the job of helping me sort through animals and guide gibson in training....but it's a clunky. heavy, ugly thing. It's nothing like the beautiful crooks you see at big trials, the horn and wood artifacts held like scepters among the serious competitors aside their mythical dogs. A good crook is a piece of art, and after three years of living with sheep I was about to have one my very own, Cold Antler style.
Inside the box was a handmade stick of hazel with a curved antler top and ram's horn inlay. And It wasn't just any antler either....this was a special item of my own with a story just like mine—and now the story was completed in the form of an avatar for my own manifarmdestiny. or to put it plainly: I held a dream in the shape of a stick.
See, that antler on the top was bought nearly a decade ago at a festival in Pennsylvania. It decorated my college dorms, and traveled with me on the dash when I moved to Tennessee. It held no real purpose other than I liked it. And that gut attraction to it's curve and strength kept it around. I tied it to some straps of leather and it hung from the rear-view window of my Subaru for a while in Idaho, and when I moved to vermont it had a spot on my bookshelf. Like me, it found itself in places unexpected, always a part of a larger story it had yet to understand. And when a crook-crafting shepherd in Virginia asked me if I had any antlers lying around I'd like to turn into a stick....I knew this was the one I'd send.
I had been sending emails back-and-forth with a shepherd in the Shenandoah Valley I had met online. His name was Daniel King, a dog and sheep man in Virginia. (We shared acquaintances of members in my local working border collie club.) He works his staff of border collies to manage a large flock of hair sheep onQuiet Acres Farm. Together with his wife Sylvia they produce quality grass-fed lamb for their community. So the Kings are a couple living my dream.
Somehow in the transaction of stories and dog talk we struck a barter. I'd send him some signed books and he'd fashion me a proper herding stick, something that matched my farm and personality. The staff in the picture above was his gift to Cold Antler. It is so beautiful, rich and vivid as a prop on a movie set. The natural curve of the antler makes a nearly perfect crook-shape. It will know lambs, and woods, and long walks with my dogs. There is Gibson with it. Over the years he'll learn that when I grab this stick, it's time to get to work. After a while of such association he'll love it as much as I do.
The antler was mailed to Daniel a few weeks ago. There he bleached, filed, cut, carved and stained this beautiful staff. You can see a photographic essay of its creation here. (He said he'd add captions to explain the process eventually), maybe this is something some of you craftier gents and ladies out there might be able to make yourself?
I'll someday walk out onto the Novice Trial field with this stick, Gibson by my side. I'll stand at the post and look down at my silly dog and send him away to the flock. He'll dart up that hill and leave me standing with my hazel and horn in old faded jeans, high rubber boots, and a waxed cotton jacket. A statue from another slice of history. I look forward to the time travel.
A calm night here at the farm. Highlights after work included such fantasies of wonder as mending a pair of jeans and washing the swine's water bucket... But don't be fooled, because everything is in an underground state of transition. Animal farms slow down a bit come winter, but comas don't mean death, son. No no, this place is just at a resting heart rate. The days are slowly creeping into light and the farm is lazily writhing back to life along with it at a steady clump.
Life and death are square dancing here. The one remaining doe in the rabbitry is preparing a nest for possible kindling any night. The goose is sitting on five eggs now, and if all goes as planned by the time the folks arrive here for the Chicken 101 workshops there will be goslings and bunnies to meet as well and discuss. Along with all this new life that will shake up this farm in just a few week—I am calling local groceries and kitchen supply stores to get the right wrapping paper, bags, and marking pens Vicki requires for her work here on Pig's harvest day. I'm also flipping through the hatchery and seed catalogs to plan a modest harvest of meat and eggs, along with the stack of sheep books by my bedside to study up on lambing. Good god, there will be a lot of noise around here come May...
I can not wait to look out my office window and see a pack of lambs running up and down the hillside. In my head Blackface lambs look more like muppet monsters: all shag and tiny horns and weird splotchy faces. What a sight that will be after this heavy winter! And they want more soon, too. A storm is in the works, perhaps this weekend. Let it snow I say, I have hives and hens to think about. And a happy little memoir about love on a farm that makes it seem almost possible, and I giggle like a 14-year-old when I read it.
And yet, amongst the kingdom of the animals is a little container in my kitchen of sprouting snap peas. A tiny triumph in a Cabot yogurt container. I was so happy to see the first peaking green that I learned a new fiddle tune (Rye Whiskey) to welcome them into the world. I set them down in front of the music book and played to a pot of sprouts. I held a benefit concert for a future day spent shelling peas barefoot by a banjo. Damn, it felt good to learn a new song. I play that devil box nearly every day but always the same favorites. It felt good to be a student again, try something new. Or new to me rather: since all my songs are old time tunes from ages ago. Which is what I prefer. It's how I know it's a good old one—cured by generations of other fools in their planting kitchens.
Just got off the phone with the butcher. A woman by the name of Vicki Frost, who lives in Northern Vermont will be coming to Cold Antler to not only slaughter the pig, but teach me every step of the process and wrap and prepare the meat on site. This will happen on January 22nd, just a few weeks from now.
Choosing a traveling butcher was important to me. It meant that Pig didn't have to go through the stress of being loaded in a trailer, held in a holding pen, confused and worried about how her world changed. While I understand the importance of a good slaughterhouse and the services they render, for just one pig it seemed like a big fuss. Instead the pig will die here in the place she has lived since she fit in a dog crate. Mrs. Frost will kill the pig with a single bullet from a rifle the animal will never see, and then together we'll hang and prepare the animal for the freezer. A station will be set outside with a santized table for the butcher work and another for wrapping. I was given a list of supplies and preparations, all very professional on Vicki's behalf. She's been doing this for over forty years and wants things to be as painless, respectful, and pleasant for all involved as possible. She's also excited I think to spend a day teaching. I'm happy to be her student.
So a big day isn't too far ahead. A lot to prepare for, in more ways than one.
So I'm at my kitchen sink. I'm doing dishes from my evening meal and listening to a Michael Pollan lecture at Google on Youtube. The leftovers have been packed up into the fridge for lunch. The coffee pot is loaded for 4:45 AM, and resting on the burner that just moments before held a pot of brown rice. The dogs are mumbling and shuffling about in the living room, going about dog business of the highest order. And I, I am scrubbing a small cast iron skillet I had scrambled a single Tamari-soaked egg in. There's a freshly baked pie aside me while I'm doing this, all this dishwashing and Michael Pollan listening, and it smells amazing. I made it that afternoon in case some guests stopped by that told me they'd try and show up. For some reason they didn't. So my tomorrow my coworkers will get some charitable pie to start their week with. Everything is perfectly mundane, could not be a more normal Sunday night.
And then I am hit with this wave of happiness. That is the only way I can describe it. I have to stop racking the rinsed dishes, put down my scrubber, and just kinda hold on to the edge of the sink. It's not like it was some mental orgasm or epileptic fit, just a simple lack of complaint. I couldn't stop myself from smiling. From feeling warm. And a few moments into it I realized it wasn't happiness exactly I was feeling, but gratitude. I was washing dishes and for whatever reason this bright fog of gratitude scooped me up. The weird part was it wasn't a feeling of thankfulness for tonight, but for the nights ahead. What I was experiencing was this deep, earth-shaking thankfulness for my big dreams. For lambs, for the farm life, for the books I haven't written, the man I haven't met, the meals I hadn't shared, the family I had yet to start. I was, for some reason, grateful for a life I didn't even know yet. It was the most peculiar thing.
I don't know what brought it on, but it was an amazing feeling. I wish I had better adjectives to describe it. It taught me this much though: I don't think it is possible to be truly happy unless you are deeply grateful. You need to meet every day on your knees in thanks for what you already have, and when you start a day feeling that way you can't possibly not find more things to be thankful for. Some how, this practice found a way to mutate inside me on it's own. It welled out of me, at this banal moment, as something so profound I can only call it grace.
I am not writing this as a girl living out a dream life, trying to tell a bunch of strangers about how happy she was doing her housework in her kitchen. My life is far from ideal, despite all the things you see on the web here, it is still a human life. There are things I would never share, or write about, or want to repeat and like all people tasked with a certain level of self-awareness—I am also haunted by mistakes and regrets, pain and heartbreak, sorrow and anxiety.
But why the hell should I focus on that?
What happened tonight, what just happened, what made me run and type here like this at my desk: it was a need to share this idea of gratefulness. I think it's the best feeling in the world. It's why I miss you is so much stronger than I love you. Gratitude is old and forever. It's the constant soil from which anything and everything we desire to make us happy comes from. Without it, all those things we pray for: money, relationships, farms, chicken coops: are fleeting highs of adrenal. But if you see the world with eyes with that soil in your crow's feet, the simplest things make you buckle from drive by grace. Sometimes when you least expect it.
Life is messy. So is farming. And I think the combination is the world's perfect fertilizer to grow a Jenna in.
I'm reading The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball. It was a recommendation from a reader here, and very appreciated. So far it's been funny, bright, and warm. It's about two people living a life that I'm fairly certain is my exact definition of heaven: love on a draft-horse powered northern farm. Their impressive full-service, all-year, CSA ($2,900 a share!) feeds a hundred people everything from apples to bacon. Together this is their whole life, and while I am just a few chapters in I find myself relating so much to Kristin. She starts out the book in New York City but she gives in to her barnheart hard. She meets this knight in hay-strewn armor and so begins what I think is a true fairy tale. This is the story of the writer-turned-farmer, her man, and their land. Can't wait to get back to it...
In the comments section I'll add some other reading picks for winter, but I am more interested in what you guys have on your night stands and what books (farming related or not) are inspiring, warm, entertaining, and think others here would enjoy? Murder mysteries to how-to pamphlets know welcome here.
I could not pass yesterday up. The combination of mild weather (nearly 50 degrees!), melting snow, safe roads, and a Border Collie in training meant I would make the drive to Denise Leonard's Farm for a mid-wnter herding jaunt. For practical reasons I have slowed down Gibson's schooling (mostly to save money). But hell, sometimes you need to break your own rules when the logic of reality steps in. It was the perfect day for a lesson, the kind of day that won't show up again until April. A gift horse combination of circumstances that was worth dipping into the savings for. And anyone who trains animals knows you need to keep the dogs (and sheep) in the practice of work. Keep minds thinking, legs moving, and my heart rate up. So I packed up the Subaru and before dawn on the first day of the new yea—my pup and I were off to learn how to be shepherds.
In this video you can see how the lesson started. Gibson chases in circles, and Denise asks if this is how he acted when I let him herd at my own farm. Yup. At the end of the video she walks up to him smacking a training stick on the ground at him, but don't fret. The stick isn't used to hit dogs. It's used to smack on the ground next to them, or guide them, or block them, or pretty much make it clear that in this team the handler is the one holding the big stick. I love her admonishment "get out of it" which means "knock it off, jerk" and I now say it all the time. Usually when I am in a rut, bad mood, or acting foolish.
What a difference a few months make! The break from the sheep let him grow up a bit, calm down. He did so well at 10 months compared to his frantic first encounters as a seen-month-old. He was still a little wound to start (he always is), but his frenzy died so much sooner than last time. Within minutes his tail was down, his head low..and while he wasn't perfect, he was starting to look and act like a proper sheepdog.
And I was starting to look like a proper handler. I too need to learn how to move with ovines and canines in this crazy dance. I need to know what Gibson is doing and if it's right or wrong. You learn as much as you can from book charts and videos...but when it comes to the ordered chaos of the training pen most of that leaves my head and it's the voice of Denise, the training staff, and the lambs that I have to teach me.
As the lesson went on he was calmer, balancing the sheep with me, and laying down and stopping on command. By the end of the lesson we were working on a fence line, far outside the pen in Denise's upper field—and while it was a long way from the trial ribbons—our trainer was confident that if both of us stick with our training and goals Gibson could be a fully trained working dog by the ripe old age of three. It takes a while for the new kids to catch up, but we've almost hit his firth birthday (March 16th)
The annual NEBCA (North East Border Collie Association) meeting is in Albany on the 15th. I'll be there, and possibly the youngest person attending. The fact is there just aren't a lot of people in their twenties herding sheep in New England. I wonder why that is? There are certainly a lot of sheep farms, and plenty of younger people involved in other dog sports like conformation shows, obedience, agility and tracking? You don't need a farm or sheep of your own to start, just that weird desire to wear high boots, a warm sweater, and stand by your dog with the same goal in mind.
The blog of author Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm. Where pop culture meets agriculture! Here she writes about her adventures following her crazy dream life as a self-employed writer, homesteader, archer, falconer, equestrian, martial artist, hunter, spinner, brewer, geek, and real-life Game of Thrones Extra. She loves movies, music, running far, and eating animals.
On twitter @coldantlerfarm
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