Friday, January 7, 2011

updates from the stormfront

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.

the story of a stick

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 proper stick

Thursday, January 6, 2011

godspeed the plow

Though the wealthy and great
Live in splendor and state
I envy them not, I declare it
For I grow my own hams
My own ewes, my own lambs
And I shear my own fleece and I wear it

By plowing and sowing
By reaping and mowing
All nature provides me with plenty
With a cellar well stored
And a bountiful board
And my garden affords every dainty

For here I am king
I can dance, drink and sing
Let no one approach as a stranger
I'll hunt when it's quiet
Come on, let us try it
Dull thinking drives anyone crazy

I have lawns, I have bowers
I have fruits, I have flowers
And the lark is my morning alarmer
So all farmers now
Here's Godspeed the plow
Long life and success to the farmer

-Agrarian Folk Song

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

warm and dry

I think Muck's Muckmaster boots are the greatest thing to happen to agriculture since the steel plow.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

much ahead

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.

Much ahead. Much more already here.

Monday, January 3, 2011

january 22nd

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.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

the most peculiar thing

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.

Thank you for reading this.

what are you reading?

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.

a january spring lesson

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.

Or maybe they think the crooks look funny?