Saturday, May 7, 2011

jakes

It was the perfect hunt. Everything went for us as if written in a script. All of it, beautiful and exciting: the pre-dawn drive to the forest-edged field, the hike across the navy blue world of moors and scruff, soldiering uphill with a shotgun over your shoulder, the forced silence of stalking prey. Hunting is a feral hope. You go out with a prayer and you come home blessed or forsaken. It's the closest to the Old Testament I ever really get.

This hunt started well before dawn. My alarm went off at 4AM, and within twenty minutes I was covered from head to toe in borrowed camouflage. I had never gone turkey hunting before, and it could not be more opposite from the upland pheasant hunting I took part in this past fall. Pheasant hunting is a chatty jaunt through the woods in bright orange with a happy spaniel flushing explosions of feathers in your face. You point a shotgun and take home dinner. But turkeys are clever, sly, and can see you move your hand to scratch your face from fifty yards away. You need to become part of the landscape to hunt them, and trick them with calls and decoys. If you're lucky a Jake or a Tom come into your line of fire and you get a chance.

So my friend and mentor, Steve, was with me. He leant me an automatic 12-gauge and his hunting clothes. He would show me what to do, how to act, and how a hunt should go. The plan was to sit still, call in some birds, and see what happens/hopefully shoot them. So in the black of an old farm pasture we set up our blind by a fallen log near an old property-line hedgerow. I sat like a toddler in a car seat while he set up the decoys at the base of the field, just 25 yards away. After a few minutes of his gadget calls we heard gobbles. (What a rush!)

After an hour of zen-monk stillness paired with turkey calling, Steve called in two jakes and a hen. I could see them 300 yards away and my heart stopped. My already numb butt shot up into me with pain. I barely moved. Steve got out a slate call and mocked the hen's sharp chirp and like as if we just advertised free turkey-orgies the two Jakes ran right too us. The saw the decoys and fluffed up into their strut. They looked wonderful, like cardboard Thanksgiving decorations taped to elementary school walls. Steve told me to take my shot soon as I was ready. The moment could not have been more perfect. The shot, a gift from New York herself, and two birds dancing not an end zone away. I sucked in all the air in Washington County, pointed my shotgun, and fired...

And I missed. I missed all three shots. At point-blank range I did nothing more than scare them. Truth is, I totally misunderstood how to aim a shotgun after months without practice. I was aiming too high. Following the advice to "look at the bead" at the end of the gun, I aimed true, but you're supposed to only see that bead on your site. I could see my whole barrel when I fired. I didn't realize that bead was the ONLY thing I should see. I shot feet over their head into the hill behind them. It was all my novice stupidity. I completely ruined the hunt for Steve, who was beyond polite and an amazing sport, but I was crushed. I wanted to make him proud. Instead I made noise pollution.

It could have been a perfect story, a beautiful meal, a wonderful moment. Instead we watched all three silly birds scuttle unharmed up the hill away from us. Not a tragedy, not by a long shot, but not a proud moment either. I will try again this month if I am given the chance.

Maybe I'll be hungry for turkey after I eat up all this crow.

Friday, May 6, 2011

full day ahead

Friday, May 6th
No sore rump this morning. The Benadryl did the job, and I was glad for it. A Friday morning without a puffy ass is reason enough to celebrate. Another reason to celebrate: the rain stopped. It started Tuesday night, went all through Wednesday, and pelted into Thursday as well. But Today, glorious sun. 68 degrees by noon, one can hardly believe it.

Gibson and I cut out of work early to go to the vet. He's been limping, and while I knew the only thing the vet would do for him is tell me to slow down his physical exercise and watch the arm, I went anyway. I can cough up fifty dollars for a professional opinion on what to do with a sports injury on my working dog. Mostly, I was worried it was his hips and not some torn muscle. He's always been a little cow hocked and he runs a little wonky sometimes. So the doc looked him over and gave me some pain meds to use only if he is truly in bad shape. They are in the medicine cabinet, and Gibson is asleep in his crate.

My evening was an eventful one. My friend Wendy came by to meet Jasper, and to ride down to a book event in town. Our riding instructor, Hollie, was having a book launching party for her new English Riding book, and we went to enjoy the slideshow and snacks. Gibson stayed at home for this, and contemplated his shoulder while we ate pecans and basked in the effort of a woman's book. I bought a copy, and look forward to learning from it. Dressage is a secret dream of mine, something so non-pioneer, but so beautiful. Some girls get into ballet and boy bands...I want to wear a top hat on the back of a white horse some day and finally be graceful. Finally.

Getting up at 4AM to go turkey hunting. Me, my friend Steve, a 12-gauge, and good fortune. After that adventure I will be backing up for the farmer's market in Bennington (first outdoor market!) from 11-1PM and then back to the farm for a work party to expand the pasture. It'll be a full day, from 4-4 of constant motion and labor. I can't wait. I hope there's turkeys, wool, and electric currents involved. A girl's gotta dream.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

ouch

Thursday, May 5th
Came home from work.
Stopped at mailbox.
Put the wad of mail in the truck.
Did not realize mail contained three yellow jackets.
Sat on three yellow jackets.
Damn, that's smarts.
My ass turned red and puffy.
I took three Benadryl and now am too tired to write.
More tomorrow, promise.


Banjo players: Willow Gardens.

it took a dog to make the story good

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

scared of heights

Wednesday, May 4th
This morning I wake up to rain. It is beautiful. Next to an open window the combination of birdsong, the rushing creek, and soft rain are the sounds that make my half-awake body curl deeper into my quilts. In bed, I do the same thing I start every morning with...the list. I read in a self-book once that if you begin your day—before your feet ever hit the floor—going through a list of things you are grateful for, it can change the rudder of your entire day, and eventually, your life. You're not supposed to run a checklist, but actually visualize and feel this deep feeling of luck and love for the things that matter most to you. I start out with a thankful prayer for the beautiful morning, for four-working limbs and a functioning brain to live in it with, for my family, my farm, my dogs, and I go through images of friends and moments from the last day that I was grateful for and ten minutes later I walk into the world feeling like the luckiest person in the world. Not because I have a farm, or a pony, or a truck outside: but because I have eyes and ears to use them with. And because (I hope) for the next few decades I get to hang around this world and see what I can learn. It starts today. May I be better at the end of it than I was in the beginning. Starting your day with a list of graces means you don't snap at the person who messes up your coffee order. You don't care if someone cuts you off on the way to work. You realize you're not the one who walked under the piano. You are still among the living, and will accept the soy substitute without complaint. Drink milk another day and revel in a new taste.

Outside I am armed with my cheap, plastic rain slicker, and am happy that the rain has called a break and I am just enjoying sounds of dripping trees and bouncing through puddles. I don't feel sick today. I think the 2 naps and long night of sleep healed me. I am thankful for this too and I call out to Jasper who walks to the gate. He isn't totally comfortable with me yet, but he knows I bring the hay and grain and that gets the happy ears. I feed him and say hello. While he munches I pull out my fence tester and stick the metal needle in the ground. It's attached by a long wire, like an outlet you stab into the ground, to a box with one red light and a wire hook on the end. I hold the plastic and stick the wire to the fence wire and watch in the still-blue morning dark the flash of red in half time. This fence, is on.

The sheep are fed, the chicken door opened. The young meat birds spill out like a tight plastic bag of quilt-batting was sliced open with a knife. They scatter at the feed and some run down to the stream to fill their beaks. The older birds come out next, much more dignified, engaging in regular acts of sexual congress (Roosters here start their day with their own reasons to be thankful), and last out is Cyrus: the gander. He comes out hissing and hollering because his woman is still on that nest. I hope the goslings come. They are overdue now.

Gibson jumps in the car and we are off to work.

I'm back in the gym before long and the mile feels like I am carrying dead weight. I dog it. I finish and am covered in sweat. The shower is longer than usual and once again, while shampooing my hair, I run through things more materialistic I am happy about. My truck flashes through my head, as does the new Chaco sandals outside. Plain black. I am blown-dry and dressed and only five minutes late to my desk.

At my workstation is a taxidermed deer head I named Clark (Gable is here at the farm) and I use his head and antlers to hold my vintage 1970's pioneer headphones and stack CDS on his prongs. This was interesting once, but now is as common an office fixture as the metal filing cabinets. I like my big headphones because they are the size of air traffic controller devices and say "Do Not Disturb" with force. I can put them on and plow through projects and designs. Today I have a conservation-based project based on a site I designed for the company, and a lot of html work. I look forward to Dog Lunch in the rain.

Gibson is out at lunch and pulls something, starts a small limp. It goes away by the end of the day but seems to come back after every half-hour sprint session with the other dogs. I decide to tone down the rest of the week. It is probably no more tragic than a sprain, but I side with caution when it comes to a working dog in training. I don't call the vet for him, but I do make an appointment with Saratoga Equine to come check on Jasper. He needs a list of shots and a farrier visit. We work out the details. I explain he was from the Amish Auction down state and the vet tech seems to understand exactly what she is dealing with. Just like the trainer I bought him from said: the Amish work their horses hard, and probably feed just what they require to run. I don't know if this is true or not, but would explain a lot.

That afternoon my editor emails me the cover of my next book and I squeal in delight. A favorite illustrator has been hired, the same who did a portrait of me for Paste Magazine back when I lived in Vermont. The type and images are wonderful. The title reads, like an old county fair poster "BARNHEART: the incurable longing for a farm of one's own. When I first discovered I had this disease I had three chickens in a 99 dollar hutch in the back of a rented house 2800 miles away. I am now learning to work with equine power to move firewood. I am on the path to my cure. I still have a while to go. People think Cold Antler as is, is a dream come true. What it is, is stubbornness manifested. My dreams are still a while off.

I come home from work in more rain. The sheep are all in their shed, but the horse is out in the rain, trotting to the gate to greet me. I hop over it and look him over. Besides being wet, he seems fine. I give him some extra grain anyway.

I am home just long enough to walk the dogs and feed them. I need to run down to Common Sense and grab some hay. We have a casual relationship when it comes to hay sales. I handed them three ram lambs for their farm and in exchange I get their dollar worth in trade for baled hay. I haven't paid for hay in months. It is glorious. My name is on a wipe board in the milk room. I am up to 64 bales. Almost the price of two rams. Inside their beautiful old barn (the cleanest in Washington County that actually hosts animals, I am sure) is a small pen with my three sheep. I see them and scratch their heads. They are all being bottle fed and weaned to grain and hay. They look so clean compared to my muddy scrappy four still on my farm. I tell them to keep their noses clean, load hay, and drive three miles back.

Night chores belong to the rabbits. I walk inside the barn and refill all the feeders, water crocks and bottles and look them over. The rex doe I bought knocked up should be kindling soon. The other two does I bred (one of my own homebrew: a palomino cross) and the new giant New Zealand/Chin cross are given new hutch tags with their breeding dates and personal data. When they are all attended too I collect eggs and come inside. I eat take out, and I feel full but bloated and unhappy at the choice. I decide tomorrow to make some serious dietary changes. If I want a quick meal, scramble some eggs and butter a slice of bread you baked the night before. I am done feeling full. I want to feel satisfied.

My night ends with this fortune cookie. It reads: The path of life shall lead upwards for you. I laugh at the scrap of paper between my scared hands. I'm scared of heights.

hell yeah

Sheffield, Mass
On a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.

Standing just inside the paddock at Moon in the Pond Farm, where he works, he put a rope around Lucas and Larson, his pair of Brown Swiss steer. He led them to the 20-pound maple yoke he had bought secondhand from another ox farmer, hoisted it over their necks and led them trundling through the fence so they could begin hauling fallen logs.

Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.

-Read the rest of the article from today's NY Times here

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

sick day


Tuesday, May 3rd
I wake up feeling achy and nauseated. I am beginning to think that these sore mornings might have less to do with physical labor than they have to do with three days of labor followed by a full work day when you're already feeling iffy. My cold finally was forcing me to slow down. So I called in sick to the office, and decided as soon as morning chores were done I would not leave the daybed. I'd spend the day resting with vitamin C and cold medicine.

But I ran out of chicken feed. Crap.

I thought I had a spare bag in the barn, but apparently the crumbs in the bottom of the barrel was the spare bag. So on this achy, vomitty morning I would have to hop in the truck and go the 7 miles north to the Salem Agway to buy chicken feed.

I get in the truck with Gibson, un showered and with my hair held back by a hat, and head north. While at the farm store I see a roll of electric netting insta-fence and snatch it up. It's what need desperately to stop the pony and a dozen sheep from destroying the little grass left on the pasture. I come home, and even though I am dedicated to rest, I take the 15 minutes it requires to unroll it and clamp it to the remaining electric. The sheep and Jasper walk out onto new ground and I save a bale of hay. Thrilled I pulled off a newly contained salad bar I go inside and sleep through lunch.

I sleep for four hours. I was dogged. I wake up to the sound of rain and instantly look out the window. Did the sheep tumble through the netting? Did Jasper plow right through it? Nope. All was quiet on the hill.

Being home sick when you're me doesn't mean you get to spend the day inside on the couch with some Kleenex and a remote. It means you have the luxury to spreading the chores out between rest and long naps. Everyone still needs to be tended too. Just like I mentioned a few weekends ago that farms do not observe holidays? Well, they don't respect sick days either. And so I did the things that need to be done. But extra things like mile-long dog walks and lead-rope hikes with Jasper were out. I read Michael Perry and slept. I plan on heading to bed by 9 and then setting my alarm for midnight. If these downpours are coming that the weathermen have been so stern about: I need to make sure everyone on the hill is sheltered. I know for certain that Jasper is aware of the sheds because he walked right in on Maude napping and she butted him right in the snout. She was so angry that he didn't move that she left. Diva.

So my Tuesday was a Sick Day, but still a Farm Day. I'm calling it early on account of my need to recline, but if anything goes on worth gabbing about, I will certainly check back it. This farm is your farm, too.

P.S. I will pick a winner for the book in the comments of Tuesday's post, check back there tomorrow at noon!
P.P.S Bennington Farmer's Market opens on the 7th, stop by!
P.P.P.S. Come visit me next weekend at Northshire Booksellers in Manchester (9-10:30AM) or Red Fox Books in Glens Falls (1PM). I'll have chickens!

Monday, May 2, 2011

and she was

Monday, May 2nd
I woke up at 4:40AM, still sore, but less so. Either my body is used to all this farming business or simply giving in. Weekdays are a routine of their own, and I can only lay there in bed with Gibson for a few minutes. There is much to do.

I get up and change into work clothes. This morning it means a pair of cotton thai fishing pants, tied at my waist, and heavy wool socks over much boots. I throw on a thin cotton sweater and head outside with my dogs. They go about a quick morning relief and then come inside for breakfast. Dogs come first on this farm, always will. They are seen to and fed long before any sheep, chicken, or pony sees a flake of hay. Family always comes first.

When the dogs are settled, I load Gibson's plastic crate into the back of my pickup cab and let him wait at Shotgun until I feed all the hooves and claws, and then head inside to grab my gym bag. I leave for work an hour early to hit the gym. I run a mile on the treadmill every weekday, then shower in the gym before I sit down at my desk chair. My friend Geoff joins me, and unless someone from marketing beats us and puts on Sportscenter, we watch the Science Channel and gab about our lives.

The workday is split into a morning and afternoon, and today I enjoy lunch outside with the dogs. I say dogs, not meaning my three, but with Gibson and his work friends. An English Setter named Ellie, an Australian Shepherd named Jackson, and a cast of other characters (mostly gun dogs, this is Orvis, after all). Some days I run home to the farm to check on things, specially if it's rough weather. But it's a mild day and all was quiet and well stocked with hay and water when I left at 6:45. It would be okay until 5:30 when I pulled back into the drive. Gibson runs and barks and play-growls and wrestles with his friends and the new puppies this season. A little black lab named Hattie tries to join in, but pretty much just barks from the sidelines with his tail wagging. She is such a sight. Me and the other owners sit on the grass and take in the show. Before long Gibson sprints down the hill to bother a well-bred Labrador Puppy named Murph from his lessons in being a gun dog, and then slams into the water of the pond, scaring the young trout and bass. Jackson joins him. Murph goes back to retrieving his plastic dummy. He doesn't mess with that sort.

In the afternoon nothing of great consequence goes on, but I do take a lot of joy in the Obama Chia Pet our E-commerce department has set up in the window. Someone posted his birth certificate next to it. I love my coworkers.

On the ride home Gibson and I crank the radio. Talking Heads And She Was blares and we sing along. (Well, Gibson pants rhythmically—I sing.) We drive west on route 313 into New York, and past Shushan and Cambridge. They are our new stomping grounds. I am falling for Washington County, hard.

I get home to a laundry-list of things that need to be done. I plan on introducing the sheep to the pony tonight. Mostly out of necessity. Heavy rains are coming and I want Jasper to know he can walk right into one of the sheds for shelter if he wants to. I have a feeling though, in this warm weather, he'll just stand in the rain. But he needs to know he has the option. So I let him into the sheep's mostly hard-packed dirt pasture and they run onto his side of greener, softer, ground and continue to munch it into oblivion. I need more pasture, and fast. I plan on assembling a work party soon. A role of Red Brand and some t-posts and I'll be back in business. I just need the manpower. That 1/8 of an acre saturday damn near tore my arms out....

The sheep and Jasper meeting is totally anti-climatic. Lisette tears out there with her lambs, and soon everyone else is out there too. Jasper ignore them all. With the fences hot and the horse shown his optional shelter. I feel like I did all a shepherd can do. So I spend some time with Jasper, trying on his new bridle. It's dark leather and silver conchos shine. He takes the bit and I adjust straps and the throat latch and decide the bridle is fine but the bit is too large. He should have a smaller, swivel bit. But he looks fine in his new headgear, and leads calmly. It was a quiet thrill to see him in his headdress, me holding the reins. I take it off and let him back to sheep time. He's so patient and I am deeply grateful.

Eggs and collected, chicken feed scatted, and the rabbits are seen to. I use the Silver Fox buck to service the two does that need to be bred and he does a heck of a job. This is his second day of whoopee (I had him on the does yesterday between tree pruning and concrete) and now have three probably pregnant does. If each has an average litter of 6-8 kits, that dress out around two or three pounds, then those small hutches have nearly fifty pounds of meat from a few small animals. That's almost half of what raising a pig put in my freezer. Anyone who thinks raising meat requires a huge space in the country needs to read Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits, or Farm City (or both!). They are an amazing introduction to home-grown meat. Between them and a hutch of meat chickens you could fill a chest freezer in a Brooklyn summer.

It's getting late. I have a chapter to write about my first turkey (TD) for my editor, and I'm feeling lucky to have it ahead of me. Tonight the farm seems okay, no drama and no danger. I call it a night early and kiss Jazz on the head. Just four more days until the weekend and this one should include my first outdoor market. I'm excited for it!

Oh, and for those of you kind enough to read all the way down to this point. Leave a comment to be entered in for a drawing of Frances O'Roark Dowell's novel Ten Miles Past Normal (A young-adult novel inspired by CAF). I'll pick a winner Friday for the hardcover, and mail it your way. And if you are wondering if you won a recent giveaway, check the comments on that post. The last few winners never contacted me to claim their prize!

P.S. I will be at two book events up here soon: from 9-11 at Northshire Books in Manchester Vermont, and then 1PM at Red Fox books in Glens Falls, New York. Come over and meet me and some of my chicken friends. Get books signed, talk turkey, the works.

one week

I decided to share a week—in great detail— of what it is like living on Cold Antler. How it works, what I do, and how the farm and my 8-5 job work together under the effort of a single person. Starting with yesterday, here we go.

Sunday, May 1st
I wake up in pain. A lot of pain. The combination of sunburn and aching muscles is what wakes me up before the alarm. It's 4:40AM and for a Sunday, that's even early for me. It's still dark out, mostly. I roll out of bed and at my feet is Annie, a living stuffed animal. I whisper a good morning and she tucks in her front paws and rolls onto her back for a belly scratch. Jazz is on his bed downstairs and Gibson is in his crate. Since he still thinks this house is his buffet, he has to be crated at night. He'll poison himself eating AA batteries if I let him.

I'm so dang sore because yesterday I extended the sheep's side of the pasture an 1/8 of an acre, and put in a new raised bed garden by myself. Sometimes I can wrangle help, sometimes not. Saturday: not. The whole afternoon was spent slamming 15 pounded posts, stringing electrical wire, and hoeing a new raised bed. I started at 1 and ended around 6PM. I was proud of the full day of work, but paying for my lack of sun protection (straw hat or somesuch) and choice of tank top instead of a button down. So I am red as Brandywine on the vine. Outside the kitchen window I can see Jasper on the hill, laying down. He looks so small when he's laying down and so very large when he is running. The sheep are still curled up in their crumbling shed. It need to be rebuilt or shorn up, soon. It's not about to fall on them, but it won't make it through another winter as is. Panic quickly shoots through me at the thought of this.

I don't even have time to make coffee. I need to scurry through morning chores (test and repair any faults in the electric fence, feed 12 sheep, chickens, geese, mallards, a full-rabbitry, and three dogs before I can head down to my neighbors farm. We're going together to the annual Poultry Swap, which starts way before 7AM. I am only bringing 15 dollars cash because I know myself well enough to limit my ability to buy animals and animal supplies. All I need is a hardy buck for my breeding meat rabbit does in the barn. The rex is too young to do the job, and the Silver Fox buck delivered yesterday by Jennifer hasn't been tested yet. I decide right there to not buy a rabbit until I plan on breeding with Gotcha, that new SF buck. But I need a working buck on this farm, three does and no kits yet. I am hankering for rabbit meat. It's a favorite. Something I didn't even know until a few summers ago.

I get dressed in worn jeans, a blue cowboy shirt, a five-dollar Salvation Armani men's J Crew wool sweater, wool socks, brown beaten Hi-Tec hiking boots, a leather belt with a TENNESSEE buckle and head outside. I laugh to myself quietly. This outfit just a few years ago felt like a costume. Now it's most of my wardrobe. My clothes went from hipster to wrangler pretty fast. Mostly because you can't buy American Apparel hoodies in Tractor Supply.

The indoor weather station reads 38 degrees and I am happy I covered the new broc garden last night with plastic. There are two stupid-impulse tomato plants in there. I hope they made it. I put the potted basil in the passenger seat of my truck last night. Trucks make great overnight plant protection if you roll up the cab windows.

After the dogs have been fed and walked, I head over to check on Jasper. He's standing where he always seems to stand, right under the big old apple tree on the hill. In the dawn light he is beautiful, so much bigger than a small pony to me. He puts his front hoofs on the tree stump, I think to seem even bigger. I open the gate and he walks down to me and takes some hay as I pet his neck. I still don't really believe he's here. For kicks I run away and his ears shoot up at my sprint. He runs right behind me, both of us chasing nothing like fools. I like that he stays beside me in the pasture, trotting next to me in play. I stop because my soreness isn't interested in pony jogging. And Jasper enjoys his breakfast of hay from down the road.

After all the animals seen too. I heat up day-old coffee in the microwave and pour it into a dented VPR travel mug (AKA adult sippy cup so I don't spill half) and turn on the truck. Ice covers the windshield. I sigh, and scrape it. I keep the plastic sheeting on the garden bed I covered, and hope for the best. It should be 70 degrees in a few hours.

I head down to Common Sense Farm, which I am seeing a lot of this weekend. Othniel, Yasheva, and their three children are in the barn with a french WOOOFER named Mitch. We're loading up goat kids in my truck, and their mini van along with plant starts, hanging baskets of berries, spelt, and meat chickens. When all is loaded, we drive south into the sunrise and Oth knows some secret shortcut to the fairgrounds. We float over hillsides and farm, passing a herd of deer so sprite and far away it looks like the goats escaped into the horizon.

We arrive early enough to have our choice of prime spots. We unload and build a small pen for the goats, set up plant stands, and hang strawberry baskets from the tent. The sun is out in full force now, but we're still cold in our sweaters. I walk the rows of vendors and am surprised how much the swap has grown since I first came to it four years ago. Now there are donkeys, ponies, and highlander calves. I see a man selling wooden Adirondack chairs (handmade and painted!)for 45 bucks and the folks across the road from us are selling horse tack for a dollar. I get a saddle pad, bridle, bit, reins, and a used western saddle for a song. I walk the thing back to my truck and have a flash of being part of another time and place. Cowgirl and her saddle...

By noon five of the eight goats are sold and Othniel is haggling over the market price of the Highlanders. I just keep thinking about getting home to the farm to refill water stations. Dog alive, it is hot out. My sunburn seems even hotter on my shoulders. All of us are growing sun-weary. We pack up and head home another secret way, past farms from storybooks. I listen to the CD mix my old friend Leif mailed me, and laugh when the song "All for Me Grog" comes on sang by a troupe of 11-year-olds. Classic.

I'm beat, but happy to know that my friend Brett will be over in a few hours. He'll be stopping by on his way home to the Adirondacks to help me shore-up the barn. We've slowly been repairing it, making it more sturdy and expanding the space inside. That afternoon we poured two concrete slabs for future posts and beams to rest on, and took measurements for a stable (needed by winter). We take a break to enjoy the coffee porter he brought and talk about our unusually similar pasts. Both of us worked in television and now take care of chickens and heat with wood. The beer is amazing. So smooth.

By now it's nearly dinner time and I am famished and tired, very, very tired. So is brett, but he sticks with the game plan. There is still much to do, and the fact that I had help meant I couldn't put it off and miss the oppurtunity of having someone who competed in logging sports aid in the lifting of heavy things. So Brett kindly helped me straighten and repair the weak sheep shed, prune the giant maple, and carry 80-pound bags of Quickcrete. I offer him a hanging basket of strawberry plants and one of the ram lambs. He accepts the barter for his efforts and I feel a little debt repaid. Without the talents and skills of others, this farm would not run. And thanks to them, I now now how to pour slabs and mix cement. Take that, design college.

By the time he leaves and hugs and plans are exchanged, I am too tired to even make pizza at home for dinner. I order Chinese (sorry, idealists out there) and while I wait for it to wok up, I go about evening chores so that when I return with it, it's just me and three dogs and Jamie and Adam on Mythbusters with my lo mein.

I set my alarm for 10PM in case I fall asleep. I'll need to go out and shut the chicken coop door. I saw a fox last weekend the size of a coyote slinking around the far pasture. His orange and white poof-tail gave me the finger as he trotted off.

It's on.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

a horse story

I watched him in the rain. His black mane tussled, his brown eyes focused. Why is it that when any horse moves, and I mean really moves, he looks larger than life? To me, this 11.2 hand pony was as magnificent in a canter as a Fell Stallion. He was being demonstrated to me. On his back a ten-year-old who had little experience with horses slowed him down into a walk and then picked him up into a trot again. I was impressed. Not so much with how he moved (though he seemed easy and well-paced) but the fact that on this cold, rainy, and miserable Saturday morning this equine saint was letting a nervous child prance him around a yard. This was after he had spent the entire night in a small trailer, away from his herd. Green grass was everywhere around him, yet his head never lowered once that bit hit his mouth. And I had to keep in mind this was after he was walked around by a stranger (me) on a lead line, and then tacked up for a demonstration ride outside in a high wind. If I were him I would have bucked off the kid, and had a snack in the nice green grass, and then joined my herd in a dry shelter. But he just trotted. "My 16-year-old daughter rides him bare back with just a halter." said Rob (the trainer and seller).

I was there because of a series of emails we had shared that sprouted from a Craigslist post. I saw a chunky little white draft pony and emailed him (what is more harmless than an email?) to ask if the "draft" horse was actually was trained to drive. After finding out the pony was never in a harness and 20-years-old, I told him I wasn't interested. He asked me what I was looking for and said he had a small Welsh-like pony from an Amish Auction, which I dismissed outright. At first.

But after a while my ears were perked. Rob explained how patient and even tempered he was. That his children rode him bareback, that he was trained and raised by the everyday-driving Amish downstate. And the price we agreed on over the phone was less than half of what people spend on a decent guitar... So I went out to see him (what is more harmless than a trip to visit a pony?) I would drive out into Belcher to pet his brow and watch him work.

Which I did last weekend, in a downpour, and through all the stress and fuss he was Temperance embodied. Then I said something that even surprised me.

"I'll take him."

A handshake and deposit later, I owned a horse. Holy Shit.

We agreed he would be delivered that following Friday. I had a week to prepare. There was new fences to run electric top wires on, pasture to expand, supplies to buy, hay to stack, and more. So I did what I could during the work week and decided to take Friday off to set up the new gate and wiring. I could also turn my weekend into three days of pure-farming. A joy to this scrappy shepherd, and a change from the usual routine.

A hour before he was delivered, I ran the truck three miles down the road to Common Sense farm to pick up hay. Othniel and his family were all inside the barn, doing the chores of a working dairy. Two kids were born at 6:30 that morning, and Yasheva was bottle feeding the twins when I walked into the barn's main door. We chatted about the Poultry Swap on Sunday, and then I headed up into the loft of their ancient dairy barn to thrown down hay to the truck. When ten bales were secured in the back, and I was heading down the ladder to run home to meet Jasper (!!!). I was climbing on air, so thrilled to run back to my farm with a truck full of hay to temper the maw of a small horse. My cart horse. But I stopped walking halfway down the ladder. Othniel told me to be still and look up.

I looked up.

"That's for you." He said, smiling in his voice.

High above me in the rafters of the 19th-Century barn was the skeleton of a single pony cart.