Saturday, October 22, 2011

...into the woods at cold antler farm

photo by Tim Bronson

lumberjackin' 101

I was showing Tim the shoats in the barn when Ian Daughton (ten) walked in with this announcement. "Everyone wants to see Jenna throw and Axe!" I looked at Tim, looked at Ian, and then back at Tim. "Everyone wants to see Jenna throw an Axe!" was Tim's smiling reply.

I have never thrown any wood splitting devices any distance before. Timbersports, while retaining their own gritty appeal, were the realm of men in my mind. I'm a traditional girl. I'll happily hunt, fish, and chop rounds into stove splints but I draw the line at dangerous projectiles as a form of backyard entertainment. It's not about sexism: I'm just a complete klutz. I wish I could tell you that I have obtained the grace of a mustang mare on the Alberta prairies but the truth is I can barely get a cup of coffee back to my desk without spilling it. Around me, things break. I am always cut, gashed open, or scratched. The delicate life, is not my life, and the chances of me throwing an axe without a body count seemed slim. Nope, not for me sir. The men throw the sharp pointies and the women have the babies, this is a model that has stood the test of time.

I walked over to Brett's workshop anyway. Peer pressure, simple as that.

Everyone clapped encouragingly and I sheepishly took the handle. Brett showed me how to hold it, over my head with the right choke on the wooden handle. After some basic instruction I reared back my hands and let it go.

I missed. It slammed into the target's wooden legs and plopped on the floor.

Undetered by my first chuck, Brett made some helpful suggestions and asked me to try again. I lifted the axe over my head, let my hands understand the toque and the mission, looked right at the red center and SLAM! I hit the target not inches from the bullseye! I literally jumped in the air, this was the epitome of the anti-klutz! I had just experienced a hurdling metal grace! I hugged Brett and hoped Tim caught it on camera. He certainly did.

Well, now I was hooked. I had planned to go in and check on the cheese making, but I changed my mind. I have made soft cheese in that kitchen more times than you could chuck an axe at, so I opted to join the dozen people outside interested in wood lot management. With the crowd already excited by the target practice, Brett had us in the palm of his hand. He grabbed a cross cut saw and an specialty felling-axe and walked us back into the woods to the cherry tree he planned to fell.

Brett explained why the tree was going to come down. How the split so early in it's growth made it poor lumber, how it was fighting the old orchard for light. He then demonstrated the techniques of using a good axe to create the notch that tells you where the tree will fall, and gave us in the audience a chance at cross-cutting. Jason and Vaughn were amazing at this, a true team. I watched them work together and communicate. They check the saw level, just as Brett instructed. There was a plan in place for when the tree fell. Vaughn would take the saw, and Jason would back up. Both knew the escape plan, and both had a good idea of when the cherry would fall.

These are things I never thought about: escape plans, communication, who takes the saw, etc. All practical and important in the business of making lumber and firewood, but until someone showed me the steps and reasons, it remained a vague notion. Brett called the moment the tree would snap and it started to crackle. What a sound, what a sight! The 30+ foot tree fell to the ground with an autumn crash, leaves sputtering everywhere. I realized, as it fell, that I just acquired a few weeks of warmth. it'll take a year to season, but fall we'll likely be chopping and stacking this very tree.

What a system. What a perfect system. And throughout the day men and women watched as the tree went from a large living thing to a wood stove sacrifice. Then, they watched Brett saw it down into pieces, using a chain saw. Then, a few hours later, they watched a farm pony pull some smaller logs out from the forest into the chopping area. They spent their afternoon coming back to that wood pile, too. Jason, I think, fell in love with Brett's Axe and probably was responsible for a cord of wood with his own hands. Every time I looked outside the kitchen window, there was Jason, chopping away.

Can't blame him. Can't blame him for a second...

Friday, October 21, 2011

my vet's sweet ride

photo by Tim Bronson

the morning of the first day

Raven Pray Bishop has been my friend since freshman year of college. She and I found each other because I plastered the dorm with signs for a knitting club and when she arrived at the dorm number posted, we were all doing yoga instead. Unnerved by this fiber-induced stretch fest, she stuck around. She's stuck around ever since. For a decade she's listened to my stories, moves, farms, and man problems. She knows the entire story. A friend like this is rare, and I'm grateful for her.

Even though we retained our friendship, our lives didn't stay anywhere near the same trajectory. nearly a decade after that flyer was posted: Raven is a middle school art teacher on Maryland's eastern shore and I'm a writing farmer with a day job in upstate New York. This weekend was the first time we'd hung out in person in six years, and it was her first time ever being on the farm.

So I was excited to show her this life I cobbled together, have her meet the dogs, the sheep, Jasper and the flock and new pigs. Over the years these animals have become my world.

Raven was visiting with a friend and reader, Mikaela, who I had never met. The two arrived the night before and within moments of meeting her I felt comfortable and easy around her. I think friends of good friends make sense in the mysteries of human chemistry. So when the morning of the big day came around, both were willing to get up earlier than they had all year to help with farm chores. I asked them to meet in the kitchen at 5AM. On the dark morning we gathered around the percolator and Mikaela and I went outside to see to livestock.

I don't know if they ever spent a moonlit morning with sheep before, but both Mikaela and Raven seemed to not mind the hour, or the work, surrounded by the life and smells of the farm. In moonlight, under clear skies, my sheep seem blue tinted and warmer than during the day. We stood on the hill, overlooking the farmhouse and the geese we just let out of the coop. Raven put her hands on her hips, as to say "So this is where you went" and didn't seem upset by it at all. Neither was I.

The morning was a flurry of odd jobs, setting up stations and workshops, baking quiches and bread, and cleaning the house. Raven went to work making signs for everything from the book sale and raffle tickets to the toilet (Please Put Down Seat: Border Collie Has a Drinking Problem). I have since left that sign on the toilet. A humble homage.

By 8:30 most things were set and I was finally showered. The buffet of donuts, quiche, coffee, and pie was set out in the kitchen. Jamie Elfrank and her new Beau, Vaughn, arrived to help with parking and registration. I handed Vaughn a mug, and explained to him the parking area that was bush hogged down by the bass pond. He took on his role with authority, remaining outside to let the earliest visitors know the drill. Raven and Mikaela took over the registration table, and as each visitor arrived (starting at 9:15) they were welcomed, handed a waiver, and explained the house and farm rules. Then they signed the guestbook and got a copy of the Backyard Homestead as a supplement to the workshops and lessons they would be part of in just a few hours. Inside the house, Cathy Daughton was setting up for Cheese making and Brett was out back getting his saws and axes ready. After brunch and introductions, they would be the first presenters.

Soon the farmhouse was full of guests. People from the night before and new faces and names, people I only knew as avatars on the blog. Jess and her man Riley arrived from Ontario, Risa and Mark from Brooklyn, and Shannon from San Diego. There was a nice mix of urban and suburban folks as well as countrified couples like the women of Wind Woman Farm and Back Acres. I delivered pie and quiche to Raven and Mikaela and did my best to stay on top of the coffee pots, but soon realized I wasn't needed in the kitchen. In the miracle that is homesteading workshops, someone always is willing to lend a hand before you even know you need it. Diane and Cathy kept the kitchen working, grabbed mugs from the cupboard, and handed out napkins and spoons.

It was running as smoothly as it could. I was relieved in ways I usually take for granted. In a few moments everyone would convene out front for introductions and a small tour of my backyard operation and pastures. I scarfed a slice of quiche and headed towards the front door while Raven and Brett rallied the troops. Here we go...

Photos by Tim Bronson.
He'll post a shop you can order Antlerstock Prints/downloads from soon.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

the evening before

Brett arrived at the farmhouse first. Came to the front door with a truck loaded with timbersports equipment, saws, horses, and a cider press. I don't even think I said hi as I rushed him inside. I just scurried to the kitchen, spun around, and asked if he knew how to use an apple peeler. He was patient with me, by this point he knows how to recognize the glow of panic in my eyes. He started messing with the peeler, made small talk, and did his best to calm me down by showing me that

A. The peeler was broken, and
B. Why didn't he go outside and unload the truck first?

I nodded. Soon after he was out amongst his workshop area and such, Brian and Christina arrived. Now I have never met these people before in my life, but I knew they read my blog and had offered to help. So when the two came to the front door, I think the first thing I asked them was "How do you feel about livestock?" and within five minutes of walking in the front door of their weekend vacation destination they were feeding 15 Swedish Flower Chicks new feed and water in the mud room. Poor guys, at least Brett knew what mess he was walking into.

After Brett Tara arrived, fresh from her afternoon in Cambridge and a sturdy nap. She was glowing, and seemed willing to help me peel apples by hand. All I had to offer these guests was hard cider by the pint bottle, a crock pot of chili, and some homemade bread. We worked and ate, polishing off four pies by the time Raven and Mikaela pulled up to the farm in their rental from the Albany train station. I was finally calming down in this fray. The pies were on their way, the guests fed and tolerant, and everyone seemed to excuse my rudeness as nerves (which it was). I'm not worried about public speaking or having a house full of strangers make themselves comfortable. I am however, terrified that they won't have a good time or not have enough to eat. There's a lot of pressure knowing you're one couples 17th wedding anniversary weekend and another couples pseudo honeymoon... Did they know how much chicken shit was in that yard? It just didn't whisper tender memories to me. But hell, maybe they knew something I didn't know?

All night the brave volunteers helped. At one point everyone was in the kitchen making apple pies and baking loaves in an assembly line Henry Ford would have winked at. Eventually all 9 pies were cooling on racks and shelves and we had consumed enough cider to render us useless as quality control. I called it a night. I thanked Tara, Christina, and Brian and told them I'd see them tomorrow.

By 11PM the only people in the house were Brett, Raven, Mikaela and I. They had the two bedrooms upstairs and I would camp downstairs with the woodstove and pack of three. I don't think I fell asleep until 1:30, and my alarm was set for 4:45. Everyone would be getting up early with me to tackle farm chores, cleaning, and workshop prep (as well as bake 4 quiches and run to town for donuts). I fell asleep eventually, between worries about enough vegetarian options and canning jars.

Tomorrow at 10AM the first guests would be arriving and first annual Antersiock would officially begin...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

hit the skids, pony style

photos by lara aka redbird! thanks!

...from the rooftops, shoat it out!

I pulled up the Rice Mansion before dawn. Tara, who had flown in from Texas the day before, was sitting on the porch waiting for my arrival. We'd planned to take this road trip since a few days before Antlerstock. We literally planned it in the comments section of a previous post. Pulling up to the mansion was one of those weird moments when the internet and reality fuse into one actual experience, and I think we were both a little nervous meeting a new person we only know from our desktops.

But there was no weirdness, Tara and I quickly learned we were cut from the same cloth. She's a goat herder from Texas and I'm a shepherd from New York, livestock and proximity aside, we were sister suffragettes in our freedom-to-farm life. The entire trip to the pig farm was easy laughs, stories, and taking in the morning drive. She noted that the northeast seemed a little more gentrified than Texas, but she was certain the sky was smaller here. I smiled hear that. I think I would turn in a few edged sidewalks for more headspace myself.

The ride north flirted with rain and wind, but the weather was unusually warm. I'm not a fan of that. If you're going to be October, act like October, I say. So when we did finally reach the hard scrabble homestead up north, I was warm and anxious. Excited to take home the pigs, but nervous about all the preparations ahead of me. I had yet to bake a loaf of bread or fill a pie pan and 30+ people were about to expect brunch. I wanted these porkers locked and loaded. I had a hay-lined dog crate in the back of the truck, and a plan to stop at Saratoga Apple on the way home. I was a woman prepared for hogs and half pecks.

I was also about to commit an act of superb haggletry. Since I started out in this country life, I have grown in my skills to make a deal. This man wanted 60 dollars a shoat, but for winter pigs that seemed high. I told him I wanted two and would bring cash, but I didn't say how much cash I would bring. I brought eighty dollars. As we were in the pig pen looking at the stock I told him I only had so much to spend and would either take two for $80 or the one at the agreed original price of $60. I have learned that deal making with livestock has to happen at this point. If you do it over the phone or emails, no dice. But if you wait till the last possible minute with the gumption to walk away, you nearly always get your gilt. he sold me the pair for 80 dollars. That means for just twenty more dollars than last year I got double the pork! hooooo Doooogggy!

The shoats were Berkshire/Yorkshire crosses, about twenty pounds each. Mostly pinkish white, in that classic piggy way, but covered in cow splotches of brown and black. We helped the gent load them into the dog crate and within moments they were pooing and sleeping on their bed of fresh hay. I watched them settle in and was happy I ended up with two. They snuggled into each other, and would continue to keep each other warm company through the North Country winter.

Tara was good company the whole ride. A good sport with me getting lost and missing turns, and in high spirits. She would be doing a soap making class on Saturday and had mailed me some supplies in advance. As we rolled south back to Cold Antler, we talked about the planning ahead. She and a few others had offered to help set up the night before. Christina and Brian from Wooden Plow Farm in Maine, Brett, and my friends Raven and Mikaela would also be coming to the farm around 3:30 for chili, fresh bread, and a pie-baking marathon. It was only 11AM and I was already bushed.

Tara and I got the pigs settled in at the farm and then I took her back to the hotel for a short break before the bake off. I headed home to vacuum, dust, make beds for the guests and mow the lawn. None of the work was hard, but it was constant. And I was rushing through it, too. So excited to have the place bustling and alive, with classes and kitchen smells, and trees crashing into the brush while cheese curds formed indoors. Tomorrow would be a big deal, a collaboration and a celebration. I could hardly wait....

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

jasper and the path to the campfire

P.S. I had a typo in that earlier post about Antlerstock 2012, it is CERTAINLY NOT FULL. That was supposed to be 2011 (which was). Anyone can sign up for Antlerstock next year at anytime, it will be limitted to 40 people though.

photo by Antlerstock attendee S.T.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Antlerstock: the whole story coming right up

Antlerstock began Friday morning with a pre-dawn road trip to buy pigs and ended with a gentle walk through the Vermont forest with new friends. For the next few days I'll post the entire weekend, in detail, and share what happened on a little sloping mountain in Washington County, New York when a smattering of homesteaders and independent spirits got together to learn, laugh, and enjoy a life of animals, food, and music.

For two whole days my backyard was lucky enough to be transformed into a learning center/mess hall. Workshops on everything from felling trees to canning jam were well-attended and enjoyed. It was an amazing collaboration, and when I say amazing I mean Brett, Tara, Cathy, Raven, Mikaela, and Diane. I just hosted and figured out the logistics, but they gave up their weekend, talents, a time to help inspire and educate others. There were workshops and field trips, purple chickens and secret-sauce chili. There was a 1953 Ford farm truck, an old trike hauling squash, and a pair of little pigs. People came from as far away as San Diego and as close as a few miles south on Route 22. Couples from New York CIty and Boston talked about throwing axes and cheese cloth instead of parking spots and their office mail boxes. Saturday afternoon you could find yourself either in the pasture with me and the sheep (and Gibson's antics), inside the kitchen watching soap making demonstrations, outside learning to split and stack firewood with Brett, or just walking around the farm snacking on the morning's cheese workshop's products while petting a piglet or plucking a banjo.

I sincerely want to thank the people who came, presented, and shared their stories, efforts, support, and caramels. I felt at home with the whole crew, and hope to see many more of them soon. It was a special event, inspiring and simple. I will certainly do it again next year, but with porta-potties and a string band.

Next up:
How a Texan and I went on an adventure north to haggle for pigs.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Random Photos from the Celebration!

the campfire!

chowtime