Stopped at Battenkill Books today after I left the office. I just wanted to check in with Connie, and talk about stopping down on Friday for store support and signing. Talk about great timing! The first box of books had just arrived! Barnheart is in stock and ready for Plaid Friday shoppers! I signed 24 copies right then and there, and so did Gibson (pawprints in animal-safe ink). Those books are on the way to folks all over America. I took a bunch of photos, and a lot were better quality, but this moment of Gibson pawing Connie near the package of books was priceless. Why did he grab her? Because she whispered "Come Bye" and he was certain she had sheep in the office.
So I am just learning about this movement, but I am already in love with it. Celebrate Plaid Friday this year! In an all-out rejection of the over-commercialized, non-local mall shopping that sends wads of cash outside of local creative people in your community, spend this friday closer to home, patronzing local stores and artist for your holiday shopping. Wear your favorite plaid shirt and hit the neighborhood bookstore, favorite town restaurants, and businesses that offer gift cards and put tax dollars right back into your own community.
I'm not the only one out there who thinks the future of our economy is a more local-based system. So why not embrace that in style? And for those of you unable to get out and shop at all, or surrounded only by Big Boc Stores and malls, why not do what Jon Katz suggested on his blog? Support independebnt businesses online. Here is an exceprt from the Bedlam Farm Blog today! Check out Bedlamfarm.com to see what Jon and his wife are cooking up at that creative farm for the holidays. Two word: Awesome Potholders.
We support Plaid Friday, the hottest growing social movement in the country, and a celebration of independence, individuality, creativity and freedom, a growing effort to reclaim the spirit of holidays, and of community. On Friday, we are celebrating the holiday several ways:
- From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., I will be at Battenkill Books, Cambridge, N.Y., (518 677 2515) to help take orders and say hello to the good people who are buying “Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die”,”Meet The Dogs Of Bedlam Farm,” or any of my other books. Call to buy one of these books, get a free video and Bedlam Farm notecard and help support a wonderful independent bookstore, the kind that needs to survive if our communities offer diversity and connection and so we will not all live inside of a box store or mammoth online corporation. You can order books at anytime from the store – they take Paypal – or call the store anytime at 518 677-2515. We are heading for 1,000 books sold by New Year’s and are at the 700 mark. You can also buy Jenna Woginrich’s wonderful new book “Barnheart” from Connie Brooks at Battenkill as well. It will be out this week and is a wonderful story of a gifted and brave young writer’s passion for her own farm. If anyone is in the spirit of Plaid Friday, Jenna is. Call and say hello. I’d love to meet you
It is an unusual thing to wake up in this farmhouse warm. Not that this is an uncomfortable place by any means, but around 2AM the fires go out in the stoves and for three hours nothing heats this place but the air inside it and four wolves. But this morning the air outside was way above freezing, and the house temps never dropped below 63 degrees. Unusual, indeed.
Weird mornings like this aside, the first thing I am to this house is a charmaid. I go out with my boots and grab the black ash can and come inside to scoop out the stoves of their collections and then take it to the rain barrel to be covered in water. I don't take chances with this house. Then I re-light each fire, usually with some fatwood, and then when the fires are crackling at five-alarm blasts, I note the temperatures on the indoor thermometers (55-58 usually this time of year) and head outside to see to the dogs and farm.
My second job is dog waste valet. Use your imagination.
My third job is caretaker. I head out to the barn first and fill Jasper's hay bag and leave a tiny scoop of grain in his bucket. When his stall has been mucked, and fresh bedding laid down, I grab the lead rope and walk up the pasture gate where he is waiting. I walk uphill to him, and at that angle the salt-an-pepper pony looks like a stallion from a storybook. I get closer and we reenact the usual struggle to get him to calmly walk from pasture to stall. I used to think he was a bad horse for being so fussy, but then I realized the only time he gets like this is when I am leading a bored horse to freedom or a hungry horse to open pasture. You can't blame the man for knowing what he wants, and having the spirit to ask for it. He is calm as a lamb walking down the road, in harness, or in the stall or fields. It's the in-between that makes him nervous. We've all been there.
My next stops on the caretaker rounds is the chicken coop. I open the tricky-latch door and as soon as it swings open the honks of geese fill the world. This is jarring when people first hear it, but to be it is a welcomed ruckus. I pour fresh grain into their feeders and refill their water. I go inside the barn again to refill the pigs grain and water as well. The rabbit's get their pellet containers topped off with fresh feed and I check their water-bottle levels. They are at half-mast, which means they can wait till later. With the chickens free, horse chomping, pigs rooting, dogs relieved, and rabbits content...I am down to my last task.
I grab a bale of hay and dump it into a wheel barrow. I carry it uphill to the gate where Jasper once was and scatter the whole thing into four large sections on the ground. My sheep have little cliques and it is important that every caste gets to eat their fill. The sheep are doing well, better than ever. Sal is 100% healed from his foot issues that came this wet summer. Lisette has packed on the pounds due to more grain and mineral access than ever before. Between the minerals, vitamin supplements in their water, and plenty of hay they seem strong and content. Atlas is out and about but I haven't noticed any breeding going on. I think I released him into the flock at the end of one heat cycle and the next one is a few weeks away. That's all the better for me. I'd rather have lambs dropping on grass than snow.
Last ditch chores are seen too. Water carried in buckets from the well to the animal's tanks and buckets. Mineral licks are replaced if needed, eggs are collected, tack is hung up on the hooks in the barn. The farm is ready to meet the day doing it's own work of making wool, pork, horsepower, eggs, lamb, chicken, and rabbit. There are kits and goslings on the way soon, I can feel it. The notion of rabbit pot pie and roast goose this winter sounds amazing. (Don't worry, I will never eat Cyrus and Saro, but I will eat their kids). This whole thing takes about 40 minutes. I return inside thinking 58 degrees is ridiculously hot.
My fourth job is writer. I come inside and see to emails and open up a word document. I am starting a new book this week, my fourth, and I am thrilled to get it going. It's about a whole year on Cold Antler Farm, October-to-October and how the work of farming and living by the seasons has changed me forever, given me new awakenings, holidays, joy and purpose. I think I'll call it Days of Grace.
That is a Sunday for this particular farmer on this particular farm. My jobs change with the seasons and with the farm's needs. In June there are easily twelve jobs on a Sunday morning, most dealing with the garden and new chicks and lambs. But in theses Days of Grace between last leaves dropped and before real snow, I am a charmaid, valet, caretaker, and writer. That is the good work that fills my heart before dawn. I am grateful for it.
Josh Ritter, a favorite singer songwriter of mine, wrote this ballad for his latest album. The studio version is an amazing, powerful, and complicated piece. It has horns and strings and a lot of gritty nostalgia to it. But when I found him playing this solo piece in Notting Hill on a Gibson J-45 (my dream guitar, and the thing Gibson the Border Collie is named after), I just had to share it. Ballads seem to be a forgotten art now. Outside country music and the occasional pop accident, an entire moral story told through song is rare. But here we have a new song, with shout-outs to old songs like Barbara Allen in verse and spirit. Give it a listen, you won't regret it.
And for those of you waiting on pins and needles: The Strumstick Winner is Pit Stop Farm!
More giveaways coming up from New England Illustrated, Outrun Press, Halycon Yarn and more!
It's the first day of rifle season here in Washington County, and the parade of pickup trucks driving up and down the mountain started at 4AM. I have my tags, my father's 308, ammo, and hunting jacket, but I have never shot the gun before and feel I need some time getting comfortable with it before I head out into the woods with it. I'll probably avoid hunting until muzzleloader season, and hope I take a doe. I'm not interested in the bravado or camps, at least not right now, but it does feel a little left-behind to not join in on the first day of the season. All told, I haven't seen a single spike on this mountain, just scrubby does. So hopefully one snowy morning in December I'll take one down. I'd just like to have venison in the freezer.
I'm excited to announce some good stuff. Barnheart comes out in bookstores soon, a few weeks, and Connie at Battenkill Books has already sold 130+ and for that, I thank all of you readers. It is a huge deal.
Trying to make a living as a writer is hard (especially when you write about chickens and sheep, and not forensics or presidential biographies). When you buy a new book like Barnheart at its release it sends a message to the publisher (and the small book stores) that this book is something they should be paying attention to, my name is something worth noting. Events like Connie's, a small-town pre sale, is something new and adventurous for this relatively new bookstore. Between Jon's pre-sale of Going Home (almost a 1,000!) and my humble starts, this bookstore is going into the Holidays in high spirits and so am I.
High spirits are good. I've been having a rough week, but have faith everything will work out for the better. I wrote a long, bitching, post last night (which some of you may have seen, and if so, I apologize) about my own troubles with keeping this place together. I took it down because complaining doesn't pay bills, hard work does. So I will be putting my head down these next few days working on projects and ideas, dealing with advertisers and workshop registrations, and so forth. I'll find a way. I always have.
In other news, I just finished planning an intense workshop with Brett about backyard meat chickens. I did one last year (which he attended) but this year we're presenting it together as a team. I'll cover the animal side (chicken care, raising meat birds, and the slaughtering/butchering demonstration) and he'll be showing everyone how to build a chicken tractor. (A chicken tractor is just a moveable pen that can constantly be dragged to fresh grass so your lawn gets fertilized and the birds always have clean pasture.) So it'll be a combination of husbandry and construction, ending with a farm dinner of chicken BBQ, sides and fixins. We're going to offer a full-day in late June (23rd), and there is no farming experience needed. This is for people thinking about getting started with meat birds, too. Maybe you just want to see how hard it is to go from chicken to drumstick? Or maybe you've raised layers and really want to see what goes into a dozen roasters? Everyone will go home with five meat bird chicks, plans on how to construct their own tractor, and enjoy a campfire in the evening if they wish to stick around. Bring a banjo and sharp knives. Fun!
This time of year brings out the mountain music in me. My hands are all over my fiddle, guitar, banjo, and anything else that makes music. I even have an old accordion in the kitchen now, a recent acquisition, and at night while I wait for my rice to cook or chicken to roast up, I sound like a backup person in the Decemberists. It is a gritty kind of whimsical.
With daylight waning I am indoors most evenings from 7PM till bedtime, so I have hours I didn't have when the sun set around 9PM in June. Back then, nightfall meant sleep. Now it means Dorian chords and instructional books and videos. I have been spending the bulk of these past few nights with my guitar, but every so often I pick up the banjo, and I can't stop my fiddle cravings. These instruments light me up. A few frails on a banjo totally change the house from a quiet, cold place to an alive thing. I can't imagine not being surrounded by instruments, my records, radio stations, and the Pandora channels I have come to love on the tele. Some people aren't into music, and they confuse me as much as people who are not into dogs and fireflies. I'm sure they are fine citizens, but they are not my people.
I think many of us put off buying or learning to play an instrument because we think we need to be amazing at them, as if everyone with a $200 guitar should be expected to play any song on command at a campfire or open mic night. I think owning an instrument is an invitation to creativity and company, and any expectations over that is a burden. It doesn't require your enslavement (another myth), but if you do dedicate a few minutes a day to it, you might be surprised at how much you pick up and what a joy and comfort it can be. I know 12 guitar chords and a few songs and it can make this farm shake when I need to belt out a song, home brewed or a cover. My fiddle (the most over-hyped instrument in the world that is actually simple to play) has been tattooed on my heart. I know some tunes by heart on the banjo, it makes this place swing back in time.
None of these things need an outlet, buttons, or are confined to a car stereo. These are portable sidekicks, best friends, therapists, and canvases. If you want to learn, I urge you to try. Just getting a guitar and propping it in the corner of your living room changes a place, changes you. Because once it is there, music is a possibility, and that makes every day a little better.
This winter I'm hosting an intro to mountain music workshop here at the farmhouse. Come join me and folks from all over the US for a full day on the farm to get acquainted with some of these instruments, try them out, learn how to hold and strum them, and make some new friends, just a few spots left and it really supports the farm, plus we're giving away a beginner fiddle outfit!
Mountain Music! February 4th 2012 This is going to be a fun one. A full snowy day at the farmhouse with an introduction to the mountain dulcimer, southern fiddle, and clawhammer banjo! The morning will start off around the wood stove with dogs and introductions, and then we'll go over the basics of stringed mountain instruments. You'll learn how to play a tune on the dulcimer, bow and hold a fiddle, and the clawhammer strum known as flailing. This beginner's class will be about getting acquainted with the instruments, as well as how to teach yourself. You'll learn my method of self-education that comes from using very beginner-friendly audio/visual aids like tab/cd sets as well as easy practice schedules and tips. I'll point you in the direction of good beginner instruments and anyone who already has a fiddle, dulcimer, or banjo laying around they want some re-upping of inspiration on: bring it along! We'll spend the entire day getting group and one-on-one instruction. and eat some amazing slow-cooked pork and potatoes with apple pie for dessert! We'll have drawing for a mountain dulcimer too, so some one will go home with music in their hands!
To sign up for one of the 8 remaining spots, email Jenna@itsafarwalk.com
Thanks to the folks at Mcnally Strumstick - www.strumstick.com,, I am giving away one of their beautiful instruments in the key of G (with a soft case)! Strumsticks are as simple as the dulcimer, but with the feeling and twang of a banjo. It is set up so that the entire instrument is in tune with itself, making wrong notes impossible. My Strumstick is always in my pickup truck, at the ready for lunchbreaks at the office, campfires, or any place that needs a little music. My favorite tune to play on it is Wild Mountain Thyme.
To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment in this post sharing what instrument moves you, and you wish you could play. Or, tell the story of how you started playing the instrument you now consider a loyal friend. Inspire those who are toying with the idea of a mandolin or banjo to grab those beauties and start pickin!
Now, for those of you unfamiliar with these guys, check out the site and their videos, because their insrument is the perfect way for the non-musical homesteading-lovin' persons to pluck out some simple mountain tunes without any experience with stringed instruments.
Everyone can only enter once via comment, but if you are willing to share the link to this blog on Facebook, then you may enter a second time posting, "SHARED!" and you'll be in the running again, doubling your chances for one of these amazing little beasties. Winner will be picked Saturday night!
It was raining as I left the office, everything dark and wet. It's still a little unsettling, leaving my day job and discovering upon my emancipation, that the day has already passed. You try not to feel five pounds heavier, but its hard when you're getting pushed down by the time and space of it all. Gibson and I careened toward the farm, and when we arrived he loped off into the woods and I went inside to see to Jazz and Annie. I look forward to seeing those two more than I could ever express. They are my solid ground, through states and years, lives and change, they are my seraphim's with wolf hearts.
Inside the house seemed cold. At 57 degrees it wasn't cold at all, but I had done nothing more than sat in a desk chair all day. Isn't it funny that we call tedium "work" now, because that venerable word is now synonymous with offices and wages. But there is no actual work being done, not in the sense of labor. My office life has it's place and areas of import, but there is no actual work being done. Work is what people digging new sewer lines and planting winter rye are doing. I was indoors, with soft paws, moving things around on a computer screen. It makes you cold when you come home.
So I was craving animal comforts, the real basics: fire, soft things to lay on, warm food, and a big glass of red wine. I got the fires going, but it was the work outside that warmed me. In the rain I saw that every animal was fed, watered, comfortable and dry. It's dark out, but the yellow glow of the barn light's single 60-watt light bulb and the coop was as loud as lighthouses. I switched all the lights outdoors to traditional, old style bulbs. Not the greenest thing to do, but I was tired of the light in my barn feeling like the fluorescent lights above my desk at work. So I went old school, and now there's a warm yellow light in that land of hay, horse, pig and rabbit instead of the white fury of the twisties. I actually replace my standard bulbs less outdoors, the new kind doesn't seem to do well with rain and cold?
By the time the work of keeping this place running another night was done, I was soaking wet but warm all over. I came inside and the house was already up to 60, but felt like 80. I shed my layers and said a silent prayer of thanks that the worst of the rain was starting now that I was indoors. As temperatures drop into the 30's I know that there is dry wood inside to light and heat this farmhouse into the night.
Tonight, that is what I am grateful for. Now, warmed by a mason jar of red wine, I am thinking of the post I wrote about the place I go right before I fall asleep, that always calms me no matter what is weighing on my mind. It's a gray barn, and tonight as I sit here reading an old post, a post older than Jasper and Gibson, I realize how much consistent thoughts can change your life, and how things happen not so much out of work, but out of faith.
Here is what I wrote on December 22, 2009:
Every night, but especially on nights when it's hard to sleep, I lay awake in bed thinking. I'll toss and turn for hours unless I lay still and decide to go to the barn. I don't get up and go outside. The barn is a place in my mind. As long as I can remember I've had the same calming meditation right before I fall asleep. I imagine myself in this same situation and within minutes, I am breathing slower and grateful. I know it works because I can only remember what I'll share with you in a moment, and then it's morning. Maybe it will help some of you when your mind is loud. Here's where I go:
I turn over on my side, close my eyes, and imagine I'm in a high loft of an old gray barn on a rainy autumn night. I've been riding a horse for miles and besides the mare and I, the only other soul traveling with me is a black sheepdog. I have made a handshake deal to rest my horse in the stall below while I sleep in the hay storage above. The owner has offered me three quilts and a pillow and told me I could rest on the loose hay piled in a sheltered corner. I lay the biggest, thickest, blanket down first on a giant pile of hay and create a nest. (Sometimes it feels so real I can smell the dead grass and feel it crinkle under my mattress.) A lantern shines above me, flickering from an old beam. Besides the occasional quiet lightning outside—this is the only light. Outside a constant, inconsequential rain falls. I watch the shadows the lantern casts dance across the gray walls. Sometimes the light sneaks in-between the cracks and paints an old oak tree outside. Below me I can hear my small horse's gray hooves shuffle. She is a night mare keeping nightmares away. I am so weary from traveling the loft feels like heaven. I am so relieved to be dry and warm and have finally stopped moving. I curl my spine and sink farther into the nest. The black dog rests his head in my chest and sighs. We're warm. The mare lays down. Tonight will be okay.
I've imagined this nearly every night before I've fallen asleep for over twenty years. Long before I ever wanted to homestead, or ever considered a Fell Pony, this was my ritual...an imaginary oasis of my most comforting things: shelter, companionship, and warmth. I went to the barn in sixth grade, in college dorms, in cities, and on snowy nights in Idaho. I'll go there tonight too. I feel particularly weary.
Today a small package arrived at the office with a big Storey stick slapped across it. Soon as I saw it, I knew exactly what it was and my eyes lit up like a pet store puppy. It was the first "official" copy of Barnheart, from the first printing. What a thrill, what a quiet thrill. It turned out to be the first thrill of the day as well, since I discovered Made From Scratch made the Beekman 1802 email newsletter as a winter read. Those guys are the best. I emailed them to thank them, and Brent asked if I wanted to feature and excerpt on their site?! I sent it right away!
If you would like, you can order a copy from Connie here in Cambridge at Battenkill Books and Gibson and I will sign it for you. It's a way to help a small bookstore, support the Cold Antler community of Cambridge/Jackson, and get a special message from me. I'm heading down to the bookstore Friday with Gibson to do some Christmas shopping and check on the orders so far. My goal is 200, and I think we are at 125 pre-orders already! So Grab some for the Holidays and help explain to people the origin of your disease!
Battenkill Books 15 East Main St. Cambridge, NY 12816 (518) 677-2515 firstname.lastname@example.org www.battenkillbooks.com
Earlier this morning I was outside in the woods, back beyond the barn where trees crashed to the earth just a few weeks earlier this fall. I had a small saw in hand, a rusty little bugger I didn't take care of properly, but it still did the job. I was out there because I wanted to cut up pieces of a cherry tree's upper trunk that Brett had felled at Antlerstock. The plan was to collect some long, heavy logs and harness jasper to pull them to the wood pile before snow fly. It was a gorgeous late Autumn morning, a perfect example of that time of year known as the Days of Grace. The house was warm from the wood stoves, the sun was starting to warm me, and I had a morning of harness leather and sheepdog training ahead of me.
I also had a headache. Well, a small bruise, to be accurate. I hit my head on a steel beam yesterday heaving myself up into a hay wagon at Nelson's Farm and at the time it didn't even hurt, just surprised the hell out of me. But I spent the rest of the day wondering how hard you had to hit your head to worry about a concussion, and then wondering if it was okay to fall asleep later since I read somewhere that you can't fall asleep with a concussion? By nightfall I decided anyone who had the mental wherewithal to spend the day worrying about a concussion, probably didn't have one, or would have been at the very least in serious pain, nauseated, or reeling. So I popped two ibuprofen and went to bed. As you can all witness, I survived the night. I reckon I just have a bump. I have certainly been knocked around a lot harder than that. When I was competing regularly in Tae Kwon Do tournaments I practically did my taxes in a concussed state, but I was living with my parents back in those high school tournament days. Funny how you suddenly worry more when there is no one around to tell you "Shut up, you're fine."
After I pulled some smaller logs out myself, I found the bruiser I knew I needed some horseflesh to bring to the woodpile. The log was from the truck of a small tree, around 4 feet long and about 12" in diameter. I guessed it weighed around 150 or so pounds. I confirmed this assumption when I tried to move it. I couldn't pick it up. I had to stand it up vertically, and then push it down the hill to the path where I had set the singletree and chains for Jasper. I was about a 1/6 mile into the woods from the house. The path was rough, but I decided the pony could handle it.
I went to grab his harness and lead rope from the barn. I walked it up to him in the larger 2 acre pasture where he had spent all of yesterday and last night. It was mild enough for a pony to need nothing but some hay to rest on if he so chose. Jasper let me snap his lead rope on his halter and walk him to the tie out up on the hill I fashioned out of an old apple tree. Within moments the harness was on, the bit in his mouth, the bridle reins at the ready and chains for the hauling in my left hand.
He was a bit spazzy, but manageable. I couldn't blame him, it had been since Antlerstock that we last worked. But for the sporadic efforts we shared, he did his job without a kick or whinny. We walked into the woods and within a few moments the heavy log I had already wrapped chains around was attached to the pony and we were off. Jasper had to put a little weight into it to get started, but once he had it moving, he didn't even tighten his neck. 150+ pounds is nothing to a brute like him. We walked through the woods in quick fashion and pulled the log up to the woodpile. I removed the chains, scratched him on the head and told him he was the most wonderful horse to grace the county.
When his harness was removed, I let him retire to his stall for a breakfast of grain and cold well water. He seemed happy to be back to a civilized place. And now with him out of the pasture, I could open it up to a few older ewes for Gibson's herding lesson later that morning. But for the now, I was happy to remove his halter and pet his neck as he went about his breakfast in the barn. We had just accomplished something anyone with a riding mower or a pickup truck could have done in half the time, but that wasn't the point. The point was a horse and his girl worked as a team, and did it without a tractor or truck, and it made the grain taste better and my apple and bacon feel well-earned. The log is at the wood pile, and that's a nice bit of work before the day hits the higher sun.
Prior to leaving on a recent extended road trip, I took my father aside and told him that were I to perish behind the wheel and the Iowa or some other state patrol were to return my belongings, he should know that while I was enjoying the twelve-cassette packet titled No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life, I was not completely buying the Meaning of Life bit. The amateur study of philosophy is like taking a few laps with a NASCAR driver. You're not qualified to do it on your own, you have no business behind the wheel, but for a few laps or paragraphs you're right there with 'em, and when it's all over, you've learned something. Or, as my local fire chief once said, you've simply exasperated the situation.
And it remains difficult to get a philosopher to deliver a load of pig manure to your garden. So I really should get that truck going. It sits there falling apart with a case of nuclear cradle cap, thirsty for paint and a gas tank that won't leak. The project would give me license to make numerous trips to Farm & Fleet, where the livestock section feels sadly ever more equivalent of a hobby section, but the sign over the drinking fountain that says PLEAE NO TOBACCO JUICE remains, and consequently, so does hope. I don't expect much, and the little pleasures suffice. This morning for coffee I ground four scoops of Farmer to Farmer Guatemalan Medium and when I pulled the grinder cap and sniffed it was all I could do to not flop right over and shake my leg like a dog.
So. The year is planned. Grow a garden and recapture my youth. That, and get my decrepit 1951 L-120 INternational pickup truck running in time for deer hunting season in November.
Tonight I played my guitar for the first time in months. I sat down by the large glass doors under a moon so bright it cast shadows across the floor. Next to the wood stove, on a brown sheepskin, I played the only four chords I need. I played, and sang, my favorite song and it was as if I never let that neck leave my hands. Some things stick with you, and you can't shake them out of your head. I don't think I'll ever forget the lyrics and chords to that anthem. Someday, I will play it on a 1950's J-45 so worn down from years of music that I will feel like a child when I finally pull it against me. Good guitars already understand the whole world. We can catch up to them if we're willing to try.
You can put off your dreams, your desires, your careers, your farms. You can avoid your responsibilities, obligations, promises, and sovereign rights. You can pretend a million things in this world do no matter, and turn your back on them all. But any person who wants to make music and doesn't, for any reason, is a goddamned fool.
I did not pop in a workout video today, nor did I suit up for a mile run. I had been up and about since dawn loading and unloading 42 bales of hay in the barn, hauling 200+ pounds of water, lugging grain, stacking wood, slopping pigs, cleaning out rabbit cages and other various farm chores. I had been "working out" since before daybreak, and decided even Jillian Michaels, the main sadist in my video collection, would let this day without free wights slide. By 2:30 I was dragging ass, and the kind of tired that leaves you wanting nothing more than a moratorium on all forward momentum and something cold to drink. I came inside for a glass of cider and poured it into a pint jar. I drank it like I meant it.
Jars have become my main form of drinking glass, mostly due to their abundance and convenience. I remember being at a library talk in Sandpoint, years ago, and seeing a girl with a quart jar with a slice of lemon in it and I thought it was the "neatest farmy accessory" in the world, and quickly mimicked it. Back then, I was playing farmer because I wanted that woman's life. Now jars are everywhere, and just are, and it makes sense to haul things around in them. It was probably that same for that woman in Idaho. She wasn't coming to the Library with a mason jar to make a lifestyle statement. She was coming to the Library with a mason jar because she was thirsty.
But things like that jar was exactly how I lived my life before I had a farm, but knew I wanted one. I subscribed to farming magazines for my rental coffee table. I wore Carhartt vests, bought a pickup truck, and kept pet livestock. I did all of that not because I was a poser farmer (though I am sure there were some angry and sordid individuals who felt I was), but because I am a firm believer in the fake it till you make it attitude. If you want something, you do what you can with what you have. I no longer worry what locals around here (or hecklers online) think about my legitimacy as a farmer. They can think whatever they want. I know that I'm a farmer. I am a person growing food and raising animals and trying to make the mortgage payments on time just like everyone else with a halter, electric fences, and a commercial plate on their pickups in Washington County.
My point is this: don't let someone else's definition of authenticity validate you. Not the people who roll their eyes at your backyard chickens, and not bloggers like me. Who we are is our business, and a gift we can only give ourselves. If you want to be a farmer, then become one however you know how. If that means magazines and jar water bottles like it did for me, then onward and upward to the hardware store and online subscriptions. If it means saving money, reading library books, and getting an internship at an organic farm, then have at it. Do what feels correct for you, what makes you feel more "real" in your everyday lives (it that is something you feel you are lacking, as I certainly did). And know this, there are a lot of people out there who are unhappy in this world and will jump at the chance to knock you down, correct you, mock, snark, and make you feel foolish for taking small steps towards a bigger life. To those people, I hand them kites and tell them to fly them, and to all of you putting up with it out there, I'll share this quote:
“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” ~ William Gibson
We all hear the news and read the headlines, we know the world is a scary place. But I'm not going to start your weekend telling you about that hot mess, I want to tell you about something amazing that happened right here in Washington County last weekend. Read on to see that there are people out there living lives of charity and faith in a scary and unkind world.
Last weekend I was invited to a cookout and campfire over at Firecracker Farm in nearby White Creek. On the southernmost side of Washington County, Firecracker farm sits a few feet from the Vermont State Border. There, the Daughton Family lives a pretty beautiful life on their 5 acres looking over the Battenkill Valley. If you've been reading this blog a while, you may know the Daughton Family, but if not here's a basic history of our friendship.
I met Tim and his Son Holden on a pheasant hunting trip last fall when a mutual friend invited us both out to hunt with the help of his superdog, Cayenne. The hunt was great, and the company was even better. Tim and Holden were great teachers and patient with me in the field. When a missed shot left my hand bleeding from a too-fast safety snap, Tim simply took a glove out of his pocket and handed it to me without question. It was not a cheap glove, and I would be coating it in blood. Tim simply said "I have a washing machine" and smiled, and I was stunned at the generosity amongst the shotguns and flying feathers. Now, I know he was just being Tim.
A few weeks later in the office, Tim approached me to ask a favor. His daughter was getting married down in their recent home state of Missouri and he needed a babysitter. Not for his sons, but for his recent acquisition of a Dairy Cow Calf, a Holstein steer named Tasty.
I watched Tasty here at the farm and was thrilled to do so. It was the one and only time a cow ever spent time at Cold Antler, and feeding the little bottle calf was a lesson in both
So here's why I'm writing about Swiss Family Daughton. I was at their cookout last weekend and it wasn't just some party in the sticks. The Daughtons invited a group of families from their church up to the farm to offer a very special invitation. The people from the city were folks the Daughtons knew didn't have access to big backyards, green markets, or farms. These were people in apartments and used to a totally different world than the one of cows and chickens and piglets the Daughtons had. So they told these families this:
This farm was there's too. It would soon be turned into a working vegetable and grass-fed meat operation, and the families present would be the families fed by the labor of the land. Tim and Cathy did not ask for, or want, money. This was not about writing something off on their tax return or blind charity to puff an ego, this was a combined goal of a husband and wife who felt blessed to have the farm that they had and felt it was their message and work to share it with people they care about who don't. So this spring the family will be sharing their property with an inner city group of their congregation, and feeding them for free. Folks who will be eating off the farm are welcomed to come weed and hoe if they want, but they are not obligated to. In a modern world where people buy land, mow it, fence it, and do nothing with it but tell others they can't even step foot on it, the Daughtons are using the small acreage they have to feed people without soil. They are doing it because they can, and because that's what Daughtons do. If you're bleeding, they'll hand you a glove and if you're hungry they'll hand you some potatoes and a grass-fed burger. Talk about living your faith...
If you want to follow along with the adventures of this farm of believers, visit Firecrackerfarm.com. Say hello with a comment to Cathy (the author and mother of the clan) and share a word of encouragement. This experiment is a living animal for the family as well. They have yet to figure out how things will come together, and maybe some of you have advice or a word of kindness to send their way: I'm sure it will be appreciated.
There are not a lot of people working to take care of others these days. Let's wish Firecracker Farm luck, and strong backs. And for those of you coming to Antlerstock 2012, you'll get to not only meet the Swiss Family Daughton, but (I think) take a trip to their farm for a farmhouse style meal from their own bounty.
All it takes to make this place better, folks, is to decide we're going to make it better. And as for you, Firecracker Farm.
I have some good news for anyone interested in a personalized and signed copy of Barnheart. Connie Brook—who owns Battenkill Books in downtown Cambridge—and I had a conversation. She is going to pre-sell copies of Barnheart and deliver them right to your door. You can also get signed copies of Chick Days or Made From Scratch right now. This is a way to support an independent book store and get the book signed by the author at the same time. Because of the farm, I don't do a lot of touring for my books, so this may be the only way to grab a scribbled-on copy. I am thrilled to do it.
If you are interested, call or email Connie at the number below and she'll take down your information and requests. Then, this early winter when Barnheart comes out, I'll head down to the bookstore and sign them for you. Gibson possibly will too (if you don't mind pawprints on your books Title Pages) and you'll receieve them shortly after they hit the press. I thank you in advance, and hope she gets a stack big enough to inspire her to get those chickens she was talking to me about. Cambridge might be allowing the chooks in town, a big deal in this one-stoplight burg.
Battenkill Books 15 East Main St. Cambridge, NY 12816 (518) 677-2515 email@example.com www.battenkillbooks.com
I was outside the farmhouse around five tonight, and the wind shocked me. It came out of nowhere, pushing my hair into my face and causing my damp hands to freeze up instantly. This was some serious hearkening, folks. It was as if winter just stabbed me with a telephone wire and shouted into a tin can on the other end. I tightened the scarf around my neck and hustled through the remaining chores. It was full-out dark already, and the sheep still needed ten gallons of water for their nightcap, Jasper needed hay, and the door to the chicken coop needed to be closed for the night. A farm needs you in ways that can not be argued against, wind be damned.
When the sheep had their fill I headed down the hill to the coop and peeked my head into the yellow straw lined house. I was spying on my over-sexed geese, seeing if they were in the family way... My suspicions were spot on. In a corner was a nest of giant goose eggs. Saro and Cyrus were giving it the ol' Thanksgiving try. It seemed like every November they start a brood, sometimes with success and sometimes not. Between their morning sexual congress by the mailbox and Atlas's happy adventures, this place has turned into an all-out brothel. I hope the neighbors don't get the wrong idea.
Goose and sheep sex aside, days like today make me think I have a shot at this author/farmer thing. The morning started with a two-hour interview with a journalist from New York City. She was writing a book on the resurgence of domestic arts and DIY culture across America and the role of homemakers. We had a good talk, and I showed her around the farm. By the time she was packed up and waving out the driveway, I realized I had never thought about many of her questions before she asked them. She wanted to know about my thoughts on feminism and homesteading, about the role of women, about trend in suburban moms getting chickens and herb gardens. Some of the answers surprised me, and I realized how much of a traditionalist I am at heart. I might be a woman with her own empire, but at the end of the day I just want to be taken care of, and take care of things. I want this because I feel like it's my biological right as a member of my sex, and because it makes me happy. I don't think wanting to be a wife or mother makes me any less a feminist than wanting to be a welder or an Air force Pilot. Nor do I dare say my desires should be anyone else's. But when it all comes down to it: I'm a simple gal. If I ever find the right man I'll happily get hitched, take his last name, and stay home to take care of the kids and dinner. I got the 14th amendment and a mortgage with my name on it. I'm all set.
After that conversation about a future I don't actually have, I realized I was running late for my lunch date. Every once in a while Jon Katz and I meet up to catch up on our books and lives, and to just chat. We're a lot alike, and share the same belief that stubbornness and determination are the true cornerstones of success in our industry. We met up at the Burger Den to talk about some proposals and books I'm working on, and I got to see some updates for his website and hear about his book tour. He's a NY Times Best Seller taking time to tell a newbie author his tips on intro paragraphs and chapter lists. His guidance and advice is something I have come to not only appreciate, but look forward to. Jon knows me better than most people, and a great deal about my personal life. I was confiding in him about some recent drama and he shared some advice with me today I was ready to hear, but fearful to do. Sometimes you need that. You need to explain a situation in the most basic, honest, and vulnerable ways and see it through another person's logic for it to come out clean in the wash. I feel lucky to know him, he's been a grand friend up here in the brambles of Washington County. Also, he's a cheap date, since our combined bill was under 20 bucks for all we could eat. God bless the Burg'den.
Everyone out there enjoying this Wolf Moon? That's what the Almanac calls it. The November moon is a big bright beam out there, and the last few nights it has been so bright It cast shadows inside the farm house at night. Deer walking around the yard stand out like make believe things in the blue light. Folklore says the night right after the full moon is a time to prayer to remove things from your life that are negative, bad thoughts, fear, guilt, all of it. As the moon wains into dark it's supposed to carry those prayers home. I don't think it can hurt. Wolves after all, are very fast dogs.
Tomorrow: More hay from Nelson, cheese making with some local raw milk I scored, and a lot of time spent writing. I am a girl with a mission, and tomorrow that specifically means dead grass, raw milk, and Microsoft Word. Take that, Louie Pasteur.
Well folks, there is some serious testosterone up in the sheep field right now. Atlas is out of the pen—doing his level best to make new sheep—but I've noticed every time he's about to get his game on Sal comes out of nowhere and butts him away from the ladies. At first, it was comical. Now it's just stopping the necessary sheep love that makes this place tick. So tonight or tomorrow Sal is getting penned up for a while so Atlas can finally swerve in peace and mark those ewe rumps with the orange chalk of victory.
Antlerstock 2012 is already half sold out! If you'd like to come, please email me ASAP to make plans and arrangements, before it is too late! It happens Columbus Day Weekend 2012, and so far only 5 guests from this year signed up to return, so please get your spots while they're hot.
Already added to next fall: Pigs 101, Nigerian Goats, and Sourdough Starter breads! (with pigs, goats, and starter samples and new teachers!)
I drove home from my Vermont day job in a dented, scratched, and fender-missing American pick up truck with a sheep dog hanging outside the window. WGNA is on the radio, Albany's Country Station and I was only mildly surprised that I knew all the words to Aldean's Big Green Tractor, to which I sang loudly with Gibson until Zach Brown's Keep me in Mind came on next, and I sang louder. My 26 minute commute home soon had me passing the little white number 6 school house (Jackson Town Hall) where the voting signs were out and the parking lot was full. I would drive back to vote after 16 sheep, 3 dogs, two pigs, a flock of chickens and a pony were fed and a fire was lit in the living room stove. I pulled into my driveway where an American flag was lit up by a porch light and a 12 gauge shotgun was loaded under my bed. Once chores were done I headed back to town hall to vote for neighbors I knew from phone calls and conversations in town. I pulled up next to my vet's pickup, and let Gibson wait in the truck while I filed in circles with a sharpie under the red, white, and blue privacy banners my taxes (I assume) paid for, and was happy it was whimsical. I came home, worked out, stoked the fire and turned on my "new" $65 EBay eMac in the kitchen to see to this blog business right before I whip up a small pizza and turn on an episode of the West Wing. I have a crush on Josh Linemen, he's my kind of guy. I love the West Wing and I voted tonight because I am my mother's daughter. I farmed because I'm my own woman.
In the fall of 2007 I was on my back deck with a fiddle in Sandpoint Idaho. I probably just got back from the office, on my bike I bought off a neighbor in Knoxville. It was only 4 miles up a mildly-dangerous highway to my rented farm. I had two dogs now, 5 chickens, two rabbits, and a few raised bed gardens. My plans for the night was a quick dinner of pasta and sauce and then a quick run into town to meet some friends at the Panida for the Banff Mountain Film Festival's showing of some seriously intense outdoors films. Everyone else in Sandpoint looked like a Patagonia model. I looked like a girl trying to change from design student to farmer, in awkward clothes and pants that didn't fit right. I started wearing a wool hat I got at an outfitter in town. I was losing the cool I worked so hard to achieve in college. I only talked to friends from the east on the phone.
In the fall of 2005 I was leaving another night at the television network (HGTV) in Knoxville and headed home to my city apartment. Jazz was waiting for me, sitting on the couch in the living room or on my bed or under my Ikea desk from my college dorm room (under my original $1200 eMac). I'd change into jeans and Chaco's and we'd go for a walk around 4th and Gill, my little hipster Victorian neighborhood and call up a friend in town to meet at the Sundown in the City concerts in Market Square. My Morning Jacket, Blues Traveler, Bela Fleck...all sorts of Knox-appropriate bands would play for free in that brick and soil city and I'd jump into Tomato Head for take out and see who wanted to see Amy Mann at the Bijou? Man, I loved that town. I loved that life. I loved living in the middle of all that energy and music and then packing up the Subaru with Jazz and heading into Walland to Brian's house to hop into the back bed of his black pickup and go drive into the Smokies for nothing more than a hike and conversation. When I realized I could take a dulcimer or fiddle into the forest with a dog and a friend, I no longer missed the city as much.
In the fall of 2004 I was just starting my senior year of college. I was in love, at my thinnest weight in years, and driven like a mad woman to become a Philadelphia designer at an achingly-cool design firm. I subscribed to HOW and Comm Arts magazine and was on the phone with this little old man in New Jersey who was custom-making my portfolio, which I would soon be showing off to future employers. I felt like I had art and the whole world by the balls, and all I wanted to do was run into some city and soak in the travel, art, and maybe get a dog. I cared too much about how I looked, what I wore, what people saw me drive, what I listened to, how I ate, who I voted for and what my peers thought was worth paying attention too. I had two ferrets in an apartment. Their names were Father MacKenzie and Eleanor Rigby. Graduation day came and I was the only person in my class heading south. I was terrified in ways you can not even imagine.
Things just change. It keeps getting better. This feels the most correct, though. This farm, now.
Hey there first season CSA members! Your wool has arrived! Expect to receive a package by, or shortly after, Thanksgiving featuring the bulk of your share in yarn and felt. Second Season CSA members, you will be getting letters this winter explaining the process and what's to come in the spring and following fall for your own yarn. Stay tuned! And Below this post you'll see what I call workshop CSA, I'm using that term here because it sure as hell fits. When you pay for a workshop upfront to reserve your spot, you are a member of this community supporting this farm. And if you ever want to buy a generic share in a future workshop of your choice: that is an option too. You will be mailed a letter and voucher paw-printed by Gibson that allows you access to any non-special workshop (Plan B and Antlerstock are the only 'specials" due to the magnitude of these events and speaker costs, etc.)
P.S. There are only 10 spots left for the Preparedness workshop, the first ten have been reserved! P.S.S. Only One spot left in the wool workshop, first come first serve. More on workshops and classes here!
Woke up this morning and headed outside to chores at the old time, instead of the saved daylight time. The illusion of an extra-early start to my day was scandelous. by "5 AM" all the animals were fed and watered and both stoves were lit again. I had three hours before I had to sit at a desk chair in someone else's office. I breathed deep, looked up at the stars. I am an excellent putter-offer. A girl takes what she can get.
The stars were rioting, and right above the sheep field Canis Major was chasing Lepus (or so the charts said when I looked them up inside). Canis Major, also known as the Constellation of Siruis, is Orion's big dog. Lepus is a large hare and they scamper below the warrior battling Taurus. I stood out there in my pajama pants, hoodie, and Carhartt vest knowing none of this, but enthralled in the big show. You don't need to know their names or even their stories to start a Monday morning enthralled in the drama. Gibson was with me, looking up at the sheep from the gate. His body quivered, a loaded gun waiting to run up the hill, damn the cold or ice between his paws. Anticipation was thick, the sky was art, the world preserving it in dark and cold. The whole thing was ice and woodsmoke and stars.
Beautiful. I stood out there a while. A girl takes what she can get.
Several readers sent me this story, and thank you for doing so because I got a kick out of seeing other freaks with sheeps driving across the landscape/ Read this Times piece about Sheep as Lawn Mowers and Other Go-Getters, it's a gas. And thanks to all the Jar entries coming in! Farm's warm tonight with good friends, cold beer, and hot stoves. May you all have a great Friday night! And please get back to me if you asked to come to a workshop, waiting to hear from a bunch of you about reservations. Night! OBERLIN, Ohio In this verdant lawn-filled college town, most people keep their lawn mowers tuned up by oiling the motor and sharpening the blades. Eddie Miller keeps his in shape with salt licks and shearing scissors.
Mr. Miller, 23, is the founder of Heritage Lawn Mowing, a company that rents out sheep — yes, sheep — as a landscaping aid. For a small fee, Mr. Miller, whose official job title is “shepherd,” brings his ovine squad to the yards of area homeowners, where the sheep spend anywhere from three hours to several days grazing on grass, weeds and dandelions.
The results, he said, are a win-win: the sheep eat free, saving him hundreds of dollars a month in food costs, and his clients get a freshly cut lawn, with none of the carbon emissions of a conventional gas-powered mower. (There are, of course, other emissions, which Mr. Miller said make for “all-natural fertilizer.”)
“They countrify a city,” Mr. Miller said of his four-legged staff. “And they lend a lot of awareness about how people lived in the past.”...
Antlerstock had been moving at a full gallop since 9:30 AM that October Saturday morning. Brett had done an amazing job introducing people to backyard forest management and explained the essentials with a burly grace. BY 11AM trees were falling down in the woods behind the barn and cheese curds were forming in the kitchen. The house had become a school, the farm a campus. Between chicken 101 workshops and the sounds of a sharp axe splitting firewood: the announcement for lunch was more of an internal clock telling people it was time to eat than a clanged iron triangle (though I do have one of those in the kitchen). We ate and talked and everyone seemed content with their fresh-pressed cider, pulled pork, and pie but even as I ate my stomach was doing backflips. I knew that Brett had arranged for a few smaller logs from the recently downed Cherry tree to be hauled up to the splitting team. I knew that Jasper had been patiently waiting in his stall, watching the whole event unfold. And I knew I had not been granted the time to work him as much as one would before a large demonstration.
But when Brett asked me if Jasper would be ready, I said yes. I said it like we'd been pulling logs out of the woods behind the farm for weeks. I said it like I was more like Brett, a skilled woodsman with a plaid pattern of arteries around my heart. Brett seemed convinced and I told him Jasper would be harnessed up in twenty minutes...
For the first time since buying jasper this spring, I decided to harness him inside the stall instead of outside it on a tie out in the field. What a difference this simple act made. Instead of being bossy or anxious right out of the gate, he calmly walked out to a crowd of people with flashing cameras and children running around. I was shocked at this change in attitude and then realized this horse was probably always harnessed in a stall or barn before being lead out to work every day of his life as an Amish hand. All I did was return to his normal routine, and he responded as anyone would who realized into the familiar.
He walked calmly out of the gate, his bit calm, his eyes curious. I had ordered everyone to stand back, and explained he was known to be "spirited" Everyone cut us a wide berth, but no one seemed scared. Folks like Lara who had ridden mustangs out west were not skittish around a Hobbit-sized cart horse, but I had been kicked in the back of the thigh by Jasper once (I got between him and some sheep who were running towards his grain bucket as he was eating and he kicked back to scare them off), and it hurt for days. 600 pounds is a lot of animal when a hoof hits your ass. Everyone signed a waiver, but that doesn't mean I wanted someone's memory of this farm to be two cracked ribs.
My fears were mine alone. He was steady as a barge on a canal path. I turned him around towards those unfamiliar woods, and together, me leading him by his bridle with loose reins, we walked to the area where the cherry tree fell. Jasper had no qualms with the uneven ground, the leaves, roots, and stones below him. A summer on a mountain slope pasture had made him unusually surefooted for a small horse. When we arrived at Brett near the log pile, he instructed us to walk a wide circle around the logs and wait as he attached the chains to the single tree and got Jasper and I locked and loaded. When all was set, he asked for the reins and I told him I wanted to lead him by the bridle, but said nothing more. Brett resigned to the less impressive, but functional practice. I knew Jasper was still green being driven from behind and why mess up the good thing we'd discovered here in the woods?
So holding those black reins in my right hand, my horse on my left-hand side, I took a deep breathe and said, "Step up, Gelding" and together we walked towards the opening in the trees.
What followed was minutes of work, just a short 50 yards or so from the forest to the wood pile. But it required Jasper to pull uphill, across forest floor, grass, and scattered logs and rounds, new people and equipment. Jasper remained calm, and when the first log was delivered, we turned around and did it again. I got Cathy Daughton's expression as we turned to get the second load, she seemed proud I pulled it off. So was I, so was I.
Now, to most people at Antlerstock, nothing fantastic happened at all. To the general attendee, they saw a pony pull some small logs out of the woods, easy as pie. The horse didn't act up, just walked around, doing what was expected of it. But that lack of flash and noise was exactly what made it so amazing to me. Jasper acted as calm and normal as if he was just another part of this farm, as predictable as pulling the cord on a lawn mower or starting up the truck. He just worked. It was as if that was how it has always been.
I had won martial arts tournaments, driven cross country, acquired an envious professional design resume, and bought a farm...but walking back to Jasper's hand-made stall and kissing him on the forehead was a feeling of winning I had never experienced before in my life. My heart was racing, my palms were sweating as I removed his black leather straps and buckles. I had managed to acquire, train, and heal an animal that just months before was leaping out of trailer windows and kicking sheep. As he lowered his head into a well-deserved scoop of sweet grain I ran a hand along his strong neck and told him I was proud of him.
I am no Buck Brannaman, my horse training skills are as rudimentary as they come. I make mistakes out there, many, and learn only by beating a situation into a corner until it is subdued enough to let another problem pop up elsewhere. But I am learning this working horse thing. Things that were alien to my hands and words foreign to my mind are now common place and understood. "Check his cannon, I think the singletree might have popped at it when you were working on the surcingle" was once Greek. Now I speak Greek, thanks to the translator that is experience and a dapple pony. I am stubborn enough to keep trying, and my horse knew enough to lead me the rest of the way. Thank you, Jasper.
In closing, I can not express how great it is having a working pony on this small farm. Thanks to him, there is a level of self-suffiency that Cold Antler could not obtain without his contribution. He is more than a log caddy, Jasper could be a second vehicle once harnessed to a light cart that could carry me easily the three miles into the center of town. Or, I could hop on his back for a short ride through the woods where carts can't go. He's also able to carry small wagons and packs, through all sorts of terrain, if that would ever been necessary. He protects the sheep in the pasture, making a second living as a livestock protector. Any coyote would have to think twice before taking on a flock with a 600-pound body guard with big hooves...
If you're looking for a sustainable solution to small loads and chores, and a second form of transportation, a pony might be a perfect fit for your farm as well. Jasper eats a half-bale of hay a day and a scoop of grain, he drinks about ten gallons of water. Knowing what I know now, my second pony will be a Haflinger or a Fell, something both suited to the cart and saddle, but still only around 13 hands. I'd save up and spend the money on a solid, bomb-proof, working animal around 10 years old who came with an education. Later down the road. I'd like to try training a foal, and hire and experienced saddle trainer to start him with a solid foundation as a riding animal. But regardless, equines are staying on this farm, and I can't think of a more reliable and wonderful way to get brute work done and move across the landscape. Maybe I'm a romantic, but that's fine by me. Horses, my dear friends, are good. Very, very good.
Around here ponies are considered children's toys, pasture mates, or the butt of jokes. They are either a stepping stone for young equestrians, or a companion animal for a "real" horse. Company that eats less hay while keeping the Warmbloods, Thoroughbreds, and Arabians less bored. Few people (if any) around Washington County employ regular-sized ponies for logging and cart work. They either use ATVs, garden tractors, or some other form of motorized tool for small jobs. If they are into working horses they use Drafts or Standardbreds. That's the MO for most farmers and ponies around here. But I am not most farmers, and Jasper is definitely not like most ponies.
When I was looking into getting my first horse, I wanted an animal at my own eye level. I rode 16+ hand mares at my riding lessons (which have since stopped since I went from 5 days of office work a week to 4), but I only felt comfortable because of the amount of education of the mares and the amount of professionals around me. It also eased the mind to know we were in a locked arena, so even a mad dash could only last a hundred yards. But on a farm, out on my 6.5 acres of land and the thousands of acres of not-my land around us on the mountain...I didn't want a 16 hand horse bolting into the woods dragging a plow. I wanted something I could control with my own hands in a pinch. Something larger than a Shetland but smaller than a Haflinger. A Pony, sure, but an animal I could still jump on the back of for a ride to the back pasture to check on the flock. A horse calm enough to learn with, strong enough to be of use, and patient enough to put up with me, a greenhorn like me. I wanted the animal more educated in driving than I was, and willing to take me on as his student.
I also wanted a gelding. Boys make sense when it comes to working animals. I wanted Gibson to be a male before he was born, and I wanted my horse to be a male as well. At the office, I have two girl friends and one of them took 3 years to shore up. I am comfortable around all the men. My closest friends are all guys. Not sure that is sound horsemanship, but I went with my gut.
When I first met Jasper he was thin, ratty, and had not seen a brush or bath in months. The night before I met him, he was removed from his herd and stuck in a 2-horse trailer alone. In the morning, in a rain storm, he got freaked out when the trader tried to open the back hatch so he leaped out the side window. BOOM, just gone. "Well, the auction flyer said he was "spirited"..." the seller smiled, knowing this was not looking good for his bank account. Jasper trotted over to some grass near his pasture mates and without a second thought, I just walked up to him. He watched me, and let me grab his halter. I lead him back to the trailer where the Trader was getting him tacked up for a demonstration. It was starting to really rain now, and Jasper's eyes got white with stress. I didn't know enough about horses to offer to come back later, and the trader must have needed the money to ask his son to hop on board. I watched him walk off with his small passenger.
He let a 10-year-old boy saddle and ride him around an open field without qualms. Walk to Trot to Canter, then backed up easy. Which meant in a strange place, away from his comfort zone, after a night along, he let a child push him around in a backyard without fences. This was an equine Job. Knowing nothing beyond the fact that I would have bucked out of there a long time ago if I was that horse, I agreed to pay $500 over two months and he would be delivered with his Coggins in April. I shook hands with the trader and became an owner of my first equine. I felt rich.
Jasper came with his name and I did not change it. It suited him, and me. He's an 11.2 hand Pony of the Americas (POA). A dappled gray horse with dark brown eyes and a black and silver mane scruffed in a permanent mohawk. He's ten years old, and comes from a working Amish farm down state where he was trained to drive. He came to me from that scrappy dealer in Hebron, a town a few miles north of Jackson. (I have since learned buying a second-hand auction horse from a backyard trader might not have been the best way to get a working animal.) He was delivered and let loose in a half acre paddock and he ran, bucked, and kicked like a bronco. "Just settling in..." was what the man said before shaking my hand and leaving. As the trailer backed out of the drive, Jasper let out a cry only heard in movies. What was I getting into....
That's his backstory, our backstory really. Over the spring I didn't train with him at all. We just went on halter walks together, learned each other as peers. Summer came and we learned to trust each other a little more. When I bought him a harness he let me put it on him and soon we started working in the field together. It became a regular thing. I learned so much in such a short time. How to understand the confusing puzzle of leather straps that is a horse harness. I figured out his body language, bit size, farrier needs, and dental appointments. I got a few books, had a driving trainer visit, and over time gained some confidence that this animal and I could work together someday, get something of import accomplished. After all, that was his purpose: To be both my second vehicle and my farm hand. I had dreams of us pulling logs out of the woods together, or hitching up to a sled or cart to make a trip into town. I secretly wished I had the confidence to jump on his back and ride up into the pasture, like the Lairds did in storybooks in Scotland, hoping on the back of ponies in waxxed cotton coats to see how the flock fared. I was in a story book with this horse. I liked it there.
The weekend of Antlerstock was getting closer and closer, and I knew I wanted Jasper to be a part of it. I had written in the description of the weekend about backyard lumberjacking, with Jasper pulling logs, but wasn't entirely sure that we could or he would. He had worked in the open field pulling around tires and weights, but I had never walked him into the woods, hitched him to a log, and walked him out through low branches and uneven ground into a clearing. So I wasn't sure I would risk it, not around other people. If He got scared and bolted on me, a horse in harness dragging a log is a runaway train. It would be the event everyone remembered, and not in a good way.
But when Brett asked me if Jasper was ready to pull logs on the Saturday of Antlerstock...
It's Halloween Night, the oldest holiday we still celebrate together. Older than Christmas, Valentines, or St. Patrick's. Truth is, along before the St. Patrick, the Torah, or the Koran were even written there were the bonfires lighting the skies tonight in the land of my heritage: Europe. I'm only an 1/8 Irish (if that, possibly less) and that small bit comes from a man from Connemara who married a gypsy who lived in a boxcar. I'll explain shortly, but for now, listen to my story and why Halloween is the most important night of the year to this shepherd.
Most of my family comes from Slovakia. I am more Slovak than anything else. We come from a tribe called the Windish, a rural and nomadic people. We're Catholics as of recent, but we all know that's a fairly new religion in the history of our species. Before there was monotheism, there were gypsies and various pagan tribes. I know little about my historical religious roots but I do know that the gypsies had a way with fiddles and horses, and while I am just a raw student of both, they call to me. They feel like a place I belong, something I was born into. They call to me in the Autumn more than ever.
Some of my Christian readers do not observe Halloween, and I hope this post will not offend them. Honestly, with what the day has become over the last few decades I can hardly blame them. What was once a night to celebrate the end of the harvest, reverence for the dead, fear of the unknown, and welcoming the contemplative time of winter has since been twisted into an idol worship in equal parts of sex, violence, and high fructorose corn syrup.
That is not my Holiday. My Hallow's is a night of quiet realization that I am a dying animal, a part of a larger story, and made awake and aware of a beautiful chance to live this life following what feels real and meaningful. This all comes alive for me tonight. I have to take it easy to keep all the emotion in.
My October 31st is a quiet day of memories and reflection. It is a time to mourn friends and family lost over the past year, to death or other means, such as arguments and disappointments. I am quiet for most of the evening. I do chores to music, thinking. I come inside and eat dinner in silence. I carve a pumpkin because it's both a symbol of luck, hope, and light. A jackolantern to me is a lantern of the farm. Something grown and enjoyed to light a path or be eaten up in a pie. It is food and light, the two things us humans are most drawn too.
Here is a story for a cold night.
The only reason I am here today is because a woman named Anna Jumbar. She left her Czechoslovakian parents in the post-Civil War era of the 19th century, and she left alone. She came to America with no man, no money, and no real plan. She landed in eastern Pennsylvania (a mostly Irish occupied area—miners around Jim Thorpe and such—but with a growing eastern European flavor), and was shunned. No one would hire her for work. Frankly, they thought she was crazy. After all, what sane woman left for the other side of the world alone at 18?
So she stayed at the train station she landed in and when an abandoned boxcar made itself known to her, she asked if the station agent if she could use it. He was either apathetic or empathetic, but he obliged. She turned it into a restaurant, and soon it became a networking site for immigrants. She created a community, because she was alone. She created what she needed. One day a scrappy Irishman came into her diner car, and sat down to dinner alone. His name was Stephen Comer. She knew this would be her husband, so she joined him for dinner. They were married in the Lansford Church shortly after.
If I ever have a daughter, her name will be Anna. I will tell her this story in a dining car. Her father will probably come from a place not far from Connemara. Not everything is a straight line in this world. Some stories are circles, you see.
On this night of memories and grace, I thank you Anna. I am shaking in thanks for what you overcame and accomplished: A crossed ocean, a community, new love, a boxcar, a family in a new world.... On this calm night in upstate New York, I will light the candle in my jack o'lantern for you because this is what my mother taught me to do. Every Sunday after mass we'd light a candle to remember the dead. This one is in a pumpkin on a sheep farm on a cold night. There are no priests here to bless it, you'll just have to trust me. Instead of a church, you have a wood stove on a farm that isn't really sure how the next mortgage payment will be made on time. But I have a feeling you would be okay with that. I have a feeling, you would like this place.
This is my Halloween. It is quiet and honest, tears and regrets, memories and hope. It is the holiest night of the year because f what is poured into my heart. I hope tonight you found some of that, too. Maybe not in a boxcar, but in your child's smile walking around the neighborhood trick-or-treating. Or maybe in old scrapbooks, journals, or emails from a lost love or old friend. Just know this day is more than candy corn and horror movies, friends. It is our past and everything we will be. At least to me it is. And it reminds me how short this fine life is. I should dance more.
I'll leave you with the song I listen and sing to every Hallows for the last few years. It is the entire meaning of the day in a few minutes. I hope you will listen to it with someone you love in mind.
This is the last of the sunflowers. I'm not sure if it will bloom or not? It seems to want to. It sure has been through a lot. It was planted in May, grew up hidden by tomato plants and basil (thus its stunted size), and when a horrid frost was coming I cut it and brought her inside with the rest. The other seed mates have bloomed and died long ago, the leaves are dried and scattered. But this little bud seems to be holding out, and so I put it in a mason jar by the window. Makes me want to read Pablo Neruda and dance in the kitchen. How can you not want to dance with Pablo when there are sunflowers thinking of blooming on a 20 degree night with snow on your sheep's back.
Got this email just now, remember Max? The Lab who's owner passed away and he was sent to a shelter? He's got a proper home now, with a young family. Thank you to all who helped this boy get back on his feet!
Hi Jenna, I got a call from my friend last night - Max the lab has been adopted! By a family in Maine with two children. Everyone is thrilled. I guess they had him for a sleepover and decided then to keep him. Thank you to you and the community for your posting, concern, and care.
Heating was something I never thought about before this year, not really. It was a thermostat and a bill, something that simply happened. My whole life heat came out of oil, gas, or electricity. The fireplace I grew up with was for decoration, comfort, and emergencies.
Right now the farmhouse is 65 degrees. It's that warm because since 4:30AM two fires have been roaring in my wood stoves. As the early-season snowfall coats the world outside, here in the house my home is warm and lit with candles and jackolanterns. But it is my two stoves that are the true workhorses of this farm house—one in the mud room where all the house's plumbing pies converge and exist, and the other in the living room. The wood stove in the mud room is a 6-year old Dutch West box stove, a classic workhouse that doubles as a cooking surface for cast iron and metal percolators. The living room stove is a Vermont Bun Baker, a half wood stove/half oven contraption that creates a soothing fire that heats the living area of the house and can roast a chicken, rise pizza dough, or bake a loaf of bread in it's oven box. It is a genius invention. Both are assets, and they are the way I mainly plan on heating this farm this winter.
there is an oil tank in the basement, but the thermostat is set to 48 degrees. Unless I have to leave the farm for a few nights, I don't plan on raising it. Heat is now a pre-meditated act. Wood was delivered all summer, chopped this fall, stacked, and now everyday I carry inside dry wood to fuel the stoves. I tend them, and watch them turn the temperature up in the farmhouse to a comfy place where sweaters are shed and a cheap humidifier keeps the air in check.
I like this system. It requires presence. For some reason, being needed by our homes and families has gone out of fashion. Tell someone of the uninitiated that you can't go out to the bar after work because you have livestock to feed and a house to heat and they see a prisoner. Nothing could be further from the truth. This house on the hillside might require its human caretaker more than some, but it gives back an astounding amount for my humble efforts.
A home heated without the need of an electric grid, foreign oil, or fear of losing my pipes and warmth if in the case of a disaster. Fuel that is renewable, and local, and supports my local economy. IF I had too, me and my pony and an axe could harvest it ourselves.
A home surrounded by animals that provide meat, eggs, wool, transportation, work, and company. A home filled with three kind dogs, the CAF pack, that have pulled sleds and herded sheep. I love my working dogs. I am one too.
A home with a future in real vegetable production and preserving. My last few years getting fences and livestock in order have left me without much dedication to the garden. Next year I get serious. It will require a hoop house and fences to extend the seasons and keep out the critters, but a farm that just grows herbs, a few cans of sauce, some hanging onions and a small bucket of potatoes won't cut it. Not for me. I have a seed vault and I plan to use it!
A home that constantly strives to get off grid. This year was the heat for the home, next summer I hope to afford a small solar system for the hot water. Eventually more solar and wind power will be added as the farm grows. It will require more work and dedication to this blog, workshops, and books than I have the energy for now, but the growth of this dream is my biggest source of energy. I do what I can, and then some more, and it returns the favor.
A home surrounded by forests and resources. There is wild game, foraging, ponds, streams, and other gifts just beyond the fence lines. A whole other world of goodness I have yet to barely tap into. But wish me luck this deer season.
A home that educates and shares. I will continue to have workshops and classes at this farm. Teaching and inspiring beginners has been the greatest joy. I have folks signed up for sausage making, fiddle 101, and urban homesteading workshops already. The Chick Days workshop in the spring is a huge hit (come learn about chickens, and go home with three chicks and a book!), and I am already have a third of the spaces for next year's Antlerstock worked out, with classes expanding from folks down at Polyface (a goat raising intern might come with Nigerians!), candle making, pig 101, and more!
This post started about wood heat, and ended with an anthem. It's what happens when 6:24 AM on a Sunday already means you walked the dogs and lit the fires and have a pot of coffee on the way.
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