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.
Enjoy the story of a young writer living in Washington County with her fancy dogs, sheep, lots of chickens, fiber & meat rabbits, geese, ducks, turkeys, a hive and a garden. Expect to hear a lot about mountain music, the civil war, local food, and my friends along the way. It's a big time folks.
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