There's going to be a Launch party and poster giveaway at Battenkill Books right here in Cambridge on January 22. It's a Sunday, and the event starts at 4PM. I'll be doing some reading from the book, talking, and doing a Q&A. Jon Katz is being kind enough to introduce me. Storey Publishing is also giving away 50 posters of the cover art too, to folks who come to the event. Come support a grand little bookstore, meet Gibson, ask questions and enjoy hearing the latest goings on at Cold Antler Farm. It'll be a big time!
The other day a man was standing by my vehicle, looking at my dogs panting in the car and told me he was ready to call the police on me for animal abuse. I had been inside a grocery store for exactly ten minutes, the windows were open. And yes, Jazz and Annie were in fact panting and the sun was out. I explained to him that we just got back from the dog park and these two older dogs tend to pant a lot more than they used too, but it wasn't from the car heat, it was from playing less than 15 minutes ago for over an hour. I was only gone ten minutes and was getting a lecture because it looked like I was a deadbeat. The man didn't believe that the owner drove 30 minutes from her home so her usually-leashed huskies could run at will in a safe fence and socialize in a dog park. He told me he had already called the police. I drove away so angry my knuckles were white on the wheel.
A few years ago when I was renting in Vermont, a neighbor accused me of animal abuse because she didn't understand any of my methods of animal husbandry. She thought the deep bedding in the goat pen was "me being too lazy to clean it out" and I was cruel to keep rabbits in cages, dogs in crates, and I was poisoning the well water with the chicken poo in the yard from twenty chickens. She called animal control on me and when the officer came to inspect the farm he shook his head at my neighbor, telling me if all animals were as well tended as mine his line of work wouldn't be needed.
I think Joel Salatin put it best in his recent book Folks, This Aint Normal. An entire chapter “A Cat is a Cow is a Chicken is My Aunt” is dedicated to the recent abnormality of ridiculous levels of anthropomorphism mixed with a general agricultural ignorance. I run into this constantly, both on the blog and in real life. I never worry about leaving Gibson in the truck in Washington County, as ride-along dogs are common as ticks, but in Vermont I worry someone will be standing there writing a note on my door. I always want to laugh, because if they knew what a farm dog goes through in a usual day....5 minutes in a car with a cracked window is a joke. There's a good chance by the time I got to Manchester Gibson has cut himself on a sharp briar in the woods, got burrs in tail feathers, faced a horned sheep head on and barely avoided her headbutt, ran till he was ready to collapse, got covered in mud....and loved every minute of it. Waiting in the car isn't always comfortable, but its more boring to him than dangerous.
Compassion is good. Animal abuse is bad. These are things we can all agree on, but when righteousness and ignorance hit you full force is makes you very, very tired. Just because an animal isn't in a situation you would want to be in means it is being abused. Just because an animal isn't constantly comfortable (I am rarely comfortable and have yet to be accused of self-human-abuse) doesn't make it a victim. I am all for animal welfare and practice it constantly, but comparing our comfort level to livestock is silly.
This is the easiest bread recipe I can offer you. Easier than the highly popular no-knead dutch oven recipes, and anyone can do it, even if you never, ever baked bread from scratch before. You don't need anything but a mixing bowl, flour, water, salt and active dry yeast and some sort of round bakeware to let it rise and bake in. It is an overnight, no-knead rise, so it's not insta-bread, but for about 5 minutes of effort before work you can have amazing fresh crusty bread every night for dinner. This is an adaption from the No-Knead recipe features in the NYtimes a while back.
Easy Crusty Bread
1. Pour a cup and a half of hot (not boiling) water into a mixing bowl and add a teaspoon of active dry yeast. Let it set for 5 minutes and if when you return the cloudy water is cloudy and there is an active foam bubbling on the top, your yeast is activated and you are ready for step 2.
2. Mix in 3 cups of flour (do not use all wheat flour, it won't rise. If you want wheat bread use half wheat and half white) a cup at a time into the yeasty warm water. Add a teaspoon of salt and mix it in as well while you turn the water into a sticky, even paste free of clumps.
3. now cover it with a cloth and leave it alone at room temperature for 8-12 hours.
4. When you return after your day at work, or after a night of sleep, check the bread dough. It should be bubbly and expanded in size. It is ready!
5. Sprinkle flour on your table and take out the whole doughy mass. Fold it over itself a few times and make it into a ball. You'll need flour on your hands to stop it from sticking. Now gently place the ball in your bowl again and let it rise back up for another hour or two.
6. Twenty minutes before you bake, turn the oven to 450 degrees and put your baking apparatus in at the same time you start the pre-heating. It could be a cast iron skillet, Dutch oven, Pyrex cake pan -whatever, but it has to heat up with the oven.
7. When it is heated to 450, take it out and place your ball of dough in it. It doesn't matter if it loses it's shape, it'll bake even.
8. Bake at 450 till the bread is browned, about 30-45 minutes. Keep an eye on it.
9. When it is done, take it out and let it cool before slicing, at least half an hour. Enjoy!
The next morning Lara raced over with cousin Meredith Robertson, double mounted on Lara's big bay Quarter Horse, Pit. At 16 hands the stallion was stunning. His black mane shedding a dusting of snow, cold air puffing from his wide nostrils as he trotted in from their canter up the swings of the mountain road.
From my view at the sheep shed on the hill I could hear Pit's shod hooves before I saw them, the clacking across the frozen ice and stones in the road was such a foreign sound if jostled me from my place on the hill by my favorite ram, Sal. I was leaning against the old boy on the soft dry straw of the shed, reading a copy of Pride and Prejudice so dog-eared and batted from mud and rainwater it was read more by memory than by sight. Adam always said the real owners of Ironale farm were not he and I, but Austen and Anvil. He understood the true rulers of this little realm were, but he named the farm after his two favorite things instead: blacksmithing and wort spirits. I kept the farm's name after he was gone. It sounded stronger than it was. It made me feel safe.
Yet there was no feeling of safety when I saw the dark brown haze of Pit and his passengers. I called Anvil back from his position in the far pasture and grabbed my crook. The black dog came running like a jack rabbit, but walked quietly by my side while I used the crook as a steadying cane down the snow-covered steepness. I yelled out to them, tucking the book into my thick leather belt behind my back. "What's the matter? What's the word?" I was concerned they had seen the same thing I had the night before, but the fact they were alive proved that they hadn't. I searched their eyes and the back of Pit for fear and sweat. They seemed tussled but not terrified. They swiftly walked Pit to the stone wall that made the gate for the entrance of my freehold. Meredith dismounted first, using the stones as a step ladder from the tall animal. Her brown wool cloak held tight around her neck by her hand. She was visiting Cambridge from Maryland, near the capital. She thought a quiet holiday in the countryside would do her good. But the look in her young eyes was not ease. She was white as a ghost between her blond locks and I wondered if perhaps they did see the monster, at a distance in field. I didn't know much about Meredith, but I did know she worked in a large hospital as a volunteer and was no stranger to gruesome sights. Lara seemed slightly more composed but still worried. She leaped down from Pit and quickly tied his reins to the hitch post by the front gate, The word IRONALE across it in twisted black wrought.
"We had planned to surprise you this morning by showing up with a thermos of coffee, cinnamon cakes, and this..." Lara pulled a hefty sack with a whale printed on it, the holy word SALT in thick type. "We thought we'd offer to rub those sides down with you and get the hams and bellies ready to smoke. But when we saw what happened down the road, I told my boy to pick up the pace and then as we passed the smashed pumpkins and bones...we started to run here."
Bones? I didn't know what to say, or if I should say anything at all. Admitting I was chased by a folk song monster the night before and gave up seventy pounds of their sow out of blind fear didn't seem appropriate. I asked them what she saw that caused such a ruckus on this fine morning. I tried to smile.
"Anna Caldwell, do you think we made up this tale? We were riding in the same tracks your pony cart left, laughing and enjoying this sunny morning when, as if your cart had been lifted off the ground into the sky, the tracks just stopped. And not just blown over by windrows or snowfall, but stopped clean. You could've set a book up in the straight edge of that track...."
I just stared at them.
"So we looked around, and felt somewhat ill all of a sudden, like as if someone put a curse on that very piece of ground. Then I looked ahead and the forest was just clean and pure as if no one had traveled it in a hundred years. We trotted on and then smashed pumpkins covered the ground and around the smashlings there wasn't a print or track of deer. Can you imagine that? So we kept on and the perfect corpse of pig bones lay right there, every rib and shoulder looking like you dipped the sow in acid. But the bones were black, like they were burned, but not a drop of fat or sprinkling of ash. Just a perfect pile of black bones in snow without a track. So we ran here with purpose. And if you don't tell us what happened we'll take you back their ourselves and show you."
I listened to this, my head heard all the words, but my mind couldn't take them all in.
"Anna? ANNA? Are you okay?"
The last things I heard before I fainted was the cry of Meredith as she reached out to grab my tartan. And as the world slowly dimmed into black another verse of the old song carried me into a nightmare.
...The weather, he owns it. The forest his mare. Thunder and wild winds are his only true lair. He can not be drowned or burned in a fire And all that he devours gone dark as a pyre...
The beast known as Birchthorn is watching us Yes Birchthorn is watching tonight...
When I came to, I was on my own kitchen floor. I didn't understand why I wasn't touching the wood and realized Meredith's heavy cloak was acting as a carpet. Lara handed me a glass of water from the stone crock at the counter.
"Anna. What just happened to you?"
I squinted at the sun shooting through the dirty windows. Who had time to clean windows? I thought this as I sat up, rubbing my temples. Meredith handed me a bottle of whiskey and I gladly accepted it. Lara shot her a look as if she didn't approve and Meredith whooshed it away with a hand wave and pointed at my face. "She needs it more than I did a bit ago! At least when I saw the black bones I didn't faint!"
Lara smiled, Meredith did too, and I felt more comfort than I had in days. The events of last night were so horrifying they didn't seem real once I was inside the farmhouse with locked doors and a loaded shotgun. I had thrown Sur into the stable with all his tack on and nailed a board across the barn door. The chickens and sheep stared at me from their roosts and hillside shelters, they had already been fed before I left the farm and didn't understand the fray at all. I waited for hours to hear banging on the wall and howls of the storm following me home, but they never came. Eventually, pure exhaustion took me over and I fell asleep sitting up in a chair, Anvil's head on my lap.
I knocked back a few fingers of whiskey and stood up, handing Meredith her beautiful cloak. It was rare I felt envy, but a riding cloak that warm in such a winter was a treasure.
"I'm sorry, I fainted. I've been out in this rare sun too long. It's made me daffy. Working for two and all, keeping this place afloat. I just got overwhelmed there for a moment"
"What happened on your ride home last night?"
I tried to think, and came up with a half truth of a response.
"I was riding back with Sur, calm and steady as a broody hen, when a squall of snow came out of nowhere. Covered the road in an instant, scared Sur all up. A globe off the cart's front crashed and broke and it scared Sur to the point of bolting. The pumpkins and pork flew off the cart in the breakaway and I'm sure the scavengers picked that meat clean in no time. Probably why no deer touched that squash..." I was actually scaring myself with the confidence I felt in the lie. I had never held anything back from Lara, she'd been my closest friend since Adam and I bought the farm four years earlier. She was the first person to introduce herself, offered to take us for a tour of the town's seed factory and proper rail station. She showed us the grand Rice Mansion and Cambridge Hotel, sweeping over the bustling downtown freight depot like a emperor over his people. Now I was, for some unspeakable reason, protecting the beast just to keep the illusion of my sanity in check. "You must have seen the spoils from the cargo and storm." My voice trailed off.
Lara crossed her arms. "And then you butchered and burned a pig before trotting home?"
"Frostbite." I said it like as if another voice had my throat. I coughed. "Frostbite, is all. the leftover flesh from the wolves and ravens went black, just like ours does on such nights, laying in the snow like that."
Meredith nodded, Lara cocked her head and looked at me as if something wasn't right in my tone. But she didn't press on. Strange things happened around here and sometimes it was better for all parties to accept the most logical story and go on with life. She grabbed the bottle of whiskey out of my hands, kicked back a dram, and then set it on the table.
"Okay ladies. We still have pork to salt and my coffee is getting cold." she grinned and slapped the bag of salt on the table. I didn't have the heart to tell her the other half of the pig was still in the cart.
After the pork was butchered, salted, and piece set into the barrel smoker behind the house—I agreed to join them for a trip into town. Since Pit was still wound from their ride (stallions always seem wound) I offered to drive Sur the three miles south to town proper. I said I was planning on heading into town anyway and Sur was already tacked up in the barn. Another lie.
We headed into town for the usual rounds. This was the main market day at the Freight Depot. All sorts of good would be on display in boxes that couldn't be delivered to merchants. It was usually second-quality stuff. Flowers with shoddy petals and stems, good for drying but not pretty enough for the dinner table. Leather with pock marks and barbed-wire tears, bruised fruits and wilted vegetables. I knew all the yardmen by first name, as many of them did business with Adam when his smithing shop was around the corner. I was eyeing a round of questionable cheddar when Meredith asked if there was a bookstore in town?
"Yes, over there." I said, flailing the wheel of cheese in the direction of Main Street. "Next to the hotel." She nodded and headed off that way and Lara was a few yards to my left, trying to haggle down a bolt of muslin. I tried to keep an air of calm around me, but my head was reeling. I was certain of what I saw, and the verses of the old song kept coming together. I had lied to friends with utter confidence, as if I was in service to Birchthorn himself, and yet I didn't even know what Birchthorn even was? All I knew was what the few memorized verses of the song told me, and if memory served me well enough, even the full song didn't explain what Birchthorn was or why he came and left this valley? While mindlessly piling cheese in small cairns on the table tops, I tried to remember where and when I heard that tune so many Octobers ago?
Goff. It was Ronald Goff, the librarian and chair caner. He kept books in his front of shop and his workshop was out back. The man was older now, in his seventies, but he always opened the library part of his home on Halloween night to tell legends and stories of the Battenkill valley. He had a fiddle and a strange old German zither and he played the zither while his wife played the fiddle and told stories to us while we sat cross-legged on the floor gnawing candied apples and swilling sweet cider. If he still knew the song, still had those lyrics written down, I might be able to understand what was going on. Any clue, any hint at all of what was happening in these winter woods and to my mind would be a sense of peace.
I dropped my cheese and hustled across town....
So there you have it chapter 2. Delivered as promised upon the story pot being full. Thank you to everyone who donated towards this goal, as it is such an amazing help to the farm and so much fun to craft. I hope you are enjoying it, a little intrigued, too. I am having fun welcoming you readers into the tale, making you part of this fictional version of Cambridge soaked-in-folklore in the early 20th century. And when the donation pot is full again, I will spin more of this yarn for all who want to know what happens next!
Dear Trent, you and your brother will be in the story soon! Promise!
I am just twenty dollars short of our chapter goal, I think the surge of initial excitement made the $300 mark so fast! I don't expect to reach that goal every time this swiftly, but as for today I would say you can expect a second chapter for certain, and soon!
I'll keep the story going long as readers are willing to support it, and I must admit, it is so much fun going home to characters and plot as much as it is to animals and the farm. Birchthorn is alive!
How do you picture the beast? What do you think it really is? (I know and I'm not telling!)
This regal beast is George. Lilly, his ginger-colored sister is still hiding behind the washing machine. They are in the mudroom with their litter boxes, food, and cat tree —away from the dogs for now. Thought they could use their own apartment suite while getting used to the place. In a few days I'll slowly introduce them to the wolves, but I think it'll be a while before we all get along.
I'm not worried about the cats though, they are huge! George is a portly Winston Churchill character and Lilly isn't any meek being either. I've never lived with cats this large...Here's to life with tigers.
The snow was so thick and came upon the forest road so fast, that the lanterns blew out from the angry wind that delivered it. One was hit to the ground and the globe smashed into a rock with a clatter as biting as the air around it. Sur, the small Haflinger pulling the shoddy farm wagon, stopped and lifted his two front hooves a foot off the ground, slamming them down with a concerned whinny. He shook out his flaxen mane, pressed his ear against his head and stared at the world he could see with blinders on. Other horses would have bolted at such a sudden fuss in the weather and glass. Yet that was the extent of his fit, and for that I was grateful. We were but three miles from the farmhouse, stranded in a blinding squall. Had he tore off into the night I would be without horse and cart in a storm. People have died in weather far better, far closer to home. Being alone without my rig was an unspeakable terror to my already pounding heart.
I jumped off the cart and clasped both doeskin reins in one hand, placing a flat palm of my other on the length of his nose. I whispered for him to be calm. He picked up his feet a few times, walking in place while he blew, but otherwise returned to the steady animal I knew. When Sur was calm enough, I went back to my leather shoulder bag under the unimpressive farm shop bench seat. Inside (among other things) were some matches, twine, lampwicks, and oil. It didn't take long to relight the left-side lamp, but it was barely enough glow to see the head of my horse in this weather. The storm seemed to be gathering. In the dim light around the left side of the cart I found a good long staff of maple and grabbed a handkerchief from a back skirt pocket. I soaked the rag in the lamp oil and tied it to the end of the staff, lighting it from the bravely turning torch on the cart. It exploded in flame and Sur craned his head around to see what force of nature brought light back to the path again. I tied it to the bench seat and let it burn a few feet above my head. In this wind no ash would burn me, and I just hoped it would last till we trotted home to the farm...
I jumped back onto the wagon bench, and wrapped a the wool blanket back around my legs. My feet were freezing, the wool socks below my slouch leather riding boots soaked with sweat from loading the cart. I had driven the six miles on back roads to the Thomason's farm. There Lara and her father helped me load up two sides of pork and a load of winter squash they owed in barter for some logging Sur and I had did at their home last weekend. My Thomason had a fine pair of quarter horses at his farm for saddle and carriage, but preferred not to use his only mode of transportation for rough forest work. "One casts a shoe or goes lame and this farm is done in." He said, and we shook on the barter. Sur was my only horse, but he had worked hard his entire life and was surefooted as an Alpine Buckling. All that aside, I needed the silver.
I thought it would be a quick and gentle ride. These were roads both Sur and I knew as well as our own farm's pastures, but the weather change came so quickly it seemed as if someone had just cursed our travel. We were in a new and strange place without recourse. Turning back seemed foolish when we were halfway between the Thomason's and home. So, ever onward, I clicked and asked Sur to step up easy. Under my breath I muttered "Fortune favors the brave..."
I cursed that I had not brought my dog along. He would have been a comfort next to me on the bench, and could see things in the forest neither horse or woman ever could. My imagination wandered to tales and songs I heard of as a child, of a beast that once roamed the wild places where the stone walls and hedges stopped. You can't help but sink into myth on nights like these.
I wanted him to trot but he refused. I suppose it was for the best. Sometimes horses are more sensible than their drivers. At a brisk walk we moved across the gently sloping road- all thick forests of pine and birch on both sides. The only light around us was the yellow glow, like a locomotive campfire hovering above us. It crackled and hissed as the wet wood itself started to burn, and I prayed we could at least make it to the open fields at the base of our mountain before it was gone to darkness.
I pulled the leather hat by the large brim over my knit hat and wrapped the scarf around my head a few times tighter. My skirt was a heavy wool and I was grateful for that as well. I wore it over my canvas trousers more as an attached blanket than out of respect for looking like a proper lady, as I was anything but. I used to be seen as an upstanding woman, but ever since I took on the farm alone I had become an outcast and thing of pity to eyes behind shelves in the mercantile. I couldn't blame them, I suppose. A young woman living alone on a sheepfarm in the upper Hudson Valley was a rarity, and certainly not in my original plans, but it was where I had landed so I dug in. The man I was engaged to died from that Spanish Flu when he demanded taking our best lambs to the city on a barge heading down the Hudson last summer. He said he knew people were sick there, but since all the other farmer's had refused to bring their meat into the city the price they could fetch could build a new stable for that horse I had been dreaming of. He promised he would be careful, and he promised he would not shake a hand or walk into a single home or tavern. He made his handsome deal and then returned with a fever and cold hands. He was dead three weeks later.
So I was alone on our six acres with a flock of sheep, collies, and this pony I'd bought cheap at auction with some of the money left from the last lambs New York City surely would ever see from this farm. Sur's full name was Surcoat, because "that was all he was good for" was what the auctioneer taunted as he was brought out the rib and limping ghost into the ring as foddertrot for stew and leather. I bought him so cheap I could have bought a roll of butcher paper and twine instead. I treated him like a sheep till he healed and was ready to train again. Now the auctioneer calls him the same respectable moniker I call him when I pass his home in town, Sur. He deserves it.
Yet no matter how steady a horse it does not have the eye of a dog, and I wished my large black sheepdog Anvil was beside. Dark as cast iron and tougher than any ram that might charge him, Anvil was a beast to be reckoned with. I felt stronger beside him and on this awful night he could have me singing instead of darting my eyes and praying into the wind.
Sur could feel the tension in the reins and walked even more cautiously, slowing our trip home. All I could think of was the fireplace in the kitchen and the dutch oven of rabbit stew on the rack and how far away they seemed as the wind grew colder, more biting at my cheek. "Com'on gelding" I whispered, and tried to be more confident as I snapped the reins, lifted my voice and asked for a trot. The haflinger picked up his pace and I started to ease as I noticed the snow starting to calm, leaving as quickly as it came. Fresh white powder covered the trees and more fell gently all around us as the torch went out above my head. Through the cleared path I could now see the opening in the trees and a hint of the full moon. My spirits raised I gave a small cheer and a weight slipped off my shoulders like an sack of grain.
Just ahead, just where I could barely see well beyond the yellow circle of light, an animal dashed across the white road. It was large as a bear, fast as a horse, and black as the sky. Sur stopped dead in his gait, ears shot up and forward. My head shot up too as I tried to see where the animal went. "it couldn't have been..." I whispered to myself, now watching Sur with the intensity of a predator. Sur looked into the forest where the animal was, eyes unblinking, staring at a single point not twenty yards away. I could see nothing, but didn't understand why the horse trapped in harness and cart, was acting calm as if someone had walked by with a bucket of oats while he was tied to a post. My heart was slamming into my ribcage as I put legend and reality together. Words from an old, local, fiddle ballad played in my mind.
...The cattle won't low and the lambs will not gasp But when he is near them their heartbeats won't last They never show fear, he won't let them cry Trapped silently in his eyes right before they die...
The beast known as Birchthorn is watching them Yes Birchthorn is watching tonight...
The song played, verse after verse in my mind as I stared at the pony in the cart. An animal the size of a shorthorn just raced across the night and Sur had been more terrified by broken glass. I stopped breathing. I listened. I slowly turned my head to the place where the equine gaze laid.
It was nearly impossible to see the dark forest, or to see what crouched amongst a field stone fence. Guttural and low growls, as grating as a mill grinding corn, shot through my body. Sur just stared, calm as a colt nursing in spring. I suddenly felt grateful I still had wet and cold feet under my blanket. If this was what I thought it was, if this was the monster long considered gone from folksong and legend, we had about three minutes to regard this world before both of us were nothing more than another verse at next Halloween's balefire dance.
I was done staring. "STEP UP AND HIKE!" I shouted to Sur as I slapped the reins and kicked towards his rear at the same time. The horse now broken from his spell tore off as if he just remembered what a hundred-thousand generations of herd animals knew before him. He dug his hooves into the ground, the cart nearly flipping over on its side at the turns that lead to the opening into the woods. He cried out as he ran, and I turned my head to see if we were being chased. Behind us a black blur of fur seemed to glide at us, like a banshee. Jutting from it's circle of black, arms as thick as trunks and claws gripping into the ground behind me were all I could see. It was silent now, silent as death and it scared me more than the growls I heard in the dark. It gained on us. Each clawing of the earth towards our cart seemed to pull the road closer to him. I screamed to Sur, "HOME HOME HOMMEEE!" And used the reins as a whip to slap his hindquarters before I released the reins entirely. Now just two miles from the farm I had to trust him to flee to the safest place he ever knew. As the cart jutted and crashed over potholes and limbs, skittered around corners at a breakneck gallop, I crawled over the bench to where the pumpkins and sides of pork resided. Soon as I got to the back of the cart Sur hit a small sapling downed from the wind and the entire contents of the back of the cart flew into the air, pumpkins falling back into the snow, pork sliding off the sides. I nearly slid off myself, but grabbed the leg of the bench as my body swung off the side. I swear I felt hot breath on it as bare boot leather flew through the air. I looked back to see an animal unlike anything I had ever witnessed loping beside just to our side. I wanted to stare, to take in the beast for what it was, but the chaos of the cart's cargo, the falling snow, the terror of it all forced me to act, not study. Inspired by a wish to see daylight, I swung my body back onto the cart and pushed my back against the wagon's bench. Using both feet I kicked a side of pork right into the road and watched as the black blur of hair and sound descended on it. I didn't know if I had seconds or sanctuary, so I climbed to the bench, regained hold of the reins and slapped them hard as I could, forcing Sur to reach farther and sweat heavier than he had in the few months we knew each other. Home was just around these switchbacks, and I was being tailed by a monster I once believed only lived in music and bedtime stories.
No one would believe me. I knew this as I watched the water fly off Sur's neck as we raced up the mountain, past the lights of neighbor's candles and fires. I didn't let him slow down, and I didn't dare let go of my held breath until we were within eye shot of the flock, Anvil racing down the hill to welcome back the animals he knew so well. I screamed at him to come to the wagon as it slowed to a trot and he jumped over the side-rail fences and slammed into me as he did so. I held his coat like a child hugging a father back from war. "You're sleeping inside tonight. No arguments". Anvil looked up at me with yellow eyes, concerned as a dog can look about a woman wrapped up in sheep hair.
As my dog stared at me, as my horse opened his mouth to pant and blow, as the stars started to come out of the cloud-covered sky, revealing the full moon and sheep on the mountain pasture—I could only think of the question I asked my father when I first heard the song of the beast on Hallow's night long ago. "Why do they call the monster Birchthorn, papa? Birch trees aren't supposed to have thorns?" My father stared into my eyes, and with a stare not unlike Anvil's, he put a hand on my frail shoulder and replied;
"And these forests aren't supposed to have monsters, darling."
That was the first chapter of Birchthorn. It's an online novel I'd like to write right here on this blog. Using an idea of several other fiction writers, the way Birchthorn will work is this: I write a chapter, and then the blog readers who want to hear the next bit of the story, make a small donation to the blog, a few dollars or so. When we hit $300 in donations, the story continues. So every chapter is a community-supported story, a way to help pay the bills for me, and a way to get an entirely original story for you.
Now, here is the kicker. I am going to create this novel using names and people from the Cold Antler Farm community! this is our story, you will be characters and parts of the tale. I used Lara so far, thinking of how she fell asleep by the Bun Baker the last night of Antlerstock this year, and how that sense of comfort is what the cart-driver felt so far away from as the beast followed the cart through the woods. You can bet that many more of you will show up in this early-20th century tale of a small farming community's dealings with a monster of legend. It will be family friendly, but spooky. I hope you will join me for the ride. I already have plans for an ex-seat weaver out there (wink wink).
So to keep the story going, make a donation with the donate button under the blog. And this is, of course, voluntary. No one has to pay anything, and no one will be asked to ever pay to read this blog. But when a reader suggested this idea to me, it felt like a blessing and answered prayer. She wrote, "your work is valuable and you are a writer." And I read that over a few times. Since most of my writing is for free, on this blog, I never see it as a thing of value, just something I do. But perhaps a novel is a different approach, and through comments, feedback, and this community we can create a work of fiction about real farm skills and life, with names and faces we know, and have a fun time doing it!
It won't be perfect. You are helping create a manuscript, not a finished piece. I will have to keep going back to fix things and correct mistakes but you can help there too, if a plot goes astray or I explained harnessing a horse the wrong way. We can all make this happen, and who knows what will come of it. Maybe Birchthorn will become a real book? If that's the case, it'll be even more exciting to see this on;ine community of urban and rural readers and homesteaders become a world of fiction, farming, monsters and myth for the ages!
If no one likes this idea, the story will simply go away, and no one is worse for the wear. But I hope you want to hear more, because I certainly want to write more!
So the first Webinar was delivered to the subscribers and I think it was met with a a happy applaud! It felt good to hear some of the reviews emailed in, such as:
"It was well worth the wait. I loved it. I loved the stories too. I don't know how you have time to do all you do. You rock. Keep them coming."
"Awesome work Jenna! I ordered a dulcimer for Christmas and am still waiting for it to arrive. I feel like I'll have a head start with your great instructions. Really enjoyed the webinar and thought it was very well done."
"This is freakin' awesome. I so want a dulcimer now..."
"Thanks for sharing--love the webinar format!"
"We just finished watching and listening to your Webinar. Marvelous job! We really enjoyed your music lesson -- it was very encouraging, you explained just what a newbie needs to know at first, and you gave meaningful reasons why we could benefit from making some music for ourselves. I was glad to hear that we don't have to be a prodigy to begin learning an instrument."
You can sign up for webinars any time of year, and will get all the videos you missed of that season (we are in the 2012) season now. To sign up for the entire season is a hundred dollars, but you get your money's worth! This last one was over half an hour. It started with Dulcimer 101, and next up is working with wool from sheep to yarn. We will wash, dry, card, and spin it using a drop spindle. After that wool working webinar the rest will follow the workshops (generally) and you should expect 9 to 12 more this year. Some will be longer, and some shorter. At the end of the season you can get them as a DVD, so you have them to watch whenever you want. I am hoping to sell enough video subscriptions to buy a newer computer (the one I am using is from 2005) so I can create better videos and a better blog here. But right now, just running the joint is what I use the bulk of shares for. Subscriptions to webinars and workshop attendance is what makes up for the salary cut I voluntarily took this past fall. I figured if the dream is to work on the farm full time as a writer and farmer, then I better see if I can cut it just giving up one day of pay before I give up five.
That day is a while off, but so far I am making it (just!) and I consider that a blessing. I have all of your support and encouragement to thank you for how far I have managed to get towards my dream.
Hey, would anyone like it if I kept that story going of driving home in the horse cart at night? Maybe wrote a little more and more every few days? If I wrote a fictional piece about me and the farm would it confuse people? What should I call those entries?
Read this post on friend and fellow farming author, Ben Hewitt's blog. He talks about the upcoming hog slaughter and wanted to share it. He writes about the animals, friends, neighbors, and shared work that will feed a group of people. Also, dog nuts. Here's some of Ben's fine writing, if you don't already tend his blog, get to it right quick.
On Saturday, we kill the pigs. It goes well; one shot each followed by a quick probe of the knife to loose the blood and as always, the shock of the sheer quantity of it, spreading across the frozen ground like unfurling sheets. Ryan and Jocelyn show up, and we spend the next two hours skinning and gutting and sawing and hoisting the halves to hang overnight so they’ll stiffen for cutting the next day. We have lunch. We skin and gut and saw and hoist some more. We are tired and the job is done....
I know a lot of folks out there have mixed feelings about Jimmy Carter, but those of us who are homebrewers love the man for making homemade beer and wine a legal endeavor again. From the time of prohibition to 1978 it wasn't legal to make alcohol at home as a hobby or for home consumption. But when an amendment was added to a bill allowing zymurgy in the home once again, homebrewing clubs, stores, and small micro-breweries exploded.
One very micro, micro-brewery is this farm. I'm new to homebrewing, but I adore the entire process. From heating wort over the stove to clasping the final cap on the last bottle, it feels almost subversive. Like I am part of something I'm not supposed to be. Anyone out there who has opened a hand-sealed cap off a bottle of a backyard batch knows this feeling. A buzz in a bottle, a creation of alcohol and carbonation. I remember seeing that first ever IPA froth up and I could not believe I had done something in my kitchen I had only see done from factory products. It's like wearing a pair of jeans you sewed yourself. Totally possible, but rare to the uninitiated.
I am a homebrewer and proud of it. Equipment in this kitchen includes items like siphons and bottle cappers, sanitizing potions and saved brown bottles to wash and reuse from other (larger breweries). There are Guinness bottles full of hard cider in the fridge right now with shiny cold caps. The cider making wasn't exactly "brewing" since I wasn't over a hot kettle mixing grains and hops and then rapidly cooling it off before sticking it in a fermenting container with yeast. This was just apple juice fed honey and yeast and fermented twice to give it a kick. I drink it cold and feel the happy sting, like a sharp, flat, champagne. It's 12% alcohol and that's enough to stop anyone from driving the school bus after a few pints.
I think for a lot of people who like the idea of homebrewing, it just seems so complicated? The sanitizing, chemical reaction, racking bottles...what a bother. Truth is it can be. But it can also be very simple, just like any craft practiced in the home...
I can hand you a fiddle and ask you to play Old Joe Clark or a Bach Concerto. One is more complicated and usually higher praised for the effort and results, but that doesn't mean Old Joe Clark doesn't sound like a fun tune, get you dancing, and you made it yourself. My homebrew is like that. It's not fancy (yet), and nothing to brag about at the homebrewing contests around the area. But no one can dispute that what comes out of those bottles is frothy, home made beer. And to pour a glass of black homemade stout and play a fiddle tune you taught yourself is just as satisfying and real as any chicken raised for the table or hand-kneaded loaf of bread. It is growing a celebration from seed.
Today I'll mix and start a batch of an Irish Black Stout from a kit I have here. It'll be ready to drink in about three or four weeks. The small pony keg I use makes exactly a case of 12pz bottles, and a case lasts me a long time. I just ordered a intermediate kit from Northern Brewer called Peace Coffee Stout. It's a dark, smooth beer with coffee and spices in it. I added a larger brewing kettle to my arsenal as well and bought some growlers to fill and carbonate for parties or music circles in the spring. This batch should be ready by the Meat and Beer party workshop, where we'll brew several types of beers together and make homemade sausage from scratch (thanks to Kevin and Bacon). That day will end with music, homebrew, and some seriously good brats and buns. If you're coming, bring your instruments!
I moved all thirty chicks outside in this weirdly warm weather we are having. It is 40 degrees out there. I swear it feels like a thunderstorm is coming...
P.S. If you are brand, brand new to homebrewing there are several beginner kits. I already talked about Mr. Beer (a company that I truly adore) for their kit beers anyone with a 2-gallon steel kettle can make good beer from. I suggest this super easy mix-and-pour brew kit for all beginners. For those ready for a little more of a challenge, there is this beautiful and inexpensive kit from the folks at Brooklyn Brew Shop for making a gallon of beer at home with a small glass carboy, and i can't think of a better gift to hand to hands-on friends. And no, neither of these companies are CAF sponsors!
All 15 youngins made it through their first night, and it dropped below 30 degrees! The rest of the gand will join them soon. I'm proud of Steve, Molly, and I (mostly Steve) for putting together this simle structure to raise thirty meat birds in the middle of winter at low cost!
And when those birds are in freezer camp, I am going to turn it into a cold frame with a plastic top for kale and lettuce! Fresh chicken over roasted kale in winter, I'm upping my game!
Fridays in winter are such an amazing blessing. Any hesitation I had about giving up a fifth of my professional salary for one more day a week on the farm melts on mornings like this.
The fires are lit and the animals are fed. The Creek Drank the Cradle is on the record playing, spinning lazily in the living room. With the giant television gone and no speakers in that main room with the stove: the record player is the center of high-tech entertainment. Last night while paging through seed catalogs I listened to Johnny Cash at San Quentin and closed my eyes and smiled when he and June sang together. What a story, theirs. This morning it is a favorite record I know every lyric and tempo by heart. It turns with that static and scratching I love. The record player is older than I am. It's still got it.
I woke up to a snow covered farm, just a dusting. But still, all that clean white covering up months of senescence and mud, it is purifying to the farmer's soul. It makes the fires inside warmer, the mind expand into wild and older places. Outside the morning was warmer than it has been this week. The sun rose over the barn and Gibson was by my side through chores. The gosling is doing great, almost twice its hatch size and always with mom and dad. I decided to let the lad stay. A trio of geese just sounds right, doesn't it?
About those older and wilder places: on the way home from work last night I cut through Shushan because I wanted a slower drive over the river and through the woods (literally) to the farm. As I drove through the frozen night, it felt so still and cold with the new snow it was as if it had been paused and only my gray truck was left to move past the statues of does behind birch trees and windless pines. Suddenly, a snow squall started up again and the forest became a live again. In the streetlampless roads the only lights are the ones mounted on the front of your car and just ahead a dark form raced across the road and far into the night.
I don't know what it was. A deer, probably, or a bear. It could have been a dog or coyote or any other sort of North Country critter but it was fast and silent. I imagined myself not inside a V8 pickup in 2012, but in a horse-drawn farm wagon with nothing but two torch lanterns on the front. Could you imagine moving through a winter squall in near pitch-black roads with nothing but a yellow orb around you and your trotting horse? Wrapped up in a wool blanket and coat, a knit hat tight around your head and covering your ears, with a thick leather hat on top of that to keep the weather out? A scarf around your face, thick deerskin gloves, and the only sounds the wind and hooves? Now, imagine just out of view a black blur races across the road. The horse's head and ears shoot up in alert and he blows hard, stops in his tracks. You click him forward and his ears go from pressed against his head to orbiting around, listening for the monster. There's no radio, no steel and glass terrarium to keep you from the sounds of crackling brush, banshee winds, and then the low guttural tones of something just 20 yards to your right.
Don't you think your mind would take in that racing animal totally differently? That black blur would become a tale! Another sighting of a legend, or something out of folklore like a werewolf or ghost. You would take off your hat and wool layers and set them by the fire indoors and as you sat down to your dinner of slow-booking beans and beef from the dutch oven and ladle, you would tell everyone about what you and the horse saw, just 3 miles from the farmhouse...
I sometimes wonder if we lost all the electricity, all the modern, numbing conveniences of the world that treat many of us like we are handicapped—if myth would rise again? I'm not saying I want that (I have grown fond of my plug-in cage) but I certainly think I could deal with it just fine, and that a different kind of synapse would fire driving home in the snow. The forest would become bigger, wooly, and a place where magic and mystery writhe again. A part of me loves that idea. Another part of me is still nervous about a catamount on the barn roof. I'm not sure if it's hypocrisy or just idle thought, but either way I'd still like to drive a horse cart home in the snow one day. A come home and tell a story about it.
It may be the middle of winter, but that isn't stopping those of us with seed catalogs on our coffee tables from dreaming. I am already planning my gardens for next year, and how to best grow herbs, flowers, and vegetables to add to the farm kitchen and pantry next season. I'll be installing a south-side facing mini greenhouse on the farm house's outer wall to start Kale and other greens soon as the below zero temperatures fade. I can't help it, soon as the Holidays are behind me I just want to get back into the dirt...
Want to get dirty too?
Annie's Heirloom Seeds (that's some of the Annie's Heirloom Seed family in the photo) has agreed to try out a sponsorship on the blog for a month, and in the spirit of our collective cabin fever, has offered up to the blog a wonderful giveaway! Annie's is offering five Beginner's Garden Collection Seed Sets to the readers of this blog. The collection includes five easy-to-grow vegetables you'll never find in the produce isle of your supermarket. They include: Contender Bush Bean, Boothby's Blonde Cucumber, Black Beauty Zucchini, Annie's Lettuce Blend, and Annie's Radish Mix. In a few months you could have your own salads under cold frames, radish heads poking out of dark healthy soil, and bean and squash seeds started indoors. By this Autumn you could have beans saved in your freezer, special pickles in jars, and have had enough roasted Zucchini to write a ballad about it.
What makes these seeds "beginner" is they are easy to grow, without much fuss or special needs. Besides some good soil and well-seasoned compost in a raised bed, all you need is a trellis for the cucumbers to climb. That, and some water, weeding, and critter vigilance and this could be the year you finally get some food out of your backyard! Find a little time, and get those hands dirty.
To win one of five Beginner's Collections, leave a comment saying what other heirloom vegetables you are planning to grow this summer? They can be ones you discovered on the Annie's site, or ones you have saved for years and years. One entry per reader please. But, if you are willing to share a link to this contest on Facebook, you can come back and write a second comment that says "SHARED!" to double your chances for winning!
This is a Maine Coon, a large domestic breed of cat suitable for a famer who lives with a pack of wolves. Two are arriving here on Sunday, adopted from a home who needs to find a new place for their twenty and fifteen pound pets, Lilly and George.
I always hesitated getting housecats, worried the dogs would bother them. I had been warned when I got Jazz that he used to chase cats...but George and Lilly are huge, clawed, and Jazz is now 14 years old and can't get up the stairs easily. I'm not worried. Well, not about the cats anyway.
Get ready for thirty five pounds of feline Cold Antler!
I joined the coalition today, and proud to be a member. The world of food is going to change a lot in my lifetime, and small, vibrant farms are (what I think) will feed families of the future. It's cheap to join, just twenty dollars a year, and helps support a non profit fighting for small farmers, A decent Farm Bill, and running summits and meetings around the nation.
Monday afternoon I loaded up the truck at Nelson Greene's Farm with some of the last hay stores he had for the year. Nelson's hay is the best I have ever seen, and worth every penny at five dollars a bale. Not a blade of grass is yellow, all green and dry as tinder. His bales are nearly 60-70lbs, enormous and nutritious. I was sad to load up the last 23 bales I might get from him. As I sat four bales high (about 12 feet off the ground) I looked over his barn and fields and listened to him talk to a gentlemen named Harold about his new angus in the field below. He was proud of those beefs, and I was proud of him. Nelson is 72 years old, raising cows, hauling hay bales, and can lift me off the ground with one hand on my belt buckle. His hands are the size of basketballs, and he is always laughing. I got off the truck by putting a foot into his two gloved hands and he lowered me down as if I was a kindergardener. Farming, in his case, was a magic fountain. He might be in the hospital every so often for breathing problems due to a lifetime of dust and haying, but that is his biggest health issue. If I am this lucky and alive at 72 I will consider myself among the blessed.
After both Harold and I had our trucks loaded up, we headed down route 22 to Salem. I didn't realize it but two bales had fallen off the truck on the trip south. It wasn't until I pulled into the Stewart's for a cup of coffee and a wheat bun with peanut butter that I noticed the gapes in my load. I groaned. That would feed my hoofstock for an entire day, and cost ten dollars. With hay being so dear, I shook my head and chalked it up as a loss and a lesson.
Then I heard someone call my name and glory be, it was Harold! The 60+ year-old man had stopped after each bale fell and loaded them onto his truck. Then when I pulled into the gas station he did too, and I was so happy to see the man. I knew he could have easily kept that hay for his seven horses, but he returned it. He helped me load it back onto the Dodge and tie it down with baling twine from his own rig.
Around here, we look after each other. And Harold and Nelson both know you gotta keep an eye on a greenhorn like me. Can't even tie down her hay yet...
I was at lunch a few week's ago with Jon, talking about blogging. He said one of the best things he ever did for his own blog was remove the comments in his posts. He said his blog wasn't a conversation or an argument, it was a place to share his writing and art. He was not going to spend his time defending himself, or reading negativity, or welcoming controversy in a life striving for peace and spirituality.I think he's on to something.
Part of me wants to stop the comments here, but I do not want to lose the open forum of this blog. I have made some great friends, networked with farmers across the country, and have been able to address people's questions and concerns because of the comment section. However, it seems that over the past few months things have gotten combative in that part of the blog. Some anonymous commenters are overly sensitive to the content they read, and overly insensitive about how they respond to it. Thinner skins and angrier words are a dangerous combination.
And not necessarily an unwelcomed one! Here is my solution: You are free to say anything you want on this blog about me. Go right on ahead, but from here on out if you are going to say something in anger, resentment, or complaint you need to do it with your real name and contact information, just as I have. Anyone who has something degrading to say about my views, my reader's views, or the conversation being held here who can't also publicly link back to their real name and email address will be deleted. There is no credibility here behind angry anonymity.
This doesn't mean you all have to share your full name and email address to give advice or say hello or ask questions. No one needs to make a new user name unless they have a bone to pick or hurtful things to say. In that case you need to do it to my face.
"That is a beautiful Springer Spaniel!" A stranger said to Gibson and I. He was in his forties with his young son outside a shop in downtown Cambridge. He then asked if it was okay to pet Gibson and I said sure, of course he could, and then I couldn't help myself. I introduced my dog as a Border Collie, not a Springer Spaniel.
The man instantly changed his demeanor from open and friendly to slightly abashed. It was subtle but clear as if someone dumped water on his face. I also corrected him in front of his young son. I was hit with a big ol' stick of realization...
This wasn't life-saving information, nor was it something that would show up in a voting booth or grocery list. He was not a dog professor or trainer, making a living off wrong information. And it's not like he was about to enter a game show and someone would flash dogs on a screen, and knowing what a border collie was by sight would win him a million dollar prize...
I had no reason to correct him so why did I do it? He was being perfectly happy and polite. If a 40-year-old man can't tell a springer spaniel from a sheepdog then he probably doesn't need to know (or care about) the difference. All I did in pointing out his mistake was possibly stop him from complimenting the next dog he saw. Possibly make him consider being friendly to the next stranger he meets with a puppy. That's a damn shame, to possibly stop a flow of kindness from a person. Already we are so rarely nice and open to strangers in this country. So many rarely go out of our way to tell people on the street kind things. And there I was, smiling through a smarmy rejoinder, correcting a stranger just because I could.
I just corrected someone in the post below because they called my hay straw. Why the heck did I need to do that? Soon as I saw it posted in reply my chest fell. There I go again... What if it stops that reader from commenting again, or another reader who was considering commenting stop because they don't want to make a mistake? We worry so much about perceptions already nowadays. Why am I adding to it?
Growing up takes the whole time, doesn't it?
The next time a person tells me I have a beautiful setter or pointer or mutt I am going to thank them and compliment them on their hair cut. This world needs a lot more sweetness in it.
I'm enjoying this long weekend, spending a lot of time catching up on rest and working on the farm. I finished the Dulcimer Webinar, and soon as I can upload the whole 34 minutes of it, I will email it to the entire list. I tried today, twice, and either I exported the video too high of a resolution, or I need to take it on a DVD to a friend's computer and upload it from there. Either way, the latest you will get it is Tuesday night, dear subscribers, and I think it's a heck of a way to welcome 2012. The video will also come with emailed links to PDFs for the song taught, and other resources you can use as beginner strummers. Let me know what you think of it!
I got a local farmer to deliver a truckload of hay yesterday and it was enough to build the Freedom Ranger's winter Oasis. Friends Steve and Molly came by to help build it, as the birds were ordered by them in our joint-deal. (They order the chicks, I raise them, and I get to keep half for my own freezer.) It took longer than I thought it would, than any of us did. But the final design was safe, warm, and predator proof as possible. Soon as the birds are a little older and this coming week's lows (hanging around zero degrees!) warm up, I can move a trial group outside. I'm pretty confident they will be comfortable. I sure would be! That thing is like a heat igloo.
On a more personal note, five times this weekend I started, and then deleted, long posts about how in just a few years of farming I have experienced such a change of spirit and heart. I kept falling into lists and examples though, saying things like "I can't imagine buying gravy at the grocery store!" or "I'll never not own a pickup truck." While these things are certainly true, that's not the change I am talking about. Learning skills, getting used to chores, owning 4x4 vehicles does not reflect what I was trying to convey. So I will work on it, and hopefully explain what goes on in a woman's mind 5 years into farming solo. The security and insecurities of it. How I see friends, people, experiences, morals, so many things differently. If this sounds vague, well, that's because it is for me too. But I think when I figure out how to communicate this baling twineline of mental evolution towards the authentic self I strive for (not there yet), it will resonate with many of you on the same path, or who yearn to be. That is my writer's challenge of 2012. To tell the story of how a person grows when they plant themselves on 6.5 acres.
I hope you all had a safe and grateful New Years, and will have an amazing 2012. Bring it on.
P.S. The television and microwave got the boot yesterday.
I'm very excited to announce this special workshop coming to Cold Antler on May 12, 2012. It's about a topic on many homesteader's minds and the occasional topic of discussion on this blog: Emergency Preparedness and the Future of Energy. The focus will be specifically on preparing your small farm or homestead for a disaster (natural or man made) and how the future of energy will affect us as and how you can be ready for it. And there are going to be two amazing guest presenters sharing their minds and experiences on this topic: Kathy Harrison and James Howard Kunstler.
Kathy is the author of the book Just in Case: How to be Self-Sufficient when the Unexpected Happens, and James Howard Kunstler, an internationally-renowned speaker and author on Peak Oil and Collapse. His book, The Long Emergency, as well as Kathy's, will be included in this workshop. Both have been featured in several television shows and documentaries on these topics They are leaders in the field. And both agreed to help set up this event as a way to support Cold Antler Farm, I'm lucky to know them both.
The day of conversations and demonstrations will focus on personal disaster prep for your own farms and families. Kathy Harrison will talk about things you can do to prepare for when that ice storm takes out the power for a week, and what you can do in your current situation even if it is an apartment in the city. Topics covered will include food and water, car and personal emergency packs, first aid kits, non-electric alternatives for everyday appliances, alternative energy for your home and gadgets, gardening and preserving food, hunting and fishing, and all day questions will be welcomed and answered.
While some topics covered will be controversial, all will be based on practical skills and knowledge. This is not a Survivalist Training Camp, Tin Foil Hat Sewing Circle, or a UN stake out. If you're looking for a scary day talking about the end of the world, it isn't that either. This is a day about empowerment, action, preparing, and safety. It's about knowing that if a tree crushes your car in a storm and you're snowed in for 3 days without power you, your kids, and the dogs will have a lamp-lit scrabble night by the fireplace with some back-up kerosene heaters with a warm meal you cooked on the gas grill on the deck. Kathy will be explaining to us exactly why being prepared matters, and our responsibilities to do so. I'm sure she'll be happy to sign books and field your questions about many homesteading and preparedness topics. She has a heck of a farm!
JHK will be hitting us from a different angle. He'll be having a conversation with us on energy, peak oil, and the bigger picture, as well as his thoughts on what's in store through the next few years. Get a chance to hear one of the leading people in the field in a home setting talking about communities and localized economies. Hear his theories on why we should be thinking more about things like trains, local businesses, sustainable farm practices, and other topics. Get your copy of World Made By Hand signed by the author in the very county the book was written about!
The workshop runs from 10AM - 3PM Saturday May 12th at the farm. A water bath canning demonstration, a pressure canner overview, backyard homesteading tour, and homegrown music and home brewing will also be discussed. James is one heck of a fiddler and has been known to saw out a tune here at the farm on occasion, maybe he'll bring his along? So I hope you'll join us in this information-packed weekend talking about how to prepare for the worst, and feel safe and comfortable no matter what mother nature, your boss, or the economy throws at you!
Email me at Jenna@itsafarwalk.com to reserve a spot! Limited to 20!
I only have four things to discuss tonight because this woman is tired, and seriously in need of an adult beverage. I got some rest today but also unloaded a truck of hay, entertained some guests, and did some serious stall mucking. However, these four items are of great import in the life of this farm and blog:
1. A catamount has been sighted in Cambridge, 6 miles from Cold Antler!!! I heard it from the horses mouth (err, Julie Dugan's mouth) when her and her husband Dennis stopped by the farm today to check out my Bun Baker wood stove and sit for tea. They told me they both saw what was certainly a catamount, a tawny brown cat about 3-4+ feet long with a tail easily 3 feet long, at close range to their farmhouse. And for those of you certain "It's not a puma!" (I hope you said that with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent). These are educators in the community who know wildlife and exactly what they saw. They are the fourth sighting in the last few weeks around this area as well, I am told. They have since bought a rifle, air horns, mace, and set up a gamer camera! Suddenly my backyard has turned into a place of mystery and concern, as silly as that may sound. But I sure did look up in the trees when I did my night rounds tonight!
2. Julie agreed to come instruct and play at the Mountain Music workshop! This is a HUGE DEAL! She's a nationally known clawhammer player, and has taught all over the nation at banjo camps and festivals. She's amazingly talented and said she'd bring her whole music group and old mountain instruments too (she has over 30 banjos!). This is a great treat to any banjo folks coming to the workshop this winter! And remember, farm food and a fiddle giveaway happen that day too!
3. A reader emailed me about blood in her hen's eggs. More than the usual little red spot. She asked what to do. I tried to email you darling, but Comcast blocks itsafarwalk.com as spam, so no dice. Here is my best guess: red spots (more than usual) mean a vitamin A deficiency. Put a teaspoon (no more!) or it diluted in a cup of warm water and mix it into an entire gallon of feed every day for the flock (depending on flock size, the ration of liver oil to feed is 2%). If the yokes are blood red, like the whole yoke, DO NOT EAT THE EGGS and know this might be cholera. Research both of these online and be mindful of the symptoms! Remove any infected birds from the flock by culling. Don't get the hatchet out right away though, most of the time it's the vitamin A thing.
4. Test results came back from the lab. My mole was not cancerous, and melanoma has been defeated, at least for now! I'm okay! It's not a puma!
Everyone with a backyard flock should pick up The Chicken Health Handbook. It is like having a poultry vet on your bookshelf (you can actually afford) and understand!
Last year I had to sell my Leaping Deer Dulcimer to make some bills, and sent it off to a new home at a reader's house. But this month I got Craggy Mountain Music to sponsor the blog and instead of payment via cash, we bartered for this little girl. Such a beautiful tone, and what could be more CAF then a mountain instrument with antlers!
I have only every played TK Obrien's dulcimers. Craggy Mountain Music is his site, and I highly reccomend, I have long before he agreed to support CAF.
You'll see more in the Dulcimer Webinar! Coming real soon! Got 15 more minutes filmed this week!
No animal even remotely compares in import to the dog here at Cold Antler Farm. Dogs get the lion's share of attention, love, and care. They live in the house with me. They share my bed and furniture. They get the best medical attention, food, and effort I can afford. Dogs are not livestock to me. They are not children, siblings, or any other simulacrum of human interaction. They are my dogs. That is enough.
I am a dog person. When I say that I do not mean that as a sub-culture identifier. I do not spend my evenings in paw-print embroidered sweatshirts scouring Petfinder.com to foster homeless canines or sifting through breed-specific email lists. Dogs are not my hobby, occupation, or entertainment. When I say "I am a dog person" I mean my personhood is intensely connected to, and made better through, my life with dogs.
They are my partners in living in this world. And I don't mean "partners" as a replacement for a human spouse or family, not at all. I mean partner in the most basic way possible. They are my wingmen, staff, and teammates. we exist in a primal partnership that has sang the same long howl since before any human beings had surnames or used complex tools. We ran beside each other long before memory-foam dog beds and nylabones. This partnership is ancient and ceremonial. It is the combination of two amazing stories, shared over meat and firelight. It is our legacy and privilege to share our lives with another beast so in tune and useful to us.
Dogs chose us. Unlike cats, horses, or other domestic animals, they became a part of our lives by their own volition. They didn't do it because of some cosmic wanderlust to serve man, but because we kept some mighty tasty scrap piles at the edge of our camp. So they became comfortable with our campfires and voices. and over the centuries have co-habituated with man in a pact of mutual benefit and success. Dogs, like man, are predators that live in groups and hunt by daylight. Their skills in running down prey far exceed our own. When the spoils were shared, pups raised with humans, and generations of selective breeding and adaptation were put in effect, we were gifted the company of an amazing and multi-talented animal. We now have dogs to aid people in every civilization in the world. No other domesticated species has become so useful in so many ways. So adaptable, varietal, and integral to our own civilization.
Dogs protect our livestock, homes, and children. They detect bombs, lead the blind, and track criminals and the stranded alike. Some tow boats to shore. Others race across fields in search of game. Some dogs flush, retrieve, or point. Others herd, gather, drive, or drove. Some dogs pull sleds, taking us where we could never go alone. Others sniff out drugs, detect heart attacks, or listen to sounds in the forest we could never hear. Some dogs fill stewpots while luckier ones sit on cushions in royal halls. They are heroes and villains. They are lab rats and show stock. Some dogs go off to war for us while others simply let us hold them until we can't cry anymore. Look at any painting or any piece of literature (of any class!) in the history of Man and there is a dog. They have helped us live, work, and eat and in this relationship both of our species have exploded in populations and prominence. While such population explosions come with their problems, the numbers don't lie.
I refuse to see all animals as equals. Call me a speciesist all you like. Livestock raised for our plate are not on the same emotional, societal, or cultural plane as dogs. Certainly not to me, or to our history as co-dependent species. If you have the audacity to compare my working dogs to my edible livestock, I have already stopped listening to you. Dogs are not dinner, they are home. And even if some dogs are raised as food by other cultures, it doesn't diminish the story of Dog, or negate the work they have done and continue to do with us humans. They have been watching over us, protecting us, hunting with us, carrying us, and sharing our lives since the story of modern man began. Don't you dare compare them to a pig.
I could live the rest of my life in peace without another person, but would collapse in spirit without a dog. This, I am certain. For those who don't like or share your life with dogs, my heart goes out to you.
It must be hard going through life all alone like that.
I got home around 6PM, cold and aching for a hard work and a stove to warm myself by. My truck's heat is on the fritz, so there's no comfy commute from the dropping temperatures, but there is refuge from the wind, and tonight with 30MPH gusts ripping through Veryork: that was enough.
By the time I finally got back into the farmhouse I was almost blown back as I stepped through the threshold of the 51-degree home. It seemed so incredibly comfortable compared to the alternatives since leaving the office. Greeted by Jazz and Annie, it was even warmer. I sweat that huskies smile.
First task: Take all three dogs out for a constitutional to release their urgencies. When returned and fed, I was free to see to the warming of the place. I heated up the oven to 410 degrees to bake up a small pizza. Then I set to work collecting the last few day's worth of ashes from the two wood stoves and set to work lighting them in their fresh homes.
With fires starting to blaze, I set outside for the first trip of wood collecting for the night. I chose thinner, lighter, dry logs to ensure a healthy fire before I headed outside to the farm animals. While they burned and the fires grew warmer, I dined on a quick supper while I watched the kitchen thermometer climb a few degrees from the oven and two stoves. Heat is not a fast thing here. It comes only from labor, the elements, and sweat. I prefer this kind of heat. It is warmer than the degrees tell.
When all the wolves were fed, it was time to head down the farm's food chain, starting with the 30 (I lost one) meat birds in the brooder. Like so many of you warned: the birds stank. Every night they needed a fresh layer of bedding and every third night I had to bring the wheelbarrow indoors to unload all that soiled bedding and totally re-clean the brooder. Tonight was a barrow night, so I set out to fetch it and spent a half hour scooping, dumping, scooping, dumping, shaking fresh wood shavings down, and offering clean food and water services. The chicks seemed to appreciate it. Now twice their incoming size and ready to be moved to their hay bale winter barn (yet to be constructed) any day now. I swept up the mess I made around the brooder and left the room smelling and looking better than when I arrived in it a bit earlier. The fire across the small room warmed my back, and I decided it was time to feed the pigs.
In the back of the truck were two two-gallon buckets of food scraps from The Wayside Country Store. They've donated all scraps and edible garbage to Cold Antler and every day after work I pick up the buckets of old deli meats, sandwiches that didn't sell, salad greens and somesuch. The pigs are voracious now. They get four gallons twice a day now and could probably eat more. As they dove into their rubber bin I cleaned out and refilled their water bucket. Jasper watched from his stall. He doesn't seem to understand why the pigs eat so much more than he does?
Jasper got three flakes for the cold night and a fresh bucket of water as well. None of the water around here comes from a hose. There are no outdoor faucets. The people who I bought this farm from had spent five years turning a beat-up farm into a beautiful retirement home. They had no need for hoses or pumps. They sold it to a farmer though, and she uses the 5-gallon buckets by the artesien well and carries them the 50 yards to the barn or sheep trough.
And so the pigs and Jasper had food and water. I stand in the barn a bit to collect my breath and think. I am hoping the farrier comes soon, he really needs a trim. Ken Norman will come by when he can fit it in, I'm sure, but the young man could use a manicure. I make mental notes about the shuffling of bills and circumstances to make sure it happens soon as possible. I scratch his head. His salt-and-pepper mane makes me smile. I am so very partial to those colors on my good boy.
I collect eggs and I grab the frozen rabbit water bottles and bring them all inside. It has now been over an hour since I lit the fires and I need to go inside to mind them. Deciding not to waste a trip, I bring in an armload of proper stove wood too. As I hand-feed the fires I start to sing to myself. I sing Pretty Saro, the folk song my goose is named after and the words float from my work like a soundtrack to evening.Oh, when I first came a to this countrrrrryyyyy, iiiiinnnn eighteen and foooorrrrrty nine. I saw many true a looovers, But ne'er sawa miiiinnnne...
I smile, thinking of how I sing it like the woman on the porch in Songcatcher. I wonder how accurate that is to the real Appalachian vocal traditions. Annie just wags her tail. That bitch loves a good miserable ballad. The house is now 56 degrees and outside it has dropped into the high teens.
I head back outside to carry a barrow of hay to the sheep. I know their 30-gallon water tank is fine, mostly full, and a submersible de-icer is keeping it from turning solid. The water in the barn doesn't freeze at this temperature, kept warm by the hay and life inside it. I do not fret, and know that the water bottles by the stove are ready to return to the rabbits. I think my does might kindle in this cold. I am excited and worried for them. We will see what comes of it. Bruce, my rabbit mentor, says kindling goes okay in barns save for the days over 100 degrees and below -5. We are still in the safe zone of the local legends. I put my faith in them.
I shut the door on the coop. I bring the chicken water font in by the stove to defrost for morning's chores. It has been over 2 hours of solid work. the house is new 58 degrees and in celebration of the work I will drag the sheep skin and some quilts to the Bun Baker to read my book. The TV is still here, but it's dead to me right now. Instead of watching reruns of television shows I wrote this to you. I emailed some hopeful blog sponsors (Got plans for heat in that truck!). All of it better and made me feel more alive than the empty feeling I get watching Netflix alone in an old house.
Some people took my post about television removal as a judgement on their own usage, or even of the medium in general. This is silly. I have no qualms with the invention or art of television. I appreciate the news, education, and entertainment of it. But for me (and this blog only speaks for me) it has become a sad center of my evenings. I want my evenings back. I want to write, play music, work on the business, write books, call friends, and read. I want to close my eyes on a sheepskin rug and hear the sounds of breathing dogs, nearly asleep, chicks in a brooder, and cracks from the fire. I love Jon Stewart, but I love this more. You folks do whatever it is you need to do with your televisions. I just need to see other people for a while.
I have split my night instead into words and work.
That is my favorite life. One of writing and chores. Tonight I got to live it, take it in in every sense. To an outsider looking in, this place is a burden. To me, it is a sanctuary, temple, dance hall, theatre, therapist, library, best friend and grocery store. Isn't that what all homes aim to be?
This was a weeknight at Cold Antler Farm. I'll be asleep by 10. I'll set my phone to wake me up every two hours to keep the stove fires alive, but I'll enjoy the naps in between. Tomorrow is the last full day of work before a 4-day holiday weekend. And you know what I will do with those 30-degree afternoons in a 68-degree farmhouse?
The television, all 46 inches of Living Room Glory, is being picked up by friends and removed this Saturday. Good riddance. I don't like that a television has been the center of my relaxation and creative free time on the farm. I'm too distracted by it, too enamored by the endless thrills of Netflix, Crackle, and Amazon Prime. I don't have cable, haven't for years, but just having a giant screen as the focal point of my home had changed my idea of relaxation. I used to just play music, read, call friends or family, and research farm projects. Recently, these past few months, I have just pushed through chores and meals to get to a point where I sit down and mindlessly watch TV. I have seen seasons 1-3 of Glee. I watched the Hanna Montana Movie. I rewatched shows I had seen a million times. And you know what? All it did was make me put off the work I liked, that I wanted to do! I used to end an evening on my farm with hard work, good food, and then a book or a fiddle. Now I just fall asleep to nameless voices on streaming entertainment.
If I could use its forces for good, if I had the self control to just use it for documentaries and education, or if I had the ability to leave it off for days In a row, I would keep it. But I don't. For me, the television is poison. It's keeping me from writing, from my animals, from going out and making connections with other people and places and farms.
I'll get my news from the radio, internet, and (gasp!) other people I converse with every day. And the best part, no conversation with my friends about Iraq or Peak Oil will be interupted by a stranger trying to sell me tampons or diet soda. Even on the streaming internet channels—like Crackle and Hulu—commercials reign.
I think, to some people, turning off the television is harder than losing indoor plumbing or refrigeration. I know plenty of people who think backyard chickens, worm composters, and dairy goats are easier sells to their partners than no TV. Why is this? How did this thing that isolates us in our homes and distracts us from our goals become so addicting? It's become the center of our time and lives after work and before bed. To me, it's a time suck and dangerous to the soul. It has swooned me away from the energy of the farm and my dreams. It's easy to put off that book proposal if you've got a Ghost Hunter's marathon staring you in the eye....
It's not going on tonight, or ever again. If I want to watch Braveheart, I'll need to set up a computer screen in front of a couch when I am really jonesing for it. Tonight, I'll work on the dulcimer video and return to Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children. I consider this a little victory. It's taking back hours of the night lost to mindless distraction and directing it to music lessons, books, conversations, meetings, and creativity.
This morning I was in the kitchen cleaning out and organizing some drawers and cabinets when some good advice wafted from the computer screen. I was watching the Victorian Christmas series I had blogged about Saturday, and there was a scene where Ruth (one of the show's historical renenactors) was cleaning up the cottages oil lamps. She explained that as the lamp black fills the glass chimneys they let out less light. They need to be cared for and cleaned on a weekly basis of regular use. She also talked about refilling the oil levels, and trimming the blackened edge of the wicks. This kind of service done in daylight means that at night the farmhouse would literally shine. "Neglected, and the lit dims from all the soot. Your whole home becomes a little dingier..." I looked across my own farmhouse to the oil lamp that sits in the center of my living room dining set. It was embarrassingly dirty.
I picked it up and ran a glass cloth through the black chimney. In minutes it was clean. I then trimmed the black end of the wick with scissors and refilled the reservoir with some oil I had under the kitchen sink. I set it back on the kitchen table, ready for service. When it was lit again it would burn true, and bright, in service to whatever purpose I called it to. I smiled.
There is something decent about letting light shine. You feel cleaner all over.
P.S. Willow, I read your letter and cried in my kitchen. Your painting hangs on the wall. Keep drawing wolves.
The blog of author Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm. 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, pop culture, 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