Saturday, January 28, 2012

the morning before a workshop

The roosters sing, and the fires are burning bright. The cat is curled up in his chair and the dogs are stirring. Bread rises and bakes and stray coffee beans and grinds swirl around the flour swirls on the countertop. Two apple pies I baked last night were once hanging from a New York orchard's trees. Eggs from the hens outside and whipped up into quiche pourin' and kale from my friends' farm are prepped to be baked inside with salt and pepper and local cheeses. The mason jars are all washed new and set out on the drying rack to get ready for Firecracker Farm's home-grown potato soup and beef chili. If you didn't know about the 20 drop spindles and 8 bags of raw wool upstairs you might think this was a feast or a cooking class, but it is just humble, simple food to make people warm and well for a day dedicated to fiber.

My guest is still asleep upstairs and I'll hop in the shower soon, but soon as I am out and cleaned up, and the sun is too, I'll head outside to see to the birds and beasts and then come inside to the warmth and hot coffee on the stove top and call that a beginning.

I'm excited for today, and I hope you are too.

chill that wort, son

Friday, January 27, 2012

Only 8 spots left for Antlerstock 2012

email me if you want them. You can pay for the spots via credit card through paypal, if that is what you prefer. Hope you can make it!

sheep to the rescue!

The beautiful few inches of snow covering the farm last night were demolished in a torrent of rain. It rained all night, nonstop, and in the morning there was a real stream flowing from the crawl space behind the washing machine in the mudroom out onto the floor. Lilly was perched on the dryer, angry and scared. I looked with a flashlight and saw that an overflow/drain pipe was spewing water. I knew it was coming from outside. I grabbed a shovel and pickax and went to dig out a new path for the water to flow (instead of into my home). What I saw was a nonstop funneling of water going under the house, all the water from the driveway was pooling right to the natural whirlpool to Lilly's lair.

I had to divert the flow. I tried using the axe and shovel but the ground was frozen and it would take forever. I realized I needed sandbags and some sort of plug. I didn't have either. Instead I used pieces of firewood to make a dam, and then watched the water flow slow down (a good step). Hmm...what would work as a plug that could fill that space, slow down (but not stop) the natural drainage), and me flexible enough to fit that wonky area?


I grabbed a handful of raw sheep's wool and filled in the hole. It did the trick great. The stream has stopped. The mudroom is drying out. And the cat isn't swimming. Sheep to the rescue!

UPDATE!The fleece worked for about half an hour, but it was a finger in the dam. I needed to line the entire water entry-point with fleece (which you can see in the photo) and then run to the hardware store to buy hose and clamps and run a tube from the pipe spewing water inside to outside the house. It isn't pretty, but I did it. No need to call in rescue rangers! It just took sheep, hose, ducttape, and then more sheep!

P.S. Sorry Wool Workshop friends, this farm will not be covered in snow. It will not be pretty. It will be slush and mud and pools of standing water and wet sheep. But I promise we'll be comfy inside, thanks to the wool.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

next time, too

I have watched Braveheart more than any other movie, ever.
Hundreds of viewings, at least.
I still cry. Every time.

growing up gray


a correspondence course in subterfuge

Snow came, soft as a snow globe turned gently upside down and set on a child's night stand. I was out by the barn, taking deep breaths in as I worked. Flakes danced around my face, fat and happy as tummy-rubbing Buddhas. I wanted to enjoy it, I tried to enjoy it, but I was too busy yelling at my horse.

"DO. NOT. PLAY. WITH. KNOTS!" I yelled up at the pasture gate, raising a pitchfork in the air and shaking it at Jasper. He was in the pasture by the large metal gate with his lead rope in his mouth. He had been watching me load, haul, and dump18 wheelbarrow loads of hay and horseshit from the deep bedding of his 12x10ft indoor stall. When I walked the pony out to the pasture (he was raring to go, that was a challenge in itself on slippery ground) I used his orange lead rope and tied it around the gate to shut it tight. The previously frozen chain that usually held it shut was currently defrosting near the wood stove. I didn't think anything of it when I tied him in. I'd done the trick a hundred times. But as I looked up from barrow 12 at my little dappled asshole, he was pulling the lead rope knot out as discreetly as if he took a correspondence course in subterfuge while I was at the office. He had untied the knot with his teeth and was flinging the lead rope in the air like a cat plays with a mouse. I was about five minutes ahead of him pushing the gate open and leaving for a jaunt around the mountain. Maybe up the hill a little ways to greet one of the other three homes with horses.

I marched up and tied the gate shut to a horse with a twinkle in his eyes. I locked it up with some baling twine. That'll showed him, I thought. And if it didn't, the giant truck unloading a cord of dried, seasoned, split firewood certainly would prick those ears to attention. I rubbed his nose and told him his room service was almost done.

Today was Jasper's day. His stall was cleaned and laid out with fresh straw. He got a long recess in the pasture to run and scamp around, and a treat of carrots and an apple from me. I tied him up to an apple tree to give him a long curry combing in the field. He stood as it the plastic teeth were the best feeling he's had in days. He was then lead back to a stall of soft bedding, fresh water in a frost-proof bucket, a little grain and a cookie in his feeder. It was nice to spend an afternoon dedicated to the little guy. Tomorrow the farrier comes to trim his feet and meet, as he said in a bemused voice on the phone, "The only POA in America pulling logs..."

It was good doing that sort of work too. Winter is such a time of resting muscles and fattening bellies, so to spend a day heaving pitchforks and dumping the manure was nice. At one point I remember thinking as I pitched the acrid sheets of hay, urine, and feces into the small barrow this is making earth, and I swelled with a bit of pride for being a human animal that makes soil, adds to the fertility of a place. It is impossible not too when you live with livestock. Their care, feeding, life, death...all of it feeds the ground as much as it feeds us. And today I added a long trail of composting grass and rich dung to a piece of land screaming to come back to the small farm it once was, long before I was born. Sure, you need to pop some ibuprofen and get out the heating pad when you're done but it's worth it. It is always worth it.

Oh, and Jasper ran like a jackrabbit away from the wood truck! So HA!

a rough idea

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

first taste of homebrew

i'm on it!

I would like to share that in the past two weeks I have received hundreds of emails, facebook messages, people leaning over cubicle walls, posts, or comments about the Cuppow mason jar lid. For all concerned: I ordered two.

Coworkers sick of me spilling coffee out of mason jars and mugs are thrilled to know it. I have a sippy cup, or as I say "It's a travel mug when made for adults." Thank you for the suggest, but rest-assured I am on it.

this must be the place

Birchthorn: Interlude One

E. Mauren was a patient man. A war, 60 years of farming, and 17 grandchildren taught a person to be still when he had to be. He was just outside milking barn's main doors leaning on his cane, staring at one of his favorite jersey heifers standing alone. She was about 300 yards away on a gently sloping hillside. A brown figure surrounded by white, clean, snow nearly at the forest's edge. The heifer had not moved in nearly fifteen minutes he had locked eyes on her. She did not flick an ear, swish her long tail, or lift a hoof. For a healthy second-calf milker to be frozen where she stood was making him was churning his stomach. He remained still as a raptor, watching without so much as a blink. Terrified that if he did he'd miss the movement that would wash him over with sweet relief. The heifer remained a statue. Something wasn't right at White Creek Farm.

He first noticed her away from the rest of the herd when chores started at dawn. He usually liked to have his morning work completed before Sun Up, but today had not allowed the habit. He had risen at the chimes of his brass alarm clock at 4:15, just as he had every morning since he took the farm over from his father after the war. He'd married his girl, had six children, and watched his family blossom here in the Battenkill Valley while he tended his beloved cow. The children were grown, and his dear wife had passed from the flu last winter when it spread through the county like wildfire. He truly believed it was the cows that saved him. That so many years outdoors among the rust, woods, blood, milk, and dung had build an immune system no sickness had touched since he laid in a hospital bed after the battle of Cold Harbor, so many lifetimes ago...

He got dressed in heavy wool and his favorite leather fur-lined cap and started the coffee while he fetched a lantern and lighting supplies from the cabinet. While lighting his favorite black lantern in the farmhouse's kitchen, he was thinking about how much he liked his oil light, how he hated the harsh gas lights of those new Colemans every other dairyman was raving about. He was startled out of his murmuring by a sudden and violent wind that shook the entire home, knocking cans off the shelf and rattling the windows. The fire in the kitchen's hearth spat and howled as the wind caused such a strong draw it shot up and filled the room with orange light. He spilled his metal tin of lamp oil, and sent an angry curse into the room. A torrent of snow screamed across his valley farm. He tried to go outside, but didn't make it five paces before he felt nearly lost in the white-out, chilled into his bones, and turned around and back towards the nearly-diminished light of his kitchen's fireplace. He had never seen such weather. It swallowed everything.

He crawled back inside and shut the door behind him panting, sliding to the floor. He then tried to listen to the farm in the storm. He couldn't hear anything but cloven air and angry branches breaking from the force. He prayed that the herd was near the barn, taking shelter in the sturdy walls his great grandfather built when this country was new. He remained on the floor, and let himself rest his eyes while it blew and fussed behind the 3 inches of maple that made his barrier. Without meaning to, he fell asleep, and when he awoke it was dawn and the farm seemed as unaffected as the stare of the Virgin mother statue outside his garden wall.

When he did start at his morning chores he was calmed at the site of his girls by the old red barn, near their feeders and water trough. He fed them fresh hay by the pitchfork, and noticed they all seemed more skittish than usual. Their eyes showing more of the white than he cared to see. As he pitched what his body could afford, slowly and with much strain, he raised his scratchy voice in a loud, "Home Girls! Home!" hoping to round up all the stragglers up near the tree line, probably taking shelter in the woods from the storm. All came down in their ambling, eager, way save for the brown heifer near the trees. It stood still. And as he called, watched, went about chores and heading inside for a bowl of oatmeal with butter and maple syrup, she remained standing.

And so now it was an hour since he first saw the girl on the hill, and he stood near his barn afraid. His son, who lived on the opposite end of his property—a mile away near the main road into town—would not be here to start morning milking with his sons for another hour. Mauren decided to investigate. He could not wait through the suspense, and if something was wrong he would need to know so to properly convey it to his son. He fetched his shotgun and a few medical supplies into a shoulder satchel and slowly started up the pasture.

Crows watched from high in the birch branches as Mauren slowly climbed the hill. He stopped twice, to look around as much as to catch his breath. Curious? There were no prints in the snow, no disruption at all on the entire hillside. Yet he could see the trails through the powder plainly on the other side of the barn where the cattle ate. he could follow them to places in the forest a half mile away. But not over here? This stretch of snow was virgin ground, save for the tracks he made behind him.

Now, just fifty feet from the heifer he could see she was dead. Dead and frozen where she stood. He had heard stories of this happening, but never saw such a thing in his own life nor knew anyone who had. As he gained on her his curiosity grew. She was, without a doubt, dead as a hammer but she had actually died mid-stride. Two hooves were off the ground reaching forward, and her face placid as a calf's. But something was odd about her front left foot. It was black. It seemed skinnier too? He stopped walking, not ten feet from the animal, and then looked harder. It was bone. The front hoof was nothing but black bone reaching out trying to step. It was clean as glass. No sign of blood, sinew, or skin? Then he noticed the same from the back left leg, planted firmly into 5 inches of snow but also nothing but black clean bones. As he stepped closer, he unintentionally held his breath. His heart pounding in his temples, his eyes wide and mouth agape.

As he turned the corner on the giant animal he clasped his hand into a fist and shoved it into his mouth to bite into it. An involuntary reaction he hadn't succumbed to since the first terrors of war when he was 18. The drastic lurch for his teeth made him drop his shotgun and cane and then didn't even flinch when the buckshot exploded into the dead cow in front of him. The side of the beast facing the forest was gone, save for the black skeleton, perfectly in place as if a surgeon had come in the night and sawed the animal in two. A perfect division right down the spine left one side flesh and the other just bone. It looked as through some how the animal was frozen, picked up, and dipped into deadly acids that perfectly consumed the flesh to the water's level, then lifted out and set back on the ground. The muscle and organs that had been spliced were frozen too, not a drop of blood or a single sick smell filled the air. The bones on the flesh side seemed white, normal. But the bones facing the old farmer were black as if charcoal. He composed himself, reached out to touch the bowl of the shoulder blade, expecting soot on his fingers, but recoiled back his hand at the shock of their metallic firmness. Never in his life had he seen such a sight. Not in books, or side shows, or even posters at the animal doctors' offices. This was abomination.

He reached a rattling hand into his coat pocket, searching for his rosary. He found it, solid ground at last, and started chanting through Hail Marys as he stared into the cavern of the heifer's ribs. Something caught the light, a flash of gold. He leaned forward, slowly, and saw that hanging from a black ribbon was a golden locket. He prayed louder, as if to scream sense into the moment, as if to tame the experience into understanding. As he shouted, HAIL MARY, FULL OF GRACE. OUR LORD IS WITH THEE.." He reached into the black ribcage to remove the small pendant from the bones. It came away gently. It looked identical to the last time he saw it. He could never forget the family heirloom. His wife was buried with last winter.

Shaking now, covered in cold sweat, Mauren took the locket into his cold hands and forced it open. If this really was his wife's jewelry their pictures taken in New York City in Central Park would be inside. His hands were clumsy, cracking, and starting to bleed from the cold but he persisted even through the shaking, his rosary dangling around the black ribbon in his hands. Inside on her side of the locket was his wife. She looked just as he remembered the photo, smiling under a flowering dogwood tree. Then he stopped his persistent prayer. Stood silent in the snow.

His photo was gone.

Catch up on the story:
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

Birchthorn is a work of community fiction, a story of the Battenkill Valley in 1919 dealing with a mysterious creature of local legend and song. Readers of the CAF farm blog are part of it, becoming characters, names of places, horses, and so forth. Reader comments and suggestions help move the plot along, and create the mystery. Each chapter is supported through donations to the "Story Pot" which is the donate button on this blog, on the right-hand side, under the heart image. If you like what you read, and want to read more, please throw in a dollar or two and leave a comment with your thoughts and ideas. If may become legend!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

good morning from cold antler farm!

Monday, January 23, 2012

ice rain and respite

No part of this farm is level. None of it. The land all slopes downhill to some degree and the farmhouse's old floors are so warped from a century and a half of human life and weather, no ball set down won't roll. Usually this isn't worth mentioning or concerning yourself with, but when the entire thing is covered in ice in a hard rain at night: it matters.

Chores tonight were long, wet, and rough. I think about the people who email me wishing they had a farm of their own and wonder if they too would want an evening like the one I just pushed through? Melting snow from the warm winter day quickly covered the earth in a saran-wrap layer of ice. Even with my good snow-gripping boots I had to slow down. I had to really slow down when it came to carrying 80-pounds of water or a 50-pound sack of feed. Every step tonight was a measured and calculated motion. Add a wheeled cart and some plastic-battery lantern and it ante ups to a ballet. You have to know your body the way a yogi does, or a dressage rider. Everything you do from toes gripping around stones through a boot to a deep exhalation while you pull hay bales down from the high places could mean a slip or a fall. So you think. You go as slow as your mind needs you to. You consider things. You get very, very wet.

I am proud that I am gaining focus. I didn't fall down once (though I did spill water all over my jeans), and no part of me is bleeding, bruised, or even scratched. A homestead kindles a messy grace.

I'm inside now and grateful that I did the dishes and set out firewood before I left for work. Chores are done, tea is on the stovetop, and I am fed and feeling fine with a glass of cider. I just fed the cats and spent some time with the timid Lilly, who meows and lets me pet her honey pelt, and then eats wildly before hiding back behind the washing machine. I'm just grateful she is so used to the litter box she uses them, and isn't filling the house with cat scent. Little things like this make me beam.

I have changed into my "post-farming clothes". I have fallen in love (this is not a dramatization, but love) with Thai Fishing Pants. I come inside and wash up, and change into clothing so impractical for farm chores it is laughable. However! These clothes are perfect for meditation, yoga, sitting cross-legged with a bowl of rice and beans, or sitting with a fat cat and a book. The Thai pants are practically sheets—comfortable swathes of airy and clean cotton you wrap around your waist like a hug and then tie around you with a fabric belt. A comfortable tank top later and you feel equally ready to do downward dogs or cook dinner. It's a silly luxury but a happy habit, using a pair of baggy pants to celebrate being dry and warm.

And I am dry and warm and happy as a clam. Its an easy emotion to drum up when just an hour ago I was out in that endzone of icepiss. I say that with a coy smile, but the truth is, I love nights like this. Even when I am out there amongst the concentration and cold rain—I love that kind of work. I love it because no matter how cold, or miserable, or wet, or whatever it is out there I am literally a couple dozen feet from certain comforts. You don't have to fret about pain or wet gloves on a temperate night that close to your hot shower, warm meals, and dry bed.

I have a theory that people drawn to homesteading and comfort pornographers. I mean that. We are so serious and into creature comforts that we will put ourselves through all sorts of physical exertion, animal slop, weather, and strife because we all secretly know that the more we put into the world outside our farmhouse door the better that woodstove and fiddle feel when we return from the war. It's twisted, really. I bet I am not the only one out there with a horse or chickens who worships her shower and bathrobe and revels in a favorite blanket and movie? This kind of farming makes the simplest things: clean pants, warm soup, cold beers - seem like coveted jewels. I adore this modest sadism, it feels normal. How far removed must we be from normal human toil to be irreverent about such things? I like this about our tribe, this desire to sink into comfort that we earn. It's not being lazy, and it's not mindless relaxation, but instead the kind of end-of-toil prayer we call respite.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Does your town come with an abandoned hospital?

Mine does. Check out this amazing set of photos off flickr, by IanC83. It's a hospital right here in Cambridge, downtown, that has been empty since it shut down in 2003. Just two miles from Cold Antler Farm is this hot mess. Where are the Ghost Hunter shows? This is golden!

Think I should put it in Birchthorn?

What a night!

The event at Battenkill Books was my best-attended book event ever. Standing room only, and an hour of reading, conversations, and questions. Folks came from a few states, shook hands, listened politely, and even laughed at my jokes. Jon did a wonderful introduction for me and Connie. I read a bit and talked a bit, and afterword made some new friends. A woman up the road who belongs to the Washington County Draft Association (I didn't even know about them) offered to teach me driving with her Percheron. A teacher from Saratoga just bought a homestead near mine, and we got to say hello to each other. A veterinarian with a Border Collie gave me a truckload (no joke) of Jacobs' wool and introduced me to her red Border Collie in her car (Gibson likes any event with girls). Jim Kunstler gave me a box of pots and pans for the farm. My coworkers brought me pie, and Cathy Daughton brought me sharpies tied up in a bow! Others I am forgetting to mention made the night complete as well. It was almost surreal, to see that amount of folks wanting to hear about my tornado of a dream. Soon as Jon sends some photos I'll post them! If I sound like I am gushing it's because I am. I'm just floored. Thank you all, so much.

And now for my next trick I will feed all the animals, have a glass of wine, and go to bed.

photo by jon katz. I need to hit the juicer, I can see that much.


Common Sense Farm is giving me an old metal nesting box kit like this. It's old, rusty. I don't care. So what am I going to do with it? I'm going to sand it. Spray paint it. And mount it as a bookshelf on my wall for all my livestock care books and manuals.


ruth stout's garden

Thanks for sending this my way, Meg!