Two days left at Orvis and I used my last-gasp chance at our 50% off discount to buy a rod, reel, line, and some flies. I finally have time to fish. Next week, If the weather and time grants it, I will be in a river casting for native trout and telling you all about it. I now have the tools.
That's Ian Daughton, who came over to help with Merlin and Jasper's pony shed pre-building work. These boys already helped move fallen trees out with the aid of Jasper, and then got to work preparing the sigh and planning the new home for my Pony Boys. After the day's work was done we had a little hot dog and brat cookout (they sure did enjoy chocolate goats' milk with their dogs!) and shot some arrows at the broad side of the barn at a deer target painted on burlap. It was a grand day. I miss these guys, haven't seen them as much as I like. But since they are a home-schooling family and I am now the owner of a cottage business...I think I will be seeing a lot more of them!
When I came home from work today there was a package by the door. It said 468photography on it, a familiar name and logo. I knew it was a print I ordered of Jasper and I. Inside the large, thin box was a photo of me holding Jasper's head. He has blinders on and I have my straw cowboy hat over my eyes. We are side by side. I wanted the photo because it marks this point in my life so perfectly, so sadly. In that photo you might see a woman holding a working horse, looking certain and confident. I see a terrified and anxious woman. A woman at her heaviest weight of all time. A woman who barely sleeps more than 4 hours a night. A woman who was about three weeks away from quitting her job because she there was no room for it anymore.
Honestly, I wasn't sure how much longer I could keep up with the three-job lifestyle. I was writing, farming, and a 4-day a week corporate employee. Between those things I felt spread so thin some mornings I would just lay in bed, dreading going into the office. Not because I disliked the work or people—it was and remains an amazing place to work—there was just too much of my life here. Too much to care for, plan, expand, and create. There were workshops and books and visits from out of town guests. I had family and personal issues to work through. I had a body to heal and start treating right, not as simply the brute force to do chores and dishes with. I had gotten a fairly serious case of carpel tunnel and went to the doctor to talk about it. When I told him I am a full-time web designer, farmer, and writer he seemed surprised I still had limbs...
If you read this blog you may think I seem fearless, or cavalier. I am neither of those things. I'm scared of this place and my decisions all the time. I am however, too stubborn to give up on a goal once I set my ears back and raised my hackles to face it. Everyone has a shining virtue and mine isn't grace, or beauty, or intelligence. My virtue, my driving force, is stubbornness. I will get where I am going, damnnit.
Back to that photograph of me and Jasper. In that picture I am feeling fat and tired. I remember it like it was half an hour ago. It was a beautiful day and I was surrounded by people I adored, but my mind was reeling. I was at war with the decision to leave work and worried it would mean losing everything. If this venture fails the animals, the land, the house, all of it could be lost. But I knew just staying at the office I was already losing. I was putting off the dream, waiting for a safe moment or a small windfall of cash to land in my lap. Well, guess what? There is no such thing as a safe moment, and I don't see any new book contracts coming in this summer. So I chose to jump. My plan is to waste no more time dreaming. To tell my fear to bother someone else for a while. And now that I am forced to make this place work with just a few months of savings and some ideas for new books....I will really see what I am made of.
This summer is also about slowing down, a lot. It's about taking time, not rushing through tasks. It's about jogs, and meditation, and wearing wrist braces and drinking more herbal tea and less coffee with cream and sugar. It's about healing. Not because I am broken, but because I feel I am in need of some maintenance as the train moves to a new set of tracks.
Changing directions always requires repairs.
So where am I going? Well, in a few days the entire tempo of my life is going to change. I keep thinking about it. It's been as exhausting as it has been exciting. I am about to embark on a whole new kind of life. Since pre-school I have not ever been in control of my time, certainly never my weekdays. All of it revolved around permissions and times granted from parents, school, work or paid vacation time. I went from elementary school to high school, high school to college, college right into 40-hour-work weeks and have done so for nearly a decade since graduation. But when I wake up Friday I will have left an entire lifestyle behind me. The only life I've known.
I'll be looking for crows in pairs. I will need them.
I was on my way to ride Merlin by 7PM. Post-office chores had taken an hour and a half, the normal time, but the whole time through feeding sheep and chickens, straining evening milk, and sweeping the dog hair off the living room floor all I could think about was getting on that horse. I missed him.
Riding is a lot like running in the sense that once you get into the habit it your body misses it more than your mind. You may want to relax on the couch while it rains outside but your legs ache to be stretched and moved across the landscape. You put on your running shoes and you go out in the weather, thinking of the hot shower and tea on the couch after it is earned and the beast is at rest. I already went for a jog at the office gym (barefoot, since I forgot my running shoes but too stubborn to not get in a mile jaunt and some sit ups) and I wanted to feel a horse under me. The body demanded it. Muscle memory joining forces with the mind's need to relax. These two things mean saddling up.
When I run I think. I write stories and blog posts, novels and songs. I go through relationships, fights, and people like index cards. I sort through things, work them out. But on a ride my mind goes away. It's just me and that horse, and we focus on things like right diagonals and proper seat and I am so wrapped up in basic communication that I can't think of anything else but us. It is a wonderfully selfish time. The kind of insulating mental activity that is necessary for self preservation. Granted, yoga classes would be a hell of a lot cheaper, but I am a woman who wants to shoot arrows from horseback some day. So I ride.
Today was my third team practice, and my third time handing in score sheets to be added to the East Kingdom's list. As of now I am an official archer in the Society. Not the best, certainly. I have a long way to go in skill and effort, but I earned my silver crossed arrows. They'll be awarded to me at a practice at a future date. I will wear that medal with pride during events and reenactments. It will hang on my quiver.
It's so rare as adults we find things to work towards that aren't part of our careers or possessions to add to our homes. We aren't usually still preparing for dance recitals or yellow belt tests. We tend to think tests of skill are for children. But this year I took a dressage test, and am working on my scores and awards in archery. I don't mean to sound crass, or like bragging. I'm not GOOD at these things, I'm just capable enough to pass. That said, I don't feel childish at all. I feel thrilled every time I nock an arrow or grab those reins. Just as excited as a child, but old enough to let myself fall in love with that nostalgia as it is happening. Makes you feel rich.
I planted big ol' things this weekend. I planted pumpkins all over the farm, in feral patches of compost, hidden from chickens and goats but sunny enough to have a shot at Hallow's Lights. I also planted some butternut squash and watermelon yesterday, which is a true act of hope. I doubt I'll get melons but you can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket. I planted 6 little mellon starts. Here's hoping.
Man, do I love watermelon...
Archery practice today with my SCA team. It may be canceled due to rain. The next whole week will be a long, wet, one. I am hoping it clears up by my campfire/cookout here Friday Night. I invited a small army of girlfriends here to enjoy a potluck/cookout in the woods behind the barn. Should be a hoot!
Tomorrow is the start of my last week at the office. I go into my first day of self employment Friday, June 8th, with big plans and that big party. I have a contracted book to finish about the agricultural/spiritual year, speaking engagements to plan and discuss, and workshops and camps here at the farm. Fiddle Camp is nearly full, and Beekeeping with Meg Paska and the Soap/Candle workshop is getting a healthy interest and sign ups as well. It is all encouraging news, like a pat on the back. I'm getting less and less worried about making this happen, and more and more excited about what is ahead.
No one ever tells you that when you extract honey from the frame, your entire house smells like warm honey. I walked in yesterday, and in that holy time between planting a new raised bed garden and a hot shower I walked through a house smelling like beeswax and dripping honey. It's not a strong scent, and it doesn't make you feel sticky, but instead makes your entire house smell the way clutching a warm cup of tea on a cold winter day feels. Like somehow you have captured future comfort and placed it in a vase on your dining room table to tease your senses.
I only have one hive and I just recently added a third-story addition to the healthy work commune outside my kitchen window. A few nights ago I built the wax frames on my living room floor, and today I went out to set the small hive body on top of the two already full of comb. Since I was already out there working the bees I decided to harvest a wee bit of honey to kick off the summer. I brought out my 5-gallon brewing kettle, a knife, and a handful of sheep's wool from the recent shearing. After a proper smoking, I used the knife to help pry open the inner lid to the hive (fused with comb to the top hive body) and get to those beautiful frames. The bees do not bother with you if you remain calm and the smoke keeps them a bit disoriented. I used the knife to pull out just two combs from the center of that 6" deep box and used the wool to gently brush them back into the hive and off my pilfered nectar. The wool worked wonders, and since all the honey was capped in wax nothing stuck. I set both of my frames, and feeling like a fat and happy bear, waddled off back into my house with my bounty.
Inside I use a very delicate method of extraction. I grab a large serving spoon and scrap the entire frame in 5 or six scrappy passes into a metal colander inside a stainless steel bowl. As the honey filters from the mashed-up wax it sinks into the bottom bowl. It takes about an hour to be totally drained and then I do a second straining with cheesecloth over another steel pan. It's crude, but it works. I got a full quart of honey from those two little frames. I poured it into 8-oz plastic bears and set them in my cupboard. They will wait in that perfect state until teas, fresh baked breads, ice creams, and batters call them home.
I had to post this picture of my kitchen sink. What a happy mess. Milking, canning, cheese molds, meat grinding, and honey extraction gear all laid out. It reminds me that my little kitchen is not just a place were ingredients are prepared but a place where ingredients are made. It's a place of production as much as consumption. It's where I spend most of my time, and where my eMac and iPhone stereo dock are housed as well. Audiobooks, blogging, stories, radio shows...it all happens in this heart's center of my homestead. My kitchen is my playground, office, and HQ. Right now empty combs are setting in a brew kettle on my stove while coffee heats up and the sight of those things makes me feel like this rainy day is going to pass by just fine.
I was mowing the lawn yesterday afternoon listening to the adventures of Claire and Jamie in Paris, and enjoying the work of it when I stopped to notice the grass. Or rather, noticed the lack of it. Don't be mistaken, there was plenty of green below my feet, but three summers of chickens, geese, ducks, rabbits, turkeys feeding and opposite-feeding on it have created a whole new world. There's a whole new type of lawn below my boots. Now where there was once just domesticated lawn grass there are clovers, timothy, fescues and legumes. There are dandelions and violets, sprays of nettle and burdock. What was once a chemically treated and seeded bit of living astroturf has changed into bonefide pasture. It is a result of the work of seed, manure, and natural lack of sprays and artificial inputs has created something very different than a lawn here.
When I was done outside, it was hard to tell. All mowed down it is uniform and even, it appears to be suburban curb appeal. But when it starts to grow from rain and sun things seed and flower and leaf out. It looks wild! I watch the poultry pick and choose what deserves eating, they look at that lawn with decision, not random plodding about. It's something else. I turned someone else's decoration into a buffet. Not bad work of three springs. It was once a lawn, and now it is a pasture.
GOOD Magazine is doing a series on Young Farmer's across America and I made the list! They used a collection from Farmplate's Young Farmers Series and I am proud of my good company. I've sat on panels with some of these folks, shared billing in essay collections, and a few are even fellow New Yorkers. You can see the list here, and check out GOOD Magazine online, this coming Monday, to see their slideshow and story!
I stopped using my alarm clock. I trust myself to get up on time and I always do, usually earlier than the alarm's jarring rattle and in a better mood. That alarm makes me feel like my sleep is being taken from me, but when your body stirs of its own volition it's easier to accept. This morning I was out moving the sheep to new pasture by 5AM. By 6AM the dogs were walked, fed, and the goat was milked. Chickens and rabbits were fed, hutches and tractors moved, and I was packed up for the gym by 6:30.
I've been running in the mornings and it suits me. Before breakast or coffee, I get a mile or so in just to start the day with a heavy sweat. As the summer goes on I'll add milage, and since there won't be an office to rush to I can spend my mornings as I please. My plan is to start my new weekdays in this order: chores, running, breakfast, writing. Then quit around noon for the rest of the day, dedicate that time to other endeavors like webinar production, errands, outdoor work, and so on.
It'll take some adjusting and some serious discipline, but I am ready for it. I have a contracted book to finish by September and am on the prowl for new offers and titles. I have goals of all sorts, really.
Here's to the first summer of the rest of my life. I am terrified and thrilled.
This Sunday there will be archery practice at the farm from 1-3PM, my team is holding a practice here. Beginner's welcome and no need to be a member of the SCA to try it out or take part. Loaner bows and arrows available. Come over to the farm to give it a shot. Literally.
Yesterday the storm came in like a wolf crashing through a glass door. Sudden, violent, and sprays of water and power everywhere. I was out behind the goat pen thinking about the particulars of a Midsummer Bonfire when I looked up at the clouds swirling low in circles. It was scary.
I live middle-elevation on the east side of a small mountain. I get to see beautiful sunrises, but sunsets belong to the west and in the winter darkness starts to fall around 3PM. Since most summer storms come from the west I don't feel or see them until they suddenly burst through the trees and down into the open pastures.
Yesterday I was caught off guard and nervous, since the weathermen were predicting random tornados. As clouds of pollen and leaves swirled, trees whipped, branches fell I ran inside. But don't think for a second I didn't take protective measures. Of course I had extra water, batteries, flashlights and candles for the power outage that would surely come (and did), I mean PROTECTION. I mean, something a little more encompassing than a flashlight.
I'm a superstitious person, always have been. I was raised in a home where ghosts, angels, saints, and saviors were very real things. Water turned to wine at a priest's spoken word and my slovak grandmother taught me to never kill a spider in a house. So in that tradition of cultural wisdom I did the old Three-Branched-Cross on the farmhouse door. I took a branch of Birch, Basil, and garlic prong and tied them to a cross on the front door. Any cross will do. You can tie these plants to a crucifix or tied two equal-armed branches together with twine. I took the braided and tied Brigid's Cross off my wall indoors and tied the herbs to that. It seemed proper. Brigid is both a Catholic Saint and a Celtic Goddess. She protects, blesses, and heals. I hung the cross and branches from the farmhouse door and said a prayer and let authorities higher than my own decide if it was Ancient Goddess, Saint, or Savior in charge of the tornado averting.
I will say this. I felt safe indoors and no damage came to this home. No animals were hurt or crops torn and bent, and just down the hill trees fell in yards and power-lines burst. I'm not saying it was divine intervention, but I am saying it never hurts to ask. And if you have birch, basil, and garlic nearby - a cross and some twine, it sure beats calling the insurance agent.
Bedlam Farm is for sale, the home of author Jon Katz and Maria Wulf. It includes a beautifully restored Greek revival farmhouse with wood stoves and a screened porch. Outside are 92 acres, perfectly restored and painted red barns and outbuilding, including an artist's studio with another wood stove. It all looks over the Black Creek valley, an AMAZING VIEW, and it just reduced below $400,000. This seems like a steal if you can make it happen. If I could swing it, I know I would.
I have decided to offer a Season Pass for Cold Antler Farm events and workshops. For the price of Antlerstock and another workshop and a half you are welcome to come to any Cold Antler Farm event for a full Calendar Year. This includes Antlerstock, special speaker workshops like Plan B, and upcoming events such as Beekeeping, Soap and candle making, the Farmer's horse and Backyard Rabbit workshops. I host at least 10-14 events a year and even if you make half you will get more than your money's worth!
Cold Antler Farm workshops are how I make a living now. Your support gets you not only this continued blog and its posts, but an entire community of like minds from all over North America. Antlerstock alone is becoming a homesteader's Woodstock! Two nights and days of workshops and events here in Veryork about traditional skills, livestock, timber, and crafts.
I hope some of you decide to invest in a whole year of learning, community, and continued support of this little mountain freehold. Email me if you are interested, please. I promise to get back to you right quick.
And always, open to barter for labor, livestock, or good of equal value.
P.S. Workshop pass includes most things, but special events like fiddle camp or soapmaking that require entire kits or instruments and books would still require some supply costs.
I got a call from Brett tonight from the Smokies. He's down there in East Tennessee producing a Timbersports Special for ESPN, but he had a break and heard about the poor weather and checked in. I think the southern heat and humidity is getting to him. He sounded absolutely worn out. I told him he's too Anglo for that kind of heat, and to use traditional Scottish methods of sun protection such as going into a pub. He laughed.
I was glad he called because he happens to be in those holy mountains at a very special time of year. There's a peculiar species of firefly down in those humid hollers, a variety that synchronizes their lights. You can view them best at this magical old summer camp called Elkmont, a kiss from North Carolina's border.
Elkmont's history is interesting. Before it was taken from the original vacation-homeowners to become part of the national parks, folks just lived there. Most of the residents were very wealthy people from Asheville an Knoxville. They built docks and fancy cabins in the Victorian style and now they are all abandoned. But if you are quiet, and still, you can almost see them out on the edge of the docks, watching the same show with a bottle of decent wine and some close friends in the candlelight. The place connects you, and it stays with you. I have only see this once but it has burned itself in memory as one of the best days of my life.
I know of no place or experience on earth as mystical, as affirming, and as transcending as standing in the middle of a lush eastern forest at night and every six seconds having the entire world glow from tens of thousands of tiny yellow lights. You stand there among them in darkness so black you can't see your hand in front of your face, and then, a flash of light as warm and inviting as a campfire fils the forest so bright around you that bark ridges appear on trees.
"Visit Elkmont", I told the man before hanging up. And I assured him if there was one reason he met me, this was it. He had to experience it, no excuses. You can't be that close to that level of beauty and stay in a hotel room.
A series of storms are heading in. I left work early to get critters fed and milked before the hail and winds whip. I've been aching for a proper storm, as it clears my head and heals my farm. I can meditate to the sounds of thunder and rain as grass and vegetables grow, flowers bloom for the bees, and the horse shakes out the dust-come-mud from his mane and tail.
So this is a workshop I'm really excited to share with you. I'm taking last years' backyard Barbeque Meat Bird Workshop and upping the ante. Come to the farm for a full day of summer fun and slaughter. On June 16, 2012 the farm is open for chicken school! It will kick off with a meet and greet, then from 10:30 to 11:30 we'll go over the basics of chick care and raising. This workshop will feature Freedom Rangers, meat birds an animal apart from the standard Cornish Cross, and everyone who signs up is welcome to take home 5 chicks to raise for the table. After we discuss everything from brooders to coop plans, we'll break for a light lunch and tour of the farm.
After lunch we'll go through backyard butchering, step-by-step, from killing a chicken to wrapping it correctly for the freezer. This is not a workshop for the faint of heart, but you will learn the steps and supplies needed to prepare meat birds at home. After this we'll talk about the importance of pasture-raised poultry, both for our own health, and the health of the animals and planet. We'll discuss the birds role here at Cold Antler and with the help of Axe Man Brett, build a portable chicken tractor for the pasture. he'll show us all how to construct our own chicken tractors for backyard-meat production on grass instead of stationary pens. Mine will be made to follow the sheep from pasture to pasture via pony power! Yup, Jasper will drag it for me!
Workshop ends, followed by a private party with a campfire and BBQ of Cold Antler Farm raised chickens, stay for music and stories into the night.
Email me to sign up, limited to 15 people, camping optional
My bees are thriving and outgrowing their two-story home. You know what that means, friends? It's time for an addition! Tonight I'll be hammering together the eight frames and sheets of wax I bought from Betterbee in Greenwich for the shallow hive body I'll set on top of the lower two. It's a pretty straightforward project, something any mildly competent human being with a hammer and nails can accomplish. Mine will end up looking like a honey-laden piece of Jenga homage sculpture. When it comes to my carpentry skills, I am a pretty decent writer.
I'm not kidding folks, I am horrible at construction, of anything really. It is a skill and mindset I do not have or really wish to attain. The attention to details, the sharp pointy things, the saw blades in circles of whizzing death.... Hand me a leash, t-post pounder, baking sheet, or a saddle and I am in a comfortable place. But construction and the world of woodwork is as strange a place to me as Narnia. Actually, I take that back. Talking lions and swords and fauns? I can handle that. Construction is as strange a place to me as Home Depot.
So I'll figure it out. I'm not concerned. And as long as the frames fit inside the shallow the bees will have their way with them anyhow. In a few weeks they'll be thick with comb and hopefully, thick with honey too! I want to make candles this year from the wax. When Kathy Harrison was here she gifted me a pair of gorgeous beeswax candles and I am going to ask her to come teach this skill for a two part workshop in cold press milk soap making and candle making in the fall. I think folks will love seeing the process from milking Bonita and hand picking mints and lavender here on the farm to setting the molds. I can't wait for that workshop! Crafts from your farmstead not only keep you a little more independent, but make use of so many bounties you already have around. And homemade candle and soap baskets are never a tiresome gift. Certainly useful, certainly appreciated.
Homesteading isn't just about livestock and gardens, but these other skills such as hive management, candle making, and soap making. Carpentry too, of course, but I resign myself to the inevitable. Jenna with a saw is a dangerous combination! Perhaps someday I'll hone in the basics but for now I'm content to barter for that work instead. Plus, I like the work parties and employment/barter opportunities it brings to the farm. Brett will help build the new pony shed and go home with four sheep (Atlas and some gals). I get a professional building and he gets a starter flock. A snazzy bit of shared skills and critters. Not too shabby.
I am so behind in emails. I can't keep up with them all. Right now it is especially hard because of the combination of ending my office job and figuring out what is ahead. But if you just resend what you want me to reply to, or remind me (always remind me!), I would appreciate it and do my best to reply. If you don't hear from me always follow up.
Also, I rarely if ever check Facebook for emails, so please don't use that!
Today was a full day dedicated to Merlin and his trailer-stubborness. I was warned when I first picked him up that he was a fussy loader, but that day we left his old farm he walked right into the trailer as if it was the land of grain and honey. A few weeks later we loaded him up again for our first ever trail ride and again, not a single problem. I quickly learned this was our honeymoon period.
March 1 was just three months ago. In those three months he's been professionally trained and so have I. He's been on trail rides, arena practices, and won a ribbon in a sanctioned dressage show. I'm proud of all those things but I am most proud of events like today. With the help of Milt, Horse Expert Fantastico, Merlin was broken of his trailer woes. It took some "tough love" but within twenty minutes he was walking up (sometimes jogging up) with me without so much as a tiny fuss.
How did we do it? This might sound primal, but it was damn necessary and not nearly as rough as it sounds. Horses are not Golden Retrievers. We weigh 175 pounds and they weigh a thousand. We needed more help, so Milt took a long rope with a snap at one end and ran it all the way through the trailer and out a window, then back around to him. His plan was to pull the horse forward using that pulley system while using the rope end near him as pressure and a block from behind. So Merlin was being both urged forward and pressured at the same time by this rope system. The rope on his halter was not meant to yank him, but keep him from turning around. Milt stressed that the HORSE had to decide to be on the trailer, not us. He fought for a while, feet planted firmly on the ground. We waited. Whenever we stopped the pressure he moved forward and got grain. Then Milt said to give his bum a few smacks with a crop, that it would be the last straw of annoyance and he'd load up. So there we were. Me in the trailer with the short lead rope, Milt pulling back with all his might(on the rump rope, not the horses face) and using the rope around his rear, and Patty with a crop smacking his great ass.
After he realized that he could resist and be smacked on the butt with a light crop with a rope pressing into his hindquarter or walk softly up into a bucket of grain he stopped being such a mule. All it took was two times with the rope method and then over and over we did it with nothing but a carriage whip if we needed some reinforcement from behind.
When the trailer portion of the lesson was over Milt rode him for an evaluation and to test him crossing over water. We walked down the driveway to a meadown across the road and Milt put him through his paces. He walked, trotted, cantered, and went through waist-high grass without eating.
Since Merlin isn't thrilled about streams, Milt basically made him stand it one. He started pawing the water, taking great spraying mouthfuls and loving it! Then without any issue he walked right up and down the rocky stream! What a sight, all that was!
We also got to try on a driving harness and hitch him up to a forecart. Sadly, no driving today as the rig wasn't pony-modified and too large for him. But we learned what he needed (24 inch hames, a 23 inch collar pad, and a haflinger-sized harness). It was still a treat to see him hitched up, calm as a saint, and waiting for a chance to drive down the road.
I think this pony will do it all. I really do.
P.S. This sounds rather violent. It wasn't. We were not causing Merlin emotional or physical pain. The "force" was the pressure of a rope behind his hindquarters and another on his halter holding his head so he couldn't turn around. The "whipping" of the crop was the same tap I give him in the dressage arena. I trust Milt, who trained Steele (who used to jump out of round pens and rear up in the cart harness!) and I trust Patty. No animals were harmed in the loading of this pony.
P.P.S. For more information on our exact technique used, check out pages 400-401 of Storey's Guide to Training Horses under the section "Loading the Spoiled Horse!" It explains the halter rope pull and rump rope method of loading in detail.
today is about horses and thunderstorms. I have to finish up cleaning out and restocking the rabbit cages quick so I can be over at Patty and Mark's farm by 11Am. A natural horsemanship trainer (and experienced driving instructor), Milt, will be there. Milt has had a long and calm life with horses and he is going to evaluate and ride Merlin after he teaches us the best way to load him up into a trailer. It'll be....interesting, as the last time we took a field trip with Merlin it ended up with us standing for an hour in the hair begging the beast to step into the transport. Milt thinks he has his number, and can teach it to us. If we can beat the rain I'll spend this hot Memorial Day on the back of my black horse in some distant hayfield by a percheron and his lady, smelling thunder and fireflies just hours away.
Dear readers, this is an audio-accompanied post. I want you to click this link, and turn your speakers on. As you read the story let the music be your soundtrack. Minimize the window and turn the volume down if it distracts you, as that distraction was not my intention.
There are so many travelers on the dusty roads tonight. We are all of us, the same. A kinfolk of shared hopes and dreams. We have all been so far away from our first homes for so long that we have started to see the road as all there is. We grow weary, and our horses make our bodies sore, and every day on this dusty road we feel ourselves moving forward but the destination has yet to arrive.
It is late and we are all exhausted. Yet in the distance, just over that rise of that gently sloping green hill, you can see the glow of campfires. Above the ruckus you see the white flag with the crossed shovel and hoe and you know it is your people. You can see the tops of tents and couples in lanterns glow, walking from the circles around the bale fires to their camps. This place is not our destination, but a respite along the way. A chance meeting of fates and faces. You don't know anyone personally, but every eye you meet you see yourself: another dusty-road traveler, making their own long journey to their farms.
You arrive under the flapping white banners, and a Camp Greeter walks out, smiling and hailing arms. "Welcome to this meeting place! You can set up your bedrolls and tarps over there. Set down your weapons, and find your pots and bowls." This is music to your ears. You heard rumors of this place, and finally you can rest and commune with your guard down. A gift to tired travelers on dangerous roads. A gift greater than any.
Some people have children, and others have dogs. Some are alone, save for their horses hobbled by their tents. Some move in clans of several families and some are lonely pairs. But tonight we are all sharing the same balefire and grab little metal pails to carry coals from it back to our camps. We are all thus nourished from the same fire. We bow our heads in a thousand different prayers in thanks for its burning.
Whatever your destination know that the day is passed, the fight has stopped, and there is nothing more you can do but rest and heal. Set aside the day's anger and fear. Whatever haunts you is not welcome here, and it is too late in the day to do anything else towards that fight. My dearest friend, you can relax.
Be mindful, that every stranger you meet here has their own story in their leather bound journal they clutch tight against their breasts. Assume that every single traveler you meet in camp is wearier than you, hungrier than you, and farther from first home than you. Only when you accept that everyone else has it harder can you open up your hearts to them and share a leg of lamb off the spit or ladle them a bowl of rabbit stew. Only when you understand we are all pilgrims, just passing through this road to our home farms, can we understand we are all the same.
I too am on this road. I too am walking home. Home to where our families, animals, and crops are bountiful and our minds are free from pain. Home to our dream farms! Home to our promised land, those places and hopes we clung to in our troubled sleep. Some nights on the roadsides, in tents battered by wind and rain, we nearly want to quit. We want to turn back. And yet every morning we roll up our wool blankets and pack our horses and ride along that dusty road. We are people of faith in the work. And all we want is to work more. It confuses others on different paths, and that is okay.
Because there are other paths out there, other tribes just like us. People who are setting sail for courses into the unknown realms, they are the hungry adventures. There are people waiting to board trains to the cities, guitars and portfolios under their arms, in search of successes and creative communities. There are packs of motor cars lined with men and women heading to the schools and universities of greater studies. Sometimes they put the tops down on their beeping engines and put goggles over their eyes, scarves blowing in the wind. You see them kick up their heels and shout in joy.
But we are the riders, the agrarians, the people all leaving those cities, towns, universities, and seashores to find a place where we can rest ourselves into peaceful labors of food and stock. Our hearts are out in the fields, behind a team of drafts or in gardens of black soil and healthy vegetables. We know of no better party than a barn dance, clink glasses of hard cider under the strings of lights in the rafters, and the fiddles make our hearts lighter. We are the riders of the dusty road. When it stops the earth will be so rich no dust can manage. Our horses hooves will step upon the furrowed rows of corn and wheat and we will weep from joy.
Gentle Traveler, friend on the path, you look as tired as I am. May I ask you this much? Set down your weapons, soften your hearts. Take long, deep, breaths and just look around. Everyone is like you, like me, hard traveling and desperately homesick. Look at you, you still don't get it? Soften your jaw, my dearheart. Let it move lose in your clenched face. Breath. Feel the softness of your cheeks, sun burnt and perfect. Feel that gentle skin between your eyes and nose rest and soften too. Breath. Now, smile. Smile and breath deep. You have reached a mighty camp this day. A tent city of hearts all beating for the same dream.
In a few days we will all pack up and move down that path again. But now just take time to realize you may rest, and be kind. Be especially kind to yourselves. Be proud of the dusty road. So many never left for this road, even if they wanted to. So many angry hearts watch behind dirty windows as your horses pass by. So give them some rabbit stew, as well. Leave it on their porches and kiss your palms before placing them on their doors with a blessing. Everyone is a tired traveler, even if they never leave their doorstops. Some of them are the most tired of all...
We will get there. We will all find home. But tonight let's eat, and water our horses, and share in some stories and songs. There are people dancing around the fires, hand in hand. Storytellers eyes light up around the packs of children. Couples rest heads on gently rising chests leaning against strong trees. No one is anything but grateful and that makes this place holy. Let's be gentle and warm, and find that place inside ourselves to understand the Dusty Road is home tonight. And there is no finer place to be than on the path towards a better home.
And someday, gentle traveler, we will share that cider under those barn lights. And when we do the road will be a memory, our hearts light, and there will be no regrets for the lambs we shared at camps like this. No regrets, just love and patience. Those two make the road a little easier to bear.
This is my farm, my story, my livestock, and my life. I share it the way people who tell stories always have. People have been sharing autobiographies and family tales since time out of mind. Blogs are a new thing, but the honesty's the same. Sitting around a cave wall pointing at hand-smudges of bison or typing into a Mac: we are sharing stories, our lives, the process.
I got a few phone calls today from a good friend. I told him about the sheep that died, and we talked about how upset it made me, and what that upset meant. It was a good, long, talk. The kind of which I have sorely been lacking. I'm so grateful he's a part of my life.
Spent most of the day at Common Sense Farm, enjoying their first ever Spring Farm Festival down at their beautiful 200-acre farm right in Cambridge's heart. So many people and animals, so many kids running unshod through the green grass. Gibson came along and took a swim in the pond and enjoyed the people and fruit-tree digging. I got to meet a lot of new people like local farmers and neighbors.
It was the kind of event you don't see anymore. A large outdoor gathering without cell phones or polo shirts. Just people and their kids running in wild packs playing games and smiling like foxes.
It was a good day here in Farm Country. And if the weather holds out tomorrow, and the thunderstorms hold their breath until dusk, Merlin and I will be out on a trail ride on the hillsides of Livingston Brook Farm. Tomorrow is horses. I can't wait to be back in the saddle as it has been a few days. I even emailed the SCA's equestrian folks to see how Merlin and I can start competing in events. If I borrow a friend's trailer I might be able to bring him to War Camp at the end of June up in the Adirondacks! We will see!
Also, I am looking into buying a digital camera, or bartering for a decent used one. Any suggestions? Please email me with trades (like a workshop day for a used, but serviceable, Cannon or Kodak of proper agency). I am feeling like these iphone shots aren't doing my experiences justice.
I nocked my wooden arrow and raised the bow as I pulled back on the 35-pound bow. It's woven, waxed linen string amazes me. It is all it needs to send my arrow blasting 30 yards ahead of me. I hit the 4-point circle on the target and want to jump up and scream HEEEEEELLL YEAH, but I don't. I have four more arrows to go and this is a Royal Round, and another 2 rounds after that at other targets.
I'm happy out there. I'm wearing a long green Irish dress over a white chemise with a leather hip belt. On the belt is my tankard (igloo coolers of water everywhere, BYOT) a leather bag holding money, truck keys, and my phone, and the red favor of the house Lancaster. This event is based on The Wars of the Roses and everyone has to pick York of Lancaster when they sign in. I picked red, not because I'm a huge fan of the Tudor's, but because it looked damn good on my green dress. I shoot another arrow and it flies into the hayfield. By the end of the day I'll break one arrow and lose two more. It happens. Losing arrows is a great incentive to hit the target more.
It's 10AM and feels like 4PM. I got up early to do my chores and check on the ewe who was found caught up in the brambles after shearing. At sunrise I had walked out across the field with a walking stick in hand, Jasper at my side. The ewe was sitting up, eating grass and had enjoyed some of the water with maple syrup I offered her. I was so happy she made it through the night. Jasper nuzzled her, as he had since I cut her free the night before. An odd sign of friendship between two species. With the help of Bridget from Virginia (who had visited for shearing and spent the night in her bus in my driveway) we used the blue garden cart as an ambulance and carried the frail beast to a solitary pen near the other sheep. It was quite the haul but we got her inside safe with water, grain, clean bedding and I said a few prayers. Prayer never hurts.
With the goat milked, dogs walked, sheep in hospital, animals hayed, grained, and watered there was nothing to do but get dressed up and the truck kitted out with bows and arrows. I left the farm at 8:00AM and had already been working three hours. My breakfast was some green juice and a small bowl of granola with goats milk. I was fortified, armed, and in a dress for the first time in months. I felt a combination of excitement for the War of Roses down in Concordia (Albany) and worry about the ewe. But at this point she had nothing to do but fight. So I left her, cursing myself for not counting the sheep when they came in to be shorn. I just called the woolly mass in and penned them and in the chaos of preparing for company and the shearer arriving early I didn't realize one ewe was gone. A quarter mile away in a bramble, she was stuck. It was my own fault. One simple act: counting sheep, had made all the difference in her chances.
Bridget asked if I would write about it? Or if I ever held back events on the farm because I didn't want to share bad news? An honest question. I told her I would write about it. What happens on this farm is an open book. I make mistakes and I share them. When lambs die, dogs get sick, or gardens fail I write about it. When I fall off horses, am scared, or broke: I write about it. I don't think people who are serious about landing on their own farm someday just want the sweet side of farming. I think they want to know mistakes happen, animals get sick, die, and all I can do is learn from mistakes and not make them again. I know now I will never bring home one new lamb alone to this farm again (pneumonia). I will never eat a pig with a bright yellow-cyst-covered liver. I won't plant broccoli without a goose fence. I won't forget to keep mothering ewes well grained to avoid Ketosis (Lisette). But in two years here and 20+ sheep later I have only truly failed four in five years of living with sheep. May that number ever diminish.
I think about the ewe between arrows, but my mind goes blank each time I take aim. I'm not good at this, but I have learned so much. I learned how to string my bow and tighten the string too. I learned proper form and sighting and the types of bows and tools. When my second round was done and score sheets filled in to be sent off to our shire's head of archery, T'mas nodded and said I looked like an archer. He said that with the white rose of York hanging around his neck, too.
When I got home later that day I found the ewe dead. She didn't make it. She was frail, thin, weak. I carried her into the hearse that had been an ambulance hours before and moved her out of the pasture fencing. Too tired to bury her I covered her with some old wool. I had driven four hours, spent all day in the sun, came home in a rush to see to the dogs and goats and was just exhausted by the time that ewe was out of the pen.
This morning I buried the ewe in a grave under the compost pile behind the goat pens. She was set in the earth and covered with the well composted bedding and manure of the pigs from this past winter. By next summer the pile will just be black soil around the skeleton of a horned sheep. I'll fork it out, grateful for its wealth in the garden. I smiled a bit, thinking of those vegetables of the future. The amazing red tomatoes and brilliant pumpkins and almost laughed at the idea of death being an ending. This organic compost is as alive as any galloping horse or flying hawk. As alive as you and I. It's just the next form in the circle. Earth must be fed.
And when I have a beautiful vegetarian meal next summer of garden tomato sauce over roasted peppers and onions and how those vegetables were grown over the blood, bones, manure and corpses of a farm's livestock. There is no such thing as an organic "vegetarian" meal, of course. The vegetables just ate the meat first. It was their turn, simple as that.
I sighed when the work was done. The ewe under the piles of brown, wet, soil. The water yet to haul for the living. Hay deliveries to be arranged, a soapmaking workshop to plan, and in a few moments I'll be down at Common Sense for their Farm Festival and people will see the three lambs of this farm's crop and feed them bits of grain and stroke their fluffy heads and I will be so proud to be the person who introduced their parents, got them into the world, and found them this ideal home. I don't know of a more balanced life than starting your day with an ovine funeral and ending it with a lamb in your arms.
I spent the day with 300 people who care more about what makes them happy than what other people think is silly. I shot a longbow next to marksmen so talented that people parted ways to let them through, reputation as strong as Moses's hands. I spent the day with men in kilts, women in long dresses (or armor), and watching craftsmen work with blacksmith's bellows and Damascus steel. I saw embroidery, and children without electronics listening to stories. I saw dogs running and playing around toddlers and barefoot companions by burning campfires where food roasted and turned. I was hot and I didn't care. I was sunburnt and it felt like blessing. And I tied for my best score ever out there on the archery range and shot enough deer targets to fill my imaginary meat freezer with enough venisons to feed a clan.
Life in the current middle ages is pretty great. And my next big event is War Camp in Warrensburg, NY. A day where equestrians will be out and I'll be damned if I won't be up there with Merlin and a jousting spear in my shaking hands one fine day.
Don't let anyone tell you not to do what makes you shine.
Today was a such a full day. So much happening. Running the gamut from blissful to tragic, it reminds me of why I chose this path. I watched a college-junior WWOOFer intern hold a lamb in her arms for the first time while we delivered it to its new home. I also had to cut a blackface ewe free from a horrible tangle of brambles that had trapped it all night. (She is eating and drinking and will be okay, but terrifying to discover). There was sheep shearing, goat milking, wool carting, lamb chasing, shots, foot trimming, ice cream runs and new friends.
More details tomorrow. I need to get some rest and painkillers (think I really did a number on my back wrestling ewes for the shearing) and get ready for tomorrow's archery event in Albany. Heading south to shoot a longbow in a green dress.
Email me if you want to see the big show, 2PM here at the farm. Professional shearers will show the flock a thing or too about haircuts. If enough folks come on out, we'll go out to dinner after or BBQ at the farm!
A friend asked me on the phone tonight how work was going? A harmless question, but all I could muster as a response was how awkward it feels being inside those walls. It's like the divorce is finalized but we're still sharing the same house for another two weeks. It's cordial, but distant. Both parties knows the other is down for the count and already thinking about what's ahead. There will be an internal job posting soon to replace me, and I am already planning speaking and farming events for weekdays. We're both moving on.
That doesn't mean it isn't scary. The choice to leave the office is one I believe in with all my heart, necessary on so many emotional, career, and social levels it surprises me it took this long in the first place. And yet there are faces I will dearly miss, memories and laughter, strong friendships and connections. I hope we all stay in touch, and remain close friends. If I don't see folks like James, Andrea, Sarah, Bryan, Chrissy and Tyler I'll be mighty sad.
There's also a lot of stress and fear and mistakes I made at that office. Things I said I can't take back, people I am silently grateful I don't have to see anymore, and half-hearted responsibilities and tasks I long ago lost the fervor to care about.
But that's everyone's story, isn't it? My experiences at my job are just like any high school graduate's, summer camp counselor's, or ex band member after a tour. You love some of it, regret some of it, and miss all of it. A corporate office is just another box of dying animals, people trying so hard to matter and expand, even though they already are beings of expanding matter. Well, it all belongs to the backlist now. And there's no way to grow that don't hurt.
I think I'll be writing about this whole transition a lot. It'll help me ride through it. I hope that is okay, as it isn't really about farming or the farm, but it is about how becoming one changes you. Will that do?
I was walking back to the farm, covered in sweat from a jog, when I approached the strange mini van parked in my driveway. I'm not used to people showing up unannounced. My farm isn't on "the way" to anything. So far the only ones who had were the local members of the closest Jehovah's Witness congregation. I assumed I was about to be witnessed to in all my cool-downed, pasty sweaty glory when I got a big wave. Stepping out of the van was a jovial woman with shoulder-length gray hair and a big smile. She said her name was Sandy and she was a professor in New Jersey. She wanted to know if she could hire me as a speaker, and bring a pack of college students up to the farm for a lecture, tour, and some farm work?
**Antlered throngs of angel choirs sang**
She said her class would be up from the 11th -15th of June. I was covered in sweat and looking about as attractive as a garden slug but I couldn't stop my big, wolfish grin. I told her I just quit my job and would be available whenever she needed me. She seemed as happy as I was at the idea. Just a week out of the cubicle world and I already had a gig lined up at the farm! I took it the way I take all things, as a sign. A little slap on the back from fate, telling me I made the choice that made my world dance.
We talked a bit, and she gave me her contact information and told me we could work out the ideas about speaking rates. We parted quickly after that because I could see Sal limping on his bad leg (an on and off injury) and the 5 escaped sheep who for the 45th time had used their thick early-summer wool to get through the fences. I sighed and thanked her and set to work. In a few days the flock will be shorn, Jim McRae will be here Friday afternoon (let me know if anyone wants to come for that?). After they are naked that fence will not allow a single escapee.
I digress. Point is the meeting was fast and auspicious as a pair of crows flying over a first kiss.
I came inside and an email was waiting from the University of Vermont, interested in having me take part in a speaker series about food and farming. I was now nearly staggering about. It was late June, between meetings with my publisher about future books, the Meat Bird workshop here at the farm with Brett, and the Greenhorns Premiere at Battenkill Books on the 29th. My dance card was filling up. Filling up suddenly! As if the open door of my choice had let a rush of opportunities in.
I adore Ze Frank. I don't know him, of course. But I used to watch/read and follow his site and projects and videos. He stopped doing his bit for a while and now he is back. I found his message just as inspiring to me, as a new full-time writer, as it could be to anyone. Enjoy it. Enjoy it and get started.
When it comes to goats, fences are everything. The same fence that can keep back a team of Percherons, a flock of sheep, and hundred alpaca (alpaci?) is nothing but scoff-fodder for your average goats. Goats climb, tear down, and crawl under wire field fencing. They laugh at t-posts. If your wire isn't hot, even for a few hours, they will know and clamber over it like drunk hunting horses out after a fox. This is the goat dance. The escape, capture, and evading that makes up the reality of adding caprines to your life.
The only way I have found to keep a goat in a pen is to either use panels (read solid) made for sheep and goats with well-spaced metal or wooden fence posts, or electric netting or wire. At my own farm I learned this the hard way. My first goat, Finn, was not happy as the lone goat amongst a flock of sheep and would not stay inside the woven wire fences. He got out and into the road, into poisonous plants, and all other sorts of trouble and made sure the sheep got out too. I didn't have the pen I have now (originally built for a horse!) to contain goats, and so he went to live on another farm.
Now my set up is goat-proof. Inside the barn are large 1x8 inch boards strong and sturdy, three high with about 12 inches between each board. They have woven wire stapled to them in case little Francis wanted to crawl though. Outside a large metal horsegate (also reinforced with woven wire to prevent crawl-throughs) is strong enough to handle any goat arms. And, the fencing all around the outside area is electric. So my goat pen is more of a goat jail, but that's what it takes in small spaces. If I had a 7-acre field it would be a different story, they could roam a little more and be as interested in escaping (at first!), but here at Cold Antler goats have to be smartly contained.
My advice to anyone considering goats, go for it. But consider your fences and barn first. Get an experienced goat farmer, homesteader or Extension agent to check your set up or help you prepare. As someone who learned the hard way, I can not stress enough how much having people with goat experience in my life with Bonita and Francis has improved things. Goats are dear friends and treasures here now, not a hassle. Not something all farmers can say and it took some hard lessons to get there. But you got to start somewhere, right?
I thought a book giveaway would be a nice way to start off the week. I had a few extra titles after this weekend's workshop and decided to also throw in a copy of Barnheart (signed) and of The Greenhorns (also signed at my essay). To enter just leave a comment! Say hello, say what's growing in your garden, or share a plan for this week on your own farm or home. A random winner will be picked tomorrow morning, this is a shortsale folks! Comment and enjoy four titles to add to your own library or give as gifts.
Archery practice today. I had my first ever series of Royal Rounds this time. Royal Rounds are official marksmanship tests hosted by the SCA. There's a 20, 30, and 40 yard 6-arrow target shoot and then a timed 30-second firestorm where you shoot as many as you can to scramble for points. My scores were...um, beginner level. But I am really enjoying getting to know my longbow, the goose feather arrows, and the culture and tools of the archer.
If I complete two more rounds, on two separate days, I will be recorded in the SCA records as a bonefide Archer of Record. I'll be awards a hand-forged, metal medal with a pair of black arrows crossed over a circle to show others I'm a student and beginner archer at Society events. As my skill increases, so will my status. It's a fun way to work towards something. And something as useful as archery is welcome around here. For hunting and recreation, it'll be nothing I regret.
Yesterday in the cool shade of a giant maple tree my farm turned into an amphitheater. Twenty of us sat on the hillside and standing at the base, in front of a row peony bushes and a parade of Geese, James Howard Kunstler talked to us about the future of energy, oil, climate and economies around the world. To some of you, that may sound like a contradiction. This man talking about doom and gloom amongst flowers waiting to bloom on a sunny day, but that isn't Jim's message at all. Jim is all about paying attention, realizing what is actually going on in the world and accepting changes with logic, grace, and a sense of humor.
We laughed, asked questions, engaged with him and Kathy Harrison outside on the freshly mowed lawn. Jim brought a cooler of beer! When I asked why his response was, "I thought people would get thirsty!?" Can't argue with that.
His talk was the post-lunch break event. The whole morning was spent inside and out with the energy and positivity of Kathy, who introduced us into the practicality and ease of being ready for everything from ice storms to economic fall outs. She made us all laugh, shared her own story and her gadgets. She brought along samples of everything from crank radios to dehydrated asparagus and potatoes (which when re-hydrated taste exactly like any other potato. Her whole anthem was about being able to take care of yourself in any scenario, and to understand that no one can do this alone. She wanted us to understand the importance of knowing your neighbors, making connections with people in your community, and actually knowing what is going on in local government and politics. She thinks our selectman and school boards will be a lot more important to us than we can feasibly understand in the next few years. I think she's right.
Everyone left with full stomachs, with signed copies of books by the visiting authors, and smiles on their faces. I think the crew that made it out to the farm yesterday was happy they made the trip. That's something I am quite proud of. Any time anyone goes out of their way to support, visit, or share in this little 7-acres of heaven I am on cloud nine, even when the day's whole concetration was on the uncertain future, I feel pretty darn good on my pile of dirt.
Come to Cold Antler for a weekend-long event, August 25th and 26th. You are welcome to join me for two days of the farm, campfire, and fiddles. This is a camp for people with absolutely no experience with the fiddle at all—never held one, can't read music, think they are hopeless case—but really want to learn. All you need to do is sign up and I'll take it from there. The fee for the weekend will also include an entire beginner fiddle package. Everyone who signs up will get a quality student fiddle, case, and bow with rosin to boot. The only requirements for supplies on your end is to purchase the book "Old Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus" by Wayne Erbsen and a standard electric guitar tuner. We'll be learning by feel, by ear, and by a system of music notation called tablature. This means you won't need how to read notes to play, just be able to read and count to 4.
The weekend will start off with an early morning introduction, how to string, tune, and hold your fiddle and bow. We'll then go into the basic bowing motion and finger positioning on the D-scale. We'll brake for lunch and then spend the afternoon learning your first tune, Ida Red. There will be plenty of time for practice, too. Find a place in the pasture with Sal to work out your D-scale. See if you can balance a chicken on your bow while you drone? (I'm kidding about that last part). Saturday night will include a campfire with live music. I'll have local musicians and friends come and you are welcome to bring your own guitar, banjo, or whatever else you'd like to play.
Sunday is a day dedicated to learning more songs, droning and shuffling techniques, and plenty of practice time between one-on-one sessions. Enjoy the farm in its late-summer splendor, taking in the sounds and sights of the animals and gardens. I personally guarantee that anyone who signs up and WANTS to play will leave my farm a fiddler. This is not a hard instrument, and the building blocks you'll find here will be all you need to go home and learn every single song in Wayne's book. This would be a great gift, couples weekend, or graduation present.
WORKSHOP RUNDOWN Fiddle Camp is a full Saturday and Sunday, 9AM - 5PM Each workshopper gets a student fiddle package Each student gets a CAF fiddle Camp T-shirt! Camping on the farm is an option (it will be August) Cost will be $350 or $200 (sans fiddle) a person. Limited to 15 people or 8 couples. 12 Spots Left!
I can finally share my Big News, since now all the pieces have fallen into place. I do apologize for being a blatant tease but the pay off is worth it. This is the big one folks, everything I have been working for on paper, books, workshops, and sweat and tears:
I have resigned from my position at the office and will be a full-time author and farmer from here on out. I'll be making a living through my own words, choices, and actions as a self-employed business owner here in Washington County. I'll be writing and hosting workshops and events to cover the mortgage and growing my own food and livestock to cover the groceries. For eight years I have been working towards this one thing, and my last day at work is June 7th. Time to jump.
I have made all the preparations. There's a humble, but survivable, nest of savings set aside and I am arranging alternative health insurance through my local chamber of commerce. I have projects lined up and much work and writing ahead of me, not to mention the workshops and events here at the farm. I am not asking for any help from the readers, and won't. This is my choice and my life and I can't spend any more time of it behind a desk working for somebody else. I have to make this step or I'll never be able to respect myself. I am thrilled and somber about it. Making this decision is a step I have been hesitating over out of nothing but fear. Fear isn't welcome here anymore. Ever.
I am so happy about this, so terrified about this, and so very ready for this.
I sat outside under the big, leafy, maple tree as the wind picked up and the sky went from gray to angry. I had shoved off of work an hour early, after explaining plainly to my boss that I was not going to milk a dairy goat in a thunderstorm. My timing was impeccable. I had just finished the milk chores, grained the pony and sheep, checked the fences, fed the rabbits, and chickens for the evening when the first rumbles whispered in from the west. Inside the house dinner was already in the oven. I could smell it if I got too close to the kitchen windows while filling up buckets at the rain barrel. I made me salivate like a dog. It's one of this winter's meat birds now crisping in the keep, bathed in olive oil and spices. That bird and a pot of wild rice, gravy, and a spring salad from the garden would be my evening meal. It's consort, a hard cider. I look forward to this the way a person who has walked a great distance and can finally see her campsite looks forward to a fire and rest.
So I sit outside under the big sugar maple and feel the wind. I'm wearing a canvas kilt, one of those snazzy tank tops with the bra built in, and a wool hat my mother gave me for Christmas two years ago. It's a big brimmed, floppy, brown wool hat. Not a cowboy hat, but something like a lady's sun hat if it was left to sheep to build. I used to dislike it and now I love it. I only disliked it because I was a chump who cared more about what people thought of the hat than its direct purpose. I now know this is happiness (and comfort's) suicide. It is the perfect shield from rain, snow, and sun. I put it on and let it plop about like a character from before. Like one of those people who garden in black and white photos from Appalachia. It is shapeless and thrifty. I feel timeless.
The thunder starts to speed up and rain hits the brim. I take off my rubber chore boots and let my bare feet feel new grass just kissed by rain. The coolness of it is a blessing. The comfort in knowing every animal in my keep has been made comfortable and full in the belly before I would retire to a house of fiddles and roasting bird makes me feel so wealthy I want to write checks to strangers. All I did was cut out of work early, feed livestock, and sit in the grass unshod but these things change seretonin levels in my body. A perfect combination of respite and toil, hope and force, and the knowledge that I too will tuck in with smacking lips and cool cider, it over takes me. The rain is starting to fall but I don't want to go inside. I want to just sit out here and hope, and pray, and thank everyone and everything that got me to this small piece of land on a mountainside. It has become my whole world.
In the weeks since I announced I would be moderating comments I have only had to delete one angry, anonymous (of course) jab about Merlin. I am amazed at how just sharing that I would read things before they were posted has changed the entire tone of the audience. And another neat thing is happening, people use the comments section as a quick way to send me a note. I'll get a comment announcement and when I open it it'll say "Hey, don't post this but I just wanted to tell you about..." and share some advice, or an email address to sign up for a workshop, or just a message for me. It's all wonderful. I'm so grateful for the kinder tones and secret messages and just wanted to thank you.
The morning of the show started earlier than usual. I was up at 4AM, so that chores, feeding, and milking could be done in enough time to shower and preen for the ring. I had a borrowed blue jacket, a crisp white shirt, a fancy tucked-in collar. I had washed my half-chaps and paddock boots with a scrubber brush and everything was looking as good as it possibly could. I had to be at the barn around 7:00. That would give me enough time to get Merlin out of his stall (all horses in the show were kept in stalls for morning grooming instead of being turned out into the muddy paddocks) and have him brushed, washed up, and braided if I saw fit. I would slip on my jacket, place his number on his bridle's brow band, and start warming up for the ring by 9:00. Everything was planned out.
expecting a new, pudgy, Fell Pony to be suiting up for the dressage ring. Even at a schooling show in a rural part of upstate New York there are some fancy horses in that show. Warmbloods, high-stepping agile beasts who cost more than what I owe on my Dodge Dakota. Who would think the new girl who showed up with a bossy pony 13 weeks ago would be entered in the Dressage Show? I walked out into the pasture and placed his halter over his head. Both his feathered feet and my previously scrubbed paddock boots and half-chaps were covered in mud. That'll teach me not to pack my muck boots...
The morning was a frenzy. It started out slow, washing feet and combing out dry mud. I picked out pieces of pine shavings from his stall piece by piece from his long mane and tail. When he was suitably groomed, passing for clean, I decided not to braid his mane. Who was I kidding, really? He's a Fell and will remain one in his truest form for the judge. She could take us or leave us. With Merlin in his stall I walked over to where the trailers were parked and Patty and Steele were working to braid his long mane. Patty was on a stepladder as Steele munched from a bag of hay. He looked beautiful, cleaner than I have ever seen him. I was almost in shock at the site of him. I adore my Merlin, would not want any other riding horse in the world, but by Epona herself Steele looked like a giant marble statue of a horse. A life-sized Breyer in perfectly molded contours. Makes a woman weep, that kind of beauty on the hoof.
Percherons and Fell Ponies are not the usual dressage breeds, but we weren't the only outcasts. Haflingers, Spotted Drafts, Paints—all sorts of horse flesh was about. We fit in just as much as anyone else trying their hands at the USDF tests. It works like this: You enter the ring with your horse and trot around the outside of the arena. Then, when a bell rings you have 45 seconds to start your test. The "test" is really a memorized routine. I would be expected to trot into the ring with Merlin, a straight line at the judge. Then I'd hustle and jive through walks, circles, crossing the arena on diagonals, free walks, and so on. Whatever the test pattern is, you do it, and you do it the best you can. When it is done you halt your horse and bow your head in salute to the sport, the judge, the whole damn event. Then you exit the arena and wait to see how you did on your score sheet. The only person you are competing against is yourself, you create your score. The placement is simply high to low scores. Amazing how simple something so gut-wrenchingly nerve racking can be, huh? Merlin, Steele, Patty and I were warming up by 9 in the indoor arena. We walked, trotted, and circled in practice. By the time my name was called I walked down to the area where we were supposed to enter. A young boy, around 6, saw me on my mount and whispered to his mother "Mom, what is THAT? Identity issues from children aside, I thought everything was going well. I mean, the horse was clean, right? I was dressed properly, right? We had our number on his brow band, the right time....So what could go wrong?
Merlin remembered the outdoor arena. He remembered how fun it was to be in there and have the girth spin the saddle under him. He remembered the panic and the stress of it, and started backing up. Hollie, my guardian angel, saw this and told me to "get that pony in there!" and as if she could read horses the way pilots land a plane explained exactly what to do to get him inside the arena. "Pressure from your outside leg, loosen the reins, crop!" and so on. I just did what she said, gave some heel, and he entered at a fast walk. Okay, so we were in the dressage ring. We walked around the outside of the arena (we were not allowed inside until the judge rang the bell) and then I realized how much Merlin hates being trailered. The judge was sitting inside a trailer, a house from sun and rain. Merlin trotted by it and bucked a little kick, right in front of the judge... "He's got some spirit, huh?" I heard in a murmur.
He kept acting up, trotting in place, not wanting to go forward. The judge could see it all but until we started our test she couldn't start marking that score sheet. I got him down to where the official arena started and waited for the bell. The bell rang and the test started. here we go... Merlin and I entered the arena at a trot, right at the judges. We spent the next five minutes going through the routine I had lasered into my brain. We slowed to walks, made tight corners, picked up trots again at specific points. We did fairly-round 20-meter circles. And when it was all over we stopped on a dime and I saluted to the judge. People clapped and I finally let out the breath I was holding the whole time. The judge left me with some kind remarks and I exited the arena.
We did it. Merlin and I passed, if not placed. We didn't get one objection or correction announcement. It means that even if it wasn't pretty, it was competent. And to even enter a dressage show with a horse I had once only dreamed of, had only known a few months...was magical to me. If I got a big fat green ribbon that said 'Participant' I would frame it. It wasn't about winning, it was about showing up and trying. An event and day that marked a right of passage. I trained, I signed up, I tested, and I survived. Turns out I got third place. A ten-year-old on a white welsh pony beat us. Steele and Patty were right behind us in fourth place, by LESS THAN a point! Amazing when you know she entered her first dressage show with her cart horse after THREE LESSONS! Amazing, those two.
When you walk in my home the ribbon is hanging right on a mounted photo of Merlin. There is nothing humble about it and in this case, that is fine by me. That horse is a blessing, a lesson, and a teacher. He's coming home to the farm in a few weeks and I can't wait to wake up to that shaggy face every day, ride him around the farm and across neighbors' fields. We have plenty of adventures ahead and by Antlerstock I hope those of you coming out will get to meet him, feed him a carrot, and tussle those locks. Just don't mention anything about girths or trailers, he doesn't like to talk about them.
The blog of author Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm. Where pop culture meets agriculture! Here she writes about her adventures following her crazy dream life as a self-employed writer, homesteader, archer, falconer, equestrian, martial artist, hunter, spinner, brewer, geek, and real-life Game of Thrones Extra. She loves movies, music, running far, and eating animals.
On twitter @coldantlerfarm
And when the children are safe in bed, at one of the great holidays like the Fourth of July, New Years, or Halloween, we can bring out some spirits and turn on the music, and the men and the women who are still among the living can get loose and really wild. So that's the final meaning of "wild"- the esoteric meaning, the deepest and most scary. Those who are ready for it will come to it. Please do not repeat this to the uninitiated. -gs