Saturday, November 3, 2012

Howl If You Have To

The heating oil company called the other day and the man on the line sounded concerned. It was a voice I knew well, from my first winter at the farm. It was the blizzard season of 2010 when every week seemed to dump snow and below zero temperatures. Back then the farmhouse was going through a hundred gallons of heating oil a month (to keep the place at 55 degrees!) and if that monthly visit wasn't enough—there were repairs. The company replaced bad valves, installed a new ventilation system to stop a C02 leak, and knew my house so well they let themselves in the back door. That year was the first year I ever sent a Christmas card to an oil company. We were tight.

And that was why the voice on the line seemed worried. He told me he had a truck going up my mountain road to deliver oil to a neighbor and did I need oil, because the last hundred gallons I ordered was in June. The last order before that, October 2011. In the past year I had gone from a hundred gallons a month to less than 200. I told him to deliver the oil because I was down to a quarter tank and I needed it for my hot water boiler. He asked if I got a woodstove. I told him I had and it was working like gangbusters.

When I got off the phone with that man the first thing I felt was this smug pride, like I was cheating the Foreign Oil System by reverting to wood heat. But then I started to reconsider my hubris. While I d think wood heat is a more sustainable solution, it's not the greenwashing that sold me of wood. It was that return to a system I could manage. I own trees, an axe, a horse and a harness. I can go out onto my land and fell a tree, drag it in sections to my chopping area with Merlin, and season it to put into my stoves to heat my home. It's all here. It's comforting as hell and it's something else even better than that:

It's Primal.

I love, and I can't emphasize this enough, I love that homesteading has brought me back into more primal living. I love knowing if I'm not out there with an axe and a pile of wood I will not be warm. There isn't enough oil to keep this house at stove temperatures. Warmth means work, basic, hard work. It means splitting and making kindling and getting up in the black of the morning and making a fire. I love that when the fire is lit I can go out and feed livestock that feeds me. I love that even in a hurricane there was a pile of warm eggs in the highest hay bale in the barn. There's no wizard behind the curtain here, no switches or buttons. Instead of working for someone else for money so I can then go buy heat and food—I have found a way to barter and grow most of it. I am a long way from being 100% off the grid and out of debt but I am aiming for that, and working towards that, and like a fat girl in the gym sometimes just putting on the spandex is half the battle. It's the intention that gets you to the effort.

I'm a hunter now. I heat with wood. I can ride a horse to town. I own a horse cart. I have a bow and broadhead arrows. I have a stack of wood. I have stoves. I have a little bit of land on a mountain the bank hasn't kicked me off of yet. It's a start. And if it means bunching up the muscles in my collar bone and howling to keep it, I will. I like living a primal life here. I like knowing the lamb and the mutton blood. I like stalking, and singing, and chopping firewood and grabbing reins. I am where I belong and in this short gift of life I have learned some dance steps.

Watch out for the girl you'll meet in June. She's already got her hackles up.

This Was Our Morning: 2 Wagons Unloaded!

The Pember

Last night I attended the First Friday event at the Pember Museum in downtown Granville. Over twenty local artists had their work on display. There was wine and good food and live music by a fiddle/hammered dulcimer trio that sounded like my old haunts in Dixie. All of this was going on just a half hour north of Cold Antler. It's one of the things I adore about Washington County and the people drawn to it. It's the kind of place where you can spend the morning gutting and dressing the deer you shot and then talk about still-lifes over Pinot Noir the same night... in your camo jumpsuit.

The Pember is a gem. The downstairs is a big, media-rich library and the the second story is a bonafide Natural History Museum. All of it one man's 19th century collection of taxidermy, eggs, fossils, and random bits of historic miscellany. There are over 10,000 specimins. It's nuts.

There, above the town of Granville you can look a Brown Bear in the eye, count toenails on a crocadile, and see how big Emu eggs really are. You can see extinct animals, nearly endangered ones, and learn about animals you never even knew exited. Last night I discovered the Lyrebird and the Chuck-Will's-Widow. These guys and thousands of others are overflowing the space at the Pember. It is a Steampunk/Victorian fan's fieldtrip worth the bus fare...

Friday, November 2, 2012

So Much Better Acoustic

Pssst! The key is on the hook!

A Messy Farm

It's been a string of cold, rainy, and muddy days here at the farm. I'm not complaining, it's my favorite type of weather, but it sure isn't making the farm look very appealing. Sometimes this place seems to be little more than mud, bent over t-posts, and sagging field fences. With the fall leaves gone and the weather too warm for snow (though my fingers are crossed) the world outside my woodstove and music seems to be stuck in a very unattractive purgatory.

It's not a television farmstead, that's for certain. And I'm ashamed to admit this is something I worry about. When folks travel for hours and come to a place literally thrown together by hope and force, I worry the results do not live up to the blog. Everything was done piecemeal, everything in a state of repair. The entire operation is small, not a rolling landscape. Tools and animal droppings are everywhere, the pile of trash by the dump never looks great. The house needs power washing. The truck is dented and covered in turkey poop. Most things are reinforced with baling twine.

Well folks, it's not pretty, nor is it impressive—but it is mine.. I am contented that the animals are happy and well-tended, the food that comes out of this place is sensational, and the friendships I've made since moving here are nothing short of amazing. Oh well, this just goes to show that working farms are not movie sets. If you want a magazine spread, check out Hildene in Manchester. If you want some good home brew and a chicken dinner and season 5 of Buffy on Hulu: come here.

I can't wait for the first snowfall.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thank You, All

What Hallow's Means to Me

prodigal return

With the loss of October, so goes the warmth. The lazy days in the sixties seem to have ridden the coattails of Sandy and snow is on the radar for the weekend and nights dipping into the twenties. Just like that, Winter walked in.

I woke up in the dark house cold and unraveled myself from the quilts and coverlets to a 50-degree house, in need of coffee and some primal warmth. I got dressed in my usual farm clothes and headed outside. Gibson was with me, walking at my flanks in lantern light as we made our way to the side of the house with the wood pile, axes, and splitting stumps. I went to work, slicing some kindling and progressively larger pieces of wood up towards good sized burning logs. Gibson he watched from a lie down, eyeing Defiance as it stared at him from the back of the pickup truck. Defiance was still in bed. Not even Merlin yelled for his breakfast yet, and they would wait until a fire was lit and coffee was set on the stove. I have no problem feeding them before I have my oatmeal and coffee, but I'm heading into chores without the promise of warmth and caffeine upon my prodigal return.

Chores go by in a liquid series of motions. When you do the same thing every day you learn tricks, little time saving methods that make work flow like music. I hit the well first and grab a bucket of water, putting an empty bucket in its place to fill while I tended to the pigs. Arriving in the barn I set down the bucket to squeals and rioting as I grab their big black pan and fill it with morning ration. Gibson is locked on them, watching with pricked ears and wagging tail. Before I pour them clean water into their currently-dirty drinking bucket I fill the rabbit's water fonts and feed them as well. I look over the rabbits for any sort of sores or pain and give them a bit of clean bedding. I decide to mate a pair today for fresh winter farm meat. Bunnies in a few months will be welcomed.

With the pigs fed and the first light coming I can see the smoke coming from the chimney. It's one happy sight. There are still horses to water and hay, sheep to do the same to, too. I have the chickens to load with crumble layer feed and somehow I fight that desire to run inside for a sip of pumpkin coffee. Everyone is seen to right before I head inside. Gibson never wants to come indoors. Even food is a useless bribe. Food isn't as important as adventure to a young Border Collie.

Eventually I make my way here, and the coffee is poured. The fire warm and the music from the computer's radio station is nice. Acoustic guitars and male voices ring out as the weak sun tries to explain itself through the gray morning. Rain is the word of the day. Before then will be more firewood chopped, more chores, possibly a soggy ride on a black horse. Who knows... The day is just getting started and the coffee is hot...

Watching The World Go By

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Luceo non Uro

A lot of people are surprised when they find out about my love of Scottish history and language, since I'm not of Scottish descent. This always takes me aback. Does every devout Catholic have to be Roman born? Does every bull rider need to be raised on an Oklahoma ranch? Do you need to be from New Jersey to know how to navigate a shopping mall? Of course not. People are drawn to the lives they want to live, at least the stubborn ones are.

I identify with the old Highland Clans' history and people. Their stories are full of dramatic fighters and lovers. People who created an agrarian religion that celebrated life without fearing death. People who loved dogs and horses and hunting and music—who told stories, danced and sang, and understood the import of a hot meal on a cold, rainy day. I love these people. I love their lives, their livestock, and even their miserable weather. I may not be Scottish, but both by deed and elevation I am certainly a highlander. Alba Gu Brath, Mac.

When I joined the SCA I was told I was supposed to pick out a name from the country of origin I wished to study and participate as. This is what people would call me, know me as. (It's not often you are told to pick a new identity, an exciting idea.) Naturally I chose Scotland and I picked the name Corbie Mackenzie. Corbie is an old slang term for crow from traditional music of the period. Mackenzie was in honor of the modern clan in the serial novels I was reading that brought me to traditional archery in the first place. Since I joined the Society to learn to be an archer it was a nod to author S.M. Stirling, who's Clan Mackenzie were renowned archers in those books I came to love. Honestly, I didn't know much about the Clan outside of that whimsical fiction. But as I started to study their real history I couldn't help but fall in love with it. Here's why:

The Mackenzie's have two clan crests. An old one with a giant stag and war cry in Gaelic and another, newer, one with a torch-lit mountain and a romantic phrase in Latin. Yup, the Clan Mackenzie has two historic symbols: Antlers and a mountain in need of heat? They are the original, dramatic, identity-changin' Cold Antlers.

Knowing this, how could I not dive into their tales, battles, religion, history and everyday life? These people also knew what it felt like to ride a Highland Pony in a kilt, tend blackface sheep during lambing season, and work with wild sheepdogs that ran across the hillsides like loosed arrows. So I read on, and studied. And the more I learned the harder I fell. Let me share a story about why the Clan Mackenzie has two crests.

See, It started with the stag, and just the stag. That was the symbol of the clan. And the old motto was in Gaelic, Cuidich 'N Righ, which means "Help The King". It's a pretty standard motto for highlanders whose identity was based on war, country, and family. Their motto was a battle cry that was surely screamed out in those endless clan wars. But back in 1605 all that changed. A Mackenzie Chief fell in love with a McLeod and going against tradition and family pleading he changed the crest and motto for his love. He fell for a daughter of the Lewes family, of the McLeod's. The romantic Mackenzie took the Lewes' Family Crest of a bright sun and their motto "I shall Burn without being consumed" and rebranded the Clan Mackenzie with a mountain on fire and a new motto. Which means he literally took a piece of the heavens and represented it on earth with a torch and changed their martial slogan to this, single, amazing phrase:

Luceo non Uro — I Shine, Not burn.

I Shine, not burn! What a beautiful way to see the world! to choose to be a part of light instead of destruction. We live in a culture of victims and anger. We are surrounded by nonstop news foaming at the mouth with rage and fear. Pundits, disaster, crime and threats. All around us there is this fire, this burning. And if you let yourself fall into it you too will be consumed by it. You'll become angry, depressed, unhealthy, scared, and worried. You will stop living the life you were meant to live. Why would you not choose love? Who cares about the fallout?

Tomorrow is a big day. It's Samhain. A holiday those Highlanders knew well. It was the Celtic New Year, and the end of the Harvest and beginning of winter. Not a lot of people celebrate Samhain anymore, but that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you're a diehard Christian, Atheist, Pagan, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Agnostic or none of the above. If you are reading this with a heartbeat then you are a fellow celebrant because you're alive. You pulse makes you my brother or sister in a world on fire. We need to help each other shine. We do it through memory, and kindness, second chances, love and forgiveness. You don't have to believe in anything to be a part of those things. All of us can take a moment to think about what inside us needs to change, and who we loss that we don't want to let down, and to be grateful we're still alive to do those things.

Since last October my life has changed in ways I could have never anticipated. Things I didn't plan, not really. I didn't plan on quitting my job when I did. I certainly didn't plan on Merlin. I didn't plan the heartbreak, the arguments, the loss of loved ones, or the hundred things I can not write about here. But in just twelve months I am an entirely different person. I really am. I'm someone who decided to take her own life by the horns and follow a dream most people think is dead in America. To leave the desk and corporate world behind and become a full time writer, shepherd, and farmer. I did it because I was burning there. I was falling apart and fading fast. I just wanted to shine.

So many people are going to wake up tomorrow and go through their day with the absolute certainty that will fall asleep that night. Everyone who dies tomorrow will be wrong. There's no rule out there that says it isn't going to be me. I hope it isn't, because there are so many more stories I want to tell, and love I want to find. But I don't make the rules. I never expect to die, but I also never assume I'll live. Not since I almost died in Tennessee on sunny day. I think that's what really brought me to Cold Antler, a fear that life could be cut short and I was spending it doing something I didn't love. It went against everything I believed in, and everything I believed this life could be. I didn't understand what could be more important than following that goal of a meaningful life? What else is there to do with this gift of time than to spend it being happy? Not everyone can make their wildest dreams come true, but hell, everyone can try can't they? So why do so many people choose to put off happiness? Choose to not try? Why do they do things that make them sad? Why do they choose fear and anger and step into the fire that consumes them instead of lighting the path towards something better?

I can't answer that. But I know on this Samhain Eve that there's a flock of sheep, a black pony, a loyal sheepdog, and a beating heart of a Mackenzie on this mountain farm. All of it is here because that's what this short, blessed, life lead me towards. I chose to Shine, not Burn. And it is a choice, for all of us. And it can all change to be whatever you are willing to create. So will it.

Now go light your torches and enjoy the New Year.

Be My Guest: All Year!

I decided to run a a big discount on season passes. It's ridiculously low and that's because the farm could use your support. If you email me at I will tell you the rate and it is good for 24 hours. I can afford to just sell 4 more at this price (roughly the cost of Antlerstock that covers an entire year of events) so email me quick and I'll explain more details. You can pay now and be covered for fiddle camp in the winter, words and wool with Jon Katz in December, Herbalism with Kathy Harrison, Dulcimer 101, and more to come. Please consider this if you are able to attend or just want to support the farm from afar!

Defiance In Unlikely Places

While I was preparing for the storm née hurricane, I was worried about a few of the animals but none more than the turkey. I have one fat Royal Palm gobbler here and he has a few quirks that would not make him the best survivor in bad weather. Mostly his absolute refusal to sleep indoors. He will not go into an open barn, chicken coop, or anywhere enclosed. He prefers to sleep above ground where he can see 360 degrees around him, not too far from an escape route. Usually this means my pickup truck's tailgate, which is covered in turkey poop. But as dead set as he was in his ways, I wanted him to survive the high winds and downpour. I had a plan, you see.

I would ensure his safety by catching him and placing him inside a hay-bedded dog crate inside the barn. There, even if he wasn't perching he would be safe from the storm and present for Thanksgiving Dinner, where he will be feeding nine people. I got the crate ready and then stalked him as he sat on a garbage can. I was going to grab him, confine him, and do it for his own damn good.

I thought I could catch him. I couldn't. I tried, chasing the black and white sub-emu around like an idiot as the wind howled and the horses watched in silent awe. He just ran into the woods, or flew up into the trees. After a few more long and exhausting tries I decided to let him take his fate into his own hands. Some times you need to just let the powers that be take your farm into their own hands. I gave up on the turkey when I heard the first tree in the woods fall.

This morning when I walked along the farm in the darkness, checking on horses and feeding them some breakfast hay I could not believe what I saw. There on the top of the garbage can (where I first saw him) was the turkey. He was dry, gobbling, and looked better than I did after a night of little sleep. I don't know if he spent the whole storm on the can or perched there after camping elsewhere but I know the barn and coop were locked up to keep the regulars safe. I shrugged and told him he was a mighty fine turkey. Maybe he was smart enough to dine on a salad of Maple, basil, and birch before Sandy hit shore? I'll never know.

But I do know this! On Thanksgiving we will not only taste my bourbon honey glaze, but something extra special—defiance. Which is what I finally decided to name him.

Hold Fast

Just in from morning rounds by lantern light. Outside the farm the moon is bright and full and shining all over the wet and branch-covered ground, but from the looks of morning feeding the horses, sheep, goats, and pigs are all doing fine. Being dark out and the wind still howling I didn't open the coop I shut up and latched last night but it was in good shape and none of the barns had downed-tree damage, nor did the house. A lot of people weren't as lucky from the looks of Facebook. Trees took out parked cars and garages, awnings went flying into the air and NYC has become a wading pool in some areas. For those not familiar with my area: New York City is a four hour drive south east, pretty darn far from Washington County. I live closer to the state capital, Albany, which was lucky too from what I haven't heard in bad news. This little farm is holding fast.

Post title inspired by the McLeod crest, which I learned about from a cattle owning Scot in the Adirondacks, named Brett McLeod. I assure you his farm did just fine in the howl.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Maple, Basil, and Birch

I think storms are good in the way they get people focused on what matters most: home, family, and survival. I don't mean that in a creepy doomsday way, I just mean that for once most people on the east coast up here aren't worried about much beyond staying safe and keeping those they love safe. Right now the wind is actually howling outside, you can hear it like an owl in a tunnel, but no rain has fallen. I'm as prepared as I am going to be, but still a little nervous. It's time like this you wish you had a big stone barn with a dozen stalls and places for every claw, paw, and hoof. But I have what I have and I am ready as I can be.

A homestead is always a safe bet. My farm isn't very high tech, save for the computers and long before Sandy was even a twinkle in the atmosphere's eye I had plenty of oil lamps, extra oil, extra wicks, flashlights, batteries, emergency charging for my cell phone, radios, and food. The farm is located halfway up a mountain so it is naturally living within a windbreak. There's a happy stream purring downhill, just another twenty feet from my well's overflow that I load up buckets with. If the power goes out at length there will be plenty of mountain water here to drink for human and animal alike. I have purification tablets as well as a couple big stockpots to bring it to a rolling boil over my wood stove.

One thing that isn't fun is riding out a storm as the only human. It's not loneliness but a feeling of isolation. I don't mind being without power for a few days and I'm not worried about my basic needs. It's just nice to ride out a storm with a partner. Someone to tell me "It's going to be okay". Which I know, is a luxury for any person in this world but trust me, there are times I would happily trade in my canned goods for a friend in a storm. It's just me and these animals here and whatever happens it's my job to solve it. And I will.

And I am doing my best. I am all about all forms of protection and security and so there is a sprig of basil, maple, and birch tied together on the front door. It's an old folk trio of plants said to protect farmhouses from weather danger. I used it for Irene, and some other big storms as well and it has always seen me and the animals through. But to really load up my protection arsenal I'd like it if any of you have room for all of us in the storm's path in your prayers to send some of that protective mojo our way. Deity of your choice, to me it is all the same. It's the love that matters. And I'll remember that tonight when the wind is rolling through the mountain.

The Storm Is Coming

Thermos The Storm Pig

Sandy is coming up our way by this afternoon. The Storm Pig is ready. Thermos and Lunchbox, Bonita, Francis, and Monday have the best rain, wind, and general protection on the farm. They share the barn and should remain safe as houses while the wet wind blows. The sheep have a four-sided shelter, the horses have a sturdy roof built into the side of a mountain. And I have three dogs, a kitten, and a house that has made it through 150+ years of weather. Everyone will be okay, I am confident of that. What we have in store is just 20-35 MPH winds and a lot of rain. My sump pump is ready to go and so is my sump pump backup generator. There is plenty of food for me and the animals, two woodstoves, water, flsh lights, oil lamps, books and candles. I even have a bottle of port. It's not Washington County that's under the big threat like the Mid-Atlantic coast but I am still expecting a few days without power. How are the rest of you coasters doing out there?

Horses, Hames, & Sleepy Hollow

Saturday night I was sitting around a campfire with a pulled pork sandwich in my hands, wood smoke in my hair, friends at all sides, and a day of working horses behind me. Elizabeth, to my left was playing some improve fiddle music and to my right Jessica was talking to Mark about the day's events. Everyone seemed tired and happy, some of them had sat on a horse for the first time since childhood. Others were churning over plans to buy their first harness for the horses they already owned. Others, a pair of farmer's from downstate, were driving home under the cloudy, darkening sky deciding where to find the perfect team of haflingers. I was just happy to be (and I mean this in the best way possible) done for the day. The pork from Flying Pig farm in Shushan never disappoints and the one boston butt roast I had bought was more than enough to feed ten people through to full. I ate two sandwiches, without apology. Everyone around me seemed to be doing the same. As I munched and the sky grew dark I leaned back in my chair, raised a homebrew to my lips and took in the happy scene. In a few moments I would start reading from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but before I started any orations I just wanted to breathe deep and reflect a bit.

Today twelve people got together to talk about working horses, ride working horses, and even drive a working horse. Some were here to for R&D to learn about what goes into keeping and containing a single horse. Others wanted to get an introduction to driving and learn the harness and hames with guided hands. Some just plain old like coming to workshops, and smelling horse and dead leaves on their hands. And out of all those reasons none is better than the other.

We started the workshop at my farm. Folks pulled in as I was grooming Merlin, getting him ready for the morning riding demonstration. The plan was to show everyone the basic grooming supplies, practices, and reasoning behind a clean horse before you start saddling up. As we brushed and curry combed people asked questions and got their answers. The workshop was very organic this way, that we might be in the middle of explaining how to inspect a saddle pad but then off on a tangent about shoes vs barefoot and bit harshness. But we always managed to stay (roughly) on track and before noon everyone watched me saddle and ride Merlin through a hissy fit (extra entertainment) and then take a turn in the saddle, learning to sit with their heels down and calm shoulders and arms as they were lead around the farmyard. Merlin was a gentleman and a great sport. At 14 hands he wasn't intimidating and his draft personality really shone through.

Psst. If you want to read an account of the day and see more pictures of Merlin and us riding along check out R'Eisen Shine Farm's blog post here!

We broke for lunch and then reconvened at Patty's Farm to go over the work of a horse in the field. Patty went through harness and collar fitting, vehicles, ground driving and moved heavy stones across her barnyard via a homemade stone boat! Everyone who wanted a pair of lines in their hands or a ride in a forecart got one. By the time evening started to fall we were all a bit weary from the long day outside and ready for warm food and cold beer around that cracklin' fire.

No one got hurt. Quite the contrary, really. There wasn't any fear or danger to the day as safety was my number one goal. And everyone who attended seemed in great spirits. It seemed that by the time we were basking in the campfire everyone was also holding great spirits. The homebrew was a little flat, needed more time for carbonation, but went down smooth and dark. I sipped it slowly as I listened to the fate of the school teacher and Gunpowder the plow horse. We were passing around the book and reading out loud and it was more engaging and entertaining than any big screen TV. My imagination went a little wild, thinking of poor old Icabod riding home in the dark as the massive headless horseman matched his pace in the forest road. I smiled as I shivered, looked over at the smiling jack-o-lantern across the fire and let out a deep sigh as I took a long sip. Darn, that was good stuff. I laughed to myself, thinking how tell people I like my horses and beer the same way: strong, dark, and stout. The fire cracked, the story read on, and the night was the perfect ending to a beautiful day.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Collars & Carts

Showing Us The Ropes

That's patty and her working partner, Steele. She's showing us the basics of a working horse collar and how to measure and fit it. Yesterday's workshop dedicated to working horses was wonderful. Everyone who was there got a chance to ride or drive, feel and carry harnesses, grab onto hames, pet a pony or lead a near-ton of massive Percheron. Folks from Ontario, Chicago, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts came and the night ended with a campfire story hour where we passed along a lit-up copy of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and read Irving's tale aloud as guitars or fiddles jostled about in the background. Magical.

I'll write more on it later today. I'll also post videos and pictures as people email them in. Right now I just wanted to check in and let you know it was a fine time, and in a few minutes I'll be heading out the door for archery practice and some feed pickups. My team has a few more weekends before it gets too cold to enjoy an afternoon outdoors. As a Marshall in Training I need to go and learn the ropes of a proper SCA host of the sport.