It was a year ago that I walked this horse into my life. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I got scared, a lot. I got hurt, a lot. I nearly went broke, a lot! And now a year later I am part of one of the most meaningful and healthy relationships of my entire life. A horse that healed up a broken heart, showed me what bravery was, and lead me to friends I can not imagine living without.
Merlin, you are the best worst decision I ever made.
My editor and a photographer were here earlier this week to talk about my new book coming out this October. The title will be One Woman Farm, and instead of a memoir like my past books, it'll be a fully illustrated journal. Think of it as a blog you can hold in your hands, only you haven't read any of it before. It goes into the story of one turn of the Wheel, October to Holy October. Every month is a story of friends, food, animals, and the journey this place has taken me since inviting dairy goats and horses and new friends into my life. I am really excited for it. It'll be a book you'll be proud to own, or give. I was proud to write it. And it'll be beautiful, illustrated and cleverly packaged. I can't wait!
Music is a big part of this book, just as it is a big part of my life. Deb (my editor) brought along a real treat for us, an old Grange hymnal! We flipped through it over a lunch of homemade potato and bacon soup (thank you Lunchbox or Thermos) and tried to find songs to add, songs most folks may have forgotten. We both want this book to be a love letter to homesteading, a keepsake. part of that means feeding the book with folks songs and stories as much as my own adventures milking goats or with Merlin in the forest. This one may be my favorite, Stay on the Farm.
Come boys, I have something to tell you,
Come near, I would whisper it low,
You're thinking of leaving the homestead,
Don't be in a hurry to go.
The city has many attractions,
But think of the vices and sins,
When once in the vortex of fashion,
How soon the course downward begins.
You talk of the mines of Australia,
They're wealthy in gold without doubt,
But sh! There is gold on the farm, boys,
If only you'd shovel it out.
The mercantile trade is a hazard,
The goods are first high and then low,
Best risk the old farm a while longer,
Don't be in a hurry to go.
The great busy west has inducements,
And so has the business mart,
But wealth is not made in a day, boys,
Don't be in a hurry to start.
The bankers and brokers are wealthy,
They take in their thousand or so,
And think of the frauds and deceptions,
Don't be in a hurry to go.
The farm is the safest and surest,
The orchards are loaded today,
You're free as the air of the mountains,
And monarch of all you survey.
Best stay on the farm a while longer,
Though profits come in rather slow,
Remember you've nothing to risk boy,
Don't be in a hurry to go.
That video may still be my favorite, and I feel like it captures the purpose of this blog and farm: Hope. I think the wanting of something, anything, may be the most powerful force in the world. Be it a person you want to be with, a job you want so much it hurts, a farm to call your own, or even just that first morning sip of coffee. This is a blog about anticipations granted, long as you are willing to do the real work of believing they are possible. My life and my farm are far from perfect. It's messy and scary and there are many broken things. But I can honestly say that there isn't another person on this planet I would want to trade lives with, not one. And when you get to a point where a better version of yourself is all you desire, I think you're on to something.
I made this video the first summer of living at this farm in Jackson New York. I am still in shock that I was able to get a mortgage, move into my new home, and expand the farm as much as I have. When this video was made (summer of 2010, I think?) I had no idea what to do with a cart horse. Hell, I was still scared to ride anything that wasn't at a riding school or equestrian club, surrounded by experts. I had not milked a goat. I had not ever stalked a deer. I was a lot more naive, specially about my romantic partners. I was waking up and going to a job I didn't want to be at, every single day. I lived in fear 97% of the time. And you know what? It was that 3% of hope that got me out. Because someone once asked me on a front porch this amazing question, "Yeah, but if you quit your job you would be fine, right?" And my head split open. No one had EVER said that, certainly not as nonchalantly as if I had asked them how to spell cat?! But it just took that little bit of encouragement, and that 3% of hope, and my world changed.
Last night was Game Night, an institution here at Cold Antler. Only the core group of us showed up and to be perfectly honest we were all beat. Each of us had a long day, and we were all more ready to plop in front of a movie and shovel food than play some intense strategy game. But then, we set up Pandemic and that all changed....
Pandemic is cooperative game. All four of us were a team, fighting a series of disease outbreaks around the globe. If that sounds ominous it's because it is! But SO MUCH FUN! We cranked up some action movie soundtracks and crawled around the table. Our medics and scientists flew around the world, building research stations and treating infections. All the while more and more outbreaks occurred and we were groaning in terror. But before long we were laughing, clinking beers, and hopping up from the table for seconds of potato bacon soup I had on the stovetop simmering. It was a great time. All it took was the decision to have fun, and we did. Sometimes it comes in a board game box, other times it is outside your apartment on a dance floor. But last night it was in a farmhouse fighting Bird Flu in Essen. And even though we didn't save the world and it succumbed to horrible disease, we had fun trying to keep the human race going. Then we played again, on a harder level, and had our rumps handed to us yet again! But now we are all excited to play it again next game night and figure out how to beat the board. We left excited, inspired, and hungry for more.
So what are your thoughts so far, on the first introductory chapters of the book? What would you do if all of a sudden a painful flash appeared and the world changed? Did you find yourself leaning more towards interest in the Pilot or the Songwriter's story?
Sal's wool was drying by the fire. Only the cord-thick tips were still wet. In the middle of all the workshop chaos I couldn't help but stare at them. A few hours earlier they had been on the whether's back, coated with lanolin and wet from damp snow. Now it was clean and smelling slightly of lavender from the castile soap I had done the last few washings with. I reached over to turn them on the drying-basket, probably for the fifth time that hour. I wanted any excuse to touch it. I have been living with sheep for years, knitting even longer, but the magic of making fabric from a beloved animal has never been lost. What had me so entranced was how shiny and pearl like the locks were. Lustrous was what Kate had said, one of the workshoppers, and it really was the only word that would do. What I was gently touching was so precious. Not in the way that jewelry or babies or other delicate things are precious, but in the way of how very much it meant to me. I was holding the beginnings of real warmth in my hands. Raw wool is embers you can touch.
Throughout the two days that was the Winter Wool Weekend here at Cold Antler, a lot happened to that wool and the person fondling it. That wool was washed, dried, carded, and spun into single-ply yarn on a drop spindle. The I borrowed a pair of thin knitting needles and knit them into a small rectangle. Since my spinning is like my life, scrappy, the little project was not a poem as much as it was a folks song. Since the yarn was lumpy and I didn't relax it or ply it with another thing yarn the square was distorted, writhing like a little angry toddler throwing a temper tantrum. Any respectable knitter or spinner would have tossed it into the fire but I looked on it with enough pride to light up the room. What I was holding was cloth. It was made entirely by my own hand with nothing but a sheep, some soap and water, some hand carders and a few sticks. In a world where new sweaters cost 9.99 at Walmart I might as well have just waved my wand and worked a spell. I made cloth appear. I felt unstoppable
Between the story of Sal's Swatch there was much going on. This weekend's workshop had readers from across the country (one as far away as San Francisco!) and a living room full of fiber, critters, and stories. We spent two days living the wool life.
Saturday was all about the production of wool. We started with sheep in the field and ended the day with the drop spindle and the spinning wheel. I took all the folks outside and stood around a circling flock as I talked about homestead sheep and their many uses and blessings. I was holding a grain bag, so it wasn't hard to snip a fistful of Sal's top line off and bring it inside with us. No one slipped on the ice and everyone seemed excited to see what was ahead for the haircut's progeny.
I showed folks how to wash raw wool, step by step. We started by letting everyone touch and smell the raw wool, actually get lanolin in their hands and know what to expect from a raw fleece. Fiber expert, Kathryn, who was here to help with the workshop and has bought her fair share of fleeces, told us what to look for in raw wool. We talked about the healthy barnyard smell it should have, and what else to look out for such as diseased or matted wool and other signs of badness. With that done, we went to washing the bit of pilfered pre-yarn. In the living room it was gently placed in a basin of soapy water and then (without irritation) lifted out. The dirty water was replaced. It would take five total soaks for the water to pour out clean. With that done it was set in front of the fireside to dry.
With the wool having to dry, it would take a bit before I could start carding and spinning it so I sat back and listened to Kathryn yeah us about spinning. She brought along her wheel, a model called the Ladybug and my antique Ashford Traditional was also there beside her. She talked about wheels, tools of the spinner, and roving and then sat down with anyone who wanted to give it a try. People got a personal lesson, always starting with getting the body used to the motion of the treadle, the song of the spinning wheel. Just hearing its near-silent whirring was peaceful. Since spinning wool is a form of production, and we are so used to an industrial world, we were all a little shocked at how beautiful it was in its quiet way. Kathryn made sure none of us got frustrated with our lumpy beginnings. "It's not about making beautiful yarn, not now anyway, it's about training your body and mind to do the work." And so people got into training. People who weren't learning to spin were working with drop spindles, or sharing samples of things they had spun or knit at home. At these workshops everyone is a student and every is a teacher. Elizabeth was on the daybed showing people her spindle technique while Mari was helping me repair my Ashford so I could learn to spin on it. All these people made the day great. By the end of it I had a working wheel, and had spun some rough work onto it. Sal's wool was carded and on a handmade spindle, and everyone who wanted to know something had asked, touched, or figured it out. I call that a day well spent.
Sunday was a slower pace, but just as fun. It was a glorified knitting circle. Part show and tell, part story, and part lessons. Three people arrived having no idea how to knit and left with rows on their new needles (thanks to Liz and Kate!). I spent the day running around between the wheel (spinning may be a new form of meditation at this farm, for I was LOST in it) and making my Sal yarn into a little swatch. We shared our current projects, wore hand-made items, and did our best to encourage the beginners who all seemed to have a knack for the needles. Out of this whole weekend it was seeing the those people learn a craft, and be able to do it on their own, that I was most happy about. Workshops here are never polished and rarely organized but people do come not knowing a thing and leave with the skills and will to make things happen.
A man and two women now know the basics how to make fabric out of string because of a farm in the mountains and the amazing people drawn to it. I know that's not a big deal, but to me it is just like that handful of embers. A spark can start a bonfire. In a few months those people may be wearing hand-knit hats outside to greet the a cold morning. Warmth is worth a lot, and good people are worth even more. But when you get to combine them together on a snowy day you have something special. Thank you to all who took the time to come here. You're what makes this farm sing.
One of the workshop attendees confessed I was not what she was expecting. She didn't say she was disappointed or pleasantly surprised, that I was just different. She could not have been a more kind person, and in no way did I take offense. We blew over that bit of conversation fairly fast that day, but in truth I thought about this all night.
When you come to this farm, do not expect the voice from the blog. In person I am a very blunt, in every way. I am built like a war Hobbit, short and squat and stocky. I look exactly like a woman who hauls bales of hay, buckets of water, milks goats, and bosses around stubborn ponies. I'm also blunt in how I talk and interact. I am louder than I would like to be. When I get comfortable around folks (which takes me about 40 seconds) I have a mouth like a sailor (albeit and elegant one). You don't hear that tone on the blog, but in person you meet a swarthy dairy maid with a gutter mouth. I write pretty things, but that's really the only pretty thing about me.
I think the blog also gives folks the idea I have a sense of serenity I certainly do not have in person. I write how I feel when I am writing, which is calm. Sitting down to write means I am forcing myself into a type of meditation. I am still, breathing slow, my mind focused. When I write my heartbeat is down and I am not thinking about losing my home insurance or my grocery list. So what you read is a mental trot of considered things. But at a workshop I am talking fast, running around, and probably still red-faced and hay flecked from morning chores.
I guess you should expect a Tornado. Be ready for the occasional vulgarity accompanied by a body and a force of will ready to run into battle with a war axe. That's the best preparation I can give you for real-life Jenna.
Also, I am working really hard on being more like the Jenna who writes. Really, really, hard. This blog is my journey towards an authentic self I feel inside, know inside, and am fighting like mad to achieve. You read on here about my goals to work with this farm, make things happen on the soil. But most of the work is between the lines, a healthier person in every way. My real goals are to be physically healthier, emotionally healthier, and to find a man out there whose willing to put up with the journey and who I am so excited about I feel like a member of a two-person fan club. Perhaps this post is all about my anxiety over not being the person I am expecting? That's probably the heart of it. But like I said, I am working on it. I hope we all get to meet this Jenna soon. She's got a lot of work to do when she arrives!
Also, here's a photo of a dog in a hat in case you think I am being too broody.
One of the workshop attendees, James Lawless, gave me a heck of a hostess gift. He handed me his beloved Impala mount, Phil. He said it was in need of a new home and he thought it would fit in here. I was THRILLED to accept it! Now Phil has a place of glory above the record player in the living room. He's on the opposite side of Clark, my favorite deer mount. Together Phil and Clark are helping Mona keep an eye on things. Now I can't walk into the living room without a grin on my face.
I caught this quick picture of Kathryn, lost in her roving, her back to the snow outside. Boghadair is watching from the comfort of the fire and around this red-haired magical woman is a stack of board games, a horse's bridle, a bit of taxidermy and an iron sheep... A still from a collection of lives in the North Country. I adore this image.
Gloom may be this farm's signature game. I have played it here at least twice a week with so many different people, but last night took the cake. Two friends who were staying the weekend wanted to play after hearing about it, and I said sure. What I didn't realize was one gal had a theatre background and worked in a goth nightclub in a former life, the other one is a writer working in the world of comic book publishing...
It was an AMAZING GAME! I should not have been surprised, I mean, women who can spin wool can probably spin a yarn (wah waaahh)... I was literally bent over the floor laughing. The stories were messed up and wild, with accents and accidents flying all over the place. Virginia and Kath were naturals, totally excited and into their character's clans and backstory. When you are with people who love improv and aren't scared to work a little blue, wooo!
I got hosed by the deck, horrible drawing, but I never had more fun losing a game. That's what's great about Gloom. It's a chance to tell stories and be creative with friends, and even if you are in last place you still spent an hour being competitive. It's a mental three-legged race in fishnet stockings. You gotta try it.
It's been a very busy weekend here, getting ready and hosting two days of wool workshops. I don't have time to write much, but wanted to share a few images from the first day of the Winter Wool Weekend. Today was all about sheep to yarn, the pre-knitting part of the weekend. It's a heck of a crowd here, with some serious spinners and knitters among the ranks. Hold on to your orifice hooks, folks, it's a wooly time here at the farm! More photos and posts soon!
The Rendezvous weekend is now officially March 9th and 10. Please leave a comment or an email confirming you will or will not be here at this date, even if you already did so. I need to figure out how many instruments need to be ready, chairs set out, t-shirts, and such all around preparation.
And as for you folks coming to the Winter Wool Weekend, be warned! This farm is icy as all get out, and we will be spending a bit of time walking around the farm and working with the sheep (I will be taking some wool from Sal!). Please bring "farm boots" and a big comfortable sweater, hat, scarf and gloves. You may need it for inside too because when the workshop starts at 10AM there's a good chance the house will only be warmed up to about 55 degrees. By lunch we'll be opening windows but just prepare to be comfortable if that is out of your temperature wheelhouse. Also, feel free to bring your spinning wheels, yarn stashes, or any projects you are proud of. I want to show new fiber people what is possible, what they can aspire to create! And one last reminder, bring a packed lunch or eating out cash, as lunch break will be from 12:30-1:30. Workshop starts at 10AM and will go to 4-5PM. See you all Saturday!
I decided it would be fun to host a book club as part of this blog! But instead of what you may be thinking, which is memoirs and farm books, I want to do something different. I want to share the works of fiction that inspire and created Cold Antler Farm. These will all be fantasy novels, and if you are new to the genre you won't be disappointed.
Here's how it'll work. I announce a book and then we all get a hold of it. All LLF book selections will be available in three formats for accessibility: paper book, e-book, and audiobook. If you are like me you love a good story but don't necessarily have the patience (or time) to sit and finish a novel in a month - listening is a fine option. Audiobooks are wonderful, and they sure as heck count in this club. You can listen at the gym, in your car, or through a speaker in your kitchen while doing the dishes.
Everyone has a month to finish the book, and then we discuss it here on the blog. It'll be a long string of comments or possibly something like a Google hangout if you want to tune in for a live streaming conversation.
The first pick will be a favorite I heard about through you, the readership of this blog: S.M. Stirling's Dies The Fire: A Novel of the Change. It's wonderful, and the reason I am both an archer and a Mackenzie in the SCA. The book is about modern America, roughly around the late 1990's. The story takes place in the Willamette Valley of the Pacific Northwest. If you live around Bend, Eugene, Corvallis, and such areas of Oregon you will really be able to devour this book, as that is where it takes place. One day around dinner time a huge bright light flashes and all electricity shuts off. But this isn't just an EMP or act of international war. All engines stop working, batteries stopped working, all gunpowder stops exploding, and the world's level of technology is thrown into the Bronze Age. Chaos ensues, but two scrappy groups emerge…
One is lead by a singer songwriter and single mother, in her early thirties. She's at a college bar the night this happens and has to escape a city in flames with her friends to her home in the mountains of Oregon. The other is a young pilot for hire, who is caught in the air in a small transporter plane when it starts to crash into the Idaho Mountains with some wealthy clients…
We follow these two people, along with their fellow church members and neighbors start new societies where agriculture, archery, hand-to-hand armored combat are the norm and horses are the only mustangs on the open road. It's post-apocalyptic fictional fantasy, emphasis on the fantasy and not the horror of a dying world
Why I think you guys would love this? Because in this fantasy novel it is the homesteaders who take over! The only folks who still know the skills to farm and create are folks who restart society. They, and the people who went out of their way to practice hobbies most "normal" people felt were archaic before "The Change" happened. It is folks in the SCA, fencing classes, martial arts, that know how to protect themselves without guns. It is the dairy farmers, leather workers, carpenters, weavers, knitters, chefs, ranchers and cowboys…these are the people who inherit the earth. And all the while trying to be whole again and peaceful while a man who decided to turn Portland into his very own kingdom becomes more and more maniacal. Drama!
Ran over to Livingston Brook Farm to pick up a truckload of hay for the gang. While loading up, Ellis and Steele came over to eat mouthfuls out of the Dodge while us humans did all the heavy lifting. Patty always says (and I think she is right) that horses know that hay tastes better from a pickup truck. I wanted a photo with me and Steele but even my fistful of sweetgrass wasn't enough to get him to pose with me. (I think he was embarrassed he was in a purple blanket.) Whatever, horse.
This illustration of me was made by a woman named Destiny, who wrote this open letter on her blog last night. I read it and was all smiles and tears. I wanted to share this little part of it. (I hope that's okay, Destiny?) I want to thank her as well. I wrote her back and told her how important encouragement is, and how important hearing that you matter to people is. Being a public person, and the internet being a fairly angry place, sometimes it feels overwhelmingly negative. But every once in a while you find out that someone was touched, and it makes this little website feel worthwhile, important even. I'm so grateful for kind letters, even if I don't get back to everyone who writes them. They make a difference.
As of February 16th, it has been one year since I first visited your blog; I’m writing now to say ‘thank you’ because this past year has been the most productive of my life and I know it’s in large part due to the inspiration you impart on a near-daily basis.
My dad died in early 2011 and during his stay in the hospital, we talked about the homestead we’d build when he got better. His chance of recovery was slim and we owned no property on which to build a proper farm but the planning gave us something to hope for and entertained him; he was the only one of our family with actual farm experience and he loved to be in a position where he could teach us new things.
Unfortunately, he didn’t make it. Although owning a quaint little berry farm and orchard has been my dream since I was six, I pushed away all thoughts of homesteading that year; it didn’t seem possible without Dad and we had too many other things to worry about in the immediate future. But then a year later, in February 2012, a co-worker lent me her copy of “The Secret.” That film hit me so hard and made me question what I really wanted– and I was a little surprised to find ‘I Want A Farm’ at the top of the list. How I would get a farm (or even prepare for working on one), I had no idea, but at least now I knew what I wanted so I went to Google for research.
I don’t remember how I found your blog but I do remember that the very first post I read was Biting Your Tail (which I read over and over and cried through each time because it touched me so deeply and echoed so many things I was feeling right then).
In the twelve months since I read that post, I have changed so much. As you often point out, you won’t get anywhere if you don’t take that first step… so I have taken lots of first steps this past year, in lots of different directions, and it’s amazing how much easier the second step is, and then the third. My first step towards farming was planting a vegetable garden (something I’d never done) and this spring my mom and I have plans to more than double it. We also got in touch with our local beekeeping club and are learning about apiculture. We completed a handful of DIY projects and have immersed ourselves in homesteading books and magazines. We still have a long way to go but there’s a goal to work toward now.
But it’s not just farming I’ve learned about from reading your blog; the real core of your writing is about manifesting your dreams, whatever they are, and I believe that’s the thing that keeps your readers coming back for more. You encourage us to declare our plans and intentions, share them with whoever will listen, and open doors and create opportunities in the process. I have stopped believing that ridiculous superstition about keeping your wishes secret or they won’t come true; now I write them down, chat about them, incorporate them into my daily activities. I call for them. And they’re answering; this year, I’ll be quitting my office job to work full-time as a professional illustrator (number two on that ‘I Want’ list).
Beatrix Potter and Tasha Tudor have long been my idols; they lived the way I want to. But, in many ways you have become more inspirational than them; you have manifested your farm through creativity, cleverness, enthusiasm, and grit– not a substantial bank account. Thank you so much for sharing your ups-and-downs with the farm, your excitement, your advice, and your ‘magic’ with those who visit. Words cannot express the value of the gift you give.
It's Tuesday at Here at Cold Antler Farm and that's means Game Night! It's a new tradition here, and it is a hit. Farmers, writers, musicians, or just the everyday variety of friends and readers—they come here for a potluck dinner and a game. But don't think you'll get just any sort of meal and any sort of board game, this is a very certain taxonomy of the species. We eat good, home cooked, farm-raised food and the games are not what you will find on most mall shelves. No darling, we play awesome games. The kind of games that win German awards for making you fall in love with meeples.... That's Game Night. We drink and laugh and talk seeds and piglets between sips of hard cider and spoonfuls of soup hand-crafted by a chef fit for a bistro menu. It is high class geek fantastico.
Tara and Tyler of goingslowly.com are regulars. Truthfully they are the co-founders of Game Night and helped make it what it is now. They are recent imports from the midwest, living here in Veryork in a trailer on their recently purchased land, while building straw bale and thatch-roofed house. (These are our people!) Besides being fans of the same games I am, Tara and Tyler are cookbook authors and have graced this farm's table with meals both charming and simple. We have trades wood for sheep over bits of crumbly lemon cakes and shouted over shutgunning Zombies with potato soup in our hearts. Tara has made meals that made me squirm around the spoon with joy, Tyler brought his knife sharpening kit once and made my chef's knife a force to be reckoned with. They make any game or any meal better. Come to Game Night and meet them!
For those of you already writing this off as lame. I get it. If you are (like I was) suspect about board games and convinced they are horrible time sucks and boring traps, I can not suggest Wil Wheaton's Youtube Show, Table Top enough. The games this show features are not your run-of-the-mill games. They are clever, super fun, usually European imports. Some are more about storytelling or role playing and others are really all about dice and chance, but all of them are awesome. I say this as someone who can not sit through a game of Monopoly and avoids any dinner party where Scattergories or Win Lose or Draw is mentioned. I refused to play board games for years because that was all I knew. But now I watch TableTop every Thursday and have bought several of the games featured it in. Each of these fancy games costs anywhere from ten to fifty dollars but I don't see that as anything but an investment. I can buy a game like Catan once and host endless dinner parties with great friends and never get tired of it. The most commonly played games here are Settlers of Catan, Zombie Dice, Tsuro and Gloom. But I just got my hands on that game Agricola, which is as daunting as it is exciting. I am upping my gamer ante with that one…
So tonight is Game Night. It's an institution. I have 4 pounds of pork shoulder in the crock pot and at least six people showing up, possibly eight. (I better sweep up the dog hair). I feel like I'm getting ready for the school dance, all wound up over the chance and laughs.
So folks, consider possibly setting up a homestead game night of your own, wherever you are. It's a great way to really connect with people, learn about them, and enjoy a night. I feel like we don't spend enough time with our friends away from screens and dinner tables. To eat a good meal and then retire for a night of high-stakes laughter, a few puffs of pipe smoke, and harmless ribbing at old inside jokes is a blast. It makes the winter warmer, the food taste better, the community stronger. It's here to stay at CAF.
P.S. Do you know what game is coming in the mail today!? Glen More! The game of living in ancient Scotland and running your farm and clan! Perfect!
Wendy Rogers, the talented watercolorist and (lucky me!) reader of CAF surprised me with this image on my Facebook page yesterday! It is Sal! Holy Crow is this woman an artist. A few weeks ago I was just browsing through people's updates on Facebook and was lucky enough to see a painting she did of a forest in winter's sigh. I was so floored by it, by how it made me instantly feel like I was riding Merlin through the Days of Grace before the snow fell....that I had to tell her how she transported me. Some people write, some act, some build, some hunt and some paint. Wendy paints and we are all luckier for it. We get to see her world!
P.S. She takes commissions! Contact her through the link!
If anyone is interested in a purebred Ram Lamb, not quite a hogget (born near the summer solstice, I have one for sale. I would like to keep him but with Altas here it is tricky. I am moving him away from the expectant mothers in the goat pen tomorrow (if the gates unfreeze!) and letting him try life with the flock but I am fairly certain he won't be as happy playing second fiddle to Atlas as he would be in charge of his own girls. He is in tact, from solid stock of NEBCA member breeders, and was born here. If interested please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yesterday afternoon I drove through South Cambridge to the town of Buskirk. A hundred acre farm was my destination, home of Ed Hepp and his wife Patty. Ed's an amazing man, and a total character. He has been working with raptors since he was fifteen years old. He adores the birds and has been a member of the New York State Falconry Association since it started. I am guessing the gentleman is in his seventies, but it isn't slowing him down. He's a hawker, and an artist, a husband and a local legend. I was at his farm because I called him and asked if he could consider being my falconry sponsor. It's asking a lot.
To become an apprentice you need a mentor. The state demands an experienced falconer, at least five years into the sport, sign off on you. It's the first level of screening for newbies like me. If someone thinks you aren't right for the sport, don't have the time, resources, or gusto to make it as a hawker they don't sign you up. I was there to basically ask for faith and time, as a total stranger.
I arrived and Pat met me at the door. She and her home were beautiful, tidy and put together. A Brittany spaniel (I would learn was named Jake) wagged his cropped tail at me and loved me up as I entered the house. I told her who I was and why I was there and she pointed to the workshop-cum-mews outside where Ed was working. I gathered my books, early supplies I had gathered, and study guide the state had sent me, complete with the application Ed would have to sign off on. As I walked outside down the path to his workshop I saw him walking out towards me.
He was gray haired and tan, sturdy and of shorter stature. He walked like someone half his age would walk, confident without seeming arrogant. He walked like a man on his own land, and behind him in a dog run of chain link was a gorgeous Goshawk the likes of which I had never seen in books or online before. Unlike the dog, the hawk did not have a name.
I fell in love with Ed when we were walking from his workshop to the house so he could interview me for the sponsorship. As he smacked layers of sawdust and wood shavings from his worn jeans and jacket, he grumbled about being dirty. I asked him if he was working on his carousel horse carving and he said, without missing a beat, "I do too many things, and none of them well," and there was a smile in his words. If there is one personality trait I share with the man, it's that. I can ride a horse, shoot a bow and arrow, brew a batch of stout, and knit a hat and none of them are mastered crafts. Ed and I are Jacks of All Trades, and I love being a Jack. Ed does too.
After a few hours of talking, touring, and walking through his property Ed signed off on me and accepted me as a sponsor. I could not be happier about that. Ed has been doing this a long time, and has the wealth of experience and stories that I can only hope to learn a fraction of. Monday I mail off my application and officially sign up for the written exam and once I pass that (80& or higher!) Ed can help me pick out a place for my Mews and help me get started on the path to training my own bird. He's really leaning towards a Kestrel for me, I think. I have my heart set on a Red Tail. Truth is I'll be honored and thrilled with anything I am lucky enough to share a few hunting seasons with.
I was outside carrying buckets for the horses when the phone rang, three times in a row. It was Yesheva down at Common Sense Farm. She wanted to let me know their last doe of the season due to give birth, Iris, was in the throes. Did I want to come down and watch and/or help? She said if I rushed I could make it.
I dropped everything and headed the three miles down the road!
I spent an hour in their barn watching not one, not two, but triplets being brought into this fine world! It was a healthy and normal birth, all systems go. It was very much like the sheep, but a lot more vocal and a lot quicker! I got to towel them off, help get them on their feet, and feed them their first tastes of mama's milk. Iris was a trooper and all of her little ones (two does and a buckling) are healthy and already on the bottle. In a week the dairy will be up in full swing again. More photos to come!
We continued this thrashing hike through the slush and ice for quite some time. Us humans covering ground in a fanning group, hitting piles of brush with our big sticks and keeping an eye on Enola. For a hawk she wasn't very focused. At least not this particular afternoon. Dawn seemed only slightly worried when the bird started to fly away from our hunting party. I was flat out worried. I didn't know if flying away was normal? Dawn sighed, and explained that birds have good days and bad. Enola was feeling the warm sun on her wings close to breeding season. She was also at a higher weight than usual. I gave dawn a look that asked for explanation and she kindly did so.
You hunt (falconers say "fly") a bird when it is at flying weight. A falconer with a bird they are hunting with has to be weighed and journaled about daily. The person flying it needs to know at what weight is the bird still active and healthy, fit and well, but hungry. That hunger is important since all falconry training is based on reward and associated humans with dinner. Enola wasn't hungry. A hungry bird will pay attention, do as told. Her performance was that simple. Raptors in this training program pay attention to their vending machines, but sated birds do not. So instead of risking the bird flying off for good (which happens all the time) Dawn pulled out a fake dead pigeon on a string and spun it around, calling Enola's name. The bird's head turned and she flew back across the fields and landed on Dawn's gauntleted hand.
Dawn knew from the hawk's attitude and actions that hunting with her be at best frustrating and at worst tragic. She could simply sly off in search of lust and a big swell of hot air. Dawn returned her to her wooden perch box in their Jeep. Mark and I were rounded up by then following behind her. Their little beagle mix (they call her the Bagel) came up from behind. It didn't take long for mark to get out his young male, Ulfberht out of his box and on his arm. Loaded with a new bird hungry for the hunt, we headed back to the high brush.
What followed was a lot of hiking, briars, cuts and scrapes and a few falls. I am talking about me here, not Dawn or Mark. I am used to my farm and roads but scrambling through the brush isn't something I have done since pheasant season. I caught up quickly though, and before I knew what was happening a rabbit was flushed by Mark and the Bagel! At this outburst of activity all the people yelled HO HO HOOOOO! And at that rally cry Ulf took flight after the bird, deep into the brush past where we could see. Dawn was close to me and I turned to her, excited as could be, "Do you think we got him?!" and she replied with a doubtful shrug.
"I didn't hear a scream…"
Oh right, I was so used to killing rabbits without any sound at all from the broomstick method I didn't realize how loud and wild their screams would be in a full-out ariel attack. Dawn's hunch was right. No rabbit was smote by Ulf's talons, not this flight anyway.
Even though that first hunting flight didn't produce any game it was a thrill to watch. I couldn't believe I was out doing this, talking with and hunting alongside falconers. It was less than a few weeks ago that I decided I was going to take this up. It was a gut reaction, the same one I felt for Merlin, or Archery, or leaving my job at Orvis. So far I have learned to really trust my passion, regardless of the outcome. I don't mean being reckless or taking on more than you can chew, but having the sense to understand bliss isn't a dirty word. I think a lot of folks hold back in life because they worry that exploring a subculture or hobby might make them seem foolish or be mocked. Others think doing something fun is borderline irresponsible. Those are decisions for us to make for ourselves, but this girl has found success living her ridiculous farm life. And here on this sunny winter day I just yelled HO HOO HOOOOOO to a diving hawk with the fervor of watching a fourth-quarter Hail Mary pass.
We kept up the hunt for another hour or so. Ulf had another flight, after another rabbit. That one also got away but at this point I don't think any of us really cared. The sun was shining, hawks were flying, the dog was smiling and we were good and winded from hours of sludge and brush. When we threw in the towel at dudk I asked if I could treat them to dinner at the Burger Den. They accepted and we headed back to Jackson for the best French fries in town.
At the Burgen Den (the local diner near Cold Antler)we sat in the booth, ordered our meals, and while we waited for our food I heard some amazing Falconry war stories. Mark and Dawn laughed and talked about meets in other states, stories of first rabbits, and gave tips on suppliers and gear. I could not have felt more included, more a part of this sport. That's amazing to me seeing as just last month it was something from image searches online and Discovery Channel specials. We talked about where I go from here, basically continuing to study for my written exam and follow along on more hunts. I explained I needed a sponsor and Dawn suggested a fellow in Washington County named Ed Hepp. He was retired now, but still hunting with birds and has been for over fifty years. I knew it would be a long shot, but I'd give Ed a try. The worst he could say is no.
I loved the day, loved the hunt. And I think it showed. Dawn and Mark saw a member of their tribe that day and I did the same.
The cold is back. After a few days of sunshine and highs nearly into the forties we are back to nights in the single digits and midnight runs to the wood stoves to keep the home fires burning. I just finished up my first week of being back into my writer's schedule with the new book, and it is making me realize a few things about myself. The most prominent being that I have a seemingly endless well of energy when it comes to the farm and animals, but creative energy, the stuff of blog posts and books....that has a glass ceiling. I find that I can write in the mornings post-chores for the book and then I need to reload myself with inspiration. I can't go from book-to-blog unless I am copying and pasting content. (Which isn't fair to book or blog reader, honestly.) So I get my word count in every morning and then spend some time doing something outside or totally mindless. I do some groundwork with Merlin (by the by, I need the farrier back here soon...) or I make a cup of coffee and sit down to watch something on Hulu or Youtube to get me excited again. The first week of farm book writing was padded by The Walking Dead. I could watch a new episode every 500 words. If that sounds like bribing myself, it is. And it was somewhat hilarious to go from writing about the sunshine in a spring garden to little Sophia shambling out of the barn...
Point is, I got through my first week. And writing feels natural in this cold spell of winter weather. I find myself being torn between the blog and the book, and you'll know who won that day by how much I wrote to you here. I guess I'm trying to explain that some days content here will be light and others I will let out a landslide of falconry, farm, and garden-planning stories. Please be patient.
Next weekend is Words & Wool, a two-day workshop on all things fiber. It'll be a full house and I am excited about it. I have the spinning instructor coming up from NYC and plans to hop over the fence and sheer some wool right off a sheep for the wool-cleaning and preparing demonstration. I want folks to see wool go from sheep to being spun and knit, all in one weekend. I've been in a knitting slump so I think this weekend of women and wool will be a power punch right in the ol' yarn stash.
Cold Antler Farm is a scrappy place. The fences sag, everything needs improvements, and the layout is suspect at best. But I love it. You can see the front of the house in its winter moldy glory. The plastic siding needs to be scrubbed and my little stepladder/mop idea isn't holding up to proper homeownership levels. So I called the boys at Common Sense Farm to come up in the next few weeks with their ladders and fancy truck and in two hours this house will look a lot smarter. There's about ten odd jobs that require heights I can not do (without crying) so as a woman firmly grounded, I welcome their help. Since we have a barter system between our two farms there's a good chance it will cost me some livestock like spring meat birds but that's fine by me. Cold Antler will always be a scrappy place, but I would like to keep doing my best to make it less so. Hmm, Can you embrace scrappy while trying to fight it?
I was at a Brick-Oven Pizza Party last night with good friends, and in the bouncy conversations the time just flew by. Before I knew it I had an amazing meal and a few drinks, and when a couple I didn't know as well as the others stopped over to chat and politely asked me about my weekend, I beamed up at them from my glass of bourbon and told them I was going to meet my sponsor tomorrow!
They just stared at my glass of booze.
I quickly realized most people associate the word Sponsor with AA and tried to not turn red as I laughed. "No, no no…. I mean my Falconry Sponsor. They guy who may become my mentor! WEll, if he agrees to take me on that is...He lives in south Cambridge and restores and carves carousel horses when he isn't flying hawks!"
At this point the AA meeting sounds more normal...
But the people at the party were all genuinely interested, and had the same questions many of you have. How do you trap a hawk? How do you train it? Where does it live? How long can you keep it? How the heck does one get into Falconry? And so on. I hope to answer all these questions as the process unfolds here on the blog. You are seeing a lot of hawk posts now only because this is the bright light of beginning a journey. I'm excited and so I write about it, read about it, go on trips and gather supplies here and there. Yesterday my packet from the NYS DEC arrived and my application to take the test in April was there. It was a normal hunting license form, but with a forty-dollar application fee and a spot at the bottom for a sponsor to sign off on me to take the written test. The state doesn't want anyone moving forward into falconry, even taking written tests, unless they have an experienced person signed up to teach and guide them. I think that is wonderful.
Besides the study guides and rule books, there was a list of falconers in the state of New York, listed by county with their names and phone numbers. I called a retired man some of my friends know, a master falconer named Ed. Ed lives about ten minutes away from Cold Antler and runs a carousel horse repair and carving studio. I called him and he wasn't home, but his wife said he'll call me back later on in the day. When he did call, I told him who I was and where I lived and that I wanted to be a falconer and would he be my sponsor? There was a pause on the line and then he replied.
"Well, maybe. I'd like to meet you first."
Which was so plain and obvious I know I did turn red, and asked him when would be a good time to come down to his farm. We set up a time today. I am excited to meet this guy, to say the least! I'll get to see his Mews and weathering areas, his birds, ask questions and have him review my supplies. If he signs off on me I can mail in my application to the state and get assigned a test date. It's all one step at a time, and one experience at a time, but it is happening. It surely is.
Hunting with hawks was not what I was expecting. In my mind the falconer walks out into the forest or field with a bird on her arm and enjoys a leisurely stroll while the bird's better eyes and instinct scout for game. I imagined the animal tensing up and focusing like it was casting a spell on some random bit of earth or brush and then the human releasing it like a gunshot in the direction of the kill. This is exactly what does not happen.
When you hunt with hawks, you are more like children being babysat by a raptor. You do start by walking into a forest or field but soon as the hunt starts the hawk is sent up into the sky or a tree branch, and the humans do the work of a good hunting dog. We use sticks and our voices and we thrash about in the high brush hoping to scare the wits out of a cottontail. As we make our way through thorn and briar the hawk simply follows along, watching us, and waiting for our exclamations of quarry. When a rabbit is flushed we all shout, "HO HOOOO HO HOO" like a frat house of Santas rolling on ecstasy, and the bird dives after the prey.
That is what I did today. I was a beater, a dog really, and it was wonderful. I learned what a real hunt is like here in the east. Out west it is very different, with big open spaces and high-flying falcons that dive-bomb 4-5 jackrabbits a hunt. Here a good season is enough rabbits to count on one hand. In the lingo of Falconers' this scrappy version of the sport is called dirt hawking. Because the people get dirty and the cover is tight and the chances you are going to get cut and scratched and fall down in the mud is pretty darn high. I managed all three today and all I was doing was scaring rabbits and taking pictures!
We started on the side of a farmer's woody field in Vermont. In the back of their jeep two wooden boxes that did not allow in any light (very important in bird transportation), were waiting for us. Dawn put on her well-worn black gauntlet and opened the wooden door. INside was her beautiful female red tail, a big girl named Enola Gay. She offered her the gauntlet and Nola hopped right up like she just hailed a cab. Inside the box was a soft ground of fabric and a perch, and it looked a lot more comfortable than my heatless, busted up truck. I snapped photos and asked a thousand questions. I was excited, really excited, and trying to keep cool.
I have never been out on a rabbit hunt with a hawk. I wasn't scared of the bird or the hike, but I wasn't sure how the hell Nola went from a wild creature to this nearly-domesticated looking pet bird? I would find out in the course of the hunt that Nola is far from a pet and not at all domesticated. She simply got a decent paying job helping a human being catch rabbits, and like most people in this economy was just happy for the steady pay. Most hawks in the wild die in the first year, few mature to that soaring red tail you see out along the roadsides. These birds care about one thing: survival. The ones who are trapped and trained to associate humans with a free meal quickly oblige because the alternative is nearly certain death in a bird-eat-bird world. We have this notion of hawks as spirit animals, and they are, but that hawk you see soaring about the sun isn't meditating on the Great Spirit's war drum. It's trying to find some semblance of a meal so it doesn't die. Spiritual interpretation is a luxury of those who know where their next meal is coming from…
With Nola ready and Dawn's falconry game back slung over her shoulder (It looks a lot like a bike messenger bag, but for dead things and quail parts), we headed out to the field. Dawn sent the bird off and it landed in a high branch about 30 yards ahead of us. Mark walked into the field with their Beagle Shiloh and started thumping into the brush with his beater. Between dog and man, a lot of rabbits were getting nervous….
I have a fun idea for a giveaway, and here it is: If you can guess the correct number of kilts I own (not have owned, but own right now in my closet) you will be entered to win a FREE Kobo Mini E-Reader! This is a real simple, paper-like e-reader that anyone with a computer can use. It runs on wi-fi, and also lets you shot for new books (thousands of free titles) and subscribe to newspapers and magazines. So want a Free Kobo? Here's how you enter!
Leave a comment with a number, and then tell someone you know who doesn't read Cold Antler Farm about the blog. Send them a link, leave a post-it note on their cubicle wall, write barnheart.com on a sidewalk in chalk. Just get the word out. The only catch is you need to do it now, so if you told you sister on the phone last night about the blog, that doesn't count and your entry will be disqualified. So that's all I'm asking, some PR work, guerrilla style, and a guess on the kilts. Leave a comment saying who and how you got out the word about CAF and a number and you are entered. All correct guesses who spread the word will be in the E-Reader drawing. Winner will be announced Friday!
This morning I am diving into morning chores and writing, and then heading out for an adventure. I am going out on a hawking hunt! Dawn and Mark, the two falconer's I mentioned a few days ago, invited me. I ran into them at my bank and we talked outside in the parking lot for quite some time. It felt like talking with old friends, even though we are just getting acquainted. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise, it's not like falconry appeals to the masses, right?. Us eccentrics have to stick together.
So today is my first hunt! I am excited but not sure of what to expect! I was told to meet them in the early afternoon at the Rupert General Store and from there we'll go out into the field after rabbits. They are flying their redtails and I am coming along with my camera. Just in case I get a chance to work with any of the birds, I am bringing along my just-out-of-the-package leather gauntlet. It is the only time in my life I bought a single glove. They don't come in pairs. It has a fancy tassel and fake fleece inside and the guy on the phone said it was what most women wear. Since I'm right handed it goes on my left hand, so my right is free to fuss and do things like adjust jesses and tighten leashes or work training tools.
In other future-falconer news: I called up the office at the DEC yesterday and got my test date in April for my written test. My study packet should be here tomorrow or the following day. Per Dawn's advice I ordered a copy of the California state club study guide, supposedly one of the best there is out there. I have a few weeks to take notes, read books, and get some experience in the field and then I get this one shot to take this exam.
The process of becoming a licenses apprentice falconer isn't hard, it's just involved. It requires a little effort up front but nothing compared to getting ready for a horse or a flock of sheep. I feel prepared, both in mind and spirit. A magazine's senior editor read I was taking this up and wants to follow the process for a story. It all feels like it is falling into place. It really does. And tomorrow I will be out in the tall grass chasing rabbits with folks who hunt with hawks on their arms.
I pay attention to the weather more than anyone I know. My health, my work, even my social life—all these things are connected to the forecast. It is beyond ritual or logic, this weather checking. I own metrological gadgets few normal citizens own. I have rain gauges and barometers and remote-controlled indoor/outdoor setups that compare and contrast conditions from my barnyard to my living room. When I wake up every morning the first thing I do—before I take off the covers or consider a trip to the bathroom—is check the weather. In the dark cold of winter morning a brave appendage reaches out from my blanket den of warmth and clamors for my smart phone. That phone is always close to me, and not because of texts or twitter (those are for people who do not check the weather as often) but because that little black box is so much more than a personal assistant. When you live by the climate like I do, that phone becomes your babysitter, best friend, worst enemy and fortuneteller. Within seconds of clicking on my news I find out everything that is happening to me that day, the next day, and probably into the rest of the week. I would call myself obsessed, but that isn’t accurate. Obsessed implies some sort of control. I am not obsessed. I am possessed. Anxiety is not the same as ownership.
So Fiddler's Rendezvous is on for March now, and I am just awaiting confirmation from Hubbard Hall about available weekends but I am shooting for the 9th and 10th. How is that? Dulcimer Day Camp has to be moved or possibly canceled due to lack of interest. If you are signed up for it (I think only two of you are, so far?) can you please email me so we can work out another date or private lesson?
Bogh is with me most mornings in the office. He perches behind my desk on the saddle stand, making himself comfortable amongst the tack and balls of yarn. Every once in a while I turn around to pet him, check in on him. Sometimes Yetti comes up and takes the same spot. I think it is prime feline real estate. This saddle rack is against a sunny window and above dog level. I think it's the place Boghadair turns to when everyone is making a fuss. I understand. I come here and write for the same reasons.
The blog of author Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm. Where pop culture meets agriculture! Here she writes about her adventures following her feral 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