Wednesday, July 30, 2008

how we do business in Sandgate

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

a day in the fields

Saturday morning I was on the road to Massachusetts by 6 AM. It was foggy, and that only added to the authenticity of the day. Since I would be spending the entirety of it with British dogs and a British man - a foggy chill morning seemed appropriate. I was driving to a small farm in the western half of the state to observe a sheep dog clinic held by Dave Sykes. Dave's a bonefide UK trialer and trainer. He's worked hundreds of dogs and had over thirty years of experience. Myself and a dozen other people signed up to watch him train our dogs, give tips, and help spot problems. I was floating I was so excited.

Well, as floating as I could be. As you all know, I don't have a sheep dog or sheep. I was going to watch and learn, find out how to get started. I had met up with some people from the NEBCA at the Merck Forest Trial a few weeks ago, and they said if I wanted to get into the real world of stock dogs, to show up for this event. I filled out a registration form and mailed it in the very next day at work. If you knew how bad I wanted to be out there with own dog and crook, you'd understand. Really.

I pulled into the farm's driveway next to a line of dog cars. People with minivans without back seats, SUVs with breed bumper stickers, and station wagons laden with crates. Folks were walking down the hill to a round pen in the pasture below. Inside the 50-foot pen were two blackface ewes. They seemed calm. I hiked down the hill with my backpack, following people with their black and white border collies or leggy Kelpies. It felt weird, coming without my own, but I certainly couldn't bring Jazz and Annie to an off-leash sheep pen. Besides, non-herding dogs weren't welcome on the farm strictly as a liability to the livestock. So I already felt out of place, which only added to the nerves of being new in a field full of shepherds.

The day went like this. We started out by doing introductions and then people brought their dogs into the field one at a time to be observed by Sykes. For about half an hour each, they let their dogs show him their stuff. Some dogs worked in the round pen but most had the full pasture and more ewes to chase around. I learned a lot watching him, but learned more listening to conversations around me and asking questions on the sidelines. Halfway through the day we had a picnic lunch under an apple tree, overlooking the sheep below us down the hill. Sitting under that tree, with the puppies rolling around, the smells of grass and wool in the air, I felt comfortable for the first time in New England. It was bliss.

The shepherds were a wild bunch, mostly women. A drastic change from the world of mushing, where I was used to being the gender minority. If mushing was the dog sport of men, herding (at least today) was the dog sport of women. But they weren't timid gals. They were as energetic and sharp toothed as the dogs they worked beside. They had that Northeast farmer harsh wit, saying things like "Romnies make horrible herding stock... but they make a great carcass!" Not exactly the language you expect from 60-year-old women in sunhats. Like their dogs, they smile with a wolfish flair.

During one of the sit down talks, Sykes joked, wiping sweat from his brow, about how shepherding with border collies is a 40-year apprenticeship to get it right. He then looked at me, by far the youngest pup in the crowd, and pointed "So you better get started soon!" If someone handed me a puppy, no questions asked, hell, I might've.

We ended the day with a potluck dinner. I brought a pie, which was a hit. Everyone talked and bullshitted like old college friends. There's a bond between people in subcultures like these, something that lets you open up a little about yourself, more so than with co-workers or acquaintances. We talked about families, jobs, sheep, and our dogs. Everyone wished me luck, some even mentioned a dog or two I might be interested in. If you're wondering what shepherds drink, the main tap was hard cider(though that might be a New England thing...)

The best part of whole thing was just watching the dogs work. We'd sit in chairs listening about techniques and dogs and all around us the dogs just worked, happy as can be. It was grand, seeing a preview of what's ahead for myself. But also intimidating, knowing how much is involved. But the day gave me the chance to grow familiar with more and more with the names, faces, dogs, and the history and folklore around the sport. I had a wild time, and certainly there will be more to come.

When I picked up Jazz and Annie at the kennel the next day, they were thrilled to see me. And the guilt of dog-cheating on them sunk back in. I'm torn between them, and our established life's comfort - and the excitement of a new world of dogs. We pulled out of the parking lot with the windows down and Janis Joplin blaring. Annie hung out her head while Janis Cried "BAAAAAABY!CRRRYY BAAAAABY!" After a few miles I turned down the music and looked over at my roommates Then, serious as a heart attack, I aksed them "hey guys, how do you feel about getting a dog?" Jazz yawned, Annie ignored everything that wasn't outside the window.

I knew they'd been ambivalent to a new dog. Siberians are made to work as a team. Well adjusted dogs like these that were raised in packs could handle a new dog fine. It was my friends and family that wouldn't adjust well. They'd say it was taking on too much, too small of a space, wait till I own a farm someday, and so on. I understand this, and quietly drove home, certain a puppy could induce havoc.

Then havoc did happen...

The next morning, a crazy man walked into my old church in Knoxville and shot nine people, killed two. I used to sit in those pews every Sunday and had I never moved to Idaho I would've been sitting there that morning, watching my Sunday School students put on their play.

I am in no way comparing the loss of human life to getting a dog. That would be awful, tactless, and horrid. Please don't take this that way. Yet I couldn't help wondering how many of the people in my old congregation who were fired at were waiting on the approval of their friends and family to do the things that made them happy? How many of them put off bits of their lives because they were worried about making things uncomfortable for the spectators? Would they feel different now?

I did. I certainly did.

My mind is reeling.

Monday, July 28, 2008

a hell of a view

Friday, July 25, 2008

dogs and blogs

Tomorrow at the crack of dawn I'll be driving to Massachusetts for class. Herding class. Dan Sykes, the famed British Shepherd and Sheepdog trainer is holding a clinic in Greenfield. I'll be going to Tanstaafl Farm to observe the dogs and their lessons, chat it up with sheep people, talk dogs and join in their potluck dinner. I'm new to this sport and just starting out. I have no sheep, border collie, hell I don't even have a barn. But these people will help me get started when I do. Meeting them, learning and observing, and hanging with their dogs will help me be more educated when those first three ewes show up at my farm and my border collie pup is asleep by the fireplace.

While hooves and sheep dogs aren't currently in my life, I am a bonefide member of the organization. Being new to New England - it'll be nice to hang with a club I belong to. It'll also be interesting to see what they think of a twenty-something without a dog in their midst. I have no idea how the shepherds will feel about me, but I hoping to win these titans over with pie.

In other news, you can now find a running blog column of mine on the Huffington Post. There's a link to it on the right sidebar. I'll be in their green section writing about homesteading and the environment. It'll be a mix of content from this blog and new stuff you'll only see there (like the long thanksgiving turkey post). Please feel free to check it out, comment, "buzz up" articles, and read it. You know, support your local writers and all that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

hazy morning

I slept in this morning.I didn't get up till 5:45. The sun was up though, and in the streaming light of the cabin's bedroom Jazz was sprawled out beside me, his paws against my sternum and his mouth open. I wake up to two dozen white sharp teeth inches from my eyeballs. Sometimes I wonder if it's normal to wake up to wolf jaws and smile? But I do and scratched Jazz on the head. His big yellow eyes opened up, he yawned a mighty yawn, and then curled his head deeper into the pillow and went back to sleep. Somewhere in the kitchen I heard Annie's nails scratch against the cork floor as she stretched and sighed. She wasn't getting up either. My dogs are not farm dogs. Without snow on the ground or a harness on their chests they are as useless as house cats. I love that about them.

I however, had a lot to do before work, so I was getting up. I let my roommates sleep in. I slipped on some jeans and crocs and went outside towards the coop, grabbing a bale of straw from the porch and throwing it up on my shoulder as I went. I knew the birds needed fresh bedding after all the mud and rain from yesterday's storms. It also couldn't hurt to reline the nest box. I forgot to perc some coffee and cursed under my breathe. What the hell is happening to my priorities?

When I got to the coop and hutches I checked on the rabbits and then went about the business of sorting the morning poultry. Geese, ducks and turkeys spend the day outside so the chickens had the coop to themselves. Inside they were safe from hawks and predators and would lay better without the stress of loud goslings (the other poultry was way too big to be picked up by raptors) so I let them spend the whole day waddling around the creek and trying to break into the garden. So far all attempts have been thwarted. Let's hear it for old fences.

When everyone was fed, watered, had a clean place to sleep and was pecking in the sun--I went back in to check on the dogs. Both of which were now up and ready for a walk. We went out into the field and watched the hazy clouds sit on the mountains. It reminded me of Tennessee. I don't know if I can make it back this fall for the mountain music festival (and heat my house this winter) so it tugged at my heart a little. It also reminded me to work on All the Pretty Horses on the dulcimer that night. If I nailed it on the dulc I could record both the fiddle and dulcimer parts together for kicks. I am a very exciting young person.

Starting your day like this - with animals and misty mountains and good dogs beside you, makes getting ready for work harder and harder. Every weekday I get in that car and drive the ten miles to the office. I do it with loud music and plenty of coffee, so it's not too depressing. But the deeper I get into the world of small farms, sheepherding, animals, and gardening the more it starts to feel like a farce. A front I put up to pay rent and buy dog food. Something that drains energy from the real work of growing food, collecting eggs, planning a sheep farm and learning to shepherd. I'm not trying to sound ungrateful. I have a good job I enjoy. I work with fine people with manners and perfectly normal haircuts, but if I could find a way to support myself at home and still be able to walk into an emergency room insured, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Or, you know, marry rich.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

on "the eBay"

The book comes out right before christmas, but if you read this blog regularly and want to get your hands on one before we're all swilling cocoa - you can snag one off ebay. I'm serious, there are two copies up for bidding online. Which kinda blows my mind.

See one here

Monday, July 14, 2008

So the rest of my life starts with a four dollar whistle…

Sunday morning I sat on a wet hill watching a dog named Cato expertly run through the course at the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trials. Unlike the day before, the weather was cold, windy, and well, as anglocentric as the event itself. After two days of watching, eavesdropping, and asking complete strangers stupid questions – I knew that Cato had just completed a beautiful out run, executed a fine lift, ran down a straight-lined fetch and was in the middle of a decent cross. He had penned and was about to shed. His handler, a tawny ex-rock climber, yelled out commands into the wind. When the wind proved too much she blew into the whistle on the lanyard around her neck. Cato darted, flew, and balanced the sheep like a pro. Not too far from where I perched a man in his mid-sixties stood in an oversized blue sweatshirt (now he didn’t look like an ex rock climber) and on the end of a frayed lead his border collie sat beside him. They were next. I was so envious of him I sunk a quarter inch into the ground.

These people are living my dream. Regardless of who they are or what they do with their lives they all managed to figure out how to become shepherds in the modern world. They all spend their days with ewes and rams and these amazing dogs. I want to be one of them so much it hurts, but like the dogs waiting their turn to pump up the hill to their flocks. I need to be patient, even though every muscle in my body quivers to get a border collie and a couple of sheep as fast as I can.

But I need to be realistic and that’s killing me. I rent my land and owning that Vermont farm and transitioning to a full time farm career seems so impossible right now. The hundreds of thousands of dollars in a mortgage, the start up capital, the high credit score, hell even the electric fencing seems so out of reach it’s the emotional equivalent of Mafiosos breaking my legs with a baseball bat. And apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment because I went back both days.

Regardless, standing on that hill was a horrible/wonderful mix of joy and anxiety. Joy that I was now physically there. Standing smack dab in the middle of this world I need to be a part of, but equally scared shitless it won’t happen. Or worse, I’ll be my own worst enemy and keep putting it off and making excuses because friends or family don’t approve of another dog or a few ewes. I clutched the cheap plastic shepherd’s whistle on it’s lanyard like a rosary. I don’t have to tell you what I prayed for.

Also, I arrived at Merck dogless. For someone who owns two amazing working dogs, and was going to a working dog event, this felt wrong. But I didn’t have the heart to bring Jazz and Annie. Besides the fact that the day before was in the 90’s (scorching hot for two huskies with heavy under coats to handle) – I couldn’t bear sitting there with two dogs who had to be held back on leads while they watched countless other dogs scamper around leashless inches away from the animals they desperately wanted to devour.

I could just see Jazz shaking his head at those sheepdogs. Like an old Baptist preacher watching wayward youths rob a liquor store he would surely be despondent seeing his own kind having fallen so far from the faith. Siberian huskies keep the Gospel of Wolf alive in every fiber of their being. I could just imagine me on the trial field with my Sibes and yelling out “Away to me Jazz! Come by Annie!" and the crowd would see the fastest sprint clocked in sheepdog trial history as my sled dogs ran towards the flock. They would be in awe at the grace and beauty of my dogs as they loped with the bliss and agility of Russian ballerinas rolling on E. And then scream in horror as Jazz and Annie ran down and began eating the ovine contestants.


No, the dogs were at home. I felt like I was cheating on them and all I was doing was window shopping. I want to be a shepherd and I live with wolves. It’s a complicated situation, but a contradiction I find beautiful. Anyway I’ll figure it out.

I’m not naïve enough to think sled dogs aren’t a part of my life that I love and that won't go away. I know damn well that if I was that ex-rock climber in my mid-40s and saw a 26 year old kid with two beautiful sled dogs on the hill watching me in miserable weather with my sheepdog - I would want her life. I'd feel the deep pangs for the wildness of huskies, the blinding snow, and the feeling of runners over ice. I'd wish I was holding a brushbow and not a shepherd's crook while a ewe plowed into my shins and fell on my butt.

I am in love with two opposite ends of the working dog spectrum. Great.

There is a reason a wolf with antlers is all over Cold Antler Farm. He's painted on chicken coops and garden signs, and his image is all over the blog. It's because he's the symbol of how I feel about my passions. The mix of opposites, the chaos of contradiction, the need for balance when you love things so different that seem so unbelievable - is why you see him. And the possibily of seeing a wolf with antlers in the wild feels just as unbelievable as the possibility of me becoming a shepherdess with a trial dog...

So where do I go from here? Well, I joined NEBCA. I joined and as a member I’ll get the newsletter and trial announcements and meeting information and start getting involved. As a member I have full access to their book and video library and just like I’ve been with sheep, I'll start doing serious research. I’ll attend clinics and classes dogless, shadowing handlers with their border collies and listen in as an observer. Then, someday in the next few months, years, decades (who knows) I'll get a started dog or pup from herding lines and start taking those classes myself.

While all this was churning in my head, I bought a shepherd’s whistle at the merchandise stand. A small souvenir to some, but to this girl it’s the crucial turnkey to a life I know I want but have no idea how to attain. But right now, it’s all the start I need. Maybe someday a wolf with antlers will trot by the farm afterall. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

today, was perfect

Friday, July 11, 2008

pointers in the fields, shepherds on the hills

Yesterday, for my birthday, my co-workers took me out for ice cream and I got to ride home from the Dairy Barn in a retro motorcycle's blue sidecar. It was the most whimsical thing I've done in a long time. I felt like an extra in a Wes Anderson movie.

Me in a little black beetle helmet and windshield smiling like an idiot. It was bliss. It was a perfect Vermont summer day too. Breezy in the low 70s, sunny with a bright blue sky set against the saturated green mountains. We drove back to the office the long way on back roads by the Roaring Branch River and Arlington farms- passing cows and dogs. It is impossible to be unhappy in a sidecar when ice cream is in your stomach. Physically impossible.

When I got home I packed the dogs in the car and we headed off to Manchester for pie baking supplies and laundry errands. The next day was out monthly potluck at work, and I always promise a different pie (this month it's apple berry.)

Manchester, I discovered, has been inundated with birddogs. 'Birddog' in the sense of people who act like birddogs - not actual upland hunting dogs (who also act like birddogs, because they are.) But birddog people are much like the dogs they own, they appear to be outdoorsy and sporting but actually prefer porcelain bowls on tiled floors and are rarely of any actual use. They prefer to be paid attention too, be adored by their peers, strain for approval of their masters, and be waited on by others. These are not my people.

Anyway, The town is a scamper with horse show people* here for the 5-week long equestrian event in Dorset. I have never seen a small town Laundromat with that many luxury sport utility vehicles parked outside it in my life... But hey, it's nice to be a local when all the hubbub is going on, telling people to enjoy dinner on the porch at the perfect wife, or hit up for breakfast if they want to taste a badass omelet or venison sausages in maple syrup (real Vermonter dishes, for sure). Regardless of a town full of birddogs, I will not be hanging out among the sporting life this weekend. I'll be on a steep hill of grass in the forest with my people - sheepdogs.

Back at the farm, the bees are my top priority. ever since their arrival in early May they've been hard at work in the little lime-green hive building comb and starting a healthy brood. They've pollinated the garden, added some adventure to the geese's life (by the way, geese hate eating bees, they learned), and make the homestead feel a little more alive. But my 12,000 tenants are hurting for more living space and first thing tomorrow morning I am driving to Betterbee (our local beekeeping store) in nearby Greenwich, New York for a new hive body. I'll paint it that morning and while the paint dries I'll be heading over to Merck for the sheepdog trials, which I am dizzy with excitement over. You can expect pictures and a fancy post about that. I already have been in touch with the folks at the NECBA to start learning to apprentice shepherds and stock dogs. You won't see me with a border collie pup anytime soon, but when I am in the market for a working herder I'll be damn prepared.

*I am well aware not not all horse people are birddogs, and not all shepherds are sheepdogs. Some shepherds are complete birddogs and some equestrians are sheepdogs through-and-through. If you can follow this logic and have a sexy beard we should probably hang out more, possibly date.**

**unless you're a birddog, but how many birddogs have beards? like 4.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

sheep weekend coming up

Summer's been loping past me. The once fluffy chicks I could hold in my palm are now gangly teenagers living outside. The geese look like, well, geese. And the once humble garden of seedlings has waist high corn and flowers on my pumpkin vines. Daylight's starting to get lost on it's way to Autumn. And there are some exciting things in store for me over the following weeks.

Starting with this weekend's sheepdog trials. I'll be driving up to Merck Farmland and Forest Center to watch New England's best in a big outdoor two day sheepdog trial! Which I am over the moon about, because Border Collies and Merino rams are my future. Seeing those dogs in action, and meeting the trainers, shepherds and people already leading the life I aspire to will be a pretty big deal to me. So here's to a hot day full of wool and dog hair.

Also, my folks mailed me a hammock for my birthday. I love it so much I almost called in sick this morning to nap in it till it rained. If you're my boss and reading this, note "almost."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

bird party

the new guys

Here's a picture of a very young french angora rabbit. He's one of six being raised here at cold antler to be sold to spinning homes. Angora rabbits grow a super soft long hair and when brushed, carded, and spun, makes the softest wool in the world. Having angora rabbits is like having miniature sheep, perfect for smaller spaces. Yup, a city-knitters very own fiber producing livestock.

I have a breeding pair of these guys, and Bean Blossom (my doe) gave birth about two weeks ago. It's her first of two litters she'll kindle before fall. This litter I'm calling the lettuce litter, since they came in when the salad harvest was in full bloom. The next litter will be the corn litter. Then she'll have a long quiet winter of just getting fat by the furnace by her man Benjamin.

I'm fairly new to the world of rabbits. But between the books I've read, shows I visited, the ARBA's help and guidance, and visiting a local rabbitry - I feel pretty confident about bringing these guys into the world. In a few weeks they'll be registered, have their own pedigrees, and be tattooed (with the runes algiz, wunjo and jera plus their litter numbers 1-6) I hope to keep at least one doe, but we'll see.

Monday, July 7, 2008

chick and a turkey

back from pa

Back from a long weekend in Pennsylvania. Three days of family, gardening, fireworks and French toast. Now that I live in New England the drive home is considerably less of a big deal than it was in Tennessee or Idaho (10 hours or 4 day's drive respectively) I hit the road at 7:30 Friday morning and was home around lunchtime. Not too shabby.

The big project was my parent's garden. This is their first year planting any substantial food-garden. Not that they are strangers to fresh veggies, by any means. I grew up in a house that always had tomatoes plants by the back deck and my mom, who would happily eat out every meal of the rest of her life, knows there is no excuse to put canned pumpkin in a pie (plus, she tends a mean flower garden). So, they have grown and cooked with their own food before. But we were expanding the operation to mythic proportions for our own family's humble backyard history.

My neighbor here in Vermont is a retired botanist for a New York City college. He has a heck of a garden at his house, and he overestimated his flats of seedlings - leaving him with more food than he could plant. He graciously gave me a crapload of free veggies. So in the back hatch of station wagon I had corn, pumpkins, pole beans, peas and Russian yellow tomatoes. All going to 330 Columbia to meet their new home in PA soil.

We weeded, mulched, shoveled, hoed and planted as a family. My mom commented that she felt Amish, what with the neighbor's raising a barn next door and all (they are loudly rebuilding a new garage from the ground up). After our work was done we had a nice little patch of corn, two hills of pumpkins (two plants each), pole beans in stakes, peas along the fence and heirloom tomatoes planted in containers around the perimeter. I was proud of it. When all the work was done and the ground was watered we all sat outside on the porch with lemonade and the banjo. Good times.

By the end of the weekend we were bickering over stupid things and I was ready for a quiet log cabin. But it was a nice little trip back home and when I returned all my poultry was healthy and well. But there was a small tragedy. One of the bunnies had crawled out of the hutch and had made it to the chicken's fencing. Where it got it's head stuck in the wire and perished. No chicken had touched it, much to my relief that it didn't meet it's end at beaks and claws. But It was still a sad site to come home too. Now we're down to six bunnies, and if I end up with five I'll be content. I lost one to natural causes, and two to wandering away from home.

There was the somber realization that had I been home to watch them maybe I wouldn't have lost the little guy. But what is done is done, and now it's my job to make sure the rest grow up healthy so they can start helping other spinners get their own wool from their own herds. As Catherine Friend put it in her book, "Hit by a Farm", where there's livestock there's deadstock. Keeping animals means sorrow and joy every day. It's a reality I'm learning more and more as I expand my own homestead every year. And one i'll wrestle with personally as I raise my first ever animal for the table - our family's Thanksgiving turkey.

I am sorry though, little bunny.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

i'll be back

With high summer bringing the garden into overdrive, 22 chickens running around, a new litter of rabbits and all the adventures and small crisi that go with it (we did lose one of the bunnies) I've been very busy. Work's been good and exciting and between my office life and farm life it seems like I haven't had as much freedom to write. But I'll update soon with notes from VT and PA (going away this weekend to my folk's house) Hope you all have a great 4th of July!