Friday, August 29, 2008

fiddles, fires, and fleeces

This morning when I was outside doing normal-outside-morning things, I heard the strangest noise. I've heard it hundreds of times, but regardless it always throws me off. The young roosters are learning to crow. Long before they can crack out a cock-a-doodle-doo they cough out these pubescent moans and groans. My cabin sounds like a bunch of loons after a hard night. You can't help but roll your eyes. A three-day weekend is coming up, god bless it. It'll be a busy one too. My friend Sean, who hails from the Midwest, is stopping by for a visit. Sean might be the only person I know more into folkways than I am. As a matter of fact, he's building a wooden boat right now in his Illinois garage. (Take that inflatable rafts!) I'm hoping he'll help me set up some electric netting for pasture rotation, trim hooves and score the sheep (check their weight.) When farm chores are done, I think together we'll head over to Shelli and Allen's labor Day weekend jamboree. Their hosting a 3-day camping event at their farm. It's an annual shindig they hold for all their city friends. There will be musicians, and bonfires, and sheep. A triple threat of awesomeness. I'll be bringing my fiddle and dulcimer and a good attitude about meeting new people. Sean also plays the fiddle, so I hope he packed his for the weekend.

The sheep are doing just fine. They're a pleasure to have here at Cold Antler. There was one incident with a neighbor's dog but the sheep were unaffected. They didn't even flinch when the black dog ran right up to their fence and barked. good sheep, them.

Have a great holiday weekend folks. Take care of each other.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

give fleece a chance

The sheep have arrived. While the coffee's brewing on the stove and it's still too dark out to be morning, I'll tell you all about it. I'm writing this at 5:18 AM, I just came in from giving them their morning hay and grain. Sweet Sal, the most gregarious of the trio came right up to me. Marvin, followed right behind. Maude.... Well, Maude was hungry but doesn't trust me. (She's the one in the car photo post below.) She's the only purebred of the lot (the boys are half Romney.) Maude's a Border Leicester Ewe, and the only hope for lambs come spring. She's a true sheep too. Cautious, alert, and slow to trust the schmuck who loaded her into a station wagon and kidnapped her for some countryside joy ride. I can't blame her. Maude and I have work to do.

Waiting for the workday to end yesterday was pure hell. Of all the days to have to sit in a two and a half hour meeting, yesterday was the worst. I was wired all day. I just wanted to be in the car driving to Shelli and Allen's and loading wool into the car. When I broke out at 4 PM, I cranked up the fiddle music in the car and hit the road. In a few hours, I would be a shepherd.

When I did arrive at the farm, loading them up was easier than I thought it would be. With the help of Shelli, Allen, and a coffee can of grain we got them into the Station wagon. We had to throw on halters to do this (some poorly, as you can see by the photo of Maude below) but we got everyone in. Closing that back hatch with a car full of sheep felt damn good.

The drive home was downright pleasant. There was the occasional 'baa', but Marvin laid down instantly and Sweet Sal and Maude stood close to me, often sticking their head right between the front seats like Jazz and Annie do. I'd reach up and scratch their chins. Their sideways eyes blinked at me, confused.

On the drive home to Sandgate, I drove past a farm with a loaded hay truck and a few barns. I pulled up next to a blue pickup that I assumed was the honcho. He was. He saw me pull up with three sheep in the back and laughed. I yelled "Do you have hay?!" and he guffawed back, "Yeah, Do you have sheep?!" and we agreed I'd come back that same night to load up with some second cut hay for my flock. I had some first cut a friend gave me, but second cut hay is greener, richer, and fresher. I couldn't believe my good luck. The four of us puttered home.

Unloading went fine with the boys, but Maude, bless her heart, panicked. She bolted out of the car so fast I could barely hold onto the halter rope. Instead of giving into the leash like the boys did, she bucked and lunged, causing the poorly fitted halter to slip like a noose around her neck and choker her. The first of many shepherding mistakes. She gagged and fell to the ground like a roped cow in a movie. She laid on her back, legs in the air. She was helpless and I quickly ran aside her and undid the halter, fixing it like a collar instead of a torture device. I stroked her head and told her to calm down. She was passive as a pup on her spine. I felt horrible. But she stood up, recovered instantly, and ran into the pen to meet her men and dive into the grains. I doubt she was over it.

After the flock was safe, penned, and eating hay like they grew up here, I being ever the vigilant shepherdess, promptly left. I prayed my fences would hold and some dog wouldn't charge at them and cause them to bolt through it. Putting my faith in the day, I left my brand new sheep and went back to the Hebron farm for the hay. There I was introduced to Nelson Greene and another shepherd named Sarah. We talked and joked and Sarah egged on the retired dairy farmer (who hated sheep. I am quickly learning people either hate or love sheep.) By the by, If your curious how many large bales of hay you can fit into (and onto) a Subaru - the answer is 10. I was shocked too.

By the time I unloaded the bales into the garage, checked on the sheep again (they were still there), phoned friends and family, and walked the dogs - I was beat. I came inside to collapse with the dogs, but every few hours I'd walk back outside with my lantern, checking on the gang. They stood in the moonlight, chewing their cud. Observing the all.

Even though I wanted this so long, and was so excited to finally have it... it's too much to take in. The sheep are here but that reality is still so new and utilitarian I haven't soaked it up properly. But I do know walking out at 5AM to feed them under the waning crescent moon and the starry early Autumn sky was beautiful. Fall-down-the-stairs beautiful. And Sal came right up to me in the lantern light, and his fleecy face met mine. That felt good all over. There really isn't a better way to explain this. I am a happy woman.

Now, soon as this coffee is down, I'll go out and take some pictures and feed the birds. Rufus Wainwright is wide awake, and crowing to be let out. Morning is a very busy time here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

riding in cars with sheep

photo by katie kenny

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

white knuckles and a tarp in the back seat

So the sheep arrive here Wednesday night. After work I'll load them up in the station wagon and drive them the short twenty minutes back to my place. This will involve pulling the seats out of the back and laying down a tarp so the two (three?) of them can hang out. The animals will be restrained and hopefully calm. I guess we'll find out. I was assured transporting them in the car would be fine long as they can lay down and it's not a full day on pavement. It should be an interesting road trip. I am tempted to stop at a drive through and order four salads.

I have gotten quite a few emails from people asking me how I knew shepherding was the thing for me. I don't know if there's a satisfying way to answer that. I do know that ever since I've been making a concentrated effort to become a shepherd I've felt profound relief. For some people they might get that same feeling from a hard-earned promotion, a wedding ring, nailing the 4 minute mile, or anything that gives them a sense of milestone accomplishment. For me, that comes from focusing on a life outside with these animals. Yeah yeah yeah, marriage and a 4-minute miler's body would be nice. But it wouldn't be satisfying, comforting, or make me feel content in the world like shepherding can. How and why that is wired in me - I'm not sure.

I kinda like not being sure. It gives the sheep an almost supernatural ability to give me purpose and joy other lifestyles can't. Hell, that other lifestyles hinder. Their simple presence at Cold Antler will wash calm over me like dulcimer music did in Tennessee. Ever since the barns been I've even slept better.

A giant weight is being lifted off my chest as fences get installed and hays loaded into backseats. Just knowing hooves are hitting dirt here feels like I'm finally moving forward with my life. That feeling hasn't been attained for years. Not from jobs, not from writing a book, not from moving around the whole goddamn country. The lack of forward momentum has been shutting me down and off from the world. Not in a scary way. Subtle.

But with their arrival in my life I'm more happy, alert, plugged in. There's an irony in all this because people keep telling me livestock traps you in one place. For me, keeping lifestock is a release from so much. And If you can get that from anything that doesn't involve hurting yourself or others, hold onto it as tightly as you can with everything you've got. My knuckles are white.

So there's that.

Monday, August 25, 2008

weekend barn raising!

In two days my the entire sheep empire was constructed. Four brave souls spent the weekend at the homestead making it happen. Besides myself, there was my neighbor Katie (who supplied most of the tools and wood she rescued from the floor boards of an old Vermont sawmill) and my two friends (and co-workers) Phil and James. Together we raised a barn! We are sheep-ready now at CAF!

In 48 hours we were able to construct the sheep compound from start to finish. We built it, stained it, pounded fenceposts, put up fencing, installed the gate, built a hay feeder, and other odds and ends I can't remember. There was no way I could've done this without these people. I'm so lucky to have co-workers who not only have tools, but like to use them. While I might be I great with animals... when it comes to knowing how to lay foundations and use powertools... let's just say I'm learning. But I learned a hell of a lot, and even built the back wall of the shed by myself! So, enjoy the fruits of our labor folks. Here are some photos of my new reclaimed-wood sheep barn from start to finish.

Friday, August 22, 2008

a night with rams

Good morning. It's around 6:30 here and outside all the morning work is done. The yard birds are fed and watered, straw's been cleaned up and replaced, and the rabbits are all in clean cages. So before I hop in the shower I thought I'd tell you about last night.

It was great. I drove on old back roads to Hebron, winding past end-of-summer farms high in corn and sweet-smelling in freshly cut hay. I can't wait to drive that same road in high fall. It wil be like rolling through Narnia. After this road love, I pulled into Shelli and Allen's place in New York. I was greeted by the sight of a few sheep grazing on the hill. Wonderful, that. Past them was a big old farmhouse, a giant barn, and a small pond. Lucinda waved and shouted HELLO JENNA!. She's their wild curly-haired four-year old who was standing on her cliff of a front yard like a little goat. I get a kick out of this kid. We have developed a secret handshake. You will never learn it.

After farm dogs were calmed and greetings and wine bottles were exchanged, we took the tour, and I met the two rams that would most likely be mine. Their names were Sweet Sal and Marvin. Two castrated guys who were hand raised, and very friendly. Sal stood beside me like a golden retriever, Marvin bleated hello. Besides them there were a few ewes and two Angora Goats (which looked amazing, i would love some one day, but hey one step at a time!)

So we toured the barns and poultry houses and all the while Lucinda and her little sister ran around with ducklings in their arms or climbing fences. I felt kinda proud of them. I like these brazen country kids. It's a good feeling seeing 20-month-olds who smile while they climb fences with sheep poo on their little wellies.

After the animals were set we came inside and Shelli cooked an amazng Thai dish. Friends, it had been far too long since I had curry. It was fantastic. I left full of plans and food. A good feeling. I regret not getting a chance to see Allen's new mandolin. Next time.

On the way home I stopped by my co-worker Nadine's farm. She has a herd of long-haired sheep lead by a giant ram with horns named Gregory (Sal and Marv are debudded, no horns.) She loaded up my subaru with a bale of hay (to get me started, she is a sweetheart) and we went inside to meet her husband Dave and the dogs. Dave met me with a smile, a white beard and overalls. I liked him on the spot. We talked dogs, fences, hay, farm stuff. I left happy and grateful. The drive home was musical. Drives through the dark summer woods are what Iron and Wine writes music for. I sang Passing Afternoon like it was the song at the end of the world. It probably is.

This weekend I'll either stay in town to build the sheep shed - or I'll drive up to Strafford to watch a NEBCA novice trial (A beginner trial for new border collies). So it's either going to watch sheepdogs or stay at home to prepare for sheep. A fine problem to have, if I may be so brassy to say. And Saturday night is Storey's 25th Anniversery dinner, which I get to attend as a fancy author. if you live around here you should check out their Country Fair tomorrow afternoon in North Adams. I'll post the flyer when I'm at work.

So, fine readers, all of this is so new to me. All of it kinda exciting. I'm not ashamed to admit I'm more excited about the sheep than the dinner. I think Storey would prefer that I was anyway. Which is why I love them.

Hey, stay tuned. Sorry I forgot to take pictures last night!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

taking stock

So tonight I'm heading over to West Hebron, NY for dinner with friends. I'll be over at Shelli and Allen's place, a small farm in a quiet mountain town. I met them through fiddling (both of them play) and what started as lessons turned into a new friendship, which is nice when you still consider yourself the new kid. But there is an underlying agenda to this meeting, and we all know what it is. You see, Shelli and Allen are not only fiddlers - they're shepherds. They have a small flock of Border Leicester/Romney cross ewes. Tonight's dinner is going to focus on one thing - sheep. And here's the big news folks...

I might be taking two of them to live at Cold Antler.

I've been dreaming about sheep for years, but never considered them as an actual reality. Not because of any work involved (sheep are actually less upkeep than a flock of chickens) but just plain money. Good stock could cost hundreds of dollars an animal, fencing just as much... Not to mention building a small shelter for poor rainy weather and shade from the sun and making sure the landlord and neighbors were okay with the occasional bleating and bahhing of ewes.

These were the things keeping hooves off Cold Antler ground. But then little things started to percolate. Things like Shelli offering me two small sheep for fiddle lessons (what?! free wool stock!), and then another woman sold me some used fencing for the exact same price as an Angora rabbit I sold the same day, the money literally went from rabbit to fence within minutes). After I found the free sheep, and free fencing, I was told by my landlord sheep were perfectly okay (encouraged even, she wanted a cow when she lived there) as long as they didn't live in the cabin with me.

Then, my amazing and handy neighbor Katie (carpenter extraordinaire) told me she had a pile of scrap wood and plywood and would help BUILD ME a small shelter. And as if that wasn't kismet enough, my co-worker Nadine who has sheep, knows where I can get great second cut hay locally and cheap.

The perfect icing on this wooly cake...all my neighbors said if I was away they would happily throw down some hay and pet the sheep over the holidays. A built in sheep-sitting service while I'm with family or out on book events! If I agree to the sheep, it'll be practically free and everyone's on board.

Things are really working out for me - I tell ya there's no justice.

Tonight I'll go see them. I will eat good food and drink some wine and then go outside to meet the girls. Will this all happen? Will I finally be able to say I'm a shepherd? Who knows, it's not certain. But for the past year I've been working towards this goal single-mindedly and every peice of the puzzle has fallen into place. I've done my homework too. Read books, taken classes, attended workshops, visited shepherds, watched herding trials, held border collie pups in my arms... and just the fact that it could happen has me walking on cloud nine. I haven't been this happy and excited since college! It feels amazing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

fancy! electric!

We can do it! We have the technology! This weekend I bought 100ft of outdoor extension chords and a christmas light timer. Because of those two items (and a handy clamp light) I was able to rig up a automatic lighting system in the coop. Now, every evening at dusk the coop's light automatically turns on, and then shuts off at 9:30pm. This guarantees a full 14 hours of light for the hens, who were starting to slack on laying as the days were growing shorter. As nights grow chillier (we're already dropping into the 40's some nights!) I'll start adding winter prep. A full storm flap over the coop and some insulation too. These birds will have a heat lamped, toasty winter. Well, at least the ones that won't be dinner guests.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

the great ox roast

Last night around dusk, I left the cabin for the ox roast with two very important things in hand. A pie and my fiddle. Generally, people who show up with fiddles and pie are welcome in nearly every enjoyable place in America. (And as a rule, not welcome in every horrible place.) This is a truth to live by, friends. If these two items are not welcome where you spend your free time, you messed up somewhere along the road.

So when I crested the steep rocky driveway of the farmhouse, I knew instantly that the night would be pro-pie/fiddle. Sprawled out before me were old colonial buildings and a big white barn. All over the lawn were picnic tables with fresh flowers. Sandgatians smiled and nodded as they sipped iced tea in mason jars. The twilight sky was lit by table lamps on wooden pillars or set high in barn windows. (Extension chords were the workhorses of this fine evening, that much was true.)

All around me were hundreds of people, kids, and the occasional dog running around off leash. In the center of the comotion were three musicians in red plaid shirts playing a fiddle, guitar and upright bass. They were sawing out a version of Blackberry Blossom, a beloved old time fiddle tune. My heart swelled.

These were my people now; Vermonters. A feral group of New Englander’s who square dance in tie-dye or tap their Maples in stoic red plaid. They’re farmers, loggers, small businessmen, bookkeepers, and florists. Pretty much any odd job that lets them be the boss of their own lives. But most of all, they were a happy wild-eyed people who wanted to be outside with their neighborhood instead of inside with their televisions. For that, I wanted to kiss them.

This is not a group of people who drive their garbage bags to the curb and don’t know how house next door pays their mortgage. This is a community, and now I as a true blue newcomer, was going to get to spend a night getting to know it a little better. It was a bonafide first date. My mom always asks me if I’m “seeing anybody” because she hates that I’m 26 and still single. Well, call me a hussy but that night I was on a date with the whole 247-year-old town. I stood there in my old hat, holding a cast iron skillet of apple pie, a fiddle over my shoulder and walked into the beehive smiling. I told myself men will come in time darling, but tonight - let there be food and music!

Food and music there was! The smell of a steer on a spit put everyone in a potent last-hurrah-of-summer mood. It was chilly for August. You could see your breath as you talked to people. Which got me all wound up (if you don’t know me all that well yet, you will soon learn I live all year for the month of October. Dogs, sheep, and Autumn are my whole world. My three pillars.)

A huge potluck spread filled rows and rows of tables. There was a giant cantina of iced tea and an outdoor freezer sporting our local hero's product – Wilcox Dairy Ice Cream (which is all southern Vermonters around here eat, since Ben and Jerry’s is from Northern Vermont, it’s not local enough!)

Of course, there was also a full cast of characters live and in-person. People like the maverick genius who wired up the UN’s initial phone service. People said they drove people in his DC suburb crazy with his antics and backyard projects (He belonged in Vermont, one older lady said as her flock of old lady friends nodded in silent approval. She said this as matter-of-factly as if he had broken a leg and needed a cast.) I spent most of the night hearing stories of the people who lived here. My favorite was about an Original Norman Rockwell Painting found in someone’s deceased parents house jammed behind a false wall. And there were the two women who built the Sandgate covered Bridge (by themselves!) I listened wide-eyed and enamored.

How the hell did I end up in this amazing town? What fates had me find my cabin in a random want ad from 3,000 miles away? By pure chance I landed here. Like a baby that falls out the second story window in the arms of a mailman – I was blessed.

As the sun went down and my stomach was full of good food and maple ice cream, I pulled out my fiddle and my neighbor’s beau Sam and I played music while other people digested. Simple guitar and fiddle tunes in lonesome chords. We stopped when the paid-band started up again. Slowly, people made their way to the dance floor, which was lit up by a tiffany-style lamp hoisted up by a ladder from a tractor. People twirled around while the string bands’ bassist called out square dancing maneuvers. The local kids knew all the words to Red River Gal. There is hope for America yet, I tell ya.

We stayed for a few more hours. Mostly to talk, sip wine, and hear this and that. I left pretty late and folks were still dancing when I pulled away in the station wagon. But I was happy. As far as first dates go anyway - I’d say I’ve got a serious crush on this place.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

a view from vermont

Here are some photos taken over the last few days. Thought you fine readers might like seeing my world of south western Vermont in high summer. There's Annie in her forever spot in the front seat, always by my side. And a view of my big ol' layers in front of the cabin. An heirloom tomato from the garden, and sunset at roadside.

sick as a third rooster

I stayed home from work yesterday because I feel like I fell off a horse (which, I have once or twice, his name was Cezak, that’s another story.) I have a sore throat, headache, and an intense urge to nap. The chickens however, don’t care. Even if their keeper feels like sleeping in - they still require their daily routine. So at 6 AM I was out in the coop sorting the morning poultry and feeding the giant overly-hormonal turkey. I came back in the house, called off of work, and dove right into…baking.

When I feel sick, I like making my home feel homier. I read under blankets, but only after something is in the oven, filling the house with it’s warm aromatherapudic scent. So I baked my father’s apple cake and then drove to Wayside for Dayquil. (I am certain this combination will heal me.) In the meantime, I am swilling lemon tea and watching bad movies with the dogs. The farm has a definite activity deficit, but a strong surplus in apple baked goods.

In more interesting and sexy news. I found out two of my pullets…aren’t. Two of the Ameraucana “hens” are actually growing up into roosters. Not good. I found this out yesterday morning when I witnessed one said rooster trying to have sex with my duck. The duck's name is Henry.

Now, this farm is a hate-free zone and if my poultry wants to dabble in mild youthful sexual exploits – that’s their business. But three roosters means fights, blood, and eventually… two dead roosters*. I learned this last year and have no interest in repeating the experiment.

I might keep one. The young birds and older gals are two separate corporations right now. The young gals could use a stud to watch over them while Rufus is down the creek with his concubines. But the other has to go. If anyone around here wants a free alarm clock, come pick him up.

*Yes, I understand many small flocks have more than one male, but it’s well understood those males are more tense, aggressive, and annoying when they are always on alert. No thanks.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

ox roasts and widows

Living in a rural community signs you up for things you don't always expect. Some of these things are good. Like when my neighbor asked me if I was following her to the Ox Roast, or would I drive up on my own? And what was I bringing for the potluck? There was no question if I was attending - even though no one had invited me or asked me if I cared to go... of course I was going. This was a simple truth. I lived here and since I was one of the few hundred people who drives by the farm with the whitewash sign telling us the day and time - it was branded in our psyches' that we'd all attend. If you didn't you were riff raff or snobs with summer homes. I told her I'd follow her car. I'll bring a pie.

But not everything is swell in paradise. Yesterday when I stopped in at the Wayside (our country store/social networking hub) I found out one of our neighbors became a widow as of 1:30 that afternoon. Her husband was out mowing the lawn and died of a heart attack. It was the silent hum of the whole store. When your village has only 381 people in it, you find yourself signing up to cook a strange widow's casseroles or watering gardens. No one asks if you'll do it - it's expected. Just like attendance at the ox roast. This is just how things are.

There are a lot of stereotypes about New Englanders. That they're a cold, closed off people. Maybe some are, but when you live in the mountains you need people. you need them to jump and tow cars, feed and care for animals during vacations, and help with small crisis. We're not Amish, and we're far from ideal, but Sandgate is a place where people keep an eye on each other. It's a good feeling, to be cared for like that. Like we're all in one big barn together being fed and cared for by the community. There is little difference between the care I give the chickens in the coop, and the food I'd make for the women grieving. It's just being aware of what's going on around you, taking part in it, tending to it, and keeping everyone as safe as possible.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

a dry afternoon

Last night it wasn't raining. A novel approach, since it has been pouring in southern Vermont for weeks. But yesterday, when I pulled into the driveway after work, I stepped out of my car into the... not rain! It wasn't sunny but there were bits of blue sky and the ground was dry. I'll take it. I went about the business of random chores I'd been putting off till the rain stopped. I lugged a bale of fresh straw from the covered porch to the coop. Within moments the crew had a fresh clean bed to sleep on. While my birds have never said thank you, I can only imagine their relief to come home from a long day of mud and rain to a soft, safe, and dry place to fall asleep in. Creature comforts.

After all that, I cleaned out all the water fonts and buckets and refilled the feeders with fresh grains. I grabbed a pitchfork and removed the soggy old gross hay and put it on the compost pile. While I was doing this, a clunky old Subaru pulled into the driveway. This is pretty common at the farm (when you have a giant "FRESH EGGS" sign up on the road by your driveway you get used to meeting locals.) This particular local was one of my favorites. An elderly ex-patriot of some "old-country" with a thick European accent, a friendly beard, and a gentle smile.

He told me he had a spare half gallon of milk, and would the animals use it because he would hate to waste it? I said yes and thank you, and he proceeded to buy a half dozen eggs (I offered a trade, he put his foot down on paying for the eggs, in quarters.) Before he rolled off he insisted I come up to their cottage for coffee and to "meet the wife" I told him I'd love too. I want to hear their story. Everyone in the hollow seems to have one equally exciting and weird set of circumstances that brought them to Sandgate, or keeps them here. I want to know them all. Specially when it's not raining.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

every type of poultry on the farm

Here at Cold Antler, we have four types of poultry. Chickens, geese, a turkey and a duck. This weekend one of those moments happened when they were all hanging out in the grass together. That's a Toulouse goose, an Ameraucana hen, a Magpie duck and a Broad Breasted White turkey. How about it!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

today was brought to you by the letter A

Today I sold my ever first farm-raised animals. Two angora does went off to their new home upstate. Thanks to the sale, I was able to put some gas in my tank (something usually reserved for errands, sheep-related activities, and driving to work.) But since we had a little pocket money we went on a road trip.

We started in Arlington, the closest Vermont town to my cabin. Arlington was having “Norman Days” a kind of street festival in honor of Rockwell - with tag sales (Vermonter for yard sale) and local crafts. While walking around the spinner’s stands and fried dough booths, I bought a beautiful hand-thrown mug from a local potter (also on the bunnies.)

Jazz and Annie loved the street fest. That was until they met a giant Newfoundland, who greeted Jazz by gently placing his slobbery mouth directly on top of his head. Jazz was revolted, and snapped his head away from the Newf with a soggy head and wet ears. He looked up at me for help, utterly disgusted. Annie seemed ambivalent to the slobber accumulating on her face as the lug kissed her. That pretty much sums up my dogs.

After Arlington, we crossed over the state line to New York and visited Gardenworks, a localvore’s dream. Therein was everything from handmade mustard to sheep cheese. I splurged and bought a hand-felted alpaca wool blanket. It was five feet tall and sang me a tune of $18, by god a steal. While checking out the women at the counter told me the local farmer who provided the wool I was holding was hosting an open house. I love living in farm country.

We continued our tour home, driving from West Hebron to Cambridge and then back up 313 to the farmstead. Annie hung out the front window like she does; two elbows over the edge of the door, her lips flapping in the wind. Jazz laid sphinx like in the back seat, contemplating whatever it is he contemplates.

After our touring was done, I called a local feed store in Shusan. It’s not really a feed store as much as it is an old barn where a sweet couple sells everything from dairy cow starter to chicken scratch. I asked if there were open for business since they keep odd hours. They were. I drove over and filled the back of the Subaru with 175 pounds of feed. Again. Thanks to the pair of angoras.

What money was left from the bunnies went into the Border collie fund, a small mug that I put an extra five or ten bucks into every week. There’s barely anything in it, but just placing money in the jar makes me feel like I’m working towards my lanolin-soaked destiny. Which feels good.

Tomorrow night (I think) VPR is holding a star gazing event. You take your radio out with a blanket to your chosen destination, and listen to a local public radio host talk about what’s overhead. All over the region random Vermonters will be doing this. This might beat Chicago Public Radio’s Thanksgiving ‘Poultry Slam’ as my favorite radio event of the year. I like good television as much as the next American, but you can’t take Everyone Loves Raymond to a dark hillside with your dogs and stare at stars.

Friday, August 8, 2008

the story of a hat

I bought the hat in Idaho. It was during one of those awful wet months in late winter when snow in the Pacific Northwest is just various forms of slush. Slush that freezes momentarily as it falls to earth only to return to slush again soon as it hits ground. I wanted something to keep my hair dry when I took the dogs out on walks or was fumbling around Diana’s farm. Something better than a beanie and not as jocky as a baseball cap (which I generally abhor for no good reason.) So one day I stopped into a clothing store in Sandpoint and found a wall of wide-brimmed felt hats. Not quite cowboy hats, but not quite gardening hats either. They looked like something off the set of Cold Mountain. A mountain hat. I instantly reminded me of Brian in Tennessee, and the old hat he wore as he strolled barefoot on trails through the Smokies. I miss him all the time.

Nostalgia aside, it wasn’t going to happen. It cost sixty dollars. Too much. But I tried it on anyway. Damnit, it fit perfectly. And it was decorated beautifully - all along the brim was a line of leather with pieces of deer bone and metal discs decorating the crest. The primitive part of me loved that men, sheep, cows, and deer had all come together to make this hat. Four animals I either planned to raise one day, or had a connection too. I took it off sadly, and as I was putting it back I realized it had a black stain on it. Like someone with a small paintbrush of shoe polish had wiped against it by accident. Score.

When a sales clerk asked me if I needed help, I showed him the stain and asked, how much for a hat with an imperfection on it? Fifteen dollars, was his answer. I could barely hold myself together. I bought it right then and there, cash on the barrelhead.

At first the hat was used only for what I intended. Dog walks, trips to Di’s Farm, walks in the rain – you know, outside stuff. Since I was using it as a rain hat it took a hell of a beating. After a few months the Rocky Mountain winter had turned it lopsided. The moisture had bent the rim so it turned up only on one side. I tried to set of the aesthetic by shoving chicken and crow feathers in the opposite side. It was undeniable that it was getting some character.

I realized as spring rain turned into summer sun, I was wearing it more often. It kept the glare out of my eyes. So I started wearing it in the garden and around the farmhouse, forgetting about it on trips into town and wearing it into grocery stores by accident. But people loved it and told me so. They didn’t know I was a design student from the Mid Atlantic. They saw me as any other Idahoan in a fine mountain hat. I got more compliments on that hoof-and-mouth-disease-lookin’ beast then I ever received in my life in a dress.

So I kept wearing it, all summer and through the fall. After a while I learned to love it. I wore it everywhere. It had molded itself so much into me that people would ask me why I wasn’t wearing it if I left it at home. I couldn’t lose it either. Over the years I had left it at friends’ houses, outside on porches, in strange cars, restaurants… but it always came back to me. It’d be at my desk on Monday or the restaurant would have it behind the counter. It never lost me.

When I left Idaho, I wore that hat as I drove away. I wore it when I was sick across all of Montana (I threw up on a mass grave at the Little Big Horn in it. Unintentionally of course.) It flew with me to Pennsylvania and Tennessee. I played fiddle in it at last year’s Old Timer’s Festival (Which for the first time since I set foot in Knoxville, I won’t go to this fall. It’s unfortunately too expensive.)

That hat has seen where I’ve been, and will come with me where I am headed. When I am standing at the post at my first sheep dog trial - you better damn well believe that hat will be on my head as I shout “Away to me, Knox!” a shepherd’s crook in my arms. It’s an avatar for my life of animals and dirt, of snow and rain, of Tennessee and Idaho. It’s been with me everywhere. I consider it a friend.

A few months ago I had to go to a photo shoot for the book. The publisher wanted pictures of me for the website and promotional materials, as well a back cover. I was talking to girl friends back in Sandpoint about what I should wear and was asked, flat out by Diana -

“You’ll be wearing your hat for the photo shoot right? No one here will believe it’s you unless you’re wearing that hat.”

If you pick up my book this winter, you’ll see the me in that hat on the jacket. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

rain and sara

The month of July has been rainy in the North Shire. Really rainy. I’m talking high-river-soft-ground-weeks-of-never-drying-puddles rainy. The bird yard constanly wafts the scent of goose poo on wet hay (not as charming as it might sound.) You’d think all this weather would be great for the garden, but my drainage in the raised beds wasn’t ready for this kind of pounding. While some veggies thrived, my bumper crop, tomatoes, hates my guts. I only have a few bags frozen for canning into sauce, and a few fresh heirlooms for slicing and salads. Nothing like I planned. I’d say this rain made the 2008 season one of the weaker ones. Think Buffy season 5, only with slime on peas.

Also, the chickens have eaten most of the young pumpkins. Pecked right into them like heroin addicts 'chasing the dragon'*. My fault. I didn't fence them off. Rats.

And in other somewhat sad news, Sara happened. Or I guess, didn’t happen. Sara was a young tri-color Border Collie in need of a home. the wonderful folks in the Northeast Border Collie Assoc had her waiting for me. Not only did she need a home, she was a stock-proven working dog. She had two months of herding work under her belt and was in need of a girl with plans for sheep...

I had to turn her down. Right now the practicality of heating oil, car repairs, and just day-to-day living expenses proves that it would be irresponsible to take on a fully loaded dog (specially without ewes on the property.) So I’ll save and wait. Mark my words though, in the future there will be better tomatoes, dog broke sheep, and a border collie to wrap up into my life here. Tonight however, it’s just me and my current roommates. And we’re going to cozy up on the couch with a movie. They can't herd worth a damn but they are gangbusters at the couch.

*I have no idea if my naive drug slang makes sense. We're over it.

angoras for sale!

If you ever wanted to spin and knit from your own livestock, but are pretty sure a sheep can't fit into the breakfast nook in your apartment, consider a French Angora rabbit. These guys are beautiful, pedigreed, tattooed, and ready to go to their new homes. Comment or email if you live in the area and want to take a bunny home this weekend!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

i got a wheel, son!

Holy Moses! My friend and co-worker Trish gave me one of her old spinning wheels! (Jazz and Annie are not impressed. Since it isn't alive and can't produce food - it can rot in hell far as they're concerned.) The wheel is in need of some repair. Trish and her husband Drew (who gaver her the wheel) agreed it deserved to be fixed and used in a home instead of wasting away at theirs. So I gladly accepted their gift, and I think after a little tlc and elbow grease it'll be up and running in no time. Homespun yarn, watch out!

mark 'em up

A strange piece of farm equipment was delivered to the cabin this week. A tattoo gun. Well, I guess "gun" isn’t the right term, more like a tattoo pen. I ordered it from a rabbitry supply catalog from the Midwest. It came in a little blue case along with ink, wells, and instructions. The box had a Dutch rabbit on the front with the logo “Rabit-tatt.” It cost 45 dollars, practically the price on one of the bunnies themselves, but it had to be ordered. Here’s why:

I’m taking this rabbit breeding business fairly seriously. I’ve kept Angora rabbits as pets for a few years now, but Vermont was my chance to go from an owner to breeder. Between the egg sales at work and the two litters of bunnies planned for the summer, a little income was coming out of the homestead. A nice change. I did the math and found out two litters of fancy purebred French rabbits would pay for all the chicken feed, rabbit pellets, and straw for nearly a year! So I wanted to do it right, to help support myself here, and to learn the whole process of breeding small livestock.

Rabbits are my training animals for sheep. Like sheep they produce wool, create offspring, and require care and feeding. If I could learn to manage the rabbits as livestock - I could take the lessons from them into those first couple of sheep. That's the plan at least.

Thanks to the farm library I had a lot of help. While consulting the books “Barnyard in your Backyard” and “Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits” I learned every aspect of breeding and raising the six healthy bunnies on the porch right now. But now those bunnies are over a month old and that's when small-livestock management comes into play. Which included tattooing, writing pedigrees, and photocopying and filing paperwork for each individual rabbit. Paper work was one thing, any schmuck can buy a file box and some folders – but tattooing was something I was nervous about.

Why tattoo? Even though this litter is for spinners and pets, they were still the offspring of two amazing parents. Parents who had been meticulously bred and trucked to rabbit shows all over New England ( in fact, a rabbit show is where I got them.) My bunnies were the newest generation of that line, and deserved the same attention to detail as all the rabbits that came before them. They needed to be marked so their owners would have proof they were the animals on the paperwork. People who bought them for shows or their own breeding programs demanded it. It was my job. So here I am, tattoo apparatus in hand.

Tattooing went like this. You poured the ink into the small plastic well and then placed the tip of the pen into it. Then you turned on the needle and let it run a few seconds to scoop up the ink and load it with ink. When it was loaded, you took a bunny in your arms, braced it tight against your body and wrote it’s number in it’s left ear. The first rabbit was so aloof I thought I didn’t do it properly, but when I wiped her ear with a wet paper towel the sequence BB01 showed through in my own handwriting (it’s equally weird and neat to see your handwriting on an animal.)

BB stood for Bean and Benjamin, the bunnies’ parents. And 01 through 06 would be their identities in the litter. Within ten minutes every bunny had a light tattoo on his or her left ear. It went fast and painless, and another small first happened at the homestead. While branding livestock, even adorable tiny livestock, I joined the ranks of people bringing animals into the world and preparing them for market. Yes, it's a long call from sheep (who wouldn’t be tattooed, they’d be ear tagged) but it’s what I can do now in my little rented cabin, at least today it is. I’ll take it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

me and cyrus on the porch

*this photo and one below by Tricia Weill

out of the ground

The garden is nearly ready to be cleaned out. After months of work, all the early-season salad greens, peas, peppers, onions and herbs are nearly done. Either they've been eaten down or are ready for the jar or freezer. As I remove them from the rows, I'll replace them with lettuce seeds and some winter squashes. While the new plants are getting started, the watermelons and pumpkins will be maturing on their vines. The sunflowers and sweetcorn will be reaching to the sky. I'm so happy to report that this year my jack-o-lanterns will be from my own garden! A little personal goal finally achieved.

Last night I pulled the first potatoes out of the ground, which was actually a pretty big deal. They were grown from seed potatoes I grew myself in Idaho. Which means that the food I pulled out of the ground last night has seen more of the country in it's collective genealogy than most Americans ever have the chance to see in their lifetimes... It also makes them the first completely homebrewed veggies on the farm! Between them and the bunnies, a new level of self-sufficiency is rising up at Cold Antler. These aren't commodities I bought to grow and feed, but created right here. Tomorrow's hash browns with sided to my own hen's eggs - what a breakfast. Top that off with ridiculously strong coffee and a walk with the dogs, and you've got the happiest girl in Vermont.