Sunday, November 30, 2008

three bags full

Well, there are three individuals who are thrilled the sheepdog is gone and their names are Sal, Marvin, and Maude. With Sarah no longer here they have just lucked out. Since there isn't a dog-in-training on the farm there also isn't a need to replace them with dog broke sheep as fast as I intended. So they've just won a winter at the exclusive Cold Antler Sheep Resort and Spa. A place where second-cut hay is delivered regularly, water is poured on demand, and all the ear scratches and back rubs they can handle are given with wild abandon. I just took this picture outside as the snow was starting to fall. I told the trio that the sheepdog was gone and no longer would they be chased around the pasture or forced to stomp hooves and bleat in anger at the little black beast. I told them they could stay a while longer, probably till I shaved them down in the spring. I think Marvin is actually gloating in that photo, beaming at his stupid luck.

So, giddy sheep is a silver lining, I guess.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

sarah's gone

Sadly, Sarah is no longer my dog. The decision to return her to the trainer came after weeks of incidents I didn't share online. In the past month Sarah has bitten four people five times. She didn't do it out of malice, or even rip a pair of pants, but after running across the kitchen Thanksgiving morning to bite my father's leg, I had to step back and let logic punch pride in the stomach. I'm still reeling from the gut.

Sarah's an amazing working dog, but when I adopted her she had less work to do. She was too cooped up in my cabin and when I found out I couldn't work her on my sheep, that one real outlet she had fell apart so the stress in her just built and built till it hit a breaking point. She became anxious and ended up herding people instead. At first I made excuses for it or blamed circumstances, but after one person threatened to sue me and then my father got hurt in such an unprovoked way, I knew keeping her wasn't fair. She was too much dog for a beginner shepherd with such few unworkable sheep. If she stayed here she'd go crazy, maybe really hurt someone.

So today I returned the little girl, crying like a four-year-old. I feel so guilty for failing her as an owner. Besides those random acts of stress-invoked bites she was a good dog. When I was leaving the farm and she ran back to me instead of going with the trainer into the barn stalls, I almost buckled at the knees.

Dogs are important to me. I don't expect people to stick around, and generally keep folks at arm's length. But I give everything to dogs, knowing it's safer there. I can trust them. When the dog does what it can with me, and I can't return the favor it tears me up because I broke this one solid thing two species have created over thousands of years. I drove most of the way home in silence. Jazz and Annie, knowing I was upset, were silent too, letting me scratch their ears when I needed to know they were there.

This was a pretty crappy Thanksgiving guys.

This is my fault. She needed a handler with more land and stock for her. Now that she's back at her old farm she'll have that, and keep working till a farmer who needs a bullet of a dog can take her home. I wish I could've been that person. I was not that person.

I only had her a month but it had been an adventure. We'd been to sheepdog trials and herding lessons and did farm chores and work side by side. I was getting used to her tempo. Now the cabin seems empty and quiet. She was more than a pet to me, she was a step towards a goal, a team mate, and had become a trusted friend. I let her down.

I really wanted this to work out, you just can't know.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

sheep feet, bees, bunnies and borders

Right now the farm is a sorry, soggy sight. While some parts of New England are getting hit with storybook snow for their holidays - we're getting rain. A lot of rain. Which makes for slightly different chores around here. Did you know sheep hate wet feet? Well they do, and to preserve their hooves from disease and rot, I line their pen with fresh straw to keep them above the mud. Which takes some finese. I've learned when to time this, and how to get the most out of a bale of straw. Not exactly riveting news, but news just the same, and a lesson in shepherding I can only learn from experience. Not that strawfeet is something larger flockmasters do, they just let the sheep find their own high ground. But space is limited here. So we do what we can with what we have.

Besides the sheep's pedicure procedures, other parts of the farm are adapting to the changing weather. The bees are still active, but only when the world hits 45 degrees or higher. Given that window they come out of the hive for water and pathetic foraging. Honestly, I'm just happy to see they have survived a week of temps in the teens and lower, and I'm debating wrapping the hive in insulation. Something a lot of beekeepers do here but was never done in Idaho. I doubt it's necessity to keeping bees as much as it's necessity for the peace of mind it gives the beekeeper.

I have two nine-week-old Angora bunnies left that really need to go to new homes. So far no one is buying, even at lower prices. I'm hoping they sell as Christmas gifts for spinners because I don't want to invest in two new hutches to get them through winter. Soon they will be too large to share the cage with their mom. If anyone out there wants a great deal on a fiber animal, I'm your girl.

And of course, there is Sarah. Unlike Jazz and Annie, Sarah is a handful. A young pup with a lot of energy and sheep she can't work. Which leaves us poultry to herd instead, which is working out fine. Sort of.

This weekend while wrangling geese, Saro (the female in my pair of Tolouses) took off flying away to safety, and Sarah tore after it away from the farm. She ran well over a 100 yards away from me, below the flying bird. If I wasn't so goddamnc scared of losing her I would've appreciated how beautiful the site was, her loping like a gazelle below outstretched gray feathers, convinced she would herd the airborn charge. Chills ran through me, panic lurched in my throat. She ran away before and it was a disaster. But when I yelled her name she ran back to me, and that is proof positive this relationship is working uphill - no matter how slowly.

I refuse to give up on this little dog. Bad sheep, bruises, and carpet accidents be damned. Our obedience training is paying off. Sarah now can sit, stay, shake, come when called, and lie down. We work on her herding commands when she's out with the birds. And of course, we'll get back into lessons soon. But with the holidays and other things slowing me down we haven't been back to our instuctor's since that first lesson, but we will. We certainly will. Afterall, Sarah's my insurance policy in this farm-dream. If I can come out of this Vermont rental with a working sheepdog and some knowhow about my own sheep I'll be one step closer to my goal. And when you've got so many steps ahead of you, you treat that far walk with the same conviction as anything else around Cold Antler:

You do what you can with what you have.

Monday, November 24, 2008

our chances

Right now, while you’re sitting in your desk chair reading this sentence, over 100,000 things are happening in your body to keep you alive. 100,000 separate little actions that are totally unrelated are sparking and pumping and flowing so your eyes can see this and transport it to your brain. And even more things are going on in that brain of yours to decide how you “feel” about what it is that I write. And those "feelings" are just how you have trained you synopsi to trigger from repeated events. Which I know is getting into sketchy quantums but I don't care, it's Monday.

And you know what? All those 100,000 things happening right now aren’t even really “human” because almost 90% of what makes our skin and bones and muscles "us" are collections of bacteria and fungi that trace back 400 million centuries to the same bacteria and fungus that started life on this planet. So what we call “human” is pretty much 90% stuff you blow out of your nose on a bad day that happens to be inside you next to the right atoms and protons. Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight.

And did you know that there was a one in a million chance (some estimates say 2 million) that the sperm that fertilized the egg you came from created you? And that if any other sperm or egg collided you would look and sound and possibly even think completely different then you do today? And the chance that you ran into me on a planet of over 6 billion other flukes is so slim that I couldn’t even type the number on this page because of all of the decimal points? Nuts.

What I’m getting at is it’s pretty insane how much had to converge for you to sit in your chair and read this. And what’s even more insane is that two people can stand in line at the supermarket and have drastically different ideas on what reality is, or the right way to organize power cords behind a desk chair, or whether of not ham is okay to eat on certain days of the year. Which is all sheer lunacy when you look at it on paper. It’s hilarious, the stuff that distracts us.

And what’s it distracting us from? Hell if I know. All I know is that you’re sitting there and I’m typing here and that it took over 400 million centuries of random chance for this moment to happen and instead of basking in the awe of it, we’re arguing about how much wasabi to mix in our soy sauce. Which I don’t get, and I’m really tired of people telling me "how to get it", and I can’t think of anything sadder than needing to get it, because just being here should be enough, right? Well, regardless of what I should think, the whole train wreck of the human animal is pretty great. Keeps things interesting.

Anyway. Thats some of what's been on my mind. So, don’t get pissy with the people cutting you off on the highway when you're driving home for Thanksgiving - because far as the facts go that little blob of water and fungi is just as lucky as you to be here today. Given our chances, that in itself is something to be thankful for.

Have a great Holiday folks.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

the best laid plans

Last night I was rescued from failed-date plans by my friend Dave. Dave's a carpenter in Cambridge and somehow knows every single person who owns a chromatic tuner in our collective zip codes. He's a birddog mandolin player (a really good mandolin player) and when I get an invite to hang out with him there's a good chance music will happen. Actually, a 100% chance since he knows every house or apartment with a musician in it from his work as a builder or volunteering at the co-op. So Dave's got a lot of friends. He's a hip cat to know.

We ended up in North Bennington at Joe and Alisa's house, local artists who work in metal and moved up here from Jersey. Inside their warm woodstove-heated home about twenty random musicians, kids, food lovers, and a black dog named Scruffy were enjoying a potluck meal and carrying cases into the music room. When stomachs were full, we all got together to play some tunes. From Cash to Dylan, to songs so old Cash and Dylan never heard them*, we were holding our own.

By the height of the jam there were four guitars, a banjo, two mandolins, two fiddles, drums, an electric bass, and a harmonica. It was a lot of people. I tend to like smaller groups where everyone gets their chance to show off a little, try a new thing, really get put on the spot. Mostly because if you pull it off (I pull it off one in five times or so) and get that smile and nod from the other pickers - you know you've really done something right. It feels good. But in a large group it's hard to even hear a soloist, much less get a chance for that humble nod.

But there was this point when just myself, Dave, and Justin (a Bennington College grad-student banjo player) got together for a few chords, and I must say that was a fine time. In smaller groups you can focus on the little parts of old-time songs that have preserved them. The parts where the mandolin rings out and the fiddle cries and the banjo grabs a slide and we all sink into this place with an address like DAG, CGC, or EBD. It also helped that Justin sounded like he was born in the wrong century and wanted us all to know about it. And he did, and I loved him for it.

I'm glad I went out, as a homebody (a very unfashionable thing for a younger person to be today) I rarely just venture out like this on whim. But the farm was already bedded down for the night. Animals were penned, cooped and fed, and firewood was stocked by the firepace for when I came home to it. And I was already dressed for a night on the town, so I felt like I had some stolen freedom, and it came out in some tunes like Wagon Wheel and Old Joe Clark.

Anyway, I'm telling you all this because at this random session there was a guy in his mid-forties with a brand new gorgeous Guild guitar who had never played with people before. He was a grown man but as nervous as a freshman frat guy during rush week. To his credit, he was there. He knew a few chords and really held his own. I love, LOVE, going to jams with new people. I feel like I'm an old Mason or Elk shaking the new pledge's hand and welcoming him into this secret society of old songs and coffee and music festivals and firesides. To see someone brave a jam like that, and go home standing a little taller is truly rewarding for me. To witness this subtle transformation of a new musician holding his case like it's the reins of a trusted horse and not a ticking time bomb, is a little whimsical snack the world throws up in the air for this sheepdog. And I will leap in the air to catch it, and chomp down on it with all I've got.

Music like this knows no class or priveledge. It doesn't matter if you're a plumber, a prostitute, or a doctor when you're in that circle. What matters is how hard you practice and what you earned on your own time. This equality rarely seems to thrive in the modern world, and I long for it after a week in a desk chair where I am constantly reminded of my place in the world. But when you leave a good jam, bonefide from it, you sleep better at night.

As I get older, and become more and more of a citizen in this world of 401k plans and dinner parties, I am noticing all those little rights of passage fading from adult life. There are no more ceremonies, caps and gowns, or anything remotely like that. But playing music like this, brings some of those old rights back. It gives us a place in the world where you need to work hard and earn those nods, and each one is a little black cap and gown. "Conratulations Jenna, you just graduated from Dorian University -you may turn your tassle to the other side". Maybe I just see this because I want too. But I doubt that matters.

So, point is, pick up that guitar you always wanted to play son, even if you're sixty-five and never took a lesson. Get some beginner books and CDs, give yourself 15 minutes a night, and if you want to play, you will. This isn't like watching the Olympics and wanting to be a speed skater in six months. This is possible, practical really, because for such a small intial investment you have this tool that is your social network, best friend, and boredom remover all in one. Maybe in few months you'll be at your own first jam? But even if you're not, being able to pick up a fiddle and play Blackest Crow just for yourself beats most scenes. Or so I say, but I can't get a date, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

*they probably heard them

Friday, November 21, 2008

baby, it's cold outside

So it's cold here. Really cold. The average nightly temp is somewhere in the mid teens, and every morning when I go outside to feed the animals their water is frozen over. It doesn't freeze solid, thanks to the the thick rubber containers and the layers of hay that insulated them, but it gets a good inch-thick capping which involves some offense from the animal end. The sheep have the ability to hoof their softdrinks open, but if you're a chicken, you just stare at your water despondently until some sucker (read me) bundles up to waddle outside and pour hot water from a tea kettle over and into their fonts. I can never tell who looks more pathetic when I'm doing this. The barred rock hen watching me - or myelf, now at wookie size due to parkas, caps, and sweaters, pouring it with an expression that suggests later that morning I have to go wait in line for bread somewhere in the old axis.

Baby, it's cold outside.

The locals say it's just a snap, and we'll be back in the comfortable thirties soon. But while the cold is here it's making the mornng chores a little more interesting. Sarah joins me to rustle up and herd the morning poultry. She doesn't mind the cold, or if she does, she plays it cool. Frank at the Sands cool. She trots around that farm like she owns it. She will go in the coop and give the hens on their roosts that famous border-collie eye until one of them breaks and then the feathers fly. It's hilarious.* She even managed to "pen" a trio of geese and a duck, using me, a wall, and her own pacing to contain three big birds from going anywhere. Watching her think, figuring out her place in the world, is quite a sight to take in before you get to shower. Keeping Sarah so far has been exhausting. Someday I'll tell you the whole story of this dog-week from Hell, but I'm holding my own, and all she wants is to work and please me, I can deal with that. I'll work on my patience.

We're all waiting for snow to insulate us. It'll make this cabin in the woods more like a maple syrup bottle than it's current frozen-wasteland status, and it'll entertain the farmer; Who can not wait to harness up those sleddogs and hit the road.

*no chickens were injured in the making of this blog post.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

annie's window

photo by sara stell

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

in our dark

When I come home from work the farm is dark. I pull into the driveway and the only light is the glow of the chicken coop and the small solar lights that circle the sheep pen. When I get out of the car the only sounds are the dinner bleats from the flock and the occasional coo from the roosting birds. There are no streetlights, or lamp posts, and if it's cloudy like tonight: no stars either. So it's dark. Which is fine.

I go into the cabin, take out the dogs, and then when everyone's empty we come inside for their kibble dinner. While they chow down, I change from my work clothes into my farm clothes and light a fire in the fireplace. I do this to warm up the joint, and because I like the way it looks to see and smell smoke coming from the chimney while I'm bringing hay to the sheep or collecting the day's egg deposits. There is something correct about being outside moving after so much time indoors sitting still. Wearing my father's old red and black plaid coat, I go about farm work with cold breath in my face. I think it might snow tonight.

There is something very special about smelling woodsmoke in the dark of a moonless Vermont night with hay in your arms. There's no particular virtue in it. It won't shake the ground or even make me smile. But it is special. If I could describe that better to you, I would. I can't.

I think I'll need to sell the sheep, exchange them for some dogbroke ones. I need to talk to my friend Shelli about how she wants to work it all out, but I can't train a young herding dog on angry sheep. I think it's the only recourse in my current, limited situation. I'll wait till spring when the flock can go right on someone's pasture. That seems like the sensible way to go about this, and bring in some border collie ewes who won't kill my Sarah.

It's not fair to have the clueless leading the blind leading the blind and violent. If you could follow that you may have been reading my blog too long.

Monday, November 17, 2008

a must have

There are a handful of things I would consider must-haves on a small farm. Little tools you use nearly every day, but in themselves seem kinda of ubiquituos. Some that come to mind are those stretchy gloves that are partly dipped in latex that help you in a the garden and picking up chickens. Another would be a t-post pounder (which I use nearly every week when a sheep uproots a post of bends one over). But the most vital of them all happens to come in a little green tin, and without its aid I may have gotten into a lot of trouble.

Bag Balm is a salve that I use on everyone. If I have a bug bite that itches, I slap on some bag balm. If Jazz gets a cut on his paw, I clean it and then slap on some Bag Balm. If I trim a hoof too close to the quick and it bleeds, I shout to the friend next to me "Go in the house and bring the Bag Balm!" After I tattoo the rabbit's ears, you guessed it - they get a layer of Bag Balm over the fresh ink. I remember my mentor Diana from Idaho telling me about a cow who lost an udder on a barb wire fence and thanks to Bag Balm, healed up just fine. I tell you this stuff is top shelf.

Bag Balm is a tan salve that has the consistency of a "clean" petroleum jelly. So it's less gross. It includes a mixture of lanolin and hydroxy and together as far as I'm concerned, they can heal the world. (By the by, as a shepherd-in-training, I also like buying a product that uses lanolin). It was invented in 1899 right here in Vermont and I doubt the mixture has changed much since. And the top of the tin bears the same dairy cow and roses that most companies would have considered out of date sometime around 1964 and changed to some godawful typeface and laser treatment. But they didnt cave to the times, and as a designer who loves old stuff, I appreciate that.

If you don't have a tin of this in the house, and you still have pets, livestock, skin or live in a world of bugs. Go buy some.

Friday, November 14, 2008

warm wind

Warm wind on an unseasonably balmy night has a way of exciting and unsettling me at the same time. I can't put my finger on it but something has me very uncomfortable lately. It's not a bad thing. I think it's a mix of nerves about the book coming out and my own doubts about the farm. I think too much about things I can't anwser.

Tonight I spent a good chunk of time in the hammock. It's going to rain tomorrow so the world's all saturated here, about to burst. I was in a pair of light cotton pants and a hoodie and I was as comfortable as if it was August. Which is not a correct way to feel in mid November. But I was glad to have the company of weather as out of place as I felt. So I swayed out there thinking of nothing in particular and everything in general.

I'm grateful for this little farm. It gives me a sense of purpose in a world I'm not sure has one. Here at Cold Antler there are certainties no one can argue with. The animals and garden depend on me to care for them. Eggs need to be collected, drinking water hauled, food offered, wool sheared. You work hard and plant often and hope the sun and soil will carry the general burden and your back will shoulder the deficit. Or something like that. I am very new at this.

I do know that the more you build up a thing the more dissapointed you will be if it doesn't work out. I worry I make the farm too much of myself. I don't want this not working out to crush me. I don't want to be working in an office in ten years and hating myself for not getting my dream of a working farm as my livlihood. Which sometimes makes me wonder if I should be in a loft in Philadelphia and not in a cabin in Vermont. Maybe I should have stayed somewhere safer? Some place where the farm remains a far away dream and not something I am constantly crawling uphill for. I wish I had more faith in this thing. But I never had much faith, I always preferred hope. Which always gets me in horrid amounts of trouble.

I remember an old friend telling me that some people have faith and others have hope, and that difference was what seperated us. He was right. The whole world seems to be divided by people who have questions and those who have anwsers. A dangerous divide, probably the most dangerous.

But I figured something out. When I am at work at this farm my hope churns and writhes until it becomes faith. At some point durring the chores around here a transition takes place. It's as weird and uncomfortable as the weather is right now, but like the creepy wind outside it is ridiculously wonderful. the change happens when I am deep in the work of planting vegetables or fixing fences or working with Sarah and sheep - all my questions become a practice and not an idea. Worry becomes work. Things become clear. And all of a sudden the world falls into my version of order and I get my anwsers. Or something that I allow to pass for anwsers. It really doesn't matter.

I don't know how many people spend perfectly good Friday nights swaying above the world and questioning how hope evolves into faith given the right ratio of dirt and hooves and Octobers and thunderstorms in late July? I hope the number is just enough to keep things interesting, too many of us and nothing gets done except some novels and the occasional garden.

I really should get a TV. Christ.

mad sheep

I have a problem. My three sheep are wonderful animals, but I don't think I can keep them. See, the point of having the sheep is two fold. They are here to train me, and for me to train a dog on. I put all my eggs in one basket when I took on my flock. I just had to hope they'd let me learn animal husbandry and livestock handling, and let my future sheepdog train with them. guess what? My sheep hate dogs.

They aren't dog broke. Dog broke means they know how to move and act around a working sheepdog. But Sal, Marvin, and Maude aren't about to be herded. They stomp, charge and headbutt when Sarah is around. When I have tried to work her on the sheep they have either scattered in a panic or tried to stomp her down, which only didn't happen because I would smack them on the head with the training stick (lightly, don't go thinking I beat sheep now) But my admonishing didn't matter. They just won't stand for a dog in their pen.

And that was really driven home Tuesday morning when Marvin nearly killed Sarah. Sarah was with me in the pen around morning feeding time and Marvin charged her in a space so tight she barely avoided getting hurt. Had I not stepped in and broken up the encounter I think I might have a dead dog (Marvin never touched her, and Sarah didn't seem to mind dodging a large Wether, so at least she wasn't spooked). But I was angry at myself for letting that happen. My own stupid off-leash fear had her too close to me on a leather lead. Had I the sense to have a stock dog free to move as she needed off leash, this wouldn't have happened. But Sarah being too close during food time made them livid.

So that was it. I need to get sheep who know dogs aren't monsters. The usual anwser is to just add dog broke sheep to the mix, but I don't have the shed space or resources to keep adding to the flock. I need to replace them with sheep that can be worked. But that weighs heavy on me, because I don't just give-up on animals if there is any chance to mend the issue. But in this case it could get dangerous for me and Sarah if I don't exchange them. I'll have to talk to the farmer I got them from and see if she wants them back, or if she wants me to sell them to a spinner's flock. It just stinks for all of us. The best solution would be to get a great sheepdog in here far better trained (and more confident) than Sarah and have him "break" the sheep. But no handler will offer their dog to be possibly hurt just so I can herd in my backyard.

Most likely the sheep will stay this winter and in the spring I'll either have them sold as pets to a spinner, or make room for two more who are broke and Sarah can herd. But since the second option requires construction, money, and fences, I will mostly likely just trade them out and in the meantime kepp getting us to lessons with workable sheep. Man, this is my first laying hens all over again...

Photo of Maude by Sara Stell

Thursday, November 13, 2008

iron and wine

Music is the force that drives me. I am never without it. If I'm not listening to it, I'm making it. If I'm not making it, I wish I was. When I drive to work in the morning I depend on it to sing along with to keep me sane for the ten hours before I can get back in the car, roll down the windows, and sing again. When I sit in my little chair in the office, I never go more than an hour without headphones on. I am an addict. It's what keeps me going. I'm okay with that. Now, with that said...

Out of all the amazing musicians available to sample in this modern world I have one favorite - Iron and Wine. There are just a handful of albums out there, maybe five or so, but I doubt there's a song of his I don't know by heart. Those cds have been the soundtrack of my adult life. Starting with the summer of 2004 when I went to a small concert in Philadelphia. It was there I heard the Trapeze Swinger for the first time (hands down my favorite song of all time) and it was also the first time I ever cried alongside 500 strangers. The entire place was brought to tears by that one honest song. Makes me shake, that.

Since that day I've never gone anywhere without his music. Which in my case means most of this country. Those songs held my hand through Tennessee, plodded along the Smoky mountains I hummed tunes off the Sea and the Rhythm. I was listening to Passing Afternoon when I first drove cross country alone (which is in that video above), and came around a corner to see the Rocky Mountains for the first time. It was the wafting verses of Sodom South Georgia that were laughed through while I planted my first garden. Upward Over the Mountain is the song I sing with all I have to friends at campfires. I want to whisper Faded through the Winter to someone I love so much it hurts everytime I hear it. That is a song meant for whispering fast to lovers. Damnit.

I own many of Sam Beam's Albums on vinyl, because it feels better to hear it on a record player. Yes, you can still buy records from new artists for those old turntables. Dust them off and go buy The Creek Drank the Cradle right now.

Iron and Wine's songs are without time or consequences. They have no interest in being trendy, light, or reaching a wide audience. The lyrics are biting, raw and poetic - the emotion behind it rusted and naked. The music is an old front porch in rainy autumn, with pealing white paint and a candle in a mason jar. I can’t really explain it but the words of Resurrection Fern (the link below), could have been written a hundred years ago deep in the Carolina hollers, but are sang in clubs in Miami and Boston instead. The saws and slides, the simple guitar strumming, the almost annoying lack of fiddles...

I’m not saying you should like it. I’m not even saying you should listen to it. But I am asking you to buy it. If you like me give it a try, if you dislike me buy it anyway and break it with a short-handled ax for spite. I just want him to keep making music. It scoops me up. And I am a girl who desperately needs to be scooped up from time to time.

Also, I dig his beard.

listen to him

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

morning edition!

So I just got off the phone with NPR, they are running a story about turkeys for Thanksgiving on Morning Edition. I was asked to talk briefly about my adventures as a vegetarian turkey-raiser. If you get a chance, listen in that Thursday to hear your favorite farm gal flap her gums. ( I'm sure you can download it that same day online, if you're so inclined). I've been somewhat overwhelmed lately by work and general winter prep around here. But as things cool down my typing fingers will heat up. That's a promise. Stamp and seal it.

Sarah and her offleashness has been less stressful. I decided to pretend in my own mild way that incident didn't happen. I let her out offleash, but only 75% of the time and never at length like before. We'll work back up to it. And thanks for all the kind suggestions in the last post. I will be using them!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

chores and a runaway

Yesterday, when I got home from Sarah's herding lesson, it was a little after noon. We had stopped at Tractor Supply and Whitman's feed (both allow dogs, which I adore, since it gets Sarah around a lot of people). We loaded the haytruck with a giant 65-pound compressed strawbale, a mineral block for the sheep, and some chicken feed. A pretty anticlimatic end to our dances with ewes, oh well.

While the herdng lesson was the big event of the day, weekends are the time to take care of farm stuff I can't fit in durring the work week. So I spent most of the afternoon mending the fenceline for escape routes, laying down fresh straw in the sheep shed and coop, collecting eggs, hauling water to all the menagerie and saying hello to the farm gang. But the big chore was prepping the four angora bunnies for their new homes. They are 7-weeks old, fully weaned, and ready for a new place to live. I brought them in the cabin one at a time to shear off any dirty wool, tattoo their ears, and make sure everyone was sound and healthy. When they were set, I winded down the night writing pedigrees by hand and getting the rabbit's paperwork in order. In the morning a woman was driving to pick up a pair. A nice morale boost since it meant the farm would get in enough income to cover the week's groceries, laundromat run, and firewood. Sweet.

So okay, a pretty calm Saturday, sure. But Sunday we had a mini crisis. Sarah ran away.

She's never liked the car. When we go outside together she gives it a wide berth and hunkers away from it. Soon as she see's we're not going in it, she relaxes and stays by my side. But since I was unloading laundry baskets and groceries, I kept going back to that evil car, and she took off. She wasn't getting in that car.

She ran off into the woods which she didn't recognize, which confused her and took her nearly a half mile from the cabin. She ended up on the dirt road where my neighbor Ed nearly hit her, which scared the crap out of her and she ran up west road with the speed of a thousand angry comets. Now I didn't see this, it was all explained my neighbors who fortuately could point the direction she ran in. I ran after her scared, panicked, yelling her name. (Kind of made me wish her name was Stella) Finally, I looked up the hill across from the red barn and there she was, 100 yards or so away on a high crest, sitting, shaking. I grabbed a stick and yeller her name, trying to sound fun (even though I was shaking too. The idea I would lose this dog so soon after making her mine rattled my core) but she started down when she saw the stick and me. She came up to me, then rememberd "Hey, you're the one with the car" and might've ran off again had I not lunged and grabbed her by the collar.

I picked her up in my arms like a toddler, and walked over the bridge back home. My neighbors Dean and Nancy were coming out of their house with a collar and lead to loan me. I snapped the lead on Sarah's collar, and we chatted a little. The whole time we were by parked car in their driveway, and Sarah shook. I don't know much about Sarah's past, but I do know she spent much of her puppyhood captive in New York City. Her original owner had her in the country but when he broke his hip he left for Brooklyn to live with his daughter. So mabe she was nearly hit by cars there, or hated the noise, or tried to herd one and it knocked her down? I don't know. I do know I'm glad we're both in Vermont and not NYC.

I hope this doesn't happen again, it'll be a while till I build up the confidence to just have her offlead by my side again. Which is more me than her, but still. I can't lose her. She's too much to me already.

P.S> comic above by

Saturday, November 8, 2008

a morning to remember

I pulled into Denise’s driveway fifteen minutes early for my lesson. Sarah was in the front seat, but I asked her to wait. I walked back to the hatch and took out the giant canvas shoulder bag that was holding the 26-pound tom still frozen solid. I slung it over my shoulder with a loud “Ughhugh” and waddled up to the side door I remembered from the Dave Sykes Clinic this summer. The last time I walked through Denise’s gate, where the slate hung from the chain link saying Fall Foliage Top Ten Finalist I didn’t have a border collie or know what a “Fall Foliage Finalist” was. A quarter turn of the year later I have a Scottish dog in the front seat, brimming with possibilities. And to top off the incidentals of all this, I initially met her at this year’s Fall Foliage trial. I was becoming a New England shepherd, or at least learning the dance steps.

After I handed over the bird to her one of her family members, I was directed to go down past the barn. There was a lesson going on and I could watch while I waited. So I got Sarah out of the car and together we walked past the slate sign down the hill to the fields.

The first thing I noticed was Denise and her student with a Kelpie named Fizz. Kelpies are an Australian breed that are super athletic, fast, loud, and herding super stars. They are just catching on in popularity here in New England, but I've met a few over the months with the club. Nice dogs. They were working on Fizz’s outrun, trying to make his flanks wider.

The first thing Sarah noticed however, was the sheep. She turned into a different dog. Seeing a full flock in an open field, made her quiver with excitement and lunge on the lead. Ears up. Body taunt. High gear.

Uh oh.

We waited for our turn. I watched from above them on the hill. I saw the woman who was taking the lesson stride around the field with these black nylon pants over her jeans. Why the hell was she wearing those? She had a training stick and seem relaxed with her little Kelpie, who seemed to be improving his “Away to me” by not being so tight on the sheep. I can see these things now, but just barely. After a bit Denise waved me down, and called her Jess to take the ewes they were working with back to the pen. She said she was going to give Sarah the whole flock.

Uh oh.

I laid Sarah down and sent her after the sheep, which she circled around, frantic and too close. But after the initial gather round she calmed down. Her head low, her tail down. If dogs can smile, she had a shit-faced grin. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just tried to keep the sheep between us. She balanced them well, if I stepped right she stepped left. If I turned one way, she was always opposite me. Like a wire was between us.

Denise showed me how to handle, give commands, and use the stick to cut off her moves by making a small wall between us. I was walking backwards this whole time, trying to watch Sarah and not get over ran by the 4 large sheep in front of me, clinging to me to keep the wolf at bay. At one point I tripped over myself and the training stick jabbed into my stomach, I slid across the mud and was able to get up just in time to not get ran over. Covered in mud from the waist down, sore and tired, I looked up at Denise and the Kelpie owner. They yelled. “Welcome to herding! You’ve just been initiated!!" I stood up and looked down at my favorite jeans... covered in mud. Oh, so that’s what the nylon chaps were for…

By the end of the hour Sarah was learning to walk calmly (well, calmer) behind the sheep and drive them towards me as I walked away from them (herding hint, take long backwards strides, don't run backwards.) She did well. I was impressed. It was a morning to remember.

I was herding sheep with my own border collie. She was brilliant. She stays.

Friday, November 7, 2008

the test

Tomorrow Sarah and I are getting up early and driving to our herding instructor in western Mass. It's her chance to prove herself. We'll be In a big field with a lot of dog broke sheep so she'll be free to herd in the open with everythying she's got. We'll see how she works, and what talents for this sheep business lie within her little 36-pound frame. I haven't decided if she's staying yet. I really haven't. I have to decide soon though since tomorrow is the deadline. All this depends on her natural instincts. I hope tomorrow there's no question, that she blows me away. If all goes as I hope, her breeding and history, (two generations away from the hill dogs of Scotland and Wales) will shine through. Wish us luck, and expect full report tomorrow!

i am my brother's keeper

I recently finished up an article for Mother Earth News on livestock guardians. Livestock guardians are animals like dogs, donkeys and llamas that live with their flocks to protect them 24/7 against coyotes and other predators. During the research phase I got to visit some maremmas at Taravale Farm in Esperance, NY. Incidently, this is the same farm where Sarah hails from.

Maremmas (like Bella, that happy mug in the photo) are these giant white dogs from Italy that remind me of polar bears. I got to stand out in this cold, windy field next to these huge dogs and together we all watched the flock of sheep across the gate. What strikes me about this practice, of using animals to help other animals, is that it's so ancient yet still used in a world of ATVs and HBO. Dogs like Bella have been doing this since time out of mind. How wonderful to still be able to feel their thick fur and share a moment with them watching a flock in the 21st century?

These are the kinds of things I worry will slip out of the world. It's exactly why I harness Jazz and Annie up on a dogsled to get the mail or why I want to work with border collies indefinately on my future farm. It's why I want a fell pony to ride, goats to pack with, and and be able to plow a field with one day with actual horsepower... The human/farm animal connection is an ancient one that seems impossible today. Imagine a modern person seeing a tiger in the wild and saying "You know what, that would make a great guard dog" and then systematically breeding, raising, training and domesticating a tiger you can trust around your toddler while you run to the store? I know, sheer lunacy. But that's exactly what happened with wild horses, wolves and rough mountain goats. Someone brought them to us modern homesteaders and now we have percherons, pugs and pack goats. Talk about thinking ahead...

Someday (certainly not now) but someday when I have a flock over fifty, I will hopefully have a dog like Bella out in the fields with my charges. I'm fine with going old school, that's what this homesteading thing is all about.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

my zombie garden: still coming back to life long after I killed it

My garden has been pulled out and bedded down for weeks now. Piles of chicken coop straw, old broc plants, dead flowers, and frosty sunflower stalks now fill the compost bins that once only held food scraps and eggshells. Readers of this blog know over the last few weeks we've even seen the first snowfalls come into Vermont (a real slap in the face to gardeners...) But that doesn't mean I'm still not enjoying the summer's work. Between the tomatoes I put up and the pumpkins that have been sitting off the vine for weeks, I'm still enjoying those May seeds.

This past week I made pasta sauce and pumpkin desserts. Both done without canning since the toms were in the freezer and the pumpkins have been sitting on my porch since August. (In hindsight, I wish I had canned some of the big heirlooms only because of how much fresher they taste in a single-serving pot of sauce.) But my tomatoes were thrown to the freezer for a big sauce canning day up ahead. One future weekend I'll thaw them all out and make as many jars of sauce as I can stock my pantry with. I learned in Idaho how great it is to enjoy a bright red fruit from the garden on evenings so cold your pipes freeze.

I didn't get a harvest to brag about this year, but I'm not letting that discourage me. I'm a stubborn gal. If I had sweated and bitched a whole summer and only ended up with one potato, I'd still really enjoy that potato. I'm still new to gardening, and mistakes will be made, but I'm amazed that even a schmuck like me shooting from the hip with books and advice from friends can still manage a decent pile of food in a poor summer. So if you're considering a garden in the spring, but not sure you have the chops for it, don't fret. You can grow something. You should grow something.

The humble armful of pumpkins I did grow proved delicious to bake with and fun to carve on Halloween. Which was a big deal to me. Certain things like pumpkins or eggs seem surreal the first time you grow your own. Like you're cheating the system by getting them from the backyard instead of a market. You can't help but smile with a little homegrown subversive. I'll be celebrating more pumpkin anarchy by baking delicious pies and treats with what's left of my squash. I've been using the book Pumpkins, by DeeDee Stovel for other ideas too. It's a bang-up job of a cookbook just for pumpkins with all meal recipes from pasta to cookies in it. It's been living on my kitchen table for a couple of weeks now. Inspiring me to keep cranking through the orange kids on the porch. think I'll make the pumpkin sugar cookies tonight. Who doesn't love cookies? I bet they go great with coffee...

P.S. that image at the top is one of Yee-haw industries awesome handmade letterpress cards in their farmer's market series. I love these guys, I used to visit their shop in Knoxville and still remain good friends with one of their old printers (Hi Leif) Find them and their great art like products here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

paw and boot

Daylight savings is an appreciated change here at the farm. To be able to have an hour more of light before going to work makes morning chores a lot more enjoyable. And having a dog I can take outside with me, and watch her have the freedom to race into chicken coops and lope through the woods off lead, lifts the spirit a little before coffee gets into my system. I love Jazz and Annie, they have transcended the role of pet into full-blown roommates. Jazz is the best dog I will ever know, never to be surpassed. But they can't farm. I can't ask them to lay down and eye sheep while I dump hay into their pen. They wouldn't stand for it. But Sarah lives to oblige me, and herd, and hopefully all will work out with the lone Scott among all these Eastern Europeans in the little house. I'm Czech. My dogs are Russian. Sarah's a world apart from our worlds of gypsies and snowstorms. But she makes the morning fun, and does her part, and I look forward to our time outside together. Doing our work paw and boot side by side.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

so i have a confession to make...

There's a border collie here, right here by my side as I type this. She's been here for a week and currently is laying on the floor beside Annie watching me type. I just recently told my family about her, and about the possibility she may stay. Her name is Sarah, and if you read this blog you've heard about her before. She's six months south of being two-years old, a spunky tri-color bitch with tick marks on her face and a tan patch over her right eye. She hails from international champion lines (her great grandfather was the famed Roy ISDS 200199 - owned by Aled Owen), and currently his progeny is here with me on a trial basis. I have two weeks to see if the little scrapper will work - both as a working sheepdog, and as a part of my canine family. So far Jazz and Annie have no qualms, and the first week has been smooth, but again, this is a try-out. I need to see if and how she works, in every sense.

We did some herding work with Marvin and Maude (Sal learned he could clear a 4-foot electric fence when Sarah was in the he stays in their pen instead of joining in the training), but I am new at this shepherding bit and worry my novice handling will screw her pre-training up. Sometimes the sheep are a little too ballsy and stomp or try to headbutt (they haven't done this, just start advancing, head down, so I tap them on my head with the thin metal training stick (which weighs about 5 oz.) to stop them from scaring/injuring the dog.

One morning Sal looked like he was going to stomp her down (another reason he doesn't train with us) so I jumped in-between them and smacked Sal on the head with my open palm to save her. I couldn't have a dog I didn't even own get crushed or scared of sheep. I didn't hurt him (I don't think a baseball bat would bother Sal), just confuse him while Sarah slid away..My neighbor who just moved here full-time from New York City watched me from his porch project. Great... I thought. Now the neighborhood will think I beat animals. Another neighbor is upset about the turkey.... The last thing I want to do is explain tapping a wether on the head isn't cruelty to animals, but letting 140-pounds of hoof slam down a dog is.

Sarah's a started dog, meaning she was trained by a professional before I laid hands on her. So she comes to me knowing more about this sheep business than I do. Next weekend I have an hour long private herding lesson with her over in Greenfield (I bartered it for the turkey in the freezer), and if she does well, and has the gumption to make a decent stock dog she may stay. I really am on the fence about her, a third dog, even one as well trained as Sarah, is a commitent I'm not sure I can make.

So we'll see. Nothing is written in stone. She may go back to the trainer I got her from, specially if it's too much for me to handle. As much as I want a working sheepdog, I need to be realistic about my life and all the creatures in it...

-Tangent -
Okay, so just as I was typing this, I heard loud rustling outside. Really loud. I looked out the window and saw nothing. I went back to typing and then heard louder, closer rustling. I looked out the window and there was Sal. Standing in the glow of the porch light, chewing on the lawn. I rolled my eyes, slipped on some crocs, and grabbed the lantern on the way out the door. I stepped off the porch and saw all three sheep standing there, staring at me in the dark. Jeez.

I used to freak out when the sheep got loose, panic, run for the grain can to bribe them back with anxiety in my eyes. Those days are over. I am now break-out broken. I just walked out, mumbled a hello/curse at them, and then told the jerks to follow me. Which they did, in the glow of the lantern they trotted behind me in a nice single file line back to the pen where they knew I would give them grain and they would no longer have to settle for crappy frost-bitten grass. I penned them and came back inside. Sarah stayed in. I worried if I brought her out she's just scatter them into the woods, uncertain if Sal would feel deer-like and take off forever with his fence-hopping gusto. A young dog new to herding isn't a great help yet. Maybe someday.
-End Tangent-

So I don't know if I'll keep her. But I thought you guys should know. There's a wee bonnie girl here curled up on the kitchen floor. Her papers say half her lineage goes back to Scotland, Wales and England and the other half, ironically, to Pennsylvania. So we share a collective commonwealth. If this is fate maybe I'll marry a Scottish fellow and bring this full circle? (I'm 67% kidding) But regardless, the shepherd, for now, has her dog.

photo of Sarah's face by Sara Stell