Wednesday, September 30, 2009

a grand tomorrow

If I ever have a family of my own, tonight will be a great holiday. A night when everyone takes off work the next day and spends the early hours of the morning in front of a bonfire in the shadows of yellowing corn stalks. We'll have sheepdogs curled at our feet and hear the distant cries of fattening lambs in the fields. It'll be a night for dancing and laughing and stories and songs. Fiddles and guitars and enough food to shame Thanksgiving. A night to forget about everything save for what really matters, which is to say what keeps us alive: food, animals, friends, good dogs and great love.

It's the Eve of October: the greatest month of the year. Tomorrow we'll wake up and everything is different. Trust me on this people, I would never lie about such a holy thing. You'll wake up and feel the difference. If you can't feel it, the crows will show you. And if you can't listen to crows, then by god, you'll read about it here.

October is when nostalgia and hope grab hands and jump off cliffs together. It's a month of harvest and celebration, of history and agriculture and a hundred religions taking time to pause and pray and reflect. It's a time for memories and love, but also a darker time of faster nights and quicker shadows. Everyone has their own opinion of this month, but here at Cold Antler, this is it. This is why I kiss the ground I landed in Vermont. Around here we're jaw-punched with such relentless beauty it makes us pull over our cars at 7:48 AM on the way to the office just because a fiery maple deflated our lungs.

I can't wait for tomorrow, and for the next 31 days right up to Halloween. This is my month, our month. Grab your mugs of cider and toast the night with me friends. Tomorrow is October, and October is when everything happens.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

if they only knew

Another rainy day here in the hollow, but not an unwelcome one. The drive up into the mountains after work was gorgeous. Swirling panics of leavesm pairs of crows launching into the air like the ground was poison. The whole painting from the cab of the truck seemed comforting. I have never lived away from mountains, trains, and crows. God forbid I ever do.

I came home and before even walking into the house grabbed three logs off the wood pile and split them with a level of skill no one should obtain having grown up watching Night Court. I carried my kill inside, started a blazing fire, and hugged my kind dogs. I always ask Jazz and Annie the same question, every day. "Are you getting all the love you need?" and they oblige me with a nuzzle deep into my side. Siberians don't really lick or wag their tails. If they're happy to see you they bend back their ears and place their thick foreheads into your body, nuzzling like wolves. Lifting their heads only to have their eyes meet yours to ask for a scratch behind the ears or permission to nuzzle more. Sometimes when I walk the dogs in town parents drag their kids by the arms away from Jazz and Annie, as if they were indeed wolves. The kids always reach out and Annie licks a splayed finger as they go. If they only knew.

Joseph is now living with the flock full time. He is no longer sharing the kid pen with Finn. Maude and Sal have made him one of the tribe, in their own way, which is to say they aren't chasing him away from the grain bin or morning hay pile anymore. He sits at the big kids table now. He seems like a happy guy. This shepherd's work is done. At least for now.

They are calling for snow showers tomorrow night. No joke.

Monday, September 28, 2009

sometimes you're the horse

It's a miserable evening here at Cold Antler. One of those days you give up on by 3pm and spend the rest waiting for the next sunrise. It's been overcast, raining, and windy here in southern Vermont. Days like this I usually revel in, adore really. I like the comfort of the cabin and the fireplace, but today for some reason I'm not feeling too offensive with my attitude about weather. The gold, red, and orange leaves are being ripped off the trees and racing across the roads. Everything's damp. The kind of damp that makes your clothes, indoors, seem musty.

I do apologize for the thin posting this weekend. I had an impromptu visit from my old college roommate, Erin. We went to design school together and now she lives in Cambridge, in the heart of Boston. I think she enjoyed her self-imposed Urban exile though. We spent the two days driving, shopping, talking. Pretty much being college roommates again. We talked about shoes, men, and our jobs. The kind of conversations I can't have in Vermont unless they're imported. I've made some close and wonderful guy friends here, but so far, like always, finding women that I enjoy the company of has been hard. (This is completely contrary to Idaho, where most of, if not all, my close friends were gals).

So I'm back. Still fighting with Chuck Klosterman who has grown more and more violent and who I subdue every time with a shepherd's crook or rake. (Don't freak out, I just brush him away. I don't beat my poultry. That's tacky.)

Sorry friends, I give up on this crappy day. Some days you're the horse, and some days you're the cart. Today I was 100% buggy-fuel. Now I'm going to walk outside and make sure the sheep are all content and the gate is locked. Then I am coming back in for the diine therapy that is Wilcox pumpkin ice cream with crushed ginger snap button cookies. Then I'm going to crash in front of the fire and watch some Buffy (season 4, Hush, if you're in the club) and chalk this day up as a loss.

The bright side is this: October is almost here. And October, darling, is when everything happens.

October is cart time, baby.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

mountain dog

I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.
-The Dharma Bums

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Cold Antler farm's flock of thirteen laying hens is currently being watched over by two roosters. Here's the one I like, Winthrop. Named after the man who delivered the great sermon A Modell of Christian Charity—My rooster, like the venerable Plymouth puritan, is a pious guy watching over his own City on a Hill. He's huge, taller than my male goose. He's usually quiet and calm, but will on occasion let out a howl of a crow that sounds nothing like a normal rooster, thus his nickname, the wererooster.

Chuck Klosterman is the other one. He's an asshole. He is the only rooster I have ever raised that tries to hurt me. Only he isn't man enough to own that decision and actually try and spur me. He waits till I am walking away and then runs up to me, ready to attack. Then I whirl around and yell "WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM, BIRD!" and he backs down because I'm 15 times his height. Then he struts away and runs off to bang a hen or chase Winthrop around. Sometimes I wish Winthrop realized he was twice the size of Chuck Klosterman. It's like watching an angry velociraptor stalk and bite an autistic T-Rex. Winthrop is in his own little world of wolf sounds and slug eating. He abhors violence, and so he runs away from Chuck like a 4-year-old girl.

I keep Chuck around because while he is a mean bird—he is watchful and protective of his girls. He's sly and tricky and treats the farm like his jailyard. A place he rules with an iron fist, but also protects with one. He may not be the kindest cock on the block, but he keeps the trains running on time. For that, I'll keep feeding him no matter how much he looks like a pot pie.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

walking home

My neighbor Katie sent me this photo this morning. She took it in front of her home as the geese were walking back towards my road. Cyrus and Saro are never apart. They walk around my mountain hollow neighborhood as if it's their own. I'm lucky that the houses around mine are okay with the occasional visit from a pack of chickens or a pair of geese. Their open-yard policy ensures a free range life for my fowl. I'm much obliged.

I bought my first set of power tools yesterday—inspired by the collection of helpful gadgets Kathy and Marie brought when they helped build the fence. I didn't buy anything top of the line 9I'm on a tight budget) but I did procure a reciprocating saw, skill saw, drill and high-beam flashlight, all cordless in a set. Tools like these, and other hand tools have been a growing collection around the homestead. I had to buy my first ever tool box as well. It sits behind the seat in the truck, ready when I am to get work done.

I have three reserved spots at the Cluck & Strum and a few people I am waiting to get confirmation from. If you said you were coming and have yet to send in your information or donation, please let me know since I am ordering your books and instruments this week.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Monday, September 21, 2009

sometimes it's hard

I've been hurt by this farm. Really hurt. I've been bitten, butted, cut, scarred, and brought to tears from pain, stress and exhaustion. This happens over and over and I'm always alone. There are things I won't blog about because I don't want my mother to worry. There are things that happen that terrify me.

This year was the hardest yet. I planted my largest garden ever, raised the most animals, and took on more work and personal projects than any sane human being should. Now that the year is almost over, and the south side of October is days away, I can let out a long sigh and tell you it was all worth it. I found a balance in it all, kept my blinders on, and everything got done. The garden was tilled, weeded, and harvested. The two-week-old goat kid grew up into a spit-fire. The young birds are almost full-sized chickens now and the rabbit doe is due to bear kits any night. Yes, the hive was lost. And yes, I failed the sheepdog I once called my own, but you'll have this from time to time. And you and I don't have enough nights to list my faults. There are many, some are awful. Trust me.

If you read this blog and find it overly positive, dramatic, or analytical: that's because writing about my choices is my daily therapy. I don't see a shrink—I write to 40,000. Sharing my stories and photos on this blog is like a long exhalation. I depend on the people who read this because in the shower I lose count of the cuts and bruises and I want to know they belong to something bigger than my body. All things considered, I am quite small.

Some nights I barely fall asleep, isomniatic from worrying about the delicate balance that is my work life, family life and farm life. I am so grateful for Jazz, my old dog, who looks at me every day like the wise bodhisattva that he is and I will never be. A good dog can walk up to you, slowly, one paw in front of the other, and sit down next to you with great stillness. I feel him lean into me and I realize I'm not the only animal on this farm. I am never alone and it is bigger than us both. He rests and lets me scratch behind his ears and only when he knows I understand the world again, pads off. Jazz isn't my child and he isn't my pet either. He's a good dog. Nothing more.

For quite some time now, people without dogs seem broken to me.

I am a farmer without a farm, a shepherd without a sheepdog, and in love with this big, stupid world without a lover. That's fine. Sometimes I foolishly think everything would be better if I had a mortgage, a collie, and a man. But I know myself well enough to see the idiocy in such black-and-white thinking. I know better. We all know better. Maybe these things will come or maybe I'll be hit by space trash tomorrow. It really doesn't matter. It's the wanting that fuels us. It's the hope. That desire to attain the life you want, whatever it is, and to fold your ears back and run into the wind like you're in harness—is life. Cold Antler farm isn't a place—it is an idea. Knowing I want it means I am already home. Actually getting there, is moot.

queen of the hay pile

Sunday, September 20, 2009

i sing along when i drive

God made the automobile:
To pass all the things He made, and then never bothered to name
And no one will tell the truth, and no one will hide it from you.
Like birds around the grave.

-Iron & Wine

bolt cutters and apple cake

There was a stupid amount of pride that went into buying my first Red Brand Field Fence. The Pennsylvania-Based company had been publishing ads in homesteading and farming magazines long as I could remember reading them. I would read them while paging through Hobby Farm in college—wondering how anyone gets to a point in their life when they are deciding between woven and welded wire fences instead of foam or no-foam in their coffee. Now I was standing in the chain-link yard at Tractor Supply buying one. I watched the forklift ease the giant roll into the back of my pickup, swelling with quiet pride. As I pushed the monster into bed, I thanked the staff that helped me load it, and then slammed the tailgate shut. Slammed it the way I dreamed of slamming it for years before owning a truck. That satisfying "CligUNK". Now, I was going to build my sheep a proper fence.

I wasn't sure how though? The old fence was barely keeping it together and that took me a whole day. This heavy-duty job would require more help, proper tools, and I bought it just hoping it would all work out. Some times things do. At least if the right people show up...Three blog readers heeded the call for help. Jeff, Kathy, and Marie all gave up a beautiful Saturday evening to come here and work up a sweat. Thanks to their time, gloves, toolboxes, and good intentions we had the whole operation done in under three hours. Quite the accomplishment.

Kathy and Marie arrived first. They pulled into the driveway in a Prius wearing workbooks. (These were my kind of women.) We shook hands and said hello and I invited them inside. I was in the middle of baking an apple cake (which almost felt contrived) but I had been invited to a neighbor's house for dinner and was scrambling to make something to bring. My mother raised me to never show up as a dinner guest without a covered dish or bottle of wine. As I poured the batter into the bowls we chatted about their farm (WindWoman Farm, outside Albany) and about their own hope for dairy goats soon. They wanted Nigerians, and I was already excited for their future kids.

Jeff pulled up in his truck shortly after. He walked out to meet us in the field with bolt cutters in one hand and work gloves in the other. All four of us were ready to get to work. We moved Sal and Maude to electric netting in a separate area so we didn't have to worry about sheep running around us and started ripping down the old fence. In no time we were measuring t-posts and pounding in new ones. I did a lot of running around, helping really, these folks were experts. I tried to be of use but while they cut the wires and pulled the fences tighter I spent most of my time in awe of their efforts. I'd grab them a cold cider if they needed it, or would grab a hammer from the truck. Not that I sat and watched, I was in the thick of it too, but I have no idea how I could have done it without them. I am beyond grateful for their assistance. I made sure they knew I was there to help with any moving days or ditch digging in their futures. And since Kathy is taking a timber frame building course in Texas soon, who knows, there might be a barn raising in our future.

When the fence was up and our work finished, we retired to the porch for apple cake and cold beers. We sat in a row, our feet dangling over the porch while we chatted and ate. The geese joined us and waddled around our feet, judging us in their goose way. When the beer and cake was downed, the three heros watched as I let Maude and Sal back into their new pen. A small cheer went up, if not from the onlookers - perhaps in my own head. Closing that gate was a call for emotional applause. We did it and now the sheep had a good strong fence for winter. I had little to offer them as thanks, but made sure each of them left with a pound of pumpkin coffee and a hug.

A fine days work, that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

good morning from the farm!

This was the first day that required mittens with the morning chores. I'm back inside now, about to dive into an omelet and pumpkin coffee. Green Mountain Coffee puts out this Pumpkin Spice flavor that I look forward to every year. And Wilcox (our Manchester-based ice-creamery..which i think is amazing) has pumpkin out for sale in the grocery stores. Both make the end of September a holiday. I like how these pumpkingy things are showing up as my own are turning orange on the vine. I can not wait for October.

As for this giant omelet: I used the last of my humble tomato crop, homemade cheese, a local dairy's milk and my hen's eggs. Together, they sing. Every bite has a history. A hen, a seedling, an evening stretching curd. I'm hoping to find a big steel pot at some yard sales today for more cheese making. I think I'm hooked.

Today's a big day. I have errands in town, but then this afternoon a few folks are coming buy to help put up the new fencing for the sheep pen. I also have a cord of fire wood to stack and need to clean out the garage for winter hay storage. So it'll be a big long day (thus the giant breakfast) or running around and working, but hopefully by the end of this weekend there will be new strong fence and a garage stacked with hay bales. So here's to a crisp morning, hard work, and a warm breakfast.

Friday, September 18, 2009

woodsmoked life

There are things I do all the time on the farm, mundane things, and I can still remember the first time I did them. I have yet to lose that beginners rush. Pouring the scratch grain into a big metal 50-gallon container and mixing it in with the layer crumbles. (My recipe for warmer birds: more fatty corn in colder weather.) Watching the deep yellow pieces of cracked corn mix in with the lighter layer crumbles still looks beautiful to me. I swirl them together with my hands and feel the tiny grains slip through my fingers. A rush of sensations. Every time I bury my arms elbow deep in the concoction to really get it all mixed up. When you get a buzz from mixing up corn in a bucket—I think that's a fairly good sign you're supposed to be living this kind of woodsmoked life.

They want tonight to dip into the thirties. Tomorrow they want frost. I hope the pumpkins hold their own. They're starting to turn a loud orange and I can not hide my shit-faced grin everytime I see them. This is the best crop of pumpkins I have ever grown, some so large I doubt I'll be able to pick them up without help.

Anyway, this cold streak—it's a fluke early bite. By Tuesday night the weather report has nights back in the fifties again. Regardless, it'll inspire most Vermonters to continue stacking wood and ordering winter fuels. I'll be filling up the cabin's oil tank and am stacking up my second cord of firewood, just dropped off today. Someday I'll be on all woodheat and electric, but for now my rented cabin has a 275-gallon oil tank to keep the place snug and pipes from freezing when the nights drop below 0. I can't believe it's time to fill up already... Fall is certainly at our doorstep. That's a fact no longer up for discussion. I am thrilled to welcome him home.

I bought a new black and white checkered flannel shirt on my lunch break. There is nothing quite as glorious as a new flannel shirt on a crisp night outside. It's a men's medium and literally comes down to my knees, but it is so soft and warm. It's like being wrapped up in someone's arms. Soon as I pulled into the farm I changed right there in the driveway, and did my evening chores wrapped in it. I didn't even need a jacket.

I have 330 feet of field fence in the back of the pick up and hopefully I'll get it up tomorrow so the sheep will finally have a fence I can be proud of. I put up the last fence by myself but that cheap garden wire but it's nearly falling apart. The hot mess is being held together by bailing twine and luck. I put up that monster alone, (but those cheap welded wire rolls didn't need to be loaded into the back of a truck with a forklift...) so I'm hoping some friends come to help tomorrow. My friend James did offer to help next weekend, so maybe fence-redux will be postponed till then. I'll play it by ear.

Some friends invited me out for drinks but I don't think I'll be heading into town tonight. Between the long work week, a stalking fox, and the promise of a warm fire I think I'll be in for the night. (I blame the shirt.) It's one of those nights where you pull the dulcimer off the mantle and mindlessly pluck away at it while you watch a favorite movie. Tonight I'll watch Cold Mountain. If my father was visiting he'd demand an apple cake be baking on a night like this. If I had some apples, I would, just for the aromatherapy of it all.

photo by sarah stell

late notice: help wanted

Anyone in the area with nothing to do tomorrow? I need help building a new fence for the sheep shed. If you have two hours and can come by the farm please email me at and come on over with a tool box! Sorry, no kids. If Maude isn't behind a fence I don't want to risk her head-butting a toddler. Adults with gloves welcome!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

the end result

my first mozzarella!

Today a package of homesteading supplies was delivered to the office, and inside it contained (among other things) everything I needed to make homemade mozzarella. It was a success! There in the photograph you can see the fist-sized ball of fresh homemade cheese sprinkled with seasoning and a sprig of basil from the garden. It took me about 45 minutes and all I needed was a gallon of milk (any milk will do that isn't ultra pasteurized) a pot, and a thermometer. Right now the oven is baking up a small pan pizza made with my own cheese, crust, and veggies. I'm really looking forward to sitting back tonight with a movie and enjoying this first foray into the dairy world. From the smell of this kitchen, it looks like it's going to be a hell of a good meal.

And a few updates: The fox is still at large but hasn't returned. Last night's stake out just left me looking foolish and cold in the 43-degree dark waiting for a date that never showed. He stood me up. I should've been wearing a prom dress. On a happier note—the truck was returned from the garage yesterday with a new front end and brakes and she passed inspection today with flying colors! I now have my own pickup outside, and every step from the handshake deal to the final inspection has been cleared. My first debt-free piece of anything. (I'm proud of my Bess.) I was also able to pay off a small credit card this month, and while it's not going to shoot my credit score up into the stratosphere - every little bit helps and gets me closer to my farm. So cheese isn't all I celebrate tonight. This September is a month of small victories.

P.S. I have two spots paid and reserved for the Cluck n Strum, and awaiting payments from a few others. Not sure what the final head count is but I hope at least five of us will be there. So far there will be three of us for sure!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

at dusk

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

he's back

Last night while I was at the movies something happened in the chicken coop. A fox (or something like it) snuck in and took the silkie bantam chick. No other animals were harmed or are missing. I know this because I noticed the missing bird last night when I returned from town. Every night I do a count and check on the birds and the little black hen was gone. Today while moving the fences my neighbor Roy came out and announced he heard a big ruckus around 8PM.

Tonight I was inside watching a movie and decided to take the dogs out for a bathroom break. The speakers on the movie were dimmed and I looked to Annie who wasn't interested in the word "walk" at all. Her head was cocked to the window. Outside the geese were screaming. It was 8:30.

I threw on my boots and ran out towards the coop only to catch the red flash and tail running into the darkness. From the glow of the coop, the only light in the Sandgate black, I saw what had to be the largest fox in all of Vermont. It was possibly a coyote. Seemed to stand about 18-22 inches tall but was a dark brown/red. "AWAY!" I screamed, as if it was a border collie I wanted to flank, "AWAY!"

I ran back inside to get Annie and Jazz like a small canine police force. The three of us ran out into the night and walked around the coop. I made sure both dogs left clear and present danger right where the fox stood. I'm hoping my screams, the visit of dogs, and the thick smell of their markings and post-kibble will buy me a night without casualties. But one thing certain. Our friend is back. Guess what I'll be doing at 8PM tomorrow night...

Stake out.

you are what you eat

Last night I went to the Manchester to see Food Inc. (which was wonderful) and engage in a group discussion about food economies. Now, I knew I was going to the movies, but I had no idea when the film was over there would be a stay-in-you-seats discussion over community action. There was. I love this state.

A local group called Manchester Transition (a local environmental issues group) hosted a post-film talk. The MC walked with a mic down the rows, asking about changes that could happen in our area to help solve the problem. I was with my friends Phil, Sharon, and Jessie as an audience member. (I am certain no one knew I was involved in this life in anyway.) And I listened to the local organic and small farmers take turns talking about their issues. Horror stories about trying to sell to grocery store chains, the struggle to get apathetic people involves. We passed around the mic and when it got to me I had one question. "How many people in the audience have a garden?"

Everyone shot up their hands. We were preaching to the choir. We needed to get someone to see this movie who never would unless someone asked them too. That's where you come in. Go see this movie and take someone who doesn't give a damn.

The problem is that Americans have convinced themselves that cheap food, a seasonless selection, and endless variety are their rights—not healthy food, in-season crops, and correct variety. Some folks say a local organic diet is an elitist goal. That regular folks can't afford it. (Then you learn that only counts for prepared meals. We'd rather watch TV than cook a meal together). We've bought the lie that eating whatever we want of lesser quality is a good thing. Because it's easier. Because we don't have to connect the cow with the burger.

This is scary to me. Really scary.

Ask the average American if they'd rather buy feeding lot chicken that comes with a death warning then drive to a farmer's market down tha block and pay a dollar more a pound for a free-range disease-free bird. Most will prefer the healthier option, but few choose it. One hilarious section of the movie interviewed a well known organic farmer who was almost shut down for processing his poultry outdoors near the fields they free ranged on. So he sent a large sampling of his stock and sampling of the same sized animals from the grocery store shelves to be tested for bacteria. His came back ridiculously healthier and his animals never went through chlorine baths and a packaging plant. It's how the animal is raised, son.

I understand that we have a world to feed. The movie wasn't so much against industrial food as it was against the lack of regulation, safety standards, and lack policy. Food Inc. didn't want everyone to boycott the grocery store, they wanted you to change what's inside. Buy voting with every purchase for healthier food. Buy local, organic, and do your best. Not everyone can afford this, but most of us can afford one local meal a day. Experts say if every American ate one meal within 100 miles of their home a week the food industry would be forced to change dramatically. The organic wouldn't be expensive, it would be normal. Get some oats at the farmers' market and you've just eaten a breakfast that can change the world.

The base problem is most people don't want to think about where they're food comes from. They don't want to buy healthier meat for more money and eat it less. They don't care about local farmers, poisoned peanut butter, and salmonella outbreaks have become nothing more than background noise on the evening news. They have jobs, lives, and families to take care of. I get it. I have a job too. But I'll be damned if I'll sit back and watch the food my family eats hurt them. We may have our disagreements, even about blog posts like this, but they can count on me to produce meat, eggs, vegetables and energy that won't put them in the hospital.

You are what you eat. Be something better.

Monday, September 14, 2009

going to see this tonight

listen to this record

Sunday, September 13, 2009

in the shop...

There's Finn, checking out his new ride. Or probably his reflection in the back of the cab. He was actually pretty calm up there. I suppose growing up from the age of two-weeks-old in the back hatch of a station wagon helped...Finn's still small enough that lifting him up in my arms isn't a problem, but I imagine those days are over soon. You'll have this.

The truck had some drama. It's now registered, has shiny green plates, and the taxes are paid. It just needed to get a state inspection to make it road legal. So yesterday I took it to a mechanic to get it looked over. Turns out it didn't make it fifteen minutes into the inspection before the guy told me the front passenger side wheel was loose. It was a hazard and it needed to be fixed before Vermont allowed it on her roads. I contacted the dealer and they're picking it at the office tomorrow and repairing it on their dime. My friend and coworker Eric is going to take me back up into the 'Gate. Hopefully in a few days it'll be back to work. With jobs like fence reconstruction, winter hay buying, and trash bags needing to get to the dump... I need this truck. It can do in one trip what the Subaru can do in five.

Oh, I finally picked up that issue of Urban Farm magazine. If you live in a suburb or city, it's a must have for the resource lists alone. And the articles on beekeeping, goats, chickens, canning and small-space gardening are great and beginner friendly. Not too shabby for five bucks.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

meet the newest addition to cold antler

Meet the newest addition to Cold Antler Farm: a 1999 Ford Ranger. She's a beautiful thing to these station-wagon-driving eyes. She's also the first vehicle I ever paid for in full, have a title on, and indisputably own. Since I am still paying off my college education, rent my house, and don't have a square inch of Vermont dirt to my name (yet)—you can understand the pride I feel about finally having a pickup of my own.

Don't worry, not too much pride. Sea Level.

No more sheep in the back seat, chickens in the back hatch, or lambs with their hooves on the dashboard. No more hay in the air conditioning vents or folding down seats to fit feed bags. I now own two beds, and unlike my old one, this one will be seeing a lot of action.

I've been have finally been able to obtain the vehicle for my chosen path in this crazy world. Something I can load up with hay, transport livestock, or park at the feed store with a little more street cred. If you're curious (or worried I blew all my savings) she cost less than a Gibson J-45 True Vintage guitar (Actually, a lot less than a custom one. As great as acoustic guitars are, they can't haul goats...). I am happy I was able to drive her off the garage lot for less than what most people spend on a couch. Also lucky as hell - because she runs just as good as she looks.

She looks good for her age too. The orangey/red color is beautiful, screams fall. It has a roomy cab, CD player, amazing sound system, and ample coffee cup holders. The very instance I pull out of the lot I slid Old Crow Medicine Show's Wagon Wheel in the CD player to ride off into the sunset with. An Old Crow bumper sticker is the lone decoration on this truck.

I will never forget the day driving back to Vermont two winters ago when this adorably-rumbled guy around my age flew by my car on the NY Thruway with his black truck and one OCMS sticker on the back. I decided right then if I couldn't take him home I'd borrow his modest announcement of loyalty to his music. I had my own sticker on the fridge—saved just in case I ever had the bumper with a bed to put it on. Maybe I'll pass that guy's truck again someday? If a border collie hangs out the front passenger-side seat I may have to follow him home*...

She's not perfect by any means. Already she has 115k on her odometer and there are a few cigarette burns in her upholstery, but these are sins I'll forgive. I was able to get a 6-month warranty from the garage I bought her from, so at least I'll have a full New England winter to prove herself with some insurance. (That and heavy snow tires and weight in the back.) I also found out her driving insurance is cheap, less than a gormet pizza and cold beer costs in Manchester every month. For this truck: I'll skip town pizza.

She's a 2WD, and that's okay because (as you can see in her reflection) I still have the Subaru. That dire wolf will continue to be my snow car and dog box, but I find myself taking the truck out whenever I can. I can't help myself. I know it's just a used car, but to me it's a giant step forward in becoming the person I am trying to be and the amount this truck will help around the farm will be amazing. No more 3-bale trips back from Nelson's farm. I can load up the back with all she can carry! Hot Dang!

I always tell myself: Truck, farm, tractor. That's my mantra and path to that magic moment in life when I know I've made it. When I'm sitting on the back of that green tractor in my own sheep fields and can look down the hill at my beat pickup in the driveway—that's my Carolina Herrerra wedding dress. For the honeymoon, maybe someday I'll go inside and play my J-45. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. One dream at a time, people. I'm just happy to announce I've come this far.

*I kid

Friday, September 11, 2009


Thursday, September 10, 2009

ahead of us

The maple by the sheep shed is dropping leaves by the armload. I snapped this photo, but it doesn't do the old girl justice. Some times the most everyday things around here catch me off guard in their poetry. A sugar maple with a post pounder leaning against it isn't much, but it's enough. Made me grab the camera from my backpack, which is always with me.

It gets cold enough to need a sweater most nights. Labor Day is over and a grand fall is ahead of us.

A lot has happened in the past few days here at the farm. We lost a hen to a natural death. I walked into the coop one morning and there she was on the straw, as if asleep. Walking in on a dead chicken used to mildly bother me. Now I simply grab a pair of gloves, pick her up by the feet, and walk her far away from the farm into the woods.

Besides the dead chicken—a lot more is happening which I hope to write more about soon. I think I'll have some big announcements in the next few days but right now I need to heed Hemingways's advice and remember "You lose it if you talk about it" But stay tuned. Big things are in the works. Mind you, nothing huge. There's no television network asking to make a TV movie about me (headline news was walking a dead chicken into the woods, if you recall...) but smaller things are happening. And the farm gate feels closer every time it does.

Two people have reserved a spot at the Strum & CLuck so far. Two other people emailed with great interest but when I wrote back to them I was told my email was rejected. So if you wrote and I didn't get back to you, please try again and send me a phone number or another way to contact you. If you are looking for lodging check out Sandgate's information-packed website for lists of inns.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I spent the afternoon in the pasture. Knitting, reading, or playing the guitar until it became brisk. I went inside to light a fire, and returned to the pasture and my sixteen hooves wrapped in a wool sweater. I drank a cold beer, just the one, and watched the sun come away over Sandgate. I stayed out till my knitting was done and went inside wearing my new green hat. I curled up by the fire with the dogs.

I never want to take an evening for granted again.

Monday, September 7, 2009

strum & cluck anyone?

I have decided to forgo Antlerstock 2009. There were a handful of dedicated folks who wanted to swing by, and if you were one of them don't fret. The Saturday of Columbus Day weekend will still be an open house of sorts, but it will also be the day of the Cluck & Strum. I have decided to plan the first ever future-farm fundraiser for that beautiful weekend. If you are interested in a full day (10AM-4PM) session on beginner mountain dulcimer and keeping chickens: mark your calendars. If you sign up for the fundraiser you'll get a copy of Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens and an Apple Creek Student Dulcimer. So you come to the farm, get a full day of intro-to-chickens tours, animals in your hands, lectures and such and the afternoon will be learning to strum around a campfire at the farm. You leave with a book and a musical instrument. (If you already have a dulcimer and want to attend, the price of the apple creek will be removed from the donation. Roughly $70) Lunch will be provided and I am limiting it to ten people. So if you are interested contact me at and put "Cluck & Strum" in the subject line to find out the details.

Now, if you wanted to stop by for Antlerstock, but have no interest in a chicken/dulcimer workshop. That is fine and you'll need to email me as well to let me know you may swing by while we're out there pluckin' and cluckin'.

And if you want another reason to come to Vermont for the weekend... Please join me at the Fall Foliage Sheepdog Trial in Westfield Vermont the following two days. I'll be there volunteering, dreaming, and/or spectating. It will be a beautiful event. It has to be—Autumn, mountain music, fresh air, campfires, good food, Finn, Sal, Maude*, chickens, sheepdogs, and leaves leaves leaves....

*not a chance she'll like you

first-place fruits at the schaghticoke fair

photo by nisaa askia

hay lofts and merit badges

The first morning of Nisaa's visit had us driving over to Hebron to pick up hay. You need to understand Nisaa and I too fully appreciate the dicotomay. It's not often folks like us get together to buy dead-bundled grass. Nisaa is my social opposite. A successful freelance businesswoman from Brooklyn. We became good friends in college and then our lives took us in different directions. Every once in a while we catch up with a weekend visit and this long holiday was a wonderful excuse to get together.

The last time Nisaa came to Vermont I was working on planting my first raised-bed garden and had a handful of chickens in the coop. Her return a year later now had sixteen hooves, rabbits, and a gaggle of birds, and thirteen raised-beds now succumbing to weeds and pumpkins (but you could tell there was some glory there earlier in the season).

Anyway, were were off to buy hay. As we rolled through the backroads from Sandgate to Hebron we talked about our weekend. We'd be going to a county fair that afternoon and Sunday morning a couple from the DC-area would be visiting for brunch. IN no time at all we came to the crest that shares the view of sprawling green fields, silos, and red barns. "Isn't that something else" she said to us both. It sure is.

When we got to Nelson's farm, Nelson himself came out to greet us. I shouted if he had any second cut and he said he had plenty but pointed up to the high loft of the barn. I didn't realize his pointing wasn't so much an acknowledgment of the hay's existence as it was directions. If I wanted the good stuff I had to climb up the hay elevator and throw some bales down. Apparently walking up several stories on old farm equipment was as casual an exercise and throwing down chicken scratch around here.

I hesitated. I'm uncomfortable with heights. Nelson saw this and charitably started to grip the elevator to walk up the fifty-foot climb. That was unacceptable. (Nelson's about five decades older than me.) I sucked it up, grabbed the rails, hoped my wellies wouldn't slip, and started to climb up the narrow-metal shaft.

It was fine. I got up in no time and threw down the bales and then slid down slide style back to terra firma. While I was up there on top of Washington County, Nisaa grabbed that photo of me looking for the next thing to chuck out the window. When I got back to my car I handed Nelson the check and we drove off back to our further adventures. But I drove home feeling like I earned a little more street-cred. If there was such a thing as shepherd merit badges I just sewed one on with a hay elevator on it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

a girl and her flock

photo by nisaa askia

Thursday, September 3, 2009

the birthday flock is thriving

Remember those chicks I bought as a birthday present in early July? Well, here they are, all grown up just two months later. These youngest members of the flock sleep in a huddle behind the grain bin in the coop. They're either too nervous or too small to fly up into the roosts and join the older birds, so here they sleep. I also think it's a warmth thing. On these chillier nights it must be nice to have a down comforter built in via birth-community. John the rooster is down in font, with his young wives behind him. I like that he watches the door.

let the ghosts die

I originally planned to drive into Manchester tonight. I was going to do laundry, run some errands, pick up some provisions and generally stress myself out for the long weekend ahead. I have only been farming a few years, and that post-work impulse to run into town and spend money in preparation for company still haunts me. However, upon pulling into my driveway all plans died. The setting September sun, the hint of woodsmoke in the air, the cries of my animals, the weather report claims that tonight would drop into the mid-forties... Screw town. I was a homesteader and home I would stead. I'm learning to let the ghosts of town die.

I let the sheep and goat out to graze. I mowed the lawn. I baked bread and pie for the weekend (which would involve a handful of guests, a bonfire, and friends). I ran out of dogfood and instead of running to the store I put some rice on the stove and scrambled half a dozen eggs. It would do for one night. The dogs did not complain, and gobbled their meals down to the lamb biscuits at the bottom of their bowls. Then they chomped into them and came by my feet to be reminded how wonderful they are. Which I did, over and over.

As the evening turned I went out into the pasture with the hoofstock. I grabbed a bottle of hard cider, a book, and a quilt. I sat and read while Finn and the sheep ate around me. The chicks I bought on my birthday scattered around as well. They seem braver (read: stupider) than the large laying hens which were already roosting in their coop. I watched them try to fight the sheep's mineral block. Finn watched with me. He spent most of his time by my side, as a dog would. Like my co-captain he would stand next to me. Together we'd look at the sheep and without looking away from the flock, munch some grass and sigh. "Yeah Lady. We got this place covered..."

I scratched my goat's head while I read. The book in hand was Gene Logsdon's The Contrary Farmer. Inside the front flap was a note from my friend Diana, who had gifted me the book a few years ago back when we were coworkers in Sandpoint. If you read Scratch you may remember our adventures stealing chickens by the cover of night, saving honeybee colonies from the brink of death, and finding fiber rabbits. She wrote this:

My favorite book—May it be the inspiration to you that it's been to me! -Diana 4/10/07

Diana, it most certainly has.

I wanted to share this excerpt from the book. Something I read a few years ago, but did not fully understand until recently. This year taught me a lot. Some of it epic and wonderful—and some of it downright gut-punching awful. You take your lessons as they come. Gene shares this observation:

There is a deep satisfaction in scattering clean yellow straw knee deep for the animals to sleep on and then feeding them in the still of a winter eve. Sheep give the most contented little sighs when they nose into their food. Horses snuffle in their hay, and the soft munching sounds of cows chewing their cuds rise serenely into the hay mow where I sit and listen. The mother ewe with her coaxing grunts encourages the new lamb to nurse and finally the smacking sound of a lamb sucking vigorously reaches my ears. All is well. It is no surprise to me that a god might choose a stable to be born in; only the ignorant think such a birthplace would be below a god's dignity.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

today show does segment on backyard chickens!

the rules

I am often asked how I make time for the farm. My best answer for that is simple: planning. I have a schedule I stick to religiously, and a system of getting chores done that is so fine tuned and efficient by this point it flies by. I plan my evenings to include at least an hour of time outside working. (This hour is the quickest hour of my day.) Every night the animals with hooves are let out to pasture from the confines of their pens and the poultry are fed fresh scratch grains and oyster shell crumbles by the coop. While the livestock eat, I walk around in my big brown wellies and carry fresh drinking water and muck stalls. I make sure bedding is clean and the feed bins are topped off. I putter around the pumpkin patch and apples off the small apple tree in the garden. These I feed to the sheep and Finn. When the animals are once again refueled and content, I leave them to their grasses and go inside the cabin to light a fire and make dinner. I eat, knowing the animals will always eat first, and then before I change into lounge clothes I return outside just before dark to coax the animals back into their pens, close the coop door, and make sure all is well before I do the same.

I probably spend the same amount of time taking care of 25 animals and 13 raised beds as the average person spends commuting to their job: two hours a day. Not bad.

In the AM things go quicker. Since everyone has eaten and been given clean water the night before—my mornings are just a quick routine of dumping hay, scratching ears, and letting the birds out to free range the neighborhood. Sometimes Juno joins me, a neighbors black dog who looks like he's half Labrador and half Border Collie. Juno and I inspect the sunflowers and check on the progress of the younger members of the flock before he runs back to his owners cabin up the way and I go inside to be with my own dogs and a hot cup of coffee. Which by this point is on the stove spitting and bubbling. I can hardly wait to taste it. I would suffer without my coffee.

Keeping a small farm isn't hard—it's constant. You do it out of love and responsibility, not toil. As naive as this sounds from a single woman—I imagine it's not too far off from what keeping a husband or children would be: something others may see as work, but you see as the reason. Love's a funny thing. Sometimes it makes you sign new insurance documents or change diapers and other times it makes you wipe chicken crap off your sleeve cuff. I don't make the rules.

Photo comes from the old kitchen in Idaho. Annie watches the pre-game of an omelet...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

angry sheep are kinda great

One this is blatantly clear: Maude does not approve of having her picture taken. There she is—standing around, ears back, foot stomping, hating everyone. The world owes her. I'm not sure what exactly, but it better pay up.

For being such a miserable animal I really have grown to love that sheep. There is a consistency to her spite that has gone from annoying to absolutely endearing. It always shocks me how animals as seemingly anonymous as sheep have such stark contrasts in personality. Maude is nothing like Sal and Sal is nothing like Joseph. All of my sheep have their own levels of tolerance and bravery—habits and vices. You learn them as you go. After my first year being a shepherd, I feel I've got these guys down.

Not sure it'll be as easy when there are 50 in the back pasture....

The forums seem to be really taking off. Last I checked over 60 people signed up for the Locals, and as I write you people are talking about alpacas, chickens, knitting, and what's the best beginner spinning wheel. There are folks swapping recipes and sharing advice—it's a great place to check in with between CAF updates or to make new friends. So if you haven't signed up yet, check it out. It costs nothing but a little time.