This summer my partner and I decided that we were going to move across the country. So, we packed our car full of most of our belongings and departed towards a future unknown to us. The only goal that we had, was to see and witness the beauty all around us. This is precisely what we did. Some may say that we must always have a plan. Now, I am begrudgingly admitting that I was one of the people who firmly believed this throughout my life. I can now say that feeling completely unhinged and ‘free’ is unnerving and also really exciting.
We traveled the slow way, the right way. Driving only a few hours a day, we soaked in each road way, each turn in the river, each curve of the geology uprooting itself from the grass cover along the road. This allowed us to dive deeply into each campsite we arrived at. We rarely booked our sites. Instead, we were almost guided to each place and it felt like the hugest gift ever when we would arrive at a place and there would be the most incredible site just sitting there without a tag or remnants of any person previously there.
Sunrise was one of the first gifts that we noted and that endlessly kept on giving. One morning along the cornfields in Minnesota, we witnessed a herd of deer jump through a wheat field. Running – almost floating – they raced beside us, with the stillness of morning fog setting behind them as the sun glow began to peak. Another morning in South Dakota we were met by a whole herd of Elk beugeling and screeching at each other. We parked the car in the road and just watched their movement.
A pivotal sunrise moment for me began on one cool evening in South Dakota, feet submerged in wild white sage, and we had just finished making dinner over the open fire. We listened to Lakota Nation radio and spoke of our experiences witnessing the Pine Ridge Reservation and speaking with some of the people who live there. Our hearts were full and hurting for those who still suffer in this world. Then we decided that the next morning we would wake up before sunrise and find the wild herd of Buffalo that roamed the land we camped upon, and we would have coffee with them.
We rose from our lambskins and blankets the next morning and found dirt roads that wound us through the open and undulating prairie until we came upon a golden clearing where we heard their call. The Buffalo, majestic and powerful, stood at a high point and sang to his herd, calling them towards him and calling them towards us. We sat with our coffee in awe as we saw buffalo running from far distances towards us, as mothers and their calves gently strolled in his direction and then in ours. Before we knew it, the whole herd was moving towards us, around us, and on their way to drink from a nearby stream. Steam from their nostrils, dreadlocks on their heavy coats and their deep brown eyes glanced in our direction. We were surrounded. But not scared. For, they simply glided around us one by one, some stopping to take a peak and others simply determined to reach their final destination. The Buffalo continued his song as he moved the herd towards the water. We stood still and simply witnessed.
Hello, sun in my face. Hello, you who make the morning and spread it over the fields and into the faces of the tulips and the nodding morning glories, and into the windows of, even, the miserable and crotchety–
best preacher that ever was, dear star, that just happens to be where you are in the universe to keep us from ever-darkness, to ease us with warm touching, to hold us in the great hands of light– good morning, good morning, good morning. – Mary Oliver
It’s that feeling when you wake up, eyes all swollen and heavy – and you step outside, walking to the big farm truck with your head still down watching as your feet shuffle across the snowy ground – and then you look up and the sky is blazing with the first glows of sunrise. If the glow doesn’t blow you away first off, it’s the feelings to follow that do. The swelling of heart strings at the breathtaking beauty the sky beholds or the way you feel at peace as you greet the day and the new sun. As Oliver writes, sunrise – the best preacher there ever was.
But then your eyes blink, it is March 23, the ground is beginning to thaw and the alliums are seeded.
Spring is fast approaching and we are watching the small crocus bulbs beginning to pop up below our kitchen windows. Birds are beginning to sing again in beautiful and magical ways. Here at Maggie’s we have emerged out of this winter tending to our new alliums in the greenhouse. It is the warmest place on the farm for now, as the fields begin to thaw and the sun begins to break through the wintery ice shell that has covered the land all winter. Peeling off the layers of winter sweaters has become a daily occurrence for some of the students here as they manage the greenhouse and tend to all our baby alliums with care and diligence. It is a remarkable place to be and a special time of year as we are invigorated with birth and renewal.
One area of the farm that has not been resting this winter is our cordwood production. We have been processing wood since late fall and have worked despite the below freezing temperatures of winter. Every winter we process 5 cords of wood for Maggie, the woman who gave her family farm to the Farm School – where most of us are now living. In one week, our group hand split and delivered the 5 cord of wood to Maggie’s home. We have some really strong men and women in our group and some who become so entranced by the work that they could buck up logs for days and never rest. We have a cowboy who gets the cordwood craze glint in his eye when he sees it on the schedule, who at 9pm at night can be heard down at our woodpile cutting up wood for the furnace. Seeing what areas people really fall in love with is fascinating and amazing, being able to watch as people discover new passions – such as wood processing – is just one of the many blessings of this place.
Sugaring season has been off to a slow start this year with temperatures below freezing and teasing us with moments of sunshine and warmth. Despite this the crews have begun to collect sap on a daily basis and people have been up late boiling away and playing music. The smell of the boil is one of the most heavenly things on this planet and the warmth of the steam boiling off is definitely like getting hugs from maple trees. Its similar to that sunrise feeling you get when you see the sky burning red, as you sit and watch the sap turns to syrup in the pan. It’s magic, nothing less.
Sheep Shearing Snapshot: It was time for me to pick the ewe I was going to shear. There was only one left whose wool had not been claimed, so I grabbed #18 and brought her out onto the barn floor. Her face was brown with spots of white and she was smaller than most of our other ewes. I then began to adjust my body position to hold her against my legs.
Meanwhile, Fred is chatting about how he broke his elbow once when he was shearing a llama and he just kept working, then got bit on the bum by a dog and it was the most painful injury he ever had, even worse than a broken elbow. As he kept telling us stories, I began to use the hand shears and find my deep love for using them. The relative ease at which I took to hand shears was relieving, mostly because I was terrified I would cut my ewe up at first use of them! It was a total different experience using the electric shears and I found them to be a bit jarring. Fred kept saying, “keep it close to tha skin or y’all knick’er, ya gatta tilt the blades.” As he spoke and repeated these words I found myself getting more and more nervous, and finally nicking her once at the end. After it all, I had a 9.5lb bundle of wool from the shearing, all that I plan on using to make many needle felted creatures!
“Jove descends in sleet and snow, Howls the vexed and angry deep; Every storm forgets to flow, Bound in winter’s icy sleep, Ocean wave and forest hoar To the blast responsive roar. Drive the tempest from your door, Blaze on blaze your hearthstone piling, And unmeasured goblets pour Brimful, high with nectar smiling. Then, beneath your poet’s head Be a downy pillow spread.” -Alcaeus
I have sat, vexed in the depths of a bitter winter here in New England. On days where temperatures reach high of -10, it is hard to find the inner strength to fight against the desire to sit inside and do nothing. But, where there is wood to be split and animals to be fed there is only one real choice – to get to work. We all seem to spend parts of each day twisting our toes in our winter boots, trying desperately not to loose total feeling of our feet. Nevertheless, it seems to be inescapable no matter how many pairs of wool socks you are wearing.
As we are learning, farming in winter is best broken up during the day with increments inside and outside. Thus far, we have spent many moments inside having cozy meals, drooling over seed catalogues, and dreaming up plans for future businesses of our own. We are lucky here at Maggie’s to work with some incredibly talented growers who will be guiding us through the process of planning enough crops to last through the summer and fall seasons – feeding 175 CSA members, and ourselves. It is incredible to see the fields, asleep for now, and to dream about the abundance that will be pouring from them come July. Holding seeds in my hands, I imagine the process of all of the energy that is contained within it. It constantly blows my mind that the energy I hold in my palm is one that will later on grow to bring me sustenance and will fill my belly with nutrients! Recently, I spoke with a dear friend about how each day here feels like a year. That my life as I know it is passing year by year each day. The reason I feel this way is because of all of the things I learn, experience, see, touch, feel, and dream of as I live here on Maggie’s Farm. A few things that have been a part of my recent ‘years’ were welding and castrating our bull calves (both for the first time).
Fire, metal, and masks.
Spending the afternoon welding metal together was never something that I thought I could do, that is until this last week. Something about filling in gaps between pieces of steel is so calming and demands such focus of mind, body and spirit. With the crackling and sparking of metal and the carbon from the welder filling the air, I fell in love with the art of it. I am learning that these sort of practical skills feel so comfortable to me and learning how to do them is allowing me to push the boundaries of understanding what I am capable of. At the same time, it is building up my confidence and self assurance that in fact, I can do most things if I put my mind, body, and soul into. Another plus to welding is that you get to wear ridiculously cool helmets that make you feel like you are in space. One moment that I won’t forget was watching my friend Gabby weld in our shop here at Maggie’s. I felt like I was in a movie, as I looked through the protective shield of my mask. As the sparks flew all around us, I watched her focusing on the precision of her weld with our teacher standing beside her and guiding her through the process. It was beautiful!
Castration (graphic photos – sorry!)
Pennsylvanian farmer Bruce Kiskaddon said in a poem about cattle, “No! There aint no chance for sleepin,’ Once the memories come a creepin.” When I read those words, I think about all of the preconceptions that I had about castrating calves and I have got to say, I thought beforehand I might not sleep after. I have always known that I get queasy around blood and that I might faint when any animal is in pain. The day that we castrated our bull calves, my perceptions of what I have known about myself shifted. I was kneeling on the first calves neck and holding him down as our animal doctor showed us how to surgically remove the bulls testicles (the bull was sedated). I could not see anything at first because I was so focused on making sure the calf did not jump up and slam one of his horns into my face. After the first one was removed I traded spots with a friend and got to witness Brian surgically remove the second. Kneeling down I did not feel faint as I watched the process, in fact I felt an unbelievable sense of engagement and draw to the process.
Once Brian had completed his surgery, we released the calf and lassoed our next one. The following procedure was to use clamps to crush the vascular chord of each testicle (one at a time). This was the method that I think I prefer to use with bull calves because it does not break the skin and is a quick and relatively painless exercise (keep in mind all calves are sedated through the entire process). When the doctor was finished showing us how to do the crushing method, he asked which one of us would like to do it, so I volunteered! With my hands a bit shaky and a quick apology to the bull calf for what I was about to do, I got to crushing! With the doctors helpful eye, I knew the correct spot to use the clamp and for how long I had to keep it closed for. Never would I have known that I was capable of doing something such as this, or at the very least be able to stomach it. For the group, there were mixed emotions (since over half of us are men). But, we all came together and got the job done with the help of our doctor. Here at Maggie’s that is exactly what we are learning – that some things really need to get done and someone has to do it. For our safety and the safety of our beef herd, the bull calves must get castrated and it is up to us to do it. We are learning to farm by farming and there is no glamour in the rawness and brutal nature of some of our days here. I love it.
Snapshot: Cow chores with Marc
We had weathered the first deep freeze here in North Orange during the week that Marc and I were on cow chores. We knew before arriving at the barn where we keep our beef herd that we needed to bring a drill bit, mallet, crowbar and extra battery in order to move the fencing to feed them their round bale. As we chugged along the frozen road in the Shiza-rado (farm truck), we could see the sun beginning to rise, glowing against the easterly hills. Once we were parked, our boots stepped out and crunched against the icy earth beneath our feet. The cows at this point were hungry and irritable after spending the last few days in probably the worst weather we had seen thus far in winter. Their moo’s were loud and their coats were covered in icicles. One calf charged through the fencing once he saw us messing with the drill to move the fence – he likes to cause trouble.
Swearing at him, Marc and I both returned to our work and began drilling into the ground. Crow bar in one hand, drill in the other we worked feverishly to get the fence posts ready for the big move. We knew that if we did not succeed in getting the post in the ground the cows could have free range to all 90 round bales we have left and our animal manager would not be a happy camper. So, we got to work and the holes were quickly drilled. I then stood ready after Mark had used the crowbar to pull the post out of the ground. I took one look at the cows and the bale that we had cut open and removed all the twine from and grabbed the pole – holding the line tight so they could not get out. Then, Marc immediately grabbed the mallet and knocked it right into the post holes. DONE. The devouring of fermented hay commenced and we walked the path crunching the ice along the way back to the truck and back to our home.
“We went home singing in the inky light, written everywhere around us, both History, and question, and answer.
The forest still stands, and flourishes at peace.
It is there that I return to count and name what I can learn from what remains.” –Chester Arnold
As I knelt beside a white birch tree in the forest on our property, our instructor (Chainsaw Bill) guided my shaky hands through the process of felling my first tree. As I clicked on my chain brake and walked my exit route away from the birch, the crash of its branches shook the earth. This was the first big moment of the past month for me. My own perception of trees has been embodied in the idea that forests are sacred spaces, and should be untouched by humans. As I have learned here at Maggie’s, the forests of New England are not and cannotbe untouched by humans, thus almost entirely tended to by our hands and saws.
We have a role in determining their future health, what trees would best be used for lumber, and which ones could fuel the heat in our home. Through this acquisition of knowledge and the experience of working with the forest I have learned the beginning stages of being a farmer of the forest. Chainsaw Bill instilled and inspired this within me as he moved about the forest with his saw in a dance-like manner, evoking a trance-like state of awe with how well he works with trees. One thing that I will never forget was his deep respect for the forest. Bill’s work not only showed of his respect but it presented us with the real and ever present reality of how vast, intricate, and dangerous a system the forest is. “Look above you, look around you, and constantly remember how small you really are, because the moment you forget and stop respecting it will be one that could change your life forever.”
The next big thing that happened this last month was the slaughter of our old laying hens. For me, the first day of processing chickens was extremely emotional, ceremonial, and something that I never knew I would be able to do. I have never felt myself shake so much as when I slaughtered my first chicken.
The method that we learned and used is (in my mind) the most humane and careful way of processing poultry. Regardless of all of the various methods, it is brutal. Recognizing the brutality is also a part of recognizing what it takes to really eat meat. If we are all to eat meat, it comes from somewhere and someone somewhere has to end the animals life to get onto our plate – right? This is something that I know I
have been detached from as a human being for pretty much my entire life. Our week of animal processing was a huge awakening to the reality and necessity for me to really know where my meat comes from and the process that goes into putting it on my plate. Despite the emotion, the sadness, the anger and shakiness that I felt, it was also beautiful and life changing. And, on a cold evening last week as we all were feeling under the weather with our winter sniffles, we brought out the meat from the old laying hens that we processed together and made it into chicken soup (using their chicken stock too)!
On another note, with the advent of winter time, our furnace is being filled now everyday in order to heat our house and water. This means that one of our main projects for winter is preparing the wood for next year’s class. We have begun splitting and stacking wood everyday, building end caps for the rows of furnace wood, and de-limbing and bucking newly felled trees with chainsaws. The work is hard, it is cold, my arms are sore, and the end of it is nowhere in sight – and it is awesome. This is what I live for, and it is the most satisfying and rewarding experience to go to bed knowing and feeling how hard we have worked in one day.
This month’s Reflection: The day of the chicken slaughter I spent most of the morning tending to the fire we had built for our cold hands, in order to prepare myself for what was ahead.
When I decided it was time I called to my teacher for assistance. After it was finished and I had de-feathered the bird and gutted it, I saved its heart. I then went and kneeled before the fire and held its heart in my hands. For me it was a moment of connection and peace with the experience that I had and thanking the animal for its life and role in my own sustenance as a human being. Its heart, along with the birch tree’s heart that sits on my window sill, reminds me of how deep we have delved into so many new experiences this fall and winter. As the freezing temperatures prevail here in Orange, I can only imagine and dream of all that is to come.
A few days of sunshine and warmth have been interspersed with the quickly approaching cold weather of winter. Lucky enough, my work group and I were timber framing in the greenhouse through the first rainstorm of fall. As the noise of rain pattered against the newly lain plastic, our hands worked feverishly to chisel out and bore through the posts and beams that we milled out of trees from our forest. We are solely using hand tools to make the frame, which has been an incredible and painful process of learning to use new muscles! Timber framing here at Maggie’s seems to be one of those full circle moments of sustainability where all of the work that we are doing is derived from the very forest that we maintain. Its mind boggling and the first day of learning about our plan to build a 16 x 25 ft. timber frame left my brain feeling like mush. Slowly but surely I was able to wrap my brain around the work and actually find myself enthralled in the process of building and carving out beams that will be supporting such a massive structure.
Along with working on our timber frame, we have finished our final harvest for our 175-member CSA. As we cleared the final beds of broccoli greens, kale, and turnips, we would find them completely covered in glistening frost. It was a beautiful and chilly experience that left my hands numb from the ice of their leaves. As we boxed up our last CSA distribution, I joined Carlen in cutting thyme and oregano from our home garden to bundle up and place in little bags for each customer. The smell of the herbs lingered on my hands as we wrapped up our day. Since our harvesting is finished for the year, we are beginning to delve into the depths of learning how to test and analyze soils to prep for next years planting. By digging into the ground and looking at its various layers, we are beginning to understand what we will have to add to our soil (compost or lime for example) in order to have all the nutrient levels and the pH level appropriate for whatever crops we decide to sow. My hands have thoroughly loved being covered in dirt and it is beginning to seep into the small cracks forming on my fingers from working!
Another moment from the last few weeks was taking the last few pigs here to the slaughter house. The day that we took the pigs was an intense day of self-reflection and coming face to face with my first experience at a slaughter house. Since that day, I have felt that there is nothing more intense than to see the animals you have raised and cared for being taken into a building where they will take their last breath. As sad of an experience as it was for me, I feel that is was also such a beautiful thing to be exposed to the raw and unfiltered experience of seeing where your food truly comes from. By pushing on the edges of what I am comfortable with, I can feel myself beginning to ask more questions and seek more answers in the search to understand my own consumption of meat.
Another big moment was being one of the milkers of our mini-jersey cow, Goldie. Every morning and evening my chore partner and I would venture into the barn and set up Goldie in her stanchion in order to begin the milking process. The scene was usually relatively peaceful as she would chew her hay and slurp up water. The occasional kick of the bucket would always jostle me out of my meditative milking state, as if she was reminding me that she wanted more hay. One of my most cherished memories from my time milking was when I would rest my head against her warm body as I sat on our bucket while milking. There is something so peaceful about those types of moments with animals, something to always remember for sure. I definitely have seen a tremendous increase in my speed as a milker, as well as my forearm strength! All of the milk that we have here at Maggie’s now is raw, and goldie-fied. Our milk fridge is like a massive holder of beautiful bottles of gold! There is nothing like it, it is simply the best.
Snapshot from the last few weeks: The sun had begun to set on one of the Bailey’s bright grass fields that is lined with trees that were holding onto the last remnants of fall. As we rode through the field, the sky began to turn brilliant shades of pink and gold, making the whole experience feel like it was out of a movie. There are moments in life where I am utterly blown away by the beauty of nature and my surroundings, and this was one of them. I am constantly delighted by the beauty of New England. As Alicia moved back to the cart, I stepped up to the driving seat and grabbed the straps, instantly feeling at home. ‘Come up team!’ I spoke firmly, and off we rode into the woods, heading back to the Bailey’s barn for the evening. Learning to use my hands with the draft horse straps was like a dance. As I moved my hands, gliding them to choke up on the straps, I felt as if my body knew what to do without me having to think about it. Before our draft horse workshop I would have never thought that I would have been comfortable working with such large animals. I was proven wrong once our teacher, Jay Bailey, facilitated the space for me to learn.
"Who possesses this landscape? the man who bought it or I who am possessed by it? False questions, for this landscape is masterless and intractable in any terms that are human." – Norman MacCaig