What Draws us Here

Last month, I got a call from a very nice woman, who writes for a local paper who wanted to do a story about our beginnings in farming. The day we had scheduled to meet, 80 mile an hour winds came through and mercifully she turned around and made it safely home. The next morning was calm and peaceful and we had a lovely tour around the barn and in our little Red Brick house. Here is her story.

Minneapolis family at home in grandparent’s old homestead
“As a farmer, you have just a sense of your place in history. You don’t feel that it’s all about you, you know all the generations that came before you.” - Julie Mackenzie

As Julie Mackenzie stood one day under an old apple tree on a rundown farm in East Central Getty Township near Meire Grove, admiring the beauty of the open country, her thoughts were about her ancestors. She imagined how they must have enjoyed the freedom and blessings of the open land. Suddenly the hairs on the back of her neck stood up…
Mackenzie’s ancestors were farmers. Julie’s mother, Leora Wilcox Barthel grew up on a farm near McCormic Lake on the eastern side of Sauk Centre and was the oldest of six daughters. Mackenzie’s grandfather, Paul Wilcox, farmed there during the Depression. He was a World War I Veteran and died at 53 from a heart condition. He had been gassed in World War I, and just never recovered. Sadly, the family then had to sell the farm.
Before Wilcox died and they had to move, there were lots of memories made on the farm. Some good, and some bad.
“I had heard all these stories about my mother, who was in her early teens, and her sisters being raised in the Depression. In a lot of ways living in the country they were spared, because they could somewhat provide for themselves,” said Julie.
She remembered stories about her grandfather, and how he would guard the chickens with a shotgun by the door, so they would not be stolen.
“In those days chickens were like cash. My mother left the farm at 18,” continued Mackenzie. “They had no running water, no electricity and had to do laundry for a family of eight. They had to provide for themselves with what they could find on the land and in the woods. Those were really hard years.”
Coming Back
“My siblings and cousins are all over the country right now,” said Mackenzie. “I was living in Minneapolis, but we always come to Sauk Centre for our reunions. I was thinking that my grandmother had been dead for 10years, and we’re still coming to Sauk Centre. Everybody does the standard: we have a picnic in the park, we’ll drive past the cemetery, drive past the farm where all our mothers grew up and then we disburse again. During one of these reunions, as we were sitting in the JC Park, I wondered, ‘what draws us here?’”
It was after one such reunion some 10 years ago, that Julie and her husband noticed a sign by the road that said “Property for Sale.” Since they had been thinking about buying a cabin or farm for some time, they stopped to check it out. “For me it was a really amazing experience,” said Julie. “Just being there, close to where my grandfather farmed, was very exciting.
My husband said we have to understand land value, so we went in to town and got a copy of the Peach and there was one property for sale and it was interesting too because it was almost identical in description to what we wanted. It was 150 acres, 70/80 split, and 80 tillable and 70 was other stuff.”
Julie kept thinking to herself “well, okay, but my family’s farm is over there, and I’d like to kind of make it right with grandpa having died so young and the family having to sell the farm. We now at least had a price range that we could compare, so we made an offer. It was not accepted because they wanted more than that.”
The Mackenzies left their offer standing and went back to Minneapolis to their home and marketing business, but “we had the bug,” said Julie, and they returned sometime later.
Revisiting the Property
It was during their return visit with a realtor when Julie found herself standing on that piece of land near the old Schmiesing home in East Central Getty Township near Meire Grove. The home had been standing empty for years, and was near collapse.
In the side yard there was an orchard of apple trees, and one in particular was over 100 years old but still stood proudly, having lost a few limbs through the years. As Julie stood under the old ‘greening’ tree with her two youngest children who were four and six at the time, admiring it, she began to think back to when it was still young and productive. She wondered about the people that enjoyed those apples. Suddenly the hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she thought she could just feel those folks.
Mackenzie thought to herself, “Oh well, this is goofy,” and she asked the realtor, “Would you know if there would be a Bohemian cemetery anywhere around here?” Julie’s maternal grandmother came from Bohemia and she was remembering visits to a cemetery when she was a little girl. The realtor said, “Oh, yeah, if you go off the main road and take a right instead of a left like we did here, go about a mile and its right there.”
Then she asked him, “Does the name Weedeck or Peshek mean anything?” He answered, pointing to adjacent property, “Oh, that’s Peshek land right there,” and the first thought she had was ‘he’s pulling my leg and wants to sell this property pretty bad’ but he went on to explain, “This property that we are looking at is shaped like a backwards L – this is the Schmiesing property, and the Peshek property is right next to it and the Weedeck property is right next to that.”
Julie quietly said, almost as if to herself, “My grandmother was Rose Weedeck and was born on this property and her mother, Anna Weedeck and Mrs. Peshek were sisters and had come from Bohemia in the late 1800’s and had settled this land.” She even remembered that her great grandmother had her newspaper delivered here from Prague. She was kind of defiant in that she didn’t want to speak English, and so she liked her Bohemian paper.
So, a simple family reunion of her Scottish grandfather’s family, led the Mackenzie’s to land adjacent to her maternal Bohemian ancestors where they could trace their family line for six generations. To Julie Mackenzie this was utterly amazing! She was overjoyed. Of course, they bought the land as soon as they could and have since bought 100 acres of the Peshek property.
The old Schmiesing House
“One side of the old Schmiesing house was built in 1890 and the brick half was added onto it in 1910. It is my understanding,” said Mackenzie, “that Mrs. Schmiesing’s brother was an Imdieke and owned Imdieke’s Brick Yard in Meire Grove, and so they weren’t on the books, so to speak, (there’s a book about the German Catholic brick houses).
“Supposedly, this house was not in the book because it was not on the Imdieke records as Mrs. Imdieke got it as a favor from her brother or at a discount or whatever, and in 1905 this was added on. My mother remembers coming to this farm as a little girl in a wagon just as neighbors. She is now a very active 88 years old woman.”
Julie continued, “When we got to this property ten years ago, the house was ready to be torn down. There is a large crack in the side, so we built a newer home back farther on the property because we could afford it, but couldn’t afford to fix this up right away. We wanted to put the barn in, etc.”
Eventually, the Mackenzies had Wayne Kostreba refurbish the old house and it is nicely modernized in the inside but kept the same country look, inside and out. Julie said she was told by Cecilia Schmiesing, former occupant of the house many years ago, which corner of the house had the water pump, where she had pumped many a pail of water. The house is now used as a guest house.
The Present-Day MacKenzie Farm
Since the Mackenzies also do crops, they have renovated and now have a large barn in order to accommodate their three horses and 27 Purebred Ramboleitte white sheep. The animals have lots of clean, open space to roam and grow. The sheep each have their own coat to wear to protect their wool, and are sheered once yearly. The wool is then sold.
Julie likes to name the sheep and they come to her when she calls. There is also a llama named ‘Hotrod’ who tends the sheep better than a dog would, according to Mackenzie. Julie likes to dye, spin, knit and felt with the wool. She sells fresh fleece, combed top for spinners, dyed wool and dyed combed. She is also involved in Shepherd’s Harvest, Sheep & Wool Festival and is their media contact.
Julie Mackenzie commutes to her business in Minneapolis. She is the owner of a marketing consultancy called Mindsailing that helps organizations communicate through change and growth, dividing her time between there and the farm. She also has a garden and loves to work in it. She believes in helping herself as much as possible, but has learned to respect the invention of machines, too.
A special family reunion
Julie articulated her gratitude, “I feel very fortunate. I am blessed. As a farmer, you have just a sense of your place in history. You don’t feel that its all about you, you know all the generations that came before you.”
“Our cousin, Margie Peshek had Alzheimer’s and a couple of years ago she just walked away from her house in Melrose and they had to call out the National Guard and many local people to help find her. She was trying to come here. She said she was trying to come home.”
“A year later we had a big family reunion here and it was very gratifying for me to know that Margie, who was in bare feet ready to go because she knows every tree and every corner of our land, could come back and walk the homestead piece that we have and the woods and one field. Margie has since passed on but this was very gratifying to me,” said Julie.
This very ambitious gal, wife, mother of four, grandmother of three, agricultural engineer, business woman, believer in preserving the land and using the land for its best possible purpose is proud to be called a farmer, just as her ancestors before her.
I think Julie Mackenzie realizes now, what always drew them back.


Memorial Day

I live on a farm where I can trace my family back six generations and on a farm just a few miles away, I can go back eight. I don’t visit the past that often, but when I do, I marvel at the drama that still floats like mist through the current day.

Last weekend, was Memorial Day and after the days of food and games settled down, my mother and I decided to take the cemetery tour. We have relatives in three burial grounds spread over 15 miles and two of them with veterans. Like Our Town, the stones tell a story with the 100 year-old pines that flank the grounds whispering the chorus.

My grandfather was a foot soldier in World War I, a detour on the way to the Great Depression and so many feel his trials in Europe led to his premature death at 53 and my grandmother’s subsequent premature widowhood.

We’ll never really know why he went so early and this is one of those places in family history where facts start to merge with imagination. I never met him, but as a child I followed my grandmother to his graveside countless times. I was always struck by her loyalty to him, even after his death.

She lies in the ground next to him now, but her spirit still whirls through my home. My daughter spent part of the holiday repurposing old broken bits of her jewelry into magnificently modern creations. My 4 year-old granddaughter and I picked rhubarb from the garden to make several batches of “Grandma Rose’s Rhubarb Bars.” It wouldn’t be spring with out it.

We moved on to the Bohemian cemetery, which is a tiny plot of earth with a small group of stones, most dating back to the 19th century - old for Minnesota. A neighboring farmer tends this ground and it was comforting to see it freshly mowed. This spring, that was an act of dedication. Probably for the holiday and who knows, my mother and I may have been its only visitors. She reminded me of the time that we carried the push mower in her trunk for over 100 miles to mow around these family graves. A single mother in the 60’s was no easy scenario, but that didn’t stop her tenacity or desire to honor her ancestors. I smiled not being able to recall the day myself, but certain it had worked its way into my molecular structure.

The veteran here was Vernon and he died in WW II. He was a sniper and buried at sea in the South Pacific. Time is the ocean between his day and mine. His mother was crippled, but their farm was spectacular and now that we own a piece of that property, I am the one who haunts those ruins and rests on the stones that used to be his barn.

Wars, economies, draughts, disease and even sexism takes its toll on families. But today this line is thriving and this land is still bearing us forth. There were twelve of us celebrating together from age 2 to 87, (not yet counting the emerging personality my daughter in-law is carrying) and we laughed at the chickens, flirted with the sheep, marveled at the horses and played with the dogs.

We reach back in time for wisdom and the strength to walk forward into the unknown with the gallant faith that we will forever greet the sunrise, pause with the morning dove and whisper with the trees.

Memory blurs with imagination and the only fact remaining is love of family, love of land and the state of grace that we get days like this to reflect on the spirits and see their shadows still passing through time like the clouds that pass over the fields.

Happy Memorial Day.



The Garden of Verses

"The flower is the poetry of reproduction. It is an example of the eternal seductiveness of life."...Jean Giraudoux,

There is nothing like a summer evening in the garden. This year, sadly my vegetable garden goes untended. My work schedule has overgrown my life like a noxious bull thistle and I have had little time or energy for this evening work. But last night I focused on my wild pots -little worlds where I can throw seeds into dirt as randomly as a spring wind or a bird migration.

Wrestling with the thining of a stella d’oro, uncovering a random crop of moss hidden under overgrown petunias, rediscovering the robins and the wasp nests I had saved for their simple yet intelligent design brought the joy of discovery well into the evening.

With Mozart floating in on the winds of radio, I paused only to shake my head at the yellow finches having a great game of tag in the sunset while two robins argued furiously after dinner.

I had a buriel for the Painted Lady butterfly who I left last week frantically trying to escape through the window. I had tried to encourage her out but she was not hearing me. I buried her in a still blooming tiger lily. She deserves to resurface next year as bloom and the year after that as a humming bird or one of those saucy finches.

The garden is a beautiful school. There is something for the scientist, the philosopher, the artist and the poet. Even the politician and the military could take notes from the constant negotiation of boundary lines, resources and squatters rights.

One night in the garden is a study into the deepest natural order of things. Take notes, feel deeply, inhale and grab and a trowel.

Dear Uncle Jim. this garden ground

That now you smoke your pipe around,

has seen immortal actions done

And valiant battles lost and won.

Here we had best on tip-toe tread,

While I for safety march ahead,

For this is that enchanted ground

Where all who loiter slumber sound.

Here is the sea, here is the sand,

Here is the simple Shepherd's Land,

Here are the fairy hollyhocks,

And there are Ali Baba's rocks.

But yonder, see! apart and high,

Frozen Siberia lies; where I,

With Robert Bruce William Tell,

Was bound by an enchanter's spell.

(thank you RLS)


Making Hay While the Sun Shines

We have had a spectacular growing season here in central Minnesota. Just the right amount of rain and an ideal heat index means the corn is coming in ahead of schedule, the hay volume is peak and no one is hauling hoses to their vegetable beds or watching the grass go brown.
It is also spectacular to be at this phase of family growth. Healthy teenage farmers are the best hands. They are strong, good looking and already have a wisdom about how to get hard work like bringing in hay, done. I am happy knowing they will carry this knowledge forward with them no matter where life leads.

Get 'er done
My husband was out in the field gathering bales and my son would greet him coming up the drive and help him to switch wagons, lining up a full one with the barn conveyer and easing the empty wagon onto the hitch.

My daughter and the neighbor girls would discuss how to divide the tasks of unloading bales off the wagon, onto the conveyer, off the conveyer and up into the barn. To the uninitiated, this may sound simple, but there are critical decisions at each step. What body strength and type is required for each job? What risks are associated? (read:don't fall
of the wagon, destroy the conveyer or break an ankle up in the loft) Has everyone hydrated, taken allergy medication or protected their arms from bugs, prickly hay and sunburn? Where should the hay be stacked for easiest on-going feeding to the horses and sheep? And finally, what's the plan to go the distance? With 35,000 pounds, 90 degree heat and rising in the loft, a burning sun on the wagon and only 4 of us for the full day, that becomes the critical question. With rain imminent, this job gets done, period.

Here my pride in my children is as rich as the aroma of fresh cut alfalfa. Knowing we had the neighbor girls for the first load when we were still fresh, we piled those bales highest in the loft. As the day wore on, the girls left
and the loads kept coming, we worked in a quiet, methodical, meditative rhythm. I felt like I was in a hot yoga class separating physical pain from those nasty "when will this be over" thoughts that are more burdensome than the task at hand.

We took advantage of the breaks to breathe and laugh. When I got tired, my son and husband pushed even harder. At the end of 8 hours my 14 year old daughter and I still had to grab the damp and heaviest bales and pull them inside the barn to cool out and stay dry. My son had to navigate a wagon of broken bales around a tricky corner, through a narrow gate, across the sand to perfect alignment with the feeder. Waste not want not. It was an Olympic countdown to our lemonade and shower.

Stamina, responsibility, tolerance, planning, precaution, strength, pride and rising to the task makes bales alfalfa grass mix even sweeter.



The south wind took me on wood walk
Through the fields I share with the deer
Who were there having dinner and drinking
the sunset.

The woods were haunted with spirits
and fallen trees and the crossing of
all who live above ground
and below it.

The dogs found the rushing stream
which used to be invisible.
And now dances through the grasses
running through and away
from here.

Muddy and wet. Smelly
and drunk on fresh air.
Flushing pheasant and sniffing
life's leftovers, the old dog found
the spring
in his step.


Alpine Show

Nothing makes summer like a great horse show experience. Maybe I should learn how to felt a good horse blanket for the off days...


Shearing day at the sheep farm

Good Karma

Late one night, last December my phone rang. It was the business line and I was tired, it was cold and dark and I wasn't sure I had the energy to meet anyone's needs but my own. But I picked up the phone to greet a woman who was looking for a yarn store, she need to quickly buy a holiday gift and as I said, it was getting late.
I explained that we weren't a store but a farm and sold our yarns online. But since I was sitting at my computer I offered to help her locate a shop near her zipcode. I did find a LYS for her, but she was intrigued to discover that she had stumbled upon a sheep farm that sells wool and wanted to learn more about us. It wasn't until the end of the conversation that I learned she was from MPR. I guess reporters need fiber too!

She came out to our farm on shearing day and posted her report today.  I am proud of my sheep, my farm and my family, but I am really thrilled to be able to share with so many others. A shiny star from a deep December evening.


Lambing on the Farm

2009 has been a mixed bag for us.

This year we had some ram lambs left too late in the pen bring us some black and white surprises, a couple of weird medical tragedies that left us shaking our heads and some stellar displays of motherhood that reign triumphant over it all.

This video captures the combination of motherhood with an assist from the shepherd.

Happy Easter from our family to yours.


Rising from the Ashes

There is much news about the horrible fires causing devastation in Australia. I was there many years ago and a precious memory is learning of the wild flowers that don't regenerate until after the fire has passed over. An inspiring demonstration of nature's brilliance.

A few weeks ago marked four years since the arson fire that destroyed Shepherd's Way Farm near Northfield, MN killing over 500 sheep - 200 of them young lambs.

Owners Steven & Jodi Ohlsen Read, believed they would have completed the farm recovery by now and have this nightmare well behind them. Although they have not been able to rebuild yet, they have survived as a farm, been strengthened as a family and have a global community of friends and supporters. Here is an excerpt from their last email and it illustrates the long-term reality of coping with this fire:

In the midst of the bitter cold that began a few weeks ago, we began lambing at the farm. When we bred our ewes last summer, it was with the belief that the nursery would be finished, the upper half of which still remains on blocks. When the economy faltered and this project was not completed, we could not unbreed our ewes and so in the sub-zero snows, beautiful, fragile lambs were born. Many of you have heard me say that you do not attempt what we are doing if you are not an optimist. But even in my desire to save and protect, I would not have believed in the miraculous efforts of these ewes, their babies, my boys and Jodi.

Checking the pastures day and night, warming lambs with dry towels and love, bottle feeding those too cold to stay with their mothers, it was incredibly stressful, physically and emotionally draining, financially exhausting, and a blessedly rewarding trial. To see life being brought to the farm again, the drama of survival, the sadness of loss and the wonder of being, I am thankful every day for what I am - a shepherd.

I am sharing his words because I admire their humility, courage, and determination to rise above the ashes of such senseless destruction. And I hope you draw inspiration knowing these good people are among us.

And they could use a little attention. They need us to share their story and if we're inspired and it feels right, they need us to share a little of the journey with them. Here are a few ways to choose from.
Buy their cheese.
2. Shop their gift store.
Adopt a Sheep.
4. Participate in their
small loan program.

It’s not Christmas or Valentine’s Day but it is heart warming never-the-less - even if all you do is to have heard their story.


Affairs of the Heart

Love is a process.

You start with a dream, an imagining. It seems so perfectly full of potential and immediate possibility that you stumble, you fall for it. The spark is lit.

The spark is full of what's most appealing. It doesn't matter if it's the shape of the hand or the color of the fiber it's the attraction that compels you. You commit more time, talent and attention to this affair because the intrigue has gotten to you. Pierced you like an arrow as you venture down the path.

After attraction comes playfulness - a silly date, a scrap of yarn - something frivolous and fun. You’re spontaneous. You’re light as a feather and moving fast. One thing leads to another and before you know it the confetti is flying, your laughing your head off and trying things you never thought possible. Who knew purple would have this result? Why hadn't you ever found this restaurant before?
Fatigued from so much falderal, you pause to reflect. 

In the stillness and the quiet you notice the flaws. Too much red. Too much Red Bull. But you’ve come this far. You like what you see – for the most part anyway. Is it salvageable?

That's when the plot and your blood thickens. Your intentions have shifted. Your engagement has changed. You embellish, replace and repair. Layers on layers add richness and depth – while hiding the flaws. You impart meaning into each movement, each stitch. Everything has meaning for you now or you wouldn’t bother with it at all. You’ve reached the point of no return. You are committed to bringing this to fruition, to realize the dream.You’re making a huge effort now. It’s become work. But you’re patient, focused, brave and genuine. And instead of inspiration pouring in, everything is pouring out. It’s you. Pouring your heart out. Pouring your heart into it. Until you love it.

Love is a process.


Warm Juju

It’s been cold for weeks. We’re through the election, the holidays and the Inaugural celebration and there is nothing to do now except get over our colds.

The temperatures here are so low that I am wearing three hats, two neck warmers and an old stand-by scarf that I made when I was 17. It’s funny for all of the zillion of things I’ve made that this scarf has stayed with me. I bought the yarn in Australia on my one and only visit there and the only time in my life I ever saw my Granddad Powell. That was 33 years ago.

A good piece of knitting is like a talisman. Energy is knit into each piece and you can feel the comfort of patient attention when you wrap something hand made around you. It protects you.

Great yarns also lend their magic. My yarns are a little like vintage wine, the wool comes
 from the same stock, yet each season is slightly different. After the death of Mother Trucker, I was happy that I had enough of her vintage left over to knit my grandson a sweater. Yarn of a good era, a grandmother’s love – all I needed was the right pattern.

My grandson is a growing beanstalk so I chose
Trellis to sustain him as he gets up off the ground. The pattern is free and if you’re on Ravelry you can see over 600 versions of this pattern. (If you’re not yet on Ravelry and you are knitter, you’re really missing out.) I meandered through the photos to study color finally deciding on red tones, but hadn’t landed on an exact shade. So I left Ravelry and went to my dye books where Karen Kahle’s Vintage Dyes brought me to an old color, Vermont Barn Red. I loved its rich subtlety and with my son-in-law from Maine, I was happy to find a color representing his region.

So there it is. Mother Trucker and her sisters gave the wool, the color pours in from the baby’s father’s side, and I knit while wearing a scarf that brings me the protection of my own granddad. Chains of family spirit linked together in a very simple and meditative craft. Good Juju and something only love and time can purchase.



The Sheep Makes the Shepherd

Tending farm animals connects you to them whether you want it to or not. And even though you don’t have them for companionship, they do indeed become your companions.

You greet them on your good days and your bad ones too. You consider their health and well-being every day. You understand what makes them suffer, gives them comfort and you know the games they play. To keep yourself from getting kicked in the ribs or rammed in the head, you get very smart about what upsets them. It’s a relationship, no question.

You also learn the unique personalities and even sheep have them. I have some boring types, some dumb ones, a few sweethearts and sillies, some are great mom’s, some like to bully, but one was really unique.

MotherTrucker was the soul center of this flock for the last 7 years. She 
came to us pregnant and was quickly singled out as being the largest of the mothers. We tried calling her Beatrix Potter but she was such a wideload that she was swiftly renamed Mother Trucker.

She nearly died that first year giving birth to quadruplets. I spent nights in the pen assisting the vet, my husband finally got her to stand and my mother pestered her into walking around the barn until her health resumed. Quads and a near-death experience, she was immediately legendary. She even made the papers.

As years passed, she had many more lambs and her lambs beget more. The year we were decimated by pregnancy toxemia her offspring kept the flock going. When I mourned the loss of so many animals her demeanor would say, “O.K it’s awful, but only struggle with what you can fix.”

If the salt ran short or the waterer needed cleaning she would holler at me until I fixed it. If the rest of the flock was hesitant about going out to pasture, she would lead the way. If a dog came close to the fenceline she would lower her head and threaten.

She was brave, stern, prolific, honest and generous with me.

When I was tired, weak or fearful, I would find her staring at me, like a wise grandmother waiting for the child to get through her snit.

She was patient but unsympathetic - reminding me that I don’t get to control everything and that I’d better get used to it.

Her last days were like her early ones. Down in the pen. But her energy and her demeanor never wavered. She met death with pragmatic elegance. Even if she couldn't stand, no barn dog would get near her food. She let me ease her pain as she coped with the body's unwillingness to let go. She waited for me to come to the barn one more time and then she went.

Like Mozart, she’s buried in a pit. Her bones will go back on the pasture in her final act of giving. She doesn’t have a tombstone, but if she did it would read like this:

Mother Trucker
Great relationships are special but not easy.
Pay attention and I’ll help you manage.
You don’t get to control much – get over it.
I’ll show you what grace is.
I’ll show you how to die.

I get a lot of benefits from my animals, greatwool, hilarious moments, feelings of accomplishment. But this animal taught me how to be a good shepherd and a better human being -even more
blessing from the barn.



Winter Garden

It’s freezing. 

I have my oldest ewe in the barn struggling to survive even with two years of wool growth wrapped around her. My mares are shivering, my bones ache and my hands are cracked from the cold.

I have a
greenhouse attached to our machine shed and in these dark days before the solstice, it brings me no end of winter comfort. My potted geraniums seem to prefer the cool air and low light of the season by responding with their brightest blooms.

This pot where the geranium failed is spouting viola and showcases a lovely carpet of moss. Hmmm..gnomes and fairy homes
And the
I have dill, basil, chamomile, coreposis, marigold, zinnea, snapdragons, pumpkin, squash, beans drying on the table or bottled up in seed cupboard waiting for the post holiday to get started.

I stop in here when I’m done in the barn. I am usually covered in several layers of clothing and after 30 minutes here am overheated, intoxicated by the sweet smell and very sleepy. 

If a barn cat arrives and I find the Adirondack chair in the corner, it’s a winter sleep for me.

These dreams of dye plants, herbs and flowers are sweet winter spirits and good medicine against these dark and cold hours.


Dyeing with Black Walnuts

My neighbor has a stand of Black Walnut trees in her yard and was sweet enough to gather up a bushel and drop them off in my greenhouse.

It’s a clear case of one woman’s junk is another woman’s treasure. While they litter her roadway, for me they’re a favorite choice to dye wool. I love the creamy coffee color, it’s lightfast and no mordant is necessary. This very natural shade is a great choice when knitting for men. And I understand they are also good in

And it’s so simple: 1. Soak the hulls for
 a couple of days.
2. Pour the black water in a large part of water and simmer for an hour or so.
3. Toss a few skeins into the pot, cover and simmer until you reach the desired shade – about ½ an hour to an hour.
4. Turn off the heat and let it all sit in the pot overnight
5. Next morning fill sink with water, add a glug of Dawn and toss in the wool. Gently swish the wool through the water to remove any hull pieces and rinse out excess dye bath
6. Rinse until clear.
7. Squeeze out excess water, roll in towel and then hang to dry.
You can freeze the husks for later use or reuse the dye bath, although you will get lighter shades.
If you don’t have a generous neighbor you can always
mail order.


My Knitting Club

I love my knitting group. I can't sing their praises enough. It's a funny thing too because there are those voices that are so patronizing and tease me about it being a girl thing (is there something wrong with that?) or just do their version of the Olympic eye roll when I enthusiastically say, "I love my knitting group! You should start one!"
And you should.

Knitting is the game. It's the fun. And it's an amazing vehicle for sharing. Knitting needles are like talking sticks. "I'm knitting this for my daughter..." leads to a lively discussion about parenting, alcohol, driving, dating, etc. I'm knitting a neck warmer"..leads to a convo about bundling up to go outside, which leads to stories about winter renovations, lost dogs and hilarious tales about slipping on the ice and breaking your face!

Knitting is about making, sharing, loving, giving, learning and warming up. Warm relationships, warm hearts, warm coffee. Wool is warm and warm is good.

If you want to warm up your spirit as well as your fingers and toes start your own knitting club even if it's with just one other person. A local coffee shop with a neighborhood feel is an ideal place, and knitting stores and guilds will sometimes offer up their locations.

It's especially reassuring in these strange economic times to have such a strong feeling of community and it extends past the knitters. The welcoming shop keepers who let us grab all the chairs we need, the strangers who stop by to ask us what we're making, the families who recognize us as 'from my mom's knitting group', and the friends and charities who receive our gifts.

It's all knitting and it's all good.


2008 MacArthur Fellow: Will Allen

The New York Times posted an article today about this farmer being named a MacArthur Fellow. This video reminds us that anyone can become a farmer and that by inspiring and engaging the community and considering non-traditional approaches to farming. He builds farms in the city!


The Return of Freedom

My daughter’s favorite barn cat has been missing for months. We don’t actually keep daily tabs on these guys, they are barn cats after all and they get as much autonomy as they like.

They can wander into the woods or over to a neighboring farm, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. In turn, we get our fair share of visiting cats. One aptly named Blackman (an all black male) now affectionately called, “that damn cat” because he never ceases to beg for affection. You, dear reader, may find that endearing, but when you are laboring over an injury, trying to calm a new mother or tending a newborn lamb, the affectionate desires of a cat are a pain in the tail. You can toss this guy 10 feet or more and he just comes running back, climbing up your leg or onto your shoulder – even on your head as you bend over the wounded. “That damn cat!” As they say, “if the boot fits”…

Then there’s Silverado, a grey tabby who is fairly well mannered, keeps a respectful distance and maintains adequate grooming and hygiene detail. And Irish, the roaming orange cat, obviously not starving but picking up a free meal where he can get it. Neither Silverado nor Irish let us pet them but they are not feral or unkempt so we just enjoy their rare colors as the pass through.

Freedom however was born on our farm. His sister Faux Pas has a misshapen front foot and stays very close to home. Their color would indicate that they are related to the Norwegian Forest cats who enjoy tree climbing. Freedom was my daughter’s favorite. In fact, one day 2 years ago, I found her quietly crying and dabbing blood off her chest in the dark corner of the bathroom, fearful that if I saw her cat-caused wounds I would send Freedom to the devil.

He has been missing since the tail end of spring, the somewhat vague end of May. And now 5 months later he just shows up - looking fantastic. I suspect he has not been romping in the woods but has been shacked up with the widow down the road. I hope so for both their sakes. But we greeted him with quiet and reverent joys. All images of savage coyotes or shifty raccoons eradicated from our minds.

It was a lovely, peaceful feeling. No more wonders, worries or imaginings. Just the splendor of a beloved, strong and healthy free spirit who chose to come back to us of his own free will.

Viva la liberte!


Lucky Seven

Mischievous littleandwee has tagged me in this fun game of seven things. She has asked for seven random facts about me as well as seven blogs to meander through - like a pub crawl only there's no driving.

Here's 7 facts about me:
1. I love wilderness because I believe it tells the truth.
2. My favorite color is what I see behind your eyes.
3. I love to do yoga because it makes me breathe with my whole body.
4. A favorite memory is having my sister teach me how to dance when I was six. We did the twist for hours.
5. I am slowly working on a family Tarot Deck.
6. I'm in love with Cassanova and have a crush on Shocker. They're my horses.
7. I like to push against the wall between reality and dream because I think the dream is the bigger reality.

And now to the list below I say, tag you're it!
Enjoy their voices.
ohmycavalier is a long time favorite
Gillian is a dreamer.
Lynne Rutter makes me want to look up.
Jim Denevan just makes me look.
Catherine Friend often says what I think.
Aisha Celia let's me learn vicariously.
Tiny Farm Blog makes me want to get my hands dirty.

Now play along with us. I found it worthy. Here are the rules. (Can there really be rules?)
1. Link to the one who tagged you and list these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their
names as well as links to their blog.
4. Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.


The Original Spinner

It has been a dry summer and only now have the rains returned. I am sure a happy side effect of the potent hurricanes.
To keep my horses happy as the pastures thin down, I lead them to a small field filled with rye grass, alfalfa and clover. They need time to eat and since there are five of them, I get many chances to sit still while they graze happily.

Horses love comfort and sweet moist grasses deliver much of that, but horses are also ever on the alert. While they graze they cast a wandering eye towards me or the next patch of greenery and will also lift their head suddenly to examine the cause of distant sound - tractor, a dog bark, a pheasant in the grass.

I love these moments. They are full of sweet satisfaction, rest and full attention. How often do we get there in each day? I lead my horses to eat and they lead me to a present moment.

The other day while pondering the earth’s turn and hanging out with my Palomino, I looked beneath his feet to see a wondrous sight. A black and yellow garden spider with the formal name of the Argiope aurantial. It is dramatic. These spiders are large, bright and intimidating. She was spinning away with her three claws on each foot, which help her manage her strands of silk while she spins. The zigzag is called a sabilimentum (who makes up these words!) and no one knows for sure why it’s there. Perhaps for camouflage, attracting food, or warning birds. But only spiders active in the day create them. This spider will respin the center of her web each day.

Spiders have been acknowledged throughout time and across cultures as inspiring the beginnings of spinning, weaving, knot work and other crafts. And as I sat with my horse observing the spider, I wondered about those people back in time who made an observation similar to mine and began to transform it into an artistic and practical triumph.

Spiders have been associated with the gods and goddesses as spinners and weavers of destiny, patiently connecting threads. Threads of silks, threads of an idea, threads of consciousness.

I am lucky to have my horses and my sheep connect me to these points of magic and mystery and I share this blog and this photo to weave you into this tapestry. In these times of war, a falling economy, mortgage crisis and general upheaval, it is reassuring to see an ancient creature spin an elegant world of its own design that will provide for and sustain its maker.


The Pursuit of Happiness


Shiny blue, white or red

Glistening ribbons

Flicker and dangle in your hand

Turning memory of long and lonely hours 

Into shimmering pride and a dancing spirit.


Raising sheep, knitting sweaters, baking pies is not done for big money. 

There is barely enough money made to replenish the pasture or buy more wool for the next project.

Whether I am competing or not I do these things to stay connected; to my honest animals, the beautiful sweater that is trying to emerge from a neutral ball of yarn, or the bread that delights the senses and has probably sprung from a too big zucchini.

Any shepherd, knitter or good cook can look back on long days in the barn, hours of studying a pattern or testing a recipe over a hot fire.

There is no real authority to make you succeed - no one policing your efforts. It’s just one’s own desire and intrigue with the process that inspires us to push through the daily flak.

I loved watching our friend and mentor win his ribbons. And I have loved reading the blogs of knitters and other artists who also sparkle in the day.

A ribbon won frees you from your private contemplation and tosses you into a sparkling moment of public celebration. And it is a moment that will hopefully carry you through the long and darker days of winter and your future work.

A favorite teacher, who has spent a lifetime teaching music says “ We don’t have time for disappointment, we barely have time to do the work.”

You know that’s how it is In the Pursuit of Happiness.


Meditation in Action

My blog has been quiet for some time. I apologize. It’s not that I haven’t thought of things to share, it’s mostly the paralysis of integrity – an old affliction of mine. The concepts are not as formed as I’d like, the camera’s in the other room, or I am not convinced the value of my feelings will transfer to you.

But like most challenges, these resistant voices exist only in my mind and today, they are being set aside. In fact, that has been the lesson of lambing this spring.

This year, I was on my own. I don’t mind the solitary. In fact, it’s often easier to process challenges without the demands and voices of others – especially the others that I care most about.

A key challenge to process through is fatigue. Being up at the barn every 4-6 hours for weeks at a time is tiring. As work expands and sleep times shrink, the aches and weariness crescendo into near exhaustion and bone numbing pain.

It was at this point that I found my meditative mind and where my yoga practice came to life.

Having to assist a ewe who was down (with the baby blocking her rumen) I could feel impatience looming over me. I knew I was about to spend an hour, “seeing with my hands” and making choices that would impact two lives – a mama and her newborn. There I was filling with dread, tired and stressed.

Extreme feelings eliminate the mind’s ability to measure time. A minute can feel like twenty. So I brought the clock into the barn as an unbiased judge and began the obstetrics. I will not share the anatomical details but the process was long and could have been disastrous.

Pushing and pulling life from one being to another is best done in union with the ebb and flow of all things – heart beats, breath rates, whatever . There is feedback from her body to my hands – from my hands to her baby – from her baby to my heart. This requires a calm, listening, attentive mind and cannot survive the anxiety of emotions or the intolerance of impatience. I found my balance and held it throughout the procedure and mama and baby lamb are now enjoying the sunshine and the song of the blackbirds and adding their colorful faces to this post.

The Dalai Lama tells a story about a monk, who nearly lost his compassion to the Chinese. I nearly lost my patient, thoughtful self to my fatigue and apprehension. And it would have been deadly.

It is a lesson I am still experiencing: A silly lamb who seems to have missed the DNA that informs her how to nurse took three days of patience. The arthritis in my hands that requires intervals of rest, tempts me toward a temper fit about aging. My smug disgust at myself for the fallen levels of housekeeping during these days – couldn’t Martha Stewart lamb, dye wool and get her laundry put away?

Birthing lambs, I reach into my own consciousness and labor to give life to a quiet mind.