Among the trees

“Be a gentle friend to trees and they will give you back beauty, cool and fragrant shade, and many birds, singing.”

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We spent a couple of hours in our woods this morning.  The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and I even thought I heard the croak of a bullfrog…

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Dogwoods among the ice
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A glimpse of one of the many wetland areas; a haven for frogs, snakes, grouse and numerous insects

 

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A moss covered tree stump

 

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The towering, mighty pines with a nursery of young trees below
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Already signs of green on the forest floor

Comforts of home

I’ve just come back inside from tucking in the sheep, hens and ducks for the evening.  The warmth of the wood stove in the kitchen is a welcome reprieve from the icy winds and freezing rain outside.

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Dogs asleep at my feet, warm fire in our comfortable home.  Who needs more?

We’ve lost our way

“You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path.  You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty…”  (quote by Anton Chekhov)

Our world has become one where we seem only to value money and the things it can buy.  We believe the lies we are fed that tell us the more things we own, the happier we will be.  We believe that bigger houses, fancier cars, $1,000 designer purses are “beautiful” and therefore desirable.  We are wrong.

These beliefs have led to widespread discontent and a disconnect between one another, and perhaps more disturbingly, a disconnect between humanity and our planet and all other living beings on it.  We buy and dispose of things as though the tossed aside goods simply fall into the vacuum of space or some black hole, never to be seen again.  We ignore the destruction that swirls around us created by our own ignorant hand.  We assume there will be no debt to repay.  We are wrong.

We have collectively, as a society, taken the wrong path. 

But I choose to remain optimistic and believe that it’s not too late to find the right path.  When I look around and see the growing interest, especially among the younger generations, in organic farming, local foods, small businesses, animal rights, and the groundswell of support for a politician such as Bernie Sanders, and organizations like 350.org, I allow myself to feel a little hopeful.  When I see people ardently following the principles of permaculture to return some balance to our beautiful planet, things begin to seem a little brighter.  This world and all of its magnificence is really worth the fight.

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Winter Wonderland – Wait isn’t it Spring?

Well, now our March is feeling a little more normal!  Yesterday, we received 2-3″ of wet snow overnight, with more expected today.  Although the hens and ducks were less than pleased to have their insect-feast covered once again with that pesky white stuff, I have to say it looked quite beautiful on the trees and shrubs.

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As you can tell from the photo below, some of our Spring songbirds — here, the red-winged blackbirds — were looking a little put off as well.  

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Others were a bit more resourceful.  As I walked out to the sheep barn to give my little dumplings their breakfast, a small flock of robins flew out from under the horse canopy (no we have no horses; it’s a hold-over from the previous owner and now we use it to stash our recently cut trees until they can be split into firewood) where they managed to find the one patch of exposed grass and soil.  They flew into the sumacs that line the edge between the orchard/garden area and the woods.

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Staghorn sumac (R. typhina) is native to the mid-atlantic region.  It grows, quite hardily, along forest edges, roadsides, and in old farm fields.  It can grow in very rocky, dry soil and around here, you often see patches of it growing up in the foundations of old farm houses or tumbled down barns.  Staghorn sumac flowers in June and July, and produces this beautiful, red fruit from July through winter.  The tree is an important winter food for grouse and wild turkeys, as well as the early arriving songbirds, including robins. Rabbits and deer browse the foliage and in the warmer months, bees and other insects enjoy the pollen and nectar.  Its brilliantly colored fall foliage — with its intense shades of red and orange — make it no slouch on the aesthetic front either.

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The “Dirty” Word…

no, it’s not what you’re thinking…get your mind out of the gutter.  The word is Sustainability.  The word has become anathema to many.  Too “academic”, too “nerdy”, or goddess-forbid, too “leftist.”

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I wrote a blog post back in January 2014 (see below) that talked about why we relocated to North Country, which included my thoughts on the dreaded word. 

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what brought us to the “Farm.”  Perhaps it’s the arctic temperatures (-27 the other morning, and no, that’s not a typo) and the cold reality of caring for livestock during a somewhat harsh winter that has me thinking.  Nora and I have both had moments over the past couple of months where one of has looked at the other and said “remind me why we moved here again?”  Nora vocalized this very thing several posts ago, and then responded with reminders of why we chose to relocate to this physically wondrous environment.  And although I agree that the space (where else in the northeast could we live affordably on 135 acres?) was an important part of our decision, as was the natural beauty and abundant wildlife, the notion of sustainability was also a primary motivator of “the move” (not in a crazy “world destruction is around the corner” kind of way, but in a more educated, “the world is cruising through finite resources as if, well as if they weren’t really finite, and what happens when we run out of…” kind of way).

As is my habit in January, I’ve been taking stock of what we accomplished this past year and comparing it against the list of goals I set for myself in January 2013.  I’ve also been assessing how far along the sustainability path we have traveled.  Compared against the many modern homesteading books and blogs that I read, I often feel like an utter failure.  Unlike many of these folks, we do not supply 80%+ of our food (meat, vegetables and grains) from our property, nor can I feed my farm animals from what I grow on this property (we do not grow grains, nor do we grow and harvest hay).  We still use oil to supplement our heat supply and we provide none of our own electricity.  I haven’t even progressed to using a clothes line in the spring and summer months, rather than a dryer year round.  Need I repeat — utter failure as a homesteader.

Nonetheless, I do believe we made the right decision when we moved here.  I also believe we have made decent progress in building a homestead for ourselves.  Actually, when you consider we were two professional women, one of whom never set foot in rural America and the other who fled from that life almost 30 years prior, we’ve done spectacularly well.  And to make myself feel better, I made a list of the things we accomplished just over this past year:

  • created 3 new perennial beds and expanded another
  • planted over 200 new perennials, berry bushes and trees
  • fenced and tilled new vegetable garden area (roughly a 52’ x 52’ area); grew 40+ varieties of  vegetables and herbs
  • tilled new pumpkin patch and strawberry patch that will be planted in spring
  • installed sheep fencing & gates and had barn built; added 3 adorable Southdown (Babydoll) sheep
  • painted wood shed; weatherproofed all stoops and porches
  • canned tomatoes, pickles jams, jellies, apple sauce; blanched and froze beans, edamame, squash, kale
  • continue to bake all of our bread weekly; tried many new recipes of all types
  • successfully started many perennials inside and transplanted – chamomile, sweet rocket, agastache, black-eyed Susan’s to cut down on my gardening costs
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Almost all of the homesteading books I have read warn anyone undertaking this change in lifestyle to “go slow” and make only a couple of changes per year.  It really does become overwhelming very quickly when you try to incorporate everything at once – growing and preparing healthier, organic foods (which can include everything from meat, vegetables, fruit/berries, grains, and making your own cream, butter, yogurt and cheese if you have goats and/or a dairy cow); canning and preserving your own food; raising and caring for livestock; becoming more energy efficient and in many cases, moving off-grid altogether; and learning to do many things in a more traditional and frugal manner (fixing rather than replacing things, sewing and knitting your own clothes, spinning and dyeing your own wool, using person- or animal-powered tools rather than electric/gas-powered tools, etc.).  We haven’t incorporated even a fraction of that and we still have moments, usually in late July or August, when we are feeling exhausted from the constant gardening, food preserving, and simply maintaining the property, when we question whether we’ve taken on too much.

But it’s in those moments of despair and exhaustion when we need to remember why we chose this path. Not simply because we wanted space and an attractive backdrop, but because we wanted to live more sustainably.  Now admittedly, sustainability is a tricky word.  If you asked 10 people to define it, I bet you’d receive 10 differing definitions.  I also think that my definition of sustainability has morphed over the past couple of years.  What it has come to mean to me is a life that is more in balance with the natural world than not.

…we will continue to make small changes that move us, albeit slowly, in the direction of balance.  We will continue to grow some of our own food (vegetables, herbs, fruit and berries), and preserve and store what we can for winter use.  We try to eat seasonally and locally as much as possible (i.e., staying away from foods that had to be transported 1000 miles or more).  We will continue to keep hens for eggs and sheep for fiber.  At some stage (not this year; I’ve sworn off making any significant changes this year), I may even add goats for milk, cheese, etc…

 

Permaculture Defined

Permaculture – the term combines the words permanent, agriculture and culture. I’ve only recently begun reading on this topic, but based on what we have created at Sleepy Dog Farm over the past 5 years, it would seem I share many of the same concerns with the folks who have deliberately followed permaculture principles.

Permaculture is as much a philosophy – a way of living that promotes sustainability, caring for our ailing planet, and encouraging and restoring a balance between humans and the rest of the natural world – as a collection of techniques.  I’m not an engineer and in the past, when I’ve tried to read books on permaculture, I’ve become discouraged with the focus on techniques, as well as with the sheer volume of changes that seemed to be required.  Once again I have to tout Colette O’Neill’s blog, Bealtaine Cottage, as a game changer for me.  She made the permaculture way seem eminently do-able for someone not trained as a landscape designer or engineer.  Her focus on simply planting trees, shrubs, and perennials and rebuilding the health of the soil through composting and organic growing is exactly what I have been trying to do here (although Bealtaine looks so much better).

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The primary precepts of permaculture fit in perfectly with the concept of wildlife gardening (in case you were wondering how I was going to link the two).  The precepts are:

  • Caring for the planet – taking action to maintain and encourage biodiversity, restore damaged and mistreated land, and use natural resources in an ethical and responsible fashion; and
  • Caring for people – the system must also meet the needs of people, including using the least amount of space to grow a surplus of food.  The fact that a landscape designed in a permaculture fashion can be aesthetically pleasing as well certainly doesn’t hurt.
As I head into my 5th gardening season here in North Country, I want to re-think some of my methods.  Certain permaculture techniques have already been adopted, including gardening organically, composting as much as possible, creating wildlife friendly environs, and no-till gardening (at least in the potager).  But I feel I can do more.  I’m looking into having rain gutters installed so I can capture rain water in barrels to use in the gardens.  In addition, even though we have 130 acres of forest in our backyard, I want to continue to plant more trees and shrubs near the house (within zones 1 and 2 in permaculture speak), and to plant in a more “condensed” manner to grow even more food.  I want an agricultural system that is more in sync with the land and nature.
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