Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Travelogue: New Zealand 2015

I love my home, my farm, and my life on the farm. I appreciate and am grateful for the small things and the large, but still, I was looking forward to some time away from the farm. Leave home, leave the familiar, travel far afield. Only then can the routine experience -- caring for my animals, walking in the woods, preparing meals, even saying hello to strangers -- become new all over again. Mission accomplished!

The basic data on our trip to New Zealand

  • A full month end-to-end, with 4 weeks on the ground in NZ
  • 10 days on the North Island, including Wellington, Tongariro National Park, and Napier/ Hawke's Bay before ferrying across Cook's Strait to Picton
  • 18 days on the South Island, including Mapua/Abel Tasman, Dunedin, Cromwell/Central Otago, Queenstown, the Milford Track in Fiordlands National Park, Wanaka, and Aoraki/Mt. Cook
  • 7 stays over 19 nights in either a private room in an Airbnb host's home or in a self-contained cottage. The interaction with our hosts, and the chance to stay in real Kiwi homes made a huge impact on our overall experience. 
  • Could we actually have walked/hiked more than 100 miles in NZ? I think we did!

Once we decided that we were going to New Zealand, the first -- actually the only -- thing we booked were reservations for the 5-day experience of hiking the Milford Track, called one of the finest walks in the world. It is a 33.5 mile track set in Fiordlands National Park, amid the rain-forested river valleys in the Southern Alps. We knew that we would be carrying backpacks, albeit without having to carry food or shelter because we were hiking from lodge to well-equipped lodge. We knew there were 3 long days of walking on mostly flat-to-moderate terrain (plus one long ascent and descent), and we knew that we were likely to have rain. This gave us something to train for, and for 6 months, we hiked every Monday morning, working up to a distance of 12 miles in mostly hilly parks. The training hikes gave us some goals and we diligently geared up for the "tramp" that we expected to be a NZ highlight.

On December 1, thirty of us assembled in Queenstown, NZ, for a 3-hour bus ride to Lake Te Anau. Then we boarded a boat to go across the lake to the start of the Milford Track.

A one mile walk took us to our first lodge, the Glade House. The group split up into smaller ones to go on a 90 minute "orientation" and nature hike, during which it started raining. And it kept raining, all night and into the next morning. The Clinton River, just outside of our lodge, had risen nearly to the top of its banks, and waterfalls had sprung up everywhere overnight. And so started Day 2.

Our guides were on the radio with park rangers and weather services, and we delayed departure for an hour to let the water level drop. We finally got the "GO" signal, but were told that we would be walking as a single group, with the guides interspersed to check for safe passage. In the pouring rain, we set out. One of the funniest scenes of the day was the opening of the umbrellas by three of our Japanese walkers.

At first we were stepping around and then in small puddles. We progressed to walking through shoe-top level water. But the still-rising river was quickly overtaking the track. We were soon wading through knee deep and then thigh deep streams. It became clear, just over a mile in, that we couldn't proceed, so we turned around and headed back to the Glade House, where the staff had scones and hot drinks ready for us.

As there would be a new group checking in that day, we couldn't stay, but we also couldn't safely walk. The news came that we would be carried by helicopter to our next lodge. As logistical maneuvers were happening behind the scenes, we spent time in the warm dry lodge, getting to know our fellow walkers (6 of us Americans, 6 from NZ, 4 from Australia, 6 from Japan, 4 from Spain, and 4 from Singapore) as our wet gear hung in the amazing "drying room" at the lodge. By noon, the sun came out, and while we were disappointed to miss the day's 10 mile walk, we were getting psyched for the "free" chopper ride!

It was a 6-person helicopter, so it made 6 runs between the two lodges to ferry us to the Pompolona Lodge. John and I got seats up front with the pilot, and John captured the scene from on high as best he could. Photos can't quite show how amazing the scenery was, but here are a couple of the shots anyway!

The Pompolona Lodge was nestled in the jungle at the base of a rock wall, and waterfalls were running like mad. Everyone was eager to get back on track the next morning for the 9+ mile hike up the MacKinnon Pass at 3400' and then back down a rocky descent to Quinton Lodge. This was one of the most beautiful hikes I've ever been on, with lush ferns and wildflowers, beautiful rock, countless waterfalls, many native birds, and jaw-dropping scenery, turn after turn.

At the top, a memorial to Quinton MacKinnon.

The descent was equally beautiful but mentally tough because the extremely rocky path made for very challenging footing and required a lot of concentration. We were rewarded with many (more) waterfalls, reached the Lodge early, and then took an optional 90 minute loop hike up to Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in NZ.

The final day on track was a lightly-rolling 10 mile walk through the Arthur Valley all the way to the Milford Sound at the aptly-named Sandfly point. It was a beautiful walk with some bursts of rain, some sun, and plenty of lush green flora and gushing waterfalls. At the end, a small boat brought us across the water to our final night's lodging at Mitre Peak. In the morning, we boarded a large boat for a scenic cruise of the Milford Sound. We were told that a sunny, clear morning is relatively rare in these parts. We lucked out!

In addition to the spectacular Milford Track, we completed several other incredible hikes. Most notable was the epic 12 mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the North Island during our first week. This hike is weather-dependent, and it had been closed for the two prior days with high winds and major thunderstorms. On our date, there were hundreds of independent walkers strung along the track. We caught a shuttle bus from our hotel inside the national park to the start, and we were picked up 6 hours later at the other end. We made some new friends along the way, and hiked most of it with a young Belgian couple, Sandie and Mario. We connected quickly and easily with them and I have a strong hunch we will see each other again.

We also hiked the Rob Roy Glacier Track on Mt. Aspiring, just after Milford, where we were treated to both spectacular scenery, sparse crowd, and a thrilling avalanche, which John captured on video. The following day we completed the Hooker Valley Track in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Both of these hikes featured glaciers, but in Aoraki, we were able to plainly see the fast-shrinking glacier. Beautiful and heart-breaking.

Our physical activities did venture beyond the fabulous hiking. We spent two days bicycling, and were very impressed with the well-marked and maintained bicycle trails. Many were completely off-road, some ventured onto roads for portions of the ride. I understand that the last decade has seen a large expansion of bicycle trails and tourism, and we were glad to take advantage. All NZ cyclists must wear helmets.

Lest you think that we did not have days of indulgence in wine and beer and food, fear not! We explored craft beer and small breweries all over the country. We visited many wineries, across several regions -- Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay on the North Island, Nelson and Central Otago on the South. We bought more than a case, but succumbed to the "normal" condition under which the Kiwis operate: drinking the wine within 90 minutes of purchase! Six bottles made it home in our luggage, and that doesn't count the bottle of Pinot Noir that broke in my suitcase midway through the trip.

In New Zealand, winery tasting rooms are called "Cellar Doors." And many, if not most Cellar Doors have restaurants on site (rare in California.) It was all very good.

Finally, some random deep thoughts, observations, and minutiae

Conservation: The Department of Conservation (DOC) is omnipresent in New Zealand open space and cultural institutions. The green signs are posted everywhere and it takes its duty of protecting and restoring more than 12,000 archaeological, historical, cultural, and natural sites very seriously. Their programs provide people with the opportunities to engage with these treasures. And they do a remarkable job. Every museum and park we visited and every trail walked was in tip-top condition. The trails are aggressively maintained and kept available to all who visit. I don't know what their budget is, but I do know that all access to these sites was free of charge for all.

Seasonal differences: It is summer in NZ, and further south of the equator than I realized. Queenstown, for example, is at about the same latitude south as Seattle is north. It was light by 5:30 am and stayed light until nearly 10 pm. Temperatures and topography were similar to SF Bay Area.

Night sky: I saw the Southern Cross, pointed out to me by our AirBnb host on a clear night at his home on the Pacific coast, south of Dunedin. Spectacular! I got to sing him a few lines of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, which he enjoyed, but didn't seem to know. (When you see the Southern Cross for the first time/You understand now why you came this way/'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from is so small/But it's as big as the promise, the promise of a comin' day)

Life with less WiFi: during 12 days, I had either little or no access to the Internet, so I mindfully tuned out of most news coverage, including the ongoing stream of US election/campaign coverage and mass shootings, Facebook, and Words with Friends matches. I admit that I missed knowing what was going on personally for my friends, and I missed being able to share more frequently the funny day-to-day travel anecdotes. But I was actually blissfully unaware of world news and faux news-like items. The media void was actually a gift that helped keep me more "present" and less anxious about happenings outside of my small sphere.

The Donald: Kiwis, Aussies, and Europeans are amused and fascinated and in disbelief by the prospect of Trump as a presidential candidate. I told most Kiwis that if he gets elected, I will soon be their next-door neighbor. For the record, they are unanimously laughing at the fact that this guy is still the front-runner in the GOP primaries.

The national flag: For several weeks there has been a national (non-binding) referendum being voted upon by New Zealanders, the opportunity to select from among 5 new designs for the national flag. The winner will then go up against the current national flag in a national vote. The existing flag still has the Union Jack in the upper left hand corner. No surprise that older Kiwis still feel a kinship or nostalgia for their British Commonwealth heritage.

Practicing acceptance and gratitude: on a one-way flight we took to travel from Nelson to Dunedin on the South Island, we packed a number of wine bottles into our checked luggage. Upon arrival, and while waiting at the rental car counter, I smelled that smell... the unmistakable bouquet of red wine. I quickly opened my suitcase to discover that a bottle of pinot noir had broken, and much of my clothing was soaked in wine. After just a few seconds of lamenting the mess and the loss, I started making a list of what I was grateful for:
·      The bottle had been in a bag and then wrapped in a shirt, so any broken glass remained in the (soaked!) bag and not in my suitcase
·      Many of my clothes, and all of the things that I had borrowed from friends for the trek, had been packed into John's larger bag, and thus escaped the wine.
·      When we arrived at our lodging, the Airbnb host immediately showed me to her washer, into which I quickly dumped my clothes for a cold rinse.
·      Two light colored shirts were completely wine-stained. They were old favorites (old as in more than 10 years old) that while not wearable for the rest of the trip, they did become lovely additions to my farming clothes pile.
·      Several of my Icebreaker base layer tops now feature a "tie-dye" pattern, and every time I put one on, I get to remember my trip to New Zealand!
·      Lesson: there's no reason to cry over spilled wine

Meeting and befriending people: What is it about traveling that makes us more open to noticing and talking and listening to the people around us? Both John and I were much more engaged than usual with the people we met, and we even sought them out during our adventures. That included our fellow hikers and diners, farmers in their market tents, musicians, friends of friends that we sought out while "in their neighborhood," and a handful of Airbnb hosts that hosted our stays in their homes.

Before this trip, both of us been avoiders of B&B inns, perceiving them as too-cute kinds of places where interaction with other guests and the innkeeper, over breakfast or wine, is simply a part of the deal. But as we prepared for our first three days in NZ, I thought it would be fun to stay in a cool urban neighborhood in Wellington, and I thought it actually WOULD be cool to have some close contact with someone we could pepper with questions and who would be our own in-the-know-local Kiwi. So I searched through the Airbnb listings for a private room.

There were dozens of choices, but I was psyched about one in the Central Business District, close to cafés, restaurants, breweries and shops. Walking distance to the waterfront and national museum and botanic garden. After a message exchange with "Amanda," I booked 3 nights in their apartment: a "private room with en suite" and breakfast fixings in the kitchen. And a kitten named Hobbes! The room + bath turned out to be fabulous, the vintage building well-refurbished and in a great in-town location. But spending a little time with a young married late-20s-professionals couple and their 6 month old kitten; getting to know them and learning a lot about New Zealand: as the commercial says, "priceless." We repeated this Airbnb process for most of the towns we stayed in over the month. We stayed in people's homes three more times during the month, and getting to know our hosts was just an amazing addition to our experience in the country. At our Airbnb farmstay, we harvested all our own dinner ingredients from their gardens. And then made it into a dinner party by inviting our hosts to join us! We learned a lot about their life as second-career farmers, and bonded over the shared agrarian lifestyle and of course a bottle or two of the local wine...

Driving on the left and Petrol stops: John did all the driving. It took a while before we each automatically entered the proper car door, and for John to stop turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signals. The gas prices averaged about $1.90 NZD ($1.26 in US$) per liter, which equates to about $4.80 a gallon. The highest speed limit in NZ is 100 km/h, or 62.5 mph. This is the speed on most roads that are outside of a town center. 

Almost all roads are only two lanes wide, and everyone is pretty mellow about letting faster cars pass them. On the South Island, we were only on a divided highway for 6 km. Up north, it may have been 20 km. And that is NOT because we were seeking out the scenic byways! There are really no traffic lights except in the densest part of the biggest cities. Most towns have no traffic lights or even stop signs, and the "highways" go right through town. Rather, intersections are controlled by roundabouts, which seemed to work very efficiently. Our GPS lady, whom I named Helen, pronounced the word as ROUND-A-BOUT, with equal and emphatic accent on each syllable. 

Travel Security, or lack thereof: We had tickets for a ferry crossing from the North to the South Island, a 3.5 hour trip on a gigantic auto/truck/passenger-carrying vessel. We arrived early to check in and check our luggage, as you can only carry on 2 small items, just like on most airplanes. They did not ask us for identification, and there was no inspection of any kind, whether personal or property. It was the exact same when we took a one-way Air New Zealand (domestic) flight from Nelson to Dunedin! They didn't ask for ID and didn't make us go through security of any kind.

Metric system: was only recently adopted by NZ and Australia in the 1960s. It really is much more logical, but I still practiced my math skills many times a day converting from kilometers (pronounced KILL-oh-meters, as opposed to the European kill-AH-mitters) to miles and degrees Celsius to degrees Fahrenheit.

Geeky math tips: each kilometer is 5/8 or 0.625 mile. My quick way to convert: start with the number of kilometers and first take half (that's equal to 4/8) and then add 1/4 of that half (1/4 of 1/2 equals 1/8). So a 12 km hike is 7.5 miles: 6 miles (4/8 or half of 12) plus 1.5 miles (1/4 of 6.) And a 272 km drive is 136 plus 34, or 170 miles. Got it?!

Interestingly, I use wine bottle sizing to figure out liquid amounts, being quite familiar with a 750 ml bottle being 25.2 ounces. So a gallon, or 128 ounces, is just slightly more than 5 wine bottles or 3.75 liters. I also got to teach my kayaking guide how to convert from degrees Celsius: he had a tough time with 9/5X + 32! 

$NZD to $US: Each New Zealand dollar is exchanged at about 66 cents to the US dollar. So every price in NZ dollars was automatically discounted by 1/3. In addition, there is no tipping in NZ, and GST taxes are included in all prices. So the price you see on a menu or on a price tag is the exact amount you pay. And it seemed like almost everything was a really good value.

EFT-POS: Electronic Funds Transfer / Point of Sale is how nearly ALL things are paid for in all establishments in NZ. Very few people use cash. So their equivalent ATM card is used everywhere, with the user selecting whether the funds are deducted from their checking or savings account. The same machine is also a Credit card reader for the (still somewhat rare in USA) chipped cards. There were some places that only took EFTPOS; that is, didn't accept credit cards, so for a few things, including two privately-rented cottages, we had to use our U.S. ATM card to withdraw cash. Speaking of cash, the smallest paper bill is a $5 and there are $2 and $1 coins. The smallest coin is a 20-cent piece, and there is also a 50 cent piece. Interestingly, cash usage is rare enough among Kiwis that the business traveler (in his 30s) sitting next to me on the flight wasn't sure what the smallest coin was!

Baa: There really are sheep everywhere. Everywhere! Almost all the sheep were white. And since it is the beginning of their summer, there are lambs, lambs, lambs all over the pastures. What I didn't expect to see were so many cattle. Apparently in the last 20 years, the sheep population is down by nearly half as ranchers have added cows to boost their bottom line: export of beef and dairy, especially to China, is huge. I did see a sign in one pasture that said "Beef and lamb chops at work"

Toilets: I forgot to look and see whether the water circulates in the bowl in the "opposite" direction that it does in the northern hemisphere. But I was glad to learn that the NZ toilets are "normal" seat-type units with normal toilet paper. What was remarkably advanced about nearly every throne I encountered was that the flushing was accomplished by a button, not a handle, and 99% of them had two buttons: one for a small and one for a larger volume of flushing water. Why isn't every toilet everywhere doing this, especially in drought regions like the American West?

I also saw two unintentionally funny signs (well, funny to me!) in toilet stalls. One, in a public toilet, said, "In New Zealand, used toilet paper is placed in the toilet, not in the rubbish bin." The other one, also in a public bathroom, showed the proper way to use the toilet!

I feel a little odd closing out this travelogue with bathroom humor! On the other hand, what is the joy of travel if not to see and learn and experience things beyond the usual, the familiar? I did accomplish all those things, so much that I am already plotting how to do this again, and soon! I am grateful that the natural annual "rhythms" on the farm give us extended periods of time to get away after Harvest. And grateful that our budget can accommodate the expense as well. And finally, I am grateful for the friends who offer to come stay here (to take care of the animals) while we get out of Dodge!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Transformation of Miss Maple

From Sheep to Shawl
Last summer, I experimented with wool sheared from my brown sheep, Miss Maple, to make a square piece of felt. My plan was to use this felt to make a decorative pillow cover. After painstakingly felting the wool by hand, using a combination of wet and needle-felting techniques, I liked the 32" square piece so much, I adopted it as my "blankie." In the car, on the couch, around my shoulders while reading: Miss Maple the blanket -- to distinguish it from Miss Maple the sheep -- became my go-to piece to ward off a chill.

Miss Maple (the sheep, not the blanket) and me

I got inspired to make a wearable cape-let/shawl/poncho after coveting my SIL Alice's fleece sweater/blanket during a ski week together, and started imagining how I would use this year's shearing to make such a garment for myself. But in early May, a cashmere poncho that I saw hanging in a tony Sonoma boutique became both my muse and a spark for taking Miss Maple (the blanket) and transforming "her" into something new.

Steffi enjoyed snuggling with Miss Maple (the blanket, not the sheep) too

I fearlessly cut the square blanket in half, and needle-felted the two ends together, making it a long rectangular piece. When wrapped around my shoulders now, I noticed that the "collar" wanted to be turned down like a shawl or a smoking jacket. So I started thinking about putting some decorative trim on the collar, and discovered I could also curve and taper the front edges so my arms could be comfortably free.

Lovingly working on transforming Miss Maple the blanket, I soon realized that there was a single person who would love this handcrafted piece as much as I did: my mom. She loved the goofy felted sheep I sent her, as well as the palline (aka wooly balls) I made for her last summer. As the shawl started to come together, I knew I was now making this for my mom, to be ready in time for me to give her as a 75th birthday gift. My mother just loves the idea that my farm animals are her de facto grandchildren, so I imagined that adding more of the grandchildren into the project would make it even more special. So Junior (her favorite sheep) and Marco (the puppy) became part of the creation too. And I'm quite certain some of Steffi's fur also remains on the wool.

Maremma fur from Marco, hand carded and ready for felting
Collar trim, made of Junior's wool and Marco's fur

I had saved Marco's fur after combing him and seeing how soft and beautiful it was. When I decided to use it as fur trim, I borrowed Heidi's hand-cranked drum carder and put a bunch of fur through it. After I needle-felted it atop of the wool, my sensitive nose detected a distinct Eau de Marco scent. The remedy was to use soap and hot water both to agitate and further felt the strip, as well as de-odorize it. When dry, I added more fur, more wool, and then repeated the hot wash, and completed it with a final needle-felting pass before pinning it to the collar of Miss Maple the blanket.

The cape-let/shawl/poncho, coming together
Handmade label, using orange eucalyptus leave-dyed wool

I got out the iron and ironing board for the second time this year, and pressed the collar into its folded-over place, and then gave it a few light needle pushes to "train" it in place. 

It's finally beginning to LOOK like it could be wearable!

I recognized it needed a little color and decoration to complete it, and figured out how to make rosettes. I needle-felted together a square of my indigo dyed wool (light blue) with my red maple dyed (nude pantyhose color) wool, and cut out two circles. The circles became spirals and the rosettes were done.

I also decided to felt together the two open sides so it would just be a pullover-the-head piece.The final step was to felt the rosettes atop the now-closed front placket. So here's the wrap-up (no pun intended) on this project: I just LOVE this transformed version of Miss Maple, from sheep to shawl. I loved having it, I loved making it, and I loved making it for my mom. Happy birthday, with love and some extra warmth, from your most favorite daughter... and Miss Maple (the sheep AND the shawl!)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Tre Palline

Tre palline. That's Italian (pronounced Tray pa-LEE-nay) for three scoops, like three scoops of gelato. And the word "palline" is a much improved name from the original term I was using: woolly balls!

It's been nearly a year since I last posted in this blog, and the topic was fear, fiber, and felting. Well it's still about fiber and felting, but I am free of the fear about getting started and "sucking" at making art with wool fiber from my own sheep. After a couple of starts and stops from last May through December, I overcame my inertia after discovering a tool to make the wool-carding process quicker, more efficient, and, well, reasonable! My "rural chick" friend Heidi came over one Saturday morning after New Years with her hand-cranked drum carder, into which we fed pieces of my clean wool and converted it into neatly combed batts! We watched how-to videos on youtube, talked away, and after a couple of hours, I was sold on the idea that I could actually card my own wool. I traded Heidi a bottle of two of wine for a 10 day loan of her drum carder, and a few days later, and I had myself some wool batts to work with!

In mid-January, five of us Rural Chicks gathered for a woolly play date out at Canvas Ranch. I brought all my wool, as did the others. Heidi also brought her felting needles and accessories. Deborah had a felted sheep on the kitchen table, and I immediately knew what I wanted to make. Sheep that would become ornaments for my 2013 Christmas tree. With some basic instruction from the Chicks, I started making my first sheep. I gave him a single ear, and pronounced him to be "Junior," the name of my one eared sheep.

Junior became a gift to his Grandma, who was just as thrilled with my adult artwork as she used to be with my childhood art projects! I ordered some of my own felting needles, and packed up a bag of felting supplies to take along on my 6-week ski trek to Wyoming. On a few evenings, I sat around making sheep, crafting companionably with my old friend Joyce, who was knitting a cowl for me. After a couple of sheep, though, I got a little tired of fussing with attaching legs, and searched for a new project.

The idea of making eco-friendly dryer balls appealed to my practical side. These are baseball sized densely felted balls of wool that you can put in the clothes dryer to decrease drying time, add a natural softening agent, and give fluffiness without static cling to clothes and towels. I started making felted balls, but I didn't want to "waste" my carefully carded wool, so I began making the balls from pieces of clean, but uncombed chunks of wool. The balls came together pretty quickly, but I decided they were just too plain, and what they really needed was some color. I had brought along some yarn from a knitted scarf that had begun to unravel, and also a pair of knitted slippers that just didn't fit my feet. And I felted these beautiful yarns onto the balls.

I played with different designs and techniques for felting the yarn onto the woolly balls, and quickly decided these were way too pretty to use in the dryer! I remembered a beautiful Steuben crystal vase that was a wedding gift from my coworkers, but was just the wrong shape for a vase. It would be perfect as a holder of woolly balls, and it would be perfect displayed on a bench table in my bedroom!

Last month, while visiting family in North Carolina, I discovered a bin of handspun yarn in my mother-in-law's vast inventory of crafting supplies. She encouraged me to take them home, and I was excited about making more woolly balls with some new material.

My friend Sherry, who's an artist and a cyclist (unless it's raining, in which case she's an artist and a cyclist), said she'd love some woolly balls and picked out one of the new yarns she liked. I started felting, allowing myself to let my creative spread organically, and veer from my process of using a single yarn. Soon I had three more woolly balls.

As I selected the bowl as a prop to photograph the balls, I came upon the idea for what I could call them. They reminded me of little scoops of ice cream! I did a quick search to find the Italian word for small scoops of gelato, and voila: pallina (singular) and palline (plural)! Perfecto!

Where does this go from here? Who knows? But I did just save another couple of fleeces from this year's sheep shearing, and I am just about to send them off to a mill for the first time to be scoured and carded into batts for me. I am imagining some new felting projects, including some wet-felted pillow covers, although I'm not necessarily limiting my imagination :-)

Who knew I could morph from a practical, analytical, not-very-artistic woman into a fiber artist who could just "go with" her own creative juices and see where it took her? I don't really know where I'll be going with my woolly creations, I have no specific expectations for what I create, and I'm okay with that. Wait -- check that: I'm GOOD with that!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Fear Factor: Fiber and Felting

Intimidated... Who me? That's just not a label that anyone who knows me even a little bit would likely pin on me. Assertive and confident (sometimes too much so) yes, but fearful? Nope. So I've struggled a little in the past few weeks with the exploration of something new and different, something in an area where I see myself having very little skill, vision, or propensity. But my tendencies towards acting efficiently and frugally, joined by my dislike of wasting anything, trumped this fear, so I've thrown my guard down and am trying something new: wool crafting or as it is increasingly called: fiber arts.

Newly sheared fleece, 2007
I decided that I would save a fleece or two this year, and that I would do something with the wool. Why would something so natural be so intimidating for me? I have six sheep, abundant suppliers of wool right outside my door. They have to be sheared every Spring, so finding something to do with the fleecy wool makes perfect sense. It's logical. Eco-logical. Thrifty. Green. It's so me, but it's so not! I see myself as non-artsy, and not very visually creative. I've never been very good at Arts & Crafts kinds of projects. I've always viewed them as delicate and requiring finesse, where I am, by nature, more prone to activities that take more physicality and even brute force. And I really dislike the feelings that come along with being "not very good" at something... Uh-oh! An epiphany. Time to ditch my old and untrue belief that if I can't do something well, I shouldn't do it at all.

So... A bag full of wool stood in a corner of the garage for a month while I noodled and brainstormed with friends. Sherry brought me a book on wool "felting." I browsed through, looking at the pictures of project ideas and techniques, and judged felting to be "more burly" than spinning the wool and knitting with it: perfect!

But the wool sheared from my very-dirty vineyard-grazing sheep does not come already cleaned, skirted, carded, dyed, and ready to make felt. These things I would have to figure out on my own. Google was dispatched to my rescue, and I got the basic how-to's of skirting (trimming away the wool sheared from the rear end, legs and belly because it's too full of manure to use) and hand-washing the wool. This morning I spread out a tarp on the driveway, put a single wool fleece on top, skirted and pulled out big thorns and dirt clods, and then double-washed and double-rinsed the wool in two grape picking bins.

I re-purposed the bench above and a clothes drying rack to hang the clean wool outside to air dry. I still have another fleece to clean, but I am feeling just a little bit proud of having taken the first steps. Next up will be figuring out the dye process and carding, although I'm not sure of the order in which I take those two steps! Who knew, when I said I do, that someday I would (1) have the courage to identify and understand an old fear and (2) get past that fear and get "crafty"?! 

Once again, I'm drawn back to the quote I inserted in my blogpost from mid-February: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few." Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Slinging Poo

Who knew,
when I said, "I do," 
that I'd spend my birthday 
slinging poo?

Okay it wasn't really "poo," but it sure looked like it! Today, my 52nd birthday, was also day 3 of our grapevine re-planting project. Alongside my favorite farmer, partner, and husband, I spent about 4 hours kneeling in the vineyard, playing in the mud. Specifically, as John dug and chiseled out soil and rocks to make holes in which to plant the new vines (replacements for the dead vines we removed last Fall), he shoveled the stuff into a 30 gallon plastic bin. With winter/springtime natural springs still active, the holes were filled with mud and muddy clay. I pulled out rocks, mixed in compost, and added fertilizing amendments. 

This is a 30 gallon bin, being used for its intended purpose: harvesting grapes.
But it's incredible how many projects make use of the bins!

Picture the bin full of poo. Wait... on second thought, don't! Because it actually has no smell, although it does look and feel like... well, poo. But since it's my birthday, picture a tub full of rich semi-frozen chocolate gelato. It's ribboned with gooey fudge. And firm malt-balls that range from golf ball size to coffee mug size. On top of that, add a thick layer of crushed oreo cookies, and then atop that, a layer of powdered sugar. Then take a large hand trowel and mix it all together, kind of like they used to do originally at Steve's Ice Cream (Boston area, early 80's) or at Coldstone Creamery. Then, forget about the trowel: put both (gloved) hands in and mix it together! This is a concoction that the new vines will just love.

So the vine -- which is really a stick of rootstock, with a grafted-on piece of still-dormant syrah budwood with two buds -- goes into the hole. I pour and John guides the "ice cream" on top of the carefully placed roots until the hole is full and the top of the rootstock plus the buds are sticking out. I insert the pencil rod next to the vine, and connect it to the irrigation wire and the fruiting wire. Then I put on a protective tube, fill it with some sawdust to insulate the buds from frost, and tie the tube up to the pencil rod.

In between the morning and afternoon poo-slinging sessions, I did get in a short bike ride, including a delicious lunch with my cycling partner, Sherry. I got a few opportunities during the day to read my MANY Facebook messages wishing me a happy birthday. I opened cards. I talked to my mom, my dad, and got messages from my brothers. And now, from my blogging perch, I  hear the sounds of Farmer John making me a special birthday dinner. I am grateful for a day spent outdoors with friends and loved ones. And I'm grateful for all the good wishes and thoughts that friends shared with me.

Who knew,
when I said, "I do," 
that I'd have my birthday cake
and eat it too?

Me, on my 2nd birthday.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Joys of Being a Beginner

This year marks my 40th season on skis. It's been a l-o-n-g time since those first awkward efforts on my junior high school ski-club weekend in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, and I'm now proud to label myself an "Advanced Skier." With an average of 15-20 annual ski days during most of the years when I had a "real job," and 25-30 days a year since becoming a winegrower, I should be Advanced, right? Earlier this week, I had a few days in a row in the fresh powder when I just couldn't seem to pull it all together anymore. (Note: Yes, I still do remember that even a tough day on the slopes is better than a great day in the office!) But I was frustrated and annoyed, and feeling like I needed to take some lessons again. What I didn't know is that the lessons would come from a couple of beginners. 

Catching a chairlift with my nephew, John

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few," wrote the great Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki. Learning to maintain a beginner's mind is one of the teachings I valued most from my first yoga teacher. It means taking an attitude of openness and eagerness, and letting go of preconceptions when studying a subject, just as a beginner would. Somehow my inner skier had forgotten to keep a beginner's mind, and I ended up a little frustrated instead of joyful.

Last Fall, when I invited my sister-in-law, Alice, and her husband and kids to visit us in Steamboat, I didn't know that I'd actually be skiing with them. Three of them were beginner-level snowboarders, and one was a ski-wee with just 4 prior ski days in his little legs. For their first 2 days here, they all took lessons and then had 2 more days to ski/ride together. That third day was another snowy deep-powder day, but I decided to give my exhausted legs (and brain) a break and join them on the gentler ski trails. 7 year old Davis, on 30" long skis and without ski poles, decided he wanted to follow behind in my tracks. He and I both used a snowplow wedge stance, known in ski school circles as pizza. We made pizza to go around the turns and then straightened the ski angles into "french fries." We called out pizza, french fries... pizza, french fries over and over until we were at the bottom, laughing and talking about the great run we took. Almost-10 year old John, on his snowboard, wanted to go in the trees and ski in the powder. I let him lead me and Davis into the woods to make fresh tracks in the new snow. We hooted and hollered in and out of the aspen trees, up and down the tiny moguls and dips. On every chair ride, riding with one of my nephews, who both clamored to ride up with Aunt Deb, we'd talk about the run and plan the next one. The final run of the day was accomplished in an almost total whiteout, an epic adventure for all. Over après-ski beer, soda, and wings, as well as the trail map and all the data on my brother-in-law Jeff's ski-tracker app on his iPhone, my nephews relived every run.

My nephew Davis, proud to be a real skier
By their 4th and final ski day, I knew I wanted to spend the day skiing with them. My legs and my brain felt rested, and it had been a kick to both guide them and ski with them all over the mountain. Uncle John decided to join us as well, and we took them up to the summit for the first time. After an easy warm-up, we introduced the whole crew to their first "black diamond" run, a short run down the bowl, followed by a bounce through the powder and back to the lift. Nephew John was the first to the bottom and Davis, a few tumbles notwithstanding, made it down just fine. We introduced them to all new runs and after lunch, I took young John on another black run. I told him I was confident he would do fine, so we left the others and skied down Storm Peak together. As we waited at the bottom for the others to meet us for the next chair ride up, he was giddy and explained to me how he had to adjust his riding to get down the steeper trail.

Davis and his mom, Alice, on the chairlift
Leading Davis through the final run of the day, with both of us practicing pizza and french fries, I realized that my frustration had evaporated and my balance and joy of being on skis had returned. It was exhilarating to get back to basics and approach skiing as a beginner again. Through the eyes and minds of my two young nephews, I was treated to skiing anew. It was a splendid gift, both the ski adventure and the reminder of the endless possibilities for delight when I embrace my beginner's mind. (Many thanks to John and Davis, Alice and Jeff.)

Family Portrait: Alice and Jeff, young John,
not-old John, and Davis on the gondola