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 apr├Ęs-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

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My way or the Hemingway: A Moveable Feast

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever
you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

- Ernest Hemingway, to a friend, in 1950

This quotation on the title page immediately drew me in, and I happily settled down to read my first ever Hemingway book, The Moveable Feast (1964, posthumously.) When Woody Allen's movie, Midnight in Paris, came out last year, I was a little surprised to realize I'd never read any of the classic Hemingway novels. Both the movie setting --Paris in the 1920s-- and the eccentricity of the Ernest Hemingway character sparked my interest, so when I found The Moveable Feast on the bookshelf here in my temporary "home away from home" in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, I picked it up and started tagging along on Hemingway's amusing adventures in 1920s Paris.

The Moveable Feast. The title strikes me as a metaphor for many periods in my own life, and specifically for life at the moment. Farmer John and I just left behind our now-pruned-and-dormant grapevines to take a winter break, a ski sojourn. We are now nearly a week into our 6 week ski/stay in Steamboat, staying in a beautiful, modern log cabin-style home, just west of town, via a home exchange. Our "exchange-partners in crime," Frank and Carol, are at our place in Sonoma Valley minding the KFV homestead and animals as they escape their cold, snowy winter for a while.

The plan for 30+ days of skiing as the core of outdoor enjoyment is how we select our locale. But one of the main reasons we love doing home exchanges for these extended trips is that we can really make ourselves comfortably "at home" somewhere. For us, home is less about the specific place, and more about indulging ourselves in our favorite "normal" indoor activities, including reading, writing, eating and drinking, watching televised sports, and last but not least, cooking for and with friends. Home is one of our favorite places to hang out. So finding and temporarily transporting our lives to someone else's well-loved, and beautifully-maintained home that quickly becomes "home" for us is a perfect choice.

As I feasted on the early chapters of The Moveable Feast, John was in the kitchen transforming dough into his famous pizza crust. He had started making the dough 36 hours earlier, just as he does at home. And he used his natural yeast, sourdough starter that he's been keeping alive and growing for more than 6 years, brought with us from home. And he mixed it with his 525 watt KitchenAid mixer that he brought from home. The pizza baking stone and peel, also brought from home. And the inspiration for the pie? Yup, from home! The night before the long drive to Colorado, we had dinner at our local favorite, Pizzeria Rosso, and tried for the first time their "Goomba" pie, a pizza lightly topped with spaghetti and meatballs. Seriously! I was skeptical, but quickly won over by the light touch and the incredible melding of the topping with the crust.

Assembling the toppings on the "Goomba 'Za"

In our refrigerator here in Steamboat was a little leftover spaghetti and sausage from dinner a few days prior. I roasted a red pepper, sliced a little fresh mozzarella, and we had our pizza toppings. Salad was radicchio and lettuce from our Sonoma garden, tossed with some Biale olive oil and lemon juice. And though I rarely do so, I chose the wine to go with the Goomba pie: our friend Michael Muscardini's 2009 Sangiovese from the Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma Valley.

Lots of S-es: Sonoma-Style Saturday Supper Surfaced
in Steamboat Springs; Served with Sangiovese.

With only the tiniest bit of a buzz on, I realized that what we had here was our own version of a moveable feast! To borrow from and expand on Hemingway's quote, Home is a Moveable Feast! Not just the food and wine, but also the way of living and loving life. My way or the Hemingway... who knew they'd be so similar?! And who knew that this Hemingway newbie would discover this connection so immediately and intimately... and feel compelled to write about it? Hemingway suggested that as a writer, he would write what he saw as being true, and that in doing so, he would be well on the way to writing something that is good. Mmhmm. Indeed.

Papa Hemingway and Kitty

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Not just a Farmer; I'm now a Rural Chick!

I've always thought of myself as a city gal. I love the buzz of urban activity, the way people hurry from here to there, the feel of concrete under my feet, the fabulous restaurants and shop-window displays to savor. The array of sights and sounds has always had a way of energizing me, from D.C. to Boston to New York to San Francisco.

As a gag, Sara sent me her high-school-vintage Lee overalls to me
when I still lived in SF, but was getting ready to move to the vineyard.

It's now been nearly seven years since our move from Silicon Valley and San Francisco up to Sonoma County, where my front "yard" is a few acres of hillside grapevines, a large vegetable garden, and a steep, wooded hill. My backyard reveals oak tree after oak tree, a west-facing view across the valley, and the summer pasture where the sheep (and dog and hen and barn cats) graze, nap, and chew the cud. I can't see my nearest neighbor, and the most prevalent sounds are crickets and frogs chirping and croaking, neighboring donkeys braying, and hawks screeching. Unless I leave the farm, and there are many days when I do not, the only people I might see besides Farmer John are the vineyard workers across the deer fencing on the adjacent property, the UPS driver, the propane delivery guy, and well, that's about it.

To be clear, while our home setting is decidedly rural, our property is just barely east of the city limits of Santa Rosa, a city with a population of 160,000. It takes only15 minutes to get to the freeway and about an hour to get over the Golden Gate into San Francisco. Easy access and egress were desirable characteristics upon purchasing our property and later quitting our "day jobs" to move up here and farm. I wanted to feel like I could easily go to and from the city to play or just to get "out of Dodge" for a spell.

But I've found myself gravitating to a different state of mind over the last 6 months or so, and I'm pondering and marveling at a new moniker: Rural Chick. It started late in the summer when Sally added me to an unlisted and private Facebook group called Rural Women Rock. Within about two weeks, there were 500 women in the group, all of whom were invited by some other rockin' rural woman. There was a flurry of conversation threads from women of all ages, all over the country, centered around rural life and our places therein. One post that I got a huge kick out of was by an Indiana woman in her mid-20s who was preparing for a "combine date," and was seeking suggestions about what she might prepare and pack into a dinner picnic basket. If you're wondering, as I did in a comment on the post, exactly what a combine date is, here's the response from a more "experienced" cattle ranching woman from Iowa: it's when your date consists of riding in the buddy seat of the combine (tractor) with your "friend." 

There were many conversations about blogging and social networking; it's where I finally realized that I had some things to say, and that's how my blog started! I was introduced to an eclectic collection of women's blogs, and really learned a lot about other people's agricultural interests and ways of life. We  talked as a community about the business of raising animals for food, canning fruits and vegetables, rural and farmer fashions, rural parenting, what we liked to drink after a long day of work, and just shared mutual admiration and support for a lifestyle in rural American communities. I was fascinated with the group, and enjoyed chiming in with comments. Alas, two months after its inception, the group imploded when an "outside" rockin' rural woman happened to buy the Rural Women Rock name, URL, and Twitter handle. Some of the inside women decided that they wanted no part of a group with a name that someone else had bought the usage rights for and would -- GASP! -- try to make a profit from. 

All activity in the group ceased, and another new "page" was formed, but the community aspect, where anyone could start a conversation, was kaput. I still follow some of the blogs, but found myself missing the camaraderie of the community, even though it had been with people I didn't even know! About a month later, I received a very cool invitation from, Deborah, my Sheep School and Lamb Camp partner, and it reignited my interest in communing with rural women -- in person! --  right in my own area.

How could I resist?! It was right up my alley.

Rural Chicks doing the Rounds of local Roadhouses! And they invited me! Who knew, when I said "I Do," that I would both identify with AND be identified by others as a Rural Chick! Can you tell I'm energized by this? Woohoo! The first meetup was in December, when 5 of us convened in western Sonoma County for "dishin', cussin', bitchin', and heehawin' " The only thing missin' in the list was drinkin', and we did that too. 

Other than all being women who live and work in an area that is somewhat rural, though proximate to population centers, we are all passionate about and somehow work in agriculture. After that first night out, I was excited to have some new friends, and we saved the date for a January outing. That follow-up outing was last week, and 13 Rural Chicks came a-Round for a date at a fancy local Roadhouse, Barndiva, in Healdsburg. [Full disclosure: it was actually not a roadhouse this time, but we had a great time sharing our work and interests, and vowed that the Roundups would continue, with an emphasis on real roadhouses (read, casual and cheap!) where we could be loud and linger without bothering anyone.]

Of the 13 "chicks," nearly all of us write blogs and/or a website about our lives and work in a rural, agricultural community. As a group, we farm winegrapes, olives, milk, fruit and vegetables, and pigs and chickens. We have sheep, goats, alpacas, cows and horses, livestock guardian dogs and an assortment of ducks, geese, and hens. We all love good food, advocate for local agriculture that connects our farmers with residents and restaurateurs, and we teach people how to get involved in agriculture themselves. I am so looking forward to developing friendships and new ideas together with this group of Rural Chicks. Who knew?!