Saturday, January 24, 2015


By the end of January, our sheep are very pregnant. They spend most of their time laying around and eating. When I look at them, I see potential.

I spend the last weeks before shearing skirting and washing fleeces. The wool shed must be mostly empty so that we can store  35 garbage bags full of newly shorn fleeces there.

Last years unsold fleeces will go to the woolen mill to be transformed into yarn. This year, I'll combine gray and white fleeces to produce  a light gray two ply 100% wool yarn.  I spread each fleece out on my skirting table and reassess it. Is the fleece clean or is it full of tiny bits of alfalfa or weed seeds? Does it have a lot of little short pieces of wool, the second cuts that the shearer makes to clean up how the sheep looks when he's done with her? Is it full of manure tags or fine dirt from a windy day last fall?

I can't fix any of those flaws for last year's fleeces. By the time we reach shearing day, I can really only change the way we skirt this years fleeces. I just hope that we coated the sheep early enough in the fall so that their fleeces aren't full of little bits of veggies, that we kept the pastures weed free, that we had no dust storms, and that Tom, our shearer, remembers that we don't care about bits of extra wool on our sheep but that we do care about those second cuts in our fleeces.

Next Saturday, we'll shear our sheep, releasing all that potential. Shearing day is sort of like my birthday crossed with the days when we were kids and our report cards came out. The clean fleeces without seeds or veggies or manure or dust give me such pleasure. The dirty fleeces remind me that next year I can do better.

As Tom runs his shears across a ewes belly, down her legs, and around to her backbone, I watch breathless for the minute he steps aside, shoos the sheep to her feet and out of the way. Her fleece lies on the floor, inside out,  glistening in the shadowed light of the barn, beautiful, fragrant and full of possibilities.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Our connection to Nature

                                                                                    photo by Morning Bray Farm

Dave and I listen to the Thomas Jefferson Hour on North Dakota Public Radio. It is a weekly conversation with President Thomas Jefferson and then a conversation with Clay Jenkinson, the Jeffersonian scholar who channels Jefferson. It is always a fascinating program, either for the history we learn or for the political questions discussed.

Yesterday morning, Thomas Jefferson told the story of a Christmas when as a young man  he slept in the attic of a friend's house. Water dripped through the roof and ruined his pocket watch and the rats carried off his garters and some sheet music. Jefferson commented that although it was unfortunate that those things happened, they weren't unusual, the people of that time were closely connected to Nature.

Today, most urban and suburban people have lost that connection to nature, but in some ways, rural people haven't.  We certainly don't have leaks in the ceiling of our bedroom or rats carrying off articles of clothing. But we do interact with nature on a daily basis. Someone has to feed and water the sheep no matter what the temperature or wind chill. The radio announcers have been warning against going outside all day because of dangerous cold, but we walked the dog and went for a run. This evening, because there was a full moon and the sky was clear, we dressed in our warmest clothes, took a thermos of cocoa adulterated with Grand Marnier, and sat out in the yard to watch the moon rise over the hills and the trees.

We set a timer to remind ourselves to go outside because even in the midst of nature, we often don't really see what's happening beyond the walls of the house. As we sat, just around the corner from the bite of the wind, we relaxed, sipped cocoa and chatted. We discussed possibilities for the section of field that has been too wet the last few summers. We tried to figure out exactly where the moon would show through the trees, and we appreciated the light mist in the air - a low, fast traveling cloud that dissipated just as the moon rose. Then we admired the view -  the golden globe of the moon shining through stark, black trees, and were thankful for our connection to Nature.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Tangled Web

I have written two adult books about our sheep - Shepherdess: Notes from the Field, and From Sheep to Shawl: stories and patterns for fiber lovers. Shepherdess was about my learning curve as a shepherdess. From Sheep to Shawl  was a celebration of wool and the people who create beauty using wool as their artistic medium. I really didn't have anything more to write about, but I love to write. Writing instructors always tell you to write about what you know and sheep are what I know. So, over the last ten to 20 years, I have written a novel about sheep. Tangled Web - a novel, was finally published last month.

 Tangled Web joins Jenny Johnson at the low point of her life when her enjoyment and connection to her children, her husband and her sheep have lost all their charm; when even attending a New Years party feels like a string of bad decisions. In an effort to break out of the routines of her life, Jenny apprentices herself to a charismatic fiber artist and business woman. But the routines of Jenny’s life follow along behind her. She is still working on a sheep farm, baling hay and caring for lambs; and her children and husband do not disappear from her life just because she disappears from theirs.

Many women have midlife crises, even those living on sheep farms. But not every crisis involves being suspected of murder. 

The following is an excerpt from the opening pages of Tangled Web. The book is available at the Northcroft Store on my blog, and in Pelican Rapids, MN at Pelican Drug, Riverview Place, and Mercantile on Main. It is also available at Victor Lundeen Co. in Fergus Falls, MN.

"The chicken water froze. The sheep water froze. The dog water froze. Every day I hauled four buckets of water to the sheep, a bucket of water to the chickens, and a bucket of water to the dog. Every day I returned the frozen buckets to the house to thaw out for the next day. The snow in the air cut at my exposed cheeks and brought tears to my eyes that froze on my lashes. Even the truck was frozen. I hadn’t been able to start it for six days, ever since Michael left for work.

God knows a week of below zero temperature would do that. The wind rushed across the open fields carrying clouds of drifting snow around the corners of the house and produced a wind chill of forty to fifty degrees below zero. The wind had been blowing all week. Nothing worked in that kind of cold.

My main fear was that I’d go out to the barn one morning and find Stupid frozen. Stupid the goat learned early in life to stick her head through fences to eat greener grass or tastier hay just on the other side of the fence. She hadn’t unlearned the habit when her horns grew too big for her to slide her head back out. Today, Stupid was once again stuck in the feeder. She had managed to force her head through a six by six inch opening that was only inches away from a much larger rectangle designed for large sheep heads. Snow had drifted up over her back until she was lying almost completely covered. Her legs and feet had dug trenches in the snow, trying to wrench herself out of the feeder. The snow was scraped away to dirty ground and littered with her frozen feces.  She’d been there for a long time.

I walked up behind her and grabbed her horns. Stupid jumped to her feet and tried to ram her one hundred pound body through the feeder.

“Stupid, stupid.” I dropped my mittens into the snow and grabbed her horns again. As we struggled, the backs of my hands scraped across the frigid wires of the feeder. The horns that imprisoned Stupid in the feeder also allowed me to control her. I slipped one horn tip through the corner of the square opening. Then, I rotated her head slightly, lined up the second horn tip and… she surged forward, jamming both horns against the far side of the fence. Again.

“Damn you stupid animal.” Cursing under my breath, I sucked my bloodied knuckles and began again. First, I clasped Stupid’s muscular little body between my legs, holding her steady. Then, I grabbed her horns and maneuvered them one after the other through the feeder. When her head cleared the opening, I turned her to the left, released her body with my legs and let go with my hands. Stupid tore away from the fence, then stopped, and pawed at the snow, looking for food. She shook her body and her lustrous mohair curls reminded me of why I put up with her personality. Stupid returned to the feeder, slipped her head through the proper opening and began to eat ravenously, as if she hadn’t been trapped with her head in the hay all night long.

I picked my wool mittens out of the snow drift, shoved red and numbed fingers into them, and walked around the barn to make sure everyone else was content. The odor of warm sheep and manure washed over me as I stepped inside. Most of the sheep were here, out of the wind, patiently waiting for me to refill the feeders with hay. I climbed the ladder into the shadowy hay loft and disturbed four gray and white pigeons that fluttered around my head and then out into the cold air.  I threw five hay bales into the feeders. As I pulled the strings off the bales, the sheep and goats rushed around the corner of the barn, shouldered Stupid out of the way, and stuck their heads into the feeders. The sound of their chewing was loud, even against the wind."


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Days of wonder

Christmas has always been a time of wonder for me. The sound of Angels We Have Heard on High, the scent of peppermint, the taste of Orange Danish rolls, the prickly feel of spruce needles as we trim the tree, and the sight of that tree glowing in the darkness as we creep down the stairs on Christmas morning.

When we were trying to figure out what Christmas traditions we should continue as our kids brought first their spouses and then their children into the family, one daughter explained that it didn't matter where Christmas was or even when, what mattered was that sense of wonder on Christmas morning. Sometimes we celebrate over Thanksgiving weekend,  sometimes over President's Day, and sometimes, like this year, at the farm on December 25.

This year we have two four year olds and an almost two year old celebrating Christmas. The kids are learning about not touching the ornaments on the tree and not opening presents until after breakfast on Christmas morning. It is sometimes so hard to wait.

One day I heard  four year old Jasper say "I'm sad."

He was sad because of a story that his mom told him, a story that has now been in our family for five generations.

When my great grandmother was a little girl, she woke up in the middle of the night and crept downstairs to see if Santa Claus had come.
Her stocking was full.
She unpacked it and found a silver ring in the very toe of the stocking, the very ring she had been hoping for.
She put everything back and returned to bed.
The next morning when she opened her stocking, the ring was gone.

My great grandmother told the that morality tale to her daughter, who told the story to my mother who told the story to me. But my mother added her own experiences to the story. She told me about the Christmas eve when she heard the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof of their house. That was a really wondrous story because my mother became deaf when she was three years old.

One winter day, when my small daughters were wanting to search through closets and peek into the gifts under the tree, I told both the stories to them. I wanted them to know that it was better to wait for your presents, but also that the wonder of Christmas was real.

Part of the joy of the season is wondering what you will find in your stocking or under the tree on Christmas morning, part is the wonder on the faces of children as they tear into their so carefully wrapped gifts. Part of the wonder is teaching the children to make presents for the people they love, and part is eating the cookies we make together. But mostly, the days of wonder are wonderful because we spend them together.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Putting food by; putting memories by

Last night we had winter squash, lamb sausage, and wild rice for supper, made from food we had put up ourselves.

The squash and sausage was a recipe my mom used to make - just cooked sausage and onions  mixed with a baked buttercup squash. Definitely comfort food.

The wild rice dish was from Many Cultures, One Community:a book of stories and recipes thanks to Carol Zielinski. It calls for fresh wild mushrooms and wild rice. Several years ago in late October, I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. The book inspired me to cook with as much local food as possible. My next trip to the grocery store after reading the book was sobering. The only local foods I could find were winter squash, eggs and dried shitaki mushrooms. I bought all three. We love the wild flavor of the shitaki mushrooms and I buy them preferentially now. Maybe one of these years we'll learn to grow our own.

We have learned to harvest wild rice. It is a slow process, that involves paddling a river for six or eight hours in late August or early September. Dave paddles and I sit in the bottom of the canoe and using a long stick, bend the rice stalks over the canoe and then hit the stalks to dislodge the rice grains. We enjoy the ducks and swans flying overhead, the insects crawling along the rice stalks and this last year, the enthusiasm and questions of our grandson, Jasper. It took twice as long to harvest the rice because we stopped every once in awhile for a snack, securely lodged amongst the rice stalks, but it was a delightful day.

In the cold of winter, when I bake a squash, fry our sausage, and cook up a dish of wild rice, we are grateful for the food we have put by, and for the memories of summer.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Creating a yarn

When we bought our first four sheep 30 years ago, I imagined that I would spin all their fleeces, knit all that yarn into sweaters and clothe my family. Caring for the sheep took up some of my spinning time and caring for my children replaced more.

I can knit anywhere - chatting with friends, riding in the car, watching television or, if it's a simple pattern, while reading. I can only spin while talking or watching TV. I soon realized that I couldn't spin fast enough to keep up with my knitting. As our flock grew from 4 ewes to 35 ewes, I also realized that I couldn't spin all their fleeces.

Now I sell fleeces to other spinners, have fleeces carded into roving and batts for spinners or felters, and have some fleeces spun into yarn. For years, I used the left over fleeces from the year before, combined them and sent them off for yarn. Our flock has about the same number of white, light  and dark fleeces every year, so our yarns come out about the same shades of light browny gray and dark browny gray each time.

I love having a supply of natural colored yarns in the house. If I need a skein of teal blue yarn, I pull out a big, black, dye pot, fill it with water , add a capful of dye powder and a skein of white yarn. Half an hour later, I have a skein of teal yarn. Unfortunately, the really beautiful, interesting yarns often contain more than one color. Sometimes the yarn is spun with bits of colored wool to produce a fiber with lots of short spaces of color. Other times, the yarn is actually made up of several strands of different colored yarns.

Last year, I asked Chris Armbrust from Dakota Fiber Mill to spin a three ply sock yarn for me. One third of the wool was a natural gray brown fleece. One third was a combination of 10% mohair and 90% wool, naturally dyed a warm brown color with walnut hulls, and the final third was dyed teal. Chris spun each color separately and then plied the three yarns together.

The yarn is soft (thanks to my Ramboulet sheep), strong, (thanks to the mohair and the three plies) and elastic (thanks to the amount of twist Chris spun into the yarn.) I'll be able to knit socks for everyone I know as well as sell a very beautiful sock yarn in my online shop and at Mercantile on Main in Pelican Rapids, thus solving two problems- having yarn with which to knit and decreasing the number of fleeces in my wool shed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Friendly blue dots

We manhandle the sheep several times a year. It can be an exhausting job.  Over the years we have modified our technique many times. 

We began thirty years ago by penning the sheep and then grabbing each one by the hind leg, and then being dragged around the barn by the sheep until we subdued it or it escaped. Next one of us would lie on the sheep to control it while the other gave a shot or trimmed hooves or tried on a coat.

Our friend Glen used a shepherd’s crook to pull the sheep in to himself. Glen is a very gentle, calm man and his sheep never seemed to run around the barn dragging him. 

When Dave worked full time away from home, I asked clueless volunteers for help (following the Tom Sawyer method). I don’t have the strength or the sports training to grab a sheep by the hind leg and wrestle it to the ground. So I developed another control technique. Several summers ago, Hillis, our summer worker, and I became very good at rushing a sheep together from the side and pinning her (the ewe, not Hillis) against the barn wall or pen fence. One of us held the ewe in place while the other gave the shot. By evening, Hillis and I were on our knees, but we had successfully vaccinated half the flock.

When we were young and not so clever, we kept track of which animals had been vaccinated by lifting them over the fence when we were done, separating them physically from the unvaccinated animals. Being older and more experienced, we now mark the forehead of each vaccinated ewe with a squirt of stock paint – no lifting involved. 

This year, Dave and I were not rushed for time when we vaccinated and coated the ewes. We penned the sheep, then Dave walked casually up to a ewe standing next to the fence and pressed her body against the fence. He held her in place with his weight and his grip on the fence wires. I vaccinated her and then slid a sheep coat over her head.  The sheep was still calm enough that I could hold her head still as Dave released her and then maneuvered her hind legs through the straps on her coat. I talked to most of the ewes as Dave worked, thanked them for their cooperation, told them that lambing would come soon.  

The entire day felt different. Dave and I never lost our tempers. Even the skitzy lambs that had never been coated before didn’t ruffle the calm much. Our new technique worked well, but I really think that it was the friendly blue dots on the forehead of every animal that colored the whole experience.