immersion learning

INSIDE OUR RENOVATED HOME ON WHEELS

 

We have arrived. The view looks like burdock- and nettle-covered fields, and two buckling kids — Satchmo and Smithers, respectively. It looks like three weeks of blood, sweat, and tears bringing life and buzzing back into an unused 1986 camper; it looks like home for now. And our home's name is Pink Cameron.

To inhabit a new space is quite strange a thing. Muscle memory has yet to develop, so you hit your head on new things, and your reach for something on the counter falls an inch too short. Your body feels different in your bed, or maybe it's that your bed feels foreign to your body. Our life here has become an amalgamation of all of the things we imagined, and many that we did not.

If you have been following along with this blog for a little while, you read and witnessed our first impression of the camper. Paring back our belongings was an interest of ours, and we have both long dreamed of a composting toilet outhouse, but to claim that we chose this situation would be a falsehood. The truth is that we are extremely grateful for hot water, derive pleasure from lighting, and see nothing wrong with having a bookshelf devoted to vinyl and books. Camper life lends itself poorly to all of the above. Or at least this camper. We said yes to this opportunity because what we wanted most of all was to immerse ourselves in this dairy goat farm while not entering into poverty getting there. The owners at Consider Bardwell generously offered us their camper, on their farm, with a no-holds-barred approach to renovation.

Many skills were acquired along the way; many came too late. We yelled and cursed and sustained countless minor injuries. Without further adieu, a glimpse of Pink Cameron's interior from Dark + Outdated to Light + Fresh!

A few moments, even if brief or rare, have had us feeling like vignettes from a Wes Anderson film: lying on our bed that buts up to the window, reading and rereading recipes from a favorite cookbook while our cat sleeps on the shelf above, our transistor radio relaying all the daily happenings. These moments do exist, and we want to acknowledge their goodness; they are pure in spirit and leave us refreshed. Moments of genuine connection as husband and wife and members of the planet drive our will to make this work—to make Pink Cameron our home.

There are other moments, peppered in more frequently—yet disorienting all the same—where things go wrong. The times when you catch six mice in a day and wonder if the eyes of every mouse bulge out of their head when they die. Or when you have not yet built your cat an outdoor enclosure, and so resign yourself to a litter box that will live at the foot of your bed. And when the fuses and the wires and the converters and the lines exceed your level of know-how by so great a score that you live without electricity or a refrigerator. This all goes without mentioning that hearing, “Wow, you're still painting the inside?” was something of a daily phenomenon.

Wherever we haven't used parts from the farm's equipment shed to smatter together a makeshift version of Whatever-It-Is-We're-Building, we have more-than-likely gone without. Example: we built an outdoor shower using felled logs for the four posts, baling twine for supporting the shower curtains, and rocks from the forest as a drainage base. However, we have yet to begin building our composting toilet outhouse, opting instead to run one-hundred yards down the road to the farm whenever nature calls.

Here we cook most meals over an open fire—a few successes; several flops. We tried potatoes wrapped in foil thrown straight in the embers, and they came out charred to the point of inedibility. Rice came off the fire grate perfectly, as did green peppers—which blistered in sizzling, not smoking (!!) olive oil. Laundry gets washed by hand and dried by the wind. So do our dishes. Slowly, the cadence of daily life is making sense.

Our shelves are decorated entirely with things we use & consume: mason jars full of provisions, spices, and baking supplies; an oil lamp; a few dishes & cooking utensils; a ukulele & a few of our favorite books; our begleri and briki from Greece, plus a carpet from our time in Turkey. The wind chime that our farm friends gifted us is singing a gentle tune in the afternoon breeze and this place is beginning to feel like a home. Perhaps it is because of all the time that we spent trying to make it so. Perhaps it is simply because we have electricity and a functioning refrigerator. Either way, we have arrived at a moment of gratitude & satisfaction—however humble it may be. Here's to a tiny camper nestled in the great outdoors.


—M&S

TO BE A KIDDING INTERN

 

Their gummy little milk-covered faces have turned into head-butting, hay-loving machines. Gone are the days of scanning the barnyard every fifteen minutes, checking to see which goats are in the beginning stages of kidding. Our clothes are clean—those that were laden with colostrum, poop, placenta and afterbirth. The mud room of the Fish and Game, our humble and sometimes-eerie abode, no longer contains mud. Of the 300 kids born on the farm, 22 doelings and 50 meat kids became our thrice-per-day companions. We hung out at 7 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m. In the end, we came to learn their voices, to know their horns, to recognize when they were sick. Sometimes they were. Some got better, some got worse. Several kids died; more lived, thrived

Being only a few days on the other side of our internships, we are not able to describe quite what it meant to be interns at Consider Bardwell. We can quantify our improved strength, sure. We can show someone how to perform a disbudding, a castration, and a subcutaneous or intramuscular shot. We can milk a doe. Resumé boosters, surely. But what really sticks out is what we learned about ourselves. 

Did we almost strangle to death unwilling, stubborn kids? Probably not to death, but it sure felt like we could have. The honest reality of spending upwards of nine hours per day (in the beginning) feeding baby goats is that at some point—usually when you need to eat, did not get enough sleep the night previous, and have just been head butted in the crotch—you imagine, in full color, the ways you could end a goat's life. You could, but you never would

There were tears, and shouting, and walking far, far away to cool down. And after some time, there was the strategy that we found to be most effective for restoring our calm, caring instincts: grab the most bothersome kid of the bunch, pull it close to your face, and have a long look at that gummy little milk-covered face staring back at you. With lowered blood pressure and a renewed sense of mission, resume feeding. The fact is, we care for these young animals deeply; much like a parent cares for their own young (we imagine). Our bouts with frustration were mere expressions of our fervent will to keep the kids alive and well. No level of mounting anger could ever compare with the devastation of carrying the lifeless body of a previously mischievous kid out of the barn for the last time.

We wrote of life & death on the farm in one of our first posts during kidding season. Those sentiments carried forth as spring advanced and the days grew longer; as we took on greater understanding and ownership of our roles on the farm. We found fulfillment as caretakers. We savored each morning, afternoon, and evening spent outdoors and inside of drafty, old barns. We relished the feeling of being in tune with our bodies and their capabilities, and drank in the sensations of exhaustion, enlivenment, hope, and fear that flooded us all at once. We are learning, growing, and wrestling with what it means to live out a passion. 

We have a bit of time to reflect more fully on what it meant to be a kidding intern. As we retreat to Greece to spend a few weeks with the family that we have longed to see every day for the past two years, we expect we will return to the farm anew. The kids will be stronger and increasingly aware of their place on the farm. So too will we. 


—M&S

UP THE HAYSTACK

 

Neither of us had ever climbed a mountain. True, there are metaphorical mountains that we (all) face on what seems to be a daily basis, but this one was real—made of earth, sticks, and stones; piled nearly 2000 feet high. Haystack Mountain has been on our To Do List ever since we arrived in Vermont. It's a beautiful mountain. Its slopes are steep and dotted with trees, situated prominently at the end of a ridge that looms above the town of Pawlet. At some point during nearly every day that we have spent here, we have remarked about Haystack, resolved to summit our favorite local landmark. Yet our ascent was delayed by a quizzical rash of rain and snow on our days off, bookended by pristine, sun-splashed days on the farm. March passed, and most of April too—our return to Ohio (and Greece) rapidly approaching.

During those days and weeks we did not spend climbing Haystack, we spent gaining a real sense of calling on the farm. Strangely—at least strangely to two family-obsessed Ohioans—Consider Bardwell Farm began to feel like a home. It revealed itself as a place where we could grow and learn about a craft, a lifestyle, and ourselves. So we suddenly found ourselves faced with a new mountain: the desire to stay in Vermont.

How could we? It was a question both literal and open-ended. Literal in the respect that, when we arrived, there were no prospects for us to stay on in a permanent role. We were (and are) Kidding Interns: positions confined to a two-month period when kids are being born on the farm. But that changed in an exciting and startling way when we began discussing an extended internship. Then we began discussing becoming permanent employees. It was at that point that it became more open-ended: how could we do this? How could we move away from our families that we love so much, around whom our lives revolve? That is a question for which we simply do not have the answer.

So we are going to start climbing. We have resolved to face the mountain and seek its summit. We are going to stay in Vermont and learn how to manage a farm. We will learn how to manage a young marriage away from family. We will pledge allegiance to the land on which we stand, grounded in the knowledge that we do stand on the same earth that our loved ones do, only many miles away. It is both heartbreaking and exhilarating. Neither of us have ever felt so purpose driven before as we do now. 

We reached the top Haystack Mountain on a Monday afternoon so clear that we could look upon the Adirondacks and the shores of Lake Champlain, turn around, and view mile after mile of the Green Mountain National Forest. After a steep stretch of craggy trail—a challenge nowhere near insurmountable, but nevertheless worthy of heavy breathing and sweat on our brows—the view at the top was worth the effort. And so, we will keep trying, keep climbing.


—M

LIFE & DEATH ON THE FARM

 

Our role at Consider Bardwell Farm is to help facilitate the arrival of new life. Every morning, afternoon, and evening, we feed dozens upon dozens of newborn bucklings and doelings—several of whom we delivered with our own hands. Among those pens are fluffy, brown and black Oberhaslis; Alpine mixes with striped faces; floppy-eared Nubians; and a myriad of other genetic crosses. Some pop out of their mamas a ripe 10-12 pounds, others a meager 5 or 6. The former tend to be better eaters, though not always.

What these unique little kids all have in common is that they have only spent a few days, or even hours, here on Earth. It is humbling to be in the presence of such an immense, sudden burst of life. More than two-hundred kids have been born since we arrived on the farm two weeks ago. Of course, we have had to come face-to-face with the other side of life, too. It said it in the job description: "Where there is livestock, there is also deadstock."

As we walked into the barn early on our first morning of work, we were surprised to hear the little bleats of a buckling born a week before its due date. Shortly thereafter, we realized that its stillborn twin was lying in the hay beside it. We have witnessed more stillborns yet, including another pair of twins that brought their mama within moments of death herself. The line between life and death, we have learned, can be very fine indeed. And that is part of what makes our job all the more satisfying.

The facts of farm life can be difficult to sort out at times. A small portion of these kids—those with the best genetics—will be kept on as future milkers. Others will be meat kids, and still more will be sold off to be raised for meat on other farms. No matter their lot, every single one of these animals will meet their end. We have seen it with kids, and we have seen it with adults. It is a blessing, though, to be present through their beginning, at the dawn of a new spring, out here on the farm.


—M