Postscript Bedlam Farm: Sunday Photo Essay

Bedlam Bird Bath

Still experimenting with my new-old Nikon, still fooling around with free photo editing. I have a long way to go and the reality is I’ll need to pay someone to teach me. The October Bedlam Farm open house happened on a weekend that could not have been more picturesque and photo-worthy. Revisiting these images, playing with them, posting them here: it helps shore up this Southern girl for what is coming any second now. Fall is a gift.

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Chloe

Sheep with Dogs

Ninja Fate

Sheep with Fate

Sheep

Red with Doug

Farmies

Red

HCB

Donkey I

Donkey II

Donkeys III

Puppy II

puppy I

Jon and Maria

 

The Day The Sheep Shearers Came

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You need not go far in my home state of Vermont to find a farm. Lots of people live and work on them, the rest of us drive past them going to and from. Same thing applies to upstate New York, a stone’s throw away. Writer Jon Katz and his wife, fiber artist Maria Wulf live on a farm there. They have sheep and other animals, but the thing I find most appealing about their sheep in particular is Maria’s use of their wool for her work; she also sells some of it to other artisans.

It was sheep shearing time at Bedlam Farm last weekend.

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At one point during the nineteenth century sheep outnumbered people in the state of Vermont three to one. (HCB leaned into my ear when Jim-the-Sheep-Shearer said that, and lamented it was too bad they couldn’t be taxed; there are not many of us here in Vermont, which means we can’t put enough into the state coffers for important things like keeping our roads plowed in the winter. If you want to test this theory, drive across the state line after a winter storm and compare.)

Also, Jim-the-Sheep-Shearer said cows have never outnumbered people in Vermont. You’d never know that, judging from our collective waistlines. But not from Jim’s.

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He is fit as a fiddle, a performance artist through and through (although Jon insisted he never gets the same treatment without a crowd around). Jim and his colleague Liz expertly sheared Jon and Maria’s small flock in a matter of moments and made it look like child’s play. Jim sang and recited poetry while he worked, and at one point even did a little yoga for comic relief. As if any were needed; sheep are so silly.

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Sheep shearing is athletic and dangerous. I know this to be true after watching Jim and listening to his stories about near misses with private parts. And even here you can see the sheep is all up in his business.

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From observers came questions about shaving all that wool just before winter: wouldn’t they be too cold? I get that all the time, he said. Turns out sheep don’t actually need their wool anywhere near as much as people do. At least, that is what I understood from his answer. He said before cold weather arrives in earnest the sheep will have had a chance to grow about three inches of new wool.

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The white sheep go first so that their wool is not “dirtied” by stray fibers from the black sheep when it goes to the mill. Jim told us all kinds of other relevant stuff about sheep, shearing, and shearing equipment, including the shearer’s clothing, which is pocketless for safety reasons (take a look at the photos above and you’ll understand), and the shoes, which are specially made for comfort and pliancy.

Red-the-Border-Collie was invited into the barn enclosure to keep the flock cornered as they waited. I have never really seen Red stop working, at least not in earnest, but it did not take much for him to maintain order. The sheep have a profound respect for him.

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And lo there were nekkid sheep, who seemed relieved to be out of the barn.

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Observing someone who clearly loves what he does, and who is an expert: that is a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.

There was a lot of that going around last weekend on a perfect New England fall Saturday.

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Pruning Away Neurons (And Re-Growing Them)

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Of his own writing Evelyn Waugh famously quipped, “I put the words down and push them around a bit.” In Freshman Comp 101 you’d identify that literary device as understatement, of course.

Sometimes I worry an entire generation of writers may be losing the penchant for pushing words around a bit.

If I could distill writer Jon Katz’ message to a roomful of engaged writers and writer wannabes last weekend, it would go something like this: publishing is no longer the sole domain of the traditional publishing house—anyone who desires to write and publish can do so without running the gauntlet of the old-style vetting process. And a subset of this idea: the World Wide Web is the primary venue for writing these days, romantic or wistful notions of conventional books notwithstanding.

The very idea of putting down your thoughts on (virtual) paper, clicking “publish,” and then broadcasting them across the world thrills and inspires the imagination. It’s also terrifying: in the last few years social media sharing has become a big part of the publishing equation. Incredible, powerful relationships have been forged in this way. But that platform—social media—also serves as a voice for the deranged, the unstable, and the downright idiotic. Plenty of their work has also been published in the traditional way, but never before has it reached so many so quickly, and so (sometimes) anonymously. It reminds me of hideous billboards dotting an otherwise unspoiled landscape.

Lately I’ve observed what I think you could fairly call a lack of substantive content in many online publications: websites are littered with adverts, banners, and popups that disrupt the reading experience. And once you’ve peeled back all the layers of that onion, you’re often left with little language at all. (It is true of print publications, too.) I wonder what this experience is doing to our collective intellects. If we could compare a PET scan of our modern brains with one of our century-ago brains, would we see something shocking? Some piece of higher functioning anatomy reduced to a peanut?

I have no scientific evidence, but for my own part, I am more likely to pass over a lengthy bit of online prose for something shorter. Tight schedules, distractions, mental and physical fatigue,—especially at the end of a long workday—these could be the culprits. But sometimes I wonder.

Jon sat next to me during our lunch at the workshop. I was a bit whiny, complaining about the difficulty of working on my own writing when I have just spent the last eight hours sitting at a desk and writing professionally. I explained I am a copywriter and editor by day, for a digital marketing company.

Do you enjoy your job, he asked? Yes, I said: I get to earn my keep using the only other marketable skill I possess besides teaching classical ballet, an avocation that is out of reach for the time being.

I’ve had occasion to reflect on my answer to this question in the intervening days, and of course there is much more to it. The expanded answer goes something like this: I am thrilled and delighted to write professionally. The work I have is hard to come by. It is not unlike the work I once produced in grad school: I am assigned a piece of writing, I research it as thoroughly as time permits for that particular assignment, and I synthesize my findings in a document I hope our company’s clients appreciate. I also hope it is interesting reading.

And there is another dimension to my job, Search Engine Optimization. So I am not merely producing an online publication, but one designed—through the strategic placement of keywords—to drive readers to the doorstep of a particular client, versus someone else’s. It is a huge challenge to do this and to do it well: to write something that “reads” genuinely, that various search engine bots will grasp as authoritative and not “spammy.” Depending on the type of content I am asked to produce, I can be on a single piece of writing for a couple of days. There is nothing diminutive about that, nothing abbreviated. And because I always felt comfortable in an academic setting, and because there is most definitely an academic piece to this work, I thoroughly enjoy it. In fact, I am privileged to do it.

So until I find my tempo, to borrow language from my erstwhile career in classical ballet, my own personal writing and publishing probably will suffer indeed, and that is how the cookie bounces, as one of my professors liked to say many years ago.

I wonder how Mr. Waugh would view the writer’s landscape nowadays. One thing is certain: my own writing muscle is actively engaged. Every single day.

 

Bedlam Farm Takeaways: The Katz Effect

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The spring open house at Bedlam Farm was a couple of weeks ago, Jon Katz and Maria Wulf’s generous semi-annual sharing of their farm and lifestyle with fans, animal lovers, other artisans, and curiosity seekers. I’ve been to three of these now, with gathering interest and meaning, and what I think you could fairly call genuine community building. Jon instigated a creative group using social media some years ago with the idea that the creative itch so many possess is never realized for fear of reprisal. He basically made a safe place for people to exchange support for the creative habit; there is no room for destructive criticism, and the little of that to emerge has been banished from the kingdom in short order. So much beauty has unfolded from the group in the intervening years since its inception: artistic triumphs, some jolly good failures, and several contributors have realized their first professional creative work for the first time ever from within the group’s fold.

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Breakfast at Roundhouse Café, Cambridge, New York

Probably the most exciting thing to come of it though, speaking only for myself, is the opportunity to finally meet so many of these creative and thoughtful people face to face. It happens at Jon and Maria’s to be sure, but the Bedlam Farm bug has pushed beyond its boundaries to include gatherings at the Roundhouse Café in Cambridge, an evening barbecue at the Granville home of a “Farmie” photographer and blogger, and creative workshops, to say nothing of new virtual friendships and collaborations via the World Wide Web, and just plain friendships that have nothing to do with the group. Many in fact are good virtual friends, and now some of us are in-the-flesh friends. The open house is an occasion for those giddy connections to be realized for the first time, and it is a joy to see.

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Red at Roundhouse

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 Fate

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Jon’s Border Collie Red is an amazing creature, and that is all. I never tire of watching him do the work he is driven to do, nor of Jon’s telling of that story to the focused crowds who gather under the enormous tree at the paddock gate to hear it. This time there was Fate, the new puppy whose arrival so many of us followed in the days and weeks leading to the open house; there was understandably much anticipation and excitement to see her. She demonstrated a beautiful and accommodating temperament and work ethic and will grow into a brilliant herding dog, I am sure. Still, I am drawn to Red for his maturity and serious demeanor, matched only by his generosity and affection. I am always struck by his intelligence and now also by his tolerance for a young interloper. They each seem to understand the new world order and comply willingly with it.

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Poet Doug Anderson, Jon

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Tom Atkins

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Kate Rantilla, who understands how I feel about poetry

I’ve been paying closer attention to the open house poetry readings. It’s hard for me. I’ve never been drawn to poetry the way so many are, never attempted to write it unless I had to, and in my prep school and undergrad years tolerated it through the lens of academia, where I always felt I was the last one to catch on. And once the authentic meaning of a stanza was finally revealed, it seemed brilliantly clear. So it was a lesson in humiliation for me, and left me feeling flawed. Prose was always my friend, and felt satisfying to me: we’re drawn to our strengths. Listening to artists from varied backgrounds read their work has been a push in the past; this time something was different. Maybe it’s a sign of personal growth, and that itself is a small triumph. I love that it was Mary Kellogg’s work in particular to serve as the impetus for the start of the creative group; I finally had an accidental and joyous encounter with her in Maria’s studio. She is hugely inspiring and it is no wonder Jon is so smitten with her.

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Mary Kellogg with Jon

Jon Katz’ words are enriching, disturbing, funny, inspiring. He has taken a beating for his position on animals and their place in the lives of people, and for speaking his mind loud and clear. It takes courage. I’ve been there but in a different arena. A wise person once observed, the instant you raise your head above the throng to do a worthwhile thing, people will take shots at it. This is the truth. I’ve experienced it a couple of times, have watched others close to me experience the same. Mainly I shrink from controversy. (Mainly.) The Bedlam Farm takeaway for me is a deeper understanding of the relationship between farmers and animals, and the disconnect for most of the rest of us, who possess only a tiny shred of understanding—if that, even—of animals’ place in the firmament.

Mostly I walk away from Jon and Maria’s feeling enriched. I’d never have heard of the New York City carriage horse controversy were it not for his deep involvement in it, nor of a local farmer whose unrelenting (and unjustifiable) pursuit by local authorities has made recent headlines in these parts, nor of acclaimed photographer George Forss, nor poet Doug Anderson. Nor would I see Maria’s beautiful textiles firsthand, to say nothing of the other participating artists. It’s all part and parcel of an open house weekend at Bedlam Farm.

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The next step for me is the fall workshop ahead of the October open house. I’m taking Jon’s classes on writing and blogging, and I welcome his criticism; I count myself lucky to write for a living, and I want to improve my chops. Ballet has been my world for most of my life, and it can be cruel: you really have to learn to take it on the chin, and there is no hiding in a roomful of mirrors. I think I took that ethic with me to school—academic school—where I always appreciated a paper that came back to me marked up in red. It’s how we become better, stronger writers. In this age of entitlement, it’s a lost value; too bad for an entire generation (or more). I’m also planning to attend the photography leg of the workshop, where I will be on the bottommost rung of a very tall ladder. I know nothing, as you can see here. Tabula rasa. I want to learn, and have until October to find a camera.

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Flo-the-Cat

Bedlam Farm takeaways. The Katz effect. Personal growth. In a few months I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

Afternoon at Bedlam: the Ministry of Encouragement

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More than a decade ago I stood in the book aisle of a big box department store in Knoxville, Tennessee, fingering a papberback with a full color closeup of a border collie on its cover. I was having a bad day–a series of bad days, really, that grew into bad weeks and months and difficult years. That book was my introduction to writer Jon Katz’ work. I read it a couple of times and loaned it to somebody at least once. My copy of A Good Dog is a bit dog-eared but now bears Jon’s autograph and a brief message from him scrawled inside its cover.

Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I soaked in delicious late-day sunshine from Jon and his wife Maria’s weathered Adirondack chairs, observing foliage and traffic on a rural highway that serves this part of upstate New York. I thought about that book, about animals that change people’s lives, about people who change each other’s lives.

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Some time ago Jon started a group using social media, its purpose to bring together folks whose common denominator was the desire to create–poetry, prose, photography, art. He described it as a ministry of encouragement. It was and is a place for its members to share their work without fear of reprisal, but hoping for positive, constructive feedback from Jon and from each other.

I do not remember how I came across this group in the first place but I have been an active participant pretty much from its inception. And while social media often provides a platform for unfiltered voices of hostility and rancor it can also be a positive place for people to come together–people who might not otherwise have known each other. This has been the case for me where this vibrant community is concerned. I have made so many connections there, wonderful ones, and yesterday had the opportunity to meet many of them in the flesh for the first time.

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I keep thinking about self-examination, but also about exposing oneself to examination by others. It is intimidating, to be sure. But without at least some willingness to shine a light in vulnerable places, how is it possible to grow at all? I was explaining my take on this to one of the members of the group yesterday. To me it is a mandate–not a question of whether one should or should not do this, but an imperative.

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Yesterday Jon gave his listeners a little background about an aged woman, a poet and a dear friend, Mary Kellogg, who was missing from the fall open house this time around because of illness. He explained that during a conversation with her early in their friendship, and after reading some of her beautiful poetry, he asked why she had not done anything with it to that point. Her reply was simple: nobody had encouraged her. I had never made the connection between that epiphany and the formation of the creative group before yesterday. And what a service Jon has done to help this group of people come together as it has. (Happily, Mary’s work is now published and has enjoyed much success.)

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Maria Wulf, Textile Artist (and Jon's wife)

Yesterday was magical. Seeing Jon and Maria is delightful as always: listening to Jon talk about his beloved animals, his new book about the rescued donkey Simon, watching the border collie and therapy dog Red working with the sheep (always alert, awaiting the next important work); looking at the eternally generous Maria’s beautiful textiles (and the work of others) in her studio; a cameo appearance by the complex and aged dog, Frieda. Celebrated photographer George Forss was there, too, talking enthusiastically about his work and his new book (for which Jon wrote the foreward); and an impromptu acoustic guitar performance by Roundhouse Cafe chef-owner (and singer/songwriter) Scott Carrino was a lovely finale to the day.

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I will echo the sentiment I have heard others express, though: the best part of yesterday was meeting the people I had known until now only through the group, through the ether. These people bare themselves every day, bravely exposing their work and their lives. What a huge privilege to embrace them, finally, and to say to them all, ‘Til we meet again.

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A Very Good Day

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Today began badly.  Clarence-the-Canine and I struck out for an early morning run that was supposed to be perfect, crisp, and beautiful.  What happened instead is that I continued to ignore the gathering tightness I have sensed in my right calf and Achilles during our last two or three runs, hoping it would work itself out.  Roughly three miles in, though, I felt a discernible snap somewhere deep in the layers of muscle, and that was that; too bad I was still about three quarters of a mile from my doorstep. That is a long way to limp.

Poor Clarence.  I am not the only one adjusting to a wicked new work schedule.  Nor am I the only one who is anxious about moving for the second time in the space of a calendar year.  On many days our time outside has happened of necessity around six in the morning, and has been pushed.  And then Clarence has had to wait.  And wait.  And wait, until my workday ends, for more time outside.  This arrangement is adequate (and only that) for the time being, thanks to summer’s long days.  I have not planned far enough ahead to imagine how our time together will play out when the short winter days arrive (and boy, are they ever short in Vermont).

In spite of my injured calf (and later my left Achilles also made its presence known), I was determined to go to this open house today at New Bedlam Farm in Cambridge, New York.  When writer Jon Katz and his wife and textile artist Maria Wulf announced their event my internal response was, NO:  you emphatically do not have time to drive over there and do this today.  Stay focused.

On second thought….

I have been reading Jon’s books and following his life’s works through his blog for a long time; Maria’s more recently.  In short, I could not think of a single good reason not to go shake his hand, and hers, introduce myself to them in person, buy one of Maria’s beautiful textile creations, and enjoy a Sunday summer afternoon in upstate New York.  I stopped at Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s house–which happens to be on the way–to include him and his lovely daughter on the adventure.

It turned out to be time well spent.  We met the love dog Lenore (who made a beeline for HCB’s daughter when she saw her), observed the complex dog Frieda from a respectful distance, met and loved on Red-the-amazing-Border-Collie, fed carrots to Simon-, Fanny- and Lulu-the-Donkies while Jon told anecdotal stories to illustrate Exactly How Donkies Are, listened to Mary Kellogg’s poetry reading (if you follow the New Bedlam Farm link above and look closely you can find us in the photo), watched Red work the sheep after learning so much fact and fiction about sheep and border collie temperaments, and herding, and in general had a delightful afternoon enjoying a glimpse of Jon and Maria and the life they have created there.  Earlier today Jon blogged about the importance of community, and we saw that in the open house. Thank you Jon and Maria, and all your creatures, for opening up your world to us.

Images of the day, which ended so much better than it began:

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