Monday, May 21, 2018

Shameless Commerce Division: Part 1

The MODA Quilt
Anyone who listens to NPR even a little is familiar with Car Talk, the call-in car repair show hosted by Tom and Ray Magliozzi and all of its running gags.

From "stump the chumps," where they called people back after giving them advice to see if the advice worked, to the closing credits -with an ever-changing list of specialists (airline seat tester: Wilma Butfit and anger manager:  Kirsten Hollered are among my favorites) to the "Shameless Commerce Division" which sold merchandise, the show took a fun approach to car repair.

In that spirit, we welcome you to the "2018 MODA Gathering Shameless Commerce Division."  Here, you'll find great ways to help support the Midwest Ox Drovers Association.  

First, click here to print off a sheet of MODA raffle tickets.  They are just $1 each or 6 for $5.  The drawing is June 24 at 1:00 PM, so if you mail your tickets and money in before then, you'll be entered to win one of this year's prizes:

1st Place: a handmade MODA quilt by Dr. Brenda Grettenberger, MODA treasurer.  It's pretty awesome!

2nd Place: A knockdown, light duty, logging / firewood scoot (more details later)

Look at that Quilting!
3rd Place: An Oxen Med Kit in a handmade wooden chest.  (more details on this later as well)

Mail Tickets to:
MODA Raffle 
Rob Collins
923 Babcock Road
Sherwood, MI 49089

Also, if you click here you can Pre-order one of the limited edition 2018 MODA T-Shirts.  Pre Orders
The 2018 T-Shirt Design
end June 1, so hurry on those.

So, whether you are an oxen feeding specialist like Phil Rooman, or an oxen clean-up engineer like Lotta B. Essen, the MODA raffle helps support our mission at the Gathering and all year long.  
The Med Kit in Progress

Dovetails, cut by hand.
Dado joinery, cut by hand

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Good Wife

Often times, I'll head out the door to school with a shirt and tie on, but the collar of my shirt leaving some tie exposed.  When Cara spots me later in the day, she tucks it in and usually remarks, "You need a good wife."

Most times, I'll tease her right back by saying, "I sure do."

We're used to this back and forth.  She's a good wife for myriad reasons, most of which have nothing to do with oxen.  Once in a while, though, Cara steps into the world of oxen with me.

When Cara was young, her parents took birding trips as part of her dad's job as a naturalist.  Africa, England, Ireland, South America.  Sometimes, she got to go; Other times, she stayed behind and they brought home a souvenir.

One such souvenir from Costa Rica was a model ox cart, painted similarly to the ones they photographed on their trip.

Cara held onto it and recently brought it home fromm her childhood room and gave it to her fashion-challenged husband.

A good wife, indeed.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Ground Hog's Day

I had a principal once at school who happily told me about his Ground Hog Day: "I slept in, then went out for breakfast, played 18 holes of golf, went home and took a nap, played another 18 holes of golf, then went out for dinner and had a few beers with my wife and some friends.  I'd do that every day if I could."

While I think a day like that sounds more like Dante's Purgatorio (My son and I used to play one round of golf a year- nine holes and he had more fun driving the cart than anything), he was referring to the Bill Murray movie of the same name, in which Bill Murray's character must relive the same day- in his case Ground Hog's Day in Punxatawney, PA- over and over again. 

My Facebook feed reminded me today that April 2, 2010 is my Ground Hog's Day.  It was Good Friday and I was off from school and starting spring break.  Dulcy at Tillers had asked if I would like to help plow "a couple of gardens in Kalamazoo."

Dulcy, Joshua (a then-new intern), and I loaded up Hershel and Walker, an Oliver 99 plow and drove 20 minutes or so to the Western Michigan University campus for garden #1- A community garden for WMU students. 

After a short talk, we got to plowing, and soon discovered that the former building site was less than ideal for a garden.  The ground was hard and varied greatly (hard to rock hard, with old foundation debris scattered throughout), but the people were very friendly, they had snacks and music, and the weather was chilly, but sunny.  A local TV news crew was on site and somewhere there's a tape of me wrestling that plow into and out of the ground from the 11:00 PM news. 

From there, we headed across town and a world away.  Dulcy had made arrangements to plow a community garden in a small vacant lot on Kalamazoo's north side.  The neighborhood was, and is, quite poor.  I had volunteered at a Headstart program on Kalamazoo's north side when I was in college at WMU, so I was generally familiar with the neighborhood. 

When we got there, we had to parallel park on the street, as that was the only parking available.  We yoked the team tied to the back of the trailer and walked them down half a block to the lot, with someone wheeling the plow on the guide wheel down the street. 

By this time, it was early afternoon and a sunny 65 degrees, so nearly everyone in the neighborhood was out enjoying the day.  Needless to say, we drew a crowd. 

For the next three hours, we turned the soil, chatted with the parade of people who stopped by- a notable number of whom simply stopped their cars, still running, in the street and jumped out to "get a picture of them bulls!"- and introduced a number of kids to the oxen and the walking plow.  One of my new friends kept coming back and eventually made five furrows with me at the plow.  With the chaos of the event: the people, a cement truck literally next door, the cars and bicycles, we decided it was best to have Dulcy do all of the driving- she's a master teamster, so I was the plowboy all afternoon. 

By the time we were done, the organizers felt like old friends and we wished we could stay a little longer. 

As much as I like working oxen by myself and plowing with one other person, I really enjoy teaching new people about them.  That brings me the most joy.  Give me every day like that and I'll be more than happy.

What's your perfect day with "them bulls?"

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Magic Algebraic Equation

(x + y) * (z)(z)(z) = (d)

For most beginners, getting a feel for driving oxen doesn't happen all at once.  In a class, it's nice to have a few students to trade off the goad so the students can go through a number of critical steps:

1.  Watch an experienced teamster do (x) correctly (where x= Hitching to a cart, for instance).

2.  Do (x) incorrectly.

3.  Feel sheepishly humbled.

4.  Do (x) passably, with coaching.

5.  Handoff and watch steps 2-4 with someone else attempting.

6. Think about what worked and didn't work.

7.  Start back at (x) suddenly better than before.

The key in step 6 is that the student gets to add (y) (Where y= "why").

It's easy for students to identify THAT what they did didn't work, but when they step back and watch someone else's struggle, the "why" (y) becomes apparent.

Then, it's a simple matter of multiplying those steps in their head by several (z)(z)(z)'s (where z= sleeping on it) in order to end up driving (d) oxen.  The more z's, the better.

After repeating the equation over a decade, I'm starting to feel like a pretty good beginner myself.

Yesterday, we had two students, Russ and Tristan, out at Tillers for day one of Ox Driving Class.  They did really well.  Both had cattle sense to start with, which helps greatly, and both were easily coached.  Day two starts in a few hours.  We'll see if they had their zzzz's.  I hope so.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

They're Not Normal

Underneath the Stone Canoe, the grass has started to turn a little bit green, but spring is not exactly springing just yet.  At least in Michigan. 

However, it's nice to spend a few minutes of summer with the kids from New England as they compete at a summer fair: In this case the Four Towns Fair in Connecticut. 

It would be nice to have the "director's cut" of this video, for an hour or so of entertainment, but to get even a couple minutes of summer in March, that'll have to do.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Chain of Fools

Don Covay's song "Chain of Fools," made famous in the iconic version by Aretha Franklin, has been running through my head all night.

I was trying out a new goad stick yesterday with the boys (see: My Grandfather Did), as we spread a little manure.  They haven't been worked much lately and were not acting as sharp as they should have been, although they backed the manure spreader down and into position twice without any fuss. 

Even a lightly loaded spreader has a fair bit of draft, so some warm-up would have been in order.  Also, they aren't used to driving with a goad (or on a wheeled vehicle, come to think of it.  We've been doing nothing but "chain work" for months), so starting in after a lay-off - even a short one- with something quite new is not that smart.

After our first trip around the field didn't go so well, I decided to switch back from the goad to my crop.  Instantly, I felt more comfortable and more able to communicate with the oxen. 

Brutus and Cassius stood patiently with the spreader while I loaded it (lightly) by hand.  Even a small load takes a few minutes to fork in . . .at least as long as was required to forget that the apron chain was still engaged from the last load.  I had shut off the beaters, but left the apron chain going to clear the box as we left the field. 

I probably don't have to be Paul Harvey here, but yep, when we got to the field and I went to engage the already-engaged apron chain, I discovered the box was nearly empty.  The grass should grow well in that part of the yard this year. 

Cue Aretha. . .

Chain, Chain, Chain
(apron Chain)
Chain, Chain, Chain
(apron Chain)
Chain, Chain, Chain
Chain of fools

Saturday, March 3, 2018

My Grandfather Did

At last week's "Logging with Draft Animals" class, (Here's a short video from the class, as a bonus) we frequently mentioned a similar answer to students' questions: "Because my Grandfather did it that way." 

Brandt Ainsworth's Hickory Bows- with bark.
Duane Westrate first used it as an answer to a question about horse harnesses.  "I do it that way because my Grandfather did," but then the answer seemed to take on a life of its own: explaining everything from using oxbows with the bark on the outside, continuing to work oxen in a "modern" world (we'll ignore for now the assumption that oxen are incongruous with progress), to the etymology of words like "gee" and "haw." 

Never was the answer given instead of a solid reason, but alongside one.  Duane Westrate is a first-rate horseman, and while he's reluctant to change things, that's not because he's a Luddite; He's got a process that works, and change-for-change's-sake doesn't fit with his worldview.  Brandt Ainsworth, who was visiting as the lead instructor for the class, used the phrase in a similar way, more like: "It's done this way because it works to do it this way," rather than: "We do it this way as an homage to the past, and now please don't step on my leather shoe buckles or knock over my whale oil lamp."

In a nutshell, if you're going to change, do it for a good reason. 
A crop is durable.  And will stand in the snow.

This leads to a thorny problem I'm wrestling with:  a crop or a goad.  I've always used a nylon "crop" (Buggy whip, lash, etc.) because Dulcy used one and she taught me to drive oxen.  They're readily available, cheap, and durable (I haven't bought one in a couple of years), but they lack a certain style, they can be inaccurate for correcting an animal, and they're a bit manic in their motion.  A goad stick lacks the reach of a crop and the ability to crack in the air but possesses a steadiness and authority that's hard to deny.

Ivy Pagliari, Tillers' on-staff oxen teamster, spent a little time in New England this winter and came back with a nice, White Oak goad stick.  She commented on how well it was working for her and so I spent all of Sunday using it with a single ox and with the yearlings. 
Frank, Sparrow, Ivy, Goad

The jury isn't back yet, but I may switch to a goad stick for an extended time.  Woodworking writer Christopher Schwarz advises that when you build a workbench, you should spend a full year working at it before you change a thing about it.  Then you'll know what works and what doesn't.  I like my crop, but don't love my crop. 

What to do?  My grandfather didn't drive oxen.  Stay tuned, I guess.
A twisted goad I'm working on.  Steam-bent Ash