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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Cincinnati Chili

My mom makes a good Cincinnati Chili.  Ordering it relies on a code system.  For those who've never had it, the system is pretty straight-forward:

Brandt Ainsworth, demoing "One-way."

  • Two-way: spaghetti topped with chili (also called "chili spaghetti")
  • Three-way: spaghetti, chili, and cheese
  • Four-way: spaghetti, chili, cheese, and onions
  • Four-way bean: spaghetti, chili, cheese, and beans (beans substituted for the onions)
  • Five-way: spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions, and beans

I like mine three-way.  Turns out, the same coding system helps when logging with oxen.  I like mine three-way.  
Pollux checks out the competition.

Last weekend, I spent all day Saturday and Sunday helping out with Tillers' "Logging with Draft Animals" class.  Brandt Ainsworth taught the class and was a fun to work with.  He's the real deal in terms of knowledge and experience.  (More about him in another post later) 

We had two great horse teams in the woods- Tillers' Sam and Solomon, a pair of Suffolks, and Rick Eshuis's beautiful Percheron Mares.  Plus, we had Tillers' oxen.  With 5 students and 5 instructors, getting plenty of driving for everybody was not a problem.  

On Saturday, we had Castor and Pollux, Tillers' main working team, out to give some basic instruction in driving. Then, they pulled logs with both a small logging arch and a chain.   Aside from testing the rookie drivers with their usual shenanigans, things went well.  That made for one-way. 

Sunday morning saw us back in the woods with both horse teams and Pollux in my single yoke and britchen.  It had been a while since Pollux had worked singly, but he's agile and it's always fun to see just how small of a path a single ox can follow.  We didn't skid anything that really tested him, but bringing out a few small logs still made for two-way.

For the afternoon on Sunday (following a nice lunch delivered from the Corner Cafe), we rounded out the options for working in the woods by yoking up Frank and Sparrow, Tillers' 10 month-old calves.  Ivy has been working them regularly and they were willing workers, responding beautifully to subtle changes in body position, while tolerating many beginning drivers.  Three-way.
Frank and Sparrow make it "Three-Way"

I suppose, given enough time, I'd start exploring more options for both my Cincinnati Chili and my logging.  Four-way:  Yoke two teams with a vertical evener and skid a really big log?  Five-way:?  Well, I'm not too sure about that.  Pondering that can wait for another time.  The spaghetti's almost done.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Dovetails It Is

Two little drawers for storing small things.  Nails would hold them,
but dovetails are more fun to cut, especially single ones like this.

The handmade object stands, first and foremost, for the person who made it. This may seem unremarkable at first, but consider the trend in our society towards depersonalization and disembodiment. . . an object that personifies a particular person takes on more value and meaning.

I’ll put it this way: handwork communicates. By itself, without any overlay of artistic intent, the first thing handwork communicates is that a skillful person was there.  - Bruce Metcalf, Silversmith

Sometime down the road, I'll post some pictures of my new cabinet for holding oxen "stuff-" brushes, fly spray, hoof nippers, and the like.  Why not now, you may ask?  Because it's not quite done, that's why.  But thanks for asking.

The project stalled in the dangerous spot for me.  90% done and without pressing need of its completion, I find myself moving on to projects that are more fun, such as three-legged stools.  All that remains to complete the cabinet is to wipe on a coat or two of oil finish over the milk paint and then to screw on the back, which is already painted and cut to fit.  From that point, hanging it on the wall and putting it to use should take all of five minutes.

Mr. Hilgendorf's 1/2 inch Stanley chisel gets a workout.
Gee, when I write it out like that, it seems pretty silly not to finish it up.  And I probably will finish it soon.  But the fun part is over.  All that remains for me is a squeeze of a cordless drill and a swipe with a rag.  Anybody can do that part; The dovetails are done.

The "fun part," the joinery on this cabinet, is entirely hand cut dovetails, dadoes and rabbets- sawn, planed and chiseled.  Fun stuff.  Traditional craft.

 Skill is great, but having a good tool goes a long way, too.
For joinery, nails or screws would work, but any fool can use them.  THIS fool was going to cut dovetails.  Because I could.  And now we've gotten to the oxen part of this essay.

I'm sure I can and often do, make arguments about the practicality of oxen as a power source.  But the fact of the matter is that I like traditional crafts.  Cutting dovetails, tapping trees, planing boards, and yes, driving oxen.  It's a circular argument, but if I didn't have oxen, I wouldn't need the cabinet.  Without the cabinet, I wouldn't need to learn to cut dovetails.  Without dovetails. . . yep, turtles all the way down.

We don't all need to cut dovetails, or to work oxen, or to engage in a craft rooted in skill and lore.  Except, we do.  One hand on the task, one hand on the past.  Happy working.

To read the rest of Bruce Metcalf's piece "The Hand: at the Heart of Craft," click here.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Reader's Guide

Ray Ludwig's book is great, but you have to read between the lines. - Tim Harrigan

If you understood everything I said, you'd be me.- Miles Davis

If you've found your way here, you're already aware of the dearth of books about working oxen.  Drew Conroy's Oxen: a Teamster's Guide is seen as a milestone, but hard to get- especially at a reasonable price.  Carmen Legge's Oxen: Their Care, Training, and Use is similarly definitive, albeit different in format and focus.  Finally, Ray Ludwig's self-published book The Pride and Joy of Working Cattle (available from Mr. Ludwig himself and here) rounds out the lexicon with practical, tested tips from a master trainer. 

The first two books, respectively, are pretty straightforward in terms of readability, but to get the most out of Mr. Ludwig's book, you need the "reader's guide."  Fortunately, I've published that readers guide- in its entirety- at the top of this post.  It was easy, being just one line. 

The Pride and Joy of Working Cattle assumes you know enough to follow good advice, and that you'll pay attention to doing the little things right.  Every time. Without fail. 

Eventually, I hope to put out an oral history of ox teamsters.  As part of that project, I've interviewed Mr. Ludwig twice now.  Each time engaging and soft-spoken, his style of talking mirrors his writing.  Yes, oxen can perform at an incredibly high level.  Read between the lines to figure out how. 

In this excerpt from our January 2018 conversation, Mr. Ludwig only explains what he did.  It's up to you to figure out how

Rob Collins:  Did you ever do anything particularly unusual with your oxen?

Ray Ludwig:  Well, I’d have to think about that for a while. . .

Ok, I used to be able to ride them and do stuff.  WIth my voice commands, I could sit on the hayrake and rake hay.

We went to a plowing competition up in Vermont, a fairly big one.  We got up there and I unloaded the team and unloaded my sulky plow and they had an area for practicing. So I hitched them up to the sulky plow, hopped on the seat and walked them out to the practice area.  We plowed a nice, straight furrow down through.  We got to the other end and I talked them around- didn’t get off- talked them around and they sidestepped around and they went back and we plowed two, or three, or four furrows that way.  All the ox people there couldn’t believe it; They stood there with their mouths open. (laughs)

I think that was a little unusual, but I did that a few times at plowing competitions.  In fact, one time I had two teams- a team that were two and a pair that were five or six.  Somebody asked if I could plow with both teams, you know, tandem.  I said I hadn’t done it but I’d give it a try so I hitched them both to the sulky plow and I hopped on the plow and they went right down there and made a nice straight furrow and I talked them around and they’d come around, and back another one, back another one.  They just couldn’t believe it.  

RC:  Yeah, that would seem a little unusual. . .

RL:  Well, when I was plowing here at home, that was the way I was doing it.  I would have a field and plow it that way with the sulky plow.

RC:  Did you use a walking plow as well?

RL:  Yep, I could handle a walking plow as well and the team would go along; I could talk them along. We went to another contest here in Connecticut and we used to do that every year there, just to show off a little bit.  

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Welcome. . . to Jurassic Park

The film Jurassic Park has a great, yet disturbing, scene where the velociraptors have an ox lowered into their paddock, consuming him in short order.  It's great filmmaking, showing just enough of the action, while leaving out some visual details, in order to set the viewers' minds to work.
I really know jack about feeding raptors, but with three one-ton-plus oxen, the feeding time parallels aren't lost on me.  Last year was a hard year for haymaking.  A few back-of-the-envelope calculations drive home the point:

2000 lb oxen times 3. . . 200 days of hay feeding in a typical year. . . 3.49 total acres on the Collins "farm" (I insist upon the quotes when people ask if I have a farm.). . . 2% to 2.5% of body weight in hay per animal, per day. . .  only 1.5 acres in alfalfa and grass. . . 2 sets of hot wires to graze animals outside of the actual pasture sometimes in the summer. . . 3 animals which insist on being fed every day. . . uh, oh.  
When February first rolls around and you've already bought hay a few times, it's going to be a long winter.  As they say, "half your hay, you should still have on Candlemas Day. . ."  

This year, I've been buying square bales.  Big ones.  

A high school classmate of mine lives around the corner on a road named for his family.  This should tell you all you need to know about how long they milked registered Jerseys on the family farm.  Two years ago, though, he sold the cows and became a straight-ahead crop farmer.  ("I miss the cows," he told me, "I don't miss milking.") He still makes hay to sell, though.  In 1000 lb. square bales.  

With a quick phone call or text, he brings 2, or 4, at a time, unloads them with his skid-steer, and slides them into the barn.  The bales peel off in 15 lb. flakes and I can feed the raptors.  Making hay this way is easy and my back doesn't hurt a bit.
Forks off and he pushes the bales in.
My right hip, however, is pained greatly by the experience.  Right about where the gluteus maximus attaches to the walletus emptius. 

92 more days until grazing.  I can do this.  How's your hay situation?