Monday, September 17, 2018

Bueller? Bueller?

8, 7, and 5 inch yokes hanging on pegs on a
"yoke tree" made from 2 by 3 cherry.
Oxen people aren't unhelpful by nature.  Quite the contrary, most I know are beyond helpful.  They share knowledge, equipment, and advice.  There's almost nothing they won't share.  Almost.

Got a feed question?  They'll happily help.

Yoke fit?  They'll come on over and get ya set.

Cattle health concern?  They've got three stories about a homemade cure and one about their trusty vet's advice.

Bulls hauling out?  They've got three things to try, one that worked for grandpa, one they tried, and one
9" double yoke out of the way, with the bow doing
service in the 10" single yoke.
that isn't likely to work, but it still makes for a good story.

Mower not adjusted right?  They've got an extra copy of the manual tucked away for you, a checklist they used when they rebuilt one last season and the links to the three best Youtube videos to consult.

Need an old picture identified?  Oh, please.  Not only do they know the grand-niece of the guy in the photo, she won a blue ribbon two summers ago in the fair in the next town.

The 10" yoke rack.  I'm not sure it must be
a 2-year-old bale of hay, but that's what I use.
Can't find your copy of "Oxen: a Teamster's Guide?"  They picked up an extra last year, knowing someone would want it someday.

Broken bow?  They'll drop it off tonight, so you can get back to the woods tomorrow.

However. . .

Ask about yoke storage?  Crickets.

Kesi mardana-Dasa fell into that trap a few weeks
Pegs in the yoke tree.
ago on Facebook.  The silence was deafening.

A couple of years ago, I asked MODA folks, looking for content for the newsletter, about how they house their animals. . .   Nothing.  Bueller?  Bueller? 

I have a couple of hypotheses about this.  Either:

Halters on the left, lead ropes on the right.
Hooks from a garage sale. . .I think.

1. We oxen people are a bit embarrassed that the barn is messier than we'd like.


2.  The barn is pretty nice and oxen people don't want to seem braggadocious.

No matter, I'd be glad to start the group therapy session right here.  Sprinkled throughout are photos of the barn. No clean up, cropping, or special lighting.  Not too impressive, but I'm ok with that.  Perfection is a hobby I don't plan to pursue.
Rakes on pegs, near pegs, and within
spitting distance of pegs.

We'd love to see your yokes and housing.  We won't judge.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Sweet Job

After our cross country meet yesterday, I drove out to Tillers for their fall Harvest Fest.  They had the farm and shops open to meet guests and show folks the great work they're doing both in Michigan and Internationally.

The weather was a bit warm for the oxen, 84 degrees and sunny.  The job at hand was pressing sorghum.  A single ox, Blue and then Pollux, pulls the sweep around an old Chattanooga press while someone feeds the stalks into it.  A bucket catches the juice, usually several times more concentrated than maple sap, which is then poured into a boiler to cook down to a thick, sweet, molasses-like syrup. 

Thomas Philbrick was driving the ox, Ivy was answering questions and hauling the buckets of juice, and Jarrah was feeding stalks.  After a bit I took a turn at driving.  It took a lap or so to get the feel of where to position myself to keep Pollux out far enough to remove the distraction of stepping over those sweet stalks, but then all was good. 

All in all, a great afternoon watching a traditional autumn job. 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Fill a Thimble

I'm ignorant of many things.  French literature.  Welding.  The secret to making a great Pasta Carbonara, though on that front I've tried often.

Specific to draft animals, horses baffle me.  I ask Duane Westrate lots of pretty basic questions and I drove Tillers horses once, pulling a log.  I lived to tell the tale, so I figure I'm done.

Headyokes for oxen are like that.  I know the idea and I can see the appeal, but you could probably fill a thimble half-full with my expertise in that area.

So, I make no commentary on this video.  I just stood over Dale's shoulder and filmed him re-adjusting his off-ox's straps, while he chatted with Thomas Philbrick at the Ingham County Fair this week.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

When The Time Comes

Note:  Today's entry comes from longtime MODA member and oxen ambassador Jim Whelan.

Most of you have read or written a story of an ox having to be put down due to age or an illness causing the writer to think and write of the times the drover and the ox had together.  And I can assume that most of the readers are assuming that this is the reason for this blog. Percy and Carter have made a few contributions to the MODA blog but this time the blog is being written by and about their owner Jim Whelan.
No, this blog is not about the demise of Chub, Jerry. Percy or Carter (whew!!!).  It is a few thoughts about me, the ox drover. No, I am not writing this from the hereafter (another whew).  It is about my feelings as I determined that it was my time to retire from ox droving.
I am 76 and my wife is a little younger.  I wanted to think that I was still 36 and attempted to keep a lifestyle that reflected that age.  Unfortunately, my real body looked at it in reality and as time progressed my doctor and specialists visits reflected my real age.  My medicine cabinet kept filling up with drugs I could not pronounce or did not understand what ailment they were supposed to cure or lessen the effects on my body.
As I have most of my life I tried to accomplish tasks that seemed hard or impossible for most.  This was my attitude toward my oxen. It wasn’t long before my brain started catching up with me and kept telling my body “what are you trying to do”.  And I suppose I will always remember the ox drover who told me “it just didn’t seem right for my wife to have to go out in the freezing cold to tend to the ox since I didn’t feel up to doing it”  Some of you will remember the drover I quoted in that sentence, I know I will because the reality of this sentence came back to me.
I should have recognized this two, maybe four years ago but my mind was in denial.  It started slowly but looking back I can see where it became hard to keep up with Percy and Carter and I had to whoa them while my body rested.  The stops kept getting more frequent as time went on. As I look back I honestly believe that Percy and Carter recognized this and took advantage of this weakness whenever possible.  When others would drive them they moved and responded to commands like they used to for me.
I honestly believe God sent me this young man who would be the new owner of all four oxen. He sent him to me at one of our demonstrations.  The young man demonstrated a real interest in oxen and we maintained contact through time. I had visited his farm, met his family and was really impressed by his interest in oxen.
When the time came I asked him if he would be willing to take all four oxen and his immediate answer was “yes”.  He has worked wonders with them and I have watched their performance at one of their festival appearances. I am certain his farm was the place for the oxen.
As I look back I should have recognized my limitations many, many years ago.  It would have been better for the oxen and for me. My advice to all drovers be prepared for “when the time comes” and don’t maintain a tough attitude. This time will inevitably come without any reservations.   I certainly experienced many good times these past years but I regret that Percy and Carter did not have the option of having a capable drover to work them on a regular basis.
DO I MISS THEM??  Hell yes. Almost every morning when I wake up I look out to their pasture and remember them.  Nancy and have sold the farm and are moving to the city in Northwest Indiana closer to family. So starts another phase in our lives.


Saturday, July 28, 2018

Two scoops

Perhaps it's the cynic in me, but I forever question the marketing of Kellogg's Raisin Bran as having "two scoops" of raisins.  Setting aside the idea that these longshoremen are basically quitting their job for an oceanside meal of cereal, the "scoop" is not a defined unit of measurement.  Even as a kid, I figured Kelloggs would downwardly adjust the scoop size when raisin prices rose. 

The slogan popped into my head yesterday when we were cleaning ox pies from the yard and the dry lot where the boys spend much of their time.  I run a hotwire around certain parts of the yard and graze the boys (see: "Cutting the Grass: Part 1").  Although my yard will never be confused with a golf course, oxen-sized droppings are a bit much. 
Waiting patiently for unloading. . .and photos.

Often, I pull a slip scraper to haul dirt or manure.  Very useful as a digging tool, slip scrapers are equally handy being used like a wheelbarrow without the lifitng.  The curved sides hold a load and they "slip" across the grass without digging in.  That's scoop one.

The second scoop is an aluminum scoop shovel.  Why it never occured to me before baffles me, but for years I've picked up pies with a spade or a fork.  But no more.  Scoop #2 works like a charm. 

After the work is done, the boys relax.
When we get to the compost pile to unload, the scoop shovel really shines.  (Metaphorically, of course.  By that point it's well-covered in ox poop!)  It rides the curve of the slip scraper and 7 or 8 scoops later- eat your heart out Kellogs- we're ready for another load. 

Happy scooping. 

Friday, July 20, 2018


"Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." - Lou Gehrig

Yes, it’s a funny little potion, Felix Felicis,” said Slughorn. “Desperately tricky to make, and disastrous to get wrong. However, if brewed correctly, as this has been, you will find that all your endeavors tend to succeed… at least until the effects wear off.”
“Why don’t people drink it all the time, sir?” said Terry Boot eagerly.
“Because if taken in excess, it causes giddiness, recklessness, and dangerous overconfidence,” said Slughorn. “Too much of a good thing, you know… highly toxic in large quantities. But taken sparingly, and very occasionally…”
“Have you ever taken it, sir?” asked Michael Corner with great interest.
“Twice in my life,” said Slughorn. “Once when I was twenty-four, once when I was fifty-seven. Two tablespoonfuls taken with breakfast. Two perfect days.”
He gazed dreamily into the distance. Whether he was playacting or not, thought Harry, the effect was good.  - JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Johnny Carson used to have a a dream that he was flying over Los Angeles after particularly good shows.   As far as I know, my health is fine, so quoting Lou Gehrig's retirement speech might appear strange.  But, it's one of those quotes that swims to the surface when I'm having a good day.   My girls' cross country team qualified for the state finals last fall:  There was Lou.  My son and I climbed the bell towers of Notre Dame and photographed the gargoyles up close: Lou.  

The world of oxen also produces "Lou worthy" days for me, with surprising frequency.  I am (slowly) collecting interviews with teamsters for a book project, and they always make me think of Lou.  A dozen master teamsters or more have gifted me with their time and expertise.  Each time, I feel like I've gotten to witness something special and nothing but dumb luck made it happen.

This week, I fell into yet another Lou day.  Tillers International was hosting the Farming with Horses and Oxen class and I was helping out for a day, mid-week.  While it hasn't rained yet this week, the oppressive heat of Monday shifted to an 80 degree day with blue skies, wispy clouds and low humidity.  A scone and a good cup of coffee (possibly unwittingly spiked with Felix Felicis?) on the way and I arrived before 9:00 AM.  

At this point, I'll just list the Lou moments.  Narrating fully would just be bragging.

- A nice chat with various Tillers' staff as I went looking for the class.

- A visit in the Draft Animal Barn while the horses were harnessed.

- An hour spent Yoking Blue and cultivating the corn while the horses clipped a pasture across the lane.

- A visit with the Wengerd kids, Brian and James, who had ridden up from Pioneer Equipment in Ohio for the day, and were on their way to go fishing in the stream.

- An introduction to Claude, who was there from Cameroon, in Central Africa, to see animal-powered farming with the hope of returning with new ideas for crop production.

- A fencerow visit with Duane Westrate, Elise and Domenico Musumeci while watching the horses work.  

- A smashed hand when the wrench slipped while trying to remove a broken seat from the mower (this is included because the list is starting to sound like an overblown travel brochure and to prove that I didn't take Felix Felicis- an illegal potion in the magical world)

- Lunch

- A couple of hours spent trying out a new set of finger weeders on the Pioneer Homesteader.

- A chance to see Richard Roosenberg driving the oxen while cultivating, always a clinic in an effective, minimalist approach.

- A walk up to the Spring Hill barn with Chris- a student in the class who practices living history near Dayton, Ohio- driving the yearling steers.

- An interview with Elise and Domenico about the Jourdant, a French, vineyard plow they are testing. 

Lucky.  Where have you been lucky with oxen?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Prisons of our Own Making

We all intuitively understand the rules. Posts about engagements and babies will receive ravenous applause. News about a grandparent passing away will elicit virtual hugs. But fears about not making rent, marital tensions, hesitations about becoming a parent? Those are verboten. - Shankar Vedantem, Hidden Brain Podcast

We're not officially in a drought, the weather people tell us, but we're getting along the path to one.  With the forecast saying it might rain early next week, it seemed a good time to make hay.  

Tuesday, my dad cut the pasture with his John Deere B and No. 5 sickle bar mower.  By Wednesday night, the leaves were already falling off the alfalfa due to the dryness.  Baling it would probably make it worse, so Thursday afternoon, I got Zeus and Cassius out to bring it in loose on a wagon.

Lately, they've been developing a bad habit of trying to graze in the yoke.  So I made the decision to put their nose baskets on.  

Wait a minute. . .nose baskets??  

Aren't I supposed to be some kind of expert?  Don't well-trained teams not need nose-baskets?  Isn't it all about training. Haven't I written before about not needing nose baskets? Am I just some poser?

Well, maybe.  Sure. Again, sure. Yes.  And, of course I am.

The social media age has encouraged all of us to compare our lives with everyone else's.  Posting carefully curated images (like the ones accompanying this post!) helps us keep up with the virtual Joneses and their well-trained animals, clean equipment, and idyllic farms.  It's given us all the ability to live under our own bridge and wait for the next victim to come clip-clopping over, if we'd like.

If we can really provide any service with this blog, hopefully, it's to show that a million little failures are needed along the way.  Oxen are great, but the road can be bumpy.

So, yeah, I'm a poser.  The boys needed nose baskets.  I'll try to get their manners straightened out.

But for the time being, the hay is in the barn, and we had a nice afternoon.  Honest.  

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Kerf's Up!

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. ”
- Michelangelo

Having previously established that carving large yokes is not fun, we next move on to Michelangelo.  Of course, we should agree that his quote is a bit fudged- using English idioms to make a point- but carving a yoke is largely similar to carving a pieta: get rid of what doesn't belong.

I favor band-sawing yokes when practical.  Although hardly traditional, the band saw gets you closer to a finished yoke faster than any other method.  Last fall, Kesi-Mardana Dasa and I worked on a 7-inch yoke and went from a blank to a nearly-finished yoke in just a few hours.

But that was a 7-inch yoke.

The current project is an 11-inch elm yoke.  Tillers' 18-inch Powermatic band saw has the power to cut the workpiece without much struggle, but maneuvering a 100 lb. timber up onto the saw and then guiding it compares to bringing the mountain to Mohammad.

John Sarge describes the process as being straightforward as long as you have one or two helpers:  One person acts as the sawyer- guiding the cut- while the other(s) supports the piece and moves with it, but doesn't steer it.  If they do, it's easy to pinch, then break, the saw blade.

How then to remove a lot of material quickly, once we've gotten the general shape for the neck seats chopped out with chainsaw, adze and broadax (see link above)?

A circular saw, set to varying depths along the length of the belly of the yoke, will waste out a lot of material in a relative hurry.  If you're careful to make the saw kerfs closely spaced (about a half-inch apart), much of the material can be broken out with a mallet, with the rest needing some chisel work.
Apply equal parts club and chisel.
The surface isn't terribly smooth once this step is done, resembling the surface of the Death Star, but we're that much closer to "freeing the angel," and are ready to move onto the next tool in the process.
That's no moon.  It's a space station. . .

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Dirty Secret of Big Yokes

Pssst, here's a little secret about yoke building:  It's a necessary evil.  Oh sure, you can buy yokes, but for the most part, a teamster needs to make some yokes.  Yet, making them is no fun.

Carving one yoke isn't bad.  I'm jealous of the students in Oxen Basics each year.  As beginners, they get to build a 5" or 6" yoke.  Once, an intern at Tillers even made a 3.5" yoke for her Dexter heifers (It looked like a yoke for the wall of a doll house.)  Those can be fun to make- at least once.

Training yokes are small.  They can be carved with hand tools in a few hours, but more importantly, you can pick up the blank as you work and turn it around to get a better angle on things.

Plus, that first yoke feels like a project.  You start. . . you finish.  After that, though, each yoke just feels like "the next one."  And as they get bigger, moving and turning yoke blanks resembles helping your college friends move a couch up a flight of stairs.

Carving a big yoke- say, a 10" or 11"- requires removing a lot of material.  If it doesn't look like a yoke, it's got to go.

I have an 11" Elm blank I'm working on.  I started it last year (2017) in Oxen Basics with drilling the bow holes.  Using a timber boring machine, Tom Nehil and I each drilled 2 holes.  My shoulders were plenty sore from that, and helping with 6 students building yokes that week, that was as far as I got.

Tom Nehil making the Elm chips fly.
This year, I used a chainsaw to cut relief cuts in the blank with the idea of eventually bandsawing it out.

Ed Nelson changed this process when he brought out a few hand adzes he'd made.  Tom and I then spent some time chopping away with the various adzes.  Then, Tom brought in a small broadaxe he rehandled and we chopped a little more.

By the end of the week, the blank had a decidedly "yoke-like" shape and I took it home to continue the process.  Stay tuned for more chip-making, along with a suggestion or two for speeding up the drudgery.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Side Effects: Unexplained Bruising

Having spent the last 10 days in close contact with my three oxen, along with Tillers' nine oxen, working steers and calves (I was helping to teach the Oxen Basics class and attending the Gathering), I've come to the realization that oxen need to come with a list of side effects similar to those medicines where the commercial's 30 seconds are divided into 10 seconds of 'what it does' and 20 seconds of 'why taking this makes it likely you'll die a horrific death tomorrow.'

I think the ad copy would go a little like this:

Oxen: a great solution to getting hay mowed, sorghum cultivated, and logs hauled.  Available in single doses, pairs, or bigger teams for those stubborn problems. 

No problems so far.  Now, onto the warning label:

Side effects may include:  
- A loss of all free time, which may be directly proportional to the quality of your fencing, housing, and water delivery system.

- An inability to simply state directions in common, local vernacular language.  Examples may include (but are not limited to): "Haw them a bit." in place of "Turn left."
Figure A

- Unexplained Bruising, particularly in your right arm, which may be worsened by driving an animal with horns that turn up and out, especially when said animal rocks his head more than most similarly-sized animals.  (see figure A).

- More unexplained bruising, particularly in the knuckles region, most especially when scrub planing white oak boards into tapers for Sterling College Interns.  

- Sore feet, most generally on the right foot, which may correlate with the number of haw adjustments  (that means 'left" for those suffering from side effect #2)  done while cultivating sorghum.  Foot soreness may radiate out in a hoof-shaped pattern, although this effect may be lessened by the softness of the ground.

- Bleeding at the site of a drawknife slice, nearly 100% related to picking up, putting down, or storing the tool and nearly 0% (ever!) related to actually using the tool for yokemaking.

- Foolish feelings resulting from telling students to be careful when storing drawknives and then noticing "Bleeding at the site of a drawknife slice."

If you experience any of these symptoms, apply duct tape and swearing as needed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Going Dutch: Shameless Commerce Division Part 2

Dr. Brenda works more efficiently than I do, I think.  Her beautiful quilt for the MODA raffle has been done for weeks, while I've been chipping slowly away at the 3rd prize: an oxen med kit in a "dutch tool chest."  See the video for details:

It's been a fun project, but I want to win it back.  It's much nicer than the one I built to work out of a number of years ago.  

Anyway, if you would like to mail in a ticket, simply print them out and mail them in so they can be drawn to win on Sunday June 24.

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

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Making Tortillas

Cooking tortillas has at least one really fun element. 

I once taught my sociology students to make tortillas from scratch (along with other kinds of 'bread,' as we explored cultural variations) and that was mildly amusing.

My grandma used to fry flour tortillas in hot oil.  They puff up spectacularly and taste even better.  That's a good time.

But, the best time comes when heating raw tortillas, such as these, in a hot pan with a little butter.  If you have a pot of black beans, and some cheese, you can attempt to keep up with the cooking:  Flipping the tortillas by hand until they're done, you fill and eat each one as the next one is cooking. 

I can manage to keep up through three.  I should not be proud of this, but there it is.  With my kids, we can have someone waiting all the way up to nine. 

In the oxen world, I've found my match.  Today, I was cutting grass across the road for Brutus, Cassius, and Zeus- using a scythe, a wheelbarrow, and a rake I made.  Halfway through cutting each load, the chorus would fire back up.  Angry moos let me know that their last 'tortilla' was done and they were expecting the next. 

Maybe I should stick to standing over a hot pan and stuffing burritos in my mouth. 

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