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

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? 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

3-Legged Stools

I've been working on a Peter Galbert-designed 3-legged perch.  It's odd in that that legs all rake toward the front of the stool (I know, it's hard to imagine) relative to the bottom of the seat, but since the front leg is so much shorter, the seat slopes 10 degrees and it works.

Perch "in the white," meaning without paint.
I used ash for all of the legs, but I only had 2 long pieces to turn for the back legs.  For the front leg, I used a piece that was an inch shorter than the plans called for.  Upon leveling the stool the first time, I couldn't bring myself to cut an inch from the back legs.  Hence, the stool sloped more than 10 degrees.  It sat ok, but not quite right.  Working up the nerve to cut the back legs wasn't easy, but now that I have, all seems right with the world, or at least the small corner of the world where the new perch sits.

The funny, and hopefully obvious, thing is:  the stool sits solidly no matter what.  Three legs are hard to beat in terms of stability.  Unless you are an ox.  Then, three legs are not quite good enough.

Zeus, my Dutch Belted ox, has been nursing a sore leg for months now.  The second week of November I put him out with the other two boys for a short time to graze, but when I got ready to put them back in their paddock, he was not very mobile.  He could stand on three legs, but couldn't put weight on his left rear leg.  He had to hop to get anywhere. 

Rather than let them push him around, I made a quick temporary paddock with one hot wire in the yard before dark that night, thinking he'd be ok shortly, but it became his new home through Thanksgiving and on toward December. 

Zeus' leg early on, with quite a bit of swelling.
He never got so bad that he couldn't move at all, but the pain he was obviously in ebbed and flowed, depending on the day.  The vet was out once to assess him that first week and I gave him painkillers and anti-inflammatories, as Doc thought he most likely had a soft tissue injury. 

In early December, he went back in with Brutus and Cassius but was still walking stiffly.  By the time January arrived, I was starting to imagine him as a pet without much labor value anymore; His leg just didn't want to get better.

Thankfully, though, the last month has seen steady improvement.  In the last two weeks, he's even been in the yoke with Cassius, once to simply walk for a few minutes and once to pull a light load. 

Keep your fingers crossed that the three-legged stools all come out of the woodshop and not the pasture.  I like them better that way.