In One-Woman Farm (Storey Publishing, 2013), author Jenna Woginrich shares the joys, sorrows, trials and epiphanies during a year on her own land, while finding deep fulfillment in the practical tasks and timeless rituals of the agricultural life. In this excerpt from the section, “Autumn,” Woginrich shares her thoughts on summer’s end and how she prepares the farm for colder months.
November: Summer’s End
November mornings are a frantic place to spend your time, at least in Washington County. The parade is over. The skeletal trees hang around like horror-film extras, and every day we expect flurries and frost. And even if we’re not made jumpy by meteorologists, we don’t let ourselves get too comfortable either.
We use these Days of Grace to prepare for the months ahead. The certainty of winter falls heavy, and you can’t drive three miles into town without seeing dump trucks full of firewood, sliding past the fuel-oil truck chuggin’ toward you from the opposite direction. No one is coasting. Farmers either use every moment to finish those sacred last-minute tasks before snowfly or they’ve already sealed the envelope on the season, far more concerned now with deer camp arrangements.
1 November. Samhain
Back in the eighth century, Pope Gregory chose November 1 for All Saints Day’s because the Celts were then already observing a fire festival known as Samhain (pronounced sow-en, Gaelic for summer’s end).
Lots of rumors and mythology swirl around the old holiday, but Samhain was not about sacrificial goats or satanic rituals. It honored family members who had died during the harvest year. It was a time to take inventory of seeds, herbs, and grain stores for the long winter ahead. Perhaps it developed its current dark mystique because it said goodbye to the daylight half of the year and marked the beginning of the darker half. And with the work of growing the winter’s food done, there was finally time for both reflection and sorrow.
Samhain is a quiet day here. I think of the people I lost, through death or the entropy of lives moving in different directions. At sunset I light a bright white candle and spend a little time remembering them. It’s a humble ritual, but one that keeps me grounded around all the harvest parties and celebrations. It carries me through.
3 November. Winter Pig
Back in Vermont I started the tradition of the Winter Pig. In late fall, after Hallows, I buy a feeder pig or two. This year, ten-week-old Pig will live in the barn until she is ready to be harvested in February.
That may seem like an odd time of year to be putting pork in the freezer, but for this small farm it makes perfect sense. Winter means that the pen in the corner of my barn is safe and comfortable for Pig. In summer it would be a hot, smelly mess. Most people raise pork on pasture, but the precious little pasture and wood space I have goes to animals not raised for slaughter, like horses and wool sheep. Also, around here pigs get loose all the time and wander into the woods and neighboring farms, causing damage and accidents a-plenty.
Raising Pig in winter keeps down the hassle and smell, and since a comfort-loving pig is more likely to eat and nap in the barn than escape, she grows fast and true. And when Valentine’s Day hits around this farm, my thoughts are red—but not about paper hearts. I am looking up recipes for how to cook real ones. Take that, Martha Stewart.
8 November. Vermont Bun Baker
My first winter as a smallholder in Vermont, it dropped below zero for weeks. I kept having to call the nice people at the fuel oil company to deliver more of their sludge into my house. I was spending more than $400 a month just to keep the thermostat at 50 degrees. Jazz and Annie, my two aging huskies, were welcomed in the quilt-covered bed with my sheepdog. Yes, that winter I learned what a “three-dog night” really means.
Much as I loved my dog pile, I was ready to add some alternative heating to my farmhouse, and I opted for the traditional firewood-burning woodstove. I want to be out in the forest harvesting trees off my own land and using my own horse to pull them to the chopping blocks.
Wood is held sacred in many cultures, but few as much as the Celts. Oak, Ash, and Thorn were the holy trio of woods to the Druids, and the word Druid actually derives from the Gaelic Dru, meaning oak.
Locust makes the finest fence posts, and a birch sapling twig hung on the front door protects from a storm. The practical and the traditional thrive here.
My Vermont Bun Baker is a winter farmer’s dream. I loaded it up with wood first thing this miserable November morning and set my big steel percolator with the heavy bottom on top of it, rancher style. There’s room for a kettle of hot water too. When I finish haying the sheep and horse and refilling chicken and rabbit feed and water containers, I come inside to a warm house, a hot cup of coffee, and a steaming teapot ready to pour over a simple breakfast of oatmeal.
The fire keeps the farmer going, and thus the farm. I can tend to them, all of them—from the sleeping sheep on the hill to the chickens on their wind-proof roosts. It is a comfort on cold nights to know it has been that way since the Druids prayed so long ago and far away.
Excerpted from One-Woman Farm © Jenna Woginrich, illustrations © Emma Dibben used with permission from Storey Publishing, 2013.