Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Our family enjoys cooking – a lot. We consider both the process and the product a real treat. Over Christmas, we had an Indian meal made by Laurel and her husband, Gautam, and a Greek meal made by Amber and her husband Jesse. The little boys helped cut out Christmas cookies, Dave and his Mom made sure we had fresh bread and soup for lunch, and I pitched in wherever needed. Not only did we eat great meals, but we had wonderful times in the kitchen cooking. We indulged ourselves with food and family.
It’s not surprising that we also give gifts that are created in the kitchen. Amber made nasturtium vinegars for her clients for Christmas and Dave made limoncello. One of the most successful food gifts this year was a butterscotch sauce that Laurel found the recipe for in the December issue of Real Simple. This sauce doesn’t get too hard in the fridge and it doesn’t separate when you warm it in the microwave. It tastes great on an apple cake, but it tastes even better on vanilla ice cream where the rich, buttery brown sugar flavor of the butterscotch comes into its own. This sundae is full of butter and cream and sugar – not good for you in any nutritional sense of the phrase, but definitely good for you in a spiritual sense. In the depths of winter, when your relatives have all gone home and it feels like a million years until spring, make up a batch of butterscotch sauce, invite friends for supper and indulge yourself and your friends with a treat you’ve cooked yourself. 

Butterscotch Sauce
1 cup unsalted butter
2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add brown sugar and cook, stirring frequently until smooth, 2 - 3 minutes. Add cream. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 10 – 12 minutes. Stir in vanilla extract and salt. Let cool. Refrigerate for up to a month.

Friday, January 18, 2013

From Sheep to Shawl

Nest by Katy Olson
Sumac Vest by Sharon Marquardt

One of the nice things about being a shepherdess and a fiber artist is that I am intimately connected to every step in the process of creating a piece of art. At the most basic, I choose the breed of sheep which will produce the wool I use. Over the last thirty years I’ve shifted the flock from strong, lustrous Lincoln cross wools  to soft crimpy Rambouillet cross wools as I shifted from spinning weaving yarns to knitting yarns.
I choose the dyes I use – commercial, Kool Aide™ or natural – depending on the effect I want. I choose the techniques. Do I want a fine yarn or a bulky yarn? Do I choose to weave a rectilinear piece on a loom or a less controlled collage of Ojibway Dream Nets? Does the visual interest derive from color, as in a Scandinavian sweater, or from stitch as in a crocheted shawl. Will I knit, crochet, weave or felt to get the effect I want?

Right now, I’m working with large three dimensional pieces in felt. I don’t even have wall space big enough for my latest. But that’s okay; it was designed for From Sheep to Shawl, a traveling fiber exhibit on which I am collaborating with three friends, Karen Aakre, Katy Olson and Sharon Marquardt. From Sheep to Shawl looks at the history of fiber work, from the prehistoric to the present, it talks about the ideas of craft and art and the differences between the two. Hopefully, it shows that craft can be art.

Last week, I helped hang the exhibit at the Stevens County Historical Society Museum. The Museum has a beautiful gallery with high ceilings and perfect lighting. The woven coverlets, felted vests and boots, knit sweaters, stenciled shinfeller pieces and felted sculptures glow against the walls. The four of us have traveled different directions in our work, but the colors and textures and shapes bring the pieces together into one glorious whole. I felt such joy as I gazed around the room. Such a simple thing to tangle wool fibers together, and yet the finished work is intricate and beautiful.

Color wheel by Joan Ellison
From Sheep to Shawl will be on display at the Stevens County Historical Society Museum until February 28. Karen Aakre will be offering a shinfeller workshop on Saturday, February 23. Contact the Museum to register for the workshop. 

From Sheep to Shawl will be traveling for the next year. If you live in west central Minnesota, keep your eyes open, it may come to a venue near you.

Shinfeller Vest by Karen Aakre

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bitter cold

My definition of cold changes as winter progresses.  My choice of appropriate clothing changes along with it.  In the fall, cold means the thermometer has dropped to 32 degrees. I put on a coat, gloves and a hat when I go out.  When the thermometer hits 0 degrees F, I trade my winter coat for my knee length down coat with a hood and the wool hat, scarf and mittens (with wool liner gloves underneath) and enjoy the really cold weather.  Bitter cold means that the temperature is way below zero and the wind is blowing. Bitter cold means that the temperature is dangerous.
It’s bitter cold! I thought yesterday morning when I went out to feed the sheep. The thermometer read 3 degrees below zero.  I was wearing my standard, lined leather work gloves and they were definitely not warm enough. But the scarf, wool hat and hard work kept the rest of me warm as my fingers got colder and colder.  I’m just glad I’m not a sheep, I thought as I wrapped my cold, gloved fingers around the twines on a bale and tossed it out the door of the mow.
The sheep don’t seem to mind the cold much.  They hang out by the hay feeders, relaxing in the sun, out of the wind. The goats however, spend much of their time in the barn. And Lady, the oldest, thinnest doe of the flock, shivers all the time. We’ve been hand feeding her corn all winter. Although it meant extra time feeding and fending off the other goats who felt they should also have corn, I enjoyed getting to know Lady better, that she was not afraid of me.
Yesterday wasn’t actually bitter cold, there was no wind and the temperature was barely below zero. It was only really cold. I curled my fingers into the main part of my gloves to warm them between bales. By the time I finished hauling the tenth bale out into the field, my fingers were tingling. A good sign that meant they’d been cold and were finally warming up. That’s when I noticed that Lady hadn’t come to me, ready for her corn.  She wasn’t with the other animals gobbling up fresh hay.
Lady lay in the barn, cold and dead. For her, the below zero temperatures had been bitter cold.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Walking Icy Through the Night

Black ice on the road, too slippery
For even the cautious little steps
Of our desperate dance for balance;
Arms outstretched, muscles tensed,
Focused on stability, intent on schedule

Ice coated grasses crunch underfoot.
Tree branches clatter in the wind.
Mist mutes the highway sounds.
Even farm dogs barking as we pass
Don’t pierce our cocoons.

No moon, no stars, yet the air glows.
Reflections in the mist of far off city lights
And lonely farms beckoning.
Underfoot, patches of snow gleam white
Tracing a safe path through the chrysalis of night.

The mist in the air, dew drops on my eyelashes,
Changes even the pebbles on the road
With layer upon layer of ice
Until every surface
Is encased, agate.

Then, without thinking, our steps slow, breathing stills.
We lift our faces to the mist
And step from our cocoons of time and schedule
Metamorphosed there, on the road,
By walking icy through the night.

Monday, January 7, 2013


We’ve been farming for almost 32 years now. Those first couple of years were sort of experimental, fifty chicks here, a goat on a rope there, syruping in March, and extracting honey in October. We gradually built outbuildings, tilled fields and stretched fences as we had time and labor to help.

We had young friends who needed summer jobs for the first few years of building. Then our kids, Amber and Laurel, began helping on a daily basis. Summers we hired their friends to help with baling, and thistle patrol. When they went off to college, we invited their boyfriends up for the summer. We got lots of work done and came to appreciate the young men our girls had chosen. Now, our kids have families of their own and no time to return home to work on the farm.

After thirty or so years, the outbuildings and the fences are beginning to show their age and the thistles need just as much patrolling as they ever did. Even a farm as small as ours needs someone working almost full time to stay ahead on chores. It has become obvious that Dave and I were not keeping up; we’re not willing to give up one of our other passions to spend more time on farm work.

The last three summers we’ve hired young friends to work for us full time. Haying was easier, the thistles are in decline, the young trees have all been well mulched, sheep coats repaired, and gardens weeded. But the fences and outbuildings continue to deteriorate. When we first began farming I went to buy sheep at a farm that had gates repaired with baling twine, holes in barn walls patched with plywood and fencing reinforced with branches. I was appalled! What lazy farmers.

Now as I look at our outbuildings repaired with plywood and still leaning, at our fences repaired with baling twine and hog panels, and at our gates propped in the back yard, waiting for repair, while the opening in the fence is blocked by a hog panel, I realize that it wasn’t laziness or bad farming that I saw all those years ago, it was tired farmers with too much to do and not enough time to do it.

Most small farmers work out – that is they make a living doing something besides farming. Farming is their life – they do it because they love it, but they can’t live off the proceeds. You can’t pay for health insurance with a load of buttercup squash or cover your taxes with a box of wool. Of course because we farm we have great meat, our fields are healthy and productive most years, we have manure to dig into our vegetable gardens and thus have wonderful produce in the  summer and to can and freeze for winter, and I have enough wool and yarn to last several lifetimes. We farm because that is how we choose to live, not because we will get rich.

Time versus money is a tightrope that all farmers walk. If you had money you could pay for help on the farm. But you need to raise more animals or to plant more fields to earn enough money to hire the help. And that takes time and money. For now, we’ll hire help when we find young people who need jobs and are willing to work hard at hard labor, and we’ll repair and rebuild as time and funding allow. Meanwhile, our grandsons love the sheep. Maybe the day is coming when they’ll ask to help with repairs.