Category Archives: Connections

Things I’m into from people I’m into.

Sheep Skin Rug

I think there are certain people who exude serendipity. I find myself going to see these people and ending up in a chain of positive connections and events that soon grow into completely new aspect of my life that I can then call my own. In this instance, I’m thinking of Paul Smith and Mary Lake.

Through them, I started working wilderness therapy, which essentially formed the path that I’m on right now. More specifically, Paul started me on wood carving, beer brewing, and hiking as much as possible. Mary has taught me more about sheep and wool than anyone else in the world. Plus, Crokinole.

The latest improvement by association came by way of their moving out party. Every guest at the party was required to take something form the free room, which was full of stuff that they knew they weren’t going to move with. I got a mug, a carboy, and a jar of peanut butter during the party. I was also fortunate enough to be there the day before to get one item in particular…

A lovely brown sheepskin. Well, let me clarify. A potentially lovely brown sheepskin. As gross as the picture looks, it was much worse in the beginning. I essentially got a trash bag with a fresh hide in it. Like, still warm (Mary is also a butcher). I had always wanted to go about prepping one of these things, so I jumped on the chance to take it back with me.

Now, I had done a deer hide before down in Kentucky, but I was just going to use that hide to make a drum, so it didn’t matter if the hair was on it or not. Thus, I just soaked the whole thing in lye and took the hair off, then let it dry in the sun.  (Like so)

For this one, though, I wanted it to be both flexible and furry (like me! (gross)) so I knew I would have to revise my methods. After searching the internet for awhile, I learned one key thing about tanning hides: You’re going to have to pick your own method and stick with it. From the 20+ resources I looked over, I was able to find 20+ methods of tanning a sheepskin, each one unique in its process. Eggs, oil, acids, and brains were the most common methods. I chose brains because, well… because I know a butcher.

But let me start at the beginning. First, I needed to get all the moisture out of the hide. This was mostly to preserve the hide until I could get around to it, since it would eventually rot if I just left in in a pile in my garage. To do this, I placed the hide fur side down on a collapsible drying rack and covered the bare side in salt. The rack was to keep the fur from hanging onto moisture and the salt was to forcibly draw out any moisture and blood that was still in the skin. Looking back, I would have done a few things differently. First, the skin could have used a better scraping before I salted it. Even the most talented butcher usually leaves a few pieces of whatnot stuck to the hide, and these are best removed when the it’s fresh. I ended up having to scrape and tug and pull and rip what could have easily been taken off early on. Second, The laundry rack, while keeping the fur off the ground, didn’t let the hide dry in a uniform shape, which made for some unevenness later on.

After it was completely dried out (it was stiff as a board and technically rawhide at that point) I picked a warm day to start the tanning process. The whole point of this step is to loosen up the fibers in the flesh to make the end product soft and pliable. The tannins in any one of the formulas mentioned above work well at doing this. The other alternative is to
“break” the hide using your own power, which is like crumpling a piece of paper over and over again to make it soft. The problem with that method is that it takes hours and it will kill your hands. Just imagine giving the most intimidating of business handshakes about two thousand times in a row.

I opted for brains because I could get them and I was curious about what it would be like to work with them.  The first step was blending the brains, which was pretty intense. It’s one thing to work with a piece of meat. Maybe it’s repetition or just that it’s clearly food, but I never really have a mercy reaction to carving a chicken. When I saw the brain in the blender, though, I started getting headaches as I imagined what it would be like to have that done to my brain. Maybe it was the sheep messing with me, but I kept telling myself that it’s better to use the whole animal.

After liberally applying the milkshake to the bare side, I folded it in half (flesh to flesh) and let the tannins do their work for the night. Now, when I got out to it the next morning, I could tell that changes were happening. The color of the skin was beginning to lighten and even turn transparent in some spots. One thing that wasn’t ready, though, was the overall condition of the hide. One, it was still pretty dirty. Two, it smelled like a sheep. Not like, “Oh, yea! It kinda does smell like a sheep if you get real close up to it!” More like, “Dude, are you lambing in here?” The brains certainly weren’t helping. At this point I just set the whole thing in the sun on a proper hide rack (they’re easy to make!) to try to get some of the smell off. There was another step of smoking the hide that might have done the trick, but I figured that I had the laid the brains on too thick and that I sort of needed to start over.

This actually worked out well, because there was still some more cleaning to be done. There were still bits of sticks and dirt and barnyard dandruff stuck in the fir, so I decided that I was going to wash the whole thing out and try to add more oil into the skin later on.

To clean up the flesh side first, though, I came across an interesting method that suggested using cornmeal and a stone to help clean the bits off that would just get stuck in a brush (think of brushing bread dough). After spending a bit of time with this method, it went from the above, to this:

The linty bits are parts that came up during the scraping and the yellow bits are pieces of cornmeal that will never be eaten by me. This didn’t really solve the smell, but it did save me a lot of hassle once water came into the picture.

Which was accompanied by a lot of dish soap. I used Seventh Generation because I didn’t want to have to worry about what was going to run off into my yard, plus a rug that smelled like Dawn would make me gag. All together, I washed and rinsed the fur three times, making sure to work the soap and water all the way down to the hide to get rid of anything that might be smelling. After rinsing, I scrubbed the flesh side with soap to get any bits of brains off that might have stayed behind. After all these washings, fur looked a lot nicer and smelled a lot cleaner, but the skin had taken on a bunch of water.

At this point, I started breaking rules and dedicated my sheepskin to being an experiment. Even though I had bunches of different resources for what to do next, I decided to just make things up. I knew that the blood had been drawn out and that all there was in the skin was clean water. If I got all of that out, then the hide would still be preserved, but it would become stiff again. To get around this issue, I partially dried the sheepskin by putting the whole thing in the dryer on the air dry setting (heat would have cooked it) and kept checking it every couple of minutes. After a good bit of the moisture was out, I laid it fur side down on another rack and rubbed some leather conditioner into it. My logic was that the conditioner would keep the hide flexible while the water dried out of it, which seems to have worked.


So, in reflection, the hide probably would have turned out a little softer and involved less work if I’d have followed just one process, but the experience did reassure me that as long as one understands the basics of what’s needed, it’s possible to end up with a usable rug. From now on, though, I’m going to make sure that everything I tan can be used as a blanket because that’s just awesome.

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Rosaly’s Farm

I like our town.

When we first moved here, It was essentially throwing a dart at a map. “Well, what’s in between Maine and Vermont? Oh, ok. How about… this place. They have a book store.”

We’re now coming up on our first year here and I’ve found out a little more about the place. Home brewers, biodynamic farms, large scale composters, and more raw milk than I ever thought possible. We accidentally landed in an oasis of agriculture. You’d think that the Granite State wouldn’t have all that much going on for agriculture, but I think that actually is the reason for the diversity. All the thousand-acre plots of corn and soy are out in the Midwest where you don’t have to worry about hitting a boulder every ten feet. Without the pressure of subsidized farming, small farmers are free to create pretty diverse systems.

One of these small farms is Rosaly’s Farmstand in Sharon.

They’re a small biodynamic farm that mostly deals in flours and fruits. First, let me say a few things about its aesthetic value…

Jaw dropping. They’ve got a southwest seat on the slope of Temple mountain, which makes it ideal for both growing and gawking. The most interesting part of the whole property is an ancient brick farmhouse that overlooks the fields. Huge windows and flagstone courtyards make me swoon. It’s still used as a house, though, so we respectfully kept our distance.

The best thing about it, though, is the “you pick” policy that seems to apply to everything on the property. Since it’s mostly fruits and flowers, and those both do a whole lot better on the plant than in storage, they only pick a few bouquets and bushels for those who don’t have the time to wander through the rows. If you do, though, you’re doubly rewarded by the experience and the couple of dollars per pound you save on the price. With this opportunity in mind, we decided that this was going to be a fresh fruit kind of winter.

Over a few weeks, we picked about seven quarts of blueberries. Separating them was simple enough, and the same with rationing them. We just filled five quart-sized bags with the berries and marked them for the months when we’d use them. If I got a little parfait happy one month, then I just had to deal with running out before the end of the month. My goal is to keep building these seasonal food systems into my life. Not only will it make sure that we have good food for the cold times, but it’ll also build up my awareness of how much I use and convince me to waste less. It’s a whole lot easier to restrain yourself when you can see your whole store of food for the winter laid out before you.

There were still opportunities for less utilitarian systems, though. Like I said, flowers were a big part of this place. Now, I didn’t used to be a believer in flower vases in the home. Sure, I would pick a mason jar of wildflowers here and again to spruce up the place, but generally thought that paying for flowers wasn’t for me.

Well, I guess I was wrong.

I heard once that going to an art museum on a date was the best way to discover that person’s taste. You get to see what they avoid, what they appreciate, and what moves them. This exactly applies to picking flowers. There’s seems to be an expectation that certain presentations are supposed to always be a surprise, but I think it’s a mix. Getting both of you involved in picking music, food, and decor really gets some interesting things out on the table. It’s also really exciting if you meet back up and you’ve picked a lot of the same things.

So, come visit some time. Play your cards right, and there might be some pancakes.

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Back From School

Earlier this month, I went to the two week residency period that marks the beginning of my latest semester at Goddard College in Vermont. It’s a pretty intense period of personal reflection and goal setting mixed with a lot of good music and dancing and coffee. Since everyone is in the same mental space (the “What am I going to work on this semester that I feel really passionate about? category) it makes for an interesting environment. Lot’s of interesting conversations over lots of great food (shout out to Lylee!).

There’s too much to go into detail on everything, so it’s bullet time. Here are some things I came back with…

  1. This electric typewriter.

Many thanks to Jacob Mushlin for finding this in a dumpster and not needing it. It’s working like a charm.

2. A set of bones

Many thanks to Hadley Gaylord for having a cow graveyard at his farm and to Paul Smith for taking me up there to collect these.

So, why are these cool?

Well, seeing is believing. When cut to the right length, they can be rattled in one hand to make rhythms that sound a lot like clogging or tap dancing. So, with something about the size of a wallet, I’ve got a rag time snare drum. I’m still practicing on long drives (one hand still on the wheel, I swear) but I can get a pretty consistent triplet rhythm and now I’m just building confidence. Once I get to that point, I hope to start using these in music more often.


3.  Cool winter gear!

I had some consignment credit at the Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, VT so I swung by (?!) to see what there was. There happened to be a tent sale going on and their consigned gear is super cheap, so I ended up getting a 3-liter camelbak bag with the bladder, a pair of wool mitten-gloves (MiLoves), and a good had for around twenty dollars. It was awesome.

And that’s just the material things.

I also finished a couple of songs that I’d been working on for a while, got to dance a whole lot, learn about hand-drilling fires and pine tinctures, roasted a Turkey for an excellent Canadian Thanksgiving feast, and generally got to see a whole bunch of people that I don’t get to very often and miss a whole bunch.

Here’s looking forward to the next round.

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Musical Emotion

This is my friend Brandon Schaaf from Indianapolis.

If you couldn’t tell, he’s “singing” along with Bohemian Rhapsody in American Sign Language. This was one of many stellar acts for Know No Stranger’s “Optical Popsicle II,” a visual variety show that was made by anyone who wanted to get involved and cost relatively nothing. I was in town for the week leading up to the show and got to help out a lot both before and during the performances, which meant a lot of hanging out with awesome people.

I remember talking to Brandon about this particular piece, which got a standing ovation both nights, and how he felt about it.

“People are really into it, which seems weird. It doesn’t really feel like I’m doing anything special. I’m not actually singing or playing, I’m just lip syncing and air guitaring.”

He had an interesting point. I mean, I remember watching from the crowd and getting goosebumps during the performance, but I couldn’t find an answer as to why it was so moving. At least, not then.

It’s emotion.

Even if someone is performing an original song with beautiful composition and moving lyrics, the performance still feels dry if they aren’t really feeling the song, allowing the listener to really experience it. That’s what was special about Brandon’s performance. He was able to take a song that everyone knew and infuse it with his own energy and emotion so that everyone was experiencing it in a way they never had before.

This is the most important aspect of live performing for me. If the performer isn’t really amplifying the tone and emotion of the work, it’s hard to feel affected by it.

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Serindipitous Skill Saw

Meet Maria.

We met her about a month ago under while we were dumpster diving.

Allison had tipped me off that the people next door were moving out and they seemed to have a good desk in the dumpster. Now, we had been looking for a good desk for me ever since we moved here. The only work surface I had was designed for a child and I am not a child. Months of knee cramps plus the idea of saving a classy desk from the dump was enough to send me out the door in about three seconds. Allison must’ve been equally excited, since she got stung by a wasp three times on the ankle when we were walking over and was still climbing all over the dumpster with me. She was only foaming at the mouth a little, so I assumed it was her usual excited face.

We get over there and I immediately see the desk. It’s a boxy wooden frame with a huge 3-ft. X 3.5 ft. work surface and more than enough clearance for my knees. I climb in and start to wrestle it out. Just when I was about to shift the weight to the edge, I heard a polite voice from the porch.

“Do you need anything else?”

Well, this is embarrassing. I’m standing in her dumpster wearing a Young Livers shirt from high school, wrestling with her old furniture and she was just politely watching us.

The thing is, she was serious. It would be easy to read that as a sarcastic challenge. “Eh, Buddy! You wanna take any more of my stuff?!” She was totally genuine, though. Not only was she happy to see the desk used, she let us use her hose to clean it off.

She had moved to Peterborough with her Husband over forty years ago. Her kids were all grown now and her Husband recently passed away. She’s now decided to move away to retire, since maintaining the house and being a landlord is too much for her now. She now has to figure out what to do with all of their belongings that she won’t use at her new place.

This was the first time that Allison and I interacted since we’d had a huge fight the day before. Things were fragile between us and neither of us were sure where it was going. Then we’re there together, working to get this desk out of the dumpster and hearing all of Maria’s stories of her life with her husband, hearing all the heartache from losing him, and everything got a little more clear.

We had a fight.

We still loved each other.

Something of that must’ve came through, because Maria seemed pretty fond of us. So much so, in fact, that she invited us in to see if there was anything else we could use.

Here’s where the title comes in.

Her husband was primarily a teacher and a philosopher. In his spare time when he wasn’t writing, he enjoyed building things. Maria showed me his tools: a jig saw, a ratchet set, two carpenter’s squares, a clamping saw horse, a palm sander, and a circular saw.

“Do you think you could use them?” she asked me.

It’s hard to describe exactly what I felt right then. On the surface, the answer was obvious; Yes I could definitely use these and have been looking for tools like these for a good year now. There was so much more there, though. She could have sold them. She could have given them to her kids. I told her as thankfully and as humbly as I could that I could use the tools. When she told me that she would check with her oldest son first, I supported her completely and was honest that she could probably get $200 from this set.

When I got a call a few days later and was told that she would like to give them to me, I knew exactly what the first project was going to be.

Now, I’ve heard that you’re not supposed to make gifts out of first time projects. I’d certainly made enough spatulas and spoons to feel confident, and I also figured that it was a pretty safe gift for someone who was about to move.

After a few days of working on and off (dramatically decreased from the couple of weeks when I was only working with hand tools), I was able to finish this maple spatula and give it to her when we had her over for roasted chicken and root vegetables on Sunday.

For the record, this is how I want my belongings dealt with at the end of my life.

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Know No Stranger

I’m jealous of Hoosiers.

Envious of Indianapolis.

First, they get my family.

So, they’ve got that going for them.

Also, there’s this great group called Know No Stranger that my brother Michael is a big part of.

For all of you who are also in my unfortunate situation of being 893 miles away from their stomping grounds, let me give you a bulleted list of what they’re like.

  • Group Bike Rides at night to fantastic Mexican restaurants
  • Kickball open to the public in city green spaces
  • Low budget, all-ages shows with shadow puppets, dancing, music, and no political message
  • Weekly potlucks
  • Making monsters out of Styrofoam and Cardboard
  • Flash mobs to cheer people up
  • Recording a pretty fantastic Christmas Album

It makes me both happy that they exist and sad that I’m not constantly around them all.

I deal with this by telling as many people as I can about them.

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Mighty Wallet

So, my wallet has been on it’s way out for a long time. I bought it for cheap at the only store in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. It served me well for many years.

I knew that it was time to replace it,but I’m not the kind of guy to take steps backward. I’m not going to get something of equal or lesser value just to replace it. If something breaks, look for an improvement instead of a simple replacement. I thought about making a leather one, but nothing ever really materialized.

So a thanks goes out to some cool dudes in Boston for introducing me to the Mighty Wallet by Dynomighty Design. The wallets are made of Tyvek, a strong textile made from recycled plastic that’s near impossible to destroy but looks and feels like paper.

I know that I’m going to put this thing through a lot, so I’m psyched if it’s as tough as they say it is.

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