We’ve had lots of requests for pictures of life in the Airstream… keen as ever to oblige my loyal readers here are some pictures of our days at Swinging Bridge Farm.
I’ve taken to hand washing our clothes. Our host is more than happy for us to use their super giant washing machine but with the lovely weather we’ve been having and the washing line Alfie made for me in the tree outside the Airsteam I’ve been enjoying doing this basic yet essential task without modern conveniences.
It also sets a good example for the boys, letting them see that there are other ways of doing things… Alternatives which can actually be enjoyable.
A friend of mine once commented that she couldn’t understand why we would want to try using flint tools when we have modern steel knives and so on. Whereas I couldn’t understand her inability to understand… It’s what bushcraft is all about, being able to live, in relative comfort with just the natural resources we have around us.
And the boys have certainly been embracing the natural resources around us to get stuck into some bushcraft. We built a den, we dragged fallen trees from the woods for the fire, we collected kindling and tinder and all the while I heard “Ray Mears would like this den, Ray Mears would think this was a well prepared fire, Ray Mears uses his saw like this, doesn’t he mum!”
Now I’m not sure we are quite at the “Den suitable for sleeping in” stage with this but for two boys aged 6 and 3, yes, Ray Mears probably would like this den. And preparing a fire properly was a key goal for Alfie who is prone to rushing to the lighting stage so he’s doing really well making sure he has it all ready first now. It’s hard for Alfie to use his saw with his left arm crossed over because his arms are still kind of short but he’s certainly practising and keen to learn the proper, safe techniques for these skills. We’ve started Patrick on “carving” sticks with a vegetable peeler which is safer for his stage and a great tip for parents wanting to get their kids into safe knife use, helping them gain control of tools and learn safety techniques like “elbows on knees”.
So our days have been full of fun, tracking deer through the forest, cooking on the campfire and spotting bald eagles… It’s amazing!
Meadow wouldn’t move. It was just after 9 am and Rob and the kids were listening to Derby versus Forest, which, bizarrely, is easier to listen to in the depths in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia than it is to pick up in Cornwall. I had collected the metal milk bucket and soapy water to wash her udder with and left them in the barn, now all I needed was Meadow to plod serenely ahead of me into the stall as she does each morning without question. This morning she wouldn’t budge. I sighed and turned around to give her minute more chewing the cud… And there they were… An adult bald eagle and a young one!
They swooped silently into my view and the adult landed on the grassy bank opposite me. Far less graceful on the ground I wondered if there was a reason for her landing there so I crept forward trying not to disturb her yet aware that she knew exactly where I was. She called out to her young eagle and he flew down next to her… They were eating! Pulling the dead creature apart into strips, I couldn’t see what it was but hoped it wasn’t one of the chickens providing our eggs at the moment.
Utterly spell bound I watched for 20 or so minutes as the adult took a seat on a high branch above the river and watched as it’s successful offspring enjoyed his new wings, flying back and forth along the river. Then in came another infant. Two baby bald eagles after a harsh winter, how wonderful! Well done you magnificent bird.
I’d been watching for a while and the Adult eagle knew I was there so I decided to try creeping through the gate in the hope of the clearest view a few feet away. From the mass of trees on the slope opposite me a second adult appears and let the first one know it was time to go, perhaps I got a little too close.
A family of four right here on the river! Tingling with the excitement of what I had just had the once in a lifetime opportunity to witness I went to milk Meadow, who happily walked with me to the barn to be relieved of the two and a half gallons of milk in her udder.
I felt like I was in my very own nature programme, living the dream.
Oh and the Bald Eagle’s Barmy Army won 5-0!
To see a short video I took of the eagles follow me on Facebook Adventures of Muma Dean
Finding the balance at the moment is kind of tricky. I’m am meant to be working whilst on the road. The book I’m currently writing about a medical condition is just not progressing as I had hoped… it was easy at home when I had childcare and evenings without distraction – I flew through chapters churning out thousands of words in a day. Here I have the children all day, Orla has dropped her nap (oh joy!) and then in the evenings it’s hard to find the motivation to carry on after blogging and sorting through emails.
The days are a combination of fun farm work, like milking the cow and collecting eggs, the mundane like sorting out meals and washing up (which is still pretty fun and novel in the Airstream), the mind numbing, like changing nappies and picking up clothes constantly, and the unbelievably exciting, like watching a bald eagle fishing on the river here. Plus we’ve been having campfires and using the bat detector and tracking deer through the woods (and, ahem, watching Game of Thrones on DVD). But that doesn’t leave a lot of time for blog and book writing or charity administration. I am proud to say though that I got up at 06:30am on Friday, sneaked out to the car (turned the heaters on!) and attended an online meeting. I suppose getting up early to work is an option that many people in my situation would embrace but honestly… it’s not going to happen so lets not pretend it is. I’m far more likely to get up at dawn to look for owls and coyotes and listen to the dawn chorus while watching the sunrise. And even that wouldn’t be a regular occurrence – sleep has become far to precious since having children.
Slightly more frustrating is the lack of time with my camera. I am determined to get a decent picture of a bald eagle. Last night at dusk we spotted it flying along the river and when it perched I grabbed the camera, I got this rather ridiculous picture from our door in the hope I could see it more clearly on the computer but alas it was too far.
This morning we saw him again perched on a branch by the river but this time we were about 40 metres away from him… without a camera or binoculars! “Why on earth don’t you just take the camera out with you all the time?” I hear so many of you cry… You people with none, one or maybe two children… With three kids in tow I can only take the camera sometimes and only if I also have Rob with me. Picture for a moment if you will… me laden with kids coats they are refusing to wear, chasing Orla down the road (man can that girl move when she wants to!) Alfie is chasing her for me and I diligently have my camera over my shoulder and across my chest resting on my back while not in use chasing them both. Patrick is somewhere near me but he is sly like a fox and moves around me shadow style. Orla stops suddenly, Alfie crashes into her and down they both go like a sack of spuds. I catch up, anticipating the howls that are about to start and on swooping down to retrieve Orla to her feet the lens on the camera cracks Alfie on the head… On turning to comfort him and apologise Patrick is taken out, again by the lens… I can’t pick any of them up in case they kick the damn thing and they are all now crying and it’s starting to rain…
This scenario happens on a daily basis, add Swarovsai binoculars in to the mix and there is even more chaos. Actually, that’s not true, it happens multiple times every day and the only aspect of it that I can alter or improve is the camera/binocular element. It’s the kit I’m worried about obviously… the kids heads will be fine, it’s never a particularly hard clonk!
That said, I do take it out with me when Rob is with us (so he can sort out the scrapes and falls without braining the children in the process) and I love using it when I can. I just have to accept my limitations. But you all know me, when I’m determined to do something, like get a photo of a bald eagle… I do it, and I’m even more proud of it knowing the challenges I faced in getting it.
We headed out of Washington on Monday to a new wwoof placement which we were feeling pretty confident about. Despite having only contacted Nathaniel and Cory the previous week we had managed to secure a place on their beautiful farm in south west Virginia for the next few weeks and were feeling confident on our drive down that we would like it. A couple, a similar age to us and with two children, Orla and Patrick’s ages. They are building their own straw bale house and have a small farm with a milking cow, chickens and some goats. No mention of any extreme religious views on their profile… we were sure we would get along fine.
So my lack of posting since is simply because we are having so much fun! Yesterday the weather was so glorious it was like the height of summer in England. We milked the cow called meadow, played in the garden, planted some apple trees, had a campfire, drank their incredible homemade cider and just hung out.
Today the temperature has dropped and the kids and I went to the local library with Cory and her two kids, Leroy and Ember, for story time while rob worked with Nathaniel. The characterful lady leading the session had such a strong accent the boys couldn’t really understand the stories but they joined in with the dances and Orla ran wild and rolled around with a couple of small boys who have a further 11 brothers at home.
We are staying in a funky old Airstream trailer which is right up our street and the wildlife here is phenomenal. There are bald eagles nearby which we are watching out for and there are turtles in the river and the stunning red Northern Cardinals and Bluebirds flitting across the roads. I haven’t had a chance to get my camera out yet so these are all from my phone but it’s such a photogenic place I’m looking forward to getting my camera out soon. It’ snowing now… crazy to have such a change from one day to the next!
The Grand Hyatt in the centre of Washington DC is just wonderful! A stones throw from the White House and Capitol Hill it could not be more child friendly and generally welcoming. Which is lucky because when we rocked up in our crazy child filled car with a roof box on which needed dismantling and storing separately in order to fit in the tight city car park, a friendly welcome and patient help was just what we needed… and got.
Yesterday we visited the National Museum of American History. With three tired children and time limited by an appointment with our bank we just picked a couple of areas that interested us and wizzed round them. Having just watched the TV series Revolution it was fun exploring the section about Edison and invention of the light bulb. We also went around the transport section and got to see original Model T’s. In the Naval section we learned about the slave ships and also about pirates. Here are four facts about pirates that we learned:
- They don’t tend to go “Arrrgggghhhhhh” – that myth is thanks to a couple of pirate films
- They did have parrots. Not generally on their shoulders but certainly lots in cages on their ships
- They did drink lots and lots of rum, all the time.
- They didn’t make people walk the plank… again from films, the reality of the tortures and murders they committed where far more violent and gruesome.
Today we visited the Lincoln Memorial and the visitor centre at the U.S. Capitol. It’s hard not to be impressed by the stunning architecture of these important places. But more impressive is the history, which by UK standards is virtually yesterday. Appreciating what this young nation has achieved in such a short time helps us understand the current psyche of the people here. Given what they have overcome for their freedom, just a few generations ago, it is easy to understand their obsession with independence and personal liberty.
I am impressed by their humble, open discussion of the more shameful parts of their history, in particularly the slavery which built so much of the country. Far from shying away from it they openly talk about it and display the brutal facts, lest we should forget. They admit to the columns of the Capitol having been created by slaves and the statue of Rosa Parks is clearly their most prized piece within the building which buzzes with statues of impressive figures. The UK is not quite so willing to openly discuss their atrocities and that’s a problem with our nation as to better our selves we must learn from the past, not deny it. People will always make mistakes but we can strive to be better.
The Lincoln Memorial is equally overwhelming and inspiring. It’s purpose is clear and effective as you can’t help but leave utterly determined for equality….
Okay so I’ve just been totally distracted from blog writing by a knock on our hotel room door… Our waitress from dinner sent us up a card with a bottle of wine and some cakes and desserts! How wonderful.
And now I’ve been distracted by Orla having done explosive diarrhoea all over her cot… Housekeeping brought new sheets but have to come back for the s**t covered stuff… nightmare…
Signing off to finish sorting poo bed clothes and cracking the wine open after that! I’m rather lost my train of thought on Lincoln and Rosa Parks but I’m sure I’ll pick up the tread again in the next few weeks. Now I’ll leave you with this rather interesting photograph I took today… Bon poo et bon nuit
These mountains are ancient. It’s a pretty abstract concept of mountains being “born” hundreds of millions of years ago and it’s hard to imagine really isn’t it? Well step into the Smoke Hole Caverns in West Virginia, walk on a third of a mile into the depth of these ancient mountains and you can step back in time to the moment it happened. You can witness with your own mortal eyes the incredible power of the Earths crust and it’s ability to create mountains.
We had noticed the curved, rainbow shaped rocks outside our cabin (pictured above) but didn’t understand just what we were looking at. Inside the caves, two miles from the cabin you see vertical rocks which once laid flat. Pushed up by the collision of plates which united America with Africa they are awe spelling and memorising. Walking on through the active caves we find the room of a million stalactites and the worlds longest (known) ribbon stalactite as well as a rare cave coral.
The caves history includes interesting tales of Senca Indians smoking their meats, a gruesome hospital ward for Civil War injuries and an ingenious site for moonshining and white lightening production.
We also got a great view of a couple of bats hanging upside down in the, surprisingly warm, cave. (I’m so sorry I forgot my camera so the pictures are from Alfie’s camera which I commandeered!). The lady who guided us through the caves was so enthusiastic, knowledgeable and engaging and the kids really enjoyed it. Absolute pitch black was a first time experience for the boys and we spotted a frog in one of the streams.
After the caves we drove on to the Blackwater Falls National Park to see the waterfalls there and I did take my camera this time. It was a nice short walk to the viewing platform and we identified some animal tracks along the way – Patrick’s favourite being his own!
In other news, we also had our first snowy campfire of the trip and cooked some yummy creamy chicken in a dutch oven. We also finally dropped off the travel bug we picked up back in Wales into a geocache here in the Mountains so it can explore America and clock up some miles. It’s been difficult to do sooner due to the heavy snow hiding all the caches we’ve attempted!
Now this log cabin is on a whole new scale. Sure we enjoyed the rustic charm of the cabin in the woods but lets be honest, a hot tub, roaring fire and clean, well stocked cabin is far preferable, even for the Deans!
We’re at Harman’s Luxury Log Cabins in the Monongahela National Forest and it is stunning here. Rugged rocks and vertical forests tower over the Potomac River, which runs right outside our cabin. We were heading for Shenandoah National Park but found this place and decided to stay put.
It snowed heavily yesterday and we spent most of the day snuggled up around the fire inside the cabin and hoping in and out of the steamy hot tub on the porch. We did of course get outside for a snowball fight and to build a snow man but little kids chill quick. Plans are afoot for creamy chicken on the campfire today and possibly a visit to local caves.
Enroute here we also stopped at the Beverly Heritage Center which teaches about the Civil War and history of the region. One piece of information really stuck out to Alfie and I and captured our attention. The Native Americans who lived here for 12,000 years before Europeans (ehhm) “arrived”, used to follow animal tracks in order to find the best and easiest routes around the terrain, through the woods, across rivers and so on. Over millennia these tracks were worn and became, relatively, permanent paths so that when the Europeans arrived they used the same tracks but now with horses therefore making the paths even more distinct and permanent… they then became the tarmacked mountain roads we are using today in our cars. So the roads we are driving on here were once, no that long ago, animal tracks… how cool is that! The same can’t really be said in the UK because there were so many stages between hunter-gatherers, following animal tracks, and roads. Farming settlements presumably shaped the networks across Britain and of course the Roman roads.
The Hertiage Centre is in the regions old Court Rooms and here is Patrick being the judge, probably sentencing someone to death or something.
It must be -10 ᵒC here at the moment. My legs were getting colder and colder on my brisk early morning walk to the cow shed, despite base layers and thick flannel lined jeans. I knew I’d warm up shortly when I snuggled into the side of Jamuna, the Brown Swiss cow I would be hand milking this morning.
They have six milking cows here at New Vrindaban and they are beautiful, healthy and happy cows. The couple who care for them have only been doing it for a year or so now and we’ve been pleased to be able to share knowledge with them from our experiences over the last few years. I surprised myself with how much I knew about health matters and calving issues, albeit a lot of theory. I’m also very interested in their dairy management as I harbour an ambition to be self sufficient for our own dairy products one day in the future, when the children are quite a bit older.
The calves are allowed to feed from the mothers for six months but are restricted to a quarter (of her udder) twice a day and the remaining milk is taken for human consumption. They pasteurise the milk and make yoghurt, butter and other dairy products from them. As dairy consumption goes this really is as good as it gets. There is of course still the little matter of the off spring.
The International Society for Cow Protection is based here also and in many ways this is contrary to the production of any dairy for human consumption. They rescue dairy cows who are considered under par for production figures and they also take calves who would otherwise be culled. The cows are then allowed to live out calm, happy lives at the sanctuary. They train steers (castrated males) to work on the land, pulling equipment and so on showing the uses of cattle beyond milk and meat. It’s a fantastic use for strong cattle like these but obviously wouldn’t be a sustainable or effective use for standard dairy cattle offspring, bred purely for big udders.
Rob and I were very interested in the cleverly designed barn system for the cows during the winter. Built on a hill, the human entrance onto elevated platforms allows for the rolling out of a big bale of hay right in front of the cows without any big equipment for handling the bales (If you’re not of a farming background you may well be a little lost by now… sorry about that – we love a good barn, particularly those designed for maximum efficiency).
We will be moving on from New Vrindaban today and, much to the disappointment of many of our friends back home, we have not converted to Krishna Consciousness and will not become vegetarians just yet – we remain meat eating atheists. But we have gained a wonderful insight into this fascinating culture and peaceful lifestyle as well as the dynamics of community living and working. The food here has been fantastic and we will certainly be eating far less meat on our travels then we do at home. Our time here has however reconnected us with why we got into farming and the appeal for us to eat only our home produced products and wild meats. Long term I would like to avoid the dairy industry and have my own cow for milk, the calves would become meat though as I feel that this is a by product that dairy consumers need to understand and accept. A “ethically motivated” vegetarian diet consuming dairy products surely has to be the most hypocritical of all diets on any scale other than this – meat is inevitable where there is dairy. Personally, if I gave up meat I would have also to also give up dairy and I am not ready to do that just yet – I will endeavour to reduce my dairy consumption though.
Alfie spent three days at the school here and loved it. We felt so proud of him going on into a brand new classroom with children he’s never met before. As Rob said “I wouldn’t have done that at his age… I’d have just cried!”. Alfie just walked on in, found a spot in the circle of children, picked up an instrument and joined in the morning chanting. This experience will have far surpassed any sort of classroom based religious education he could have got back at home and has given him insight into another culture and lifestyle.
The wildlife watching here is easy and enjoyable for the children too as deer are wandering peacefully along the roads. We even spotted the local white deer yesterday.
But it’s time to move on now. We are not sure where we are going just yet as a lack of internet access has meant we can’t plan anything but we are going to head towards the Shenandoah National Park and hopefully find a cabin where we can have campfires and chill out for a few days.
I would just like to take a moment to big up our local vets back home… I hadn’t quite appreciated just how valuable it is to have such excellent vets so close to hand. The farm here has NO large animal vet in the area – the herdsmen are all on their own. Pelyn Vets (now Kernow Farm & Equine Vets) have always been so helpful for us and taken time so I could learn from them about any problems we’ve had. Without them so close to hand I’m not sure my nerves could have coped with the responsibility of farming, particularly when learning on the job! They have run excellent training courses for smallholders in the area and have always come quickly in emergencies. I’ve learned a lot from books I’ve read, my own experience and from other farmers but by far the most I have learned has been from the vets at Pelyn. I hadn’t realised quite how much I knew and it was great that I was able to share some of that with the couple here, from discussing worm burdens to manipulating a mal-presenting calf as well as the importance of the colostrum for ruminants, appropriate antibiotic use after calving and lots more. Amy Jones and Cathal O’Sé… you’d have been proud of me!
It’s a bit of a mixed bag here to be honest. There are some great aspects to wwoofing here at New Vrindaban, such as the fantastic Indian food, the diverse wildlife and the fact that Alfie has learned to milk a cow, which he is absolutely thrilled about! Rob is enjoying some basic tree work and we are meeting some lovely interesting people from diverse walks of life. It’s great to be around livestock again and the cows here are lovely gentle creatures.
But then there are less good aspects. Namely the lack of welcome for the children. Some people here are delighted to have children around but others are not. I am a fairly heavy critic of my own children, and I’ll admit that their behaviour since we left home has been pretty darn challenging, probably due to feeling a bit displaced. But since we arrived at New Vrindaban they’ve settled right down and actually been really good kids; polite, calm, quiet and generally well behaved. I’ve felt really proud of them and am really enjoying spending so much intense time with them – it fills me with optimism for the rest of the journey.
But it seems it’s not enough for some of the people here who don’t like any noise at all, not even happy, helpful noise. Yesterday morning I managed to conduct a wwoof task with the children as instructed by the gentleman guiding us and I thought we did a great job watering the plants, we didn’t make any mess or damage any pots or plants, the kids worked co-operatively and got on with the task until it was finished. I was really pleased… others were not. It seems we made too much noise (really? You thought that was loud?) and went just inside an area where children are not allowed (as instructed to in order to fill the watering cans). When I was quietly informed of this at lunch time I felt a mixture of embarrassment for being “told off” and disappointment as I thought we had done a great job. But mainly I felt a sadness for this community.
There is a serious lack of children here and it is stark. Children are vital for a community (and a religion) to thrive and continue… what is the point of this place unless young blood comes through to continue it – it’s not an old peoples home, it’s a religious community. And it hasn’t always been this way. We’ve met people our age who grew up here and have continued to live near by with their own children. The school at one time had 200 pupils… it now has 5. Alfie went along today for the day but Patrick was sadly deemed too young. Until school this morning we hadn’t met any of the 5 other children who live here yet… we never see them despite communal meals. Alfie loved school today but a school classroom is very different to having time to just play with other children.
I expressed these concerns over lunch, after the “telling off” with some older ladies I am comfortable with and have had children of their own. One of them, who has lived in the community for many years, admitted being nervous of bringing her young grandaughter to visit in case of complaint from others. With worries like that about children visiting for the day it’s unlikely anyone with children would live here for long. Without children how long can any community (or religion) survive?
So what for us? Well we’ve been keeping the children impressively quiet for days now and keep discussing whether or not we should head on. On the one hand it would be easy enough to pack up and press on, but on the other hand we are comfortable, well fed and enjoying aspects of the work and community. We will be sticking it out as the experience we are gaining is greater than the frustrating bits. The nice and interesting people we are meeting make up for the moaners and honestly the food is great!
*ps. One other aspect I am struggling with is that the wifi in the communal area is turned off at 7pm which means I am limited to brief moments of internet on my phone around mealtimes whilst trying to keep the kids quiet in the communal areas. It allows for quickly posting pre-written posts but I’m sorry if I haven’t replied to comments or on Facebook. It’s also making researching and planning our next leg a little tricky!