It's a good time to be a senior. The sun, so rare in the Oberlin winter, feels good on my face. The frigid air fills and fuels me as I bike fast across campus. The snow is dazzling. And I am entering my last semester ever.
I love the little nest that is Oberlin, lined with downy hope and earnest liberalism, held together by the steely financial pragmatism of the administration. I love the view of the world I've been able to get from up here in the branches. I am truly, deeply head-over-heels for my friends. This campus has nurtured and nourished me. But by the time the trees are green again and it's time to plant the pumpkins, I'll be ready. It's time to go.
In my "Why Oberlin?" essay1, I likened going to college to leaving the nest:
"Going off to college is often compared to finding one's wings; to me, it seems less like taking flight and more like falling out of the nest. Even an independent, articulate, and confident student can falter when faced with the enormity of what lies ahead: four years of complete freedom in which to take to the skies or hit the ground hard."
This has since proven to be a completely inappropriate analogy. Going to college was not like taking flight, exactly. It was more like stepping out of my home nest and landing in a bigger one, with faster computers. My parents still support me (for which I am deeply grateful). I also have whole teams of professional counselors, administrators and health professionals devoted to my well-being and that of my peers. Of necessity, the "freedom" afforded by college has not been "complete" by any means. It has been reasonable, to be sure, and I have been content with it, mostly. But I am really ready this time.
Since I'm so close to leaving the nest for real, I've been taking steps to ensure that I will fly. No, that's not exactly right. I've taken steps to ensure that I will bounce, like this:
I want to be a farmer and homesteader, so in order to bounce down the road to owning my own farm, I've been seeking to acquire skills that are necessary for self-sufficiency. I've been paying special attention to skills that may also generate income. It's difficult to learn large-scale skills — construction and cattle management, say — while also being a student, so I've focused on craft skills: things that fit at the margins, on the weekends, and in private reading slots. (Yup.)
My primary pursuit, of course, is chickenkeeping. I've already written about my first flock. They were retired to a lovely sanctuary in Michigan with a handsome retirement bonus, and I now have two dozen Wyandottes that I bought as day-old chicks. Half of them live at home with me and half at work, in a mobile coop I designed and built. Managing two flocks of a dozen birds each is very different than managing one flock of six! I think every day about how to improve the birds' lives. Whether it's a fresh layer of bedding or a nest box renovation, there's always more to do.
But much of the work is simple, and enjoyable. The daily feed and watering is my favorite chore. Both flocks get excited when they hear me coming. They also reward me with lovely, tasty eggs:
As of last week, I have eleven more birds, recently eggs themselves:
Chicks grow fast, but caring for them is easy, as long as you know what to do and don't mind the smell.
I also make cheese, although it's much harder to make cheese on a student schedule than it is to raise chickens. I am part of a herdshare, so I get a gallon of milk every week, midterms and all. And I need to be home for about three hours to make each batch of cheese. Unlike bread, which can be left to its own devices (especially in our freezing kitchen), cheese needs constant attention (especially in our freezing kitchen).
I like it, though. Cheesemaking is an ancient art, and practicing it well requires ritual. Even with modern equipment, the steps must be followed faithfully: exactly2 88 degrees, exactly 1/4 teaspoon of exquisitely refined culture, exactly one drop of rennet, to make chevre. Many cheeses are even harder. I can't imagine trying to make feta over an open fire using wild culture and a calf's stomach. It must have seemed like magic, to make cheese from milk. It still does.
Mozzarella is especially showy:
As well as pursuing craft skills in my free time, I've been able to start building my skillset for credit. This winter term, I took a class in weaving with sixteen other beginners, students and community members alike. Betsy, Karen and Mary (and Ed, Etta, Mary Louise and various other talented and helpful fiber artists) taught me to dye and weave and deal with imperfections. My cotton sweater fits me like a warm coat of sky.3
And this semester, I have wriggled my way into two private readings that are pretty light on the reading: Intro to Spinning and Traditional Cider-Making. Although not very academic, they are certainly no less rigorous! I've probably spent more time on my quest to build a traditional-looking, functional cider press than I have on any of my other classes, possibly all my other classes combined. Spinning, too, is surprisingly difficult, requiring hours of regular practice to improve.
The cider-press, for the curious, will look a lot like this:
The project is proceeding well, despite my complete lack of experience in working with wood. When I get a bit farther along I'll post an in-depth entry on the process, from finding a local kiln to planing down rough lumber to assembling a wooden apple-grinder. It's not an easy process for a beginner and I'm frequently discouraged, but the planer makes it worth it. Gluing is hard and sawing imperfect but the planer always performs. Dozens of times now I have trusted a rough board to its maw and watched it come out gleaming, perfect, every feature throwing light.
The beauty of a smooth maple board makes me think I could, possibly, be a woodworker. Lord knows my assembled objects don't. But they will improve in time.
So, I hope, will all the skills I pursue. I'm starting to lay the foundation now for the life I've been dreaming of: one lived in community with all my neighbors, human, animal, plant and soil. One in which I have the years of experience necessary to make good decisions in moments. It makes me happy to think of the farmstead that may be mine someday, and I think it might make you smile, too:
A property of maybe sixty acres, thirty in woodlot. When I buy the land the woodlot will probably have been much-abused (otherwise it will be expensive), but within ten years it will have been improved a little: the trees worthless for timber will have been killed and used for fuel or small woodturning projects, or left standing for the woodpeckers and coons; the good growers will have been left to mature for another few decades; the deer will have been fenced out of small areas to let the wildflowers grow. Twenty of the sixty acres will be in perennial pasture, fenced as I can afford it; and into the perennial pasture I will plant annual grains, as part of the long process of learning how to apply pasture cropping to the eastern US. Cows will mob graze the pasture; chickens will follow the cows. At least five acres will be planted in hazel trees from the breeding stock of Philip Rutter, OC '70. I hope also to establish an orchard, but it will take time.
My house will be small, well-insulated, full of light. The kitchen will be central, the root cellar convenient, the patio shaded and inviting. To the south we'll have a greenhouse bursting with life; to the north we'll have a tiny store outfitted with a large bell, labeled: "Please ring! Don't be shy!"
The horse barn will be spacious, shady and well-bedded for the comfort of my business partners. I do hope to farm and log with horses - God's own solar-powered tractors - although I don't yet know whether I can grow the necessary temperament and skill. I hope to find out during my summer job with Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine.
If I'm a baby wood duck, this job is my cushion of leaves. I'll get to learn all about pasturing, bedding, feeding and working Shire draft horses. I might get to learn about training and shoeing. I'll definitely learn about fire safety, as it's one of the manager's passions. I'll get to can a little and sew a little and work a lot. I can't wait.
I love it here more than I can say. I've been trying for months to write about it, but I've given up for now. I'm too busy feeling it all to capture it all: my deep love for my housemates, my fondness for my job, my fierce relief at the end of a grey day when the sun graces Oberlin with an hour of golden light. But I'll be glad to go. I'm on my way from this magical home to make a home of my own.
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 Also my "Why Macalester?" essay and "Why Wesleyan?" essay. The essays did go on to say very different things, but why waste a good introduction?
 Not following the directions exactly to the degree will usually still yield good cheese, but the effects of slight error can multiply. Fresh cheeses tend to be OK, if imperfect. Aged cheeses, though, can suffer tragic demises during aging because of very small quirks in the culturing. But the chickens don't care if cheese smells gross! They like it just the same.
 How I fussed and fretted to make it so — I'm lucky that Mary backed me up, and Betsy tolerated me! First I had to rewind all the warp because it wound onto the loom unevenly (as warp usually does) and disrupted the stripes of dye I had so carefully spooned onto it. Then I had to count and recount and hold the unrolled cloth against itself to match the stripes in the weft. After sewing about half the sweater, I tried it on and it fit terribly. So I ripped it apart and started sewing all over. I do not think I'd be a great production weaver, but maybe with time.