Farm update: March 1

Hello there, and welcome to March. (March?!? Really? We are completely not prepared for all of our spring tasks yet.) Also, welcome to the nearly one-year anniversary of the pandemic lockdowns. A year of this madness. How is everyone doing out there? The “pandemic wall” is a real thing, make no mistake, and I think a lot of us have hit it. Hard.

The images in this post might convince you that we’re buried in snow over here at Quiet Farm; sadly, that is not at all true. We have gotten a bit of snow both here and up on the mesa, and of course we’re grateful for every last flake, but it’s still looking as though it’s going to be a painfully dry year. As always, the only thing within our control is how we use the water we do have, so we’ll be focusing our efforts on making sure that not a drop goes to waste.

Paris secured in our makeshift crush before the vet’s arrival.

One great accomplishment that we’ve had recently is to successfully geld one of our male alpacas, Paris. His behavior had become increasingly aggressive and since we are not running a breeding program, there is no reason to keep an intact male on the farm. We were able to safely secure him in a “crush,” and our terrific local vet took care of the rest. It takes about sixty days for all the testosterone to leave his system, but his aggressive behavior has definitely lessened since the fateful day. We’re also pleased to announce that we’re on the mobile shearing schedule for the spring, so the alpacas will be getting a tidy cut in late May or early June, which will make them much more comfortable this summer. We are working on halter-training all the animals so that we can handle them in a safe and calm manner – this is much easier said than done, and frequently both humans and alpacas stomp off in frustration and tears. (Okay, maybe not the alpacas. Definitely the humans.)

Our game fence is good for more than just keeping out deer!

I’m also proud to announce that I’ve finished a patchwork quilt I started late last year. I won’t lie: I made approximately ten million mistakes on this quilt and learned so much about what not to do in quilting. I also unknowingly caused a lot of my own problems by designing a somewhat complicated pattern that required an excessive amount of piecework and stop/start stitching. (It’s only my fourth full-size quilt, however, so perhaps I should cut myself a bit of slack. I am very much a novice.) I read an article recently about different crafting hobbies people had taken up during the pandemic; one woman tackled a complicated shawl using fairly advanced knitting techniques. She wrote, “I almost quit a lot of times. But I kept at it, and I was both miserable and joyful at times – it was a good emotional process for me. The challenge was a great distraction from the chaos and stress of the unknown.” That accurately sums up my feelings about making this quilt – and I’m already excited about starting my next one.

Snowshoeing is a surprisingly challenging workout!

We’ve mentioned on more than one occasion how much we adore our local library system; to make us love them even more, they’ve started loaning snowshoeing equipment! We’re about twenty minutes’ away from some of the best snowshoe/cross-country trails in the West, and borrowing equipment and just running up the mountain for a couple of hours has been a terrific break. (Even better: many of the trails ban loud, obnoxious snowmobiles.) We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to go a few more times before the demands of spring on the farm limit our time away.

This is an ideal afternoon snack with a strong cup of PG Tips.

There’s been more comfort baking than usual ’round these parts lately. One favorite is a long-ago classic that I’ve resurrected because for once I have a massive bag of spelt flour and plenty of fresh rosemary on hand: this rosemary-chocolate olive oil cake, originally from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain. This may not be to everyone’s liking – rosemary isn’t frequently used in desserts – but I love it and don’t find the piney herb flavor overwhelming at all. The cake is tender, delicate and not too sweet, and is a perfect afternoon pick-me-up. I highly recommend a good-quality 70% dark chocolate bar here, cut into rough chunks, plus a generous sprinkling of turbinado sugar on top for extra crunch and texture. (For high-altitude bakers: I reduced the baking powder to 1 tsp. but didn’t make any other changes.) As with most things I bake, more than half of this cake promptly went straight into the freezer as a gift to my future self.

Stay calm and stay sane out there, dear friends. The best thing we can do is just to keep going.

How things are made, vol. 2

Visiting workshops or homes to watch people make things by hand is one of our favorite traveling activities; in southeast Asia, we learned how to make incense, rice noodles and tofu. And now in India, where traditional handicrafts are still a way of life for millions of people, we’ve had more opportunities to see beautiful things take shape.

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India is justifiably famous for its textile industry.

In Jaipur, we visited a traditional block-printing house. Block-printing is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: designs are hand-carved into blocks of teak, then dipped in ink and stamped onto fabric. Different colors can be layered in, and the design is dried then set permanently through a special chemical treatment.

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A hand-carved teak elephant block used for printing on fabric.

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Please do not trip over these.

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Hundreds of teak blocks in various designs.

Each block can only be used about two thousand times before the design becomes fuzzy and indistinct. That seems like a lot, but a single tablecloth might have three hundred or more imprints.

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Skilled artisans can layer in different colors within the same design.

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The fabric is placed in a chemical bath that alters some colors and sets the final design.

The city of Agra, in Uttar Pradesh, is known not only for India’s most famous attraction but also for its classical marble inlay work. This work involves carving shapes into marble, then filling those cut-outs with precisely cut semi-precious stones such as agate, turquoise, amethyst and onyx. Many of India’s significant monuments, including the Taj Mahal, showcase this craft; we were lucky enough to see it done up close.

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A marble inlay serving platter in its early stages.

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These artisans are carefully cutting semi-precious stones. The bamboo pole is attached to the wheel with string and operates the grinding wheel in a simple but ingenious manner. 

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Carving the design into marble; flowers and other natural motifs are traditional.

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Carved semi-precious stone pieces ready to be placed.

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This flower is made up of six individually carved pieces. The craftsmanship and attention to detail in this sort of work is staggering.

Like so many other traditional arts and crafts, marble inlay work, which requires thousands of hours of painstaking hand labor, is slowly being revived as people learn to value quality and authenticity again. The workshop we visited ships their marble pieces – some as large as tabletops! – all over the world.

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An array of elaborate pieces for sale in the attached shop.

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Can you imagine how many hours this took to make?

In the heart of Varanasi’s old city, thousands of people make their living spinning thread and weaving fabric into gorgeous, colorful saris, scarves and bedcoverings. The industry is centered in a rabbit warren-like area that houses both people and machinery. The clacking sound of the looms can be heard throughout the neighborhood.

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Thread spools awaiting the loom.

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Threading the loom is a complicated process.

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Almost every doorway in the old city offers a peek into Varanasi’s main industry.

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Even fabrics of a single color have such depth and texture.

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More elaborate designs might require numerous thread colors.

Interestingly, the Jacquard loom, which revolutionized the textile industry, was also an important precursor to modern-day computers. The loom, still in use today, holds specially-punched cards laced together in a specific sequence, allowing the creation of complicated designs in the fabric. Early computers received programming instructions from paper tape punched with coded holes. Now go win at your next bar trivia night.

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The noise of the looms operating was almost unbearable; of course, people still managed to live and sleep there.

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Finished shawls and scarves.

Travel is not always about crumbling monuments and boring history!