Thousand Islands Sun

Redwood Happenings: April 11, 2018


By Nicole Caldwell for The Thousand Islands Sun

After several months of working almost exclusively on writing and editing projects, padding around the farmhouse in pajamas and slippers, and enjoying some much-needed vacation time, safe to say the seasons have shifted at Better Farm.

Spring has brought with it a fresh crop of visitors from all over the world to repopulate the farmhouse over the course of the next half-year. Sun up to sun down is once again a peppering of farm tours and projects, maintaining the property, setting up rooms for overnight guests, and planning curriculum for students. At breakfast, the 12-foot long dining table is mostly filled with folks discussing environmental issues, books, politics and ideas.

All the hubbub is a gift to be sure, not that I feel entirely ready for it yet. For one, it’s still so chilly out. And two, I so enjoy the natural ebb of intensity winter brings. Where I lived in relative quiet, in that soft space with my partner where words aren’t always necessary and formalities scarce and I could quilt, embroider or do nothing at all, I am now surrounded by curious visitors and excited travelers. It’s a bit like walking out of a very calm, dark room into a brilliantly sunny day.

It’s a surreal experience to live where you work. On a daily recurrence this home is transformed into a stopping place for people I’ve never met before and won’t again. My backyard becomes a living lab for people to study sustainability, art, environmentalism, organic gardening and animal care. Every day—sometimes every few hours—I watch the space transform in and on top of itself again. Residence to inn. Homestead to petting zoo. Private to public.

I have to remember to change out of my pajamas before I leave my bedroom. I brush up on my stock answers for what exactly I’m doing here, and what inspired such a strange place to come into being. I recite home tours and crack the same jokes.

Also though, I relish the daily reminder that what is happening here is something unique and dear. That the stars you can see in the sky in this part of the world are absolutely spectacular, and that living in an area like this with all these dips and valleys and forests and yes all this water is an unbelievable privilege. I am so thankful for all these travelers curious about the world, and students hellbent on making it better.

I couldn’t be more grateful for those reminders. And for the swift kick in the butt it gives me to gear up for a spring and summer season even busier than the last, which was busier than the one before it. There are so many things just out ahead over the horizon.

Until next time, better be.

Redwood Happenings: April 4, 2018


By Nicole Caldwell for the Thousand Islands Sun

I was outside checking on our beehive this morning when the drumming started.

Somewhere ahead of me, through the feathered edge of young forest running along the east property line at Better Farm, came the unmistakable thud-thud-thud of a lawnmower or small motorcycle starting up somewhere in the woods.

It took me a second to realize what the noise actually was. Every winter, I forget some of the sounds from the seasons before. I had a small laugh at my expense when I realized what I was actually listening to.

The source of this steady rhythm was a chubby, round creature barely bigger than a pigeon who suffices to beat his wings together for a few seconds at a time, over and over, in order to find a girlfriend. All the while this little cherub is thumping his feathered arms together, his bird-brained friends bother with the silly nonsense of calling in their mates with song.

The coloring of ruffed grouse makes them blend seamlessly into their surroundings. The birds are all shades of neutral browns, greys and tans, with a spiky little hairdo that makes them appear permanently alert—if you can find them, that is. Their elusiveness is part of their charming, notorious drumming. These guys seem to come from nowhere, even though ruffed grouse often select the same stump or log upon which to stand while thundering their wings together year after year, for upwards of a decade. They live in New York State throughout the seasons, waiting (mostly) quietly for the freeze to break, savoring winter for its still silence.

Spring is for singing. Chirping. And drumming to one’s heart’s content.

I have no ambivalence about my love of spring sounds, not the least of which being bird calls. I’m a terrible birder, but have through the years acquired the unimpressive ability to discern between an owl and whip-poor-will, chickadee and golden-winged warbler. Generally, I just enjoy hearing the symphony outside. But there’s something about that drumming that evokes a sense of restlessness. The sound, once you hear it, surpasses all other sounds of nature in my backyard.

Neuroscience research confirms that talented drummers have clear, anatomical differences from the rest of the herd; namely, an intuitive understanding of rhythms and patterns happening all around us. That intuition gives human drummers a leg up when it comes to analytical thinking, perception, and logic.

The purpose of drumming, at its essence, is communication. That’s true whether you’re a ruffed grouse or part of a marching band. The drum has been central for all time to dance, sporting events, ceremonies and religious rites, and even as a lead-up to war. Each of these is a method for communication, necessary or frivolous. Their universal use has allowed drums to firmly plant their flags in every culture on earth. All this is to say, you can’t separate the drum from our experience as human beings—or as animals.

In nature, we’re designed to seek out rhythms. The noises you hear on a warm night outside might collectively present as a disorganized jumble of high and low notes. But as you suss out the separate sounds therein, you find unmistakable rhythms and measures. Bird songs, frog croaks, bat calls, and those lovable cicadas. We’re hardwired to appreciate the repetition of a steady beat.

Which must be why I lingered in that chilly morning air, looking out toward the woods and waiting for the next lick of buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh to sound.

It did. I smiled.

Until next time, better be.

Nicole Caldwell is an author, journalist and editor in Redwood. She is also co-founder and CEO of Better Farm, a sustainability campus, artist colony, animal sanctuary and organic farm. Learn more about Caldwell at

Redwood Happenings: March 28, 2018


These days, each sunrise brings with it the promise of open water.

Buddies’ fishing videos on Facebook show a frozen section of Goose Bay, while Mud Lake’s liquid top glitters under afternoon sun. A few brave souls are still cross-country skiing atop Lake of the Woods, as Butterfield shows signs of weakness around her mouths and honeycombs over her infamous springs. I walk into the hardware store and end up chatting about whether the water on either side of 26 in Alexandria Bay will be frozen or open tomorrow, as it seems to change its mind by the hour. For now Millsite is refusing to budge—but check back in a day, or a few hours from now; at which point—who knows?—she may be ready to give in at last.

Certainly the blue herons would like to know definitive answers to these pressing questions, as they swoop high over Better Farm throughout the day, eyes scanning the horizon for any sparkly patch of open water. That liquid view would signify only one thing: a smorgasbord just below the surface of tiny amphibians, crustaceans, or fish ripe for the plucking.

Competition will be stiff, of course. This winter was (is!) stubborn, and all the critters slinking around this neck of the woods are hungry as can be. I saw a mink take off after some creature of prey today at a breakneck pace. And two nights ago, for the first time in months, I could hear the coyotes spread out across every compass point, totally encircling this property with their yips and starts. All your birds, bats, snakes and the like are on the prowl, salivating over what will be dished up in the coming days.

All this activity is no doubt making a few rabbits, fish, and yes even hibernating bugs more than a bit nervous. But one of the things that make creatures so cool is their ability to be in the here and the now—to put worry and self-doubt far from their minds in order to relish the sweeter things in life.

I present a case in point. Last night, the only duck on the property was out in the pond well after dark, when she should have been snuggled up in a bed of hay inside the barn alongside the chickens, horses, and alpacas. It’s safe in the barn. She’d have been away from an errant fox or coyote bent on terror.

But this duck had bigger things on her mind than safety. The pond was open! She wasn’t going to waste a second of this fact holed up inside some dry building away from that precious water.

We could help but chuckle at the audible flapping of her joyous wings against the water, and the small splashes caused by her head dunking below the surface over and over. Hers was an early spring water dance after too many months spent waiting. Happy quacks bounced off the black silhouettes of trees; the only sound in the evening air, for what must have been hours.

Soon enough, there will be other sounds to join hers: bugs ready to strike newly exposed skin, the increasing traffic along Cottage Hill Road as the summer lake people arrive. The crackle of a solid bonfire. The chatter of visitors, joining up with the hum and chirp of frogs, birds and bugs to overtake the still air.

But for now, if only for an evening to remind us to slow down and be here now, just the quacking and splashing of one very happy, very daring duck.

Until next time, better be.

Nicole Caldwell is an author, journalist and editor in Redwood. She is also co-founder and CEO of Better Farm, a sustainability education center, artist colony, animal sanctuary and organic farm. Learn more about Caldwell at

Redwood Happenings: March 14, 2018

Redwood Happenings: March 14, 2018

The season unfolds in the Northeast jaggedly; revealing herself in starts and bursts bookended by blankets of tiresome snow. She pokes her head out the proverbial window to throw fruit tree blossoms and shoots from bulbs, only to retreat again back under the refrozen ground. We sense her just out of reach, as days grow longer and quiet shocks of warm air no sooner sweep over our uncovered heads than another chill breaks through.

Redwood Happenings: Jan. 11, 2012

Todmorden, a small mill town in England, has figured out a way to feed its residents without relying on the government—or supermarket. The 15,000-person community took the initiative and built 70 raised beds throughout town, then grew as many different vegetables and herbs as they could fit. A small volunteer group called “Incredible Edible” then contacted public entities such as the fire and railway stations about using public land for planting additional crops