May 21, 2015 § 19 Comments
Almost every day I intend to break my silence here (break my silence, hear? Heh. Aren’t words fun?), but I seem incapable of diverting my attention from the world beyond my office for long enough to write anything substantive. I’m rolling with it for now, though struggling a bit with a sense of obligation, both to my readers but also to the practice of writing itself. I tell myself I should feel obliged to neither, but like most folks, I don’t always listen to my own best advice. This might explain why I am at this very moment listening to a classic live Maiden concert, puffing on a cigarillo, and enjoying the the mild disorientation of my second post-breakfast whisky.
Oh, well: One out of three ain’t bad.
It is remarkable how fluidly the days pass and how good it feels to be spending so much time out-of-doors, exerting myself in one manner or another. It is a reminder to me that all the blathering I do about the value of honest labor and a connection to the land and a sense of agency over one’s own well-being and blah, blah, freakin’ blah is a poor substitute for the work itself, and I am reminded of one of my favorite lines from Hayden Carruth’s poem Marshall Washer:
Unconsciously I had taken friendship’s measure
from artists elsewhere who had been close to me,
people living for the minutest public dissection
of emotion and belief. But more warmth was,
and is, in Marshall’s quiet “hello” than in all
those others and their wordiest protestations,
more warmth and far less vanity.
I’m sure I’ve quoted this before, though hopefully it was sufficiently long ago that you’ve all forgotten and therefore won’t hardly notice the repetition. But even if you do, perhaps you will (like me) appreciate the reminder that good work done in relative silence and anonymity is something the world could probably use a whole lot more of.
May 13, 2015 § 40 Comments
I turned the cows out to pasture this morning. It’s a bit earlier than ideal – the grass could use a few more days of growth before subjecting it to the insatiable appetites of our cloven-hooved beasts. For a brief moment I weighed this truth against the knowledge that if I didn’t turn them out, I’d have to retrieve one of our two remaining unwrapped round bales from the haymow of Melvin’s barn, necessitating a run down the road on the tractor. At the time of my calculating, it was 50 and raining and already I was a bit chilled due to underdressing for morning chores.
So you see: Sometimes laziness prevails.
A couple folks asked about our sawmill, so I thought I’d riff on that for a few minutes before suiting up and heading back outside to actually use the darn thing. We got our mill a few years back, inheriting it from a dear friend who died unexpectedly. We previously considered purchasing a mill, but as anyone who’s actually priced them knows, they are not cheap. New, you’d be looking at about $8k to get something that has some serious function; there are less expensive mills on the market, but if you’re sawing any quantity of lumber, they’re likely to disappoint. (By-the-by, I have no experience with the chainsaw-powered Alaskan mills, but if you’re on a budget, they might be a good option).
Anyway. The mill we inherited is a SMG, which is made up ta Quebec. It’s a basic push bandsaw mill, which means that a) I have to push it down the length of the log (fancier mills run on hydraulics) and b) it cuts with a bandsaw blade. I can cut logs up to a bit more than 17-feet long and 30-inches in diameter, which is about as big a log as I can safely handle. Bigger just gets too heavy and generally unwieldy for a feeb like myself.
So, here’s how it works: I drop the log on the mill tracks and make the first cut. Then, using my trusty cant dog, I flip it 90-degrees and make another cut. Do that twice more, and I have what’s known as a “cant,” which is simple a squared-off log that’s ready to be cut into dimensional lumber. Once I’ve got my cant, I take measurements and figure out the thriftiest way to reduce it into useable lumber in the proper dimensions.
Depending on quality of my logs, sawing lumber is either incredibly productive or an exercise in frustration. I’ve got enough experience by now to know that there’s a real sweet spot for the log size – anything smaller than about 10” in diameter means a lot of handling for relatively little material, while anything bigger than about 24” in diameter means a lot of struggling to maneuver. Species matters, too: I love me some good balsam fir, which cuts like butter. Spruce, on the other hand, has a wicked tight grain, which means I’ve gotta go real slow with the mill, or the blade will dive and I’ll end up with “wavy” edges. Hemlock is just hemlock: Cuts easy enough, but heavy as all tarnation and not really the best stuff to build with, as it’s prone to twisting and cracking. Pine’s not bad; we just don’t have much of it.
On a good day, I can saw 1,000 board feet working alone (this assumes Penny hasn’t made a fresh batch of cookies or doughnuts, events that necessitate frequent “rest” breaks and thus put a real dent in productivity). ‘Round these parts, that’s about $600 worth of rough cut lumber, though of course the actual sawing is only part of the equation, because of course I had to drop the trees and get them to the mill in the first place. Roughly, I’d say I’m earning somewhere ‘round $35 – $40/hour to saw our lumber, which sounds real good until you account for depreciation of machinery and the associated hazards, both of which are not inconsequential.
Still, there’s one huge benefit to sawing our own lumber, beyond the obvious cost savings: I can saw pretty much anything I need, whenever I need it, saving me the time and hassle of driving down to the local mill for, say, a half-dozen 2 x 6’s. Assuming I have the raw materials on hand, I can probably saw a half-dozen 2 x 6’s faster than I can drive to purchase them. Actually, I can probably saw a couple dozen 2 x 6’s faster than I can drive to purchase them.
So there’s that. And there’s also the fact that sawing is some of the most rewarding work I do around here. If you’ve been hanging ‘round these parts for any length of time, you know I get a wicked kick out of transforming raw materials into the building blocks of my family’s well being, and in this regard, our sawmill has few equals. For that reason alone, if you have the means and inclination (and a woodlot… a woodlot really helps!), I’d highly recommend one.
If any of you have specific questions, I’ll do my best to answer them in the comments.
May 11, 2015 § 15 Comments
The transition in the weather this spring was as sudden and complete as any I can recall. Already, after only two weeks warmth and sun, the long, hard winter is a faded, forgiven thing, an event worth retelling but not belaboring or begrudging. It’s gone, over, kaput, worn out, as worthy of our attention as the announcement of yet another presidential hopeful. Now it’s leafing trees and slowing emerging apple blossoms, the cows eyeing the lengthening pasture grass from the confines of their fenced paddock. Onions planted. Potatoes, too. Peas well established. My face is tanned and my forearms are stained with softwood pitch from the lumber I’ve been sawing daily. I sawed nearly 1,500 board feet over the past two days, an accomplishment that doesn’t quite justify bragging, which is why I’m sneaking it in at the end of this paragraph, pretending it worthy of only this passing mention. Still, it’s a nice pile of lumber. Fir, mostly, but a bit of spruce and the odd stick of hemlock. I’m guessing I’m approaching 4,000 board feet total, with about another 1,000-feet of logs left to go. I could probably finish in a day if I wasn’t such a lazy sack. I like to look at the piles of sawlogs and stacks of sawn lumber and imagine them as a house. It takes a pretty good imagination, though, and sometimes I can’t quite pull it off. To be entirely honest, sometimes it just looks like a big ole mess. And a shitload of work.
I was driving yesterday and heard some stuff on the radio. First, I heard this. Then, I heard something about Bernie, which reminded me that the first house Bernie lived in when he moved to Vermont is right across the road from our land. It’s a modest place, a little red cape that looks like it’s been there a good while. It’s not the sort of place you imagine a presidential candidate owning; then again, Bernie’s not exactly the sort of dude you imagine running for president. The folks who live there now are real nice. He’s a carpenter; I think she might be retired, but I’m not sure. They’re a bit older than us. “It’s nice to have some kids in the neighborhood,” she said the other day. Heh. We’ll see how she feels a year from now.
I got nothing profound for you today (I know, I know: Nothing new there). Wait a sec: Listen to this. I think that qualifies as profound, no? Damn. Dude’s got what it takes and then some. The boys don’t know it, but I’m thinking of taking them to see him play this week.
Oh yeah: me n’ Heather have something cookin’. I think that’s gonna be pretty cool.
May 4, 2015 § 25 Comments
This was the first morning in nearly seven months that I didn’t start a fire in the wood cook stove. Our summer cooker is an old gas range that resides on our porch. Having abandoned our propane hot water heater a few years back, it’s our only gas appliance, and it’s hard to get used to how little it demands of us. Little blue flames at the twist of a knob: No match, no birch bark, no kindling, no wood, no waiting 15 minutes for the cast iron to transfer the heat of the fire to the water for my coffee. It’s a miracle, really.
The warmth has snuck up on us. It feels like something we earned the hard way. Yesterday I saw pockets of north-facing snow at the sloped edge of a fertile, already-green hay field, and the contrast between green and white took me by surprise, two seasons held in suspension, though I bet that snow’ll be gone by nightfall.
The peas are in the ground and probably poking through the soil by now, though I can’t say for certain; I haven’t looked in a couple of days. The onions need to go out. The pigs are looking appropriately succulent, though it’ll be a while yet. Two cows to freshen, Apple and Pip, both due Map 28, which is the epitome of homestead convenience and exquisite timing, to boot, as the grass will be at its seasonal peak of abundance and nutrition. Butter. Cream. Skimmed milk for the pigs. The offspring to beef. The milk cow provideth. The lambs are still cute but not in the same cuddly way they were a month ago, which is good, because now it’s almost possible to imagine eating them.
I’m up at 4:45 most mornings now, and in motion until near darkness, though frankly, I don’t always make it that long. Last night my lids started drooping at 7:30, and by 8 I was a goner, splayed out across the bed with the late light still filtering through the windows, which in turn were being rattled by the deep bass rumble of my snores.
It is, for me, a grounding existence, life stripped of the superfluous. Seeds and seedlings. Soil. Sore muscles. The animals and their sundry needs. Shelters to be built. It is a lot for one summer. At times, I’m sure it will feel like too much. But that is the beauty of a four-season climate: There is a season for everything, and just when one begins to wear you down the next one arrives, and one morning you go outside and everything is different. And it almost feels like you are, too.
April 30, 2015 § 23 Comments
It’s a little scary to me how quickly I’ve fallen out of the writing habit. Honestly, I thought I was more disciplined than I’m proving to be. But then, I suspect there are all sorts of things I think I am that I’m actually not. By-the-by, if you have an inkling as to what some of these things might be, I’d just as soon not hear about them, ok?
Well, hell, it’s not like I don’t have an excuse. The weather has finally shifted, albeit reluctantly, even begrudgingly. The ground is bare, the flora caught in the midst of its seasonal metamorphosis from brown to green. It always catches me off guard, how quick it happens. Right now, our pasture is still the impoverished hue of decayed grasses; two weeks from now, we’ll be turning the beasts out onto boot-high grass so green you’d look at it and realize that you didn’t know how green green could be.
As I’ve noted (perhaps more times than strictly necessary), it was a long, hard winter. The woodshed is down to maybe a dozen sticks, the unruly oddment pieces that would not yield to the maul, the misfits passed over back when we could choose otherwise. Well, their time has come, let me tell you. For the second straight winter, we’re gonna suck that woodshed dry of every last BTU. Hell, I might have to start ripping the siding off if we get a May cold snap. This is not something I’m proud of; a half-cord buffer is something I aspire to. But there’s what we aspire to, and then there’s reality, which, come to think of it, is not unlike the differences between how we imagine ourselves to be and how we actually are.
And the driveway: Whooee. Never before has it been such a morass of seemingly bottomless mud and rut, demanding a particular combination of cunning and callousness. You need to know when to choose your line carefully and when to pin-and-grin, shoving the throttle to the floor and hoping your churning tires will carry you to the opposite shore. I shouldn’t admit to enjoying this game as much as I do, so I won’t.
Despite silently admonishing myself for lacking discipline, it feels right to be spending so little time at my desk. I daresay I’ve shed a belt-hole worth of love handle in the past two weeks, and despite the fact that I’ve largely been keeping my thoughts to myself, my mind feels sharp and engaged. The work that stands between us and the coming winter does at times feel overwhelming, particularly late at night (i.e., anytime past 7-ish), but the prevailing sentiment is one of optimism and the elemental satisfaction of laboring on our own behalf. Food, fuel, shelter: This is what we are working toward. This is what consumes our days, our thoughts, our bodies, our minds. It is a gift to be consumed in this way, to wake with the rooster and walk outside, startled by the cool stillness of it all, on the cusp of another day.
April 21, 2015 § 28 Comments
We awoke to the sound and smell of rain this morning, not heavy, but heavy enough to celebrate. Because what we need now is rain. We need it to melt the remaining pockets of snow, stubborn on the north-facing slopes and in the woods, sheltered beneath the canopy of fir and spruce. We need it to soak into the soil, bring life to the dormant grasses. It’s a race now between our remaining hay reserves and the greening of our pasture. It’s gonna be a close one, that’s for damn sure, but my money’s on the pasture, by about a dozen bales.
We’re firmly into the physicality of the season and it feels better than I can rightly express. Splitting firewood. Dropping spruce for the mill. The peas sowed and the trellis uprights pounded deep, the remaining frost yielding beneath the force of a six-pound sledge. I went softer this winter than usual, and because we did not sugar (well, we did tap one big mother maple just because we couldn’t do nothing), the lard that came upon me over the deep of winter has only just begun to render under the heat of activity.
Of course I exaggerate; I’m not prone to excessive thickening, but it is possible that my mid-section is somewhat more expansive than in previous years. Mostly, though, the sense of softness is the result of muscles gone dormant and callouses losing their protective structure and, perhaps most profoundly, a certain loss of intellectual and emotional sharpness that befalls me whenever I succumb to languor.
There’s something addictive about the urgency of the season. I feel it year after year after year, though perhaps it holds a somewhat finer edge this spring, simply for everything that must be done to ensure our well-being come the return of cold and snow. But still. Even the force of a typical spring and all that depends on it is enough to hold me in its sway. It is times like these that my gratitude for this life runs deepest. I am grateful for the wood to be split, for ache in my shoulders after splitting, for the fencing to be strung, for the soil to be turned, for the protective husks reforming over decades-old callouses, for the cows fat with May calves, even for the snarl of the sawmill, each board I lift from its bed another piece of the puzzle that will, when finally assembled, result in my family’s shelter.
I know it’s somewhat illusory to believe we have control over our destiny; there are simply too many forces above and beyond our control, and there are many ways in which we are reliant on these forces, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.
But that’s ok. I don’t need to be in control. It’s enough to be participating. It’s enough to help fit the pieces of the puzzle together, to see how the whole is formed, and within it, how we come to know our place.
April 14, 2015 § 24 Comments
I stopped up to Jimmy’s sugarhouse last night. The sap’s been running hard the past couple days, so I figured he’d be boiling. And he was.
I settled into a chair a few feet from the evaporator. Condensed steam dripped off the underside the metal roof onto my lap. I might’ve moved, but it would have been like dodging raindrops.
The sugarhouse was hot. Jimmy boils on wood, the way almost everyone used to boil. He has about 2,500 taps; on a good year, he’ll make about 1,000 gallons of syrup. This is not turning out to be a good year; late to start and, if the forecast hold true, quick to finish.
Jimmy looked tired, his face puffy with fatigue and red from the heat. He’d slept four hours the night before and only two hours the night before that. He milks cows, too, which is why he has to boil at night. We got to talking about the vagaries of the maple market. “That’s why I love those cows,” Jimmy told me. “I don’t have to tap a single tree and I can still make my payments.” He tossed a half-dozen sticks of wood into the evaporator. The fire roared.
That’s not the way it is for lots of sugar makers these days. There’s been a bit of a maple gold rush happening, and plenty of folks are jumping in with both feet, leveraging themselves to the hilt, cashing in on what, from a certain angle, can look like easy money (it’s not, it never is, it’s just varying degrees of difficult money). But this year the Canadian dollar is way down (syrup is priced in loonies), and the weather has been uncooperative. Prices are low and despite the myriad technological advances, you can’t force the sap to run. One bad year probably won’t be enough to shake out the over-leveraged or less-committed, but it sure won’t help. Then again, maybe the weather will turn. Maybe it’ll still be a decent season.
I left the sugarhouse around 10. Jimmy was winding down anyway. He had a cow due to freshen and needed to check on her before snagging a few hours of sleep. I walked outside. The cool air felt real good.
• • •
I’m having even more trouble than anticipated keeping this space updated. The season has shifted in full; my energy is focused almost entirely on the out-of-doors and everything that needs doing. I do plan to keep this space alive, but I cannot promise to what degree. For those of you who’ve kindly chosen to support this site on a monthly basis, know that I’ll have no hard feelings if you decide to reduce or even suspend your payments. Of course, I’ll also have no hard feelings if you just keep things as they are;)