March 4, 2015 § 29 Comments
Yesterday afternoon Penny and I spent a couple hours in the kitchen. We did a bunch of things. First we sliced up a pair of chuck roasts real thin for beef jerky. The trick to slicing meat thin enough for good jerky is twofold: A sharp knife and a partially frozen roast. Then we chopped up a whole lot of garlic – we grow way more garlic than we can eat, but we sure do try – and mixed it into some tamari and a little honey. Penny might’ve put something else in there, too… I’m not sure. It’s her recipe; I don’t ask questions. We put the sliced meat in a bowl, poured the marinade over it, and stuck it in our passively vented icebox for the night.
When we finished slicing the meat, I went to the basement and dug a few carrots out of one of the burlap bags in the basement. This winter, we experimented with storing our carrots in dead leaves, and it’s worked out pretty good. We raked the leaves off the paths in our neighbor’s sugarwoods. I remember the boys jumped and wrestled in the raked up piles and I thought I should join them but I didn’t. Still, it was fun just watching them. I took the carrots upstairs. Washed them. Peeled them. Cut them small for stew.
I had some chunks of venison browning in lard on the wood cookstove. It smelled good. Earthy. The lard was from the pigs we slaughtered in January; the meat was from a fat little roadkill doe Fin and I came upon last fall, ironically just after we’d gotten home from rifle hunting. I would tell you how many roadkill deer we’ve harvested in the past six years or so, but it’s such an outrageously high number you’d never believe me and I’d only look like an idiot for having tried to pull the wool over your eyes (even though I didn’t). So let’s just say we haven’t gone without venison in a real long time, none of which were killed by our own hand or (thankfully) even our own vehicle. Sometimes I think it’d be cool to spend a year just living off roadkill and wild greens. But… nah.
While we worked, Penny and I got to talking about some things we’d heard on the radio. We generally listen only when we’re driving solo, and we’ve each been driving too much lately, so we had lots to talk about. She told me about some fellow who’d done a segment on his new coffee maker, which apparently communicated with his smartphone. I guess the way it worked is that the coffee machine would actually call him when it needed tending. Sort of like an aging parent or a teenage child, I said, and she laughed, and I was pleased, because in my experience there’s not much better than making someone you care about laugh, especially if she generally finds your jokes lacking. Anyhow, I digress.
I told her about something I’d heard that very morning, about how the cereal makers are in big trouble. No one’s buying Cocoa Frosted Death Flakes anymore, and I thought for sure they were gonna say it’s because people are finally getting wise to that shit, but lo-and-behold it was for a much more pedestrian reason: People want something more convenient than cold cereal these days. In other words, it’s too much work to pull the box and a bowl out of the cupboard, the milk out of the fridge, and a spoon out of the drawer. It’s too much work to “prepare” a bowl of cold cereal – the pouring of the flakes and the milk is simply too great a drain on the precious commodities of time and convenience. And then all those dishes to wash! So what’s the next big thing? Breakfast bars, apparently, because you can eat them in the car on your way to work. Tear open the package with your teeth, stuff your gullet whilst navigating traffic (it’s a pain in the ass, I know, but don’t fret: Driverless cars are coming soon!) and then stick the empty wrapper under the seat with the cast off detritus of previous breakfasts. Or maybe just throw it out the window. Yeah. That’d be even easier.
A story to ground all this: About a decade ago, we ripped the propane cookstove out of our kitchen and replaced it with a wood burner. I recall being a little anxious about the amount of work I perceived to be involved with cooking on wood. No more would I be able to twist a dial and have blue flames leap at my command. Now it was fell the tree, buck the log, split the wood, stack the wood, haul the wood inside, crumple the paper, lay the kindling, strike the match, feed the fire. Then coffee. Then breakfast. It all seemed like a bit much at the time, though clearly there was something about it that called to me.
Another story: A few years back, we turned off our gas-fired hot water heater. Let me be perfectly honest: This was no great hardship – we have solar collectors and a rather ineffectual loop through the wood cookstove – but it still means there are large swathes of time when we do not have hot water at the tap. Want to do dishes? Do ‘em in cold water, or heat some on the stovetop. Want a bath? Heat in on the stovetop (but mind the step!). And so on. As with the installation of the wood cookstove, I remember being a little nervous about extinguishing the pilot light in the water heater. As with the wood cookstove, I hardly remember that we ever had it differently, and now we burn only a couple dozen gallons of propane each year to fire the gas range we ripped out of the kitchen and stuck on the porch for use in the summer months. Honestly, I can’t say I’m more happy now that we don’t use our propane water heater, but I do experience a smallish delight in knowing how well we can live without it.
What’s my point? Actually, I think I have something like a half dozen points, though I may not get to them all. The first is that convenience (or the lack thereof) is almost 100% relative and almost 100% unrelated to happiness. When we lived without any plumbing at all, which we did for years while saving for this land, we thought running cold water would be the pinnacle of convenience (we didn’t even dare dream of hot water at the tap, lest we anger the gods with our greed). Funny thing is, we weren’t any less happy then than we are now.
Point number two: In far too many cases, without us even knowing it is happening to us, convenience sucks the simple pleasures out of our lives. I’m thinking of my boys wrestling in those piles of leaves I inconveniently raked in order to inconveniently store the carrots we inconveniently grew. I’m thinking of this morning, as I sat by the cookstove fire, writing the first half of this post and waiting for my coffee to perc. I’m thinking of splitting wood, the way my body feels after a day with the maul. I’m thinking of how that beef jerky is going to taste, I can smell it now from my office; Penny must have spread it across the drying racks. It’ll be ready by tomorrow morning, I bet. I’m thinking that Erik’s going to be here for lunch and we’ll eat venison stew from a deer my son and I hoisted into the back of our Subaru and butchered on our kitchen counter. Even at the time, I remember feeling a little put out by the inconvenience of it all: I’d had other plans for the day. But now I don’t remember what they were.
Point number three: I’m thinking that appeals to our desire for convenience are actually nothing more than sleights-of-hand intended to further ensnare us in the sticky web of consumption. And in doing so, furthermore erode our ability to care for our communities and ourselves. For what skills do these conveniences require? Only the skills necessary to maintain the jobs necessary to pay for them. To plug them in, to rip open the packaging with our bare teeth, one hand still on the wheel, weaving in and out of traffic, perhaps recalling that once upon a time we actually had to eat from a bowl, and oh! How wonderful it is to have been freed of that burden.
March 3, 2015 § 51 Comments
Some years back, going on better than two decades now, I worked at a bike and ski shop in Vermont’s capitol city of Montpelier. For the most part, I loved that job, in no small part because I loved to ride my bike and ski. Truthfully, at that point in my life, there was little else I really wanted to do (though Penny was about to mess with that equation a bit), and I thought it was real fun to spend my days working on and selling the equipment that made possible the things I loved to do.
I learned a lot working retail. For instance, most customers were inherently kind, understanding, and forgiving of my occasional blunders (perhaps I sent them home with the wrong part, or maybe I didn’t fix the mysterious shifting issue on their bike, or I could have made any of the other myriad errors of being an imperfect human in an imperfect world), so I learned to have faith in people who were, by-and-large, strangers to me. This was a good lesson.
Conversely, a minority of my customers were not inherently kind, understanding, and forgiving of my occasional blunders. Or (and in hindsight, this seems more likely to me) maybe they did embody these qualities, but for one reason or another, they’d lost sight of them. In doing so, they seemed to assume that I’d been sent to earth for the express purpose of making their lives more difficult than they apparently already were, and so I learned that a minority of people are afflicted with the view that the world and its inhabitants are out to get them. This was also a good lesson.
The other thing I learned pretty early on is that there is only one way to deal with the latter category: Compassionately. With ten times or more the basic kindness and understanding we all deserve. You don’t just kill them with kindness, you friggin’ annihilate them with kindness. To be sure, you do this in part because it’s the most effective way of getting them out of your hair, but you also do it because you know that the only possible reason someone can treat you so poorly is because they are unhappy. Maybe even miserable. And even though you cannot see the wound of their unhappiness, you know it is just as real as if the blood flowing from it were pooling on the floor.
I got to thinking about all this in the aftermath of the recent Washington Post interview (it also ran in the Toronto Star) and the resulting comments, some of which are downright vitriolic. It is never fun to see such hateful language directed toward myself and my family, but is immeasurably helpful to understand that no one could write such things if the blood of their unhappiness were not gathering at their feet. It is immeasurably helpful to understand that the lack of enlightenment we see in others is almost always a reflection of the lack of enlightenment we see in ourselves. Don’t ever forget that, particularly when you’re thinking poorly of someone. It is immeasurably helpful to view the unkind comments as force akin to the wind, something that cannot be stopped, something that I can choose to futilely argue against, or simply allow to blow through me.
(I suppose there’s a third alternative: I could hide from it. But isn’t there enough hiding going on already?)
Choosing to share some of our stories publicly has been by turns one of the most rewarding and challenging things I’ve ever done. Perhaps it has been rewarding because it has been challenging. Part of that challenge is that my words are parsed for meaning I may or may not have intended (I’ve written about this before), or used as support of a pre-existing narrative. Part of the challenge is that we inhabit a society where, generally speaking, we no longer perceive the well-being and support of others to be part and parcel of the well-being and support of ourselves. Of course, I am also guilty of all the above.
Funny thing is, I got on here for one purpose and one purpose only: To mention our upcoming brown ash berry basket workshop, Saturday, March 28, from 1 – 5. So I’ll stop blabbing and say only one thing more: You should come!
March 2, 2015 § 14 Comments
We awoke to a small riot of snow, the flakes twirling and skipping as they fell, riding the whims of a north wind. The air has a hazy, almost blurred quality, as if everything were wrapped in a thin layer of gauze. Or maybe as if we were wrapped in a thin layer of gauze.
For a moment, I felt the sinking sensation of weather-induced exasperation, followed in short order by an image of myself floundering through the snow, harnessed to a sled full of maple sap. There’s a certain rise in Melvin’s field that always threatens to reverse the proper order of this arrangement: Not I pulling the sled forward, but the sled pulling me backward, sliding and stumbling toward the point at which the slope flattens into a perpendicular-running length of barbed wire.
I bet I’ve hauled 2,000 or more gallons of sap over that fence and up that hill, one or both of the boys stabilizing the sled from behind. When the snow melts, we switch to the garden cart, weaving around the holdout pockets of snow, the ones fortunate enough to have fallen in the shade cast by the big tree line maples. Even where the snow has mostly melted, the packed ribbon of our sled track remains, diminishing day by day. Then gone.
I walked outside this morning with these thoughts in my mind, bearing the weight of the new snow and all that has preceded it, three-feet deep or more on the flat. And then I was in the snow, and it was falling on and around me in that same flighty, wind borne way. I could feel it brush the exposed skin of my face, but only barely. I realized it weighed almost nothing, and I remembered to be amazed.
• • •
The knife sharpening/spoon carving workshop exceeded our wildest expectations. For eight hours, our home was filled to capacity (and perhaps a little beyond) with the infectious energy of people bent to a productive task with purpose and curiosity. There were men and women, young children and elders. Lucian and Andre did an outstanding job of tending to the varying needs of this diverse array.
Penny and I had expected that we might feel a little worn down by hosting the event, but the opposite is true: We feel gratified and energized. Which is a darn good thing, because our next gathering – a half-day brown ash berry/foraging basket workshop – is only a few weeks away. Details real soon!
February 27, 2015 § 43 Comments
Addendum: Tomorrow night is the 3rd annual Cabin Fever Spelling Bee, at which yours truly, along with dear ole dad and a whole bunch of other ne’er-do-wells, will compete for bragging rights. It’s a benefit for the Kellogg Hubbard Library. Hilarity has been known to ensue. Get your tickets here!
Early this morning I came upon a snowy owl dining on one of our ducks. Upon my approach, he swooped into the low branch of a nearby hemlock. I could hear the soft whoosh of his glide. We watched one another for 30 seconds or more, and I called to Penny and the boys, who were bustling about the barn, but I dared not raise my voice high, and they did not hear me. So it was just the owl and me and the dead duck.
Then he flew.
• • •
It was ten below again this morning. I have come to view the cold as a temporary installation of performance art, and as is so often the case, I am struck by how profoundly this simple shift of perspective has altered my relationship to forces beyond my control. Truth is, we are living through something historic – the coldest February on record, and the second-coldest month ever recorded in Vermont, which is pretty badass, considering that February is typically the month that tips into spring. Already, I am relishing the image of myself balancing a grandchild on each knee, regaling them with tales of the winter of ’15, the one in which the snow fell for 64 days straight, the temperature didn’t rise above 40 below until the middle of April, and I bare-handedly defended our ducks from a pack of marauding wolves.
Of course, my tenuous acceptance of the cold is aided by the fact that we are well provisioned. We still have dry firewood, and I’m increasingly optimistic that scavenging will remain unnecessary (ok, so I have been mixing a bit of sugaring wood into the remaining reserves). No water lines have frozen, a testament to our
savvy engineering dumb luck when building this place. All the animals (singular duck excepted) are in fine fettle, and our stores of hay are plentiful. And even this morning, cold as it is, carries that particular expectation of spring, the sun rising early and high enough that when I arrived at the barn to tell Penny about the owl, she and Pip were awash in light. I stood quiet for a moment before I spoke, listening to the metronomic sound of milk accumulating in the pail.
• • •
Not sure what happened, but I’ve picked up a lot of new readers over the past week or so. Actually, my traffic has almost doubled, though I’m sure it will settle down again. Anyway. For those new to this space, I would like to humbly point you to the Generosity Enabler icon (see below or in the righthand margin of the home page).
As always, this space remains free of advertisements and any expectation of financial recompense. That said, Penny and I both put a great deal of effort into our work here (all the photos are hers) and believe it has value. If you agree, and if you posses the means to contribute, and if you are inclined to do so, please know that your support is greatly appreciated.
February 26, 2015 § 75 Comments
In the comments following Monday’s post, Bee made a statement (Medical insurance is what kills you) and asked a question (What happens on bucolic farms when you get a foot crushed by a tractor or something?), and being someone who’s thought a fair bit about insurance, illness, and injury as they pertain to this bucolic little life of ours, which in so very many ways is utterly dependent on our physical well being, I figured I’d dive into the fray.
Bee is absolutely right: Health insurance is what kills us. And mostly it kills us because we let it kill us, because we allow the whole messed-up, soul-crushing, spirit-sucking medical-industrial complex to sow their seeds of fear and loathing and, in far too many cases, disease itself. And it kills us because we’re too scared to even imagine life outside of it. We can’t imagine poking our heads from under its protective cover because, as Bee quite logically asks Whacha gonna do ’bout that tractor on your foot?
At its core, the problem seems simple enough: Like food and land, like clean water and clean air, like almost everything humans need to survive and even prosper, health insurance and the care it might (or – let’s be honest – might not) pay for has become a commodity, available to those who can afford it. True, there are options for those who cannot afford to pay in full (indeed, our insurance coverage is subsidized) or even at all, but there are many more options for those who can afford to pay, as anyone who’s navigated the constraints of a boiler plate policy can tell you.
But here’s the thing: Health insurance is not health care. Perhaps even more succinctly, health insurance cannot in and of itself provide its bearer with good health, and the tragic irony is that in protecting their access to the former, many, many people are watching the latter slowly slip from their grasp. This is because they can see no other way to maintain their insurance than by staying in a job that is sedentary, damaging to spirit and psyche, and leaves them little time or energy to perform basic health care tasks such as cooking and consuming real food, working lung and muscle on a regular basis, and even exercising the mind.
As noted, we are currently covered by health insurance, but we have gone long periods without it. All things being equal, I’d rather have it than not, because for all the things the medical-industrial complex is not so good at, there are a few things it is. Repairing tractor-crushed feet is one of them, as is treatment of any number of the potential homestead catastrophes we face on a daily basis. I don’t mean to dismiss the possibility of these catastrophes, the capacity of contemporary health care providers to remedy them, or the impact of their suffering. All are very real and worthy of consideration.
If fear of losing my health insurance were all that was keeping me from pursuing the life I wanted, here’s what I’d do. First, I’d see if I could find a high-deductable, catastrophic policy that would cover me just enough that I wouldn’t lose my shirt if indeed I did find myself with a mangled appendage. But second, and more profoundly, I’d try to remember that the best thing I could do for my health is to pursue the life that feels most meaningful to me, particularly if that life includes growing and eating real food, daily physical labor, a relative lack of stress, and a sense of purpose. I believe we should not overlook the value of these factors anymore than we should overlook the slim possibility of catastrophic accident.
One of the things we value deeply about this way of life is the extent to which we feel a sense of agency over our well being. Increasingly, this extends to our health care, as we acquire the skills and experience necessary for dealing with minor-and-even-moderate wounds and illnesses. We (and by “we,” I mean “Penny”) have spent a lot of time learning about medicinal plants, some of which we cultivate, many of which we forage. We have connected with a network of so-called “alternative” healers, like our MD-turned-homeopath, who does not accept insurance and charges $40 for a hour-long consultation. But mostly, we have come to understand that the land and our work upon it is our primary health care provider, and a damn good one at that.
Listen. There’s no absolute perfect answer to the health insurance dilemma. I get that. The whole system is way too far around the bend, and our individual circumstances are far too variable, for there to be an answer that applies to all. But one thing I suspect we all hold in common is the desire to live with vibrancy and purpose. And in that regard, at least in some cases, it might just be our fear of going without insurance that is making us sick.
Oh, and a poem, sent to me all the way from Brussels in the aftermath of Friday’s post. It’s by my friend Simon Clissold. I think it’s pretty good.
February 25, 2015 § 41 Comments
One of the challenges I face relating to my writing here is how much of our lives to share. Truthfully, it’s not something I consciously think about a whole lot; I tend to let my intuition guide me, and while imperfect, it’s a process I’m learning to trust in more and more.
That said, I’ve put a lot of thought into exactly how to share the fact that we are transitioning our homestead to land a few miles north of here. I have thought of writing about this on numerous occasions over the last few months, but the simple truth of it is that I have not felt emotionally ready to do so, and it was necessary for me to come to my own terms with it before announcing it in such a public way.
Actually, in many ways, I still don’t feel ready, but I’ve also reached a point where to not write about it feels almost deceptive. I felt this most acutely when Heather asked me to talk about the future Fat of the Land Farm. I suppose my answer was technically honest – the farm comes with us, after all, as does its profound influence on our sense of place in this world – but I didn’t feel good about it. It seemed like a politician’s or CEO’s version of honesty, which is not the version of honesty I aspire to.
There are many reasons we are making this transition. Chief among them is our desire to evolve our homestead (and therefore, our lives) in a direction that feels even closer to the land. The property we will build on this summer has no infrastructure; it is primarily forested, with significant stands of hardwoods and a beautiful year-round stream, where already the boys have tracked a bear and scouted the prime brook trout holes. It is within walking distance of an 11,000-acre conserved wildlife management area. It is in a community of fewer than two hundred residents, though it is only a 10-minute drive to a larger town. There is a five or six acre apple orchard in need of restoration, and just enough pasture to support a couple of cows. Naturally, we will establish gardens and perennial plantings. Pigs. Chickens. And so on.
Part of this evolution is our plan to construct a much smaller, simpler house than we currently occupy. We are still tweaking our design, but it will be well under 1000 square feet. Our budget is fairly slim; by the time we’ve developed a spring (and oh you should have seen the jig I danced when I stumbled across that little burbling gem, uphill from the house site, no less!) and installed a septic system (as required by town zoning), we’ll have just shy of $30,000 to build our new home. We can do this only because we have sawn much of the lumber ourselves, along with sourcing used windows and doors. We are leaving enough room in our budget to hire a good friend to help us for (hopefully) enough time to ensure we’ll actually have a place to live come next winter. Otherwise… oh, wait: There can be no otherwise.
As anyone who has read this space for any length of time knows, we think and talk a lot about how best to shape our lives so that we can live in alignment with our deepest held beliefs. This process has led us to a place of seeking an even greater degree of simplicity and the peace held therein. It has also led us to our desire to facilitate the sharing of skills and simple human interaction via the creation of a gathering space for Lazy Mill Living Arts (stay tuned for a forthcoming workshop announcement – ash berry/foraging baskets!), something that would have been difficult to do on this land, given the particulars of its layout. As soon as the roof over our own heads is secure, we intend to break ground on a shop for LMLA. Because we have decided to forego an organized crowd-funding campaign, it may take some time to get the shop built. We are okay with that. We will make it happen, and we will still host workshops in the interim.
Penny and I were married on this land. Our children were born onto the living room floor of this house; if you were here now, I could show you the exact spots. Leaving it is nothing short of heart-breaking, and we have shed our weight in tears. This place is embedded in every aspect of our beings. And yet, in way I’m at pains to articulate, it also feels as if we are taking it with us. All the experiences, everything we’ve learned, the things we’ve seen and smelled and heard, our animals: They come with us. Even the relationships with our community here, abetted by the fact that the new land is not far from here. We can still come to Melvin’s barn at chore time. We can still hay with our friends. And so on.
Despite our heartbreak, we are acting with tremendous clarity and purpose. We are carrying all these things – the heartbreak, the clarity, the purpose, the excitement, the occasional middle-of-the-night panic attacks over all that must be done and how (relatively) little we have to do it with – in our hands, hearts, and minds. But we know this is right for us. We also know it won’t be easy. We wouldn’t want it to be.
And what, you ask, is happening to this property? I am happy to say that it is passing into the hands of friends, a process that has as yet been nothing short of pleasurable, with low key dinner table negotiations and our families coming together on weekends to cut and split firewood, ensuring that everyone’s stove will be well fed next winter. It is yet another piece of this puzzle that has clicked perfectly into place for us, almost as if it had been preordained. We look forward to seeing this property evolve under their care.
In truth, we could have stayed here and remained content. The funny thing is, the moment we realized that was the moment we realized we could actually do this. It was the moment we realized there is nothing we are running from; there is only what we are moving toward.
Thank you for reading and for your ongoing support.