Work of the Mind

April 23, 2014 § 11 Comments

Cree snow shovels in progress

Cree snow shovels in progress

The boys and I busted out early this morning to scout turkeys, for turkey season is nigh and the fellas are full of hope. I did not want to go into the woods at 5 a.m. but I did, and once I was moving it felt good enough. We sat for a while at the edge of Melvin’s back pasture but did not hear any gobbles. We were home by 6, did chores, cooked breakfast, and that was that. Another day begun.

The past couple of weeks have been pretty intense, what with the book and the onset of spring proper. Most mornings I’ve been at my desk by 5:00, managing to stay put for maybe a half-dozen hours, before heading outside until dark or nearly so. There is much to be done. The upper greenhouse needs new hip and base boards and a door built. We need a new chicken coop. There is still more firewood to be split and stacked, and perhaps even more to be pulled from the woods; I thought I’d be well and done by now, but the deep snows of March kept me out of the woods. By the time our various tree orders all arrive, there will be somewhere around 200 trees and bushes to plant. The copse of fir I started clearing January needs finishing. There is a large pile of sawlogs awaiting the mill’s toothy embrace. And so on. It is not a small amount of work.

In one of the chapters of the Chelsea Green book, I talk about the skills we call on most. More and more, I’m realizing that skills of the hand play a relatively minor role in the success (or lack thereof) of our holding. It’s the skills of the head that get us through, and perhaps none are so important as equanimity. Yesterday was one of those days when I almost lost my cool; I felt as if I could not keep straight in my head everything that needed to be done, and in the process even the smallest and simplest of tasks came to tower above me like a penance for misdeeds I’d long ago forgotten or perhaps had never even recognized as such.

At 5:30, when I remembered that I needed to bring the seedlings in off the porch – a 15 minute job, if that – I almost lost my shit. Penny was still planting peas, there were no plans for dinner, and the house was a mess – dishes high in the sink, muddy foot prints from one end to the other, something like six consecutive loads of clean laundry in a jumbled pile at the top of the stairs, and so on. But the boys chipped in and we got the seedlings tucked away for the night and I made strawberry smoothies for dinner and Penny got the peas planted and I put away the laundry, wiped up the muddy prints with an old tee shirt, and did the most offensive of the dishes. You know what? It was still only 8.

For anyone out there who hopes to someday grow their own food, cut their own firewood, build their own buildings, kill their own pigs, and so on, here’s my unasked for advice: Learn the skills of the hand, definitely, because lord knows, you’re gonna need them. But the real secret to making this place work has little to do with work of the muscles. The real secret is doing what needs to be done without letting what needs to be done become bigger than it actually is.

Truth is, it’s the work of the mind that gets us by.



That’s How Simple I Am

April 17, 2014 § 5 Comments



I was up and out before sunrise, my path to the woodshed lit by the 4/5 moon. Cold, it was, no more than a dozen degrees, the ground a patchwork of snow and winter-dead grass. Hard to believe we’ll be grazing in only a month. I loaded the cookstove, then strolled back outside and down to the tomato house, where the chickens are stationed for the next few weeks, until we knock together a suitable summer coop (the old, cobbled-together hovel of the past few years was finally dismantled last fall, the hens cheering with each swing of the wrecking ball). I’d forgotten to close them in last night, and if they’re allowed to range in the morning hours they lay wherever they darn well please, which means that in six months or so the boys are going to stumble on a clutch of eggs and commence to shoot them with the .22 before we can put a stop to their antics and the whole place is gonna stink to high heaven. There you have it: Rural livin’ in a nutshell. Or eggshell, I guess. Heck, I’d rather have ‘em shooting rotten eggs than playing video games. I think.

This morning I frost-seeded the winter paddock, along with a couple areas we ran the pigs through last fall. I like frost seeding when there’s a little snow on the ground, so you can check coverage as you go. We’ve been using the pigs to clear for many years, and it’s remarkable what they’re capable of. Indeed, the longer I live with animals, the more remarkable they become, particularly as we refine our practices in ways that liberate them to express their true natures. The same is true of humans, of course, for the people who get to live remarkable lives are those who, due to simple circumstance, dogged hard work, or some combination of the two manage to walk a path illuminated by principles and passions. I’m thinking that’s something worth remembering, if only to remind myself from time-to-time.

Penny and I are jamming on the as-yet-untitled Chelsea Green book. Every morning, we gather at the computer for an hour or two, scrolling through her collection of 8,000-and-something photos, matching image to text. And right now, she’s reading the entire manuscript, all 100,000-words of it, and making what I’m sure are copious and insightful notes in the margins. Next week, I’ll incorporate her comments and we’ll finish selecting photos, and I’ll send the whole shootin’ match off to my exceptionally gracious, kind, and generous editor (Makenna, you’re reading this, right?). And then… well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?

As much fun as it’s been to write this book – and it’s been a lot of fun – I’m ready to reclaim a bit of balance to my days, which have been tilted steeply in the direction of desk-bound sloth. My body actually feels real good, thanks to my commitment to do something vaguely yoga-ish on a daily basis. But the litany of outdoor tasks is mounting, as evidenced by one of Penny’s infamous lists. She jots down those tasks so effortlessly – build layer coop, plant trees, finish clearing farm road woods, shore up small greenhouse, finish firewood, spread amendments, and on and on - and I look at her words and squint a bit and try to imagine them struck through by a blunt-tipped pencil. Every so often, I’ll add a task I’ve already completed, just so I can have the pleasure of crossing it out. You know, like wake up, start fire, eat breakfast.

It’s true, you know. That’s how simple I am.


Hey, I haven’t showed you this in a while! 





Gonna Be Good

April 16, 2014 § 21 Comments

Hurry up and grow, will ya?

Hurry up and grow, will ya?

April is when this whole eating-off-our-land gig gets a little tiresome. This is particularly true this year, since we had some germination issues in the big greenhouse last fall, so our winter greens rations were especially skimpy. Furthermore, the crops that didn’t produce last fall aren’t regrowing now. If I have to choke down another lacto-fermented green bean or serving of kimchi, I’m gonna track down ole Sandor Katz and give him a good thumping. Which will be difficult, because Sandor’s a nice guy. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

I can’t tell you how long it’s been since we had fresh greens. I got a salad a while back when my mom took me out to dinner, and it was some good, let me tell you. But other than that… whoa. Oh, sure, we’ve had plenty of veggies – we have oodles of frozen green beans and broccoli, and all the aforementioned ferments and of course root crops galore – but a nice fresh salad, with maybe a little cheese crumbled up and enough dressing that when the kids aren’t looking (or maybe even when they are), you lick the plate clean? Oh, man.

The stuff we do have is holding up right nice. We still have good onions, firm potatoes, plenty of garlic. We still have beef (steaks, even!), pork (bacon, even!), venison, chickens, and lamb. We still have gobs of blueberries and strawberries. We could probably eat a quart of berries every day until fresh berries start popping and not run out. We’ve got new syrup and dried chanterelles and dried tomatoes and frozen pesto and I don’t even know what all. We have enough liver pate – beef, chicken, pork, and beaver – to last us until the early part of the next century. Lard. Lots of lard.

We’re out of butter, though, and we haven’t had milk for over a month. That’s a sad state of affairs, to be sure, but we’ve got three cows due in June, so we’ll make up for it then. I’m thinking there’s gonna be an awful lot of ice cream consumed this summer. You know what we put in ice cream? Cream, syrup, egg yolks and whatever berries are fresh. Or maybe a few chopped up sprigs of mint. That’s it. Makes a hell of a breakfast, lemme tell you. Makes a hell of a dinner, come to think of it.

Out of simple curiosity, we’ve been keeping track of what money we spend on food. Over the past two months, we’ve spent $120, which means $15 per week, or about $4/week per person.  Of course, that doesn’t include the hay and minerals we feed the cows and sheeps. It doesn’t include the grain that goes to the layers (oh yeah: Eggs. We’re drowning). But still and all. Not bad. I suspect it’s even less come summer, though we’ve never tracked it in summer, so I can’t say for certain. If I think of it, and if we keep on keeping track, I’ll let you know.

We didn’t make a lot of money last year and actually would have qualified for food benefits, which struck us as pretty funny. I have to admit that for about a day, I was smitten by an image of myself in line at the local food co-op, arms laden with all the fancy cheeses and organic micro greens we could afford if we took the benefits. I also have to admit that I actually figured out what our benefit would be: $350-ish/month. Three hundred and fifty dollars per month. Can you imagine? I know that out there in the real world, where most folks are removed from the land and the skills necessary to fill their own freezers, $350/month for a family of four is hardly enough. It probably isn’t enough. But to us… whoa. We’d be eating cheese on our cheese. We’d have boughten butter coming out our ears.

Anyway. I don’t know what got me thinking about all this. Yet another breakfast of eggs, bacon, and kimchi, probably. Another lunch of venison and roots and frozen green bean stew. Dinner… who knows. Not salad, I know that much. Not cheese. Not ice cream. But all those things are coming. And when they get here, they’re gonna be good.


So We Won’t

April 15, 2014 § 30 Comments



We’ve given up most of our magazine subscriptions over the years and frankly not missed them much. Well, maybe we’ve missed some of them a little, which explains why I asked my parents to save their back issues of the New Yorker for us. This has the unanticipated fringe benefit of exposing my father’s fondness for the caption contest; in the back of the handed-down issues, we find his half-baked ideas scrawled across the bottom of the page.

Anyway. One of the issues we were recently bequeathed sported a rather illuminating article about Amazon (the online retailer, not the rainforest) and Jeff Bezos’s relentless quest to essentially destroy Main St America. That’s not the explicitly stated objective, of course, but if his goals are realized, there can be no other effective outcome.

The author of the story makes a very salient point: While WalMart is the target of much retail anguish in this country, Amazon gets off largely scot-free, in no small part because it’s not nearly as visible as WalMart. But of course it’s doing at least as much damage, and perhaps even more, particularly when one considers the massive amount of data Amazon collects about its customers. If the article is to be believed, Amazon will soon know what you need (or more realistically, what you want) before you know it. It will then dispatch a drone from its private fleet to deliver your parcel. Even if the drone idea never comes to pass, the extent to which Bezos obsesses over personal data is quite alarming.

We’ve never shopped at WalMart; I can honestly say we’ve never even been tempted. My limited experience with big box stores is that they smell weird, induce tremendous amounts of stress via sensory overload, and tend to be full of a whole bunch of crap I’m better off not owning. But we have shopped on Amazon, having fallen prey to its lack of visibility and our own craven desire for convenience.  Never for books (or at least never for new books; I must confess to purchasing used books via Amazon), but certainly for the mercantile minutia of modern American life: Printer ink. Photo paper. An extra battery for Penny’s camera. Etc, etc, etc. And probably more etc. I wouldn’t call us frequent Amazonians, but I bet that over the past handful of years, we’ve bought something from Amazon an average of once per month.

I got to think about all this today after Jimmy called to see if we wanted a tractor bucket full of organic grain for our pigs. He’d cleaned out his silo, and he was just about to dump the cleanings, when it occurred to him that perhaps we could make use of the grain. Hell yeah, says I, because as anyone who’s purchased organic animal feed knows, they don’t exactly give that stuff away (though I bet I could find a good deal on Ama… ah, never mind). So a few minutes later, he rolled down the drive in his John Deere and we dumped the grain from the loader bucket of his tractor into ours, and then I spent a dozen or so minutes shoveling it into buckets for storage. I didn’t weigh it, but it had to’ve been a couple hundred pounds.

I guess I can’t tell you the exact connection between Amazon and my exchange with Jimmy, which was nothing more than one of the small, frequent kindnesses that transpires in rural communities every minute of every day. Ah, but wait: That’s it, right there. That’s the connection. Because the world I wish to inhabit is the one that’s defined by those small kindness, where the feed for our pigs is delivered by a neighbor and we chat for a few minutes in the driveway just as it’s starting to spit rain and then he’s gone again, off to make some syrup because the sap ran something wicked last night and it’s shaping up to be a decent season, after all.  The world I wish to inhabit is one where the world’s largest online retailer doesn’t know a damn thing about me and my shopping habits, and furthermore is not scheming to launch a fleet of package delivery drones into the air above my head.

The world I wish to inhabit is one in which we don’t shop on Amazon anymore. So we won’t.



On and On it Goes

April 14, 2014 § 12 Comments

Drop spindling

Drop spindling

We did a little boil this weekend, adding to our syrup stores by another gallon-and-a-half or so. Rye’s trees ran pretty good on Friday, so he boiled too, the results of which pushed him over last year’s final tally of ½-gallon. The pleasure of this imbued him with a sense of magnanimity, and he donated his extra sap to our rig.

We’re up to four-gallons or so of finished syrup; it’s a fraction of last year’s haul (12-gallons), but it’s better than I feared, and it’s not over yet, though it will be soon. Before long, the trees will start budding, and once they start budding, the sap takes on a bitterness that translates into “buddy” syrup. The big sugar makers sell buddy syrup into the commercial flavoring market, so they keep boiling, but we are decidedly not big sugar makers. Hell, we might not even be small sugar makers.

On Friday, as part of my reporting for a story I’m working on, I visited one of the largest sugaring operations in the state. They’ve got 66,000 taps, spread across something like 2,000 acres, and it’s a full-time, year-round job keeping the whole shootin’ match running. The scale was mind-boggling to me; I spent most of the day riding in one of those little off-road utility vehicles, bouncing around the woods with a woman named Cecile who at 56 moved a good bit faster and seemed a good bit stronger than most guys half her age.

An operation like Cecile’s and Tommy’s (her husband) depends on high vacuum; that is, it depends on vacuum pumps to keep the sap flowing even under less-than-ideal conditions. The key with vacuum is that you’ve gotta find and fix any leaks to the system – a tap that’s pulled out of a tree, for instance, because a branch has fallen on the line, or a deer chew, or whatever. A single leak across all those thousands of miles of pipeline has a measurable impact on production. So every day, Cecile and a crew of another half-dozen or so family members and employees run the lines from sunup to sundown, looking for leaks. They own an entire fleet of ATVs and utility buggies for precisely this purpose.

Later that afternoon, I took a ride with Tommy in a big hauling truck to pick up 4,000-gallons of concentrate at their remote bush, about 15-miles from the sugarhouse. Concentrate is the term for sap that’s been run through a reverse osmosis machine, thus increasing the sugar content. Raw sap is generally in the 2% range; with an RO, sugar makers can take it to 18% or even a little higher, thus reducing the boiling time (and therefore, the fuel necessary to make sap into syrup).

On the ride home, I asked Tommy (who like his wife seems to have more energy and depth of character than most folks half his age) if he every missed the old days; they used to sugar with horses and buckets and boil over old wood-fired arches. He grinned. “I used to tell myself I’d never have pipeline, I’d never give up the horses, I’d never use vacuum, and I’d never be boiling with oil,” he told me. “Now look at me.”

Tommy struck me as a pragmatic guy. He didn’t seem sad or bitter about the changes. It’s just the way things are. In a way, I couldn’t help but admire him for this. He’s not caught in his nostalgia. He’s got those memories, he knows what it used to be, and he liked it then. But he also knows what it is now, and he knows what he needs to do to make it pencil out. He’s got bills to pay. He’s got his children’s future to think about. Horses and buckets don’t pay the bills. Horses and bucket’s don’t leave something for your kids except maybe memories.

Me, I think I’d get stuck in nostalgia. I’d be mired right to the tops of my boots in the way it used to be, while all around me folks who weren’t so damn stupid were buzzing around on ATV’s and checking vacuum. The crazy thing is, Tommy and Cecile told me about a Canadian outfit that’s rumored to be putting in a 500,000-tap operation somewhere in the Northeast Kingdom. If rumors become fact, pretty soon their 66,000-tap maple business won’t seem so big anymore. Pretty soon, it’ll just be the way things used to be.

On and on it goes.






This is what it’s like…

April 8, 2014 § 15 Comments


… to be edited by my wife. I finally had to tell her to stop writing YUCK! in the margins. It was killing my ego.


I Mean We

April 8, 2014 § 13 Comments

Early 2014 crop

Early 2014 crop

Things are going to be somewhat sporadic ’round these parts, at least until the sap’s done running and we are finished with the Chelsea Green book. And when I say “we,” I mean we, because if it weren’t for Penny, I can’t imagine what this book would be. Actually, I can. I just don’t want to.



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