The Smallest Steps

January 29, 2015 § 31 Comments

spoonworkshop3It was -10 this morning, so naturally I decided to fire up the smoke pit for the latest round of hams and bacons. By 7:30, in the aftermath of morning chores, I’d shoveled off the tin and laid bare the wire grate that supports the pits’ precious cargo. By 8:00, I’d kindled a pair of small fires (one at either end of the pit for maximum smoke production), and pulled three hogs worth of brined belly and ass through two feet of snow, the buckets of syrup-and-salt infused pork balanced precariously in the utility sled. I thought to have Penny take a picture; as an act of civic duty, I’d offer it to school districts nationwide, fodder with which to put the fear of god into underachieving students. See this? the administrators would say, holding the photo of my sorry pig-pulling self mere inches from their students’ self-satisfied noses. That’s what happens when you drop out of high school! Damn. Even if I sold the photos, it’d have to be cheaper than No Child Left Behind.

Alrighty. Just a little bookkeeping. I now have copies of The Nourishing Homestead in my possession, and if any of ya’ll would like a copy, I’d be more than pleased to sell you one from my personal stash. I can’t match Amazon’s price (I pay almost as much as Amazon sells them for), but I can offer to inscribe your book anywhichway you’d like. If you live in the US, I’ll include postage in the $30 cover price. Hit me up at the Generosity Enabler or, if you don’t do Paypal (and good on ya’), shoot me an email and we’ll make arrangements. Everyone who’s read the book thus far has been real complimentary, and I’d go so far as to say there’s a better than 50-50 chance you’ll like it.

Secondly, as you can see from the above poster, we’ve got a real fun workshop coming up, led by our amazing tool maker and blacksmithing friend Lucian Avery and spoon fanatic Andre Souligny. This is a great chance to familiarize (or refamiliarize) yourself with the fine art of knife sharpening, as well as the use of numerous traditional hand tools and wood working techniques. Come days end, you’ll walk away with a spoon of your very own making. As the supremely talented Alexander Yerks says “metal and plastic sort of set up a dull mood even before you take the first bite.”

I couldn’t agree more, and would only add that revolutions often begin with the smallest steps. Like making your own spoon.





Locking Up the Food

January 28, 2015 § 12 Comments

In progress

In progress

The storm was lesser than forecast. We got maybe three inches of snow, though by this morning the wind had deposited it into sharp-ridged drifts. I pushed through two of them on my way to the barn this morning, both knee-deep, the snow soft and yielding. It was zero, but the early light – thin, uncertain, sunless -made the air feel even colder, and by the time I returned to the house, my fingers stung. I shucked my gloves and held my hands over the hot iron of the cookstove, flipping them every dozen seconds or so until the cold was all burned out.

•    •    •

A few steps of the dance, performed just three or four days a month, enriched their lives greatly and took almost no effort. As here on earth, the people of this planet were not a single people but many peoples, and as time went on, each people developed its own approach to the dance. Some continued to dance just a few steps three or four days a month. Others found it made sense for them to have even more of their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every second or third day. Still others saw no reason why they shouldn’t live mostly on their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every single day. Things went on this way for tens of thousands of years among the people of this planet, who thought of themselves as living in the hands of the gods and leaving everything to them. For this reason, they called themselves Leavers. 

But one group of Leavers eventually said to themselves “Why should we just live partially on the foods we favor? All we have to do is devote a lot more time to dancing.” So this one particular group took to dancing several hours a day. Because they thought of themselves as taking their welfare into their own hands, we’ll call them the Takers. The results were spectacular. The Takers were inundated with their favorite foods. A manager class soon emerged to look after the accumulation and stores of surpluses -something that hand never been necessary when everyone was just dancing a few hours a week. The members of this manager class were far too busy to do any dancing themselves, and since their work was so critical, they soon came to be regarded as social and political leaders. But after a few years these leaders of the Takers began to notice that food production was dropping, and they went out to see what was going wrong. What they found was that the dancers were slacking off. They weren’t dancing several hours a day, they were dancing only an hour or two and sometimes not even that much. The leaders asked why. 

“What’s the point of all this dancing?” the dancers asked. “It isn’t necessary to dance seven or eight hours a day to get the food we need. There’s plenty of food even if we just dance an hour a day. We’re never hungry. So why shouldn’t we relax and take life easy, the way we used to?” 

The leaders saw things very differently, of course. If the dancers went back to living the way they used to, then the leaders would soon have to do the same, and that didn’t appeal to them at all. They considered and tried many different schemes to encourage or cajole or tempt or shame or force the dancers into dancing longer hours, but nothing worked until one of them came up with the idea of locking up the food.

From My Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I highly recommend it.







The Thing That Really Helps

January 27, 2015 § 33 Comments

Snowshoeing to evening chores

Snowshoeing to evening chores

The truck died on Saturday, and I suppose it could have been worse, as I was no more than a mile from home. Of lesser convenience was the fact that it sputtered to a halt while towing the tractor behind it, and furthermore just as I was entering the arc of a blind corner on a main road. To put it in the mildest of terms, it was not a great place to be stranded with so many large and unyielding pieces of equipment.

I retrieved Penny, unloaded the tractor, decoupled the trailer, wrapped one end of a chain around the truck’s plow frame and the other around the tractor’s drawbar, and began towing the truck to safety. The boys are ever eager to bear witness to such antics, so they rode in the cab of the truck with my wife, and I must admit it improved my mood considerably to glance over my shoulder at my family, shoulder-to-shoulder across the bench seat of our old Ford, me pulling them up the road at 14 mph in search of a plowed lot large enough to navigate a change of direction. Some families go to the movies or to an amusement park, but not us. Oh, no: We go jaunting about in our absurd conveyance of malfunctioning machinery.

Once the truck was situated, I rigged up the trailer ball on the tractor, hitched up to the trailer, and pulled that to safety. And then, to what I’d like to think is my great credit, I almost relaxed. Everything and everyone was out of harm’s way. True, the truck was broken. True, by the time I’d fiddled with it enough to realize it needed a new fuel pump, which necessitates removal of the turbo assembly, which therefore punts it beyond the realm of repair work I am willing to tackle in our snowbound driveway, I’d lost the majority of the day. True, it will cost multiple hundreds of dollars to put the old belching beast back on the road. And true, at the frantic apex of my stress level, which coincided with the moment I first stepped from the driver’s seat to appraise the whole sorry situation, I dipped briefly into a morass of self-pity. If not for the soothing support of my family and the view of them riding high in the truck’s cab as the tractor chugged us all up the road, I might have dwelled there.

I sometimes think that people who want to live this life (or some version thereof) place far too much emphasis on the hard skills it demands. Truth is, nothing we do here requires an exceptional degree of skill or cleverness. I realize I should not admit this, what with a certain book to sell and whatnot, but hey. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Now, I’m not saying there are no hard skills involved, only that none of these skills ask for much more than a bit of dogged persistence and the occasional guiding hand to acquire. In my experience, it’s not expertise that enables this life. Perhaps expertise eventually develops, but only as an afterthought. Only as the result of human resourcefulness and simple curiosity, so basic as to be available to all. Or most, anyway.

Oh, and there’s one other thing that really helps: Equanimity. And along with it, an ability (or is it simple willingness?) to find mirth in the small, frequent absurdities of our days. I remember a few years ago, when Melvin had a long extension ladder leaning against his barn. A gusting wind had blown the ladder sideways, so that it leaned at a compound angle. It remained that way for multiple days, and it finally occurred to me that perhaps I ought offer my assistance in righting the ladder, for as any of you who’ve wrangled extension ladders know, height is of tremendous advantage. I am six-foot, three-inches tall. Melvin is… well, not that tall.

One afternoon, I asked Melvin if he’d like me to help straighten the ladder. Nope, he said. I like it that way. It reminds me not to take life too seriously. 

You know what? I was sort of sorry when he finally took the ladder down.




January 22, 2015 § 22 Comments


It has been consistently cold for a few weeks now, and though we’ve had few large storms, the small fallings of snow have accumulated. The skiing is magnificent. We glide down the tractor road, through the copse of balsam I’ve been cutting, into Melvin’s woods, past the old hunting camper ten years unused or more, and finally across the high mowing. We tilt our faces to the strong winter sun, heedless of surgeon general’s warnings. One midday, high-sun ski and already I feel better in a way I hadn’t realized I needed to feel better in.

Back in time for chores, lesser now that all the pigs have been dispatched. One’s on the kitchen counter this very moment, as a matter of fact: We let it hang outside overnight and it got colder than I’d realized it would and now the meat is too stiff for cutting. But the fires are burning and the sun is coming strong through our south-facing windows, and soon the flesh will thaw.

I need to find more piglets. The spring freshening cycle is soon to begin, and the buckets we leave in Jimmy and Sara’s milk room will be filled over and over again with the thick colostrum that cannot be pumped into the bulk tank. I leave four 5-gallon buckets at a time; Jimmy calls when they are full or I stop in if I’m passing by, grab what there is. I carry the full buckets two at a time to the car. They are heavy and if I step wrong, they thump against my legs, not painfully, but hard enough to remind me of their worth.

•     •     •

The Shameless Commerce Division is again open for business, this time for a single, limited production item, courtesy of our oldest. Happy shopping.




January 21, 2015 § 17 Comments

Winter camp.

Winter camp.

Lately, we’ve been listening to the conversations at Rumblestrip Vermont. Great stuff, whether you’re a VT’er or not.

You might even enjoy this one.



Two Swirls

January 20, 2015 § 20 Comments


Over the past two days we slaughtered and processed two of our three pigs, a task that to me is always more daunting in anticipation than action. We have now killed and processed enough pigs that the process is etched in our thoughts, emotions, and bodies. I know the particular anxiety I will feel in the moments before death. I know the certain fatigue of six straight hours spent cleaving the carcasses into chops and roasts and sausage trim. I know even the small sorrow of leaving one pig alive, and I wonder how that it is for her. She exhibits no distress, nor displays any change in routine that might be interpreted as such. But still. How can she not miss her mates, if only for the warmth of their bodies at night? Or perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps she’s glad for all the extra space.

I have written enough on this site already about killing animals for meat, so I will add only this: After so many years, it has gotten easier. Maybe I should not admit this, but it has. For better or worse, we have accepted and acclimated to our role in the conversion of others’ flesh into our own. It’s been a humbling process, and this humility feels right to us. There is peace in this humility. I cannot tell you exactly why, and I would never have anticipated such, but we have found it to be true.

On Sunday, after we’d finished dressing the hogs, I washed my hands at the kitchen sink. I’d nicked myself earlier in the day, and now I removed the bandage I’d applied to stem the cuts’ flow. As the water ran over my hands, I watched two distinct swirls form in the sink basin: One my own, the crimson-blood shade of a shallow extremity wound, and the other the russet-red of the pigs’ arterial reserves.

In seconds, drawn by the drainward slope, the two swirls became one. I turned up the water and the blood soon disappeared.


January 15, 2015 § 5 Comments

Sorry for the double post, but I just remembered this essay of Charles’, which seems relevant to the past couple posts and subsequent discussion. Thanks to Marie for bringing it to my attention in the first place!


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