If All Else Fails

March 30, 2015 § 22 Comments


For reasons I do not fully understand, I have picked up a lot of new readers over the past six weeks or so. I’m not sure where they’re coming from; things have been pretty quiet on the media front, as has the roll out of the new book. I’m fine with the quiet. Glad for it, actually. The few brushes I’ve had with widespread exposure have taught me that I’m best suited to the same quiet life I’ve been living for 40-odd years and which, if I can just keep a handle on the booze, rock n’ roll, and cigarillos, might be so lucky as to tease out for a few more circles round the sun.


That said, I’m glad for the readership here; it feels to me wholly different than whatever portions of my story are filtered (and inevitably distorted) through the mass media edit process. I’m not saying there’s no filter here; obviously, we are still entitled to our privacy. Still, this is by far the most direct and intimate medium for sharing my written work. Maybe that’s not true for all writers; a few have likely attained that hallowed status as to be uneditable. But to my knowledge, the number of editors out there clamoring so enthusiastically for my work as to be willing to relinquish their rightful authority is precisely zero. (If I’m mistaken, hey, be in touch, ok?)


Anyway. All this new readership comes precisely at the time when I’m faced with the reality of having to slow things down a bit here. I’m not sure exactly what this space is going to look like going forward, but I am pretty sure that it’s not going to include the sheer volume of work and frequency of posting is has over the past few years. This is not for lack of desire on my part – I’ve got more ideas for this space than I could explore even if it were my full-time gig – but rather an acknowledgement of our current reality, which includes the for-pay writing that keeps us in the highfalutin manner to which we’ve become accustomed, the impending building of house, barn, and shop, and our desire to make something of this nutty “living arts” school idea (by-the-by, crazy good ash basket workshop this weekend and if’n you’re interested in our upcoming apple tree workshop, led by our good friend Todd Parlo, be in touch quick… it’s filling right up!).


So what I thought I’d do today, for all these new readers (and perhaps for the old ones, too), is offer a sort of cliffs notes to this space. That way, you can decide if you really want to keep kickin’ round for whatever this blog turns into. Better yet, for those of you who might be inclined to wade through the past 520 posts (feckin’ A! Can you believe that?!?), this could save you a whole lotta time that’d probably be better spent doing something that doesn’t include a screen.


So, without further ado:

1) Childhood education is incredibly important. This explains why we don’t send our children to school.

2) The things you are taught to be afraid of (including, but not limited to: terrorism, death, impoverishment, lack of status, and funny looks from strangers) are almost always a distraction from the things you should actually be afraid of (including, but not limited to: crushing debt [which is to say, an amount of indebtedness our insane culture considers entirely normal], utter dependence on industry, a destroyed biosphere, waking up in the morning wishing you were waking up somewhere else, and fear itself).

3) This is the best contemporary rock n’ roll song ever written. No, wait, this is. Actually, forget it: Rock n’ roll is way overrated.

4) You know what’s crazy? This: Most of the things our culture teaches us to recognize as strength (including, but not limited to: never admitting to needing help from one another, responding to antagonism in kind, and living “independently”) are actually emblematic of weakness. Meanwhile, most of the things our culture teaches us to recognize as weakness (including, but not limited: acknowledging our need for help, emotional honestly/vulnerability, and admitting our weaknesses) are actually emblematic of strength.

5) The best thing you can do for your children is find ways for them to be of use to themselves, their family, and their community.

6) The best thing you can do for yourself is find ways to be useful to yourself, your family, and your community.

7) The same could be said of your elders.

8) Here you go.

9) This is going to sound cheesy, but hell with it, it’s true: More often than we care to admit, the only difference between someone who’s doing what they want to do and someone who’s not is that the former is doing it. Heh. Chew on that one awhile.

10) While you’re chewing, here’s another: If there are only winners, there can be no winners.

11) If ever you have the opportunity to squeeze into a hollow tree, by gum, do not pass it up. Likewise, if you ever have the opportunity to stand between two rows of dairy cows, listening to them chew, jump on it.

12) Make room in your life for discomfort and inconvenience. The really crazy thing is, you might have to work for this; you might actually have to inconvenience yourself in your quest for inconvenience. But it’s totally worth it.

13) Give away something of value, if for no other reason than it’ll help you to remember how rich you actually are.

14) If all else fails, be curious.











In The First Place

March 27, 2015 § 26 Comments

Yeah, we still have just a little snow

Yeah, we still have just a little snow

I’ve been getting questions about our building plans, both here and privately. In part because of this, and in part because I can feel myself transitioning away from written creativity as my body and mind adapt to the physicality of the season, I thought I’d share some of the nuts and bolts of our forthcoming project. If you’re looking for my usual ponderous, navel-gazing pontificating about the joys of rural living, the shackles of institutionalized education, and the imprisoning nature of the contemporary extractive economy, well… you might’s well just stop reading now.

We are building a small-but-not-quite-tiny house, measuring 20×26 to the exterior foundation walls. This will give us a solid 18×24 “clear,” which is the inside-to-inside of wall dimensions. The house will be two floors, with a three or maybe even a four-foot knee wall on the second floor. As with many of our plans, factors like the exact height of our knee walls are a bit fluid, and the final outcome will depend on other factors, such as the size of the used windows we find to fit those knee walls.

By-the-by, I’ve found this flexibility to be the key in building on the cheap; the worst thing you can do if you’re trying to build on a budget is be inflexible regarding plans and materials. For instance, we’ve sourced all of our windows either used or (primarily) from contractors who got stuck with new windows that did not meet the inflexible needs of their affluent clients. All the windows we’ve purchased are high end – either Marvin Ultimate or Andersen 400 series – and we haven’t paid more than 30 cents on the dollar. Actually, in most cases, we paid much less. (as an aside – and I might have mentioned this before – I bought a bunch of windows off a contractor who told me that the average window bill on one of his jobs is 90 freakin’ grand, which is about 300% more than we’ll be spending on our entire house) Our windows will not all match, but we’re fine with that, and it’s yet another example of flexibility and acceptance of imperfection creating an opportunity for us. Beside, as the hyper-talented and delightfully-opinionated Richard Sachs likes to say, “imperfection is perfection.” Damn straight, and particularly so when it results in debt-free shelter.

The aspect of our project that’s proved most vexing to us is insulation. That’s because our needs are somewhat unique: Since we’ll be cooking only on wood, we need to generate a certain number of BTUs just to feed ourselves. This raises an interesting problem: If we make the house too tight and too well-insulated, it ain’t just our food that’ll be getting cooked. We’ll fry ourselves right outta the place.

For this reason, we’ve dispensed with a preliminary plan that included straw bales and other super-insulating techniques. We will use dense pack cellulose insulation, which from our perspective offers the best balance of insulating qualities, economics, and toxicity (or lack thereof). We’ll frame our walls in a modified Larsen truss design that’ll give us 8″ of insulation with very little thermal bridging. The roof will be straight 12-inch rafters. Honestly, I think we’re still risking making the place too-well insulated for our particular needs, but we’re willing to run that risk, since we can always crank open a window or two, or just strip down and go roll ’round in the snow bare ass nekkid (if that don’t keep you from stopping by unannounced, I don’t know what will).

There’s a lot more to say, but paying work is calling, so I’ll just add this. I had a revelation about shelter and shelter related systems a few years ago, when I was bemoaning the impending replacement of our solar storage batteries to an older back-to-the-lander who also lived off-grid  (this was before we decided to grid connect our system and dispense with the batteries entirely). The batteries we were eyeing at the time were gonna run us about 5 grand, a chunk of change that was going to wipe us out financially and furthermore underscore our utter dependence on industry and its oft-rapacious practices. I mean, lead acid batteries don’t just grow on trees, know what I mean?

What do you do when your batteries need replacing? I asked.

Well, he said, I just replace the battery in my truck, and use the old battery for the house. 

In other words, his system was so small and simple, and his expectations were so friggin’ modest that he  wasn’t faced with a similar quandary.

I’m not saying we’re ready for a one-battery solar system (though the house will be off-grid, with about 400-watts of panels), but I took a lot away from his response, which is this: The answer isn’t creating complex “green” systems to replace complex “dirty” systems, as seems so common in this day and age, probably because if the answer isn’t complex, there’s not much profit in it.

Instead, maybe the answer is getting away from complexity in the first place.








One Without The Other

March 26, 2015 § 24 Comments

The girls are back in business

The girls are back in business

It was lights out at 8:00 last night; the boys and I were in recovery mode from the Blackberry Smoke concert we attended the previous evening, a raucous affair that lasted into the wee hours. Courtesy of a highly inebriated middle age couple who took a liking to my children (and then got hauled off by security for being so drunk they could hardly stand [the couple, not my children]), the fellows were afforded a front row perspective, peering over the security barrier in wide-eyed wonder. I suppose some would deem it irresponsible that we expose our children to the debauchery of an honest-to-goodness rock n’ roll show, and indeed, they were the only young ‘uns in attendance. But then, I suspect it’s only a fraction of the debauchery most kids experience over the course of  the average school day, so there. Plus, we have a wicked weakness for old fashioned ass-kicking rock, and BBS definitely qualifies.

'tater and onion pancakes with eggs on top. Not bad at all.

‘tater and onion pancakes with eggs on top. Not bad at all.

The spring thaw has finally commenced. Yesterday touched 50, the sun in full bloom, the snow slowly retreating under its glare. I spent an hour on the tractor, busting out a path for the feeding of our remaining round bales, and at one point I had to just stop and sit for a few minutes, soaking up a dose of Vitamin D. It’s been hard winter. That’s not a complaint; just a statement of fact, and if anything, I am grateful for it, because I know my appreciation for days like yesterday is in large part informed by the preceding weeks and months. I guess it’s analogous to something I wrote about the writing process a while back: The pleasure isn’t just tilting my my face to the sun on the first jacket-less day in five months, but rather in the contrast between all those raw, bundled days and that moment yesterday afternoon when I shut the tractor off and sat in the sudden silence, remembering (not that I’d forgotten, but still: Remembering) that for all its flaws, the world is an amazing place, and that furthermore, for all my flaws, along with the myriad small hardships we endure to live as we do, my life is good. It could even be said, perhaps, that it rocks.

I think this: You cannot have warmth without cold. Satiation without hunger. There is no comfort without discomfort, no restoration of body and spirit without their fatigue. What I’m saying is, you cannot exhale without having inhaled.

Yesterday, I exhaled. And it felt really friggin’ good.



Good Times

March 24, 2015 § 10 Comments



Just a couple of quick notes.

First, we’re super-excited to offer an Earthskills Immersion Camp on our land in Stannard, Vermont this summer, for ages 11-15. For more details, head on over to the LMLA site. This is going to be an awesome camp, chock full of all sorts of wilderness adventure and learning.

Second, I’ll be at one of my most-favorite book stores in all the world this Sunday. I might even bring along a karaoke machine slide projector for added entertainment value! I’d love to see you there.


A Sound You Should Hear

March 23, 2015 § 45 Comments

Rye's sugaring rig, circa '14

Rye’s sugaring rig, circa ’14

I drove up from Connecticut on Friday night in our new-to-us truck, a 25-year old Ford F250 fresh out of Arizona, its body as rustless as the day it rolled off the factory line. It’d been a hell of a day; I’d ridden to Boston with Pen and the boys on their way to visit Penny’s mother, then hopped a bus over to Hartford, then cooled my heels for three hours waiting for the seller to get off work, then steered the old brute into the teeth of a late winter storm, a three-and-a-half hour drive made into nearly six hours by the weather.

The snow was minor but snot-slick, and I passed no fewer than a half-dozen accidents along my journey up Interstate 91, including one particularly disturbing six-car pileup. I let my eyes wander over the twisted metal until they landed on the sight of a rescue crew cutting into the compressed passenger compartment of a turned-over sedan. I averted my gaze and could not help wondering at the things we have come to accept.

It is spring now, or ostensibly so. The cold remains penetrating. Zero this morning, and the wind gusting out of the north. The snowpack is undiminished. The maple trees are frozen, holding tight to their sap, while the sugar makers fret and pace. In deference to all we have on our plates, we tapped only a handful of trees this year, just enough for a bit of “spring tonic,” the fresh sap we’ll make into tea or drink straight from the bucket. We’ve had but one small run thus far.

Yesterday I consolidated the remaining square bales, as much for the work of it as anything else. We have plenty of hay. Well, maybe not “plenty,” but certainly enough. It was cold in the barn but windless, and I broke a sweat.

I feel a bit in limbo, caught between the weather and everything that needs doing. We are keeping ourselves busy – cleaning and re-cleaning, organizing, sketching plans, accumulating materials, jettisoning all the things we will no longer have room for and never really needed to begin with. The home we will build this summer will be less than half the size of this one, and it will not have a basement. There can be nothing extraneous. We will, quite literally, need to reduce our material possessions by 50% or more. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re at the 30% mark. Which means we’re getting to the hard stuff; yesterday, I dismantled a wooden box Fin made for me (birthday? I can’t quite remember, but probably) many years ago, all odd angles and bent-over nails. I pulled the nails, fed the wood to the fire, felt a small ache of sentiment as the flames jumped.

Still. You know what it feels like to be well on your way to dispensing with half your belongings? It feels like a good sweat on a cold day. It feels like the first day of spring – not calendar spring, but real spring, 50-degrees or more, the sun high and strong, the maples finally letting go. Plink. Plink. Plink. The sound of sap into buckets. That’s a good sound. That’s a sound you should hear.



I Like It a Little Less

March 18, 2015 § 83 Comments


For breakfast, I fried a pork chop and scrambled some eggs. Diced a few potatoes, dropped them into hot duck fat and left them there until they crisped up nice. Kimchi. I cut the chop four ways, served everything into the wooden burl bowls Penny carved a while back. Stuck one of her wooden spoons into each bowl, set them around the table. We eat most of our meals out of those bowls now. We joke that when we move to the new land, we’re not taking any plates. Just those bowls. Just those spoons. Actually, we might not be joking.

It’s not true that I’d rip your throat out for a green salad. You knew that, right? For one, it wouldn’t be very nice of me. For another, it’s real hard eating salad with a wooden spoon, though I guess maybe I should start practicing. For yet another, I got my kimchi, my lacto-fermented green beans, my hateful beets, all those potatoes. I got applesauce and blueberries and currants and even a couple more bags of frozen peas. Dried kale, dried celery leaves, dried chanterelles, dried onions. Garlic. Today we start drying off Pip in preparation for late May freshening, so no fresh milk for a good while. But that’s ok: We froze something like 50-quarts of cream. We’ll drink that. No one’s suffering, here. We’ve got our wooden bowls and our wooden spoons and wood for the fire and almost more food than we know what to do with.


For the first time ever, I deleted a comment. It didn’t add anything to the conversation; it was just name-calling, one commenter to another. Unnecessary. I think it’s great that I have readers who don’t always see eye-to-eye with me or with one another. Actually, I think it’s a huge compliment to us all. We talk about polarizing issues, in a polarized world, in a medium that encourages polarization. And yet I rarely see unpleasantries. Maybe we’re not always annihilating one another with kindness, but we’re doing pretty good. Let’s keep it up.


This space is probably going to slow down a bit in the coming months. We have a house to build. A barn. Some sort of workshop. We’ve done it before, we know what to expect, although part of what we expect is the unexpected, the “known unknowns” inherent to any project of this scope. They’ve been getting me up early, all those known unknowns. I sleep like a stone until 4:30 or so, then rise with my head full of uncertainty. I start the fires, drink my coffee, dice the morning potatoes, wait for first light so I can do chores.


It will be good to actually start working, but first we need the snow to melt and the frost to come out of the ground. We are still collecting materials – last night, I crammed 400-square feet of salvaged maple flooring into the poor Subaru. We still need a front door, but that’s about it. I am keeping careful track of expenses, and I will be happy to share those, if anyone’s interested. We have about $30k to spend, maybe $35k if we stretch it a bit. We can’t really go over budget. Well, we can, but then we’d be in debt. So as far as we’re concerned, we can’t. Thus far, the only expense that’s looking as if it will be greater than anticipated is our lumber budget; I’d hoped to cut and saw logs all winter, but the snow pack has made this unfeasible. So we’ll be buying in more lumber than we’d like. Fortunately, lumber’s pretty cheap. Fortunately, I came in low on our window budget, even if I had to drive to western Massachusetts twice to retrieve used units. Even if all the windows don’t quite match. I came in low on the chimney budget, too, got the flooring for less than I’d figured. But things are going to come up. I know that all too well.

Penny says if too many things come up, we’ll just pitch a wall tent and live in that for the winter. The boys like that idea very much. I like it a little less.

At The Exit

March 16, 2015 § 96 Comments

Up next

Up next

Cold again this morning. I started chores early for no good reason than I’d risen early, and it was nice to be outside on the leading edge of daylight, the sky turning shades of pink and blue above me. Yesterday’s snowfall had obscured our bootways, and every third or fourth step I’d land wrong, slide off the packed path, and sink to the thigh. Set down the hay bale, the slop bucket, the water pail, heave out my leg, pick up my load, walk, repeat.

Rebecca Solnit has a nice essay in the new issue of Harper’s, called “Abolish High School.” Here is some of what she writes:

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens, responsible for 4,600 deaths per year. Federal studies report that for every suicide there are at least a hundred attempts – nearly half a million a year. Eight percent of high school students have attempted to kill themselves, and 16 percent have considered trying. That’s a lot of people crying out for something to change.

We tend to think that adolescence is inherently ridden with angst, but much of the misery comes from the cruelty of one’s peers. Twenty-eight percent of public high school students and 21 percent of private school students report being bullied, and though inner-city kids are routinely portrayed in the press as menaces, the highest levels of bullying are reported among white kids and in nonurban areas. Victims of bullying are, according to a Yale study, somewhere between two and nine times more likely to attempt suicide. Why should children be confined to institutions in which these experiences are so common?

Solnit’s question is rhetorical, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer to it. Or many answers, probably, but for the sake of expedience, I’ll suggest only one: Because their parents can’t imagine something different. Part of the reason they can’t imagine something different is because they can’t afford to imagine something different. And partly, it’s because they’re afraid to imagine something different – in my experience, that fear is oriented primarily around their children’s social and economic prospects. In short, they worry that if they don’t send their kids to school, their kids will become outcasts with few prospects for gainful employment. Better to risk the bullying than the job prospects, and besides, at some point, kids have to learn that not everyone’s going to treat them nicely, don’t they?

But I also think many parents can’t imagine something different because they don’t know there’s something different to imagine. They are not aware there are other paths to walk. Because as Solnit also writes: High school is often considered a definitive American experience, in two senses: an experience that nearly everyone shares, and one that can define who you are, for better or worse, for the rest of your life. This is how the story of school has become so foundational; as adults, most of us have been defined by it, and we have come to depend on it to understand, at least in part, who we are.

Which begs the question: Who are we? Many things, of course. Far too many to list here. But among them, we are a culture that compels their children to be confined daily to a space where 28% of them are bullied. Furthermore, we are a society that comprises 4.6% of the world’s population, but consumes 80% of the world’s pain medication. Depending on age group and gender, nearly 25% of us take drugs to treat our depression.

When people read interviews with me and criticize what I have to say about education, I often wonder what they see in the institutionalized school system that is so worthy an alternative. Are they thinking of the 72% of children who aren’t bullied? I mean, hey, that’s a majority! Nice work. But what of the bullies themselves, if one can be so compassionate as to think of them? I’ve known a few bullies in my life; I even know one or two now. None of them seem very happy to me.

Or are they thinking of the economic opportunities they presume unschooled children won’t have? They are, or at least they say they are, and in a way, this makes me saddest of all, because it suggests that a child’s education should first and foremost be subservient to their economic interests.

Still, sometimes I wonder if the reasons stated for their opposition run even deeper. As Solnit writes, school has become a definitive part of the American experience. It is apple pie, it is Fourth of July, it is part and parcel of our faith that the story we’ve all grown up inside, the story we are all – to varying degrees and by varying levels of complicity -invested in is the right story.

As I went about chores this morning, stumbling and slipping along our well-worn boot packs, I was thinking about how our foot travel has mostly been limited to those prescribed paths for so long. And it occurred to me this morning how liberating it will feel to be able to walk where we please, as if, having been trapped in a labyrinth for all this time, we suddenly find ourselves at the exit.


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