The Best Way to Figure Things Out

November 27, 2015 § 4 Comments


What I did on my summer vacation

The evening before Thanksgiving I pulled home a load of round bales. It was 6:30 and nary a trace of daylight remained in the sky, though the moon – full or close enough to it – shone bright enough that the trees cast dim halfshadows. I could see them splayed across the graveled shoulders of the road, just beyond the swath illuminated by the truck’s headlights. Like outstretched fingers.

The bales were heavy, and the Ford downshifted on the winding climb toward home. I was glad for the hay – good first cut off a good field at a good price – and glad too for the truck’s heater on a cold night. Not as cold as it will be soon, but still. Cold enough to keep you on your toes. Cold enough to maybe keep you from taking too much for granted. Or at least not quite so much as usual.You think cold can’t do this? Then you’ve never been cold enough.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received a handful of emails from readers, most seeking assurance that my long absence from this space is not indicative of calamity nor mere garden-variety crisis. Thankfully, neither is the case. Rather, we continue to be immersed in our building project, and I have been tending to a handful of magazine assignments. And I still haven’t really figured out exactly what, if anything, I want to do with this space, though it occurs to me that perhaps the infrequent vignettes I’ve posted over the preceding months are what I want to do with it. Truthfully, I’m not thinking too hard about it. Seems to me like sometimes the best way to figure things out is to stop trying to figure them out.


Main kitchen/living room, looking toward small greenhouse space

For those who’ve asked, I’ve included a few pics of our work-in-progress. I feel pretty good about how it’s turning out. I feel even better to be both on-schedule and within spitting distance of our original budget of $30-ish grand, although funds are finally running low and we fwill soon have to take a proper break. Fortunately, this should just about coincide with the place being habitable. Not finished, but definitely habitable.

In the meantime, however, we are content to call a single, insulated room in the barn “home.” Indeed, it is interesting to note how easy this transition has been for us. No one talks of wanting more space or more conveniences. We are warm and well-fed and still enjoying the work that fills our days. We have enough power in the barn for two lights, a radio, and, crucial to our elder sons’ artistic expression, a guitar amplifier. There is a wood cook stove and a stack of reasonably dry firewood just outside the front door. On the hillside behind the barn, three milk-fat pigs. On the small parcel of disused pasture to the northeast, five cows, shitting the ground back into fertility. In the new chicken coop that Penny built – the nicest coop we’ve ever had, I’ll add – a flock of layers.


The greenhouse. I like the mishmash of grille patterns on the used windows.

Oh, and we have just a couple of spots available for the December 5-6 session of our Teen Earthskills Immersion Program. The pro-rated cost for the weekend is $150; here are more details.

Anyway, for those who have sent notes, thank you. It’s a nice reminder that there are real people reading this stuff.


The Captivity is Now Complete

November 8, 2015 § 18 Comments


The heat of last week was almost surreal, sixty-five and clear-skied, the exposed trunks of the leafless trees warming in the sun. Basking. As if they had a choice. Amazing how quickly the leaves fell this year. They came on late, then they were gone, like guests at a dinner party they didn’t really want to attend.

For a time I felt listless and out-of-sorts, thrown off-kilter by the atypical weather. I trudged from task-to-task, shucked down to a tee shirt, thought briefly of trading pants for shorts, but was too lazy to make the change. Now it is cooling again, and I feel the urgency of the season stirring my blood. It is good.

We reside for now in a single room above five cows and 1,000 bales of hay. When the wind blows, I hear the sliding doors of the barn thumping against the side of the building. We have no Internet, no landline, and a cell phone that works only from very particular locations outside our living quarters, so I make calls while leaning against the cows’ paddock fence. I check email every other day or so, sitting in my truck, parked in the parking lot of the nearest library, listening to the radio. Since I seem to be getting less email as I age, I’m thinking I can soon transition to once every third or fourth day and no one will be the wiser. I figure by the time I’m 50, I’ll be down to once a year.

I heard on the radio (while checking email, sitting in my truck, parked in the parking lot of the nearest library) that American teens now spend an average of nine hours each day on electronic devices. Since this does not include school, the true number is certainly a good bit higher. Nine hours a day, plus school… what can possibly remain? The captivity is now complete, and all the more effective for not being recognized as such.

Early this morning I went hunting with my son. We sat for a time on a mossed rock, watching the forest lighten around us.

PS: My friend Jesse just published a book of photographs, chronicling his adventures in the out-of-doors with his daughter, Clover. You can check it out here. Oh yeah: The book includes an essay I wrote. 

Just Enough

October 18, 2015 § 24 Comments

IMG_1913I drove home on the cusp of evening, through a slanting snow, down the Main Street of a town so small the road might as well have been named Only Street. The snow had begun earlier in the afternoon, in the manner of almost all first-of-season snows: Tentative, soft, unserious. But now it was something else, and the wind had picked up, too, and the snow swept and swirled across the pavement in complicated circular patterns. I feared that if I looked too hard, I would somehow become lost in them, so I fixed my gaze just above the roadway, guiding the truck not so much by the road itself, but by the features that delineated its edge: Houses. Trees. Utility poles.

I passed two children standing at the forward edge of a lawn covered by the detritus of rural poverty. Cars on blocks with hoods propped like open mouths. A four-wheeler. Something that looked like a canoe cut in half longways, but this must have been a trick of mind and weather. Through a curtained window, I could see the spectral glow of a television in an-otherwise darkened room. Smoke from a stove pipe.

The children were ecstatic. They were leaping and flailing their limbs, yelling into the squall. They didn’t just hold their faces to the storm; they actually pushed into it, mouths agape, the cold flakes tickling their tongues, the tender spot at the back of the throat. I waved, but their attention was elsewhere, and in a moment I had passed beyond their small orbit, the tires of the Ford cutting dark lines through the skin of snow. I turned the heater on high and rolled down the window just enough to let in a bit of the storm.

Generally Speaking

October 13, 2015 § 15 Comments


The leaves were late to turn this year but now are in full riot. It has been warm, almost surreally so, and it feels to me as if the upcoming season is coiling itself, fattening us on sunshine and shirtsleeves, turning us soft and witless before the killing strike.

Every day lately I pass someone putting up a late cutting of hay, third cut or even fourth, the familiar whir of the mower, that sweet smell of fresh-cut grass. I dreamed I was driving our neighbors’ big New Holland tractor across our field, and then, for reasons I could not have anticipated in any rational way, the next morning I was.

Generally speaking, I believe we all know more than we think we do.


October 6, 2015 § 21 Comments


The cows gather beneath the big apple tree down at the far corner of the field. They’d eat themselves sick if I let them, so I run a short line of fence to keep them in check. The apples are amazing this year, which is supposed to mean it will be hard winter, but may just mean that the apples are amazing this year. Part of me hopes for the former; another part would be fine if it were merely the latter. Neither part has much choice in the matter.

The morning fire routine has begun, a small one in the small kitchen stove, just enough to take the chill off, boil water for coffee, cook eggs. Dark outside, hoar frost on the ground. The cows down the field under the apple tree, maybe thinking about the drops on the wrong side of the fence.

Probably thinking about nothing at all.

Go It Alone

September 30, 2015 § 12 Comments

Broom corn before the rain

Broom corn before the rain

The rain began in the evening hours. It was soft and uncertain at first, then gathered in the dark, and by early morning was driving through the opened window just above my head. Small slaps of water woke me from a deep slumber, and for a few minutes I just lay there, feeling the rain against my face, the cats pressed against my leg, the lyrics from Isbell’s song Go It Alone playing over and over in my sleep-softened mind.

Find me a place
With salt on the roads
I’ll do what I’m told, buy what I’m sold again.

Summer is over, the edges of the days coming closer together. The leaves are turning fast now, soon to wither and drop. The roads will be slick with them.


The Smell of the Late Summer Air

September 22, 2015 § 43 Comments


Every morning around 8 or 8:30 you drive past the old farmhouse that sits tight to the road. Sagging porch along the front, cushioned chair, an old chest freezer with two old chainsaws sitting atop it. Old, old, old. Across the road, to your left, a small herd of cows, Jerseys mostly, heads bent to the ground in search of food. It is late in the grazing season, the grass shorn low by all those big cow teeth. On a few of the recent unseasonably warm mornings, you’ve spotted the wife sitting in the cushioned chair, reading. What she’s reading, you’d like to know and you think of stopping to ask, but of course do not.

A few miles down the road, you pass another farm. Again, not prosperous. At this one, the front door is always open. Not usually, not often, not frequently, but always, and you wonder at what point the change of season will compel the closure of the door. There is no screen and you think of the flies. Must be something to behold. Sometimes, you can see a man sitting in a chair just inside the opening. Watching the world go by, you guess. He doesn’t return your wave.

You get an email from a friend, says all the prime farms in his area are being bought up by “the rich kids.” They’re buying into the good life and instagram’ing the shit out of it is how he puts it (he’s always had a way with words. He’s always exaggerated, too). He sends you a link to an account, and you hover over it for just a second, but you don’t take the bait. What’s the point? If you had the money, you would do nothing different. With what money you do have, you’re doing nothing different. Your friend is as jealous as he is disparaging. Maybe he is disparaging because he is jealous.

Besides, you’ve got the image of those chainsaws on that chest freezer. It’s almost too much common sense to reckon with. It’s like an antidote to everything absurd. You’ve got the image of that man in the unscreened opening of his front door, resting after morning chores. You’ve got the narrow ribbon of gravel road before you, the ping of small rocks against the underside of your truck. The smell of the late summer air.

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