October 30, 2014 § 14 Comments
Every morning now, the first thing is fire. There are mornings we could go without, but I’m in the habit, and I like the habit. It’s dark when I get up and sometimes I just sit in the dark for a while, feet up on the part of the cookstove that doesn’t get too hot to have my feet up on it. Sitting in the dark’s ok, especially if you’ve got your calloused heel skin resting on piece of warm iron. Especially if you can hear your coffee bubbling on the stove top.
I think there’s too much artificial light in this world. I think it messes with us. I think that the privilege of starting a fire and sitting in the dark and then cooking your breakfast over that fire – this morning, fried potatoes and onion, spinach and grated beets, a mess of eggs and bacon – is something worth fighting for. Or maybe “fighting for” isn’t quite right (and besides, I’m as weary of the battle mantra as anyone. Seems like all we do is fight things anymore). Maybe what I mean is that it’s worth bending your life however it needs to be bent in order to accommodate it. Yeah, that’s it: Bend your life however it needs to be bent so that you might have the privilege of starting a fire and sitting in the dark with your calloused heel skin on the part of the stove that doesn’t get too hot to have your calloused heel skin on it.
Damn. Two paragraphs in and already I’ve dispensed the best advice yet to be dispensed on this blog.
I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.
October 29, 2014 § 52 Comments
Yesterday’s post was the second I’ve deleted out of something like 450. Statistically speaking, I think 2 out of 450 is well within any reasonable margin of error, so I figure I can still claim a perfect batting average, though lord knows there’s gotta be at least another few dozen posts that should be deleted. I’m just too lazy to go and ferret ‘em out.
Usually when I write something here, I pretty much walk away from it. I might read it over once more, fix a typo or two, or maybe change out a word, but that doesn’t happen very often. But yesterday for some reason I kept going back, and I never could figure out how to say what I really wanted to say, maybe because I’m not sure what I wanted to say. Plus, one of the comments made me realize that some folks might be getting false impression of our neighbors, who are some of the most honest, hard-working, generous, and downright decent people we’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. So there was that. And truthfully, the whole thing seemed a little whiny. And as Penny would surely tell you, I know from whiny.
I wish I coulda left the comments, though. There were some real good ones, including the one where someone (can’t remember, could probably go look, but ain’t gonna) asked what I get out of writing in this space. Damn. Hit the mark, there, because I’ve definitely been thinking about that a bunch lately.
In the past two months, my readership has doubled. Same with page views. I suspect it’ll taper off a bit – a bunch of that came from book-related media hits, but still. Big change, real fast. In every sense, it shouldn’t matter. But I also can’t quite shake the sensation of increased exposure and wonder about the impact of that on our lives. This is something we think about a lot – the potential toll of sharing our experiences and the balance between that toll and the rewards. Someone accused me recently of commoditizing my family, and I had to laugh, because generally speaking, I think commoditizing something means you actually earn money on the deal, does it not? If I wanted to commoditize my family, I would’ve said “yes” to the 60 Minutes producer. Or the producer from the BBC. Or maybe the one from National Geographic Television. Or maybe the one who emailed me yesterday; not sure where she’s from, but whatever. It’s gonna be “no.” By-the-by, if any other television producers are reading this, my answer is “no.”
So what do I get out of it? Not money, obviously, or at least not a meaningful amount in the grand scheme of things. Certainly, I get discipline: If there are 450 posts on here, and they average 500 words each, that’s (hang on a minute, this is going to take me a while)… 225,000 words that I wouldn’t have written otherwise. Now, whether or not those words maybe shoulda stayed unwritten is a topic for another day, but you can’t deny the fundamental truth of the fact that if you want to become a better writer, you better write.
What else? Well, I get something out of many of the conversations that crop up in the comments section, that’s for sure. I get something out of taking 30 minutes or sometimes even a bit more to try and articulate whatever it is that’s been bouncing around my too-hollow head. Most days, I don’t even know what that is until I sit down and say it. I get something out of some of the connections I’ve made, some of the lives I’ve learned about. Most recently, Andrea’s. Certainly I get something whenever someone sends me an email that something they’ve read here has made a difference in their life. That’s pretty cool, though part of me wonders if it’s merely some form of self-aggrandizement that makes it so.
But there is a toll. For instance, people want to visit, and I’ve gotta figure out a nice way to say “no,” or a way to say “yes” and not feel put out. Not infrequently, people email with pretty big questions, questions that would literally take hours to answer in full. Or even in part. I thought maybe the consulting thing was a good way to handle that, but after a small flurry of inquiries and a few consults, that’s sort dried up and folks have gone back to simple emailing out of the blue. One person said she wanted to “suck all the experience out of my head” and wondered how we might arrange such a thing. I sent her a nice note with a link to the consulting page, but never heard back. Probably for the best, because I suspect that would’ve hurt like the dickens.
Good, bad; life, death; risk, reward; happy, sad: It’s never just going to be one or the other, and if it is, would you really want it? People say “I just want my kids to be happy,” or some version of that. Not me. I don’t just want my kids to be happy. I don’t just want to be happy myself, because there’s a whole range of meaningful experience outside the boundary of happy. Happy’s great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s just a piece of the puzzle.
So it goes with this space, I guess. There are rewards and there is a price to pay for those rewards. In all candor, I actually would like to figure out a way to make money be one of those rewards. Hell, if I had a nickel for every page view, we’d be set. If everyone who subscribed sent me $3 per month, we’d be in tall cotton. I’m not saying I expect that – not even close – I’m just saying it doesn’t seem that outrageous to me, because the truth is, we all do need something to sell. We can sell the sweat on our brow, the ticking minutes and hours of our life. We can sell things that don’t even exist – convoluted financial instruments and other items of conjured value. We can sell guns or chainsaws or pot or firewood or the flesh of the animals under our care. Hell, I’ve sold all but one of those things myself.
Some days, it feels to me as if this space is on borrowed time, as if the toll is outstripping the rewards, and there’s only so long I can abide by that. And then I feel stupid and naive for letting it be that way. Other times, I think the rewards are outstripping the toll, and I feel smart and savvy for having figured out how to make a living – a meager one, to be sure, but still: A living – doing what I love to do, and I see how this space contributes in ways that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
There you have it: stupid, smart; naive, savvy. Just pieces of the puzzle.
October 24, 2014 § 3 Comments
October 22, 2014 § 9 Comments
I was cleaning out my office this morning, and found the December 2001 issue of Powder magazine, for which I wrote the following story. I always sort of liked this piece. I sure liked skiing with these guys. It’s hard not to wonder how I’d write this story now if I had the chance to write it again. Which I don’t. So I’ll stop wondering.
At 11:45 a.m. on a sunny Saturday in early February, at the peak of a remote and nameless Vermont mountain, Tony Berby pops the tab on a can of Natural Light beer. Tony is a big man, perhaps 6 feet tall, and carries a chest made thick by a lifetime of labor. He is also quite thirsty. The callused hand – almost a paw, really – that engulfs the can makes two lingering trips to his lips, and the beer is gone. Tony glance curiously at the empty tin cylinder, shrugs his prodigious shoulders, crushes it flat, and returns it to his pack where it nestles among its remaining five, still-full companions like a wounded animal seeking solace.
This is not a story about drinking beer, though as you’ll see, drinking beer certainly plays a part. Nor is this a story about smoking cigarettes – Marlboro Lights, specifically – but once again, they are a factor, and cannot be ignored. In fact, there are many things that this story is not about – heavy metal music; frozen, crinkle-cut French fries and blood-raw steak; a granite-producing town fallen on hard times – that are crucial to what makes Tony and his friends the most hard-core ski bums east of the Mississippi. So please, allow me to backtrack a few hours, from the fizzy chill of Tony’s mid-morning, head-ringing refreshment, to the cocoon-ish warm of a small greasy spoon on the main drag of a small, snow-washed town.
Fay dances with the coffeepot as if it were a lover, cradling it tight as she dips and twirls around the outstretched limbs, and then – zing! – her arm straightens, the pot tips, and our cups are full once again. Her movements are deft, not unlike an accomplished skier flitting through a thick copse of trees, and it’s clear in the way she works that pot: Here is a women who, given a different upbringing, could slip through mountain trees like a whisper.
Fay leaps gallanting into a drinking discussion as she pours. “I don’t drink too often, myself. Last time I did, I was on the floor for a week.”
Pete, mid-bite, without pause or reflection, indeed, seemingly without thought, bags the punch line: “Betchyer husband liked that!”
Perhaps due to his uncanny ability to escape unscathed from potentially perilous situations like this one, Pete is the unspoken ringleader of all things risky and foolish. Whether talking trash to a waitress, nailing the first run of an unexplored backcountry chute, arcing 2 a.m. powder turns through trees by only the light of his headlamp, or defying every Surgeon General’s warning ever issues, Pete stands just slightly to the left of harm’s way. He pulls you in with the sheer breadth and charm of his enthusiasm, the gleam of his blue eyes, and the constant, barely contained thrum of energy that courses through him like a gasoline fire. And it’s contagious. Pete’s vitality rushes off him in waves, until you feel the same warm surge of invincibility that seems to drive his every waking moment.
Stop. For now I must take you forward in time, not – as you might expect – to a ski slope, but to the meat aisle of the Grand Union supermarket. It is somewhere between late evening and full-blown night, and we are ravenous. It’s been a long, hard day skiing the trees of Mad River Glen, punctuated by an ambulance ride for our friend Tom, and although Tony and Pete paw wolfishly through the stacks of bloody steaks, squeezing and poking, sniffing and discarding, there is a certain detached weariness to their actions. Tom’s shit-luck accident, caused by a stump lurking under fresh powder, is a grim reminder that nobody wanted. And while Tom’s injury will prove less serious than we originally thought, the echo left by his howl of pain and the strobe of the ambulance light still bounce ‘round our brains.
Thick, USDA prime cuts in hand, we pause at the frozen foods where Pete digs deep to find crinkle-cut fries. From these ingredients, plus six-packs of both Guinness and Molson Export (“I like this stuff, but I’d rather have the good ol’ 3.2 percent when I’m skiing,” explains Tony), we will fashion a late feast. We will eat long and hard, filling our bellies with beef and potato and beer, eating and drinking to forget our own vulnerability, and to fuel ourselves for the weekend that lies ahead, stretching before us in all its sun-warmed, snow-blanketed glory.
Saturday’s destination, known only as “The Hill,” is just south of Pete’s hometown of Barre, Vermont (by this, I mean the town where Pete was born some 36 years ago, raised, and now lives and works). Barre was built on granite, both literally and figuratively. It is home to what is widely regarded as the highest quality memorial-grade granite in the world, and as his brother does, as his father did, Pete carves a living out of stone. He’s in sales now, which holds certain benefits over the actual mining and cutting of rock. It’s not life-threatening, for one. For another – and surely more important to Pete – he gets laid off for two months each winter. As he puts it, he’s “on the Governor’s ski team,” which means he collects a subsistence-level unemployment check, and skis day in and night out, almost always in the company of Tony. Often, they are joined by Bob, a thickset Belgian telemarker who services the massive, 10-foot saw blades that slice multi-ton slaps of granite into more manageable sizes.
Today will be the 40th-something time this season Pete has donned climbing skins for the 90-minute trek to The Hill’s gladed peak, where he and his skiing partners have thinned the forest to create over two dozen trails of varying width, pitch, and length. The longest, Sanctuary, drops nearly 1,000 feet through a hardwood forest. It’s a five-minute rip down, and a 30-minute slog back up. On a good day, the boys will hit Sanctuary four or five times, and bag maybe a half-dozen runs on North Slope before stopping to grill T-bones or boil hot dogs. If the snow is fresh, and time a more precious commodity than warm food, Pete snacks on 25-cent packages of crackers and processed cheese product, while Tony slurps cold creamed potato and ham soup straight from the can, washing down each gelatinous bite with a glug of Natural Light.
Up here, atop this mountain, in the absence of chairlifts and the people who ride them, the boys are at home. There is no safety net, no place to get warm, and perhaps more importantly, no one to judge their Vermont accents thick as spring mud, skis salvaged from rental shop dumpsters, and Tony’s tattered, beloved Marlboro Gear backpack. On this desolate and frigid mound of granite, earth, and snow, these men have carved a place for themselves where they can revel in the freedom afforded by a set of skis in powder, and the comfort of their own culture.
By the time we reach the end of the dead-end road that accesses The Hill, Pete has lapsed into a rare moment of silence, and Bob’s big, red Ford truck is parked tight against a high snowbank. Maybe Pete’s quiet because he knows that Tony and Bob are already halfway up the hill, a good 45-minutes closer to fresh tracks than we are. Or maybe it’s because his lay-off is almost over; in a few days, he goes back to work, and his skiing will be limited to nights, weekends, and the odd afternoon he manages to slip out the back window at work. Or perhaps he’s remembering his father, Harold “Cannonball” Richardson, who died four years ago. Cannonball was a hell of a skier; all week he worked the stone, and on the weekends drove to Tuckerman Ravine where he laced is low, leather boots and dropped into the bowl with the same certainty of success he passed on to his son. Two summers ago, Pete has his friends hiked Tuckerman and scattered Cannonball’s ashes from the headwall, where they caught on the breeze and hung in the air, much like the pungent smoke that drifts back to me from a figure that fades into the trees as he begins to climb.
October 21, 2014 § 30 Comments
I’ll be at Bear Pond Books tonight, if’n any of you’d like to come out.
Our friend Erik comes every Monday to spend time with Rye. They go into the woods or maybe go fishing or just work on some project or another either indoors or out, depending on the weather. We mostly compensate Erik for his time with food; this year, he got beef, chickens, and lamb, and pretty much every Monday he stays for lunch and the five of us eat and chat around the big table we got after my grandmother died, and it just occurs to me that she’d spin in her grave if she knew the half of what’s been consumed at that table.
Anyway. We have an on-going conversation with Erik that’s about a lot of things, but as I interpret it is mostly about what one is obligated to do, which is to say, it’s about how one should lead one’s life. Ah. Nothing like a little light conversation to get the digestive juices flowing.
By his own definition, Erik is an activist. He spends a lot of his time preparing for and participating in direct action campaigns targeted at corporations and political entities engaging in environmental destruction in their quest for profit and power. He is not afraid to be arrested for his beliefs, and I respect this, perhaps because I am afraid to be arrested for my beliefs. Wait. Maybe that’s not quite right; maybe I just haven’t yet had the strongest of my beliefs threatened by law. But be that as it may, Erik is out there, proactively worked to destabilize many of the forces I decry in this space. Or maybe I don’t decry these forces specifically; I think my tendency is to speak more of the cultural sense of disempowerment and entrapment that comes of these forces holding sway over our lives. But what’s the difference, really? Ah, it just now occurs to me: I speak of symptoms; Erik acts against the disease. So maybe there’s a pretty damn big difference, after all.
Erik believes that consumer choice is not enough. I know this because he’s told me as much. I suspect – though he hasn’t told me directly – that while he respects and understands our life choices, he also believes we’re not really part of the solution, because these forces are so much bigger than any one family, no matter how much of their food that family grows. No matter how many times they layer patches over the patches on their work pants. And all the hundreds of small choices we make on a daily basis to not participate in the captive, extractive economy.
Truth is, Erik’s probably right. I don’t want him to be right, because I’m real comfortable living my life the way I live it, fooling myself into believing I’m not part of the problem. No, wait: I know I’m part of the problem. But I also like to believe I’m part of the solution, and while these things might not be mutually exclusive, I suspect I inflate my role in the latter, while diminishing my role in the former. Which is to say, I’m fooling myself.
I bet most of us do that. Or maybe we’re unable to fool ourselves but also too scared to do what Erik does, and how can that result in anything but despair? Sometimes I wonder if this is not the origin of so many of the sad statistics regarding health and contentment in this culture. On a conscious, intellectual level, we don’t know we’re fooling ourselves. But of course we operate on other levels, too, and maybe on those levels, we know it all too well.
I think you should all listen to this interview. This might be the closest thing we have right now to a mainstream celebrity calling it like it is, and no matter what one thinks of mainstream celebrity and the culture that’s grown up around it (not terribly much, in my case), let’s give credit where credit is due. And let’s recognized that what Russell’s calling for is really no different than what Erik is doing: That we take a moment to slow down, look around, and realize how fucked up things are. And stop fooling ourselves.
October 20, 2014 § 25 Comments
Amy posted a podcast based at least in part on one of our interviews. You can find it here.
By gum, we got summut done this weekend. We harvested, processed, and jarred the ingredients for 74 quarts of kimchi and kraut. I made a four-pound batch of butter and rendered 10 quarts of lard from the back fat of this summer’s pigs. Penny turned a five gallon bucket of elderberries into approximately enough syrup for the entirety of Northern Vermont (btw, is anyone else suspicious as to whether or not that stuff really works? I ain’t convinced, myself. At least it tastes good). I mixed up a batch of bread to be baked in the cook stove later this morning. On Saturday, we visited with friends and strangers alike and on Saturday night, we stayed out to all hours (10:30!!) at a delightful vaudevillian show. Of course, there were chores and given the inevitable shift in the weather toward something more appropriate of the date – yesterday even brought the first tentative flakes of snow – fires to kindle and feed.
Penny and I have heard from more than a few folks recently some variation on this comment: I bet it’s a crazy time of year for you guys or you must be real busy these days or ya’ll are f’ing nuts. Actually, we’ve never heard the lattermost, but there are times when I wonder if perhaps it’s implied, because of course strictly speaking we don’t have to be doing any of this stuff (and in particular the elderberry sauce, which has never, not once, not one friggin’ time, kept my sore throat and sniffles at bay. Not that I’m bitter about it or anything).
I would like to make a couple quick points, before embarking on yet another batch of vegetable ferments and stoking the cook stove to achieve bread temperature.
1) In my experience, there is a world of difference between forced busyness – the obligatory busyness visited upon us by the many institutions prevailing over our lives – and the busyness that comes of providing for one’s self and in the process, fomenting a sense of agency over one’s life. Because that is a large part of what we’re doing here: Cultivating in ourselves the feeling that our lives are in our hands. That’s not a feeling that just happens in this day and age. You gotta work for it a bit. Or maybe a lot. But it’s sure as shootin’ worth working for.
2) In varying measures, there is some truth to our friends’ comments, mostly relating to the underlying sentiment (or at least, my perception of the underlying sentiment, which of course is really all that matters, right?), rather than the exact words. Lately, we have been strategizing ways to simplify our lives even further, based primarily on our desire to spend more time exploring the wild places we feel increasingly drawn toward.
We love almost everything we do on our homestead, even those tasks most would deem onerous or flat-out unpleasant – the manure mucking, the firewood splitting, the post hole digging, and so on. But in way, that love is its own strange burden, because every time we think about cutting something out, we can’t quite bring ourselves to do it. The truth is, though, the diversity and abundance of our food production has become almost laughably absurd. If you were to stop by for dinner tonight, I could offer duck, chicken, beef, pork, lamb, venison, or the varmint of your choosing. With the exception of the venison, all were raised and/or harvested on this land, by our hands. For vegetables, you might choose kale, or potatoes, carrots or beets, with butter from the churn. Kimchi. We could have applesauce and chokecherry sauce. Green beans. Dried chanterelles from the pantry. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, currants, gooseberries. I could go on for quite some time.
We don’t actually need all this stuff; we’ve just gotten used to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s real nice to have all this amazing food. Real nice. And it’s even nicer because rarely in its growing and processing do we feel that obligatory sense of busyness I wrote of earlier. Rarely do we feel anything but gratitude for the opportunity to work for something as liberating and flat out beautiful as the sense that our lives are in our hands.
Penny and I talk a lot about balance. And about how our sense of balance is not a static thing. Our idea of how to structure our lives to accommodate that balance is constantly evolving. I think that’s good. Lately, we’ve been wondering if perhaps we don’t need six or seven species of meat to choose from. Maybe four or five would do. Maybe we could get by with only three varieties of berries in the freezer. Maybe then we could spend a bit more time walking the woods with the boys, who growing up as fast as all the cliches suggest. Faster, even. Rye just turned 10; Fin’s about to hit 13. They’ll be gone soon enough and when they’re gone, I suspect we won’t look at one another across the too-quiet dinner table and say too bad we took all those woods walks with the fellas or I really regret making time to go fishing with the boys, don’t you?
Of course, there’s no point in living life in anticipation of future regrets, because the risk of someday realizing you should never have lived in anticipation of future regrets is far greater than the risk of anticipating those regrets, if that makes any sense. But there’s every point in stepping back every so often to take measure of your balance and, to the extent it feels necessary, shifting weight on the tightrope of your life.
Because last time I checked, that’s a one-way tightrope. We don’t get to walk it again.
October 17, 2014 § 15 Comments
Funny thing is, I used to think I didn’t like this time of year. The leaves gone or going. The pasture dormant. The cows’ coats thickening. First ice in the water troughs. Rain on the edge of snow or maybe snow on the edge of rain. No difference, really.
But look at that photo (which is actually from last year, but hey, close enough). Look at the bluegrey of the sky, the white of the birches and the cows gathered among them, bent to their hay. Even the dun-colored pasture. That’s Morgan and Jen’s farm on the ridge across the valley. Just to the right of that, hidden behind the a rise of leafless trees, is the field we hay with Martha and Lynn. This was a good haying summer. Best one anyone can remember.
Around here, people call this “stick season,” that post-foliage, pre-winter period that lasts from mid-October to the first staying snow. You still see the occasional chartered bus of leaf peepers, but they’re too late. Shoulda been here two weeks ago, when it looked like every tree was on a different shade of fire. Yeah, they missed the boat.
Or maybe they didn’t.