Your Life is Ordinary

July 30, 2015 § 28 Comments

Windows. And Bob's ass.

Windows. And Bob’s ass.

The heat came on hard and fast. It’s been 90 or close enough for three days straight, the air heavy with moisture. You’d swear you can feel its weight. Something else to carry. I don’t mind, really, so long as I don’t think about minding. See how that works?

My summer reading thus far has consisted of the occasional New Yorker article, the back issues of the Sun my mother loaned me, and Chris Hedges’s book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. (Our subscription to Harper’s ran out and I keep forgetting to re-up, otherwise that’d be in there, too).

I like Hedges’s work. Or I like his thinking, at least. He doesn’t pull any punches, and Empire of Illusion is no different. It’s about how the cult of celebrity and other mass media, pop culture offerings only serve to distract us from the real issues of our private lives and society. It reminds me of an ongoing conversation Michael and I have been having, snatches of conversation between the swinging of hammers and the sawing of lumber (this is how conversation works on a job site, in little stilted passages that are dropped off and picked up again as the clamor allows), about the ways in which social media undermine our sense of self-worth. Neither of us spends much time online (though myself more than him, that’s for sure), but enough to have a feel for the terrain. Enough to understand that the people who get the most attention in social media spheres are generally the most attractive, the funniest, most clever. The ones with the particular skill of making their lives appear effortlessly beautiful and fulfilling.

I’ve read that there’s a correlation between time spent online and depression, and I always figured it was mostly because being online is a sedentary habit. In my experience, there’s not much like sitting and passively staring at a screen to bring on the blues (I think there is a distinction to be made between passive computer use and the use of the computer as a tool for creativity). But I’m starting to wonder if the issue is only partly physical, and also (if not mostly) the inevitable self-assessing we do in relation to the endless stream of beautiful images of beautiful people and their beautiful lives.

I cringe a little inside when people tell me they live vicariously through my words and Penny’s pictures. I mean, maybe it’s ok. Maybe it’s feeding something in them that can’t be fed otherwise, maybe it’s a coping mechanism, or simple escapism. We all need a little simple escapism in our lives, myself included. And lord knows I try hard to make this space more than just something to look at, something to admire, or even aspire to.

I guess what I’m saying is (and I’ve said it before): Recognize the two-dimensionality of this space and, by default, the superficiality of the entire sphere of social media. Remember that no one’s life is effortless. Everyone struggles. Everyone is, on some level or another, ordinary, with all the ordinary flaws and quirks of human character. If you were here right now, you’d see the chaos of our kitchen, the dirty footprints on its floor. You’d see the dirty clothes piled behind my office chair, the dust bunnies in the corner. No, not bunnies: Lions. Roaring lions of dust and debris. You’d hear me singing REO Speedwagon’s Ridin’ the Storm Out, and then, you’d hear Penny tell me to kindly shut the hell up. Only she wouldn’t say “hell.” (I got a letter berating me for my use of the word “fuck,” which is maybe a topic for another day). Later, at the job, you might overhear my wife and I bickering over some minor, perceived slight. Or maybe it won’t be minor. Maybe it won’t be perceived.

Empire of Illusion was published in 2009, before the rise of Twitter and Instagram and all the other platforms we can use to create illusions of our own. Everything Hedges said then seems doubly apropos now, and it seems to me as if there’s no end in sight, perhaps because our culture’s hunger for illusion is insatiable. Of course, this means it is also profitable.

I always like it when I can close on a witticism, or some particularly profound observation. Alas, today again the air is hot and heavy, my wit worn thin by list of tasks before me and those already completed. So I guess all I’ll say is this: Beware the two-dimensionality of this medium. Indeed, beware the ways in which this medium cultivates two-dimensionality, and, not-inconsequently, foments our own feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction in the perceived ordinariness of our lives. Though the truth is, of course, that your life, just like mine, is ordinary. And that’s perfectly ok.

Remember, even, that synonyms for vicarious include secondhand, derivative, surrogate, substitute. There are many, many ways to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. But I’m pretty sure that these are not some of them.

Got That?

July 22, 2015 § 28 Comments

I call this one "I'll take the ladder on the left, thank you"

I call this one “I’ll take the ladder on the left, thank you”

Storms rolling through almost every evening. It’s nice in a way. A forced pause, wait for the rain to subside, the thunder to quiet. We got smacked by lightning bad, lost fence charger, my laptop, the modem. Phone jack blown to charred bits across my office floor. It was an expensive hit, but it’s not the worst thing to be reminded of our place in this world every so often.

Breakfast: Steak, eggs, fresh chanterelles, green beans. Lunch: Steak, eggs, fresh chanterelles, green beans. Dinner: Ice cream.

The new Isbell is out and it don’t hardly disappoint. And check out Country Tracks from Kelly Ravin. Real good stuff. Real good. Hard to believe this dude’s still playing for tips… catch him now so you can tell your kids you saw him way back when.

We took the fellas to a Blackberry Smoke and Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Do me a favor and don’t go calling social services on us, ok?

Knee’s back to 90%, thanks to all who asked. Won’t be doing any deep knee bends any time soon, I suppose, but I’m not exactly crying over that.

This is something worth hearing. I mean, seriously.

There’s still time to register for Harvest. Heather’s doing an amazing job with it, and I’m trying not to embarrass myself in comparison, which, come to think of it, is a sorta familiar feeling to me.

Oh, heck: I’ll make it even easier for ya:

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Planning our first annual Bacon Camp. A hands-on weekend of farmstead pork butchery, camping, bonfires, sing alongs,  and other hijinks. Dates TBA soon.

Finally, an extra thank you to those who support this site. Truth is, without your support (and the wee sense of obligation it engenders), I probably woulda let this space slip into the ether this summer. We all woulda survived, of course, but as I’ve said a time or two before, if you want to write, you need to write. Otherwise, you’re not writing.

Got that?

It’s the Dark That’s Losing

July 19, 2015 § 33 Comments

Old pic, but I like it

Old pic, but I like it

The barn is almost finished. We are installing windows, a mish-mash of the old double hungs that I paid too much for. “They cost me $40 each but they’re worth at least $20,” is what I like to say, and it’s probably true. Ah, well. Some days you bite the bear, and some days the bear bites you. Though the truth is, no matter what, they were cheaper than new.

I like the barn. Nah: I love it. It’s simple, sturdy, unpretentious. With the exception of a handful of metal scraps from the roof, every bit of waste generated in its construction is entirely organic, burnable or compostable. No plywood. No plastic. We’ll insulate the upstairs with dense pack cellulose to make it useable as a winter work space, and we might end up spraying a little foam around the window jambs, but then again, maybe not. Maybe we’ll just stuff some wool in there.

Soon we’ll start framing the house. The house is hardly more complicated than the barn, and will actually be a bit smaller, so there’s no reason it won’t be dried in by end of August, middle-of-September at the latest. Given everything on our plates, we feel remarkably relaxed; our primary daily challenge is the transition from here to there and from there back to here. Chores in the morning, make and pack lunch, checklist of materials and tools, load truck. And then in the evening coming home to milking, more chores, dinner, more chores, bed. We are eating lots of one-pot meals, and often we eat straight from the pot itself, the four of us gathered around the picnic table, dirty and weary and quiet, the pot strategically centered, the metronomic dipping of utensils. Sound of chewing.

It would hard to overstate how much we are enjoying ourselves, even in the face of the inevitable challenges. Strangely, I did not anticipate this; back in the winter, before we’d so much as squared the end of a single 2×6, the project seemed so huge as to be nearly insurmountable. Or it did to me, anyway. I mean, I always knew we’d get it done, but I guess I imagined it as being more siege-like. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around all the moving pieces, how we’d deal with power and septic and water and foundation and firewood and lumber and oh yeah, we still have gardens and animals to tend. Hay to put up. Cows to milk, butter to make.

We have help, of course – we’re not doing everything ourselves – but based on person-hours, we are still the primary labor force. And of course we’re the contractors, responsible for tying up all the loose ends. To put it mildly, tying loose ends is not my specialty, and while Penny is clearly more organized than I am, I have more building experience. She’s no slouch, and thank goodness for that, but I have the advantage of having been on more jobs, of having at least a rough idea of what needs to happen first so that what needs to happen next can actually happen. Any of you builders know what I’m talking about.

What I think I’m learning (well, one of things, anyway) is that a project like this is all about initiative, and then, once initiated, inertia. Momentum. It’s also about the sheer thrill of the doing, of seeing it come together, of feeling propelled by the sense of accomplishment but also by the sense – almost indescribable to those who haven’t experienced it or simply don’t care to – of laboring to put a roof over your families head. Over your own head. It’s one of those fundamentals – like growing your own food, or cutting your own firewood – that imbues you with the sense that your life is in your hands. Maybe it’s a false sense (or partly, anyway). But still: How many opportunities are left for us to feel that way? Pretty soon we’ll have pilotless airplanes, driverless cars, groceries by drone. Pretty soon we’ll be peopleless people, our usefulness to our communities and ourselves siphoned into the vacuum of progress.

Sometimes I can’t believe we won’t live here anymore. Interestingly, I rarely feel this in relation to the house itself, but more often to specific spots on the land: The old sugarhouse foundation, or my secret chanterelle stash in Melvin’s woods. Every so often, I find myself thinking this might be the last time I see this spot, and for me, that’s actually the hardest part of moving. I thought I’d feel it more in relation to people, but I don’t, probably because we’re not moving very far. A dozen miles isn’t going to stop us from seeing the people we care about.

A rainy Sunday. Catching up on desk work, later firewood, saw some lumber, a one-pot meal, more sleep. Always sleep. It comes fast and immersive, slumber born of labor, the sort of sleep you look forward to while splitting wood by the fading light of day. Eight hours straight through, waking into that same faded-light quality.

But this time, it’s the dark that’s losing.

Preemptive Reciprocation

July 15, 2015 § 25 Comments


For four straight days it was hot and hazy and we finished our first cutting of hay. One by one off the field and onto the trailer, one by one off the trailer and into the still-unfinished barn. But the roof is on and the hay will stay dry and we’ll do what more needs doing by working around and on the towering stacks. As I have written previously, hay is our most important crop. It is our milk, our meat, and our manure, and because it is our manure, it is also our soil, and therefore, it is our vegetables and our fruit. So it is always a relief to have the barn full of hay. Such a thing is never a given, and although we’ve never failed to fill the barn, we dare not assume. There are simply too many forces at play, too many ways in which expectations can be thwarted.

On comments. Forget the three-pre rule. No one seems to like it, and it was stupid, anyway.

Quickly, I want to address my almost-absence from the comments section, which one reader mentioned (in my experience, if one mentions it, many others think it). “…how much time can the comments really take up for a writer who responds very little? I always read the blog (and read the book) but stopped commenting a while back due to lack of reciprocity.”

Your comments take me very little time. That’s not the issue at all. I scan them briefly to be sure there’s nothing offensive, and that’s about it. Over all these years and nearly 10k comments, I’ve unilaterally deleted exactly one, mostly just to prove I can be a totalitarian asshole if I darn well want to be (that, and it was pretty mean, directed not at myself, but at another reader).

Look, here’s the deal. I roll out of bed at 5 every morning and hustle my scrawny little ass for the next 15 or so hours, at which point I’m generally so fragged I can barely find my teeth with my toothbrush. I ain’t complaining; in fact, I love it. Wouldn’t have it any other way. But it’s not a schedule that leaves much time for responding to comments, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. I would also like to gently point out that insomuch as one considers my writing here to be fodder for the comments that follow, I am reciprocating. I’m just doing it preemptively. It’s preemptive reciprocation, and it’s sweeping the nation, baby!

Anyway. That’s all for now. Comment away.

Lurch My Way

July 8, 2015 § 59 Comments

Just hanging around

Just hanging around

Minor rain this morning, blown sideways on a gusty breeze coming out of the north. It feels good, a break from the heat and humidity of the past couple of days, which itself was a break from the cool cloudiness that defined most of June. It hasn’t felt very summer-y yet this summer, although it was about 85-degrees the day we put up 1000 bales of hay in Lynn and Martha’s barn. We sweated the way you sweat when you’re stacking bales on a hot July day, and it was both exhausting and exhilarating. A good combination, really.

Haying. Logging for firewood and sawlogs. Sawing logs into lumber, splitting firewood. Roofing, the barn now under a protective cap of tin. We slaughtered a beef, put the meat birds onto pasture. Green beans coming on strong, lettuce and eggs and milk out our ears. We’ll sneak some new potatoes one of these days soon, eat them with just-churned butter. Looking forward to that. I tweaked my right knee somehow, so have been lurching about even less gracefully than usual. It hurts like the dickens, but only if I bend it. Still. I am grateful it’s not worse and also that it is slowly improving and even better yet that it hasn’t kept me from all of the above (well, not the roofing… I let Pen and co tackle that).

Perhaps my injury is a predicable side-affect of over-romaticizing physical labor, as some accuse me of doing. Perhaps. On the other hand, I find myself wondering about the over-romanticization of sedentary living, accompanied by the onslaught of once-uncommon diseases and conditions that have become epidemic. There is more to say about this, I am sure, but for now, I must lurch my way into another day.

PS: I find myself second-guessing my request for readers to limit their comments. I don’t want to stifle discussion, but I am still a bit concerned about the comments section being monopolized by certain parties. Thoughts?

Something New

June 30, 2015 § 18 Comments

harvest graphic - landscape

July 27 – August 7: $49 

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Over the past couple of months, Heather and I have been cookin’ up something pretty cool (well, we think it’s pretty cool, anyway). We’re calling it Harvest, and it’s a two-week online workshop that covers a ridiculously wide range of topics related to growing, processing, and preserving the goodness of the season.

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Here’s how Heather describes it over at her site: In this workshop, we will teach you how to process and store the season’s bounty. In this very full two week program, you will learn how to get it all from the field to the freezer, dehydrator, cold storage, fermenting crock, and on occasion, the canner. We will discuss various growing and storage techniques, all with an emphasis on healthy soils, bodies, hearts, and minds. Expect to explore the art of foraging fields and forest, and if you’re looking for some new favorite recipes, Harvest is the workshop for you. Finally, we will be available every weekday to answer specific questions. 

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Here’s how I describe it: In this workshop, Heather will offer crazy amounts of incredibly useful information pertaining to all of the above topics, while I chime in every so often with a bawdy joke or complete non sequitur. I will also discuss the proper pairing of cheap American lagers with associated processing and preserving tasks. Finally, I will reveal my top 10 secret tips for compelling my wife and children to do all the heavy lifting whilst I recline in the shade (#1: Feigned incompetence)

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In all seriousness, I’m really looking forward to this. I get an awful lot of questions pertaining to raising, processing, and preserving food, but I’m generally so busy actually doing these things (along with the trifling details of building house and barn) that I’m often not able to reply as thoroughly as I’d like. This is an opportunity to remedy that, as Heather and I will be available every weekday to answer specific questions.

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Also, don’t think you need to be some sort of master gardener to participate. Heck, you don’t even need to be growing anything. From the outset, Heather and I determined that Harvest would be inclusive of anyone with a desire to strengthen their connection to their food, whether that food is coming from their back yard, their local farmer’s market, or even the grocery store.

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This is my first collaboration with Heather, and it’s been wicked fun. As many of you know already, she’s got great energy and a real gift for teaching. We’ve spent a lot time defining our “curriculum,” but still left plenty of space for spontaneity and inspiration.

To summarize, here’s what you get:

  • New material Monday – Friday.
  • Rustic and delicious garden to tables recipes.
  • Daily, essays from Ben on a wide range of topics related to homesteading, gardening, family, and food preservation (Heather describes these essays as “thought provoking.” Me, I’d prefer not to set the bar quite that high)
  • Tips and tutorials from Ben and Heather – learn how to process, store, and make the most of 20 different fruits, vegetables, herbs, and wild edibles.
  • Instructional cooking videos each weekday from Heather’s kitchen, featuring garden recipes as well as preservation tutorials.
  • Daily content will be presented in beautifully designed, easy to download ebooks.
  • An interactive community where you can ask Ben and Heather questions, and share experiences/methods of your own. (This will happen right on our private website, no social media is required.)
  • And so much more!

And here’s what you need to know.

Dates: July 27 – August 7


The first few days of registration are open to you sharing the cost with a friend, or gifting your extra spot to someone you know. Please follow these simple instructions to do so:

1. Register between 6/30 – 7/3. One person registers, unfortunately we are not able to split invoices.

2. Once registered, email the FULL NAME AND EMAIL ADDRESS OF YOUR GUEST to

3. Deadline for having your guest’s info to us is Monday, 7/6. We will add them to the roster and email them on 7/10.harvest button 200x200 (1)
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Thanks and Thanks Again

June 29, 2015 § 4 Comments

I call this one "Watch Your Step"

I call this one “Watch Your Step”

Lots of new readers in recent weeks. Trying to figure out if I need to be more active in managing comments… for the time being, would those of you who tend to post multiple comments on a single piece limit yourselves to, say, 3 comments per post? I don’t want others to feel intimidated. Thanks.

For new readers, I do accept donations via the generosity enabler (Paypal) below. It’s not expected, but is certainly appreciated, and helps offset my investments of time and $. But seriously, only if it feels right. Thanks again.



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