Happy Reading

October 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

There’s a bit much going on ’round these parts for a proper post, but wanted to share a couple of recent finds.

The first is Andrea’s blog. Real good stuff. Real good.

The second is Mark’s book. Ditto.

Happy reading.

 

I’ll Stop Wondering

October 22, 2014 § 8 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.

We Know All Too Well

October 21, 2014 § 25 Comments

Never ending

Never ending

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.

 

We Don’t Get to Walk it Again

October 20, 2014 § 23 Comments

IMG_9466

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.

 

Maybe They Didn’t

October 17, 2014 § 15 Comments

IMG_6052

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.

 

 

 

Nothing Futile About That

October 15, 2014 § 24 Comments

IMG_8507

I moved the cows this morning just as the sun was rising, the eastern sky a cloud-striated pink, the breeze eerie-warm against my bare arms. Mid-October and not even cool enough for goosebumps. Halfway down the field, I walked through a feeble shower, brief enough that I glanced up to see if perhaps I’d had the misfortune to pass under a flock of urinating birds, but no.

I’m moving the cows only every few days now. A big part of rotational grazing is getting the animals off a particular piece of ground before the sward begins it cyclical regrowth and the cows have a chance to nip it before it can become reestablished. But in mid-October, there’s no regrowth and thus the impetus for frequent moves is somewhat reduced. I love moving the cows, but having done so twice a day for the past five months, and having multitudinous other ways in which to pass the 20 or so daily minutes those moves require, I don’t mind the break. Soon enough they’ll be off pasture in full, though this year it looks like we’ll get two or more week of grazing than is typical for us. It’s nice to see the efforts we’ve put into improving the pasture – rotations, minerals, fertility, raw milk, and so on – rewarded.

Yesterday Nate began the long drive to Minnesota, where he plans to settle permanently. Or as permanently as is possible for Nate, who, as regular readers will know, lives a somewhat nomadic existence, setting up what most would consider primitive camps at the junctures of seasonal harvests. Wild rice camp. White fish camp. Trapping camp. Sugaring camp. And so on.

He’s hardly gone and already his absence is keenly felt. It would be difficult to overstate the impact Nate has had on our lives in just a couple of years. Indeed I dare say Fin and Rye trust and love him as unquestioningly as they do their devoted parents (and in some regards, perhaps even more so), and part of our sorrow over his departure has to do with the fact that there simply aren’t many people like Nate in this world. There aren’t many people who can model for our sons such undiluted reverence for and connection to the natural world. When Nate traps a beaver, its fur becomes his clothing, its meat becomes his food, and its tail becomes a knife sheath. He does not trap to earn a living; he traps to live, and therein lies a distinction that is rarely acknowledged in modern times. This distinction could be applied to almost all his wilderness pursuits. It is the same distinction we try to apply – in varying degrees of success – to our homestead ecosystem.

So yeah, we’re sad for the boys’ loss, but we’re also sad because Nate is one of those people with whom we felt immediate connection, kinship, and mutual respect. I do not wish to live like Nate (Penny, on the other had, just might), and I know he does not wish to live like me, but I believe we recognize in each other a desire to entwine our lives with the land and that is no longer a common thing.

It’s not so much that I’m inspired by others who share this desire; in fact, I think it’s more powerful than that: I’m comforted. I need that sometimes. Hell, maybe all the time, because the truth is, there aren’t many people left who share this desire and for those of us that do, this world can sometimes feel a lonely place.

I remember after one of my talks recently, someone came up and asked if it bothered me to know I was merely preaching to the choir. “All the people who really need to hear this stuff aren’t here and they probably never will be,” he said. “It’s practically futile.” He was right, of course.

And he was wrong. Because we all deserve that sense of comfort and companionship. We all deserve to feel kinship and mutual respect and the support that evolves from it. Far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing futile about that.

Damn Straight, Hank

October 14, 2014 § 31 Comments

IMG_9444

Following up on yesterday’s post, I figured I’d talk a bit about our energy systems, and furthermore how we live like gilded royalty on a pauper’s energy ration.

So, as you know by now, we lived off-grid for the better part of 15 years, before connecting to the utility grid last year. I should mention at the outset that living off-grid was of enormous benefit regarding our electricity habits, because it’s real hard to use what you don’t have. A decade-and-a-half of restricted electricity tends to cement one’s habits. I suppose there’s still time for all that to be undone, and only time will tell if we suddenly catch a hankerin’ for a widescreen plasma TV and one of those home theater-sized popcorn machines we’ll park next to the massaging leather recliners. But frankly, it seems a bit doubtful.

IMG_9457

I’ll talk about electricity first, then other mediums of energy consumption.

Our primary electrical loads are:

A) the five chest freezers in our basement. We endeavor to keep them full as possible, and we occasionally hit the bottom of one and are able to shut it down for a period. But for the most part, we run those 5 freezers year ’round. I’ve never actually measured their consumption, but given our total consumption, I figure they’re hitting us for about a half-kilowatt hour per day each.

B) the fridge in our “summer kitchen” on the porch. This runs from approximately April 1 to about mid-November, and sucks down about a kilowatt hour per day.

C) the well pump, which is 1/3hp and draws a lot of juice. But it runs for only a few minutes per day, so it doesn’t add up to much

D) Lighting. We’ve slowly converted to LEDs, which draw about 8 watts each and deliver really nice, warm light. They also cost $10/each, which is why we’ve been replacing our compact fluorescents at a rate of about 5 per year, instead of all at once.

E) Computers. We have a desktop downstairs that’s in use maybe an average of an hour or two per day. Maybe a bit more. But most of that is listening to music, during which the screen is in sleep mode. So it’s not drawing much. My work computer is a 13″ laptop that draws 12 watts.

F) Power tools. This is really intermittent, according to whatever projects are on our plate at the time. Like the well pump, these are big loads that don’t add up to much in the grand scheme of things.

G) Washing machine. We have a pretty efficient front load washer. We also don’t wash our clothes very often. Sorry, but it’s true.

IMG_9458

We don’t have air conditioning, and we don’t have an electric hot water heater. We don’t have a dryer and if we lived someplace where we couldn’t hang our laundry for all to see, I’d freak right the f**k out. That’s some insane policy, right there, and way more control than I’d be comfortable with.

In general, the biggest household electrical loads happen when you attempt to affect temperature change, so whenever possible, we try to make the ambient temperature work for us. The best examples of this are our passive winter fridge, and our root cellar, both of which are vented to the outdoors. Just for a second, think about the fact that the vast majority of people in northern climates are burning coal (primary means of electricity generation) to power a fridge that’s replicating the conditions on the other side of their kitchen wall. Whoa. That’s some kind of crazy-making.

IMG_9446

Ok, so what else? To heat water, we rely on two solar collectors and a loop in our cook stove. This combination ensures we have all the hot water we can use about 60% of the time. Another 20% of the time or so, we have limited hot or warm water. The remaining 20-ish% of the time, it’s a cold shower or no shower. When there’s a wood fire going, there are always pots of water heating on the stove top. Occasionally, we’ll get desperate enough to heat a little water atop the gas stove, but we really try to avoid this. It’s not very efficient and sort of antithetical to what we’re trying to accomplish overall.

We heat exclusively with wood. Because we also cook on wood, we burn a good bit more than we would if it were only for heating. Last year, we incinerated nearly 7 cords, but that was a hard winter. Usually, it’s in the 5 to 6 range. If we weren’t cooking on wood, I suspect we could heat this place on about 4. Maybe a little more. BTW, we love cooking on wood. It’s way more fun than cooking on electric or gas. Well, maybe not in summer. But you get the point.

We harvest all of our own wood. I’ve never kept track, but I bet we burn less than 10-gallons of gas and diesel (chainsaw and tractor, respectively) in the process. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I bet not by much. Chainsaws are amazingly efficient tools. Tractors, too.

IMG_9441

The achilles heel of our energy consumption is the same as it is for most Americans: Transportation. We drive a fair bit; generally about 20k miles annual in our Subaru (approx 25mpg) and another 1,500 or maybe 2k miles in our truck (12 mpg). We talk a lot about driving less, but never seem to get there.

There’s so much to say about all this; it feels like I could go on forever, which I won’t. I will say that generally speaking, we don’t conserve energy so we can burnish our sustainability cred or feel good about being green. Rather, energy is conserved primarily as a byproduct of pursuing the life that feels most meaningful to us. Also, there is a real sense of liberation and empowerment that comes from knowing you can live well on relatively little. In the immortal words of Henry David Thoreau “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” 

All I can really add to that is damn straight, Hank.

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,079 other followers