September 23, 2014 § 8 Comments
A couple years back, as I was milling around following a talk I’d done relating to my first book, an attractive woman approached and palmed me a note. This doesn’t happen too often, and by “too often,” I actually mean “ever.” I guess I’m just not the sort of fellow who inspires discreetly passed notes from attractive women. Or anyone else, come to think of it.
Anyway. There were exactly two words scrawled on that piece of paper: Read Ishmael. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of Daniel Quinn’s novel, but it’s the first time I remember. Since then, I’m think Ishmael has been mentioned in the comments section of this space a time or two.
Still and all, it took me until the past few days to finally get around to it. For those of you who haven’t read it, Ishmael is the fictionalized account of one man’s mentorship at the hands of a gorilla named Ishmael. It sounds sort of ridiculous, but that’s part of the genius of the book, I think. The small absurdity of the arrangement – a man and a gorilla inaudibly communicating about the mythology of modern humankind – somehow makes it all the more accessible. If Quinn had simply presented his ideas in a non-fictionalized format, I suspect they wouldn’t have gained nearly as much traction.
There’s a lot to say about Ishmael, but the aspect that’s stuck with me is notion that humans have, by-and-large, transitioned from being a species of Leavers to a species of Takers. And furthermore, that much of what it means to be a Taker is written so indelibly into modern culture that we don’t even think to question its righteousness. This is part of the mythology Ishmael reveals.
There are many factors that go into differentiating between Leavers and Takers, but generally speaking, Takers aren’t content to merely compete for the minimum resources essential to their survival; they want to dominate. It’s not about having enough; it’s about having as much as possible. Or, at the very least, having more than can be reasonably justified by our perfectly logical quest for personal wellbeing.
All other species are, of course, Leavers, which is to say, they seem to innately understand the difference between, say, competing with rivals for the day’s nourishment and hoarding years, if not decades worth of resources, in the process making those resources inaccessible to others. And also potentially eradicating entire other species; witness the fact that the world is now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural extinction rate, due primarily to human activity, most of which, when you get right down to it, is elective. And much of which, when you get right down to it, isn’t actually improving our wellbeing, either individually or collectively.
It’s not as if the ideas presented in Ishmael are so radical, at least to anyone who’d been living with the unsettling sense that perhaps things are not exactly as they’ve been taught (which I’m guessing is the majority of those who hang around here), but they are presented in a particularly clear and affecting manner.
As so often happens when you read something you knew but could not quite articulate, the book has prompted us to evaluate certain aspects of our life and in particular those aspects where the unquestioned assumptions of Taker culture are still rooted. Primarily I think of the sheer quantity of stuff we have accumulated over the years, most of it purchased used or even handed-down for free, to be sure, but still: Stuff. Enough to make our basement feel crowded. Enough that it often seems we spend more time rearranging it than actually using it. Enough that if you were to drop by right now and demand to see it all, I’d be sort of embarrassed. I mean, really: How did we end up with three circular saws? (Actually, I know exactly how, but it’s way too long a story to relay here)
I’m not sure what my point is. Perhaps in part it’s to acknowledge my own duplicity, all the ways in which I’ve lived – and continue to live – in accordance with the Taker story. But then, haven’t we all? Don’t we all? Maybe it’s just because I think you all ought read the book; it’s one of the few I’ve read, like Elliot Merrick’s True North, like Harry Middleton’s The Earth is Enough, like Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics, that holds the promise of sticking with me long after I closed the cover, turned out the light, and asked Penny to please hold my grubby little hand until I fall asleep which, lucky for her, generally takes about 74 seconds.
I guess maybe that’s point enough.
September 22, 2014 § 34 Comments
With the family away this weekend, I took to the stack of long-neglected sawlogs with a vengeance. I really like sawing lumber; there is something uniquely rewarding about pulling a fresh 2 x6 off the bed of the mill, the wood fibers damp and slightly furry-feeling, the sweet smell of fresh cut balsam mingling with the acrid exhaust of the sawmill motor. I’m guessing I sawed about 1500 board feet over the past couple of days, which is hardly anyone’s idea of a Herculean feat, I’ll admit. Then again, I was also milking two cows, tending to the sheep, pigs, and chickens, making butter and bread, weeding and mulching the bare earth from which the onions had recently been extracted, and feeding my lonely, sorry self, a task that consisted primarily of gnawing on hunks of half-cooked meat whilst leaning against the kitchen counter between chores, the same greasy fry pan serving as both cooking vessel and plate for all four days. Boys will be boys and all that.
One of my weekend tasks involved moving the pigs from where we’d been training them to electric fence into the wooded area that will be their home for the remaining three or four months of their earth-bound days. It just so happened that the most direct route from their training area to the woodlot routed them directly past the sawmill and through the large pile of saw dust that’s accrued on the backside of the mill. And so I had the distinctly rural pleasure of watching the pigs snuffle and snort in the sawdust even as the mill showered them with more dust with every pass of the toothy blade.
It was one of those experiences that somehow crystallizes the richness of this life in a way that defies logic and maybe even language: To transform logs into lumber while pigs romp joyously in the accumulated woody dander. I’d’ve thought they’d be scared of the mill’s snarl, but they seemed oblivious to the commotion and went about their important business as I went about mine. I suspect they were not nearly as comforted by my companionship as I was by theirs, but I allowed myself the luxury of pretending otherwise and this made me miss my family just a small bit less.
• • •
I’ve mentioned this briefly before, but I’m struggling a bit with how to accommodate the volume of inquiries and general correspondence pertaining to all the recent media exposure. I have tried to respond to most questions, but I have also missed some. In general, I find it much easier to respond to very specific questions (“what was the first knife you bought your sons?”) than more general questions (“how do I start unschooling my kids?”).
I guess I need to back up a bit. Basically, there are two ways I make my living. The first is by writing – I am, for lack of a better term, a working class writer, which is to say, writing is the primary means by which I support my family financially. Writing is not a lucrative business, at least not at my end of the spectrum, and the recent flurry of attention has done nothing to change that. This is not a lament, by the way. It’s just the truth.
The secondary means (though it many ways, it’s not secondary at all) of supporting my family is figuring out how to do for ourselves that which we would otherwise pay others to do for us. Hence growing the overwhelming majority of our food. Hence sawing our own lumber, which we’ll use to build our own structures. Hence helping Martha and Lynn put up their hay in exchange for cut rate pricing on our hay. Hence a hundred-and-one other things that enable us to live as we do.
Regarding all the recent inquiries, my central challenge is this: How do I respond to them all while still doing the work necessary to supporting our lives on this land? Because honestly, I just can’t afford to. If I said “yes” to all the requests for homestead tours alone, there’d be nothing worth touring because I’d spend all my time giving tours rather than actually doing the work that makes it into something people want to see in the first place.
If you look in the left-hand margin of this page, you’ll see that I’ve added a consulting page. Frankly, “consulting” feels a little formal to me, but I’m not sure what else to call it. Conversing? Gabbing? Shootin’ the shit? Whatever. I guess it’s all the same: An imperfect way to address the challenge outlined above.
The truth is, it’s really hard for me to think about charging to answer people’s questions, in part because I’m not at all certain I have the answers they’re seeking, and in part because I’d rather just do it for free. But I can no longer ignore the fact that I can’t afford to just do it for free. I can’t ignore the fact that we’ve spent the past two decades of our lives schooling ourselves in all the things you can’t learn in school (or in most schools, at least). In a sense, whatever experience and knowledge we’ve gleaned working this land is our stock in trade.
Here’s what I’m thinking: I would like to humbly offer these shit shootin’ services by donation. This seems the most honest way to me, though I realize it might put prospective clients (shit shootin’ partners?) in a tough spot. What if I don’t give enough and he’s offended? What if I give too much and appear a fool? What if his so-called advice is so damn worthless I feel compelled to charge him for my time? And so on.
So maybe it won’t work. Maybe I should settle on an hourly rate ($500 sounds about right to me). Maybe I should gussy up this site and write up some sort of resume with a bunch of big words that makes it sound like we know more than we actually do. No doubt conventional wisdom would suggest I not jokingly refer to prospective clients as “shit shootin’ partners.”
Then again, the older I get, the closer I come to accepting that while conventional wisdom might indeed be conventional, it is not actually all that wise.
By the way, please, please don’t let this dissuade you from sending emails or asking brief, specific questions. I’m offering this for folks who are looking for something more than a simple email exchange can provide.
Also, if any one has alternative ideas – or personal experience – on how to handle this, I’m all ears. Thank you!
September 18, 2014 § 19 Comments
Penny and the boys decamped this morning for a four-day wilderness skills gathering, unadvisedly leaving me in charge of, well, everything. Their infrequent absences always put me in a state of mild bewilderment: So steady is our companionship that the sudden absolution of everyone’s needs but my own and the various critters under my care is an unhinging experience. I always think I’m going to do something a little crazy while they’re gone – you know, like drink two beers in a single evening, or maybe go out for pizza, or stay up ’til 10 watching a movie – but it never seems to happen. Instead, I just go about the workaday routines of this little holding, slowly lapsing into loneliness. At least I have the cows.
I don’t have a whole lot in me at the moment in regards to writing. The flurry of activity over the past month or so, coupled with the whispered urgency of the first frost, has put me squarely back in that spot of just wanting to do things. Hands, not head. Stop talking so damn much and just make some shit happen. Indeed, over the past few days, I made ample progress on the stack of sawlogs, while Penny and the boys harvested onions and a row of ‘taters. Nearly a full day was devoted to the slaughter and packaging of 80-odd meat birds and a half-dozen ducks. Of course, there was all the prep a four-day camping trip involves and when they return on Sunday afternoon, smelling of campfire smoke and exhaustion, there will be all the unpacking, the airing of tent and sleeping bags, the washing of camp dishes, the retelling of tales, and so on. I bet you know how it is.
Anyway. You know I’ll be back. You know that somewhere in the midst of everything that needs to be doing, something will remind me of something else, and that little itchy spark will be lit and then I’ll be back here, blabbering out of both sides of my mouth at once. But for now, at least, quiet. And maybe a little sweat.
It’s a good combination, really.
September 15, 2014 § 51 Comments
Yesterday morning Rye and I went down into the woods to one of our favorite mushroom haunts. The chanterelles are pretty much done, but there’d been another flush of hedgehogs since our last visit and we quickly gathered enough to eat with lunch.
When we returned home, Penny was putting a few gallons of wild chokecherries through the mill in preparation for making a winter’s worth of chokecherry fruit leather, which the boys covet and which I think is only ok. There was a fire in the cookstove, though maybe we could have done without it. But we prefer to cook over wood, and for lunch we fried up the mushrooms and a couple of steaks and Penny ran down to the potato patch and we had baked potatoes, too, with generous dollops of the butter I’d churned the evening before.
While Penny milled and I cooked, the boys modified traps on the living room floor. They’d spent the previous day at the Trapper’s Rendezvous, an annual event they await with feverish anticipation. This year, they started notching sticks two weeks prior; every evening for 14 evenings straight, they huddled in the living room carving the day’s notch. The notched sticks are strangely beautiful.
Later, Penny and the boys worked on black ash baskets while I sawed lumber, then we all did chores. I cleaned up and made soup (more potatoes, sausage from the freezer, cream from the morning milking, celery and an onion from the garden, and so on) while Penny and the boys read. By 9, no one in the house was awake. Well, maybe one of the cats, but if so, none of us were awake to bear witness, which begs the question: If a cat purrs in a slumbering house, does it make a noise?
More than once recently, I have heard it expressed that we might not be adequately preparing our children for the “real world” and so I spent a bit of time this weekend wondering what, exactly, constitutes the “real world.” I remembered how in my first draft of Home Grown, I’d referenced the “American Dream” and my editor, being more astute than I, thought to question me. Isn’t there more than one American Dream, she asked, or something close enough to it. And she was right. Of course there’s more than one American Dream, if for no other reason than there is more than one American Dreamer.
I suspect that some people view our lives as being quaint. Maybe even a little backwards. They hear about Fin and Rye wanting to be trappers, or about how they got their first knives when they were four, or about how they can identify every tree in our woodlot from 30 paces, and they think it’s all well and good but not actually very realistic, because the real world does not run on fur and blades and timber. It runs on finance and code. On buying low and selling high. On convincing people to trust you more than they trust themselves.
Is it presumptuous of me to suggest that our life – our world – is no less real than any? Because to be honest, it feels to me as if gathering mushrooms from the forest with my son to cook with a steak from the cow I shot only a few weeks prior is plenty real. I watch my boys carving with their knives, their skills honed by years of practice (and yes, a bit of spilled blood) and I see how they’ve learned to hold within themselves the competing senses of respect for the blade’s ruthlessness and their own feeling of confidence. Competence. In the comments to my Outside article, someone scoffed at our fear of having our children tested, and it was a mean-spirited comment, but I had to chuckle. Tested? I’ll show you a 9-year old refusing to let me put down an ailing buckling from his doe and instead pulling the trigger himself. I’ll show you him crying in the aftermath of the shot he didn’t want to take but knew he must. Yeah, I’d say they’re tested.
What is the real world? Is it the one I keep hearing about, the one that’s going to eat my sons alive for not having followed the prescribed path, for testing themselves by bullet and blade, rather than pencil and paper? Is it the one that’s going to punish them for their parents’ naiveté that resourcefulness and curiosity and self-confidence are enough? Or is it the one we awaken to every day, the sun burning through the soupy September mornings, the animals going about their daybreak rituals, the pasture grass rimed in first frost?
Maybe it is both. And maybe there are a million other ways to shape one’s life. Maybe that’s really what I want my boys to understand: That they have the ability to shape their world as they imagine it and that what is real – what they value and respect and honor and cherish – need not be determined by anyone else.
September 11, 2014 § 40 Comments
When Fin was maybe 4 and Rye a barely-walking toddler, we went to a free concert in a neighboring town. In the back of the concert hall, which was actually a gymnasium, someone had set up a table. It was loaded with baked treats. A bake sale, in other words.
This was our sons’ first exposure to a bake sale. Or at least it was the first I can remember. Certainly, it was the first where they were cognizant of what was on offer: All the chocolatey goodness, the swirls of vanilla icing, the sugar crusted cookies. “Mama, Papa, can we get something?” Fin asked. “Googledy-glurk-gawp,” drooled our second born.
You know what? We didn’t get our boys a damn thing. Not a single friggin’ sugar snap. Not a brownie, not a cupcake. Zip, zilch, nothing. All around them, their friends munched in sweet delight, smacking their frosted lips. Have another sip of water, we told the boys. It’s really good water. Listen to the music, we told the boys. It’s extremely filling.
Why do I mention this? I mention it because our sons have never again asked for anything at any bake sale since. They don’t ask for treats when we’re out, though we do occasionally offer treats. They learned early on that we’re simply not going to go down that road. Partly, it’s because we believe those foods aren’t particularly healthy. But even more so, it’s because once you relent, you’re screwed. I know, because I’ve seen it time again again: Kids whining for a treat (or for whatever) because they know if they whine long and annoyingly enough, they’ll get it.
I realize this might make us sound like relentless hard-asses. It’s funny, but I’ve mentioned before how in some ways, we’re the most permissive parents I know. These ways generally include granting our sons access to tools and experiences that make many parents uncomfortable. Knives. Saws. Axes. Firearms. Five-day wilderness camping trips with Nate. The list goes on. But as I’ve also mentioned before, we believe that children develop responsibility by being granted responsibility. We believe they become trustworthy by being trusted. Not willy-nilly, of course. Not without proper instruction and oversight. As I wrote in Home Grown (or maybe it was somewhere else; I’m sorta losing track), it’s not like we’re sending them into the woods with chainsaws and shotguns and telling them not to come home ’til they have dinner and firewood.
Here’s another thing. When we said “no” to the bake sale, we didn’t just say “no.” We said “you know what? We’ll skip this, but we’ll go home and make a treat.” And then we actually did. Or, more accurately, Penny did. Me, I just sat on my duff, waiting for it to come out of the oven.
I get so many questions about video games. I know a lot of parents feel as if video games aren’t inherently harmful. I don’t really agree with that, but that’s sort of beside the point, because I also know that many of these same parents battle with their children over what they feel is excessive gaming. I know how stressful this is, because they tell me how stressful it is, and no matter what one things of the games themselves, pretty much everyone agrees that this stress is harmful. I think a lot of people are skeptical when I tell them our kids don’t play these games, don’t even have any interest. Yes, they’ve seen them. They’ve even played them at friend’s houses. But not even once have either of our children expressed the slightest interest in owning their own gaming device. Not even once.
I think there’s a couple of things at play here, both relating to the bake sale anecdote. First, they know it ain’t gonna happen. Just as many parents would never consider buying their child a firearm or a belt knife, we would never consider buying our children a gaming console. The possibility isn’t merely off the table – it’s out of this galaxy. And our boys know this. (By the way, I am not passing judgement on those parents who choose differently, just as I hope they don’t pass judgement on us for the choices we make) But more importantly, we’ve worked extremely hard to provide them with experiences that feel more rewarding to them than gaming. Again, it’s analogous to the bake sale anecdote, because I don’t think that just saying “no” to our boys would have worked nearly as well as both saying “no” and saying “we’ll make a better treat at home.”
So I guess what I’m saying is, yeah, I think it’s really important to say “no” and to damn well mean it. But I think it’s equally important to say “yes.”
September 10, 2014 § 16 Comments
I spent yesterday afternoon riding the wagon behind Martha’s baler, hauling bale after bale off the metal chute and stacking them behind me like child’s blocks. There were 679 bales in total and I couldn’t help but do the math: 679 x 40-pounds = 14 tons of hay. (Actually, it doesn’t: It actually equals only 27,160-pounds of hay, but I didn’t have a calculator in the hay field and I was too labor-addled to do the hard math in my head, so I rounded the 679 to 700). Fourteen tons of hay lifted, carried, and stacked. I looked down at my arms and discreetly flexed a bicep. It was less impressive than I’d hoped.
I have not been riding the wagon much the past couple haying seasons. Steven has pretty much taken over that job, leaving me to ferry wagons back and forth to the barn, where Penny, Roman, and the boys unload. I don’t mind ferrying wagons; I like driving tractors and ferrying wagons is all about driving tractors, and in particular the old iron that Martha favors and which is impeccably maintained by her friend Don, a Vietnam vet whose tattoo count rivals the word count of the longest sentence I’ve yet to hear him speak. It occurs to me that I could learn a thing or two from a guy like that.
I’d missed being in the field, the metronomic whump and clatter of the baler, Martha on the Deere, cupping her cigarette from the breeze, the fatigue slowly rising in my body and the boys, having abandoned their post in the barn, racing their bikes down the hills of the fresh-shorn hayfield. I can hear their shrieking over the machinery and I think how can I want anything more than this? I can’t. I don’t. 28,000-pounds of hay in three-and-a-half hours. Shrieking boys. Cigarette smoke and diesel exhaust. The whump and clatter and the remembering of all the little tricks of balance and timing.
You know what? I didn’t drop a single bale.