May 17, 2013 § 3 Comments
The highlight of yesterday was most decidedly Apple’s decision to calve in the full light of day. There would be no midnight intervention-by-headlamp required, which, for those of you who have somehow failed to experience the pleasure of rescuing an eel-slippery newborn calf from underneath its mother’s frantic cavorting, with the feeble beam from your light darting to and fro and those dangblamed cloven feet – each bearing at least a quarter of the ol’ girls’ 1500 or so pounds – landing repeatedly atop your own fragile trotters… well, lemme tell ya: Daylight is a blessing I’m almost scared to give voice to, lest whatever Gods prevail over such things decide to revoke the privilege and leave us in the dark again next year.
With that drama behind us, and a healthy little bull calf on the ground (this is the other thing about Apple: She’d big on bulls. Out of the 7 calves she’s given us, 6 have been male. And the only heifer we got came from sexed semen), another story. Why not? I think I’ve ranted enough over the past few weeks to justify some story telling. By the by, the following is lifted almost – but not quite – verbatim from SAVED. Which comes out June 11. You should read it. Penny says it’s pretty good.
So we moved onto this property in ’97, having spent pretty much every last nickel we owned on the bare land. As I think I mentioned in a post some while ago, we managed to convince a friend to loan us ten grand, with which we constructed a small cabin, set atop concrete piers (aka “sonotubes”). Owing to the slant of the land, the downhill piers stuck out of the ground more than four feet which, if memory serves me right, was better than double manufacturer recommendations. The result was that on windy nights, the whole place swayed. It was sort of like being in a cradle. Or in a cabin that’s about to tip over.
In any event, in 2001 we jacked up the cabin and poured a full basement underneath it, along with a foundation for an addition. I remember well the day the jacking began, for I was on the whipping end of a writing deadline and could not afford to miss a day of work just because my house (and therefore, my office, which consisted of a desk wedged into the corner of a loft that was accessed via an aluminum ladder) was about to get a few feet closer to the sun.
“Do you think it’d be alright if I stay in the house while yer liftin’ it,” I asked Gary, assuming the regional dialect (not so hard, since I was born and raised in the region) in hopes of connecting with the fellow on a Vermonter-to-Vermonter basis, and thus earning his approval to remain on task. Gary was the contractor we’d hired to lift the house, which demanded both exceptional delicacy and brute force, a pairing of qualities that seem dichotomous but which in rural Vermont is actually quite common. And even essential.
I’d come to like Gary quite a bit. But I liked him even more when he rubbed his stubbled chin thoughtfully and cast a glance at the cabin, which was to be raised a total of 4 feet. Already, not yet having been moved a single inch, the cabin looked disturbingly vulnerable with its foundation piers removed and replaced by a latticework of cribbing, as if the damn thing was sitting on a bed of pick-up sticks. Gary looked at me, then back to the cabin, as if making a mental calculation regarding my tolerance for risk and his responsibility not to kill me. Finally, he broke into a grin: “Can’t see how it could hurt.”
My desk was situated at a window that looked out the northern gable end of our little home, and it was there I sat, typing away, as the house slowly rose beneath me. It felt as if I was levitating, and it is not a sensation I will ever forget. Every so often, the cabin would sway from side to side, like a cradle.
Or maybe like a cabin that’s about to tip over.
May 16, 2013 § 9 Comments
So I’m in the mood for a little story-telling, and since I’m sorta on the subject anyway, here’s the tale of how we ended up with a baby-killing cow (another night in the barn and still no calf. But tarnation did I sleep wicked good!).
We got Apple in late summer/early fall of 2004. She was the month-old calf of a sweet little Jersey named Lily, and we brought them home approximately two weeks before Rye was born, and approximately two weeks after I’d broken a couple ribs when I decided to see what might happen if I threw myself over the handlebars of my bicycle and hugged a boulder.
So I was hobbled, Penny was hobbling, and we possessed only the most rudimentary shelter and fencing for our new hooved friends. A more logical family would have ciphered that this was not a particularly good time to bring home a couple of cows, but as I’ve mentioned before, I think much magic is squandered when we act on logic alone, and so it was that we came to own cows – one of which needed to be milked twice daily – only two weeks before our second child came calling.
Anyhow. Lily was an amazing animal, with none of the mothering issues Apple has somehow come to embody, and we got a couple more calves out of her before she broke through the door to where we had the grain stored (this was back when we thought cows needed grain, and if you think cows need grain, you’re either milking for money or you have the wrong cows), ate somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-pounds of the stuff, and basically made herself so drunk on the fermenting grain in her belly that it destroyed her liver. For four days Penny and I nursed her along, and Melvin came up twice daily to help me administer glucose IVs and try and get her on her feet, but it was futile and on the fifth day, I shot her. It was, and remains, the singularly most emotionally difficult thing I’ve done on this land, because the truth is, I flat-out loved that cow.
So then. Apple remains, for all the reasons I mentioned yesterday, but also because she represents a turning point in our lives. We have kept cows ever since, and will for as long as we are able, which I sure as heck hope is a long, long time. We currently have the nicest little herd we’ve ever had; in addition to Apple, there is Minnie, who just freshened with her first calf, and whom we are currently milking. There is Cinco, a two year old steer who is destined for the freezer this fall. There is Pip, the heifer we got out of Apple last year, a docile little Jersey/Devon/Shorthorn cross that we will probably breed next spring. And there is Snook, a yearling steer that will also find a place in our freezer come 2014. Soon, we’ll have a calf out of Apple, for a total of seven, which is just about the right carrying capacity for our pasture.
Other than our soft spot for Apple, we are fairly strategic about which cows stick around, and which don’t. We have culled a few over the years, one because it had chronic mastitis, and a couple others because they just didn’t hold condition on grass alone. We like cows that breed back easily, stay fat and sassy through the winter, and are even tempered. We are not loyal to a particular breed (that said, we do avoid breeds that don’t tend to embody the above qualities, such as modern Holsteins). More than once I have witnessed people choosing animals based on breed, rather than temperament, and then being mighty regretful when they’re chasing the fancy, pedigreed beasts through the pucker brush two towns over, or being kicked in the face every time they milk.
I suppose that’s my advice for the day, if’n any of you happen to be in the market for a bovine to call your own: Shop the animal, not the breed. Oh yeah: And if you got grain, lock it up real good.
May 15, 2013 § 6 Comments
Last night I slept in the barn, curled into a sleeping bag spread across the remnants of the sheep’s winter bedding. I did this because one of our cows was due to freshen (aka calve) and she has… how shall I put this?… mothering issues. Which is to say, if one of us does not extricate her newborn calf from beneath her marauding hooves within, oh, a half-dozen seconds of it being born, she’ll stomp the poor bugger to death. This is to be our 7th calf out of her, so we’ve pretty much got the drill down.
We put up with all this because she is, in all other regards, the bovine embodiment of grace and good will (admittedly, the whole infanticide thing she’s got going on is pretty glaring defect, and were we not sentimental folk, she would’ve gone on the burger truck long ago). She allows the boys to ride on her back. She holds her condition throughout the winter, even on substandard first cut hay and not a lick of grain. She produces milk that is almost absurdly rich; once, just for kicks, I upended an open jar of cream we’d skimmed for butter, and the darn stuff was so thick it didn’t even begin to roll down the glass. Even vigorous shaking couldn’t spill the stuff.
It occurred to me the other day, in the midst of all my recent posts on kids and education and whatnot, that I rarely write about the labors that comprise the vast majority if our waking days. Nor do I write much about the tangible products on the other end of these labors, which of course is food. I think this is in part because it’s no longer a novelty to us to devote most of our waking hours to working the land, and in part because for me at least, the nourishment we glean off our little farm is a byproduct of what I really value, which is the process. In short, yeah, I like to eat good food and it’s important to me. But in many ways, the actual labor and art of creating that food is equally, if not more important.
Which brings me back to my night in the barn, one step in the process of procuring a year’s worth of milk and butter. It was cold, but not terribly so, and I slept as I always sleep: Like someone bopped me on the head with a 12-pound sledge. I had no fear of not being woken up if Apple were to begin freshening, because part of her act is to bellow (or in local parlance, “beller”) like a runaway freight train.
At about 4:00 a.m., I awoke to pee and to wrap myself a little tighter in the bag, and for awhile after, before drifting back to sleep for another hour, I just lay there. I could hear Apple breathing a dozen or so feet away. On the other side of the barn wall, where the boys’ goats make their winter home, I could hear the soft movements of their day beginning. There was a bird calling, and I wished I knew what it was. My nose was cold.
Once, I thought it was way too much work to keep a cow that demanded such intervention. Now I see that I was wrong, and I am struck by how life’s unplanned inconveniences so often carry their own rewards.
May 14, 2013 § 3 Comments
Yesterday was nasty and raw, full of little spitting flakes and an incessant, indecisive wind that wanted to switch direction every half-dozen seconds or so. Both wood stoves were pressed into action, and although I was not particularly pleased to be dipping into next year’s firewood stash, I was grateful that at least I had next years firewood stash to dip into. Without it, we’d probably have been a couple coffee tables short by this morning. Or maybe the damnable piano, already relegated to the back shed where every so often we hear the tinkle of keys as one of the cats strolls across it. Yeah, I bet that sucker’d burn real good.
Mondays are when Rye’s mentor friend Erik comes for his weekly visit. As such, by 9-ish Rye and Erik were deep in the woods, and so too Penny and Fin, who also struck out into the wild. Or what passes for wild in Cabot, Vermont. And where was I while my family was off galavanting across the land? Why, I was right here, shivering dutifully in my office, waiting for the stove heat to wend its way to my small, tucked-away corner of the house. Yes, it’s true: My devotion to my family is nothing short of inspiring.
A couple hours later, both parties returned, arms laden with treasures and heads full of stories. For their part, Penny and Fin had found ramps, fiddleheads, and mint. They’d also found a stream bank of solid clay, from which we will one day construct an outdoor bread oven. Oh, and a grouse nest, containing a clutch of eggs. Erik and Rye brought home a motley assortment of goodies, including pheasant back mushrooms, wild nettles, and a few logs of skunk poop, full of iridescent green insect bits. Two of the three were cooked on a rocket stove they built into the ground, before being consumed with gusto; the other was poked at with sticks in an attempt to ascertain what other goodies might be embedded within.
I know that like most people, I often fail to acknowledge and in some cases even recognize the many things for which I should be grateful. But one of the things that rarely escapes my attention is the simple fact that my sons are able to spend so much of their time in this manner, absorbing the particular knowledge of their surroundings. Such opportunities are increasingly rare in an era of standardized, homogenized education that has no particular allegiance to place.
I also know that not everyone – probably not even everyone who reads this – shares the same beliefs regarding how their children should be spending their days, and what they should be learning. That is ok. In many ways, it is probably good: The world needs lots of different people, sharing lots of different knowledge.
My belief is not that every child should be educated in the exact manner of my boys, but rather that we should all be afforded the freedom to find a path for our children that fills us with that sense of gratitude. Because let’s face it: Life’s way too short for anything less.
May 13, 2013 § 8 Comments
The question that arises in my mind after reading “Hypothetical” is your proposed idealization would mean exactly what for your boys in relation to the rest of the world? If all our children were raised as you expressed it, Ben, and who wouldn’t want to be raised so, what would it mean for them if the rest of the world excels in the arts of technology and science, all in the competitive framework we now exist in? How would they cope if the world overtakes them and thus “controls” them, if you will, because it controls the way’s of the world, it’s economic day to day reality? The perfect life I’ve found has the seed of sadness within it, because, it is my belief, we cannot sustain it here in this world. The deeper we experience happiness, the deeper we sense the fragility of life, its impermanence, its imperfection (Tim O’Brien’s song “Brother Wind” expresses it perfectly for me). How we prepare our children for the world they will inherit is a profound question because it exposes our deepest beliefs to our own self and our responsibility to them.
The great thing about the comments of late is that ya’ll are basically writing this blog for me, as well as providing plentiful fodder for book #4. So thanks for that. The check’s in the mail, as they say.
I don’t really disagree with anything Tim writes above. I think there is a degree of risk in having chosen to raise our children so far off the well-travelled path of the modern American experience. Is it possible that Fin and Rye will forever struggle to find their place in a world that barely acknowledges the very existence of so much of what they have come to revere? What if the rest of the world excels in technology and science, while they excel in… what, exactly? Bow making? Trapping? Foraging? Hide tanning? Goat milking? Romping through the forest? Hog butchering? One imagines them living together in a deep woods cabin, wearing woolen long johns year ‘round, and subsisting on smoked beaver and woods sorrel. (Although really, what would be so wrong with that?)
There are two points I would like to make, not so much in defense of my sons’ unique educational path, but rather in explanation of my views pertaining to how our children might best be prepared for the world they will inherit.
First: I cannot in good conscience raise my children in any manner but which offers them the best possible opportunity to develop the connections and relationships I touched on briefly in Hypothetical. To do otherwise would be to live in direct opposition what I believe is possible for them and for the world at large. And that is no way to live.
Second: Is it possible that by allowing them to learn in a self-directed manner, outside the context of the institutionalized education system, we are actually providing our boys with the tools they will need to learn what they need to know, when they need to know it? School does a fine job of relaying information to our children, but I believe it does a lesser job of actually teaching the process of learning. And no wonder: This process is highly individualized, and if there’s one thing our resource-strapped educational institutions can hardly accommodate, it’s individualism.
Three (yeah, I said I had two points; consider this one a freebie): At what point do we, as a society, begin the process of making truly substantive change? I’m not talking about feel-good changes – the compact fluorescent light bulbs, the hybrid cars, the recycling, the so-called organic food, blah, blah, and blah – that still fit quite neatly within the paradigm of the exploitative growth economy. I’m talking about change that can’t be bought, that requires entirely transformed expectations and assumptions about what defines an “economy,” about human exceptionalism, and about our relationships to the natural world and to one another.
I can’t promise that my children will be part of that change. But I’m pretty sure that if all I do is cynically encourage them to follow the well-trod path (of which a mainstream education is only one facet) toward presumed success in the context of corrupt, diseased, and exploitative arrangements, they will not.
May 10, 2013 § 9 Comments
A sneak peak from my current project:
What if the primary goal of a child’s education were to acknowledge and understand the connection between human wellbeing and the health of the natural world? What if our children were taught to identify every tree species in their community before they were taught their multiplication tables? What if their “standardized testing” included fire starting, songbird identification, and bread baking? What if, as part of their daily study, they were expected to spend a full hour outdoors, freed from toys, tools, and agenda? What if we placed as much value on feelings and relationships, as we do on information and knowledge?
What if the point of an education were not to teach our children to assume control, but instead to surrender it? What if the point simply cannot be found or measured in the context of performance-based assessments, or projected lifetime income? What if the point of an education were to imbue our children with a sense of their connectivity, not merely to other humans, but to the trees and animals and soil and moon and sky? What if the point of life is to feel these connections, and all the emotions they give rise to?
May 9, 2013 § 5 Comments
But, what about the world at large? Are my small acts helpful or relevant? Are too many people too impoverished to even consider extricating themselves from the institutions which harm the natural world and thus, themselves? How can we move to a more long-sighted earth-centered paradigm when people are most concerned with their next economic quarter and when the next iphone is coming out?
Ah, I love the small, easy questions, if only because they give me something to mull over when I’m not thinking about more important things, such as whether or not anyone would notice if I snuck another cookie from the stash downstairs.
Besides which, it sure is nice to know that somewhere in rural Colorado, someone named Rachel is wrestling with the broader implications and perhaps even relevance of her own thoughts and actions. This is such a familiar line of thought and discussion around here, I can almost smell it.
For the record, I don’t think I’m really qualified to answer Rachel’s questions. On the other hand, I’m not sure anyone is, so in a sense perhaps I’m neither more nor less qualified than anybody else. I suppose that no matter what I say, my answer will be rooted in my particular set of beliefs, which themselves have evolved from my particular set of circumstances and experiences. In other words, and to use the language of a couple recent posts, my answer can speak only to my truth.
A couple of years back, when I was spending a lot of time with my friend Erik, the central character in SAVED, I asked him if he ever worries about his future in the context of his chosen ethos of monetary and material asset non-accumulation. In other words, was he essentially disadvantaging himself by choosing to live in alignment with his truth, which tells him that his life is better spent in pursuit of experience, connection, and feeling, rather than money (not that the two are mutually exclusive. On the other hand, maybe they are). His answer? “I cannot see how living in accordance with my values is going to screw me in the end.”
Perhaps Erik is simply naive. I get that. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’ll take naive over cynical every damn day of the week, because I have come to see how naiveté and even idealism are the fruits of living with purpose. In a sense, they are the rewards for maintaining the clarity of our vision for what the world can be – for what our lives can be – even when there is little support for such a vision. Even when our vision is derided as impractical, or illogical, or downright foolish.
In my own life, and in relation to Rachel’s extremely relevant and important questions, I have found Erik’s answer to be both comforting and inspiring. Because the truth is (and this might not be a popular sentiment ’round these parts), my small acts might not be all that helpful and relevant, particularly in the context of forces that feel overwhelmingly large and powerful.
I can see how some might view this as defeatist, as the antithesis of the naiveté and idealism I purport to value. I can see how some might hear me say “I cannot see how living in accordance with my values is going to screw me in the end,” and hear only “I” and “me,” and think, wow, that sounds pretty damn selfish, Hewitt.
But here is what I know: My sphere of influence is small, indeed. It extends to myself, my family, and to a certain extent, my community. Maybe, just maybe, a bit of it seeps into the lives of those who read my books or frequent this space. When I absolve myself of the expectation that my acts must somehow be helpful or relevant to the world at large and the frustration such expectation inevitably leads to, I am, in a sense, allowing myself to inhabit my small world with even more naiveté and idealism. And when this happens, my perception of the world around me shifts. It no longer feels stingy and sad and exploited. It just feels, for lack of a better word, beautiful. My sense of what matters – so readily thwarted by the prevailing narrative of the contemporary economy – becomes sharper. Clearer.
It is easy to forget that the world is ultimately comprised of individual people. It is easy to forget that our nation is ultimately a nation of citizens and communities. I guess what I’m saying, is that it is easy to forget how important these things really are, and what their impact can be. This is one of the values I carry, and although she does not specifically say so, I hear in Rachel’s words that she carries it, too.
The truth is, I sometimes feel as if my small actions on this small hill in rural northern Vermont are inconsequential and maybe even futile. What does it any of it matter? The chores, the time with the boys in the woods, the long, hot hours spent haying with Martha, shooting the breeze with Melvin in his barnyard as his cows shuffle and moo to be fed and milked: What, really does it matter, beyond my own arrogant self-satisfaction?
In these moments, I begin to lose that sense of beauty, that clarity regarding what is truly important. This is precisely when Erik’s words are most helpful to me, because they remind me that no matter what, so long as I remember what is important to me, so long as I live in accordance with my values, I’ll be ok.
And it is only from this place – secure in my skin, on my land, in this community, on this earth – that I can ever hope to be helpful or relevant to anyone else.
• • •
Holy moly. I just realized that may be the longest non-answer I’ve ever given. To anyone who finds it unsatisfactory or is inclined to ponder these matters further, I highly recommend this essay.