For a Little While

August 28, 2014 § 5 Comments


Drying blueberries

Katie Flagg of Seven Days did a nice piece on immersion learning, er, unschooling (thanks, Amy!). 

Tuesday evening we finished unloading bales in Martha and Lynn’s barn at six or so. There were 550 give or take a dozen, but you know what they say about many hands and all. Besides, the bales were light and soft and almost fluffy. Second cut is the Charmin of hay.

Steven rode the wagon behind the baler, stacking in that methodical way he has, never seeming hurried but with an efficiency that trumps speed any day of the week. That efficiency reveals the worker he is: Steven is employed at a sawmill full-time, cuts firewood, plows driveways, and hires out for 101 other rural tasks involving trucks and toothed cutting implements. He works seven days each week. He has a wife and a young son and is saving to buy a new car for his wife in cash. Once, when he and I were baling together, me on the tractor and him on the wagon, load after load after load of hay and none of this fluffy Charmin-esque second cut, but that stem-y first cutting that leaves cross-hatched scratches on the undersides of your forearms, I asked him if he wanted to trade places. He could drive the tractor and I’d stack on the wagon. It was hot. He had to be tired. Shit, I was tired, and all I was doing was steering the Deere down the long rows of loose hay. Steven just shook his head. “Ben, I’m a worker bee,” he told me. “I just like to work.”

I like to work, too, though I’m more of a flailer than Steven. I’m not so good at meting out my efforts, and I tend to work real hard and real fast ‘til I fall over the knife’s edge of exhaustion, at which point I’m pretty useless until someone hands me a sufficient quantity of calories. I guess you could say I’m sort of a binge laborer.

Wednesday morning I went and picked up a load of shavings from our friend Jim, who has a woodworking business in a nearby town with no farms and therefore has a tough time finding folks to take his shavings. The first time he called me to see if I wanted shavings and furthermore for free, I sort of thought it was a joke because ‘round here, a pile of kiln dried hardwood shavings would last about as long as a pie in a pigpen.

But damn if he wasn’t serious as the north wind in January, and so for the past year or so, I’ve driven over every time he’s got a full hopper and filled the back of our old Ford with the finest animal bedding that, in this case at least, money can’t buy. It’s messy, dusty, eye-stinging business, not fun at all, really, except for the satisfaction of a full truck and knowing how good the composted bedding will be. We’ve got a big pile of it up on the hill right now, last year’s dense pack scooped out of the loafing shed, and I swear it’s nearer to being finished than the hay-based pack of the year prior.

The work has been good. The haying, the shavings, the daily routine of chores, now reaching their late summer peak. It pulled me out of my head some, where I’d been hanging out a bit too much in the aftermath of so many questions and conversations relating the Outside story. I mean, those things are good, too, but after a time, I began to recall yet another passage from Carruth’s poem Marshall Washer:

Unconsciously, I had taken friendship’s measure

from artists elsewhere who had been close to me,

people living for the minutest public dissection

of emotion and belief. But more warmth was,

and is, in Marshall’s quiet “hello” than in all

those others and their wordiest protestations,

more warmth and far less vanity

And with that, I think I’ll shut up. For a little while, at least.



Pretty Damn Boring

August 26, 2014 § 26 Comments


In many of the comments relating to my Outside article, you can see how firmly the story of school is embedded in the American psyche (by the way, it appears the NY Times is getting in on the game. I sure wish the reporter had called me, but oh well. And “Mr. Hewitt”? Really?). I have to admit this surprised me, although in hindsight perhaps it shouldn’t have, because I am coming to realize that the story of school is itself a chapter in the story of achievement, which it itself a chapter in the story of success and prosperity. All of these, of course, are chapters in the story of what it means to be human, the masters of our domain and ultimately the pinnacle of evolution.

Whoa. That’s some heavy thinking for a simple fellow like myself, eh? And it’s only Tuesday; just imagine where we’ll be come Friday! But I think there’s some truth to it. I do think that many people are threatened by the idea of unschooling in part because on some level it calls to question some very basic assumptions regarding what it means to be kicking up dust in 21st century America. Or at least, it can call these assumptions to question, because of course unschooling can be a million different things to a million different families. That’s one of the things that so great about it, of course. It’s not homogeneous. It’s not standardized. If you want unschooling to be about your kids getting filthy rich off the salted back sweat of the underclass and the rampant degradation of the earth’s remaining wild places, well hell. That’s what it’ll be about.

That explains in part why Penny and I aren’t terribly fond of the term “unschooling.” It explains nothing, really, except the absence of school. But what does that mean? Nothing, like I said, and I wonder if that’s where some of the more pointed negativity in relation to unschooling comes from: All they hear is the absence of school, and since the story they know best is the one in which school is a chapter in the book of humankind (after all, isn’t that the story most of us grew up inside?), they believe that school is essential to a functioning democracy and a productive economy. Or they contend if parents aren’t involved in their local school, they’re not involved in their community. Or they suggest that keeping children out of school is a means of control (there may actually be some truth to this one, though it’s hard for me to understand how the same couldn’t be said of sending children to school. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice and all that). Or they simply cannot fathom how children can learn without being told  what they must learn, how they must learn, and when they must learn it. That they must learn. 

We all have our stories. I get that. My family’s story tells us that the best path for our sons is “self-directed, adult-facilitied, life-learning in the context of their unique interests.” Our story tells us that subsistence farming is as noble an endeavor as doctoring or lawyering. In one chapter, our story tells us that we are not stewards of the land but rather that the land is the steward of us. There’s even a paragraph or two whispering that perhaps humans are not as mighty and all-knowing as we’ve come to believe. In fact, it suggests to us that we will never know a fraction of the things we don’t know. And that this is actually ok. Our story has us convinced that it’s as important for our sons to feel a connection to the land as it is for them to know calculus. Maybe more important. In this story, our sons’ learning unfolds from a place of natural curiosity. “Papa,” Fin said the other evening, seemingly apropos of nothing. “If heat rises, why is it colder at altitude?”And later that night, during family read, Rye interrupted: “What’s panache?”

You see what I mean?

It’s a hard thing, sometimes, to accept that other people feel as strongly about their stories as we feel about ours. A hard thing, but also an essential one. Every so often, it helps to remind myself that a world with only one story might be peaceful. But it’d also be pretty damn boring.

Maybe it’s the Story

August 25, 2014 § 11 Comments



Last night for dinner we ate corn on the cob with butter I’d made in the morning and that was pretty good. Three ears each and a glass of milk from the morning’s milking and I’d’ve had another ear of corn if there was one. But the boys had picked and shucked only a dozen ears and last time I checked 12 divided by 4 is 3 so that’s what I got. Truth told, it was plenty.

For lunch there’d been ribeye steaks from the beef we’d slaughtered a few weeks prior and I fried up a passel of chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms I collected from Melvin’s woods before I made butter. We had green beans, too. Steamed those suckers, piled on the butter and some salt and they hardly knew what hit ‘em. There were chunked potatoes roasted in lard and I snuck the ‘taters from the far bed in the wedding field, so-named because it’s where our friend Bob and his brother Brian erected the big cedar pole and green-tarp “tent” we had our wedding party under 16 years ago.

Sixteen years. Some of the people who were at our wedding are dead now, some you’d expect and at least one you wouldn’t. The ones who were babies then drive cars now. The ones who were middle age then are wondering what the hell happened, where all the time went, the years between their babies being babies and their babies driving cars. Yesterday my parents were over and Fin drove the truck down the farm road and across the field (he’s 12) and my father said something about him driving and I said “only when I’ve been drinking” which I at least thought was pretty funny. (Q: How do you know when Ben’s told a joke? A: He’s the only one laughing!)

Anyway. You see how it happens.

Breakfast… let’s see. That was an omelet. Eggs still warm from the coop and a filling of fried potatoes, leftover green beans from the night before, a snuck onion, a clove of garlic prized off one of the bulbs hanging above the stove wood on the porch, hedgehog mushrooms I’d gathered the evening before (we’re gathering mushrooms nearly every day now, such is the profusion of edible fungi at this time of year), and a good bit of the maple sausage Penny and I made back when the boys were up in Canada with Nate and we were stuck in the kitchen processing the two pigs we foolishly saw fit to kill in July when there’s way too much going on around here to spend three days killing and cutting pigs. See? We make mistakes all the time. Mistakes we shoulda seen coming months away. Even mistakes we’ve made before but in our stubbornness refused to learn from.

Sometimes I think we eat too well, that we have too much choice, that it’s making us soft and jaded. I remember when Nate was staying here, how I’d stroll down at dinner time to find him stewing a beaver haunch and maybe a few leaves of kale over an open fire. Of course, he also ate with us pretty often, never turned down an invite and seemed to enjoy the fresh butter and eggs and meat at least as much as we do. Probably more, considering the alternative was stewed beaver and kale, though I never got the sense he didn’t enjoy that stuff too, come to think of it. I never heard him complain. I never heard him say “man, not stewed beaver again!” I mean, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with beaver, but it sure ain’t ribeye steaks. It’s not an omelet filled with your own sausage and fried potatoes dug from the ground that once sheltered your wedding party.

On the other hand, to Nate, who’d trapped the beaver, and tanned and smoked its hide for eventual inclusion into the beaver-hide vest he was working on at the time, maybe it’s every bit as good as these things. Because when I think about it, I wonder if maybe it’s not the food that matters so much. Maybe it’s the story.





It’s Better For Everyone That Way

August 22, 2014 § 17 Comments

Mushroom walk

Mushroom walk

Eumaeus believes I am being held up. Erin wonders how I gain the confidence to let other people follow me. Emanuel says “the messiah, follow the messiah!” (It’s ok: Eman and I go back a good ways. He’s snarky, but a good fellow overall)

I hope that none of this is true, that I am not being held up and that people are not simply “following” me. But I know it is true that over the past week or so, I’ve received numerous emails asking very specific advice on how to handle very specific parenting/educational situations. I have uncomfortably answered some of them, mostly because it felt more uncomfortable to ignore them than to answer. I have also not answered some and I’m trying to be ok with that. I have a life beyond this subject, of course. Beyond this desk.

Give the above perhaps some sort of brief disclaimer is necessary. So here it is: What I write about here and elsewhere is based on my life, my experiences, and my observations. It is steeped in the bias and hypocrisy we all bring to this world. It is generally written quickly and is unedited. Sometimes I write things that I later wish I hadn’t, although I have only once taken down a post that I felt was overly self-promotional.

I try to always make it clear that I am speaking from this place of personal bias and experience, but there’s no doubt I sometimes fail to do this adequately. I also try to make it clear that our path is not perfect, in no small part because we are imperfect beings inhabiting an imperfect world. I do not think I know any more about how to teach my children or live my life than anyone else knows about how to teach their children or live their life, although I do think all of us know a hell of a lot more than we think we know. We just seem to have lost touch with that knowledge and in the process cultivated certain assumptions about what it means to be human. To live a good life. To educate our children and ourselves. To achieve and to prosper.

Sometimes people want advice. I get that. Sometimes I want advice. But of course how can anyone rightly give advice to someone whose life they know little about? Far as I can tell (though I might be wrong) there is no single right way to be. Certainly, there are ways that don’t make sense to me. There are things that seem silly to me. There are forces that strike me as destructive and tragic. But not everyone sees them in the same light. For instance, I view car culture as holding us captive, while others view it as liberating. I see the growth economy as a dead end, while others see it as their future. Their children’s future. I believe humans have no more right to this world and its resources than the plants and animals, while others believe the world and its resources belong to humans first and everything else second. If at all.

I guess these alternate viewpoints are part of what makes this world interesting and beautiful. I also guess they might be what is destroying this interesting and beautiful world.

For those who truly crave advice, here are few small pieces I feel comfortable sharing. Take them for what you will. Take them knowing they come from a high school dropout who passed part of yesterday evening singing Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (careful, Rhonda) over and over while washing the dinner dishes.

To the greatest extent possible, stay out of debt

Eat real food

Spend as little time as you can stand staring at a screen. Stop reading this blog, even

Don’t assume there are not other stories than the ones our culture tells us

Sleep outside once in a while

At least on occasion, submit to inconvenience

Make something with your hands, something with shape and texture

Listen to yourself more carefully than you listen to anyone else

Also listen to loud music. Sing along with it while you do the dishes but when your spouse asks you to stop for the third time, stop.

It’s better for everyone that way 


Our Obligations

August 21, 2014 § 22 Comments


How do you discuss and engage in world news with your children? do you talk US and world politics for example? or do the boys know who Malala is? and should they or does it not matter at this point in their lives?

Yesterday the boys disappeared into the woods for a couple of hours, carrying their fly rods down to their favorite brook trout stream. They hadn’t fished it this year until yesterday; over the winter, they read about how it’s important to let even a prolific stream rest every so often. For a while, they fretted the possibility that they’d over-fished it. “What do you think, Papa?” they asked, and I couldn’t rightly tell them, but I agreed that taking a season away couldn’t hurt.

While they were gone, an old friend stopped by. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons, ages 7 and 4. She was in Vermont visiting family and had seen the Outside article and it had kindled something in her that in truth was already smoldering. It just needed a little fuel.

We stood and chatted in the blueberry patch, which is always a good place to stand and chat in the middle of August, what with the profusion of ripened fruit at the ready. She told us of her sorrows regarding her sons’ schooled education, which include the fact that they’re not allowed to romp in the snow, they’re not allowed to touch plants in the playground for fear those plants might be poisonous, and that her seven-year old has homework every night. Already, there have been subtle suggestions that her older son is a little behind the curve in relation to his reading abilities, and recently when she asked him how he liked school, he told her that just pretends he’s in a factory.

After we’d had our fill of berries, we walked back to the house. Fin and Rye emerged from the woods with tales of a brook trout cooked on a hot stone by the waters edge. They brought out their bows to shoot with our friends’ boys, nocking the arrows and pulling the bow string back past the point of utmost resistance to facilitate those young muscles. “He’s in heaven,” our friend said, referring to her son. “This is his dream.”  I watched from the corner of my eye. He did look pretty darn happy.

How does this all relate to the above question? In some ways, I’m not sure. But there was something in what I heard from our friend in the berry patch and what I observed as the boys fired practice arrows into bales of hay that made me think about our expectations for childhood learning. What do our children need to know? Is it important that they know who Malala is, or what happened to James Foley? Should we talk to them about Syria and Putin and Newtown, CT? These are not rhetorical questions; these are real questions that Penny and I grapple with, and they are framed by the backdrop of an even larger question: How do we help our children maintain an awareness of all that is tragic in this world – and in particular, those tragedies over which they can have no immediate influence – without losing sight of everything that is beautiful?

To be even more to the point, we are not heavy news consumers. Penny and I maintain some awareness of national and global events, primarily by listening to the radio during solo drives. Sometimes we discuss what we hear with the boys; sometimes we do not. There are no hard and fast rules for what we talk about and what we do not. In my life, at least, I have noticed that the less time I spend captive to events I am powerless to influence, the healthier I feel. Perhaps more importantly, the more energy and optimism I have to disperse into the very small corner of the world over which I do have influence.

I wish the educators at the school our friends’ children attend would take the time to learn which plants are poisonous (few, if any, most likely) and which are not (the majority, if not all, most likely) and, thus liberated from their fear of flora, would encourage their students to put their hands on as many of those plants as possible. I wish they would let them romp in the snow and not worry about the wet socks, the cold fingers, the runny noses. I wish my friends’ older son did not have to pretend he’s in a factory. I wish he didn’t even think to make that association. I wish he could live his dream for more than a half-hour on a Wednesday afternoon.

I guess what I’m saying is that yes, I think we are obligated to at the very least consider how we engage our children in national and world affairs. But I also think we have a few other obligations to take care of first.

One of These Times

August 20, 2014 § 18 Comments


We are caught in a cycle of weather so idyllic it seems almost surreal. I began chores this morning clad in a wool sweater, the late summer fog dense enough that I could feel moisture on my cheeks, an almost-rain. By the time I’d slopped the pigs, fed and watered the meat birds, and moved the cows, the rising sun had burned the dampness from my face and I’d unceremoniously shed and dropped my sweater in the middle of the pasture where, come to think of it, it still lies.

It will be September soon, and that is fine. I do not lament the end of summer anymore than I lament the beginning of fall. Both are merely points on the strange compass of time. One means tee shirts and evening dips in the pond; the other means wool sweaters and morning fires in the cookstove.

I suspect that some people view our life as being rather static, as being an unending cycle of repetition and the familiarity repetition breeds. In a way, I suppose they’re right. But strangely enough, it doesn’t really feel that way. Truth is, I’m sort of excited for the first morning fire. It’s ridiculous, really, considering how many morning fires I’ve started in my life; conservatively, I’d put the number in the 5,000 range. Five thousand fires and I still get excited about the first of the season. As you can see, I’m rather easily amused.

Not long after the first fire comes the first bale of hay, and you know what? I’m sort of looking forward to that, too. How many bales of hay have I fed out in my life? I don’t know, but I’ve definitely clocked more bales of hay fed out than fires lit. I’d guess around 10,000, plus or minus. Not enough to call myself a farmer. Not enough to brag about. Then again, not enough to have grown weary of it. It’s the smell, mostly, and I’ll tell you what that smell is if you don’t know: It’s extract of summer, that’s what it is. Feeding hay in January is the shortest, cheapest vacation a broke-ass backwoods Vermonter can take. And I get to do it every day. Twice a day, actually.

What else? The first ski, probably a lap or three around the field on a flimsy layer of early snow, the cows watching from their winter paddock in abject bewilderment. Or maybe it’s jealousy. Bewilderment, jealousy; it’s hard telling with cows. Ah, and plowing. It’s stupid, I know, but I love plowing. We have a quarter-mile driveway that’s real narrow and steep in spots. How many times have I plowed it? Shit, I don’t know. A couple hundred, probably. How many times have I gotten stuck, the boys running back to the house screaming to Penny “Papa’s stuck again! Papa’s stuck again” while I dig bare-handed with the flimsy shovel I keep in the back of the truck before retrieving the tractor in defeat? A couple dozen, probably.  Yeah, that’s coming, too, and it’ll be just like last year, only different.

Later this afternoon I’ll walk down the pasture for afternoon chores, just like I’ve done more times than I can count. I’ll do much the same as I did this morning: Slop the pigs, feed and water the meat birds, move the cows, collect the eggs, take kelp to the sheep. I’d like to think I’ll remember to grab my sweater, but there’s some precedent to suggest that I might forget it again. But that’s alright: I’m heading down that way again tomorrow. And the day after that.

I’ll get it one of these times.







The Feelings We Bring to the World

August 18, 2014 § 38 Comments

Prin and Sylvan pounding black ash. Photo by Dayna Sabatino

Prin and Sylvan pounding black ash. Photo by Dayna Sabatino

We were asleep by 8:00 last night, recovering from Saturday’s adventures, which involved driving to Freeport, Maine and home again for a free Jason Isbell concert on the LL Bean campus. The boys had been promised this outing many moons ago, back when the good folks at the Bean announced their summer line-up. As the day approached, I became trepidatious; my bones are getting a little long in the tooth for eight hour roundtrip jaunts to concerts. But the show started early and we are ginormous Isbell fans and it was free and I had promised, after all.

I know that some of you have been burned by my musical suggestions before, clicking innocently on a link only to be directed to a shaky video of some man-child with a bad haircut playing distorted riffs and screaming incessantly (sort of like this one). I’m very sorry about that. But when it comes to Jason Isbell, I implore you to give me one more chance. This guy is an unbelievably powerful songwriter, rarely if ever screams, and is furthermore exceptionally well groomed. A couple of suggestions here and here (you won’t get burned, pinky promise), although in all honesty, the guy seems incapable of writing a less-than-excellent song.

As I drove home through the clouded inky blackness of Saturday night and early Sunday morning, the boys slumped and slumbering in the back seat, Penny dozing fitfully beside me, my window cracked to administer a steady stream of invigorating air, I thought a lot about the response to the Outside article which has, in the vernacular of the era, gone viral. Call me naive (and fair enough, really), but I had no idea. First, no idea that so many people would be so interested and second, no idea that so many people would be so emotionally invested in the discussion.

Penny and her basket. Photo by Dayna Sabatino

Penny and her basket. Photo by Dayna Sabatino

In some ways, I’m glad for the response. In other ways, I wish I could just call the whole thing off. I’m glad because like so many who have read the article, I believe these issues are incredibly important and worthy of discussion. But while it’s sort of exciting to see my readership expand – I mean, really, isn’t that the point of being a published writer? To find an audience? – it’s also a little discomfiting. Our lives are generally quiet and – despite what I share here – relatively private. We have no aspirations for greater glory. Twice we have rebuffed television producers from major media outlets (BBC and National Geographic), one of whom had found my blog and wanted to film a reality show about “families who chop down trees to stay warm and stuff.”

I once said to one of my editors that I hoped the book I’d written for her didn’t take off, to which she replied with a few moments of silence (in hindsight, not the smartest thing to say to the closest thing I have to a boss other than Penny). And really, it’s not entirely true: I do want one of my books to take off, but only so much. Only so high. I want it to take off just enough that I will be granted the privilege of writing another book. I want it to take off just enough that I can continue doing what I love to do, and that for another small period of time, at least, I needn’t fret over how to pay the bills. That I can afford to keep feeding the menagerie of animals that feed us in return. That I can afford to fill the car with gas and take my family to an Isbell concert and that maybe, if we’re feeling especially flush, we can stop for ice cream on the way.

Of course, I can’t choose any of this. All I can do is keep plugging away, never really sure what will resonate and what won’t. And the truth is, the article – and the brief illumination of its spotlight – will blow over. The handful of unhappy people who’ve responded to it with vitriol will find something else to be unhappy and vitriolic about (that was another thing I was totally unprepared for, and I have to admit, it makes me kind of sad). The larger handfuls of supportive people who’ve responded with kindness and gratitude will find other things to be kind toward and grateful for.

Because I’ve seen it often enough to know it’s true: The feelings we bring to the world are the feelings the world brings to us.


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