Our Obligations

August 21, 2014 § 20 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 § 17 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.

Thanks and For Vonnie

August 15, 2014 § 14 Comments

Penny's got the basket bug

Penny’s got the basket bug

Just a quick note to say how much I appreciate the respectful tone of the comments on this site. Out of over 4,400 comments over the history of this blog, I can think of only a handful that lacked civility (for what it’s worth, I have never deleted a comment). That’s pretty amazing, considering that I often post about provocative issues and also considering that some of you don’t agree with me at times. Thanks for being considerate. And don’t worry: Eventually you’ll see things my way.

And for Vonnie: The secret recipe for our all-purpose wound salve. If you like this, you ought see all the good stuff we’re sharing in our upcoming Chelsea Green book. February 9 is the pub date. Now you know how long you’ll need to wait in breathless anticipation.

Ingredients and what they do:

Yarrow leaves and flowers—heals wounds

Plantain leaves—anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial

Saint-John’s-wort leaves and flowers—pain reliever

Echinacea root—anti-bacterial

Calendula flowers —anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, regenerates skin tissue

Comfrey leaves—soothes and repairs soft tissue, speeds healing, helps close open wounds, reduces pain and swelling

Place all of the herbs in a quart jar (we don’t really use a specific measurement, we just fill the jar with a mix), cover with olive oil, and cap tightly. Place the jar in a warm, sunny spot and allow it to infuse for two weeks. At the end of this period, strain the herbs (you can actually use it just like this, but an actual salve is less messy and easier to apply). Store in cool, dark place.

To make into a salve, add a quarter cup of beeswax for each cup of oil you end up with. Place the mixture over low heat until the beeswax is completely melted. If the salve seems too soft, add more beeswax; if it seems too hard, add oil. You can test the texture by placing a teaspoon in the freezer for a minute or two. When you’ve gotten the consistency right, remove from the heat and immediately pour into glass jars. If stored properly—cool and dark are the keys—it can last for years. If it’s left in the hot sun it loses its healing properties very quickly and will smell rancid.


Swim or Drift?

August 14, 2014 § 46 Comments


First, a brief correction to my fermentation post. It’s not Napa cabbage that we grow, but Bravo. Not sure where the hell Napa came from. Musta been thinking auto parts. Anyway, we like Bravo because a) it’s big, b) it’s big, and c) it’s juicy, which means it pounds out real nice and makes lots of moisture. Also, I realized my version of “loose” in regards to screwing on the jar lids might not be the same as everyone’s version of loose (what with me being so rugged and all). To be clear: Not loosey-goosey, but not mighty-tighty, either. Just somewhat less than cranked down. Then, once the initial ferment is over (again, 3 to 4 days at room temp), you can really give’r.

There. See why I’m scared to do too many how-to posts?

         •     •     •

So the story I did for Outside is getting a fair bit of play, at least judging from the number of emails I’ve received and the amount of “shares” over on Outside’s website. That’s good, I guess, though I have to admit it makes me a little uneasy. It’s funny: You get so accustomed to writing for a particular, small audience, and then when you’ve suddenly got a bigger audience, which you’ve always secretly hoped for in a way you’re half loathe to admit, you don’t really know what to think. You don’t know if it’s good or bad. If it matters.

Anyway. Over in the comments section of Outside’s site, someone left this question:

What advice would you give to families that try to homeschool or unschool and are constantly confronted with the computer issue? In a city setting, computers are everywhere.

It made me realize that I’ve never really addressed the technology issue head-on. Partly, that’s because I’m a little afraid of it. It seems to me as if there’s a lot of high emotions and defensiveness surrounding the nexus of children and digitized technology. Honestly, I think this is because most parents are immersed in it themselves, and for all the complaining they might do about its impact on their lives, they actually like being immersed in it. Or maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe it’s more that they’ve become so accustomed to being immersed in it they can no longer imagine life without it. This is not a judgment. It’s merely a theory based on personal observation.

Obviously, we have computers. Two, actually: My laptop and a “family” desktop. We have high speed internet. We listen to music on a computer and Penny manages her photos on a computer. During the winter months, or on cool, rainy evenings like last night, we watch movies on the computer, though never more than once per week. We even have a cell phone, one of those cheapo things you get when you buy the pre-paid minute plans. We have never received a call on our cell phone. I couldn’t tell you the number if you put a gun to my head. But we have it, mostly for my occasional travel.

For us, the trick is to figure out how to make these technologies captive to our needs, rather than allowing ourselves to become captive to them. I think that’s a surprising hard balance to strike, particularly in a world where these technologies are so ubiquitous. This is the aspect of modern smart phones I despise so very much: It’s all in our face all the time and we forget what it’s like to not have it in our face and we begin to use these technologies out of simple habit. And as that habit builds, it becomes something more than a habit. I won’t say addiction, though I suspect that’s possible. But I will say that we forget we don’t actually need these devices and all the information they convey. We forget that much of that information – most of it, probably – does nothing to enrich our lives. It just clutters them.

I can’t say we’ve got it all figured out. I can say that we’ve shunned certain technologies (or more accurately, certain manifestations of technology) entirely. Video games. Mobile devices (our archaic and little-used cell phone notwithstanding). We don’t have a television. There’s no GPS or DVD player in our car.

But the way I see it, our shunning is not so much a rejection as an embrace of all the things we experience in the time we’d otherwise spend engaged with these machines. I guess the way I view all this stuff is through the lens of the life I truly want to live, the one that feels most honest and healthy and fulfilling. Do I want to feel as if I am tethered to these technologies, or to the people, land, and animals around me? Maybe these things aren’t mutually exclusive, but for myself and for my sons, I’d rather not take the risk.

And I’m just now realizing that I haven’t yet answered the original question. I guess that’s because I’m not certain I have a satisfying answer, or that I’m qualified to answer. I do know that it is always more difficult to swim against the tide than to drift with it, and that’s really what the commenter is talking about, isn’t it? Do you swim, or do you drift? Or can you do some of each?

So maybe I’ll turn this one over to my readers, some of who live in cities and are maybe confronted with the same dilemma. What do you all think?

Everything Else Will Follow

August 13, 2014 § 18 Comments


A storm is blowing in, and it should be a good one. Per the established pattern of what has been perhaps the most idyllic summer I can remember, Penny and I had just been commenting how we could use a little rain. And presto! It’s like we’ve got a direct line to the big guy. Or gal, I suppose.

Summer is moving fast. Summer always moves fast, but this one seems more fleeting than usual, probably the result of cold, late spring and the inherent injustice of aging, which of course is that the less time you have left, the more quickly it seems to pass. Man. What’s up with that, anyway? How come all these damn cliches keep coming true?

Sometimes I can’t help but consider how recently it feels that Penny and I bought this land, built a house, had children. Sometimes I can’t help but extrapolate those years forward, measuring them against the sped-up clock of middle age. If it feels like only a few years ago that Fin slept on a pillow between our heads, us fretting over every gurgle and fart, how quickly might the next twelve years pass? If it feels like only a handful of years have has passed since we first stepped foot on this land, what will it feel like 18 years from now, when I think back to that idyllic summer of 2014?

It’s good, you know. I like a small sense of urgency in my life, like the energy I feel on those first chill mornings of late summer, when the intent of the coming season can no longer be denied. Or the urgency of the season’s first sap run: Get the taps in, get the buckets hung, it’s gonna run hard tomorrow. Or the small pressure of the harvest season, each crop ripening of its own accord, offering its own small window for reaping and processing.

I don’t hope for too much, but I do hope to be one of those people who always have too much to do, whose curiosities cannot fit inside one life. I see that in Penny; indeed, it’s one of the things I love so much about her. She is always pining to learn something new and to refine those skills she has learned. I admire that and I realize that the people who fascinate me most are those who are always learning. Not necessarily because they want to be smarter or more skilled or more employable, but because they’re simply interested.

I know how fortunate I am to have found a path early in my adult life that fascinates me, which is really the only person I need to worry about fascinating. But not infrequently, being fascinated means living with the understanding that one life can only accommodate so much. Truth is, I’ll never have all the skills I’d like to have. I’ll never know all the interesting people I’d like to know, hold my sons’ hands all the times I’d like to hold their hands. I’ll never eat as much homemade ice cream as I’d like to eat, though I sure as hell am gonna try.

I’m sure that as I age, there will be times when the perceived brevity of my days on this piece of ground will leave me a little breathless. A little sad. Wanting more of the very thing that can’t be bought or accumulated, but which is being spent every minute of every day. You too, of course. You ain’t getting out of it, either. Death and taxes, baby. Don’t forget it for a second.

I guess this might all sound a little morbid, but why, really? It just is, as inevitable as the first frost of autumn and the way it wilts the pasture grass and the small urgency we feel, goading us to harvest the squash, the carrots. The potatoes can wait a bit, but not too long because a harder frost is coming, driving deeper into the ground. Then snow. That’s inevitable, too, or at least I hope it is. I like snow.

There’s nothing I can do to change the perception that the seasons and years are passing ever more quickly. Not a damn thing. They’re gonna come and go and come again, and irony is, the harder I try to hold onto them, the more slippery they’re sure to become. You can’t catch that stuff no matter how hard you try. If you’re real lucky, you get those little crystalized memories, like the image I hold of the boys etched against the sky at the peak of Melvin’s pasture, pushing their bikes on the way home from driving the cows down for evening chores. Or when they used to play inside the old hollow oak above his barnyard.

So yeah, for me, at least, the trick isn’t trying to slow things down, or to flail against my own perception of time’s passage. That’s a losing battle, a foolish one. The trick is so much simpler than that. It’s the one piece of sage advice I’ll pass along to my boys on the off chance they finally recognize my wisdom and come asking: Be interested. Stay interested.

Everything else will follow.


I Wrote A Little Story

August 12, 2014 § 19 Comments

It begins like this: 

On a recent morning in early September, in a wood clapboarded house situated on a 40-acre farm just outside a small town in northern Vermont, two boys awaken. They are brothers; the older is 12 and the younger is 9, and they arise to a day that has barely emerged from the clutches of dark. It is not yet autumn, but already the air has begun to change, the soft nights of summer lengthening and chilling into the season to come. Outside the boys’ bedroom window, the grass is dew-bent and lush, the leaves on the maples just starting to turn.

School is back in session and has been for two weeks or more, but the boys are unhurried. They dress slowly, quietly: Faded and frayed thrift store camo pants. Flannel shirts. Rubber barn boots. Around their waists, leather belts affixed with knife sheaths. In each sheath, a fixed blade knife.

By 6:30, with the first rays of sun burning through the dense, ground level fog, the boys are outside. At some point in the next hour or so, a long yellow school bus will rumble past the end of the driveway that connects the farm to the town road. The bus will be full of children the boys’ age, their foreheads pressed against the window glass, gazing at the unfurling landscape, the fields and hills and forests of the small working class community they call home.

The boys will pay the bus no heed. This could be because they will be seated at the kitchen table, eating breakfast with their parents. Or it might be because they are already deep in the woods below the house, where a prolific brook trout stream sluices through a stand of balsam fir; there is an old stone bridge abutment at the stream’s edge, and the boys enjoy standing atop it, dangling fresh-dug worms into the water below. Perhaps they won’t notice the bus because they are already immersed in some project or another: Tillering a long bow of beech or black locust, or starting a fire over which to cook the quartet of brookies they’ve carried back from the stream. They heat a flat rock at the fire’s edge and the hot stone turns the fishes’ flesh milky white and flaky.

Or here’s an alternate theory: Maybe the boys will pay the bus no heed because it’s passing is meaningless to them. Maybe they have never ridden in a school bus, and maybe this is because they have never been to school. Perhaps they have not passed even a single day of their short childhoods inside the four walls of a classroom, their gaze shifting between window and clock, window and clock, counting the restless minutes and interminable hours until release.

Maybe the boys in question are actually my sons, and maybe their names are Finlay and Rye, and maybe, if my wife Penny and I get our way, they will never go to school.

Hey, a father can dream, can’t he?

You can read the rest of it here. 


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