September 18, 2014 § 18 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.
September 8, 2014 § 2 Comments
September 8, 2014 § 36 Comments
Last night our friend Bob stopped by, carrying the two major summer food groups: Beer and ice cream. The boys dug into the ice cream while Bob and Penny and I chatted in the kitchen, then Bob and I took up our beers and strolled outside into the late day sun. It was as nice a late summer afternoon as I can remember, the sun mellowed by the approach of fall, everything soft and lush and fertile. The cows were grazing down the field, the windmill spun lazily, and we could see across the valley to Morgan’s farm, where his 60-odd girls were busy getting their udders drained.
Bob is the fellow who helped us build the addition onto our original cabin. He’s a good builder; been a builder all his adult life, mostly working 6 or 7 days a week. That was how it was when he worked with us: He’d work his usual 40 hour, Monday-Friday gig, then come work with Penny and me on weekends. I think he charged us $22/hour. Maybe it was $23. This was 13 years ago, but still. He worked pretty cheap.
We had fun building this place. We really did. Other than the time I fell down the open stairwell and was nearly smote by the staging plank that followed in my descending path (close call, that one), I can’t remember ever feeling particularly stressed. Penny and I were so accustomed to living in sub-standard conditions that we didn’t mind inhabiting a construction zone in the least. Why, just a couple years earlier, we’d been living in a tent on friends’ land, saving our meager wages toward this property. I was making $8/hour at the time; Penny might actually have been making a bit more than that. $9, maybe. We saved $15,000 on those wages, in no small part because we stayed in that tent until early December, until the first snow threatened to collapse it on top of us. Then we moved from the tent into a hovel of a cabin with no running water for which we paid a $600 lump sum for 6 months of rent. So yeah, living in the midst of saws and sawdust and construction detritus didn’t bother us in the least. For one thing, they were our saws. It was our sawdust. For another, we’d framed the roof of sturdy 2 x 10’s, on a 12/12 pitch. There would be no snow-related collapse. And we had running water. For a good while it only ran cold, but still: Running water. Imagine that.
I don’t know why I got to thinking about all this. Partly because of Bob’s visit, of course. But I think also because I felt a little irked by one of NPR Audie’s questions about privilege. And maybe the reason I was irked is because it wasn’t the first time someone’s asked that question, which I suppose is meant to underscore the fact that not everyone can choose what we have chosen: To work at home. To be with our children. To experience the million and one other pleasures of our small lives on this land. I guess that in becoming something of a spokesperson for this way of life, it has become my duty to explain how it can work for everyone. Or at the very least, to apologize for the fact that we’ve been fortunate enough to make it work for ourselves.
Anyone who’s read this space for any length of time knows damn well that we consider ourselves enormously privileged. And when privilege has failed us, good fortune has often stepped in. You will never hear me say anything other than I have been one of the most privileged, luckiest fools to walk this great, green earth. Penny feels exactly the same. But I’m starting to wonder if the next time someone asks me about privilege and what I think about the fact that not everyone can emulate our path, I might mention that tent and the way its roof sagged under snow. I might mention heating water on the wood stove for sponge baths. I might mention selling our car for $600 so we could buy a truck for $200, in part to haul building materials and in part to pocket the cash difference.
Or maybe I won’t. Because the funny truth is, we consider ourselves pretty lucky to have had these experiences, too.
September 5, 2014 § 54 Comments
By-the-by, I updated my appearances page to reflect some upcoming events. I’ll be adding more shortly.
The first thing I did this morning was make and drink a cup of coffee. The second thing I did was move the cows to a day paddock and after I did that, I stood in the middle of the not-still-dark-but-not-yet-light pasture just listening to them chew. I love the sound of cows dipping into fresh grass. There’s a rhythm to it, a metronomic contentment that I find enormously relaxing. This morning I had the crazy idea of inventing a white noise machine with the sound of cows chewing. Hell, I could go to sleep to that (then again, I can go to sleep to pretty much anything, so perhaps that’s not the best litmus test). Funny thing is, I bet it’d actually sell.
As I finished chores, I was thinking about a couple of Jeff’s comments in recent days. Jeff seems to have ruffled a few folks, judging from the private emails I got. Me, I don’t mind so much, and particularly because I get the feeling the guy actually cares. He’s not just trying to wind me up. Furthermore, I don’t write the things I write expecting everyone to agree with me. I do not mind dissent, though I’m not big on vitriol. But so far, at least, that hasn’t been an issue.
Anyway, for those that missed it, Jeff’s comments are organized around the idea that perhaps Penny and I aren’t doing an adequate job of preparing Fin and Rye for the “real world.” As he writes “the real world” is unforgiving under the best of conditions and more so for the unprepared. In another comment, he says I sincerely hope that, when you have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, the choices that you make for Fin and Rye will have worked out in their best interests.
I should first say that I simply disagree that my sons’ atypical education isn’t preparing them for the so-called “real world” which, as Jeff and I agree, is an occasionally unforgiving place. Maybe you could even scratch “occasionally.” I actually have a high degree of confidence that immersion learning is precisely the best preparation for the “real world” simply because it fosters a degree of resourcefulness, self-confidence, and self-awareness that I believe is too often uncultivated by standardized curricula.
But that’s not really what I want to talk about. Indeed, it’s not what I really hope or intend for my boys – that they’re optimized to compete in the dog-eat-dog economy and social structure of the “real world.” As I started to write to Jeff in a reply to one of his comments, I believe strongly (dare I say passionately?) that the best antidote to the oft-unforgiving nature of the “real world” is to raise children who come into that world as compassionate adults. Who, in some small (or maybe even large) way, erode a fraction of its unforgiving nature. Who do not feel compelled to compete in the snarling pack of humanity for whatever scraps of wealth and resources they can glean. Yeah, that’s a little hyperbolic, but you get my point.
I think one of the reasons Penny and I have so much confidence in our path is because we have been incredibly fortunate to know and become close to people who chosen to live as antidotes to the unforgiveness Jeff writes of. I think of Nate, whose mark on this earth is as compassionate and humble as any I know. I think of Erik and his devotion to connecting children with the wild and how he holds that devotion above all else, including making what most would consider a livable income. I think of Jimmy and Sara, who work hard and long, with a degree of good humor and integrity that inspires me no end. I think of many others.
I wonder if some of the skepticism regarding our educational choices is rooted in the fact that many Americans are not so fortunate to live in a community where there remains a reverence for the natural world and where so many people have figured out how to live meaningful and prosperous lives largely (though not entirely, of course: None of us are separate) beyond the boundaries of the unforgiving world Jeff writes of. Where someone can be a laborer or a farmer or a logger and be treated with the same respect as a doctor or a software developer. Perhaps even with more respect. I’m not saying northern Vermont is the only place this is true, but it is one place it is true and I suspect it is why when someone leaves a comment to my Outside article about how the only occupation my sons will ever be qualified to hold is that of subsistence farmer or ditch digger, I think to myself well, ok. I think better to dig ditches with dignity than to sell one’s compassion down the road. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but you get my point.
I guess what I’m saying is, it’s sort of hard to understand how my children might prosper in the unforgiving “real world” if unforgiveness is primarily what one sees around them. I’m not sure if this is the case with Jeff; truthfully, I sort of get the sense it’s not. I think he sees what I’m talking about.
He might just not quite believe it yet.