December 6, 2013 § 7 Comments
Penny’s camera recently suffered a terminal injury, so until we muster enough scratch for a replacement, you’re stuck with old-stock pics of cows looking at you crazy, as Eumaeus so delightfully put it a while back.
Yesterday, Penny took the boys up to northern(er) Vermont, to where Nate has erected his self-built wall tent on 1,000-acres of land upon which he has procured trapping and hunting privileges. He is intending to stay for many months, living off snowshoe hares and the flesh of the beavers he traps. He has a friend staying with him, but there was just enough room in the tent for the fellas to join them for a night.
The boys were ecstatic to be invited. Of course. Within minutes of his call, they’d filled their pack baskets: Hatchets and spare longjohns and rolled up sheepskins to sleep on and who knows what else. Penny sent along some milk and a blueberry cake, which I suspect will go down right good after a dinner of stewed beaver haunch.
It’s strange not having the guys here. One of the things about the way we parent and live in general is that the four of us spend an awful lot of time together. This is by design. But I will admit to a few panicky moments last night, as Penny and I talked what our lives will look like after the boys have up and left. For so many years, they have been the focal point of our lives, and it’s a little frightening to imagine their absence. I suspect we’re not unique in this regard, although I do wonder if the simple fact of how much time we pass in their company makes us even more susceptible to the emotional turbulence that remains in space they leave in their wake.
Ah, well. So it goes. For the time being, we’re just enormously grateful that our sons are being offered such opportunities. To spend a night with their trapping mentor, out on the land, in a tent he made with his own hands… it is their version of a trip to Disneyland, or meeting a favorite sports superstar, or being invited to jam with Eddie Van Halen. Wait a second… that’s my dream.
In any event, the boys will be back home in a few hours, and our lives will be returned to their chaotic norm. And thank goodness for that.
December 4, 2013 § 17 Comments
The boys got their first knives when they were four. This wasn’t because four is some sort of magic number at which a child should be outfitted with a five-inch wedge of honed steel; around here, responsibility doesn’t have birthdays. It just so happened that four was the age they both demonstrated the dexterity and judgment Penny and I deemed necessary to safely handle a knife.
I know from the reaction we got (and still get) from other parents that the notion of a four-year-old’s soft palm wrapped around the handle of a belt knife was unsettling. I should point out that we didn’t just hand the boys their respective knives and cut (ha!) them loose. Their knives came with instructions for use and, for a time, with supervision. Still, it wasn’t long before Fin and Rye were granted full autonomy over the use and care of their cutting tools. Have my sons cut themselves on their knives? Hell, yes. Many times, though thankfully, never any more seriously than a bandage could remedy.
How protective should we be of our children? And I don’t mean just Penny and me, but all parents. It often seems to me that parents are at once too protective and not protective enough, that having been socialized to accept certain risks but not others, we shortchange our children’s sense of responsibility and confidence by “protecting” them from the tools and activities that build these very qualities. Of course, that shortchanging is itself dangerous, and even more so because the danger is abstract. It does not result in blood or tears or broken bones, and therefore, it is easy to pretend it does not exist.
We cannot expect our children to trust in themselves if we do not trust in them ourselves. We cannot expect them to gain confidence if we do not grant them the opportunity to gain that confidence. We cannot expect them to demonstrate responsibility if we don’t give them something to be responsible about. It’s that friggin’ simple.
The other day, I watched while Rye cut down a red maple tree for his sugar wood stash. Already, he’s got a good pile going, stacked and under cover, drying for the season to come. Anyway, he dropped the tree with his axe, and as I watched him land swing after swing with remarkable accuracy, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must feel like for a barely-9-year-old to have such mastery over a tool. I know the satisfaction it gives me to wield these implements with something approaching grace, and the thought of my child experiencing even a fraction of that satisfaction filled me with happiness beyond words.
In the new issue of Taproot I have a story about the purchase of Fin and Rye’s first gun and, by extension, about the danger of protecting our children from risk. Or perceived risk. At the risk of coming across as more self-important than I actually feel, I will conclude by quoting my own article:
You may not live on a farm, or in the country. You may never be comfortable with the notion of your children firing a gun. That is ok. But what I urge you to do is find ways for your children to be useful. Find ways to expose them to meaningful risk. Not risk for risk’s sake, but with a purpose. Get them a knife and teach them to carve with it. Show them how to build a fire, and cook something over it. Allow them the freedom to wander in the woods, or to climb high into a tree to pick the sweetest apples. If you do not know how properly use and maintain a knife, learn with your child. If you do not know how to safely build and extinguish a fire, learn with your child. If you do not feel comfortable sending them into the woods, go with your child. Because the truth is, most of us are starved for these experiences, too.
Know that yes, your children may fall. Yes, they might become bruised, or even break a bone. Know that they could bleed and cry. But also know that exposing your children to the possibility of these visible, visceral wounds does something else: It protects them from wounds you cannot see. You cannot see them because they damage the spirit. And that’s a risk no child should have to face.
December 2, 2013 § 10 Comments
The other evening, the four of us watched a Bill Moyers interview with Wendell Berry. It’s a bit of an ordeal to watch anything on a screen in our house; we have an old computer set up in the corner of our living room, which Penny uses for photo-related stuff and which the boys listen to music on, but to actually sit comfortably in front of it requires wholesale rearrangement of furniture. The overstuffed chair/dog bed must be slid to one side, the other overstuffed chair/cat bed must be slid to the other side, and the old sofa/dogandcatbed must be pushed across the floor until it is within general proximity of the computer. This is all ok by us; frankly, we’d rather it weren’t particularly convenient to avail ourselves of passive entertainment in this house, and there is the small compensation of all the long-lost items revealed by said rearrangement.
Anyway and whatnot. I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of Wendell Berry. I realize this puts me at risk of sacrificing whatever so-called sustainable agrarian credentials I might have cultivated over the years, but there you have it. It’s not like the man’s not a genius, or that I fundamentally disagree with anything he has to say. And what little of his poetry and fiction I’ve been exposed to, I’ve quite enjoyed. But I’ve always had a hard time with his essays. I’ve just never found them that compelling or readable.
The interview was at once mildly disappointing and fantastic. The disappointment was not for anything Wendell said or didn’t say, but rather, I think, due to the format of a made-for-television experience. It was clearly edited with a heavy hand to fit the boundaries of a particular time slot and to add some visual intrigue. But the overlays of the earnest audience member faces, awash in a soft, honeyed glow as they listened attentively and then in some post-production bit of magic, overlaid atop Wendell’s written words as he read from the text, were a bit much. Myself, I woulda rather they just let the man talk.I woulda rather just watched Wendell. He has such a wonderfully open and expressive face.
The interview also made me want to give some of Wendell’s essays another shot. He’s an enormously endearing fellow and in person, at least, dispenses his wisdom in a way that radiates humility and grace. If you can watch that interview and not feel as if you simply like the guy, not feel inspired to radiate a bit more humility and grace your own bad self… well, I don’t even know what to say. You’re probably one of those miserably unsentimental hard asses who’s not moved to tears by this song.
There was much of what Wendell said that lends itself to discussion, but the thing that really caught Penny’s and my ear was his comment on making a living. “Making a living isn’t about making a killing. It’s about having enough,” is what he said, or close enough to it.
Penny and I talk about this all the time. The question I have for Wendell, the question I would dearly love to ask him if I only I could, is this: What is enough? Because this is the other thing Penny and I talk about frequently: How do we decide what enough is? In many cases, I suspect, we don’t have enough. We certainly don’t have enough money saved to ensure we could weather any one of the numerous setbacks that may at some point befall us, be they health-related, job-related, or some unforeseeable contingency. We certainly don’t have enough to feel entirely confident that we will be able to live out our old age in the modest standard of living to which we’ve become accustomed.
But in so many other regards, we have much more than enough. We own 40-acres and a spacious home and we have more autonomy over our days than almost anyone I know. We have a truck and a car and a tractor and a computer upon which to watch a Wendell Berry interview. We have four freezers filled by the good, sweet work of our own hands. We have the company of our children, our friends, our family. We have more than so many. We could, in many regards, do just fine with less.
I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m being too hard on Wendell. I don’t think it’s his responsibility to define “enough” for me, any more than it’s my responsibility to define “enough” for anyone else.
I just think it’d be a really interesting conversation.
November 30, 2013 § 6 Comments
Zero degrees this morning, the temperature of nothingness, thermometer flatlined, the gateway to true cold. I milked while Penny fed out, tucking my bare fingers into my pockets every few dozen squirts or so, trying to stay ahead of the pain. Out of nowhere, I was visited by the memory of Fin as a young boy, how he’d come into the barn on cold mornings to warm his hands in the downy juncture of Apple’s leg and body. Her “armpit,” he called it.
After chores, I took the boys to check their traps; they’re trolling for muskrat in the river down on the flats. For 45 minutes, I stood in the sun and watched as they chopped holes in the ice, dunking their bare hands to retrieve and set traps. They do this every single morning, and far more often than not, the traps are empty. This does not seem to phase them. Their enthusiasm remains high.
Honestly, I did not expect such perseverance from my sons. It’s been six weeks since trapping season opened, and they have yet to miss a day. Not a single friggin’ day. As I stood there shivering and stomping my feet and swinging my arms and trying to stop myself from asking the fellas to hurry the hell up, I considered my sons’ commitment and I thought about how often I draw inspiration from them. And then I thought (and I was recalling yesterday’s post as I did so) now, there’s something to be thankful for.
So: Thanks, guys.
November 29, 2013 § 6 Comments
Four degrees this morning, the coldest one yet this season, and the snow creaked under my feet as I made my rounds. The cows’ water was frozen solid, so I tipped the trough on its side and stomped it until my foot hurt and most of the ice had been dislodged. All night, the beasts exhalations had frozen to the hairs along the sides of their faces, and the morning sun illuminated the icy tendrils of their very breath, like some essential truth revealed.
Thanksgiving was quiet, but good. Over the past few years, our home has become something of a repository for friends who for varying reasons have no other place to go for the holiday. But this year, for our own varying reasons, we kept it small: My parents, Penny’s parents, Melvin and Janet. And although I missed the boisterousness of prior years (me being a fan of boisterousness and all), there was something decidedly relaxing about the gathering that imbued me with a sense of knowing precisely how I fit into this world. That’s a little vague, I realize, but I guess I’m not sure how else to say it.
I don’t think I’m very good at gratitude. Or perhaps I’m just not good at expressing it. The other night, at the Rural Vermont story-telling event, a woman told the story of slaughtering one of her lambs, and of how she lay the animal down and chanted and cried and felt such deep thankfulness for the creature’s gift of meat and life. To be honest, I felt a little jealous. It must be a beautiful thing to feel such tenderness and reverence.
But despite being such a coarse, ungrateful clod, I sure do like Thanksgiving. I like cleaning the house in anticipation of guests (darn good thing we have guests from time-to-time, or this place would really go to the dogs), I like cooking with Penny in the hours before the meal, I like gathering around the kitchen and chatting with our parents and neighbors while I feed the cook stove and do the dance necessitated by cooking on wood, and I sure do like eating. We had beef and lamb this year, both of which were born and died on this little piece of land, and they were quite delicious, thank you very much.
So yeah, I like all these things and I suppose, if pressed, I might even say I’m thankful for them. And it occurs to me that perhaps a big part of being thankful is simply acknowledging all those things which grant us a sense of knowing how we fit into this world.
Huh. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
November 27, 2013 § 14 Comments
My birthday was on Saturday, and it was a good day. Rye and I got up early to go deer hunting, a two-hour ramble through our woods and into Melvin’s back pasture. We didn’t see anything, and we probably should have found a likely spot and sat with our backs against a tree or stonewall, but that’s not what we wanted to do. It was cold and the walking felt nice, the exertion pushing blood into our cheeks, where it bloomed tiny roses. We stopped down at the barn to chat with Melvin and Janet and then we walked back across the fields to breakfast.
We don’t make a big deal over birthdays. We decided, many years ago, to keep them small and simple. If there were to be any gifts of all, they would be of our own hands or the passing along of some natural curiosity or another. For this birthday, my 42nd, Fin made me a knife sheath from a piece of hide once worn by our steer, Cinco. My belt knife – the blade forged by a local blacksmith, the handle I carved from a piece of spalted maple – fits it perfectly. Penny made me hat hook from a piece of birch root. Oh, and a cheesecake. Rye drew me a picture of our dog, Daisy, superimposed over a heart. My fawning over Daisy, who is as noble, regal, and loyal a hound as has ever strode this good Earth, is something of a family joke.
I do not mind growing older. Part of this is because my physical capacities and my general capabilities are still on the increase. At 42, I am more able than I was at 32, and damned if I don’t see any reason why I won’t be able to say the same at 52. At some point, of course, I will cross the inevitable divide between this improvement and the decline of my physical and perhaps mental being. So be it. It is only natural.
As I get older, I’ve begun to draw a certain quiet inspiration from some of the elders around me. Invariably, I am drawn to those whose lives are not easy, who – whether by choice or circumstance – are at 70 doing much the same as they did at 40. I suspect this is merely a projection of what I wish for myself, but then, isn’t that really what all inspiration is?
It is not hard for me to imagine being old, although I’m sure there will be many surprises, some of which are likely to be unpleasant. But for now, I have the luxury of believing a particular image I hold in my head, of myself walking back across the field in the early morning, much the way I do now. Penny is moving along the cow path at the height of the land, on her way to collect the animals for morning milking, much as she does now. And the boys? Whatever stories they write with their lives are not mine to imagine.
It may seem ridiculous to project like this; it may seem like hubris to assume that, 30 years from now, Penny and I will still be moving across this land the same way we do now. Perhaps it is. But I’ve been around long enough to know that in two or three decades, I’ll look back to the year I turned 42, the same year I first went deer hunting with my sons, the same year my older boy made me the knife sheath that still hangs from my belt, and all those intervening birthdays will disappear. They will be like nothing, a sliver of time that in its passing has become as impossible to hold as smoke from a fire.
This too is only natural. It is the way of things. It is a good, even, because if nothing else it serves as a reminder that all our lives are fleeting things. As such, we might as well live them the best way we know how.
November 22, 2013 § 11 Comments
Crikey, almost forgot: I’ll be emceeing and telling a story at Rural Vermont’s Black Market Bounty Storytelling and Potluck event this Sunday in Montpeculiar. Come on down!
This morning we awoke to an uncommitted snow, just enough to soften the air and lend a milky haze to everything. I walked up to the barn in a fine mood, whistling tunelessly, the small flakes melting into my skin as quickly as they landed. I love the austere dullness of November, the gradations of color reduced to slim subtleties, beauty defined as much by what is absent, as by what is present.
I am working hard these days, or at least hard as I define it, which means I’m spending the bulk of my time at my desk and very little time out-of-doors, engaged in some brute task or another. My body and mind reject this schedule; both feel at once balky and mushy. It’s funny, but I’ve come to understand that my brain is better exercised by physical labor than by the focused thought necessitated by my paying work.
No complaints. This is merely one of those phases every self-employed person goes through from time-to-time and, as I am fond of saying, “it sure as hell beats working for a living.” Times like these, when I get a sort-of taste of what it is like to be confined to a desk for 40-hours each week, I am particularly thankful for the routine of chores, for the unrelenting needs of the animals under our care. They draw me up and out each and every morning, and again each and every afternoon. They suffer no excuses, and they respect no deadlines but those imposed by their need for food and water.
In a way, I see how our animals’ lives are as uncomplicated and austerely perfect as this very month. Maybe that’s what I love about these creatures so much; maybe that’s what I love about November so much. They’re both a reminder of how little we really need, of how simple life can be, if only we just let it.