Crisis of the Collective

June 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

I used to think that America suffers from a crisis of community. And maybe it still does. But the more I get out and about and engage with people from other communities, in vastly different and distant regions from my own, the more I’m convinced I was wrong. Indeed, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not precisely the opposite: America doesn’t suffer from a crisis of community. What it suffers from is a crisis of the collective.

Let me be clear: There are enormous challenges facing our communities (one of which might be how, exactly, we define “community.” For the sake of this post, let’s leave that definition to the people who comprise these populations. In other words, whatever you feel is your community is therefore a “community”). Consider this: The average American moves every 5.2 years. Well, jeez. How the heck do you build a durable and vibrant community when folks are picking up stakes every 60 months?

Still, I’m increasingly optimistic and energized by the stories I hear coming out of our nation’s communities. Perhaps it’s merely a reflection of my relative youth and my history of self absorption, but it sure seems to me that Americans have reached a new zenith of awareness regarding the need to preserve and invigorate community in ways both tangible (jobs, infrastructure, etc) and not so tangible (spirit, spirituality, engagement, etc).

In a way, it makes perfect sense that the “solution” to an increasingly uncertain future would sprout from the chorus of communities that form our nation. The cheap energy and easy credit glut of the past half-century or longer is in large part what has allowed us to neglect our communities. It has allowed us to ignore the fact that each is unique, with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. It has meant that we haven’t had to even think about what these strengths and weaknesses might be. It has lured us into the tsunami of globalization, and compelled us to attach every aspect of our communities to the “just-in-time-delivery” train wreck that has been so detrimental to us all. The unsettled nature of America’s people, forced to cram their foreign-made belongings into a rented UHaul every 5 years, so often in pursuit of another temporary job that is going to leave them high and dry in another half decade, is just another tragic example of this.

The unwinding of globalization in the face of credit contraction and the demise of cheap energy all but demands that our communities come to the fore. And it’s happening. It’s not easy, nor is it always obvious how, exactly, we should proceed. It is certainly not in the best interests of the corporate forces that have benefited from the erosion of community. But against these odds it is happening, even as the collective bumbles its way toward a future it will hardly recognize.




Too Far, Too Fast

June 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

I left for Oregon on a mid-day flight, scheduled so that I might have a few hours around the place before wedging myself into the canned air of a metal tube as it catapulted through the sky. This turned out to be a wise decision, as haying had gone better than expected, and we’d pulled into the barnyard with yet another wagon load at 8:00 the evening before. We threw a tarp over the whole damn thing, drank about a gallon of water each, and collapsed. The next morning, with my departure imminent, we unloaded the final 120 or so bales, moved the cows, moved the pigs, and fed the chickens. I clipped a section of pasture, splashed cold water on my face, and bolted for the airport.

I don’t much like air travel. It’s not so much the expected hassles: Cancelled flights, lost luggage, and middle seats. Rather, every time I fly, I am left feeling slightly stunned and wholly disheartened by the experience. Part of it, I think, is the sensation of having traveled too far, too fast. Air travel feels unnatural to me; what, possibly, could I have done to have earned the right to wing over the entirety of this nation in only six hours, peering through the window at the distant patchwork of land 35,000-feet below me, to a place where gravity still works just fine? I suppose travel by car is equally unnatural, but the frequency of my trips by car and truck have numbed me to this truth.

And there’s this: Flying carries with it an attendant view of airport culture which, frankly, strikes me as a particularly sad vista of contemporary America. If the offerings of the 21st century American airport are truly indicative of what we desire as traveling consumers, then… well. It’s not just the food and drink, which tells its sorry tale with every crowd gathered around every airport McDonald’s in our land. And it’s not just the proliferation of smartphones, a phenomenon that seems to have largely missed Vermont (or maybe I’m just sheltered and naive. Scratch that: I know I’m sheltered and naive), but has clearly captured the hearts, minds, and overworked thumbs of the vast majority of my fellow countrymen and women. Do strangers still talk to one another anymore? If so, only between long bouts of text messaging and whatever else one does on those things. The whole airport scene feels to me like some hollowed out version of prosperity: Everyone is wealthy and well-fed, even as everyone is poor and starving.

I know I’m being entirely unfair and overly snarky; I know that planes and airports are full of good people who lead fully realized lives. Lives that, on occasion, necessitate air travel. Perhaps the smoothed-over, salty-sweet environment of the modern airport is merely the salve we all need to help us survive the strange, almost out-of-body experience of 600-mph winged travel. Perhaps my cravings, in the Chicago O’Hare airport, for a chocolate milkshake and a large order of fries (no, I did not succumb) were the common cravings of a man set adrift, untethered and uncertain, too far beyond the boundaries of his humanness.

Tired and Traveling

June 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

1700 bales. 50-lbs per bale. Pull ‘em off the baler, stack ‘em on the wagon, throw ‘em off the wagon, stack ‘em in the barn.

170,000-pounds lifted, heaved, yanked, pushed, and pulled over the past three days, give or take 10,000 lbs.

These arms are very tired.

I will be away for the next week, and not posting. Or at least, not posting much. But I will be back.

Hay There

June 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

In about an hour, Penny and the boys and I will climb into the wooden hay wagon belonging to our friend M. The wagon will be hooked behind the square baler; the baler will be connected to M’s enormous John Deere. We’ll lurch out across the field, which spans the crest of a hilltop about a mile west of our home. And the bales will start coming, one after another after another, until we’ve collected the 1,000 or so M needs for her farm, and another 500 or so that will form a down payment on our animal’s winter feed.

Putting up square bales is hard work. M does not have a kicker, which is a contraption that launches the bales into the wagon. Instead, we pull each bale off the baler, stack it in the wagon, pull the wagon to the barn, unload and restack. Every year during haying, Penny makes milkshakes for dinner, and we drink the shakes in the truck, driving slowly down the dirt road that drops from M’s farm to the paved road that leads to our driveway. By the end of the day, which is to say by the time it’s too dark to see anything more than the faint outline of the tractor from the wagon, we feel giddy with exhaustion and the simple relief of knowing that our cows and sheep will be fed for another winter. Of all the things I love about haying (and there are many), perhaps my favorite is the knowledge that every day, all winter, I’ll be pulling apart those bales. And that every time I do, I’ll feel a sliver of that giddiness. That, and the smell, which is summer encapsulated. Feeding out hay is like feeding out little pieces of summer, and damned if I can’t taste it, too.

I used to bemoan that fact that we do not have an adequate hayfield on our 40-acres. Now, after more than a half-decade of haying with our friend, I am enormously grateful that we do not. In 21st century America, there are too few tasks that pull people together of necessity; we are fortunate to live in a community where these tasks are still part of the cultural fabric, and I try to take none of them for granted. Still, the essential nature of putting up feed for our animals, coupled with the vagaries of weather and equipment, and the simply physicality of it seem to lend haying a gravitas that outweighs all others.

Someday, with her permission, maybe I will write more about M. For now, know this: She is in her 60’s, an ex-Olympian, and loves haying at least as much as we do.

Good Wood

June 18, 2011 § 1 Comment

I think about wood a lot. That’s because we heat our home exclusively with wood; we have two stoves, one in the living room that warms the majority of the house, and one in the kitchen upon which we cook for about eight months out of the year. The kitchen stove also has a hot water jacket installed. When the stove is running, it provides about 90% of our hot water. The hot water feels the way the prize in a box of Cracker Jack used to feel when I was six: Like something extra. Like a gift.

I like wood, and I especially like working in the woods: The whump of a tree hitting the ground and the small sadness of its demise, the way a well-tuned and finely-honed saw feels in my hands, the smell of fresh cut maple or beech. It’s a sweet smell, and it mingles with the exhaust from my chainsaw, which is also strangely sweet. It’s not a very likely combination – nature and combustion – but it never fails to affect me. When I was a boy, I would help my father gather the winter’s wood. That was 30 or more years ago. The smell was the same.

We burn nearly seven cords each year, which is too much. I wish our house were smaller and tighter; I hear stories of people who heat their homes on one or two or even three cords, and I’m jealous. Or almost so. Because there is also a part of me that thinks only two cords? That doesn’t sound like much fun.

We split by hand. I love splitting wood, and it is around this time of year, when the last of the coming winter’s wood has been split and stacked, that my body feels strongest. I have one maul that I use almost exclusively; I’ve owned it for four years, which means I’ve split nearly 30 cords of wood with it. I hope it will be with me for at least another 30 cords (or even years), because the best tools are the tools that hold stories of the tasks they’ve done. The more stories, the better the tool. The better the tool, the more stories it is allowed to help write. See how that works?

One year, we borrowed a splitter from a neighbor. I was working really fast, because our neighbor sells firewood for part of his living, and needed the splitter back. I was working too fast, and threw out my back trying to load a round of beech that must’ve weighed 100-pounds. For nearly a week, I was bedridden. Penny and the boys finished with the splitter, returned it, and bought the maul.

When our friend Jim died last month, his wife gifted us their sawmill. It is an amazing gift, made all the more so for the knowledge that it was his and that it helped to build their house. Now, it will help to build our new barn. We will load it with logs – mostly fir, but some spruce and hemlock, and the occasional pine – and we will run its blade back and forth down its long metal track. The logs will become boards. The boards will become our new barn. The barn will become a piece of our life.

I think Jim would have been pleased.

Faking It

June 17, 2011 § 31 Comments

Not so long ago, I was at the home of a real farmer. I know he was a real farmer, because he told me so. The implication, I believe (though I can’t be sure) was that I am not a real farmer, because I do not earn all or even the majority of my living from a farming enterprise. For what it’s worth, this is not the first person I’ve heard articulate such a belief. Or even the third.

Leaving aside the question of why it even matters who is and who is not a real farmer, and why anyone would feel compelled to claim such a title for him or herself, I couldn’t help but ponder what factors must be present to make a farmer real.

I’m pretty sure our neighbor’s definition is income-based. That is, if you make your living “farming,” then you are a “real farmer.” Fair enough, I suppose. But I know this person’s enterprise pretty well; I know that his family purchases the vast majority of their food at a retail outlet. I know that they don’t keep a garden, or process any of the milk they produce into butter or cheese or yogurt. They don’t raise their own meat. What they do, basically, is specialize in the production of a single food (milk), which they primarily sell in bulk. This arrangement provides them with the money necessary to purchase the essentials they do not produce for themselves. This is, in his mind at least, real farming.

Last year I was at a book talk, and someone asked me how much of my income is derived from our farm. “Oh, not much,” I answered, because it’s not. Most years, it’s not much more than 15%.

“But did you include the food you grow for your family in that figure?” He asked.

Well, no, actually. I hadn’t.

Which is where this conversation gets interesting, because my family raises upwards of 80% of the food we consume. I’m not really sure how to put a dollar value on the food we raise for ourselves, because I know that in many cases, we could purchase our nourishment for much less than it costs to produce it, particularly if one is inclined to believe the lie that time is money and therefore, the time spent in pursuit of our food production could be more profitably applied elsewhere. In other cases, we couldn’t buy the food we produce for any price, because it’s simply not available on the open market.

In any case, I am struck by the irony that we seem to have arrived at a definition of “real farmer” that is rooted in money, rather than food. Frankly, it’s fine with me: I have no need nor desire to lay claim to the term “real farmer.” I am happy to cede it to those whose agricultural pursuits are based in the exchange of product for money.

What does that make me? Hell, I don’t know. And I’m not going to spend much time trying to figure it out: I’m too busy growing food.

An Unlikely Education

June 15, 2011 § 6 Comments

There are times it feels as if I know nothing. Or, if not nothing, than not enough. This happens most often in times of crisis or near-crisis: A sick animal, the tractor broken, some dysfunctional component in our solar electric system. I am not by nature overly resourceful or clever with my hands, and I often struggle to find the patience necessary to overcome these deficits.

And yet, I know I learn best when left to my own devices. I never finished high school, and although I completed my GED and a couple of half-hearted semesters of college-level learning, my formal education ended in my early teens, which is about the time I decided I’d rather hang out in the parking lot listening to Rush and Metallica, than sit in a classroom muddling my way through algebra and chemistry. I limped through until I turned 16 and could legally dropout, at which point I hauled ass out of the high school parking lot as fast as my $200 VW Rabbit could take me.

That I ended up writing for a living had little to do with what I was taught; indeed, I still struggle with basic things like, comma, placement, and whether I should be saying “he and I” or “he and me” or “me n’ her.” Fortunately, I have editors who are for the most part tolerant of my fumbling.

I am struck by this irony: I have been able to pursue writing as a career in large part because I dropped out of the formal education system, not in spite of it. If I’d finished high school, and followed the assumed path to college, I would likely have ended up with a burden of debt that would have precluded writing and farming as viable livelihoods. Which is not to say I would have wound up in a bad place; only that it would have likely been much different from so many of the factors that currently define my life.

It will probably not surprise you to hear that our boys learn outside the boundaries of the public education system. They learn primarily by doing, and by talking. Often, we read for literally hours each day, although at this time of year the primary focus is immersion in farm and nature. I believe strongly, perhaps obsessively, in reading; when I was in elementary school, I remember setting my alarm for pre-dawn, so I might have time to read in bed for a couple of hours before school. My parents knew, and encouraged it. They were wiser than I gave them credit for at the time.

Most of the time, I feel as if I know what I need to know. I have figured out how to make a living, meager at times, but almost always satisfying beyond the hard measure of dollars and cents. Crucially, it’s a living that allows me to pursue what I euphemistically term my “farming habit,” but which has clearly evolved into something far deeper than simple habit. For all of this, I am profoundly grateful. Things might have turned out much differently.

But of course my ignorance is still a bloated thing, and I often find myself admiring people who have a greater capacity to learn on the fly. Sometimes, I feel stuck in the strange niches of my expertise, unable to bend my mind around a new way of doing things, or a new skill altogether. I think about this a lot in relation to our boys, trying to figure out how I can teach them to be both independent in their thinking and learning, while remaining nimble and dogged.

They are so willing and able to learn. I just hope I’m able to teach them.



Risky Business

June 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

The E coli outbreak in Europe, coupled with last week’s release of my second book, has me thinking about food, risk, and personal responsibility as it relates to feeding ourselves.

I am struck by the fact that, broadly speaking, we seem unwilling to accept that the act of eating should carry a degree of risk. After all, we accept and even embrace risk in so many other facets of our lives. Every time we climb into a car, step into an airplane, or cross a street we place ourselves in harm’s way and face odds far more daunting than putting a forkful of calories into our mouths. We live in a society that allows us to carry handguns, smoke unfiltered cigarettes, and drink hard alcohol. Heck, all at once, if we so choose.

The question is, why are we so willing to own these hazards, even as we recoil at the suggestion that eating will never be entirely risk-free? I believe it’s the illusion of control that comes of engaging in an elective activity like driving, flying, or shooting at the beer cans we just emptied into our mouths. The key words are “engaging” and “elective,” because frankly, few of us in 21st century America are truly engaged in our food. And even fewer of us can elect to eat.

For me, it boils down to this: We have out-sourced the most life-giving, essential commerce we know to multi-national corporations that view us as profit, rather than people. We’ve been relieved of the toilsome, often tiresome work of feeding ourselves, having chosen instead to pursue lives of relative leisure and comfort. We exchange money, most often earned via a task far less backbreaking than growing food, for nourishment. Or whatever passes for nourishment in 2011.

In short, we no longer participate in the non-elective, essential commerce of food. And so we feel distanced, disconnected, and disempowered. We feel out of control. Because we are.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting we merely accept the reality of acute foodborne illness. I’m not calling for deregulation of the dominant food system. Instead, what I’m calling for is a transition from food consumption, to food participation. I’m calling for an acknowledgement of the hard truth that no matter how we choose to nourish ourselves, there will be risk. The way it is now, those risks run the gamut from contamination via pathogenic bacteria, chemicals, and drugs, to the chronic diet-related illness that kills an estimated 1,051,000 of us annually, to the simple fact that our continued survival is entirely dependent on cheap energy and convoluted supply chains that lie far beyond our influence.

Regionalizing our food systems and fighting for the right to do so will require us to acknowledge and accept that eating, like everything else we do, carries a degree of risk. As foodborne illness litigator Bill Marler likes to quip: “Just because you can shake the hand of the farmer who grew your dinner, doesn’t mean he isn’t going to poison you.”

But the chance of that happening is far slighter than all the collective risks we now face in relation to our food. The regulatory agencies that oversee our food do not believe we should have the right to choose which risks we will accept. It’s up to us to make it clear that we do.

Kids and Food

June 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

I don’t generally think of our farm in relation to our boys. This is partly because I’m selfish and therefore too busy considering my relationship to it. And it’s partly because we’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for long enough that both Fin and Rye were born into it. And, quite literally, onto it:  Both entered the world on the wide pine boards of our living room.

Increasingly, however, I find myself wondering about our boys and their relationship to their food. I am struck by the fact that at 6 and 9 years of age, they know more about growing and producing food than I knew at 25. Or maybe even 30. They definitely know more about foraging than I do even now; either can walk into pretty much any patch of forest and walk out with  hands or hat full of edibles. A few days after my morel hunting adventure, after I’d returned home and futilely scoured all the far corners of our land for mushrooms, the boys came running into the house: “Papa, papa! We found morels.” Sure enough, they had. A huge patch, about 150-feet from the front door.

I’m pretty sure that what our boys are learning will serve them well, although I must confess there are times when I worry that we’re not doing enough to prepare them for a world that seems increasingly driven by technology. They do no know how to use a computer or a smartphone; heck, we don’t even have a television. When Fin was 5, Penny took him to a kayak shop to purchase a used boat. At the shop, there was a kayaking video playing in a corner. Fin was transfixed and somewhat bewildered. “Mama,” he called. “Come look at this box. It has pictures and sound!”

I think I will not dwell on whether or not our culture and economy will find value in my boys’ land-based skills. The future will be what the future has always been: Unknowable and largely beyond our influence, however much we might like to think otherwise. I think that instead I will, with as much grace, equanimity, and honesty as possible, try to show them the richness of experience that can come of remaining connected to our land, our animals, and therefore, our food. Because I think ultimately, that’s what will serve them, no matter how they choose to apply it.

Too Much. Or Maybe Just Enough

June 8, 2011 § 7 Comments

It is that time of year when I invariably suffer from a sense of being overwhelmed. The days are longer now than at any other time of the year, and yet they still feel too short. Even awakening in the half light of 4:45 to trot from chore to chore is not enough; no matter how early I begin it, the day will end before I’m able to complete the tasks laid out before me. Move the pigs. Move the cows. Milk. Weed. Feed the chickens. Firewood. And then the call from our neighbor, telling us she’s mowed the big field and is ready for us come and put our hands on all that hay, to pull it off the baler and stack it into the lurching wagon and then to unload it into our barn and stack it all over again. Amidst all this, in fits and spurts, the paying work that makes it all possible. Or a walk with the boys in our woods, searching for something to eat: Mushrooms, nettles, wild cucumber. The boys have become devoted and skilled foragers.

Occasionally I struggle to maintain perspective, to remember that this is the life I have chosen, or perhaps has chosen me. Most days I know precisely why I do what I do. Or maybe not “know”; it’s not really an intellectual understanding, but something that pervades every facet of my being. Does that make our little farm a spiritual pursuit? I think that must be true, though I confess to being somewhat dim as to what defines spirituality. But there are also times when I feel the futility of our attempts to bring order to our lives, to live in a world where projects are completed on time. Or simply completed.

There comes a lull each summer, after the crops are planted, after the first round of weeds is thwarted, after the cows freshen and we are back into our milking routine, after the barn is full of sweet-smelling hay. It’s coming soon, in three weeks or maybe four. It comes just as the days begin to contract: The sun rising a little later and setting a few minutes earlier each day. My days will still be full and there will still be moments when my breath feels constricted by everything that needs to happen. But the spans between those moments, when each intake of air fills not just my lungs, but my whole body to the point where it feels as if I might levitate with the simple pleasure of it all, will be longer. And I will have the luxury of lingering in those moments, never more certain of my place in this world.

Where Am I?

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