Time and Money

July 29, 2011 § 6 Comments

 

This picture is from early this summer, back when it seemed as if the cold and rain would never relent.

As a writer, I’m loathe to believe that any picture is worth 1,000 words. A hundred or two, maybe. But 1,000? Give me a break. Still, like most pictures, there’s a story to this one. And to me, that story is time.

First, look at me (the guy in the center, if you couldn’t tell). There’s something about my posture that makes me look old and hunched. Part of it is probably the way my pants are hanging off my bony ass; the other part might be the slight stoop in my shoulders. Against this, the youth gathered around me. To me, this photo is a reminder that life is a temporal game and that the shadow of mortality is never a distant companion.

And then there’s the backstory, which is rather simple and all-too-common. On the morning this picture was taken, I was feeling pressed for time. I’d rushed through chores, rushed through breakfast, and was preparing to rush to my office, where I’d rush through work, so that I might rush through chores again, and then dinner. And so on. Hell, I probably would’ve ended up rushing through sleep. But the boys really wanted to go exploring in the woods. This is something they want with great frequency and varying degrees of urgency, and on this morning my habit of refusing seemed particularly acute. So I relented, and we walked into the woods, where we spent the next hour or so prowling through the forest understory. Mostly, we looked for things to eat, but we also worked on our tree identification skills. We probably had a stick battle of sorts, but I’m not sure. That might have been on another walk. In any case, I returned from our foray in far more relaxed state of mind and body than when I embarked upon it, and that sense of relaxation stayed with me for the remainder of the day.

I have come to believe that one of the most damaging lies our culture tells itself is that “time is money.” That so many of us accept this as truth is immensely convenient for the industries supplying the under-priced crap filling our lives. If time is money, what is the value of an hour-long walk in the woods with my sons? If time is money, what is the value of a carefully tended garden, or the hats that Penny knit and which are perched on Rye’s head and mine? Are these things worth no more than whatever hourly wage rate we assign ourselves?

Money, as I am coming to learn, is merely an illusion. It is not value; it’s a symbol of value, and even it’s symbolic value is an artifice of our collective faith. In other words, money’s only real value is that we all agree it has value.

But time? Time is everything. In essence, time is life. It is limited for us all, a truth made sharper by the fact that none of us know how limited it will prove to be.

The other truth is this: It’s not just that “time is money” is a lie. Because when you really unpack it, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that money itself is a lie. And that your time is worth whatever you decide.

 

 

Stick in the Mud

July 20, 2011 § 5 Comments

We do not take regular vacations. We do not take summer vacations for all the obvious reasons: Cows to be milked, pigs to be slopped, chickens to be fed, firewood to be cut, split, and stacked, hay to be hayed, blueberries to be picked, and on and on and on. In the winter, when the farm demands least, we do not take vacations for other reasons: Wood stoves to be fed, quarter-mile driveway to be plowed, solar system to be monitored. And still, cows to be milked, chickens to be fed, and on and on and on. We also do not take vacations because, generally speaking, vacations cost more money than staying put.

A few years back, we corralled an adventurous family into the task of house-sitting during December and January. I bought an old Dodge van off Craigslist; we built a bed into the back, packed it with two months worth of staple foods, strapped kayaks and bikes onto the roof, and drove south. We spend nearly eight weeks exploring the state parks in Florida, which are stunning. We also managed to time our trip to coincide with the coldest southern winter in recent history. During our time in the Everglades, the temperature dropped to 34-degrees. Fish were dying and I was cursing. Still, the trip as a whole was splendid fun.

And yet we were ecstatic to return home. This is yet another reason we don’t take regular vacations: We just don’t feel like them. Yes, we work hard. Yes, we are busy. But it is work and busyness of our choosing. It is self-inflicted and it is satisfying and gratifying in a way that seems to build on itself and carry us until the season changes and the rhythm of our life necessarily changes. Do I get tired? Yes. Do I get frustrated? Yes. But I can honestly say that on at least nine of ten mornings I awaken excited for what the day will bring.

I realize I run the risk of sounding like a stick in the mud. And to be clear, I do enjoy seeing other parts of the world; I’ve been to Europe, Tobago, and both coasts of Canada. But the more time I spend on this land, the more connected I feel. Not just to the land, but to my family and animals, and the community around me. The more time I spend on this land, the more I feel as if the traveling I truly want to do is not of the physical kind, but of the sort that will continue to deepen these connections.

The more time I spend on this land, the more time I want to spend on this land. I’m not sure how to describe how happy this makes me.

That Smell

July 18, 2011 § 11 Comments

Over the past few weeks, I have received two emails from people asking if I’ve carefully considered my dietary path. Both suggested that perhaps I have not done adequate research into the health, environmental, and ethical impacts of consuming animal products. Both of these emails were perfectly respectful and free of rancor. For this, I am grateful.

I’m loathe to wade into a discussion or defense of my dietary choices, which are rooted in the consumption of critters and the milk they produce. Indeed, I will not. But I would like to discuss a specific subject that I feel is often missing from the debate surrounding the consumption of meat and dairy. It is a subject I’ve become rather fascinated by, and it is one that plays a key role in the day-to-day operation of our farm.

Put bluntly, that subject is shit. Or, if you’d rather, “fertility.”

When we bought our land in ’97, the pasture was thin and patchy and slowly surrendering to the forest. There were no crops being grown; no fruit trees or snaggle-toothed blueberry bushes. At the time, I was no farmer; hell, I didn’t even know enough to fake it. But our neighbor knew plenty. “You need to get some animals on that land,” he told us. “That land needs help.” I nodded my head dumbly, as if I understood exactly what he was talking about.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to skip about a dozen years and a few dozen tons of manure and note that the last time said neighbor was at our place, he swept his eyes across our pasture and gave a low whistle. “Looks pretty lush,” he said, and damned if he didn’t sound a bit jealous. The gardens were also looking (if I don’t mind saying so) pretty much splendid (clearly I don’t), and our little orchard was coming into its own. Everywhere looked verdant and abundant, in no small part because it was verdant and abundant.

There comes a time in the evolution of a food producer when he or she realizes that growing food is more involved than simply sticking seeds or saplings in the ground, yanking a few weeds, and reveling in the harvest. Because the fact is, even the best soil must be fed, and it must be fed continually. Otherwise, it quickly becomes depleted; yields suffer, as do the nutritional qualities of the food rising from it.

Now, to be sure, there are numerous ways to feed the soil. Some use cover crops (often called “green manure”) which are planted and then worked directly into the soil. We do this on our place, and it helps. But frankly, it’s simply not enough, which is why the vast majority of the fruits and vegetables we eat are grown with the aid of synthetic fertilizers that use massive amounts of natural gas to fix the nitrogen necessary for soil fertility.

There’s something else that’s rich in nitrogen, something that doesn’t require the burning of finite fuels (most often gas, but occasionally coal): Poop. Most often, this manure is produced by farm animals that also provide milk and/or meat. To the readers of this blog, the idea that farm animals have tangible value beyond flesh and dairy probably doesn’t come as a surprise. Still, I am struck by how infrequently the subject of fertility arises in discussions of vegetarianism and particularly, veganism. In a world without farm animals, just where is the fertility to grow the cereal crops these diets are based on supposed to come from? Most of these crops are what is known as “heavy feeders,” which means they demand large quantities of nitrogen and other nutrients. Without manure, the only way these crops will be grown is through massive, large scale applications of fossil fuel-derived fertilizers.

I do not mean to disparage anyone who has chosen an animal-free diet. And I certainly don’t mean to absolve the dominant meat and dairy industries for their crimes against the environment and the animals they exploit, including the two-legged variety who suffer either as employees, or as an unwitting public sickened by the products and bacteria these industries produce. But of course there’s a different way of raising meat and dairy animals, a way that through planned grazing and respect for the critters can actually heal the land. Not inconsequentially, it can provide the fertility necessary to grow the grains, vegetables, and fruit that sustain us all, whether we choose to eat meat or not.

The idea that animals should be an integral part of a healthy farm organism, not just for their meat and milk, but for their manure, seems so obvious to me that sometimes I think I’m totally missing something when I hear intelligent people speak of the sustainability of animal-free diets. So let me ask you: Am I missing something? If we were all to go vegan overnight, vastly increasing the demand for heavy feeders like legumes and grains, where would the fertility come from?

Good Enough

July 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

This is from the Summer ’11 edition of Vermont Commons. If you don’t read VT Commons, you should. 

Summer came as summer does, fast and undeniable, bringing with it the means to fill each of its days from their gauzy 5 a.m. beginnings to the exhausted, body-sore collapse into sleep. Firewood to be cut, split, and stacked, a woodshed to be built for the firewood to be stacked into, a stand of mature fir to be thinned, skidded, and sawn. Then the boards, redolent of the earthy-sweetness of fresh cut lumber, to be stickered and covered. The orchard to be pruned, the raspberries thinned and trellised, dozens of vegetable beds broadforked, weeded, and seeded. The sheep and pigs and cows turned out to pasture. Hay to be baled, bales to be loaded, thrown, stacked. And then the cows freshen and there is suddenly milk everywhere and even better, cream: To turn to butter, to cut the bitterness of strong coffee, to slurp by the cupful straight from a quart jar while standing before the open fridge in chainsaw chaps and a sweat-damp tee shirt. Fishing trips with the boys, walking downhill through the woods to the neighbor’s stream, where the brookies hide in the shadows of a tumbledown stone bridge, half or more fallen in, uncrossed for decades and perhaps even generations. Fish that dwell beneath bridges that can no longer be crossed: How apt a metaphor for 21st century America and her people.

The barely-kept secret of my life is this: For all the activities that fill each of my days, I am not very good at much of anything. Sure, I can claim basic competence on many fronts but the hard truth is, I rarely if ever do anything with excellence. It seems as if my knowledge and skills have spread like a sudden rain atop a parched land, creating a latticework of water that runs helter-skelter across the surface, never accumulating, never soaking into the thirsty earth below.

There are times I bemoan this trait and resolve to overcome it. Part of this, I’ve no doubt, is my ego speaking, acquiescing to the truth that our society does not reward the generalists. It does not celebrate mediocrity; hell, it barely tolerates it. If only I cultivated one of my half-skills until it blossomed into something more, something of exception and distinction, might I garner more praise and money? I suspect I might.

Yet I have settled on a way of life (or perhaps it has settled on me?) that is unlikely ever to tolerate specialization. The sweet, bone-satisfying work of running our little farm demands a skill set so broad and varied that true excellence – and the investment of time required to achieve it – in any single arena seems unlikely.  Or maybe that’s just my laziness talking; maybe I simply lack the mettle that would allow me to excel.

If there is any consolation, it is this: The era of specialization, fueled by the relentless extraction of finite resources and the ever-increasing debt burden of our nation, is coming to a close. A world without these excesses does not tolerate specialization in one category at the exclusion of basic competence in another; the subcontracting of life’s essentials is a luxury reserved for times of plenty.

I am learning to embrace the commonplace truth of myself. I am beginning to accept that wading in many rivers is more rewarding and arguably more practical than swimming in one. I recognize, at last, that being only ok at something – or lots of something’s – is enough. In a sense, it is it’s own skill: The unheralded talent of mediocrity. And you know what? I’m pretty damn good at it.

Debt Story

July 12, 2011 § 5 Comments

We bought our land in 1997. At the time, we were living in a tent on our friends’ land, saving our loot and waiting for the right property to present itself. I was working at a bike and ski shop, and Penny was working on a vegetable farm; over the previous handful of years, we’d managed to save about $15,000, in large part owing to summers spent camping or under the hove-in roofs of decrepit cabins we rented for $100/month.

It took us nearly a year to find the right place. It was a dispiriting year, spent trudging through swamps and logged-over stubble, trying to convince ourselves that we could make something of it. The land we eventually bought (and currently make our home and farm on) was found almost by chance, as a small for-sale-by-owner listing in a local paper. It was 40 acres, with about 10 in pasture. It was set far back off the main road. It was $30,000. It was perfect.

The bank matched our $15,000, although the interest rate was rapacious. Twelve percent, if I remember correctly. Our good friend Jerry, a fast-talking New Yorker who’d fled the city for rural Vermont with the proceeds from the taxi medallions he’d inherited and sold, lent us another ten grand with which to build a shelter. The interest rate was only slightly less insulting: ten percent. Jerry was a friend, but he wasn’t a fool.

We built what I euphemistically term a “hippie shack.” Sixteen by 32-feet, concrete piers for a foundation, a loft we accessed via an aluminum ladder and, for the first year-and-a-half or so, no running water. Another friend had gifted us three weeks of labor as a wedding present. It was enough to get the shell up and keep the rain off our heads.

By 2000, we’d paid back Jerry’s loan and convinced a different bank to loan us $50,000. This was no small feat, as our home was situated at the end of a 1300-foot driveway, and was not – nor would ever be – connected to the electrical grid. Banks aren’t really down with alt energy, but at this bank there was a family connection from way back, and he called in a favor or two and badabing, badaboom, we had our money. Or credit. Or whatever you want to call it. I remember being slightly stunned by it all; never in my life had I ever imagined I’d possess such a sum, although of course I didn’t really possess anything. It was merely numbers assigned to my name.

So we jacked up the hippie shack, poured a basement under it, along with a basement for an addition that by itself was larger than the shack. With our 50 grand, we bought materials. I took the summer off from the bike shop, and Penny starting taking three-day weekends. Our friend Bob, an experienced builder, came every weekend. By the end of summer, our shack had become a house. If you stood back far enough and squinted, you could sort of imagine what it would look like with siding and paint.

That winter, Fin was born. Appropriately enough, Penny went into labor at the lumberyard. When the midwife came (both boys were born at home), she looked around and said “you’ve got a long way to go.” I never had liked her much; I liked her even less after that. Fin’s arrival slowed our progress for a few weeks, but frankly, not as much as I’d expected. By the next summer, our house was finished enough that the bank converted our construction loan to a regular mortgage, which dropped our interest rate from 9% to 6%.

For the next six or seven years, we did everything in our power to pay off our mortgage. I have some theories regarding the genesis of this overwhelming, almost compulsive desire to absolve ourselves of debt, but they’re too complex and lengthy to get into here. Suffice to say that we eschewed many of the assumed comforts of 21st century America so that we might make double and occasionally triple payments. As such, our mortgage was paid off before either of us hit 40.

I hope this doesn’t sound self-congratulatory. I don’t mean for it to. But as I embark on my quest to better understand money and debt and austerity, I can’t help but reflect on my own history with these things. For as long as I remember, I’ve felt compelled to avoid debt, although obviously I haven’t avoided it entirely, and I’m extraordinarily grateful that we bought and built when we did, pre-real estate bubble. Even now, prices are at least double what we paid. There’s simply no way we could do now what we did then without a much greater debt burden.

For the most part, I think, I’ve avoided debt because I’m lazy. That is, one can draw a fairly straight line between having debt, to servicing debt, to working in order to earn the money to service the debt. It’s always seemed to me that the best place to shift that trajectory is at the outset: No debt = no need to service debt = not having to work to service the debt. It’s pretty simple, really, although I have to admit there were times – particularly when shivering through cold-water sponge baths in those pre-running water days – when it felt anything but.

Anyhow. Long enough. That’s part of my debt story. If you’re inclined, please share yours.

The Value of Money

July 11, 2011 § 3 Comments

Currently, I’m working on a book about money, austerity, faith, and expectations. It’s probably about more than that, but I’ve only just begun. The older I get, the longer these things take to reveal themselves.

I’ve become fascinated by how our money system works. Or, as the case may be (and probably is, at least for the vast majority of us), how it doesn’t work. Much of this fascination has stemmed from a realization I had a year or so ago, when I was thinking about why there are so many challenges faced by advocates and activists of food system and economic relocalization.

My assumption had always been that the primary impediment to healthy, regional ag and food systems is the dominant industrial food system; after all, it’s what sets our cost expectations at a false bottom (I say “false,” because of course the price tag attached to commodity ingredients and the processed food-like substances made from them don’t account for the externalized costs that are so myriad and large, they’re almost impossible to calculate). And it’s what serves up more than 1,000,000 diet-related deaths annually.

But if it were merely the dominant food system we were up against, it wouldn’t be so darn difficult to regionalize food production and distribution. It wouldn’t necessarily be a piece of local, organic, free-range cake, but it neither would it sometimes feel like pushing round bales uphill (for those of you who’ve never had the pleasure, round bales typically weigh better than 1,000-lbs).

Why, then, does something that makes so much sense from so many vantage points – health, economic, environmental, to name but a few – require such a Herculean effort? Because we’re not simply up against an industrial food system; we’re up against an industrial money system.

It is striking to me how large of a role money plays in all of our lives and how, like the vast majority of the food produced in this country, its creation is entirely hidden from view. Most of us think of money as bills and coins, but the truth is, the overwhelming majority of our “money” exists in the form of loans against the future. In other words, in the 21st century economy, money and credit are interchangeable. If you’ve ever wondered why our government goes to such lengths to prop up our nation’s banks, this is your answer. If they fail, credit fails. If credit fails, it all comes down.

Like our dominant food system, our dominant money system is complex, convoluted, and offers only an illusion of substance. It is also fraught with vulnerabilities. As I immerse myself more thoroughly in my reporting, I’ll continue posting on issues of money and austerity. Unless you ask me really nicely not to.

Still Faking It

July 5, 2011 § 8 Comments

So Jenna went and blew up my blog with a 20-fold increase in hits (which lasted about a day-and-a-half; ya’ll come back now, hear?) by posting a teaser of my little missive Faking It. And I thank her for that.

But I’m equally thankful for the lode of thoughtful comments relating to the post. Which is in large part what’s compelling me to revisit the issue now.

As some of you may remember, Faking It was a reflection on how we, as a culture, define a “real farmer.” In short, I was struck by a short conversation I’d had with a dairy farming neighbor, and by how it seems as if our cultural definition of “farmer” (or at least the “real” variety) has at least as much to do with money, as it does the production of food.

I do not know if I do or should qualify for real farmer status or not. In my neighbor’s eyes, I don’t and probably never will. There was a time in my life, and not so long ago, that I might have felt compelled to defend the title, to prove that just because we do not earn the bulk of our living via agricultural pursuits, we are indeed real farmers. Frankly, I no longer care.

This is not capitulation. Nor is it apathy. Rather, it’s the realization that my life has unfolded in such varied and unexpected ways that I’m not comfortable defining myself by a single pursuit. Yes, I am a farmer, or at least partly so. But I am also a writer, a father, a husband, a son, and a brother. I am a bad guitar player and a lover of music. I’m a friend, or at least I try to be. I am not any one of these things; rather, they are all me. Human parts of a human sum, with each part playing a lesser or greater role depending on season, mood, and general circumstances.

It is true that I do not believe money should have much to do with how we define ourselves, to the extent we seek to do so. I write for money; does that make me any more of a writer than those who do not earn their living via the written word? I think not. Indeed, I believe it’s entirely possible that someone who has the discipline and drive to write in the absence of monetary remuneration is more a writer than am I, for what could be more real than being gripped by something so firmly and deeply that you do it without expectation of repayment? When we strip away the extraneous – the recognition, the money, the ego that is fed by each – that’s when we get real.

I am approaching my 40th birthday. I’d like to think that such milestones do not matter to me, and that I am above concerns such as worrying that my life is probably half over. But lately, I feel vulnerable to this knowledge. It lurks in the back of my mind as a reminder that no matter how others define me – hell, how I define myself – the only “real” thing about me is that I am human, with all the weaknesses and mortality that implies.

To be sure, the rest of it – the farming, the family, the writing, the fanaticism for early Rush – is more than mere window dressing. But none of it matters because I’ve laid claim to it. Rather, I think it is entirely the opposite: It matters because it’s laid claim to me.

Where Am I?

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