August 22, 2011 § 4 Comments
August 19, 2011 § 2 Comments
If any of ya’ll live within spittin’ distance and would be interested in putting up some blueberries, we have opened our patch for you-pick. The price is $3/lb ($4.50/qt). The berries are all organic and whatnot, though we are not certified.
Please give us advance notice so we can hide the barrels of Round-Up.
August 19, 2011 § 4 Comments
One of the things I like about living with animals is the little stories that unfold every day.
The story of this photo goes something like this: I was moving the piglets to a fresh piece of ground. To get there, I had to cross a stream; therefore, it seemed expedient to carry the pigs, which were still just small enough to make this a not-entirely-ridiculous idea. While I was ferrying this one, I was gripped by the desire to kiss it on the snout. This proved to be an unwanted advance, hence the blood. I was sort of hoping people would ask me about the wound, but no one did. This probably explains why I’m sharing it here.
August 15, 2011 § 3 Comments
I try not to want things.
Let me put that better: I try not to want things I don’t need.
Maybe there’s an even better way to say it: I try not to want things I only want because they I want them.
Still, it is hard at times to define the line between what is a genuinely wise allocation of resources (not just my fiscal resources, but those that went into the production and distribution of the good) and what is merely wanting for wanting’s sake, with just enough gauzy rationale attached to fool myself into thinking it’s something more.
The things I want tend to be related to farm and land. For a while, I wanted a new chainsaw; the old one was of middling quality and breaking down pretty regularly, and I knew a newer, larger, pro-level saw would be pleasure to run. I held out for about a year, but eventually succumbed. I have not been sorry, but I am keenly aware that it was not, strictly speaking, a necessary purchase.
What else do I want? Right now, not much. We just got a pond, which cost enough that I probably could’ve bought a new chainsaw every year for the rest of my life, instead. It was more money than we’ve spent on any one thing since we built our house, and even if there were something else I really wanted and could soundly justify, that hole in the ground has absorbed our discretionary loot for years to come.
There’s no way to argue that a pond is a necessity, and I’m not going to try. But it somehow feels like a wise purchase, and I think it’s because there’s permanence to a pond. It will be here long after I’m not, after I’m too far gone to remember the when the boys and I went swimming in it for the first time, two days ago, with the water just starting to cover the dried-mud bottom. The boys and I jumped in, and then Penny came down, and we all splashed around in our big, expensive hole and it felt like the best damn bargain of my life.
Usually, we think really hard before we buy things; the pond has been on the list for better than a half-decade. If anything, this is truer of Penny, than me. She is as cheap as they come, not just for the sake of cheapness, but because she truly believes (as do I) that so much of what is wrong with world is rooted in mindless consumption. A decade ago, before kids, Penny and I took our bikes to the island of Tobago, where we rode and camped and ate ice cream for two weeks. I remember how on that trip she tore a hole in her favorite pair of shorts, which she’d had since high school. So already, they were at least 15 years old. In a little fishing village, she paid a dollar to have the hole patched. That patch is still there, and she still wears those shorts all the time.
I don’t know much, but I feel pretty certain of a handful of things. One of those things is that the less money I spend (and therefore, have to earn), the happier I am. Part of it is the freedom from having to earn, from the burden of debt, or even the sense of needing to maintain a certain standard of living. Once you have achieved a particular comfort level, it becomes very difficult to accept anything less. This is no different for us, with our comparatively modest lifestyle, than it is for someone living in a 6000 square-foot house and wheeling around in a Mercedes.
But I think there’s something larger at play: I think that the more we buy and consume, particularly in excess of our basic needs, the less connected we become from ourselves, others, and the world around us. All that stuff, and the hollow excitement of researching it, shopping for it, and procuring it, keeps us at arm’s length.
From time-to-time, I still find myself wanting for the sake wanting. But the more conscious I am of this tendency, the less frequently it happens. It’s like learning a new habit, or breaking an old one, and it’s not made any easier by the bombardment of sophisticated 21st century marketing that, even in Cabot, VT, is all but impossible to avoid.
What I do, if you’re wondering, is remind myself of what is truly satisfying; mushrooming with Fin and Rye, splashing in the half-full basin of our new pond, a stack of next winter’s firewood, the butts of each stick checking as it dries in the August sun.
What I do is ask myself, will this thing bring me closer to myself, my family, my community, my farm? Is the need real, or imagined?
I’m still surprised how often it’s the latter.
August 12, 2011 § 2 Comments
In the morning, early-ish, I like to walk to the end of our pasture and back. Lately, the grass has been dew-wet and too heavy for itself, so I wear rubber boots and roll up my pants. Lately, it’s been just cool enough that a flannel shirt feels right, at least for the stroll down. On the way up, I tie it around my waist or simply carry it. I like the feel of well-worn flannel in my hand.
Yesterday, listening to the noise news as I washed the evening dishes, I was struck again by the insanity of it all. The market is up. The market is down. Up, down, down, up. And suddenly the tenor has changed to one of fear, if not outright panic. What has changed?
As my walks remind me, the things that matter have not. The ground beneath my feet. The animals that meet the day with me. My family, still sleeping, under a roof that doesn’t leak. The gardens and berries, abundant to the point of absurdity.
Of course, this may not always be true. And of course, my appreciation for these things could quickly whither under the glare of other concerns. But for now, I am afforded the luxury of these appreciations. For now, these short walks remind me of what really matters, and where my true wealth lies.
August 9, 2011 § 2 Comments
A couple weeks ago, the boys and I hopped into the truck and drove a handful of miles to a small farm at the dead end of a dirt road. There, I traded $200 for a pair of chunky, copper-colored Tamworth-Old Spot cross piglets.
Piglets for $100. A few years ago, I couldn’t have imagined it, but now it’s pretty much the going rate, at least around here. Some charge a bit more, some a bit less, but $100 is pretty much dead-on average. Ten years ago, back when we first started raising pigs, the going rate was about half that. I’m almost certain we paid $40 each for our first piglets.
Now, I have no problem spending money on piglets because unlike money, a pig can be eaten. To my mind, a good chunky piglet is better than money in the bank, a truth that becomes particularly resonant when I consider that the bank doesn’t really have any of my “money.” Or, at the very least, would be hard-pressed to come up with it if more than a few percent of its depositors demanded their holdings on any given day. This is probably not the place to delve into a detailed explanation of how modern banking works, but this salient point is worthy of mention: It is highly likely, if not certain, that your bank does not hold enough cash to cover more than 10% of its deposits. Comforting, eh?
Believe it or not, there’s a direct connection between the rising price of piglets and the fact that your bank doesn’t actually have your money. This connection is what’s known as “fractional reserve banking,” and basically what it means is that banks are required to hold in cash reserves only a fraction of the value of the deposits they hold and the loans they write. When we borrow money from a bank, we tend to think that we’re borrowing the bank’s money. This is emphatically not true, as banks are allowed to loan at a rate at least 10x their cash reserves.
The obvious question is: Where does the loan “money” come from? To which the only honest answer can be: Nowhere. In essence, the lending institution creates it. Indeed, this is how most of the money in our economy is created: Not by printing, not by so-called economic stimulus, but by simple lending. And this is why our financial and political leaders will do everything within their power to stave off a credit crunch.
So what the hell does this have to do with the price of piglets? Only this: Because banks and lending institutions are the primary sources of money creation, and because money creation lays the groundwork for rising prices by flooding the market with currency and credit that must be absorbed by available goods and services, the fact is that our nation’s banking system (and that of most other nations) is directly responsible for my having to shell out 200 bucks for two piglets a few weeks back.
I am struck by this irony: It is the very worthlessness of our currency, the purchasing power of which is constantly being eroded by the leveraged means of its creation, that makes things seem expensive.
And the piglets? Why, they are doing just fine, fattening nicely on a diet of milk and woods forage. Frankly, I wouldn’t sell them for anything.
August 4, 2011 § 3 Comments
This is an essay that was published in Men’s Journal about a half-dozen years ago. I’d forgotten about it, but found it when I was searching for something else. It was fun to bump into it again.
The realtor wore high rubber shitkicker boots and drove a rust-bitten Chevy pickup. It was late in October, 1997 and raining. The maples rooted in the rich Vermont soil had shed most of their leaves, and the birches looked like tall bones against the gray of the day.
We trailed the realtor as he pushed through wild raspberry whips, looking for the barbed wire that marked the boundary lines. The land sloped gently to the southwest. It was rectangular, topped by ten acres of overgrown pasture that fell into another 30 choked with black cherry, fir, maple, poplar, oak, and spruce. Across the valley, we could see the long, low barns of dairy farms and the patchwork of fields rimmed by stonewalls and dotted with Jersey, Holstein, and Black Angus cattle. We pretended to listen to the agent’s selling points, pretended to be careful, cautious buyers, pretended, even, to be taking notes, but already, we knew. “I love it,” I hissed to Penny and she nodded furiously, her eyes as wide as the mountain views from the height of the land. We made an offer that night.
To find our place, you’ll most likely need to drive east and north. You’ll need to leave the interstate at the nation’s smallest state capital, Montpelier, and roll along the frost-heaved tarmac of Route 2 until it passes through the town of Marshfield (population 325), where you’ll take a left onto Route 215. The road is still paved, but it’s narrow, and traffic travels slowly, sharing the slim strip of pavement with wayward heifers and sputtering tractors. Five miles later, you’ll ride through Cabot (population 239) and a mile after that, just past the old farmhouse with the pond out back and the 60-foot platform the local farm boys dive from each Fourth of July, you’ll find our driveway.
Our driveway demands a leap of faith of the uninitiated: It’s long (nearly 1300-feet), and starts steep from the road. Most winter days, four-wheel-drive is mandatory. Even in summer, low slung cars risk sacrificing a muffler to its rocky crown. Visitors either love it or hate it, depending largely on whether I have to pull them up the final hill with my truck, a ritual that’s become something like sport to me. I am rarely happier than when crawling along the snowy ground, looking for a tow hook on a Volkwagen or old Volvo, the chain already wrapped around the makeshift tubular steel bumper on my idling Toyota. If it’s late at night and wine and roast meat have been consumed in quantity, well, that’s all the better.
To us, this driveway, and all it implies, encompasses much of what we love about our home. Set so far back from the road, we hardly hear the big milk trucks that occasionally rumble by. Our three-and-a-half year old son, Finlay, can romp endlessly, fearing nothing more than stubbed toes and skinned knees, which, to a three-and-a-half year old, is akin to fearing nothing. But perhaps most critically, our separation from the road and the network of power lines that trace it demands a level of self-sustenance we might never have demanded of ourselves.
Of course, we could have brought power back to our land, but it would have cost $15,000, half again what we’d paid for the entire 40-acres and, to our mid-20’s bank account, an astounding sum. Instead, we spent $1000 on a generator and, with another ten grand we’d borrowed from a wealthy friend, began building. We ordered our lumber from a local mill, and the man who delivered it took our check between the gnarled stubs of fingers only half there, the nails and first knuckles long ago lost to the saw.
It took us three weeks to raise the frame and get a roof on. When we moved in, we had no running water, no insulation, and no refrigeration. But we had power: We’d scrounged a couple of small, 55-watt photovoltaic panels and a pair of used deep cycle marine batteries, enough juice to run a pair of lights and my laptop. Not long after that, we were gifted an old propane refrigerator. With my friend Jim, I rigged up a pressure tank and hot water heater, and we were in business.
When you live off the grid, you become a worshipper of the sun on a level most people can’t appreciate. It’s not about the tan, or the simple pleasure of its warmth on your skin; you worship the sun like you worshipped the permissive father who let you steal sips from his beer on Sunday afternoons. There’s an almost giddy pleasure to be had from watching photovoltaic panels soak up free electricity, and if you get close enough to charging batteries, you can hear the water inside them bubble. It sounds a little bit like laughter.
We have two children, both boys, and both born at home. It is immensely gratifying to watch your child be born onto a floor you laid yourself, under a roof you screwed down over the course of two scalding August weekends, too scared for the height to crack beers until the light had bled from the day and the tools were put away, sweat still drying on their handles.
Our first son, Finlay, was born in January ’02. We were in the midst of turning our cabin into a house: An 18 x 32 addition, kitchen, mudroom, bedroom, second bathroom, an office for me. Radiant heat in the kitchen and bath, cherry floors, window trim, and stair treads. Full basement. More solar panels, bigger batteries. Slate tile. French doors. A pretty damn nice place, which I suppose sounds a bit arrogant, but still. It is.
We borrowed 50 grand for the foundation and materials, hired a carpenter friend to help on weekends, and put it together. It wasn’t quick, but we didn’t really care. We were having fun. The three of us (well, four: Penny was pregnant by the time we started) worked long weekend days; Penny and I would pick away at stuff during the week. We had work parties to raise beams and hang sheetrock, and by the time Fin came along, it was down to finish floors, trim, and paint.
Rye was born almost three years later, in October of ’04, in the same room as Fin. By then, the house was pretty well finished; a few rough edges here and there, but I’ve come to accept these things as part of the reshuffling of priorities that children visit upon you. We did manage to put up a small barn to shelter a sweet Jersey cow and her heifer, and we got a greenhouse up and running. Planted 100 blueberry bushes and 150 red raspberry whips, too. A half-dozen laying hens give us a half-dozen eggs each day; we eat them all and our cholesterol levels are just fine. We do a few pigs each year, in no small part because a BLT comprised of B you’ve raised, L you’ve grown from seed, and T you’ve just harvested from the garden is superior to most things on this earth, but also because one can realize an inordinate amount of pleasure from watching a happy pig root about in the soil. One of the pigs goes to our annual pig roast; the other goes into the freezer and is fondly remembered on a weekly basis.
Some people would call it homesteading, but I dislike the term. It makes me think of straw brooms sweeping dirt floors, smoky kerosene lamps, and wood cookstoves. Screw that stuff. We’ve got radiant heat and all the hot water we can handle; hell, we’ve even got DSL. We have friends who go deeper than we do, and I’m not saying they’re not happy firing up that cookstove in July, but there seems to me a certain grimness in it. Our lifestyle is by no means low maintenance, but everything we do, we do because we want to, not because it’s a piece of a bigger puzzle we’re trying to complete. We never planned this life; sometimes it seems as if everything sprang from our desire to have a piece of land big enough and private enough that we could walk out our front door naked.
I should maybe mention that we don’t have a lot of money. I’m a writer, for Christ’s sake. Penny stays home to be with the kids and tend the land. We have nice mountain and road bikes and skis and a canoe, but that’s about it. We had a tractor, a sweet little Kubota that I never tired of wheeling around, but it was costing us $300 each month, so we sold it when Fin was born. I miss it, but not as much as I don’t miss paying for it. We drive old cars. When shit breaks, we try our best to fix it. Often we fail, but often enough, we don’t. Our mortgage is almost nil, the reward for all those days we worked late enough that we had to wear headlamps so we didn’t cut our damn hands off. We have enough disposable income to go on vacation most years – Tobago, France, Spain, Switzerland, San Francisco – and put a little away toward retirement, which may or may not be any different than our life right now. I’m inclined to believe the latter.
It is not a very complicated life, and there are times I wonder if maybe we’re cheating ourselves. We could move, make more money, have more things. Maybe even do more things or, at least, do different things. But then I look down our field. I see the cows grazing, the little one kicking up her hind feet every so often. I see Fin pulling his wagon, filled with the treasures of his day: A pine cone. Strips of birch bark. A quart jar filled with blueberries. And I say screw it, push away from my desk, and go see what else we can find.