January 26, 2012 § 7 Comments
I have been thinking lately about how inexorably I have become connected to our land and home and how clearly it has shaped me in ways I could never have imagined. This on the heels of a short essay I wrote for an about-to-be-launched quarterly, ad-free journal that celebrates place-based living. It’s called Taproot. I’ve seen pre-production mock-ups and it looks fantastic.
Anyway. We bought this land nearly 15 years ago, and have lived here for 14 of those years; the first summer was spent in a frenzy of hammer and saw, erecting the humble cabin that has since been expanded in our pursuit of the too-large house. It sat on concrete piers, some of which, owing to the slope of the cabin site, rose a full 4-feet out of the ground. This was far beyond the design parameters of such a foundation, and on windy nights, those piers swayed back-and-forth, back-and-forth. It was like being in a cradle.
Both boys were born at home, on the same shiplap pine floor Penny and I nailed down in one frenzied October day. I can point out, within an inch or two, the precise spot where each of the boys took their first breaths. Back then, the boards were still shiny and smooth; the wood has since become dinged and tarnished with use, and to be honest, I like it better now. The pine was originally intended to serve as a subfloor; we planned to eventually install a finish floor over it. Eventually is a fairly open-ended concept, so perhaps it will still happen. But I pretty much doubt it.
Everywhere I look, I see our imprint on this land: House, barn, pond, greenhouses, blueberries, the pasture we cleared a couple years back. Not long ago, a pilot friend emailed some photos he’d taken of our land from the air and I have to say, it was a bit shocking. I’m still not sure if the pictures imbue me with a sense of accomplishment, or mild horror at the profound impact we’ve had on this piece of land. It’s a little of each, I guess.
What’s harder to see is the imprint this place has made on me, and I sometimes wonder what aspects of my life have been defined by this – and no other – piece of land. I’m not much of a second-guesser, but if I was, I suppose another way to put that would be: How might my life have ended up differently if I’d wound up somewhere else?
There’s no satisfactory answer to such a question, and I’m not really interested in an answer, anyway. I only know what I feel: That I am tied to this place, that I understand its nooks and crannies better than any other place on this earth, and that the better I understand them, the more I appreciate them. That the more I’m here, the more I want to be here. That if I am blessed enough to have my physical life come to a natural conclusion, I wish it to conclude here. That someday, I hope to be lowered into the soil upon which I’ve trod so many times, to give back just a little of what it’s given me.
January 17, 2012 § 2 Comments
We do chores twice each day, seven days each week, 365 days each year. Where we live, there’s nothing unusual about this; many of our neighbors adhere to similar schedules, and have for a half-century or more. I sometimes wonder what it’s like to have spent nearly a lifetime doing chores twice daily, to have the patterns of this work as engrained in body and mind as sleep or wakefulness. I suppose someday I’ll know.
I think of chores the way I suspect some people think of a practice – meditation, or yoga, or prayer. Maybe aikido or a musical instrument. Chores are physical, and frankly don’t require great skill, but they’re also emotional, intuitive and, I think, somehow artistic. I find this to be particularly true of chores that involve animals, which most of ours do.
I get up most days around 5:00 or 5:30. I do not set an alarm. In the summer, when it’s light or near enough so, I head straight outside. This time of year, I start fires, make a cup of coffee, sit for awhile and let myself adjust to the day while the rest of the family goes about their slow rousing.
If I’m to be honest, there are mornings I don’t much feel like doing chores. Of course, I do them anyway and I can truthfully say that I have never been sorry it had to be so. In part, this is due to the sheer physicality of the work, the way it gets the blood moving on a slow day. There’s something honest about greeting the day with sweat, as if offering something for the simple good fortune of being alive.
There’s another part to it, and I think it’s that chores are an assumption of responsibility in a world that can sometimes feel devoid of such a thing. In a sense, chores are an homage to the animals and crops under our care, the fulfillment of a silent promise not only to them, but – perhaps selfishly – to ourselves.
January 7, 2012 § 13 Comments
On Saturday, we kill the pigs. It goes well; one shot each followed by a quick probe of the knife to loose the blood and as always, the shock of the sheer quantity of it, spreading across the frozen ground like unfurling sheets. Ryan and Jocelyn show up, and we spend the next two hours skinning and gutting and sawing and hoisting the halves to hang overnight so they’ll stiffen for cutting the next day. We have lunch. We skin and gut and saw and hoist some more. We are tired and the job is done.
On Sunday, Michael and Kelly arrive at 9:00 and Michael and I carry the halves in one-by-one, dropping them across the big maple butcher block our friend Brian made for us back when we were building the house, ten years ago or more. They are nice pigs; the largest halves are pushing 150-pounds, and carry a good 3-inches of backfat, which we’ll render on the wood stove and use to fry doughnuts (or “dog nuts” as the boys have inevitably taken to calling them), chicken, eggs, and more. The six of us cut for three hours, reducing the halves to manageable bits – chops and roasts, sausage trim and slabs of bacon. We have lunch. We cut for two hours more. We are tired and the job is done.
On Monday, Penny and Fin and Rye and I travel to our friend Pete’s. Pete is the sole founder and owner of a small-batch sausage business and has invited us to utilize his facility on his day off. This is beyond gracious, and of incalculable value to us, for we have about 130-pounds of sausage trim to grind, mix, and stuff into casing. What would take us literally days in our kitchen, with our rudimentary tools, will take only hours at Pete’s. He leads us into the gleaming space, shows us how to work the equipment, and leaves us to it. The boys work the vacuum sealer while Penny and I grind and mix and stuff for four hours. We pause for snacks. We grind and mix and stuff and seal for two hours more, clean, and leave. We are tired and the job is done.
I am as guilty as anyone of perpetuating the almost-trite belief that food can be about more than simple caloric nourishment; that it can be about relationships and community and nourishment beyond the not-insignificant value of a full stomach. But I perpetuate it because it is true, and to the extent I ever doubt this, the processing of our pigs reminds me of just how true it is. It’s not just the processing, for we raise them largely on waste milk gleaned from two neighboring organic dairy farms. Every other day or so, week-in, week-out, I’m in Melvin’s barn, or Jimmy’s and Sarah’s, picking up the buckets of milk they’ve filled for us. It is rare that I do not stay to chat for a few minutes; it is rare that I do not know how they’ve spent their day. More often than not, one of us has a story for the other, some small hardship that further fades in the retelling and the reciprocated acknowledgement that our challenges are rarely much different from each others’. Or some small happiness that grows in the sharing.
Not counting the farmer from whom we purchased the piglets, and not counting ourselves, there were eight people intimately involved in the raising and processing of our pigs. No money changed hands, nor will it. To the extent that debts were accrued and favors granted, they will be repaid and returned in a like manner, informally and in rough equivalence only.
What is the right name for this? Barter? Exchange? Neighborliness? Or simple community? I do not know for certain; perhaps it is some of each. But whatever it is, I have come to recognize it as one of the most powerful forces in my small life, on this small farm, in this small town. And for that, I am exceptionally grateful.