February 21, 2012 § 8 Comments

Yesterday, I did not eat. It was an experiment, really, spurred by a fantastic article in the most recent Harper’s about the history and practice of fasting. Even if you maintain zero interest in gustatory abstinence, you should read it. It is written by Steve Hendricks and contains possibly the best sentence in the history of sentences: “Several years earlier, for reasons now puzzling, I had been a distance runner, but a pitiable knee injury ended all that, after which the lard came upon me.” After which the lard came upon me. I’d give up food for a week if I could write a line like that.

It wasn’t hard, really. I did get hungry, but not overwhelmingly so; by early afternoon I felt a little shaky, but it did not interfere with my work. I was able to bust out 1,000 words or so on the new book, and they might even be halfway decent (I haven’t dared look at them again, the second reading being my primary litmus test). I suspect I could quite readily have extended my fast for a day or more, although of course that’s entirely uncharted territory for me, so who knows.

Unsurprisingly, I thought a lot about food over the course of the day. But not in the way you might imagine. Oh sure, there were moments when I considered the pork chop, or even just the thick rind of cream that sticks to the sides of our separating bowl. I like to run my finger around the bowl and lap the cream off my knuckle. Sometimes, I even wash my hands first. Still, most of my food-related musing had to do with the enormous, almost overwhelming abundance we enjoy. We work hard for it, we know precisely where it comes from and what it took to get it to our plates – blood, guts, dirt, shit, and all of that – and this feels right to me. But there are times when I’m admittedly a little embarrassed simply by how much we have, the incredible diversity and sheer quantity stored in our root cellar, freezers, and pantry. Lamb, beef, pork, chickens. Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries. Dried apples, dried chanterelles, dried peppers. Kimchi. Butter. Maple syrup. Potatoes, squash, onions. It goes on.

My participation in my food is complete; I do not doubt that. But that does not absolve me of the obligation to consume it with reverence, and in this regard, I am sometimes lacking. I’m not sure fasting is the best way to maintain that reverence (though there’s plentiful evidence that it might be the healthiest way), but I know one thing for sure: I damn well appreciated breakfast this morning.




February 20, 2012 § 8 Comments

I subscribe to four magazines: Harper’s, The New Yorker, Small Farmer’s Journal, and Orion.

I like Harper’s and the New Yorker because they make me feel smart, even if the words are generally too big for my tastes. I like SFJ because it feels like a community. I read Orion for the occasionally amazing essays.

I probably won’t subscribe to Taproot, but that’s only because I’m a contributor and the publisher is a good friend, which damn well ought qualify me for complimentary issues (hear that, Miller?). But otherwise, I’d be all over this puppy, which comes out next month. I tried to convince my friend to call it Taproot: the journal of place-based living; he was probably right to ignore me, but that’s what it feels like to me and that’s how I’m describing it here. It’s quarterly, it’s ad-free, and it’s really good. Check it out.


The Funniest Day of My Life

February 18, 2012 § 6 Comments

Penny had an appointment up in Newport, which is so close to the Quebec border, you can smell the poutine from Main Street. The boys and I settled in, me to cleaning the house and basically dithering around; the boys were immersed in some made-up game or another. It was generally understood that after lunch, we would engage in a long and vigorous rough housing session. The boys and I love to rough house, although I must admit, I loved it more when they weighed about 50-pounds less, collectively.

The phone rang at 11:25 or so. It was Penny, calling from a stranger’s cell phone (we don’t own one) in the parking lot of a gas station outside Newport. “The car broke down. I need you to come get me.” Sure. No problem. I was not perturbed, for these are the sort of things that happen, and they do not warrant upset. Besides, I had an entirely unjustified faith in my ability to get the Subaru running again. No doubt it was just a bad connection to the starter or something. I would swoop in, crawl under the car with a hammer and a screwdriver, give’r a few taps and turns, and the damn thing would fire right up. I would be my family’s hero, and what is better than that? Nothing, that’s what.

Newport is an hour away, which is not so bad, except that the kid we bought our Chevy from had seen fit to remove the catalytic converter and replace it with a straight pipe and one of those “cherry bomb” mufflers that sound like the friggin’ thing’s farting into a megaphone. It’s tolerable around town, but on the highway…. it’s like being inside a tuba or something. The other consideration (which wasn’t really a consideration, because what choice did I have?) is that the Chevy gets about 8 mpg. Newport and back would be nearly 100 miles, so we’d be vaporizing somewhere in the vicinity of $45 worth of gas. Ah, but we wouldn’t: Unbeknownst to the boys and me, as we motored blithely up I91 inside our 8 mpg tuba, this would be a one-way trip.

The car was done. And when I say done, I mean threw-a-rod-through-the-engine-block done. There would be no crawling, tapping, or turning. There would be no heroics. All of its precious lifeblood – oil – was pooled under the motor and when I turned the key, the engine made such a clatter, I dare say the Chevy was jealous. Or would have been, because a most-unlikely and almost-funny thing had happened: Mere feet from where the Subaru had taken its last, dying breath, the Chevy had decided that it too was weary of this world. It stalled and would not start and – believe it or not, but I promise that I am not lying – had spit most of its engine oil onto the highway’s edge. It looked like one of those spreading pools of blood you see in movies when someone gets shot.

I am not going to claim that I handled the situation with total equanimity. But I will say that even in the moment, Penny and I and the boys (especially the boys) made many a joke, in which our plight served as both setup and punch line. This was not one of those “we’ll laugh about this someday” scenarios; it was one of those “this is so crazy, there is nothing to do but laugh about it now” situations. It did not hurt that we’d known the old Subaru was due for retirement and had already procured a replacement (an even older Subaru, but in fantastic condition. I think), which was waiting in our driveway. If only we had a way to get to our driveway.

To make a long story only slightly longer, we relied heavily on the kindness of strangers (and my mother, who retrieved us) to extricate ourselves from this clustermuck. I find that this is always the upside of these sort of minor crises: It brings out the best in people, it provides them an opportunity to offer assistance and simple kindness. To simply be needed. We live in a culture of such convenience and abundance that these opportunities don’t present themselves as readily as they once might have (although I suspect they’re always out there, if only we look for them), and to be honest, I think we’re all a little poorer for it.

Later that evening, after we’d finally gotten home and done chores, I went up to the neighbors to pick up waste milk for the pigs. How was your day, they asked, and I sighed and shook my head and told them the whole story. And we all had a nice, long chuckle.


February 14, 2012 § 4 Comments

On our land there are certain spots where, time and again, I am afforded a view that encompasses so much of what I have come to love about it. Down past the blueberries, a little knoll from which I can see the house and barn and greenhouse, the largest of our three gardens, and the sweep of meadow before it. Or along the bottom edge of the new pasture, looking up the hill, the cows backlit by early morning sun.

There is no logic to the power these views hold over me; they are merely certain angles of the same elements I can see from hundreds of vantage points. Grass. Trees. Animals. Home. There is no logic, but then, I do not ask for or expect it. I accept the gift of these views much as I accept the love of my family, the gift of my animal’s milk and meat, the bounty of the fields and forest that surround me.

I wrote that some time ago; every once in awhile, something I’ve written will randomly pop back into my head, like remembering a dream I hadn’t known I’d had. Such was the case with this short passage, which made me think about how much I appreciate the different views across our property and how comforted I am by them. I’m not sure if it’s simple familiarity, or if it’s the specific elements that are so soothing. Probably it’s some of each.

From my desk, situated in a narrow doghouse dormer directly above the largest of our greenhouses and overlooking the pasture: The sledding and skiing hill, the snow packed hard and cut with tracks. Fast, I know, because yesterday I was showing off for the boys on my skis and bit it hard. The roof the greenhouse, symmetrical bows sheathed in plastic. They remind me of rib bones beneath skin. The bottom row of the blueberries, or half of it, at least. The others obscured by a spruce.

From the kitchen sink, where I stand so often, splashing water over the day’s dishes. “Use some soap, would you?” Penny always says, but I don’t know. Doesn’t really seem necessary, if you ask me. But anyways: The cows, gathered around their hay. Chewing, always chewing. The solar panels, tilted toward the sun, doing their thing with electrons. I don’t really understand it, but later, I’ll run the chop saw and be glad for it just the same. The windmill, spinning too lazily to contribute much, but I like the look of it. It’s spare and skeletal, function over form.

From the pond, my newly favorite view, perhaps because it’s still a surprise (less than a year ago, there was no pond). Looking up through our small sugarbush, pig house to the right. Again the cows, but this time from below. Still chewing, and smaller for the distance. The sledding hill, and from here, the whole of it, including a fresh Ben-sized divot on the downside of the jump. The end of the big greenhouse, but this time from the side. From this angle it doesn’t remind me of anything except that in four or five weeks, we’ll be picking early salads. That will be very nice; fresh greens have been scant of late.

Lately, as I’ve been working on a book about the value of money and our relationship to it, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we lack a common language that might better enable us to express the value of something so personal and subjective as a view. Sometimes I think this is a bad thing, because it inevitably leads us to translate everything into the relatively objective and collective metric of money. This of course is an entirely inadequate and inappropriate method for assigning value to our surroundings and our relationship to them. (So says I)

But there are also times I think it’s good thing, because if we lack a common language, we might individually stretch to find the words that feel right to each of us. And maybe that’s exactly the way it should be.


Tempting Fate

February 13, 2012 § 3 Comments

It is dangerous to think that winter might almost be over, but no one can help it. It just feels that way; the days are creepingly longer, and the sun has been shining in that late winter way. Not warm, but warm-ish. Not high, but getting higher. Not just bright, but almost too bright, reflecting and refracting off the thin veneer of snow covering the land. The sugarers are tapping in anticipation of an early run, and yesterday afternoon, when I went to the pigs, I found them lounging outside, their bacons turned to the azure sky. Good pigs.

I’ve always loved winter, but I have to admit, it’s fine to feel the slow shift toward spring. This is partly due to the long list of tasks pinned to the pantry door; it’s a list that we already know will not be completed, although no one’s admitting that yet (oh wait: I just did). But the simple facts of the weak snowpack and the ease of movement through the woods have allowed us to  make progress months ahead of schedule. Most of next season’s firewood is in, and better than half is split. I am slowly chipping away at the the pile of saw logs from which our new barn will be built. Penny has paced off the new orchard and figured out where to put the chestnuts. As always, our excitement is getting the better of us. It’s our perennial weakness, and I embrace it.

Still, it is only middle February. I was not born yesterday, or even the day before that. April is still almost seven weeks out, and April can be a capricious month, prone to wild swings in temperature and heavy snows that break both tree branch and spirit. Therefore, what I probably ought do is shut the hell up about how much it feels like spring.

And so, I will.



February 10, 2012 § 9 Comments

The lengthly delay between my last post and this one owes itself almost entirely to a string of mechanical maladies so long and convoluted, it would be funny. If it were funny, that is.

Let’s see… first, the logging winch for the tractor, our most-used and highly valued implement. We rely on it for harvesting firewood and saw logs, as well as pulling the plow truck out of the ditch. Somehow, the winch’s steel cable became wrapped around the metal cage that circles it, rendering it unusable. To fix the beast, I had to extract its guts, cut the mangled cage free of the cable with an angle grinder, and then reinstall everything with the new part. It could have been worse (as things generally can be); the weather has been unusually sunny and warm, so bashing my bare knuckles against a hunk of cold steel was quite bearable, if not downright pleasant. Still and all. Money and time evaporated in the process, and neither feels particularly abundant these days.

About the same time the winch went, the transmission in the truck began slipping. This was only a few weeks after I’d spent about a week riding a high from having gotten the old pig inspected, a feat I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull off. A new-used tranny for the truck runs about $1500. To rebuild the one that’s in it would cost about $1500. The truck is worth about $800. Hmm. Just yesterday, I dumped one of those miracle-promising transmission additives into the thing, hoping against all reason and experience that it will somehow call forth the miracle of smooth shifting.

Shortly after the Chevy’s transmission began slipping, the viscous coupler in the Subaru – the component that enables the all-wheel-drive function of the car – blew up, spewing bits into the gear box and wreaking general havoc. A new-to-us coupler was obtained and the AWD returned to working condition, but the transmission now makes a horribly annoying whirring noise that becomes more incessant with speed, rendering highway travel nearly unbearable. This is a fixable condition, to be sure, but the car has 170,000 miles on it, enough underbody rust to make hitting potholes an unsettling prospect, and burns a quart of oil every couple tanks of gas. If any of ya’ll are interested, I’ll make you a hell of a deal on it.

Then there’s the plow truck. A couple weeks back, when I was plowing the last storm with the boys (precious few storms this year, and this makes the boys sad, for they like nothing better than an early morning plow run, cranking the local classic rock station and slamming into snowbanks. Come to think of it, I like nothing better, myself), it commenced to stalling out every 42 seconds or so. I neglected to mention this new “feature” to Penny, who used the plow truck for a local errand when she couldn’t get the other truck started (damn… I’d almost forgotten about that). Unfortunately, she made it about six miles before the darn thing conked out, at which point she could not get it re-started. As such, the plow truck, which is so lacking in road worthiness it doesn’t even have license plates on it, was marooned at the side of a road somewhere deep in rural northern Vermont. (Happy ending: We did manage to get the truck home without further mechanical incident or legal complication).

As of today, the winch is very close to being fully operational (hoping to finish reassembly this afternoon), I’m too scared to drive the truck for fear the transmission will still be slipping, and I’m trying to find a halfway decent replacement Subaru at a reasonable price. Which is to say, MY idea of reasonable. Which is to say, I’m not having much luck. And the plow truck? Hell with it. There ain’t no snow in the forecast, anyhow.

Ah, well. The sun is shining, the house is warm, and I’m about to eat a barely cooked hamburger slathered in Penny’s homemade garlic soft cheese. Life’s ok, after all.

Where Am I?

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