Not Boughten

July 31, 2013 § 16 Comments



I just finished churning the 75th pound of this season’s butter, which means I’ve got about 125-pounds to go if we’re to escape the indignity of what the boys have termed “boughten butter.” Most years, we don’t quite make it; this family has a serious butter habit, to the tune of at least four-pounds weekly. Last summer, owing to a confluence of factors, I only barely hit the 150-pound mark, and by March, we could be found skulking through the dairy aisle in search of spreadable fat.

It’s safe to say I have something of a butter obsession; for whatever reason, it has come to serve as my emblem of this little farm’s prosperity. Of all the foodstuffs we produce, it is perhaps the only one which cannot be sourced on the open market. Oh, sure, we can procure boughten butter, but there’s no such thing as boughten butter: Cultured, unpasteurized, the garishly yellow hue of cows fattened on the sweet flush of late-May grass. Once, many years back, someone approached us about selling butter, and I was honestly a bit dumbstruck: Sell our butter? I could not imagine a price that would account for all it means to us, so I gave her a pound and sent her on her way.

We are in the season of abundance, that’s for damn sure. The butter piling up, the blueberry bushes drooping and folding under the weight of their ripening fruit. Every day, Penny picks gallons, and when we are out in public (not that often this time of year, given all the gifts of the land that require tending), our blue-stained lips draw stares. The piggies are fattening into their full succulence, and in a week, we’ll put a year’s worth of beef in the freezer. The garlic is drying. The barn is full of hay. The potatoes look fantastic; owing to our remineralization protocol, potato beetles are nearly a non-issue. Green beans. The first tomatoes last night on burgers, and lemme tell you: There ain’t nothing so fine as a bloody rare burger under the first tomato you’ve tasted in nearly 11 months. The batch of dry cure sausage I hung a few weeks ago is ready, so we slice it paper thin and let it melt into our tongues. Rye is milking his goat every morning, and we eat chèvre by the spoonful. It’s going to be a hell of an apple year, too, and the wild blackberries? Crazy. Just crazy. This morning, I strolled down to our favorite yellow foot chanterelle stash and what do you know? The first of the lil’ buggers are just emerging from the forest duff.

The land gives so much and asks for so little in return. The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. And the more I wish to be the same.








The Opportunity to Be

July 26, 2013 § 26 Comments

The beginning of an axe handle

The beginning of an axe handle

One of the things I struggle with is “follow your own interests.” For me there’s an equivalent paradox: good schools expose kids to things they wouldn’t seek out on their own and thus many a child has developed an interest in something they didn’t previously know about.  Or taken a class they didn’t want to, but learned something important because of it.

With the exception of the two hours we spent listening to good, live rock n’ roll last night (the family that rocks together, stays together) and the subsequent eight hours I passed in deep slumber, I’ve been mulling over the above portion of Julia’s comment almost since I saw it yesterday. 

I think she’s right: Good schools and good teachers do expose kids to things they wouldn’t seek out on their own. Heck, even some bad schools and bad teachers might do this, however inadvertently. There’s no doubt that many a passionate interest has been kindled via this exposure. No doubt. 

Penny and I talk all the time about what our obligation is to expose the boys to different people, subjects, ways of life, etc, etc. We are keenly aware that by immersing ourselves in a rural community, we are in some ways limiting them: There is little racial and ethnic diversity here, for instance. And the subject matters of their days tend to be those that are inherent to this particular place, and no other. 

There’s no perfect solution to all of this. No matter how much we expose our children to, we  (and by “we,” I mean the royal “we,” which of course includes you) cannot expose them to everything. The world is such an incredibly rich and diverse place, and that’s just the tangible, physical world; never mind the interior world of emotion and spirit. There will always be things are children are missing out on, no matter how hard we try to expand their views and opportunities, because of course a child, like an adult, has only so much capacity to absorb and assimilate. They have only so many hours in a day, a week, a month, a life. 

All of which is to say, no matter how much we might like to think otherwise, we have no choice but to limit our children’s exposure to people, places, ideas, subject. Whatever our sons and daughters are experiencing at any particular time, means that by default, they are not experiencing something else. That’s just the way it is. 

For better or worse, Penny and I have decided to expose Fin and Rye to this place. To immerse them in here. Part of this is because this is how we live our lives; to do anything else would necessitate a wholesale restructuring. But equally, it’s because we feel as if place is important. True, it is not something we tend to revere as a culture anymore, and how could we? Americans move on average every 5.2 years, and travel and choice are widely celebrated in our society. There is not nearly so much celebration of settling in, of not traveling, of choosing to limit one’s choices to that which is of their place. 

I think about this a lot in terms of our culture’s assumptions regarding opportunity. We tend to think of opportunity – and no more so than when pertaining to our children – as being about advancement and accomplishment and recognition. Often, about expanded choice. But of course, these are not the only opportunities available to our children. Again, I don’t necessarily disagree with Julia; I think it is a fascinating and nuanced issue. As I did a couple of days ago, I’m going to take this opportunity (ha!) to draw from my upcoming book: 

When we speak of opportunity, if we speak of it at all, let us speak not of advancement and recognition, of triumph and success.  Instead, let us speak of the opportunity to function as a family, to focus our lifeblood on the needs of the heart, before allowing it to dissipate into the broader community and, finally, into the world at large. Let us speak of the opportunity to feel one’s own way into the world, to be allowed to unfold at whatever pace is dictated by the individual, rather than the institution. Let us speak of the opportunity to develop relationships that are meaningful outside the context of economic advancement and status, and perhaps even outside of the context of humanity. Let us speak of the opportunity to simply be. 

I guess to sum it all up, the things Penny and I are hoping to expose our sons to, by allowing them to immerse themselves in this particular place, are more interior, than exterior. They are not so tangible as all the wonderful people, places, ideas, and subjects we might seek out for them if we lived a different life. An incomplete list might include the sense that they do not stand apart from nature, that the world is full of small and quiet wonders right outside their doorstep, that their needs are few and that their contentment is not available for purchase at any price, that learning is something to love, that their time belongs to them. There are more, of course, but you get the point. 

Anyway. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this. And thank you, Julia, for a fascinating comment. 




What is Work?

July 25, 2013 § 27 Comments

The boys loaded bales whilst I slept off my morning drunk in the shade

The boys loaded bales whilst I slept off my morning drunk in the shade

I’m reading a book called the Continuum Concept. It was first published in ’86, way back when I spent most of my time smoking weed and trying to play Eddie Van Halen riffs on my guitar (for the record, I no longer do at least one of these things), so it’s possible some of you have heard of it or even read it.

Anyway. The book chronicles the author’s experiences living with indigenous cultures in the jungles of South America, and how these experiences transformed her perceptions of what constitutes a meaningful life and how we should relate to one another and our children. At least, that’s what I’m getting out of it so far: I’m only on about page 40.

Still, already I’m struck by her observations regarding tribal attitudes toward tasks Westerners would likely consider onerous, inconvenient, or downright miserable. She talks about participating in some of these tasks – hauling water, or sugarcane, or portaging boats – and how when faced with these tasks, her mood invariably became bleak and complaining. These jobs were hard. The rocks hurt her feet. The water was heavy. The path was narrow and steep. And so on. Yet, when she looked around her, all she saw were smiles. All she heard was laughter and joking. There was no sense of urgency, no tension in body, face, and action. It was if the hard work was not actually hard work, at all. It was as if it was just life. It was if her experience of these tasks being unpleasant resulted not from the tangible particulars of the job at hand, but from her socialized expectations relating to labor. They were of her mind, not her body.

Every so often someone says to me “I can’t imagine how hard you must work to do what you do.” I never really know how to respond. I mean, yeah, I guess we do work hard (though I’m keen to point out, not nearly as hard as the good people I wrote about yesterday). Over just the past few days, I think of haying: 95 degrees and humid as a submarine with an open sunroof. Late first cut, which might just be the itchiest, scratchiest substance known to humankind. You want to get a secret outta someone? Forget tickling: Rub the poor bastard down with late first cut. He’ll be singing like a rooster at the break o’ day.

Or splitting wood. We split by hand, a half-dozen or so cords each year, literally thousands of swings with the maul, literally thousands of wedges of firewood to be hauled and stacked. How many tons of wood moved per year? How many splinters?

Or killing pigs. Or even just this morning, in the field by 5:15 while my family dozes, setting up fence and hauling feed to the meat birds, the sun not even yet threatening full daylight.

Do we whistle and sing and laugh through every one of these tasks? Of course not. Just the other evening, I lay under the tractor, cursing and wallowing in self pity as I methodically removed the skin from my knuckles trying to fit a wrench to the bolts that hold the front axle assemble to the motor. They had somehow come alarmingly loose, creating the discomfiting sensation that the beast was about to collapse in on itself. Which, in fact, it was. But the truth is, I rarely think of our homestead tasks as being anything but pleasurable, anything but one of the greatest privileges of my life.

What is work? Our culture seems to equate work with labor, and likewise seems to revere labor avoidance technologies and conveniences. It’s not that we don’t embrace some of these technologies on our small holding: The very fact that we own a tractor is evidence of that. But reading the Continuum Concept reminds me that our perceptions of work – and in particular, labor – are just that: Perceptions. In other words, how we think of the these tasks, whether we consider them bothersome or whether we view them merely as something that needs to be done, and furthermore, that we are blessed to have the opportunity to do, informs the attitude and spirit with which we approach them.

The underlying question that begs asking is how have we come to have such an unfavorable view of labor? And how we might shift that view? 

I’ve got some ideas, but they’ll have to wait for another day. Because, you know, I’ve got work to do.


July 24, 2013 § 11 Comments

The boys, overlooking Melvin's farm after driving his cows down for evening milking

The boys, overlooking Melvin’s farm after driving his cows down for evening milking

We live smack-dab between two dairy farms. Just to our south, with his primary hayfield sharing our boundary line, is Melvin’s place. Melvin is in his 60’s; he mostly farms alone, with some help from his live-in girlfriend. He milks about 35 cows. He grew up on a farm in this town, and with the exception of a handful of years, has been milking cows his whole life. We keep a freezer in his basement, collect his waste milk for our pigs. I see him almost every day. I know he’s thinking about what comes next. He can’t milk cows forever, though knowing Melvin, he just might try.

Just to our north, Jimmy and Sara milk a herd of about 60. They are in their 20’s, and recently had their first child, a daughter. In addition to milking, they run a 2500-tap sugaring operation, plow driveways, sell firewood, do some tractor logging, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Last summer, they got married in the barn, above the milk room. They had a one-day honeymoon, and it was the only day off they had all year. Like Melvin, I see them almost every day.

I would not want to milk cows for a living. I know it to be hard and uncertain work. But I hope I always live in the proximity of dairy farmers, who seem to embody the antitheses of these attributes. In my experience, they are kind and generous, and some of the most certain, confident people I know.

Does the work make them that way? Or are they uniquely suited to survive the work because they were born like that? I have no idea, but in truth I hope it’s neither, if only because that would leave open the possibility that I might still come to embody more of these qualities, myself.



What Then?

July 23, 2013 § 21 Comments


Step one

Step one

From yesterday’s comments:

I’d love Ben’s and anyone else’s thoughts on how to control the “But, what if it’s not the right path?” nagging thoughts.  I’m very interested in unschooling, but worry because my child (she’s only 4, so I’m trying to keep some perspective) will opt to just watch movies for hours on end when allowed to make her own decisions.  How do you handle those fears?

And, not at all unrelated:

… we live in an environment that doesn’t want us to trust ourselves or our children for that matter.

I’d love to say that Penny and I have all this figured out, that we never feel conflicted or uncertain about the path we’ve chosen. But that would be a lie. What is true, is that the further we explore the path of self-directed learning, and the deeper our commitment becomes, the more aware we are of its benefits, and the less we fear that Fin and Rye are somehow not going to learn what they need to learn to lead meaningful lives as defined by them.

Step Two

Step Two

I am fascinated by the issue of trust, both as it pertains to our children – not necessarily trusting them, but trusting in them – and as it pertains to us. We live in a world full of experts, and we rely on them heavily. They tell us what to eat, how to educate our children, which medications we should be taking, and even what to wear. It is as if, having been bludgeoned by the overwhelming choice of the 21st century marketplace and the confusion inherent to such choice, we have lost confidence in our own abilities to decide these things for ourselves.

Of course, this is not to say that expert opinion is never correct, nor that there is no place for expertise. But as we become more reliant on specialists to guide us through very personal decisions, I think we risk the erosion of intuition and discernment. I also think it behooves us to consider the backdrop against which most expert opinion is formed. And when it comes to education, it is generally formed with the assumption that our children should be equipped to achieve a particular notion of success relating to college admission, career advancement ($$) and all the other presumed benefits of performance in the context of standardized, top-down education.

Step Three

Step Three

I’m busy as all heck, so I’ll stop there and simply crib from my upcoming book (see below). But first, I feel compelled to address Jen’s recent comment:

The message I get from your blog is that there is only one way to do a particular thing (your way). 

My intention for this space is to share my thoughts and my opinions – many of which are very strong and run counter to conventional so-called wisdom – as they are formed by my family’s experiences on this piece of land. As I pointed out to Jen, this is, not Furthermore, it is not my desire to simply recount our days, but to encourage reflection and critical thinking, whether you agree or disagree with what I have to say. If it’s the latter, I am more than open to respectful discussion.

I don’t mean to sound defensive, but I’ve picked up a lot of new readers recently, and it’s important to me that this stuff is crystal clear.

Thank you, and carry on.

Addition, subtraction, writing, reading: All of these and more are necessary for a child – not to mention, an adult – to communicate with his family and community. But the truth is that they can be learned with surprisingly little effort, and in a surprisingly scant amount of time, and always in the context of a child’s true interests and passions. 

We have spent very little time teaching this information to Fin and Rye; indeed, we have found that they learn and retain it best when they are allowed to do so at their own behest. In other words, these lessons never happen as abstractions, but only as the logical outgrowth of their curiosity in other matters: To read a book to themselves, to determine the financial prospects of raising a flock of turkeys for the Thanksgiving market, or to write letters to friends and relatives. Recently, they spent three weeks preparing for Vermont’s hunter safety certification course; for hours each day they painstakingly completed the necessary paperwork, and it was as fine a lesson in reading, writing, and penmanship as anything Penny and I – or anyone else, for that matter – could have given them. Having witnessed this time and again, I am struck by just how much of our children’s time we waste on rote learning in isolation from other knowledge and experience. Even as I write these words, I can feel the frustration and even anger I knew as teen, the sense of my time being stolen from me just so I could meet someone else’s expectations of how and what I should learn. I am struck by how disrespectful this is, and how it cannot help but teach our children that their destiny is not in their hands. 

Does this self-directed approach sometimes mean that my boys do not “perform” to the standards set by contemporary educational assumptions? As a matter of fact, it does. For instance, Fin did not learn to read until he was nearly nine, and Rye seems to be on a similar track. Quite clearly, there are things that many of their peers know – some of whom attend school, some of whom don’t – that my boys don’t know. Or don’t yet know, anyway. Because I have seen that if I can let go of my fear and simply trust in them, they will learn these things, and they will do it happily, without anger or frustration or the sense that their lives belong to someone else. 

Of course there also is knowledge and experience contained in the vessels of my young sons that eludes the vast majority of their peers. That eludes the vast majority of adults, even. I see the way they move through the forest, stopping to pluck a handful of woods sorrel or chanterelle mushrooms, or to point out the scratch marks of a wild turkey or, in the winter, to stoop at a melted divot in the snow, sniff at it, and proclaim it the urine of a red fox. Everywhere, I see the evidence of their knowledge and learning: The multitudinous structures they’ve built, some of evident purpose and careful design, and some that appear purposeless. 

You might ask, what is the point of knowing these things? To which I can only answer, what is the point of knowing anything? By extension, we might both ask, what is the point of an education? Is it to be socialized to a particular set of expectations? Is to be granted membership into the prevailing economic model and the assumption that one’s happiness and security is best provided by this economic model? Is it to continue sawing at the few frayed strands still connecting us and the natural world? If so, than perhaps you are correct: There is no point to my sons know what fox pee smells like, or which of the wild mushrooms in our forest are edible, or how to make fire from sticks. There is no point to the ease and comfort with which they move through the wilderness. There is no point to their desire to help our neighbor get his hay under cover before the rain comes. There is no point to their boundless curiosity regarding the habits of the woodland animals. There is no point to all the little shelters and tools they’ve built. There is no point to any knowledge but that which will vault them ahead of their contemporaries in the race to secure their place at the top of the economic ladder. 

But what if, as I suggested at the outset of this book, the point of an education is not to teach our children to assume their place at the top of that ladder, but instead to surrender it? What if the point simply cannot be found or measured in the context of performance-based assessments, standardized tests, or projected lifetime income? What if the point of an education is to imbue our children with a sense of their connectivity, and not merely with other humans, but with the trees and animals and soil and moon and sky? What if the point of life is to feel these connections, and all the emotions they give rise to? 

What then? 

By the way, if anyone’s interesting in reading more about self-directed learning, I highly recommend Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn.


Hats! (and cats)

It’s the Parents

July 22, 2013 § 22 Comments

The boys built a cabin. Penny and I had almost nothing to do with it.

The boys built a cabin. Penny and I had almost nothing to do with it.

Yesterday, I spoke to a small gathering of educators from a well-regarded private boarding school. They’d convened not far from here to discuss ways in which to implement concepts and practices of sustainability into their curriculum, and they invited me with the intention of discussing issues relating to food. I’d originally been scheduled to talk for about 40 minutes; ultimately, we ended up engaged in a two-hour conversation, with perhaps a total of 30 minutes devoted to food.

And what, pray tell, did we do for the remaining hour-and-a-half? Mostly, we talked about how messed up school is. That’s a bit flip, of course, but it’s fair to say that the conversation centered on the issues of how kids learn best, and how these educators’ observations of how kids learn best so often contradicts the expectations of the institution in which they teach, and those of the parents who pay $50k per year (!!!) to send their children there. As one of them put it (I’m paraphrasing a bit, because I didn’t actually write down the quote, but I’m close enough): “I feel as if I can’t give my students the freedom to learn the way I know they learn best, because the parents are pushing me for results that are rooted in the ways they don’t learn best.” In other words, because the parents of this teacher’s students demand a particular type of “success” that’s based on tests and GPAs and admission into prestigious colleges (this school claims a 100% college placement rate), the teacher can’t do what she knows is best for the children in her classroom.

Now, to the enormous credit of the teachers and staff gathered in the room, they were extremely interested to consider how they might implement more self-directed learning in their classrooms. They were genuinely curious regarding what I observe in Fin and Rye, whose learning is almost entirely self-directed. And when I talked about my observations, how I see that the more freedom we grant our sons, the more messes we let them make and failures we let them have, the more creative and resourceful they become, I saw heads nodding. These teachers get it. They get that children are inherently curious, that they are born with the desire to learn. They know that the more top-down education becomes, the more it becomes about grades and achievement, and the more children are protected from failure, the less confidence they have in their abilities. They understand that the more we make learning feel like work, like something that only happens in the classroom, the less children are inclined to learn on their own. That innate joy of learning flickers and dims, because learning, they learn, is about stuff they have little interest in. It’s about the stress of getting good grades and the competition to earn admission to a good school. It’s about recognition and advancement. These teachers know these things because they’ve seen it, and they feel trapped, because they cannot act – or at least, they cannot act as fully as they would like to – on their observations. Because if they do? Well, they probably won’t be teaching for long.

It is encouraging to me that these teachers are thinking critically and are willing to question their role in the educational process. But I’m saddened to hear that some of them feel hamstrung by the expectations and assumptions held by parents.

I’ve long thought we need to reform our schools to allow for more self-directed learning. But now it occurs to me that it’s not the schools that need reforming; it’s the parents.

Better Have Another

July 19, 2013 § 17 Comments

IMG_4907 - Version 2

The the first of the blueberries are coming in now, and most mornings one of us stops by the patch on our way in from chores to snag a handful or three. We planted the 90-something bushes 16 years ago, before we’d even broken ground on the house. This struck me as nothing short of insane at the time – after all, we were living in a musty and dilapidated rental shack with no running water other than what leaked through the roof during thunderstorms – but as is so often the case, Penny knew better than I. She is one of those people graced with the ability to envision a future I can only blindly lurch toward; likewise, she knew that bare root blueberry whips take at least five years to produce and she knew of the Chinese proverb that says “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” In her wisdom, Penny understood that this proverb also applies to fruit-bearing bushes and that in five years, the days we spent digging and ammending and planting would have been long forgotten, while the annual flush of berries would feel like a gift that won’t stop giving.

This is the first year in the decade since the bushes became prolific that we didn’t run out of last season’s frozen berries before the current flush began. In fact, just last week we emptied the last quart down our insatiable gullets. We generally freeze 100 or more quarts of blueberries, plus maybe 20 quarts of strawberries, plus another 20 or so quarts of wild blackberries. Yeah, we eat a lot of berries, in no small part because they’re essentially free: The original bare root blueberry whips we planted all those years ago cost us less than $500, and have required maybe another $100 or so in fertility upkeep. Since then, we’ve picked and eaten at least a couple thousand quarts, and sold that much again. Hell, there ain’t a hedge fund manager alive who wouldn’t kill for that kind of return.

Berries are one of the few food items we produce that we don’t generally run out of at some point during the year. I was thinking about this the other day, when we dined on a bowl of liberally buttered new potatoes we’d snuck from the tater patch. They were the first potatoes we’d eaten in quite some time; our stash ran dry back in March or so, and not long after, the 20-pounds or so a friend gifted to us also disappeared. Since then, we’ve been taterless.

The same goes for most everything around here. When we dry off the cows, we don’t drink milk (we do, however, continue to eat the butter we’ve made and frozen) until they’re fresh again. When we’ve picked clean the last of the claytonia from the winter greenhouse, we don’t eat salad until the first early shoots of lettuce in late April or early May. When the carrots are gone, they’re gone. If we run out of beef, we eat chicken. If we run out of chicken, we eat sausage. If we run out of sausage, we eat… no, actually, that’s totally unacceptable. We never allow ourselves to run out of sausage.

We don’t do this out of pride, or even frugality. We could afford to buy potatoes in summer, or salad in winter, or milk whenever. We raise a goodly portion of our food – I’d guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% – but we’re not dogmatic about it. If we want to buy something to eat, we damn well buy something to eat.

Here’s the thing: We don’t want to buy these things, if only because by going without them for a time, our anticipation of them and appreciation for them grows. If you eat potatoes every day, they’re just potatoes: Kinda bland and boring, truth be told, although a few tablespoons of home-churned butter does bring a certain magic to them. If you have salad every day, it’s just salad. I mean, really, when’s the last time you started drooling over a bowl of mixed greens?

Here’s the other thing. If you go four or five months without eating a potato, a funny thing happens: You covet the potato, you read poems to it, you build an altar for it, you think it’s as beautiful as the smiling faces of your children or your spouse. You are grateful for it in a way you’d almost forgotten you could be grateful for something so small, so humble, so graceful in its simplicity and proportions.

You almost don’t even dare eat the thing, but of course you do. Of course. Is it the best potato you’ve ever had? It’s hard to say. Could be. Might be. Better have another just to be sure.

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