The Best Kind of Contagious

August 31, 2013 § 12 Comments

Carding wool with Nate

Carding wool with Nate

The little kick of pre-autumn we had a couple weeks back has departed, and another push of summer has ridden in on its wake. I love that cool weather, but the heat and humidity ain’t so bad, either, what with the chill of the pond just a few steps and one cannonball away.

I’ll tell ya what’s going on ’round here: Everything. Every-freakin’-thing. If you’ve somehow gotten the impression that my life is naught but strolling through lush, misty fields, sniffing cows and eating berries from the vine, well, I got some news for you: There’s a wee bit more to it than that. The good part of that news is that the power project is nigh unto completion (does that make any sense at all? Hell, I don’t know, but I like it…. what I’m trying to say, if it’s not clear, is that’s it’s ’bout finished). As a whole, I vastly underestimated the project and the sheer amount of toil and burden it would necessitate. But that is ok: I think that electricity should perhaps not be so damn easy, given all the devastation its production wreaks. As a quick aside, I was more than pleased to see that in our first 24 hours of metered connection, we consumed a grand total of 7 kilowatt hours, and that’s with four chest freezers and one refrigerator humming. Once we get our solar panels feeding back to the grid – next week, hopefully – we’ll get that down to zero or so.

Anyhoo. On top of it all, we’re going canoe camping for two nights, a luxury enabled only by the enormous generosity of our dear friend Dan, who will be housesitting for a three-day period early next week. And by “house-sitting,” I mean milking a cow, feeding our menagerie of creatures, and generally being on-call should one of said creatures decide to take a walk-about. We love going camping, but rarely do… there just aren’t many Dans around, and leaving this place during camping-friendly weather is a fairly unrealistic undertaking, given the sheer volume of day-to-day tasks that are part and parcel of the season. But whatever. It’s gonna be great.

On top of it all again, Penny came home from Falk’s workshop frothing at the mouth in excitement. (By-the-by, I’ve been meaning to recommend his new book. It’s a wee more technical in parts than my sorry intellect can master, but it’s real, real good nonetheless). Part of it was the sheer inspiration of his place, which is a pretty remarkable example of what can be done on a relatively inhospitable piece of land. But another part of it was the recognition that already we have made so much progress and that so much of what he’s doing is well within our reach. Every so often, we are blessed with a moment of awareness regarding just what has been accomplished on our little piece of ground. Of what is accomplished from day-to-day. I realize that may sound a little, um, self-certain, but what can I say? It’s true. The other truth is that this awareness is generally lost to the minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour passing of our lives, and this is probably a good thing, only because it doesn’t seem all that healthy to walk around being all smug about what you’ve done.

In any event, visiting Falk’s place was for Penny one of those clarifying moments, both in regards to what has been accomplished, what will be accomplished, and how we can continue to evolve our practices. I love her excitement and the sheer joy she has for this life and the work it blesses us with, and it’s impossible for me to not get caught up in it, myself. It’s the best kind of contagious.

Over and out ’til we return.


What I’ve Learned

August 29, 2013 § 14 Comments

The hide is coming along

The hide is coming along

Not so long ago, as part of my reporting on a story I’m working on, I attended a meeting in a community not far from here. At the end of the meeting, each person was asked to say something about what they’d gleaned from the gathering. Or about anything, really. A fellow sitting a few chairs down from me, dressed in classic business attire, said this: “I’ve learned that to be successful in life, it’s helpful surround yourself with successful people.” The crowd nodded its agreement.

The next morning, Melvin was up to breed not one, but two of our girls. It’s mighty convenient when milk cows synchronize their heats, one of those small rural blessings the overwhelming majority of the world will never be aware of (another of those blessings is to have a neighbor who’s attended school for the fine art of artificial insemination). Anyway, two cows in heat was a little much excitement for Snook, our yearling steer, and he’d busted out of the day paddock to accompany the ladies down to the barn for their date with Melvin.

As Penny and Melvin and I were standing in the barnyard chatting, I made a passing reference to Snook’s escape. Melvin looked at us in that way he has, which might best be described as a look of minor merriment at all the minor curiosities of life. “He’s not out,” Melvin said. “He’s just not where you put him.”

I’ve learned that to be light-hearted in life, it’s helpful to surround yourself with light-hearted people.

A couple days after that, Penny and I were up at the neighbors, moving our freezer out of their woodshed (more on this in a future post, as it relates to our decision to connect to the utility grid and all the ramifications thereof). It was an awkward move, what with the big step down from the shed and a variety of other factors too complicated to explain here. All of which is to say, we were struggling a bit more than I care to admit. Which is precisely when Jimmy happened by, on his way home from evening milking, on the tail end of a 14-hour work day, which is to say, at the end of average day for him. I saw his truck pass, then heard him slow his big diesel, then clunk into reverse. Without even asking, he was out of his truck and on the tricky end of the freezer and in a few almost effortless seconds we had it on the bed of our truck.

I’ve learned that to be generous in life, it’s helpful to surround yourself with generous people.

After Jimmy helped us load the freezer, we stood at talked for a few minutes about something unexpected that had recently happened in his life that meant he will need to think very hard about the precise future of his operation. It is nothing tragic, but it was not what he’d been expecting, and I can see that it’s thrown him a bit. “Oh well,” he said. “I can always pick up a couple thousand more taps and make more syrup.” He flashed a grin. “I love making syrup, anyhow.”

I’ve learned that to be positive and resilient in life, it’s helpful to surround yourself with positive and resilient people.

Sometimes it seems like the best teachers in my life pop up in the most unlikely places.


Today Is Now

August 28, 2013 § 12 Comments


In full candor, I spent much of yesterday in a sour mood. I had my reasons: The boys were being as the boys can occasionally be, which is to say, insufferable ingrates devoid of one iota of appreciation for the freedom and blessings that define their lives. There is nothing that irks me more than a couple of self-pitying farm kids on a gripe kick: We never get to hunt alone (well, duh: You’re 8 and 11). You don’t let us shoot the 12 gauge alone (well, duh: You’re 8 and 11). You’re always telling us to pick stuff up (well, duh: You leave your shit – most of which is sharp and metal, smelly and dead, or otherwise disgusting –  EVERYWHERE). I don’t really think it’s a child’s obligation to inhabit of state of conscious gratitude. At 41, I ain’t even close to that place, myself, and maybe I don’t even want to get there, if only because it occurs to me that it might actually be sort of exhausting to be grateful all the time. That said, I have little patience for the grousing of two boys who enjoy the tremendous degree of autonomy and parental trust Fin and Rye do.

And then there was my back, which decided to go on strike just when I was beginning to think I might be indomitable. It’s been a summer full of good, honest, physical labor – lifting and pulling and digging and whatnot – and my body has always responded well to this regimen. But at some point over the past week or so, I must have crossed some invisible line in the sand of my physical capacities, and I became domitable again. It’s much better today, but yesterday, as I shuffled my way to and fro, the echoes of my sons’ perceived injustices ringing in my ears, it felt as if the world were a heavy place that had decided, for the time being at least, to rest its weary bones across the fragile bed of my shoulders.

It is fortunate indeed that I awakened this morning with a sense of renewal, both physical and emotional, for the next few weeks are crunch time on our small holding. There is much to be done, more than I wish to take the time to write about now, and the days are ever-shorter: Each evening, dark chases me indoors a few minutes earlier than it did the evening before. Which helps explain why last night I was in bed by 8:30, preparing to sleep a sleep of such depth and duration that coming back into consciousness felt like digging my way out of a dark hole. I awoke feeling refreshed and limber, and when the boys trudged their tousled way downstairs and out the front door to release their bladders at the base of the fruit trees as instructed, I could tell they were in a better place. Not exactly grateful, but no longer bitter. No longer persecuted and bereft. “Can we shoot the .22 today, Papa,” Fin asked, and I although I was tempted to withhold the privilege after the previous day’s impudence, I said yes, and it was the right thing to say.

Because yesterday was yesterday. And today is now.


It’s Going Through You

August 22, 2013 § 9 Comments


Late last night (well, late for me, which means the top of the eight o’clock hour had passed) I was driving home from further northern Vermont, where I’d been reporting a fairly ambitious magazine feature I’m working on. As is my wont, I was listening to the radio as I drove, which happened to be transmitting an interview with the front fellow of Gogol Bordello. I can’t say I’m a fan or anything; I’m not familiar enough with their music, although I did get a kick out of the tunes they played on air. Their work is infused with a likable whimsy, and if there’s anything I like, it’s likable whimsy. You know, because it’s likable. And whimsical.

But it wasn’t the music that struck me. Rather, it was the interview with Eugene Hutz. More specifically, it was these few sentences, which I casually jotted down on the back of a $100 bill as I hauled ass down I91 at 83 mph. I jest. In truth, I just transcribed them onto my laptop from the podcast while sitting on my ass.

“I thought that the focal point of where human potential goes wrong is that people are too busy living in the future or in the past on a regular basis. That’s what’s going on around. And it kind of deprives people of their vital energy. It actually creates duality, polarity in their mind which steals all their energy. And a very little amount of people are able to sustain that consciousness of presence here and now…. Life appears to be some dark, unsolvable mystery to most people. They’re like ‘well, how does it go? Where is it going?'”

“It’s going right through you, right now. It’s here.” 

You know how every once in a while you hear a nugget of wisdom that makes you sit up and take notice? In truth, it was probably something you knew already but had managed, in the small, swirling chaos that defines almost all of our days, to lay down. It might even have been something that you’d once promised yourself to never forget, but of course you nonetheless had. This is not your fault, by the way: In the market driven economy of modern America, there is little encouragement to remember what really matters, because if you remember what really matters, you become so terribly much less susceptible to those feeding on your forgetfulness.

“It’s going right through you, right now. It’s here.”

I have that feeling every so often. I suppose it’s really what I was writing about yesterday: That sense of my being present in my life in a way that I yearn to carry with me through all my waking hours but for a multitude of reasons regularly let slip through my fingers. Moving the cows is like that: I’m there. I’m not thinking about things that happened yesterday, or even last month; I’m not thinking about things that will happen tomorrow, or even next year: Gotta finish backfilling, gotta finish this story, gotta fix this, gotta fix that, gottagottagotta.  

The other thing that happened yesterday is that a friend emailed me a link to a blog written by a 36-year-old man who is dying. And not just dying, but writing about dying, and writing about it really, really well.

His story is sad but liberating and in a strange way does a similar thing for me that your writing does, is what my friend wrote, and at first, I had no freakin’ idea what he might be talking about. What connection could possibly be made between my ramblings and the unbelievably courageous and poignant self-told tale of a young man with only weeks or maybe months left to live?

It was Eugene Hutz’s words that made me understand, because they reminded me that when I’m at my best as a person – and, I strongly suspect, as a writer – I am blessed by that sense of my life going through me. Of being right now. Of being here. I have written about it before; actually, I suspect I have written about it many, many times. I just haven’t always been aware that’s what I was writing about. Perhaps, in my strongest writing, an element of that sense filters through, like sunlight coming through a dirty kitchen window. Maybe that’s not the best analogy in the world, but still I wonder if that is the similarity my friend speaks of, because how can you read the words of a young man in the latter stages of terminal cancer and not be visited by the very idea that Hutz speaks of:  “It’s going right through you, right now. It’s here.”

I have no idea if Ezra Caldwell – the fellow who writes the aforementioned blog – is blessed by that sense. And even if he is, he may not think of it as being blessed, and who could blame him for that? The feeling of life going through you, of being right now and right here may well lose some of its appeal when it becomes achingly apparent that the end of that feeling is in sight. I hope that’s not the case – not only for him, but for us all, because of course the end is in sight for everyone. It’s just in varying degrees of focus.

Whatever the case, and as occurs from time-to-time, I had the sense yesterday of forces converging in my life in ways that could be seen as entirely anecdotal and coincidental. A link to a blog. A radio interview. Little pieces of near-nothingness. Small splashes in the pool of my existence.

But damned if I don’t think I might just ride the wave of those splashes and see where it takes me.

Moving Cows

August 21, 2013 § 14 Comments

The boys are so devoted to me, they follow me everywhere

The boys are so devoted to me, they follow me everywhere

Every morning, soon as it is light enough to see, I move the cows to a fresh paddock. We give the cows a new piece of pasture every 24 hours; this is known as rotational grazing, and it is essential to the good health of both the land and the animals feeding upon it. Owing to the marvel of electric fencing technology, it is not hard work, although given that our pasture is rather steep in places, it is not uncommon for me to break a sweat tromping up and down the hill with a fence reel in my hands. For those of you who have never greeted the rising sun with sweat beaded on your forehead, I highly recommend it.

I often think of chores as being something of practice for me, perhaps not unlike meditation or prayer is for some. And moving the cows is for me the core of this practice, at least during the six months I have the luxury of doing so (the other six months, I have the luxury of chipping ice from the animals’ water bowls, throwing bales of hay over their respective fences, and sweeping snow from the solar panels. Not bad, but they ain’t quite the same). Of all the daily chores I perform on this ground, moving the cows is the most graceful, the most like a dance. The cows gather at the corner of fence they know from experience will soon drop, shifting from hoof to hoof in anticipation, their watchful eyes following my progress. Cows are not terribly ambitious creatures – this is much of what I love about them – but the prospect of fresh grass stirs something in them. I suspect it’s not unlike the thing that stirs in me when Penny drops a batch of sourdough donuts into a pot of hot lard.

I like moving cows because I like cows, and therefore I like doing what I know is best for the cows. And I like moving cows because I like moving, and therefore I like walking back and forth across our pasture, the dew wet tips of grass grazing my shins, my feet sloshing in my boots. I need new boots something fierce; my current pair is full of holes, they’re like ships taking on water, destined for the river bottom. But of course they’ve been this way for two summers now and I’m doing just fine, which makes me wonder: Maybe I don’t need new boots, after all.

I like moving cows because it forces me to pay attention: Good grazing practices demand a particular focus, because the pasture is always changing, in accordance with the season, the weather, the length of day, and unseen forces that I am unlikely to ever fully understand. In June, the grass grows so furiously we cannot keep up with it; it is an ocean of grass, a tsunami of forage, and it is almost impossible to imagine that it will ever end. We think this will be the year we graze into November! But by August it is already waning, and we ration the pasture carefully, hoping for warm September rains to push along the season’s final growth. We think maybe we can keep the cows on grass until the middle of October! To move cows is to in some small way be held in the palm of nature. I can’t say why, but any time I have this opportunity, I am comforted.

I like moving cows because I like the way cows smell and I can smell them while I’m moving them. If you don’t like the way cows smell – and I’m not talking about their shit or piss (these are good smells, too, but are perhaps acquired tastes), but rather the simple, warm, contented bovine essence of them – you either got nose problems or there’s something more drastically wrong with you. The smell of cow in the morning is like the first flames of a fire on a cold winter’s day, and I sometimes think that even if I didn’t covet butter and cream and milk and meat, I’d keep a cow around just so I could smell the thing.

I like moving cows because there has yet to be anything wrong in my life that can’t at least temporarily be fixed by moving cows. This means that either my life is so good that nothing has yet gone wrong enough that moving cows can’t make me feel better, or that moving cows is so powerful that it can overcome even those things which are terribly wrong.

Which is it? Honestly, I’m not sure it matters.

Carrying the Stone

August 20, 2013 § 18 Comments


There comes a time every summer when the weight of everything that must be done is a stone on my chest. Finish second cut. Finish firewood. Finish the woodshed. Slaughter the chickens. Slaughter the steer. Slaughter the pigs. Make bacon, make sausage. Mill lumber to finish the woodshed. Pick blueberries. Pick blackberries. Harvest chanterelles. Finish the solar dehydrator. Finish the outdoor pizza oven (Well, ok, so we’ll have to start it, first).  Backfill the 1000-foot trench for the electric service. Clip pasture. Start pulling next year’s firewood. Nah, screw it, don’t. It’s good winter work, anyway. Build a new chicken coop. Nah, screw it. The old one’ll do for another year.

You can see how these things can pile up on a body, each it’s own contribution to the weight of that stone, until you can almost forget why you ever picked up the darn thing in the first place. You hear about your friends’ summer vacation, two weeks paddling remote waterways and living off fresh-caught fish and wild berries in Minnesota or some other place you’ve never been but wouldn’t mind going, and you think damn. You drive past your favorite local bookseller on your way from the farm store with the bits and pieces you need to jury-rig the tractor back into action and they’ve got a sign in the window that reads Snack, Nap, Read, and you have to laugh. In summer? Are you joking?

I used to have a shirt from one of the most interesting and talented bicycle frame-builders in the business. It read “It’s simple, but it’s not easy.” I always liked that shirt; to me, it’s apt expression of everything I truly value in the fragile bubble of my small world. I feel as if our lives are simple; our needs – at least when compared to the contemporary norm – are simple. Our days are largely defined by commonplace routine and ritual that are intractably connected to the very means of our survival on this very piece of land. Maybe simple isn’t quite the right word for this reality, but it’s close enough.

But easy? Not really, at least not as easy is commonly understood to embody comfort and convenience. Last night, in Lynn and Martha’s barn, where it felt as if all the day’s heat had gathered for happy hour, and the sweat ran down our faces like the tears of some great sorrow, we stacked one 50-pound bale after another, hundreds in total. It was the simplest task in the world: Throw the hay, stack the hay. But easy? Hell, no, and we knew that when we got home, there were hours of chores still to be done. Even as I tossed bales to Penny, balanced high atop the mounting stacks, I could feel those chores pressing on my chest.

I don’t mean to complain, nor to bemoan the simple fact of that stone. It is an inevitable and necessary part of the life I have chosen, and I am grateful for it in the same way I am grateful for a hard winter, because to know the weariness of carrying it is necessary part of knowing the joy in setting it down. You cannot have one without the other. True satisfaction, true gratification and gratitude do not ask you to give something of yourself: They demand it.

So for the next few weeks, until things settle into the relative calm of autumn proper, I will give. I will give by running from one task to another, by arising in the morning with my muscles sore from the previous days’ tasks. I will give be feeling always slightly overwhelmed and occasionally breathless. I will give by stacking hay, by splitting wood, by sawing and hammering and killing. I will give the sweat that falls off my body, and I will give by knowing the small pains of all the small wounds of labor-by-hand that accumulate on my physical being. I will give because I want my life to be exactly as Richard’s shirt proclaims: Simple, yes. Easy, no.

But here’s the funny thing: Even as I give, I will take. I will take all of this effort and I will store it in the reservoirs of my body,  character, and spirit. Because if I have learned anything in my nearly 42 years on this grand and beautiful world, it is that these things cannot develop without being fed. If you starve them, if you deprive them of the opportunity to carry that weight and feel that heft and hardness, they will wither.

I don’t want to wither.





Weird As We Want to Be

August 16, 2013 § 15 Comments

Cutting up a steer hide in preparation for fleshing and drying

Cutting up a steer hide in preparation for fleshing and drying

The past few mornings have been of the sort that has me looking at the woodstove in that old, familiar way: Not as an inanimate hunk of metal, but as friend and provider, a warm and breathing entity, something that can transform the inhospitable ways of a cold, as-yet-sunless dawn into the open arms of the day to come. I love those first fire-warmed mornings of late summer; I pull a chair to the open door of the cookstove firebox, my coffee set atop its iron surface, while the family slumbers above and the dog snorts and farts in her bed. I listen to the stove metal ticking as it expands, and every so often my feet get a little too close to the flames and the smell of roasting sock wafts through the air. That, my friends, is living, and though I’m loathe to make definitive, grandiose statements such as “I will never live without wood heat,” I will never live without wood heat.

Soon. The first fire will be soon. I am biding my time, now, shivering through the five-o’clock hour clad in a flannel shirt, hunched over my rapidly cooling cup of coffee, teasing out the anticipation of the first morning fire, because of course the anticipation is half the fun. This is the beauty of changeable seasons – the anticipation, the sense of finiteness and appreciation it engenders – and it is not one I would trade for much of anything.

Early this morning, after I’d had quite enough of “teasing out the anticipation,” I embarked upon chores. I’ve got the routine down pretty pat by now, with something like a decade-and-a-half of doing the same damn thing every morning and evening written into my bones and blood. Hell, I hardly even have to think about what I’m doing, which is probably to everyone’s benefit.

Every so often, when I’m going about my daily routine, so commonplace and even mundane to me, I am visited by a sense of how odd my life really is. Or maybe not how odd my life is, but how things have evolved in ways that make my life seem odd to many.

Fleshing. Very hard work. At least, it looked like very hard work. 'Cause I didn't actually do any of it

Fleshing. Very hard work. At least, it looked like very hard work. ‘Cause I didn’t actually do any of it

This morning, I had one of those moments. I had just returned from the hen house with a handful of eggs. It’s a journey that takes me past the garden in which the greenbeans are currently going bonkers. So I grabbed me a handful of them in my eggless hand and continued to the kitchen. There, I commenced to chop the chanterelles the boys collected yesterday and, in their usual fashion, had deposited on the counter in a haphazard fashion that seemed engineered to infuriate. I mean, really: Why couldn’t they put the darn things in a bowl, rather than splaying them across every bare surface within arm’s reach? And why, pray tell, was there a hunk of half-dry hide from the steer we slaughtered last week IN THE MIDDLE OF THE KITCHEN TABLE!?!

Once the chanterelles were dispatched, I put the knife to a tomato from the tomato house (suckers are coming on strong, now), and lit a flame under the pan in which I’d fry the sausages we made from the last batch of piggies. We made fennel, chorizo, maple, and some sort of spicy Italian thing; everyone seems to like the maple best.

Out of the fridge, I cut a slab off the 10-pound block of cheddar I’d picked up the day before, part of a blueberry barter with Jack and Anne, and damned if it weren’t a treat to have professionally made, “boughten” cheese for a change. We don’t get much of this stuff; it’s not really part of our financial landscape, and we haven’t yet figured out how to make a decent cheddar. Someday. In the egg pan, I tossed a spoonful of the butter I’d made the day before. It sputtered a bit, and then settled into a slow melt.

Stretching and tying onto racks for drying

Stretching and tying onto racks for drying

Do you know that my children have never eaten boxed cereal? Actually, I don’t know if that’s true for certain, because they’ve slept over at friends and breakfasted at these houses, so perhaps they have ingested the odd Fruit Loop or Cheerio in their young lives. But in this house, never. Not once. I’d never thought about that before this morning, and I can’t say where the thought came from, but there was something about the absurd abundance of all the food at my fingertips – a reality that is so common to us that we almost can’t help but take it for granted – that made my mind settle on it.

I fear some may read this and think I am bragging, or that I am condescending toward those whose children do eat cereal, perhaps every day. Perhaps more than every day. Neither is my intent. I understand all too well the forces that compel families to gulp down bowls of processed grain and sugar products on their hurried ways out the door, into the tumultuous arms of this thing we call life. I understand that not everyone wants or is able to collect the eggs, wander for the chanterelles, raise the pigs, or pick the blueberries they will trade for the cheese.

The point I’m trying make, I suppose, is not really pointed at you: It’s pointed at myself. Yes, my life is odd, or at least it may seem odd to some. And yes, that sense of being out-of-step with contemporary norms can sometimes leave me feeling a little lonely, not so much in a personal sense, but in a cultural sense. In the sense of the awareness that we are, for lack of a better word, kind of weird.

The point I’m trying to make (again, to myself, although you are welcome to take from it what you please) is to never, ever stop being grateful for the freedom to be as weird as we want to be.

Where Am I?

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