The Boundaries of What Matters

September 30, 2013 § 13 Comments

Once in a while, the boys are actually sort of sweet

Once in a while, the boys are actually sort of sweet

I just finished an essay for an upcoming issue of Taproot based on our experiences with children and guns and, by extension, our views relating to risk and kids. I would tell you what these views are, or you could just scroll through the past couple years of posts. Or buy the next issue of Taproot… now, there’s an idea!

Sometimes I’m a little nervous writing what I truly believe, and this was one of those times. Held in separation, the subjects of children/parenting and guns are volatile enough. But put ‘em together, and the potential to foment strong emotional reaction isn’t really potential, at all: It’s pretty much guaranteed.

I’ve been publishing long enough to understand that no matter how carefully I choose my words, someone’s going to interpret them in ways I could never have imagined. I will never forget reading a pair of reviews of my first book (this being back in the day when I still bothered to do such things) that directly contradicted one another in their criticisms. One claimed I was serving as nothing more than a puppet mouthpiece for the new crop of Hardwick-area agripreneurs (I’m pretty sure the reviewer actually posited that these folks had paid me to write the book); the other took me to task for being needlessly critical of all the good people who comprised this new agricultural revolution, suggesting I must have had a personal axe to grind.

Anyhow. I have witnessed the same phenomenon in this space, and while I can’t say it never bothers me, I have come to understand it to be part-and-parcel of writing about things that actually matter to me. This was not always the case; for years, I wrote most innocuous ski travel stories and other such vacuity, and while it sure was fun in that way that all-expenses-paid-ski-vacations-that-you-get-paid-to-write-about don’t exactly suck, it wasn’t exactly, um, fulfilling.

The truth is, I am coming to a place where I can hardly bear to write a story that I don’t on some level care deeply about. From a strictly fiduciary standpoint, this is mildly problematic: There are a heck of a lot more editors looking for glow-y travel stories than there are looking for essays about buying guns for kids, and the former generally have far deeper pockets. Viewing things solely through the mentality of money, writing about what feels important to me is very bad business, indeed. And then there’s the simple fact that it tends to ruffle feathers, and that on some level or another, I have to figure out how to deal with the reverberations of those ruffles. One of the things I am learning about this space – a lesson I credit to Jon Katz – is that this blog is not an argument. But that doesn’t mean I’m not affected by unkind sentiments or, more profoundly, by the knowledge that my words did not come across as intended.

I try hard – with varying degrees of success – to avoid fretting about the future of my so-called career. Somewhere in the past three years or so, I took a hard left turn toward doing the only thing I’m capable of doing at this point in my life. There is no going back. There will be no more all-expenses-paid trips to Whistler. There are unlikely to be any more $2-per-word travel feature stories at all. This is not a calculated decision, and it’s certainly not because these things are bad, or wrong; it’s simply that I’ve become incapable of writing them. I just don’t care enough anymore.

What a privilege it is to write (and get paid to write) about things I do care about. I am currently working on not one, but two books that fall within the boundaries of what matters to me, and although the money ain’t great, it’s just barely enough. The property taxes will be paid. The cows will have hay and free choice kelp. The car will get winter tires. In January, sure, and only after having gotten almost inextractibly stuck at least twice, but it will get winter tires. Come deer season, there will be ammo for the guns. If there should happen to be a pre-holiday reissue of Van Halen’s 1984, complete with liner notes and never-before-seen photos of backstage antics, I might just be able to afford it. Really, what more can anyone ask?

Plenty, I suppose, and whether or not I can afford to continue walking this path over the long haul remains to be seen. But strangely, the older I get, the less I need to know what might happen tomorrow, or even later today. Strangely, the older I get, the less I need for other people to agree with me. And the older I get, the better I understand is that all I’ve got is here and now. For now, anyway, that’s enough for me.

 

 

A Life Instead of Merely a Living (and Number Three)

September 26, 2013 § 14 Comments

Caught!

Caught!

Penny and the boys are out the door on their way to a four-day wilderness skills/craft retreat, unadvisedly leaving me in charge of, well, everything. The boys prepared small baggies of roasted grasshoppers for exchange at Saturday evening’s trade blanket; they drizzled them with tamari before roasting and then sprinkled salt on top, the result being that this morning I uncovered numerous grasshopper legs that somehow became embedded in the salt jar. Precisely how such a thing could occur escapes my current grasp of logic and reason, but of course the same could be said of many of the things that happen around here.

Ah, well. This is the life I have chosen, and if it happens to include grasshopper legs in the salt jar, so be it. It is a price I can afford to pay.

Having the place to myself, and having no shortage of tasks calling my name, I will stop there and leave you with a wonderful passage from a book I’m reading: The Earth is Enough, by the late Harry Middleton. It’s about his experiences living and fishing as a teen with his uncle and grandfather in the Ozarks. Find it. Read it. Your life will be better for it.

The land the old men worked, this land they had lived on for more than seventy years, had little to recommend it. Judged by the standards of modern agriculture, it was at best hardscrabble in character, a commercial disaster. Only the immense vegetable garden defied the laws of farm commerce and made the old men a handsome profit. Indeed, the garden’s fecundity mocked the rest of the farm’s herculean poverty. Rocky and feckless and only slightly more agreeable to commercial agriculture than 10,000 acres of concrete, the land yielded little that anyone but the old men considered important or of value. From it they harvested solitude, contentment, peace of mind, a way of life instead of merely a living. Which is the way they wanted it. The land was theirs, free and clear, and they had evidently made a decision decades before to keep it the way it was, to work with it rather than against it. A decision for trout and quail instead of beans. It seemed to them the world had too many beans and too few trout and wild turkeys. Their life in the mountains became a compromise, a balance of giving and taking…

… Although the old me warned me that a life devoted to the land brought heartache and ruination, although they chided me for taking what they considered an unhealthy interest in their lives and especially the natural world, once exposed to such a life, there was never really any serious hope of recovery, thank God. And the poverty didn’t seem all that bad; if it kept so much from their reach, they did not seem to mind. Indeed, they wanted it that way; doing without was the coin that had bought them the life in the hills beyond the backyard. Money, even in modest amounts, would have meant complications, and complications were something the old men had had enough of and didn’t want any more of. Complications took time, and time, they knew, was running out. They wanted only the solitude the land freely gave. The solitude of Starlight Creek soothed them; it was not a self-imposed prison but a natural sanctuary, real and boundless along the shadowy banks of the swift-moving creek.

Now that, my friends, is good writin’.

Number Three: Stay home

Number Two (and more)

September 25, 2013 § 6 Comments

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A couple evenings ago, my friend Todd and I puttered up to Sterling College to hear a presentation by Mark Shepard. Shepard is the author of Restoration Agriculture and the owner of a 100-acre farm in Wisconsin that utilizes large-scale permaculture techniques to grow and harvest perennial tree crops. He grows a few acres of annual vegetables, mostly to satisfy his quota with Organic Valley, of which he’s been a member for nearly two decades. Also, he runs some critters in his “savanna” (that’s how he described it): Cows, pigs, chickens, sheepsies.

The thrust of Shepard’s point is that annual agriculture – based in large part on cereal grains and legumes – is killing the planet and, not inconsequently, us. “Every society that has depended on annual agriculture has collapsed,” he said, and I suppose he’s right, if you discount the society we currently inhabit. Although by some standards, it’s not terribly hard to see that even this society is collapsing. It’s just that collapse, like wealth, isn’t being equally distributed. In Shepard’s view, we desperately need to transform the way we do large scale agriculture in North America, utilizing woody crops that do a far better job of capturing sunlight and producing truly nourishing foods than do the soil and health-destroying plants upon which we’ve come to depend. He is downright dismissive of the homestead model of food production and the ways in which he’s seen the permaculture movement evolve to be largely about 10 x 10 urban garden plots and “mud ovens.” (He has a particular hair across his ass for mud ovens, which he must of disparaged a half dozen times or more) Oh yeah, there’s something else he’s not particularly fond of: Hand labor. He’s very big on mechanization, which does make one wonder what’ll become of all the people and even cultures who currently depend on hand labor for their livelihood. But that’s maybe a topic for another day.

Anyway. It was a great presentation; Shepard is a dynamic speaker and incredibly engaging. He’s outspoken and unapologetic, and he’s clearly brilliant. Despite the fact that so many of the practices we employ here (homestead scale, hand labor, and by gum we’re even building a “mud oven”), I really enjoyed his talk, and if you ever have the chance to see him speak, I highly recommend it.

With one exception. After the talk, someone asked Shepard how his financial model works. “Oh, I’m in ten times as much debt as I was when I started,” he said, before going on to describe a complex web of debt swapping, utilizing multiple creditors to leverage an initial loan into many multiples of that amount. “And you’re ok with all this?” I asked, and he said that he was very much ok with it, that this is how Donald Trump and anyone who truly understands the financial system operates, and that the choice was between gaming the system in this manner (which sounded a hell of a lot like a ponzi scheme, frankly) or “spending the rest of your life with a yoke around your neck.” Besides which, the need to reform agriculture is so urgent, it’s imperative that we use every tool at hand.

I mention none of this to denigrate the fellow. Although I don’t agree with his views on hand labor or debt gaming (let me put it this way: Whatever I see Donald Trump doing, I pretty much do the opposite), he’s clearly got a lot to offer. And it occurs to me that his embrace of mechanization and financial scheming is largely driven by his genuine love for the planet and the people inhabiting it. In other words, the end justifies the means. “Your problem,” he told me, “is that you have a concept that debt is bad. I’m simply observing that this is how the system works.”

The crazy thing is, he’s probably right.

Number Two: Do not fear terrorism. Do not fear death. Do not fear your government. Do not fear taxes. Do not fear strange men from Vermont who tell you not to fear. Do not fear because almost everything you might fear will not change because you fear it, but also, do not fear because almost every one of your fears is somebody else’s profit. 

 

 

 

Number One

September 24, 2013 § 11 Comments

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Remember something Eliot Coleman told me a few years ago:

“It’s important for democracy to have a certain percentage of people feeding themselves so they can tell government to go f**k off.” 

 

The Advantage of Knowing

September 23, 2013 § 8 Comments

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The pasture is going fast and the cows have been let loose to graze the fringes. They wander with noses bent to the ground, in search of what small succulence remains. We’ve got a week or maybe two of grass remaining before the daily ritual of hay throwing begins. It is ok. True, I like throwing hay less than I like moving cows, but if I never had to throw hay, I might not like moving cows so much, anyway. Moving cows without the knowledge of throwing hay would be like living without the knowledge of dying. Ok, so maybe that’s pushing it a bit, but you get the point.

Right now, this property is home to two chimneys spiraling wood smoke, and that is as sure a sign of the season’s change as the cows cut loose, or an apple tree folding under the weight of its own fruit (egads, what a year for apples: On Saturday, we gathered better than four bushels in barely an hour), or a sugar maple gone yellow, then orange, then red, then bare, like a butterfly crawling back into its cocoon. Right now, the boys are dyeing their traps over an open fire, preparing for the season to come. I both want for them to be successful and I don’t, and I suspect this is not the first time I’ll be faced with this conundrum in their lives, or at least the portion of their lives I’ll be privileged enough to bear witness to. Right now, Penny is cooking down a 5-gallon pot of chopped apples on the cookstove; she tells me she wants 50-quarts of applesauce, and when Penny says she wants 50-quarts of applesauce, Penny damn well gets 50-quarts of applesauce. Actually, she thinks it’s likely to be 60 or more, and I can see how pleased this makes her. Single male readers, my relationship advice can be summed up thusly: Find yourself a 60-quarts-of-applesauce-women. Your life will be ever so much better for it.

Two weeks ago, I was not ready for the weather to change. I do not know why, exactly; my fondness for winter is secured by equal measures of history and irrationality. But for a few days there, when the first series of sub-30-degree mornings were granted visiting rights by whomever grants such things, I experienced a small sense of dread for the months to come. It is gone now, and I am back to that cozy anticipation of flannel and wood smoke, of movie nights and reading, of early morning skiing and plow truck extractions from whichever ditch I happen to slide into. Whatever the case, you will hear no complaining from me; I have little patience for those who live in northern climates and then gripe about the weather. I mean, really: There are far, far easier places to live. If you don’t like it, you ought just get the hell out. (is complaining about people who complain about winter any different than complaining about winter itself? Hmmm.. I ‘spose I ought just shut the hell up).

So here it is. Not winter yet, but close enough there can be no doubting its intentions. There is still much to do: Kimchi to be made, pigs and lambs to be killed, potatoes and carrots and beets to be harvested, bacon to be smoked, gardens to be amended and mulched, firewood and sawlogs to be skidded, and so on. Each of these we’ve done so many times before, the motions are etched into muscle and memory and I suppose this, more than anything, is the advantage we hold over winter and what she will bring. It is the advantage of routine and ritual, of habit and practice, of sensing and feeling the when and the why and the how of all these tasks.

It is the advantage of knowing.

Needed

September 20, 2013 § 10 Comments

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Lynn called and offered us 8 or 9 acres of standing second cut hay, and damned if that we were gonna let such an enormously generous offer fall by the wayside. We’ve got almost enough hay put up, but almost is… well, it’s almost, and almost don’t cut it with ruminant animals. I mean, you can have enough hay to get you through, say, middle April, which is mighty close to green up ’round these parts, but if you don’t have enough to make it into May, you might’s well pawn your critters now and save yourself a passel of trouble. And all for the want of a few weeks worth of hay come spring.

Anyway. The barn is full to bursting with square bales, so we worked a deal with Melvin to put the hay into wrapped round bales that needn’t be under cover. To be sure, the plastic wrap is a bummer and all, but sometimes concessions must be made, and this was one of those times. I’ve waxed poetic about putting up square bales more than a time or two, and I’ve meant every last word of it, but tarnation them round bales are handy as all get out under the right circumstances. So this morning after chores the boys and I trundled down to Melvin’s, hooked up the clamshell to his loader, hitched onto the wagon, and went bale gathering.

I hadn’t really expected the boys to help with wrapping. They’d never run the wrapper before, and it seemed easier to simply do it myself, despite the complications of wrapping solo. First, you gotta load the bale onto the wrapper; then, you gotta move the tractor, climb out of the tractor, wrap the bale, dump the bale, set the wrapper, hop back into the tractor, stack the wrapped bale, grab an unwrapped bale, and load the bale. Then you do it all over again. But complicated as all this sounds, I figured it’d be quicker and ultimately more efficient than taking the time to show the fellas how to operate the wrapper, as well as whatever time it took to undo any mistakes that were made. In short – and it sorta pains me to admit this – I just didn’t want to be bothered.

So yeah, I’d planned on performing the gyrations necessary to load, wrap, and stack the bales alone, what with Melvin still milking, but the boys were keen to prove their worth, and so I sighed and capitulated and gave them a few moments of instruction and climbed back into the tractor, all but certain I was making a mistake that would come back to bite me sooner, rather than later.

I’m gonna stop the story telling here, because I’ve come to the place where I can make my point, and that’s really what I came here to do. As I was watching the boys wrap the bales, conferring amongst themselves every so often when things got complicated (wrapping is a fairly simple task, but it is important to line up the wrapper correctly for both loading and dumping, and to be sure the bale makes 15 full turns, and the plastic wrap, which is self-sticking, can be a real bear to work with), it occurred to me how rare it’s become that children are able and/or allowed to contribute to their family’s well being in such a visceral manner anymore. And I was thinking of a passage from the book From Boys to Men (which is by Bret Stephenson, although the passage is one he  quotes from a now-defunct periodical):

We are the only civilization in history to have created a whole category of people (adolescents) for whom we have no real use. In times not long gone by, fourteen-year-olds helped on the farm. They assisted with the animals, cared for younger siblings, and helped get the crops in before the frost. If they lived in the city, they got into the shops and found jobs as apprentices, helpers, stock clerks, or custodians. They had a role in society – and they understood that hard work and responsible behavior were the keys to future success. They were in partnership with adult members.

Now, however, we have “protected” them out of jobs, and relegated young adolescents to the roles of pizza consumer and videotape junkie… Children this age need to be needed, but we have institutionalized our rebuff to their pleas to be of service. 

For the next hour or so, I loaded and stacked, whilst the boys wrapped, and darned if they didn’t make but one error, which was quickly remedied (and was one less error than I’d made the first time I used the wrapper), and darned if the whole task took maybe half as long as it would have without their help.

And darned if – and I’m pretty sure I’m not mistaken, here, judging by the look of satisfaction on their faces – my sons didn’t feel needed. As I know from experience, that’s a real nice way to feel.

More Than I Deserve

September 19, 2013 § 18 Comments

Picking wild apples. Fin can hit pretty much any apple at will.

Picking wild apples. Fin can hit pretty much any apple at will.

The first hard frost arrived a few nights ago. When I awoke in the half-dark of predawn, the pasture was white and luminescent under the late moon. I kindled a fire in the cookstove and stood by the open door of the firebox, ostensibly waiting for enough light to see my way through chores. But of course I could have seen just fine; the truth was the truth whispered by all fires on all cold mornings: Stay. Stay. So I stayed.

It has been nice to abandon this space for a few days. Much has happened in the intervening week: I took a two-day long chainsaw/tree felling course known as Game of Logging, and for those of you inclined toward such antics, I highly recommend it. I have been using chainsaws for the majority of my adult life, which in truth only means that I have been establishing dangerous and wasteful habits for most of my adult life, skating by on a smidge of common sense, an inflated sense of my capabilities, and a whole passel of good luck, a trifecta that probably applies to more of my pursuits than I care to admit.

What else? Nate returned from three weeks in Minnesota, where he’d established a “rice camp” and harvested a preposterous quantity of wild rice. 450-pounds, if I’m not mistaken. Anyway, he happened to return the evening after I’d gathered a few pounds of premium chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms and furthermore had set out a leg of lamb to thaw and so we feasted in a manner fit for kings: Piles of buttered wild rice, smoky and tender, a pan of wild mushrooms cooked in fresh butter, and of course the lamb, the fat crisped to perfection, the delicate flesh cooked just enough to be considered cooked. I think we ate some vegetables, too; indeed, I’m sure of it, but this is a season of plant matter abundance to the extent that they become almost unmemorable. Oh, another fresh tomato? What, more green beans? And so on.

Ah, except corn, which is coming in hard, now, and is quite memorable indeed, if only for its fleeting nature. Soon it will be gone, but last night we ate corn and only corn for dinner, four fat ears for each of us, the boys’ faces shiny with butter and flecked with yellow. (Ok, so Penny’s and my faces were shiny with butter and flecked with yellow, too)

We are ready for winter. The woodshed is full. The pantry is full.  The cows are fat and bred. The pigs are merely fat, 300-or more pounds each of walking sausage. The hay barn is full. The freezers are full. I have made 105-pounds of butter and strongly suspect I’ll hit 150 by the time Thanksgiving rolls around. Soon, the root cellar will be full: Potatoes, carrots, beets, kimchi, applesauce, green beans, sausages, and so on and so forth.

In a sense, this is what we have been working toward all summer, although it is always a little surprising to me to see the tangible and literal fruits of our labors, the rows of jars, the stacks of wood and lumber, the packages of steaks and burger and chops, the bales of hay to be fed out one-by-by-by-one. Honestly, it always makes me feel like I’m getting away with something: You mean I get to do the work and I get all this? One or the other seems fair, it’s plenty, it is all I could dare ask for. But to be blessed with both? Sometimes, it just plain feels like more than I deserve.

Where Am I?

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