December 31, 2013 § 28 Comments
Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. The usual I we are given has all the tidy containment of the kind of character the realist novel specializes in and none of the porousness of our every waking moment, the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgettings and misrememberings, the portions of a life lived through others’ stories, the incoherence and inconsistency…There are other ways of telling.
I can’t remember where or when I came across this passage by Rebecca Solnit, but it sure has stuck with me. I think what Solnit is talking about is the fallacy of separation. At least, that’s what I take from it, and as such, I can’t help but think about this passage both in relation to our educational path and our work with the land. (By-the-by, and for what it’s worth, I can’t stand the term living off the land. We are not living off the land. We are not even living on the land. We are living with the land. Or at least we’re trying to. Whew. Glad we got that settled)
Anyhow. I’ve been struck recently by the extent to which separation and compartmentalization have become the status quo. It’s easy to see how we do this with education by removing children from their natural surroundings of family, home, community and the natural world, compelling them to pass their days inside a classroom “learning” a preordained curriculum of facts and figures. (By-the-by, and for what it’s worth, I recently read this incredibly depressing story about the public schools in Burlington, VT)
But of course the vast majority of contemporary first world society is rooted in separation. We separate making a living from making a life, our leisure from our work, ourselves from the land, our minds from our bodies, our bodies from our spirits, the deaths of other living creatures from our own survival, our food from our health. We do not seem to make the connection that 40 years ago, at the advent of the subsidized, fencerow-to-fencerow agricultural policy that led to the proliferation of adulterated substances we’ve somehow gotten confused with food, barely 3% of Americans suffered from diabetes. Today, that number has quadrupled, and the CDC predicts that if current trends hold, by 2050 as much 33% of the US population will suffer from the disease. We do not seem to make the connection between these figures and the windfall profits reaped by drug makers who provide the drugs we need to stay alive enough to continue eating the stuff that’s making us sick and going to the jobs we need in order to pay for the health insurance that provides the drugs we need to stay alive enough to continue eating the stuff that’s… you get the point.
I sometimes struggle to articulate precisely why we live the life we do. I mean, I feel that this is how we were meant to live, and I do not doubt what I feel. But I cannot always explain it, at least not concisely. Not in a way that satisfies the common logic of the day, influenced as it is by the centers of profit and industry, which would rather that none of us think or feel too hard about how we are meant to live.
Food. Health. Mind. Body. Spirit. Learning. Music. Silence. Wind. Beavers. Cows. Trees. Heat. Cold. Soil. Blood. Friends. Work. Play. Life. Death. Things we cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Things we cannot know. The older I get, the closer I come to grasping how truly porous everything is, how one becomes the other. How the others become us and we become them, and how that porousness is where the sweet marrow of life is found. And I suspect that behind the cloak of our own flawed logic (grow our own food, freedom to pass our days as we wish, love of labor, and blah, blah, blah), the reason we have chosen this path is because it affords us, to the greatest extent possible, the simple luxury of acknowledging and experiencing that porousness. Of turning our backs to separation.
As is often the case, I feel as if I am struggling to articulate precisely what I mean. But maybe that’s ok. Because as Solnit points out, there are other ways of telling. Maybe we just have to learn how to listen.
Happy New Year.
December 27, 2013 § 16 Comments
When we came to this land, there was no infrastructure. No house, no well, no septic, not even a driveway. The only visible evidence of human habitation was a rusting barbed wire perimeter fence, a 19th-century sugarhouse foundation, and a large pile of garbage; at some point in the property’s relatively recent history, someone had used our new homesite as their private metal and tire dump. Wicked classy.
The lack of infrastructure has proven both blessing and curse. The blessings are that it contributed to the land’s affordability, and that we were able to build our own home. Admittedly, the latter could be seen as a negative, but that was not and is not our view. The curse is that we have spent numerous years establishing infrastructure, investing time, energy, and money that might have been invested in the land itself.
A huge aspect of establishing a thriving small farm involves creating symbiosis between infrastructure, land, crops, and animals, and in this regard, it is perhaps advantageous to begin with raw land. But of course that’s not a possibility for everyone, and the truth is, much of our infrastructure was developed before we had established a sense of how this symbiosis would work for us. Even today, we are constantly evolving the overall “design” of our place to improve functionality, nutrient cycling, human/land/animal interaction, and to reduce our dependence on mechanization. We also think an awful lot about our future on this property. Put bluntly, this is not a place that tolerates physical infirmity, and since we’d like to be kicking around this land well into our 90’s (and really, why stop there?), we are slowing steering things in a direction that will accommodate the slow, hunched shuffle of our aged selves.
We are advocates of simple, inexpensive construction techniques for barns, outbuildings, and even our own shelter. This is not because we wouldn’t necessarily want something grander. Would I like to lay my head under a slate or standing seam metal roof that will outlast my physical being? To be sure. Would I prefer to stack our cows’ annual allotment of hay in a soaring post-and-beam barn, the sunlight flitting through the divided light windows in the cupola? You betcha. But like most people I know, we live with limits of time, skills, and finance, and we have chosen to apply what resources we do have to the restoration of our land and the cultivation and gathering of our food.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’m currently working on my new book for Chelsea Green (this being the one about our land-based practices and processes, not the one for Roost about unschooling/parenting/life in general). There will be a goodly amount of photos in the CG book, and every so often when I remember this, I feel a bit self conscious about the humble nature of our infrastructure. It’s not like our place is hard to look at, and it does have its bucolic charms. “It’s like a homestead empire!” is what my editor said the first time she visited, and I wasn’t the least bit sure how to respond. But empire or no, our home and outbuildings are relatively modest affairs, by-and-large products of our own hands, and as such defined by our limited skill, time, and budget. Our primary barn, which has served us well for nearly a decade and has many more years if not decades of service to go, cost us approximately $2,000, and that was only because we had to buy the roofing and the siding.
I have observed over the years that even the art of homesteading and small-scale farming can become a game of “wants” rather than “needs.” As much as many of us on this path might desire to slip the surly bonds of the first-world consumer economy, we have all been socialized to certain assumptions and expectations, and I find it helpful to remind myself that there are cultures on this Earth that have lived and thrived as tent-dwelling nomads for centuries, living with the land in the most humble and respectful manner imaginable. In other words, we so often need so much less than we talk ourselves into.
I guess I feel compelled to mention all this because I have of late stumbled across a handful for homestead/small-farm reference books (research, ya know) that feature infrastructure far beyond our means and, I suspect, the means of many readers. Again, it’s not as if I wouldn’t want to surround myself with such finely crafted and gorgeous structures, because I would. Who the heck wouldn’t? But over all the years we have passed on this piece of ground, I can honestly say that we have never, not even once been disadvantaged by our rudimentary shelters. Indeed, I suspect that in some ways we have been advantaged by them, if only because they have liberated resources to be applied elsewhere.
For those of you who seek to establish their own small holding (and I know there are at least a few of you reading), remember this: Nice buildings help. They are, well, nice. But it’s the land that matters.
December 26, 2013 § 10 Comments
I slept late this morning, and it was nearly 6:30 by the time I’d roused my myself and made my way downstairs. The kitchen was chilly; it’s been the coldest November and December in recent memory and already there’s an alarming dent in the woodpile. So we’ve pretty much quit stoking the fire at night. It’s not bad, really. The place warms up right quick once both stoves are humming along and the simple pleasure of perching myself by the kitchen fire and feeling the heat settle into flesh and bone is not to be dismissed. It is yet another reminder that many of most gratifying moments in my life are enabled by some small sacrifice or another.
Once I’d gotten the fires going, I chopped an onion and the handful of dried chanterelles I’d rehydrated the night before. On the counter next to me lay a muskrat carcass, thawing in its own pink juices. The boys are scheming some sort of bacon-wrapped roast muskrat for lunch, which means I’m scheming a rather large snack at, oh, about 11:30. Seeing the small purple-brown flesh of the creature, along with a deer hide the boys are soaking in a broth of egg yolk and water, I had one of those softly surreal moments when I realize just how far my life’s path has deviated from anything that might be considered normative to contemporary America. How many of my fellow countrymen and women awoke this morning to a thawing muskrat on their kitchen counter and a soaking deer hide by the wood stove? My guess is not terribly many, and as usual when I experience these moments, I felt both a little lonely and a bit pleased. I’m not above a bit of self satisfaction from time-to-time, particularly when I’m reminded of how fortunate I am to have meandered onto this path in the first place. I’d like to think everybody feels that way about their respective paths. I hope so.
Christmas was real good. We’d already completed our seasonal celebrating; a spitting rain sledding party on Solstice eve, along with a small gathering of immediate family on the 21st, and so we awoke on Christmas morning free of obligation or self-expecation. I worked at my desk for a few hours before heading outside to drop a few more trees in the copse of spruce and fir we’re clearing to make way for yet more food-bearing trees and bushes. It’s pleasant work, particularly on a cold, clear day, and I’ve been enjoying the challenge of threading the two slim landing runways between trapping cabin and old barn, and between honey berries and new barn. A year ago, I’d have been uncertain of my abilities, but my training at the GOL has increased my sawing skills exponentially (if you’re an aspiring woodsperson, I can’t recommend it enough), and with two trees to go, the only damage is a single pane of barn glass that got kissed by a wayward branch. Considering the slim margin of error and the backward leaning nature of most of the trees, I’ll take it.
We are excited to expand our perennial crops. Indeed, once I finish clearing this patch, I have yet another, more ambitious clearing job ahead of me. We are saving our pennies toward a sizable tree order, slowing weaning ourselves off nonessentials (did you know that plain baking soda makes a serviceable shampoo? By gum, it is so), and much as I’m fond of waxing poetic about “living in the moment” and “being satisfied with less”, it sure is fun to scheme and dream future projects. It sure is fun to think about expanding the capacities of our little holding. It sure is fun to imagine all those fruit and nut trees in their summer splendor, their leaves soaking up all the that good sunshine, their limbs heavy with the harvest.
Truth is, it sure is fun to want something.
December 24, 2013 § 10 Comments
Three days of rain have reduced the snow to a slim crust that crackles underfoot. Gone the skiing. Gone the sledding. Gone the slate-clean sense of the land in slumber, the earth a hidden thing, hushed and invisible under the soft weight of all that white. Years ago, I was skiing in a snowstorm and saw the bough of a balsam fir break under the accumulated weight of snow. From time-to-time I still wonder about the particular snowflake that was one too many for that branch. One snowflake too many. Imagine that.
If I hadn’t complained in this space about people who complain about the weather, I’d complain about the weather. I’ve come to terms with pretty much every aspect of the variable and at times capricious weather of northern Vermont. And not just come to terms with it, but come to genuinely appreciate it. But rain on fresh snow? Rain when I’m just getting into a nice rhythm on the skis, a daily ramble down our field and back up, across Melvin’s high mowing and a few arcing turns on the steep hill behind his house, back along the tractor road through the cedars, and then into his back pasture, the tracks of my skis running over the meandering path of a nice sized deer, nosing for frozen orbs under an old apple tree. An hour and no more, just enough to work out the kinks of mind and muscle and furthermore retard the slow expansion of my waistline. When did that happen, anyway? I guess when I up and turned 40. I suppose that was my mistake.
The boys don’t seem to care about the rain. They’re far more adaptable and generally resourceful than am I, and they’re rarely willing to let the weather determine their fate. Most kids are inherently like this, I think. But most parents are not, so children inevitably learn that rain on snow is something to bemoan. They learn that zero is too cold , or that 95 is too hot, or that one should not set up camp in the woods on a 5-degree night. The other night, when Rye and I were sleeping out, I woke up cold. Not dangerously so, but still. Cold. “Rye,” I said, shaking him a bit to wake him. “I might have to go in.” (Translation: Rye, get the hell out of your sleeping bag, we’re going inside). “What?” he said, incredulously. “Can’t you just put on more clothes?” Then he pushed himself a little closer to me, a small offering of warmth, and went back to sleep. I put on my coat, wiggled my toes to be sure they were still responsive, and followed my son into slumber.
The longer we walk the homeschool/unschool path, the more I recognize all the ways in which it is not merely Penny and me facilitating our sons’ learning, but our sons facilitating ours. Maybe this is not true for all parents who keep their children out of school, but it sure is true for us. I suspect some of it has to do with the fact that Fin and Rye are passionate about their interests. Their passion does not always make things easy, that’s for darn sure. But it means that I’d have to try real hard to not learn from them. Part of what I’m learning, of course, is the passion itself. It’s the same thing I wrote about in my last post, that quiet inspiration of connecting with those who have found their path and are following it with intent.
Of course, it’s a little early to say whether or not my sons have “found their path,” and it would be ridiculous to speculate, anyway. As I have written many times before, their future is not mine to imagine. But one of the things I am most grateful for in relation for our choices surrounding Fin’s and Rye’s learning is that their present is mine to share. Their learning is my learning. Honestly, it’s the best damn education I never imagined getting.
December 19, 2013 § 16 Comments
I awoke at a quarter after four this morning, a full hour earlier than is usual for me and for a moment I considered rolling over and drifting back to sleep. But the nearly-full moon shone through a thin scrim of high clouds, and the air drifting through the window was the warmest it’s been in many a morning, and so I stepped gingerly down the stairs, kindled a pair of fires, made and drank a cup of coffee, and by 5:00 I’d clipped into my skis and was gliding past the darkened forms of the cows in repose. I did not take a headlamp, but I did not need one, and I soon found that certain effortless rhythm one can find on skis when the snow is just right and you’ve been cross-country skiing almost since you were born.
I skied for an hour, and while I skied, I thought about how lately I’ve been wishing I could do things I cannot do. Or maybe it’s things I could do, but for any number of reasons, do not do. I mentioned this desire in passing in my Christmas story post, and it has been recalled by recent visits with an array of folks whose talents, in some way or another, exacerbate this itch. First, a visit with Lucian, a blacksmith of prodigious abilities, and also the sort of fellow who can sew a satchel of great function and beauty from the hide of a pig he tanned with his own hands, and furthermore, carry in that satchel a wallet he made from the hide of a muskrat he tanned with his own hands. Then Nate shows up, clad head to toe (and I mean this quite literally) in clothes of his own making and who furthermore had just emerged from spending a month in the woods, living in a wall tent he constructed (if you want to see more of his work, I highly recommend his site, which has links to photos of his work on the “projects” page), which itself was heated by a stove of his own design. Finally, yesterday’s visit with a young metal working neighbor who is so damn skilled he actually designed and fabricated his own cider press. And I’m not talking some cobbled-together, quasi-functional blob of metal and wood. The darn thing is a work of art, set into a charming little pressing house that – guess what? – he also constructed. I think he was 21 when he built it.
Well, tarnation. You could see how a simple fella like myself could get a little down in the mouth over it all. It’s not as if I consider myself utterly lacking in skill. I can claim a sort of crude competence in the many unheralded talents of rural living. I can sharpen a chainsaw, knock together a simple-but-sturdy pole barn, hand milk a cow, and slaughter a hog. I’m halfway decent with equipment and power tools, and am generally unafraid of the sort of brutish, muscle-borne labor that only goes further out of fashion with every passing year. I possess a certain misplaced confidence-bordering-on-arrogance that I can get done what needs to get done. I might screw things up, and Penny might ultimately have to bail out my sorry ass, and the results may not be all that easy to look at, but it will happen, by gum. Likewise, it seems to me that simply living well is its own unheralded craft, and while my life is far from perfect, it’s a rare morning that I do not arise with genuine enthusiasm for what the day holds. There’s gotta be some skill involved in that.
I don’t think it’s terribly productive to wish to be something I am not. Nor do I believe that very many people – including myself – are capable of change simply by deciding to change. Or perhaps it’s merely that I lack the particular tenacity such decisions require. On the other hand, I have seen that I am not immune to certain changes that might, when viewed from a particular angle, even be construed as growth. My reservoirs of patience and empathy have deepened in recent years. I am, as a whole, more resourceful than I was a decade ago. Or even a year ago. I’d like to think I have become a better parent and partner as I have aged, but I suppose I’m not the best judge of this. But again, I did not set out change in these ways. There was no determination made.
It is almost the New Year, which for many means New Year’s resolutions, a quiet promise to change one thing or another. I’m not much for such self-declarations. I will make no resolutions to become more skilled with my hands. There will be no pig hide satchels hewn by Hewitt in the coming year; I will continue to wear my thrift store duds with my usual styleless style. When I need metalwork done, I will hire my neighbor.
But still I derive a certain quiet inspiration from those around me who are so much more capable than I. In a way, it’s not an inspiration to emulate their particular skills. In a way, it may not even be inspiration, so much as a reminder that the more closely I align the day-in, day-out particulars of my life with my own set of beliefs and principles, the more fulfilling my life becomes. Because I think those skills-of-hand-and-heart originate from knowing how one fits into the great big world around them, and knowing how to find that place. I think they originate from feeling connected to something larger than one’s self. I believe they evolve out of living the life one was meant to live, without much concern over what others think of that decision, and goodness knows too many people are not fortunate enough to know what such a thing feels like.
So, no New Year’s resolutions for me. Well, ok, maybe one: More early morning skiing. Yeah. That seems like one I can keep.
December 16, 2013 § 10 Comments
It was a balmy 5-degrees above zero this morning, and thank goodness for that, because Rye and I had decided to sleep out last night and had it been a quarter-degree colder, I surely would’ve run whimpering to the house the first time I woke up freezing my goose-bumped ass off. As it was, I just balled myself up tight as the mummy bag would let me and pulled my son close as I could; the little bugger was warm as could be, a hot water bottle of flesh and bone and sour breath and I needed every bit of the heat coming off him to get through the long night.
It’s starting to feel like winter proper. It was a dozen degrees below Saturday morning, with nice little storm forecast for the evening. In my usual style, I had put off mucking with the snowplow until the last moment, and now the last moment was cold enough to make my eyes water and then freeze that water to the slowly numbing surfaces of my cheeks, like little suspended tears, shed over my own idiocy. But I had no one to blame but my own bad self, so I bundled up best as possible and bumbled my way through hitching up the plow, pitching a hissy fit when the confounded thing would not respond to the controller in truck cab, and then finally regaining enough composure to find the corrupted ground wire on the pump relay. If’n any of you suffer under the delusion that my life is just one unbroken stream of cool and collected resourcefulness wedded to soulful gratitude for all the small moments of my days, well… ya shoulda been here Saturday morning when I was hucking tools across the barnyard and swearing a devil’s blue streak. In truth, no tools got hucked, but only because I’m too damn cheap to risk losing them.
Sunday we awoke to a solid 10-inches of new snow, the soft excitement of the land transformed. The boys and I plowed the driveway, a task made all the more satisfying by my struggles of the day before, then they went off to hunt squirrels while Penny and I tended to the home front. The fellas took a fry pan and a small jar of lard with them, the better to cook their quarry over a campfire, and later they returned smelling of woodsmoke and sporting greasy lips. A successful hunt.
• • •
With my last couple posts, I fear I may have given the false impression that our sons are saintly little beings with no material desires beyond those of humble home and heated hearth. If so, humor me a brief correction.
Our boys want plenty. Just this weekend, Fin passed a couple of decidedly sour hours bemoaning the fact that we would not allow him to set up a winter camp on a friend’s land a hour from here, where, according to his infallible logic, we should leave him for a week or maybe two to live off the land. No amount of explaining would mollify him, and he descended into a funk of self-pity, all because he must be the only 11-year-old in the world whose parents are soooo uptight and over protective they won’t drop him into the wilderness, alone but for the company of shotgun and traps. Yeah. That’s Penny and me: Uptight and over protective beyond all reason.
Anyway. My point is merely that like most children, my sons exhibit moments (and sometimes, like this weekend, very long and exhausting moments) of discontentedness. When it comes to material goods, they are less apt to verbalize their dissatisfactions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want things. The pages of the trapping and outdoor supply catalogs they’ve accumulated over the years are thumbworn and wrinkled from over-browsing and when we stop at the local gun shop for ammo or other supplies, they dearly love to peruse the racks of firearms, planning for some distant day when they’ve sold enough ash splits to afford them the deer rifles of their dreams.
Fin’s and Rye’s desires are perhaps somewhat unique to 21st century American culture, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t rather have them pining after a rifle, or a week in the woods, than after the current video game console of choice. But just because the subjects of their pining are unique, it doesn’t mean they don’t pine, and I sometimes wonder if it’s merely part of the human condition to want things we don’t have. Perhaps, in a strange way, such wanting is nothing more than a small piece of hope held against an unknown future.
There, now. Hope we got that all cleared up.
December 12, 2013 § 16 Comments
In the comments pertaining to my last post, Jess asks:
I’ve been wondering…has there ever been a time where one of your boys has requested something material that was against your values? How would you handle such a request?
The subjects of children and wanting and stuff and having and contentment get an awful lot of play around here. Over the years, we have been extremely aware – some might even say uptight – regarding our sons’ exposure to material goods and, by extension, the expectations that develop around having and wanting “stuff.” From a very early age – from birth, really – we’ve insisted on retaining a high degree of control over what they are gifted and, via our own consumptive habits, what is modeled in regards to the accumulation of material goods.
I say this as a prelude to answering Jess’s specific questions, because I think it’s important to provide some context, which could be described Penny and me being extremely conscious regarding our sons’ exposure to material consumption. An alternate view might be that Penny and I are totalitarian hard asses who will never be forgiven once our kids figure out how the rest of their culture lives.
So. Onto the questions at hand. Have our boys ever requested something material that was against our values? Well, sort of. I mean, they’ve never asked for an Xbox or a flat screen TV or an iPhone, or anything like that. They’re just not into these things, so we haven’t been faced with the challenge of navigating such requests. Likewise, they’re not interested in new clothing (the looove it when Penny comes home from the thrift store with some camo or anything woolen), or plastic toys, or electronic gadgets, or many of the other accoutrements of modern childhood.
But that’s not to say we haven’t been faced with the scenario Jess mentions. The two most glaring examples I can think of are guns and traps. We did not think of ourselves as a “gun family” (whatever that means), but the boys’ desire to hunt forced us to examine our assumptions about what gun ownership meant to us. Ditto trapping. In fact, in my upcoming book about unschooling and parenting and whatnot, I have an entire chapter on trapping, simply because it was such a watershed moment for our family.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Fin and Rye have never asked for the sort of plasticized and digitized goodies that are so prevalent across pretty much all age groups and socioeconomic strata. Part of this, I’m sure, is that they just haven’t had a lot of exposure to this stuff, but I suspect another less flattering part of it is that they know with absolute certainty that it just ain’t gonna happen. In many ways, Penny and I are the most permissive parents I know. In others, we are the strictest. This is one of the ways in which we might be considered strict, although owing to the aforementioned fact that Fin and Rye simply don’t care about this stuff, I’m pretty sure our sons don’t view us in this light. Pretty sure.
When Fin and Rye have asked for material goods that challenge Penny’s and my notion of what is right and wrong, we have done our level best to educate ourselves on the matter at hand. In both of the above examples (guns and trapping), we were confronted with the uncomfortable truth that our preconceived notions, while not necessarily being wrong in and of themselves, did not tell the whole story. And so we have guns. And so our sons trap. The whole subject of parents learning from their children is probably worthy of a post, itself.
Finally, I wish to point out that we go to great lengths to model contentment with the relative dearth of “stuff” in our adult lives, and also to ensure that the boys do not feel bereft. In my Christmas post, I neglected to mention our efforts with the homemade advent calendar Penny made many years ago, and how for every one of 21 mornings leading up to the winter solstice, the boys come downstairs to find a little note in the calendar pocket that corresponds to the day. And what does the note say? Why, it tells them where to find some little goodie or another. Today, it was a pair of oranges. Sometimes, it’s cookies, or a package of fishhooks. It’s never much, but it’s always something, and it always delights them. This morning, the boys ate their oranges with such enthusiasm a casual onlooker might wonder if they hadn’t eaten an orange in a year. Which, in fact, they hadn’t.
My general belief is that in some regards, children need so much less than what they’ve become accustomed to getting. And that in other regards, they need so much more. The things that kids need less of can be bought, and that makes them relatively easy to procure. Meanwhile, the things they need more of cannot be purchased at any price because, in fact, they are free. Ironically, this makes them even harder to come by.
I’ll tell ya what, though: If you’ve read this far, you’re up to the challenge.