February 28, 2014 § 9 Comments
This morning I found myself stomping repeatedly on the overturned rubberized pig trough, like an oversized child throwing a tantrum, trying to dislodge the frozen remnants of last evening’s milky slop. It was hard work, lemme tell you: Over and over I jumped, stepping down every so often so I could snatch up the bowl with my hands and thwack it against the ground, and by the time I had the trough cleaned out and the new piglets were snout deep in breakfast, I was sweating good and proper. Not a bad feeling, really, to be sweating in below-zero weather. If nothing else, it’s a symptom of proper labor, and I’ve always felt that proper labor is, in-and-of-itself, a symptom of proper living. Or it is for me, anyway.
I cannot recall a winter of such consistent cold. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of below-zero mornings we’ve had over just the past three months surpasses the number of below-zero mornings over the previous three years combined, and it looks as though there are still a few more to come. “Cold enough, huh?” said Jimmy when I picked up two full buckets of waste milk this morning, and I had to agree. It’s cold enough.
With the exception of that one memorable day, I have not minded the cold. This is not to say I do not welcome the impending arrival of warmer days, only that I know my appreciation of these days does not stand on its own. It demands that I endure something, and in that sense, the enduring itself becomes part of the anticipation of that first 50-degree in March, when the sun will be high and almost harsh, and the sap in the trees will awaken, plinking drop by drop into the buckets we hung the day before. I thought about that this morning, when I was bopping up and down on that confounded pig trough. Sugaring. Hauling sap. More sweat. Proper living.
The boys, however, aren’t down with enduring. Over the past couple weeks, their enthusiasm for winter and all its charms has steadily deflated. They still go outside every day, usually on snowshoes down into the woods to track one hapless creature or another, but they return home sooner than they used to, and have taken to spending long hours indoors reading and swinging (does not everyone have a rope swing hanging in their living room? No? Well, they should. Heck, even Penny and I like to see if we can kiss the ceiling with our feet) and wrestling. This is all fine and dandy until their energy becomes too big for the house and things invariably devolve into an argument of some sort or another, often triggered by an act of treachery that from the hot center of the conflict cannot even be recalled.
Ah, well. So be it. They are children, after all. To them, the immediate is everything. They cannot understand how quickly things change, how soon it will be spring and sap will be running and the snow will be melting and we’ll be trudging across the field pulling 120-pounds of sap – enough to make maybe three pints of syrup – in a sled back from Melvin’s big maples. They can’t grasp that someday, they’ll not wish for time to accelerate, but would instead give just about anything if only it’d slow down for a bit, even if that meant another week or two of below-zero mornings. Another week or two of stomping the pig trough until sweat beaded on their brows.
They can’t fathom these changes, both those external and those internal. But they’re coming. They’re coming real soon.
February 27, 2014 § 26 Comments
One of my favorite magazines to write for is Yankee. I love writing for Yankee because of their focus on a region (and the people of that region) that’s important to me. And I love writing for Yankee because I have a great editor who gives me almost complete autonomy over my stories. Finally, I love writing for them because there are not a whole lot of periodicals that run 5,000-word feature stories anymore (oh, sure, The New Yorker, but I have about as much chance of snagging an assignment from them as I do of getting trampled by a marauding elephant in our woodlot).
Anyhow. If you’re interested, I have a couple of stories in recent issues of Yankee. The first is about the proposed Northeast Kingdom Development Initiative, which is basically a mammoth economic development project in Vermont’s least financially prosperous county, funding largely by foreign investors who, through a program known as EB-5, can essentially “buy” a green card. I find rural economic development stories fascinating and nuanced, and this one was no different.
The second, which is not yet online, but is probably at your local newsstand, is about our friends and neighbors, Jimmy and Sara Ackermann and their efforts to make a life for themselves and their new baby daughter Allie Rae on the same dairy farm Jimmy’s grandparents farmed. Jimmy and Sara milk about 50 cows, have a 2500-tap sugaring operation, plow driveways, sell about 50-cords of firewood each year, and hire out for various logging and landscaping tasks. I love this story because it’s about people I care about, but also because it’s about people who, outside their immediate community, work in almost total anonymity (or who did work in almost total anonymity, until I wrote about them). Since it’s not online, I figured I’d give you a short teaser, in hopes you’ll all rush out to your nearest newsstand and pick up a copy or 10.
When James “Jimmy” Ackermann was 19, in the fall after he graduated from Cabot High School, in Cabot, Vermont, he drove forty-five minutes due west from the town in which he’d grown up. His destination was Johnson State College, where it was assumed that Jimmy would lead the Johnson State Badgers basketball team to glory on the court. It wasn’t a flawed assumption: In high school, Jimmy had been one of the Cabot Huskies’ star players, racking up more than 1,000-points, once scoring 35 points in a single game. He wasn’t tall, but he was tough and strong, and despite his muscular frame, exceptionally nimble. Obviously, he could score. Yeah, he was good.
“I wanted to play ball something bad,” he told me. We were driving in his big GMC pickup, floating down a rural Vermont road on a halcyon September morning. The truck’s radio was tuned to Froggy 100.9; a male singer was drawlin’ about fast trucks and slow women. Or maybe it was slow trucks and fast women. Jimmy was dressed in a grey tee shirt tucked into shorts of a heavy canvas weave. He wore a pair of tattered work boots on his feet. His dirty blonde hair protruded from his head in an unruly fashion that looked as though perhaps he’d stuck his head out the open window of a moving vehicle.
But Jimmy didn’t play much ball in college because, as it turned out, Jimmy didn’t much like college. Oh, sure, he’d drunk his first beer at JSC, and that was kind of fun. And there were pretty girls everywhere, and that was pretty cool. But when it came right down to it, Jimmy had to admit that college was, well, a little too slow for him. “The thing I didn’t like about college was it wasn’t busy enough,” he told me. “I’d wake up at six and I didn’t have class until ten, and everyone’s walking around in sweatpants hanging off their ass. I mean, what the hell was I supposed to do?” He offered a little sideways grin, as if to acknowledge the absurdity of the whole situation.
So what he decided to do, after two of the most physically lazy and interminable weeks of his young life, weeks which he largely spent gazing jealously through classroom windows at the men mowing the college’s expansive grounds atop shiny John Deere machinery, was leave school to the ass-hanging sweatpants-wearers. And get to work.
But it wasn’t so much the sheer volume of work that intrigued me as the simple fact that, beyond a small circle of customers, family, and friends, they toil in anonymity. Although they produce food (milk and maple syrup), they have not ridden the wave of recognition bestowed by the local/artisanal/sustainable food movements upon many of the region’s producers. They do not sell their products at farmer’s markets; they do not tweet or blog about their farm and its offerings; you cannot “Like” the Ackermann Farm on Facebook, because the Ackermann Farm is not on Facebook. In fact, the scope of their marketing efforts can be summed up in that “Pure Vermont Maple Syrup” sign flapping in the breeze at the edge of the barnyard.
In a sense, Jimmy and Sara Ackermann are throwbacks. I do not mean this in a derogatory sense, but rather with the understanding that their lives exemplify a deeply historical New England work ethic that seems to be evolving inexorably away from the land to align itself with our nation’s cultural embrace of digitized technology. It is not that Jimmy and Sara are dismissive of technology, and they own both a computer and cell phones. But if these items were to suddenly disappear from their lives, very little would change for them, and their work would be essentially unaffected. I’m struck by how rare this is.
It may be obvious by now, but in Jimmy and Sara I see something both humbling and hopeful. I am humbled by the sheer scope of their commitment to their work and the good-naturedness with which they go about it and I am I hopeful because I cannot help but wonder how many other young New Englanders are leading lives of similarly quiet, purposeful intent. There are times it seems to me as if it cannot be many, but then I remember that the very nature of Jimmy and Sara’s relative anonymity suggests there could be an awful lot.
And yet, it must be said there are times when I see in them a certain naïveté. It’s not merely their youth (although that might be part of it), and I suppose it is best explained by their assumption that if only they work diligently and conduct themselves with integrity, they will be afforded the life they dream of. In short, that hard work is all it takes. Can this be true? I want it to be so, not just for Jimmy and Sara, but also for myself and for my children, if only because I wish for my sons to inhabit a world in which the honest integrity of hard work is justly rewarded. In this sense, the story of Jimmy and Sara Ackermann is not merely the story of a young couple eking a living from the land. In this sense, it is the story of us all.
February 26, 2014 § 19 Comments
Every so often, I have some notion of what I’m going to write here, but most mornings I fly by the seat of my pants. If I happen to be wearing any pants, because as you know, I work at home, and thus the impetus to wear anything more than a pair of woolen long johns adorned with flecks of dried egg yolk is at a minimum. Too much information, perhaps, but hey. This is my party and I’ll admit to working in yolk-flecked long johns if I bloody well want to.
I am appreciative of the many thoughtful comments relating to my last post. The subject of our children’s education is fraught with hope, expectations, assumptions, fear, pressure and probably a few other things I’m not thinking of at the moment, and sometimes I get a little panicked to remember I’m about to launch a book that calls to question many aspects of our culture’s common understanding regarding what education can and should be. Of course, the book is about much more than my sons’ education, as it must be, since my sons’ education truly cannot be segregated from our life on this currently-frozen and windswept hill. Still, the how and why of their learning – and not just their learning, but also Penny’s and mine – is arguably the most prevalent thread holding the whole shootin’ match together.
I don’t mind people disagreeing with me. I have found, as Robin commented on Friday, that outside of a core group of friends and family who already know all my quirks and contradictions well enough that their opinion is unlikely to change unless I do something truly egregious, the older I get the less I care what others think of me. This is one of the benefits of maturing, I suppose, and it’s nearly enough to offset the fact that I no longer seem able to get a bite of egg to my mouth with dribbling a skosh of it on my woolies. I have been aided in this regard (the caring less, not the egg dribbling) by having my work be a matter of public record. I’m learning that the only way to please everyone is to say nothing at all or, at the very least, to say nothing of any real value, which strikes me as essentially the same thing. I’m not opposed to small talk – I do it pretty well, actually – but the written equivalent is not really what I want to put out into the world.
There’s little question that my forthcoming book is both the most personal of any I’ve written and maybe the most provocative. Or maybe not, because of course “provocative” is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly, it’s not as provocative as at least one other book on education I can think of (which, if you haven’t read, you darn well ought), but it’s also far more personal, and as such, I feel a certain vulnerability when I consider it becoming fodder for disagreement and criticism.
Still, here’s the other thing I’m learning: You can spend an entire life trying to avoid being perceived as vulnerable. Indeed, an awful lot of people do, and there are many aspects of our social and economic structures that both support and depend on this desired avoidance.
But of course no one can ever truly avoid it. We are all, on one level or another, and probably on many levels, vulnerable. And the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we say screw it, this is who I am and this is what I believe, the sooner we can get on with living life exactly the way we want.
February 21, 2014 § 34 Comments
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve interviewed a passel of adults who were unschooled, on top of the handful I interviewed a bunch of months back for an upcoming feature story in Outside magazine (September, I think; I’ll be sure to let ya’ll know when it comes out).
I conducted these interviews because it seemed the most honest way to answer the questions I often field from other parents, which generally revolve around my sons’ future educational “opportunities”. To be perfectly frank, Penny and I have absolutely no agenda regarding Fin’s and Rye’s path toward and through higher education. If they want to go to college, and can figure out the finances, good on ’em. But we do not view college as being anything more than one of many options, and to be perfectly frank again, I am rather bemused by our culture’s obsession with college-level learning, which is rooted in the rarely-questioned assumption that higher education is a fundamentally good thing, an assumption that is itself based (at least in large part) in economic self-interest. How many times do we hear soaring tuitions justified by presumed future earnings? How often do we hear that college is the gateway to prosperity? The answers to these questions are, of course, many and often.
What if they want to go to college, these parents ask me, and I’m fine with it; I understand how deeply the assumptions underlying this question are rooted, right down into the compacted subsoil of what it means to be successful. In some ways, what it means to be American. What’s sort of interesting to me, though, is that no one asks the parents of conventionally schooled children what if they want to be free? What if they want to learn things they’ll never learn in school? Because as I’ve pointed out many times before, children only have so much time and energy. There’s only so much they can learn and do.
Still and all, I thought it’d be interesting to talk to some adult unschoolers, in part to see what had become of them, but also to learn what hindsight reveals about their atypical educations. And lurking unflatteringly in the back of my mind was the notion that perhaps these fine, upstanding people would provide fodder for my replies to the questions I field about my children’s possible futures.
Briefly, here’s what I found: The majority of unschoolers I spoke with attended college (8 of 9). Furthermore, every single one I interviewed who had attended college (some earning master’s degrees) felt as if being unschooled had actually advantaged them. The common refrain? “I wasn’t burned out on school like all my classmates.” I’d have to go through my notes to be sure, but I’m almost certain that every single one of them said something to that effect.
All of those who went to college found it remarkably easy to gain acceptance, although a few did have to take classes at their local community colleges before being accepted into their schools of choice (a brief sampling: UVM, St Lawrence University, University of South Carolina Law School, College of the Atlantic). Math seemed to be a particular weak spot.
Every single one of those I spoke with feels gratitude for their unconventional paths. Not a single one expressed regret, or wishes their learning had been different. They all feel as if the freedom to learn at their own pace, and of their own design, has imbued them with a love of learning they don’t see in many of their peers. Those with children said they plan to offer their kids similar opportunities, with the exception of one mother who told me her husband just wasn’t having it.
All of the unschooled adults I spoke with are gainfully employed, still in college, or parenting full time. Jobs ranged from political pundit, to carpenter, to farmer, to analyst for the federal government. None felt as if being unschooled had limited their employment opportunities.
Clearly, this was a pretty small sample. There’s no scientific rigor, here, and I’m not pretending otherwise. For all I know, for every unschooled adult I interviewed, there’s another dozen doing five-to-ten for mugging little old ladies. But it at least illuminates the truth that an unschooled childhood does not preclude a satisfying career, or meaningful personal relationships. Obviously, it does not preclude college.
In fact, after talking to something like a half-dozen consecutive unschoolers who’d attended college, I was somewhat relieved to find one who didn’t pursue higher education. Therefore, I can confidently say that unschooling does not preclude not going to college, either, and thank goodness for that: I’d sure hate to think Penny and I are limiting our children’s options.
February 20, 2014 § 13 Comments
I can honestly say that yesterday was the first time this winter got under my skin. I’m in the midst of smoking our latest batch of hams and bacons, a task that necessitates a nearly-uncountable quantity of trips to the smoke pit, maintaining the smoldering, almost-out fire essential to the task. I bet I walked that walk two dozen times yesterday, slipping and sliding and tripping on the boot-packed path, whipped by a relentless wind that drove a graupel-y snow against my sweet, tender cheeks. Yesterday was the warmest it’s been in weeks, and between the smoking and feeding the cows a round bale, which turned into its own particular clusterf**k, thanks to deep snow and spinning tractor tires, I was the coldest I’ve been all winter.
By 5-ish, still damp and chilled to my sorry bones, I was well and cracked. I don’t get in bad moods very often; I’m almost always able to maintain the perspective that a bad mood isn’t so much a mood, as a reaction. The circumstances that give rise to that mood are merely the way things are, and it is my choice how to respond. (By-the-by, I’m fully aware there are plenty of folks who, for reasons beyond my capacity to fully understand, are not so readily able to “choose” their mood. I’m speaking only for myself, here, which you probably knew, but still).
Anyhow. Around 7, I sat down to read to the boys. We read every evening, and by “we” I pretty much mean Penny and the fellas. But I sneak in a few chapters here and there, and I particularly sneak in a few chapters when we’re reading a book like True North, which is as fine a piece of writing about experiencing the natural world as I’ve read since The Earth is Enough.
The copy of True North we have must be borrowed, and I’m guessing from Nate; there are various underlined or highlighted passages throughout, though the book is so damn good it’s hard to find standout passages. Really, it’s the sort of book that could make a lesser writer throw up his hands in either supplication or defeat. Elliot Merrick tells his tale with the sort of effortless rhythm most of us so-called writers spend a lifetime straining our beat-deaf ears to hear.
Anyhow again. I was still in a foul mood, but sunk into our couch with a book in my hand and a boy on either side of me, I could feel the foulness slowing draining away, like an infection leaving the body. True North, as some of you likely know, is about Merrick’s decision to leave behind a cushy urban 1920’s existence and travel to Labrador and furthermore to follow a couple of trappers deep into the winter wilderness. It is also about his evolving awareness of what makes for a good life, where the magic and goodness of simply being alive is found, where the very marrow of his own humanity resides.
Since I still have my smoky ham n’ bacon fire to tend, I will lazily leave you with two passages to ponder. But really, you owe it to yourself to read the whole book.
Arch wanted me to tell him of life in the States, and asked me posers about all “outside.” What is the Russian Revolution? It turned out to be a good bit of a puzzle when I was done with it, and Arch summed it all up with a thoughtful “m-m” and went on to something simple, such as, how do people get so rich. And then we tangled ourselves all up in business and companies and interest and banks – not sand banks or clay banks, banks that people put money in. All very strange indeed, and I commenced to believe, myself, that I was telling some Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy. He had never tasted honey and asked me how big a bee was and if it could make a pound of honey in a morning. How fast can an airplane go and what does it look like, and have you ever been in a railroad train honest? What do people in the States do for meat if they can’t shoot partridges and the rabbits and deer are all killed up? He was much impressed that most people get two weeks’ vacation with pay each year.
“Who pays ‘em?”
“The people they work for.”
“Oh my, I can’t work for anybody else, but I can work like old fun for myself.”
He could not get used to the fact that people in cities walk right by each other and never speak. That amazes everyone in this country. Like John, he looks at me with awe when I say that I have walked by ten thousand people in one morning and not spoken to one of them.
And (this is one that Nate, or whomever had the book before, had highlighted):
Truly man must suffer. It is an old doctrine but few believe it. We must hit ourselves on the heads with a hammer because it feels so good when we stop. Yes, truly we must. We are so constructed. If we don’t, we get soft and bored; we are shoved off onto one tiny island of experience where we go round and round forever.
For me and thousands like me, it is necessary to learn that meals are not three inevitable formalities per day, clothes a bother and a house a real estate venture with a certain amount of frontage. It keeps one out of touch with the world to have too much food, too many clothes, too many ways of transportation, too much house.
What was a pair of socks to me in the old days but another possession, something to find room for in a drawer. How differently I look at them now. I’ve never really seen them before. How deliciously warm and soft they are. How many, many painstaking stitches they contain. I wonder who raised the sheep, who dipped them, who sheared them, who carded and spun the wool. They’ll keep my feet warn, actually keep them from freezing. Why, that’s what they’re for!
February 18, 2014 § 30 Comments
This is a dangerous time of year ’round these parts, what with Penny hunched over a stack of tree and shrub-crop catalogs like an earthbound vulture at a meat lover’s buffet. This morning I made the mistake of perusing her “wish list” and I could feel the cold beads of sweat gathering on my forehead just thinking ’bout all the holes to be dug, compost to be carried, and amendments to be spread. Ho boy. It’s coming. It’s coming in a big way.
Actually, it’s already begun. Earlier this winter, I cleared the small copse of spruce that stood between house and barn to make room for all those holes we’ll be digging soon as the ground thaws, which means we’ll probably be able to take up our shovels somewhere ’round the second week of July. I dropped maybe a dozen mature trees, and another dozen or so youngsters. The better specimens await the mill; those too crooked or lacking in sawable girth went over the bank at the back side of the farm road. I might’ve saved them toward a load of pulpwood, but we do not send clean biomass off this farm. Those trees are my son’s soil. And not just my sons, but my sons’ sons. And daughters, if such is to be their fate, because of course daughters need soil, too.
Just below where I’m dumping the soil-to-be, there’s stand of mostly balsam fir, and they’re next to go. I don’t feel too bad about it, since the majority of them suffer from advanced heart rot. Indeed, many have already succumbed to the condition, having long ago tipped to lean heavily on their neighbors. Can’t blame ’em, really; heck, if I suffered from advanced heart rot, I’d probably do the same darn thing. Still and all, I have no qualms about expediting their return to the soil.
All this clearing is part of a long-term plan to transition the land nearest the house toward perennial food production, which is itself part of a long-term plan to ensure our future on this smallholding. Penny and I are 45 and 42, respectively, which means that half of you are getting all misty-eyed trying to remember what it was like to be that young and thinking “whippersnappers!” while the other half of you are thinking, “crikey, why bother? It’s almost over, anyway.”
It’s not almost over, of course, despite that clichéd way the days and seasons have of passing ever faster as if, having arrived at the presumed midpoint of our lives, we’re now barreling down the backstretch, picking up steam on our way toward the finish line. Still, just recently I read about an old fella who stuck it out on his family’s homestead until the age of 98, and right then and there, I decided it’s 98 for me. Not a year less or more. 98.
I’m joking, of course. Who knows? Who would want to know? Talk about hubris. Still, I can’t help this image I have of Penny and I shuffling out our door 40 years from now and down to the trees we planted back when we were just whippersnappers. There’ll be fruit on those trees by then, and maybe even some nuts, the roots fed by all the decomposing pulpwood we didn’t sell back when we had the chance, and we’ll reach our old, gnarled hands up into the branches and pick us a couple of real sweet apples.
We won’t be able to eat those apples, of course: You need teeth for that. But while I take my morning nap (splayed on the couch, snoring in time with the dog), Penny’ll make ‘em into a dandy sauce. And come lunch we’ll gum that sauce down like the happy old fools we are, and Penny’ll say something like “now aren’t you glad we dug all them holes and planted all them trees when we was whippersnappers?” And I’ll just smile (dribble of sauce running down my chin) and say “Yup.”
February 17, 2014 § 13 Comments
The storm was excellent. I got out early on Friday morning to plow – first our 1/4 mile drive, then the lot of our mechanic, a small return on his repeated prior investments of selflessly loaning us tools (it’s a rare thing, a mechanic that loans tools, and one that is never to be taken for granted) – and on the drive into town, the snow was barreling down in the dark, the truck’s headlights illuminating only a dim patch of whitewashed road, and it felt as if I were driving into a future that ended just beyond the high beam’s reach. Which, in one way or another, I suppose I was.
I love plowing; it’s ridiculous, I know, and I probably shouldn’t admit to it, but there’s something inordinately pleasing about pushing aside walls of snow from within the truck’s heated cab, a travel mug of coffee wedged into my crotch, classic rock crackling through the Ford’s old speakers. Used to be the boys always came with me, but their interest is waning, and besides, they’ve started sleeping in a bit and I like plowing in the dark.
All the snow slows things down considerable like. There’s too much snow for me to be in the woods with the tractor, so my firewood gathering efforts have been curtailed. Fortunately, the day before the storm, I’d hauled a dozen or so logs, scurrying to skid them out of the woods before dark so they wouldn’t be buried. We have too many paths to shovel, so we just push our way through our daily routines, and now you can see our habits written into the snow. The path to the barn, with a detour to the water hydrant. Path to the chicken coop, then onto the pig house. Path to the solar panels, to sweep the accumulated snow from their surface. Not much sticks in my craw like a bank of panels covered by snow, the sun beating on them futilely.
And, after the weekend, the willy-nilly paths left by our skis, on our way to or from a slog in the fields and forest. The snow’s so deep that the ungroomed cross country skiing isn’t actually that good; the effort required to break trail is immense. After we spent an hour-and-a-half trudging and sweating our way through the woods on Saturday, Penny and I hired the boys to track us a loop around the field. For a buck each, they circled the pasture on snowshoes, leaving a nice, glide-ready track, which we then circled three times, over-sized hamsters dressed in wool. Pathetic, I know, but hey. Desperate times call for desperate measures and all that.
There’s not much winter left. Certainly not enough to get done everything we’d hoped to get done this winter. My office is still unpainted. The onion drying racks remain unfixed, though we made do with them last fall, and we’ll probably make do with them this fall, too. The basement did not get organized, at least not to the extent I imagined back in November, when it seemed as if winter would last just about forever. I sure didn’t get much lumber milled, and now there’s a whole ‘nuther pile of sawlogs begging attention. It’ll be a busy summer. It always is.
In a couple weeks, we’ll be hauling sap and seeding, and there is no surer harbinger of spring than the first gather, or those early flats of seedlings and the particular smell of sun-warmed potting soil. You can feel the sun getting higher in the sky; you can feel the days getting longer, being stretched at each end like silly putty. It’s a good and even great feeling, made possible only because not so long ago, you could actually feel the days contract. The thing is, at the time it was the contraction that felt good, the settling into the darkness and all the restive moments it promised.
Funny how that works, isn’t it? It’s almost as if it was designed that way.