April 30, 2014 § 20 Comments
I bought the old ice box pictured above from an antiques dealer who was going out of business. I think I paid $300, but I can’t remember for sure. I do remember thinking I got a pretty fair deal; it’s made of oak and was in real nice condition. We slapped a coat of wood sealer on it and called it good.
The dealer operated out of a room attached to the back of an adult novelty store – a porn shop, in other words – which he owned. I guess porn was more profitable than antiques, hence the sell-off. He was a nice enough fellow. It was late at night when I picked up the ice box, otherwise I would’ve spent a bit more time chatting. I would’ve liked to hear a bit about his career path. Or maybe not.
Anyway, soon as I got the box home, I went and drilled a pair of two-inch holes in the back, one up high, and one down low. Then I drilled a pair of matching holes through the exterior wall in our kitchen. Then I cut two pieces of PVC and stuck them through the wall and into the correlating holes in the ice box. Then we had a passive refrigerator.
For at least 6 months out of the year, mechanized refrigeration in Vermont is absurd. Think about it for a second: Right outside your door, you’ve got the biggest natural fridge money can’t buy. Right inside your door, you’re paying the utility for the dubious privilege of powering a plastic box to recreate essentially the same conditions that exist for free on the other side of a few inches of drywall, insulation, and siding. That’s the sort of thing that drives me nuts. Penny, too. Actually, Penny more.
The ice box isn’t perfect. If it gets real cold, stuff in the bottom freezes a little, though now that we’ve lived with it for many years, we can predict when this will happen and rearrange accordingly. If it gets above, say, freezing, it doesn’t remain a perfect 38.4-degrees. But that’s not a problem. Americans are obsessed with keeping their food cold. They think if their leftover meatloaf gets above 40, they’re gonna die. Our leftover meatloaf gets above 40 all the time. Not dead yet. A little sick of lukewarm leftover meatloaf, maybe, but dead? Hell, no.
We still have a fridge. It’s on the porch, and we use it from about now until November. We’ve considered using the ice box all summer, filling it with ice to keep things cool. It wouldn’t be that much work. It’s the way things used to be done, and we even have the significant advantage of having chest freezers to make ice for us. But we haven’t got there yet. One of these days. We’ve got a pretty long list under the heading “one of these days.”
One of these days, we’ll start crossing some of it off.
April 29, 2014 § 7 Comments
Was I dying to get up at 4:30 to ferry the boys up the road and through the woods to Jimmy and Sara’s back hayfields to scout turkeys in the raw half-lit dampness of a late-April morning? Well, no, not exactly, but I could not bring myself to say no, if only because the fellas have proven themselves committed turkey scouters. Frequently over the past 10 days or so, they’ve extricated themselves from warm bedding and struck out across the land in the near-dark of predawn, straining to hear their quarry gobbling from the roost. This is valuable information, you see, because if one knows where the birds are roosting, one knows approximately where to assemble a blind into which one will nestle one’s self come season proper, hoping to transition a fat Tom from roost to roast with the concussive blast of a 20-guage shotgun.
I fear I will never make much of a hunter. Clearly, I’m not opposed to taking an animal’s life. Nor do I mind rising early, though 4:30 is a bleary time for me. It’s the sheer patience I lack. To go scouting morning after morning, with no guarantee or perhaps even likelihood of success. And then to sit hunched behind a blind for hours, waiting for those fickle fowl to emerge from the forest’s edge, at which point one might be able to maybe, maybe coax a bird into shooting range. Oy. It’s all just too much for me. Honestly, I’d rather spend a half-dozen months feeding and petting and scratching my dinner. That may suggest a different sort of patience, but at least I get to enjoy its company in the process.
We are waiting now for the grass to starting greening and growing. Our usual turn-out date for the cows and other grazing creatures is ‘round about May 15, which generally coincides with the grass reaching boot top height. This is looking like a late year, and I suspect it’ll be the 20th or so before the beasts set foot outside their respective winter paddocks.
Good grazing is an art. It’s a constant juggling act and to do it right one must factor weather, season, number of animals, size of animals, and even one’s objectives for the animals and for the pasture itself. For instance, though we generally move the cows twice each day, down in what we call the “logging cut,” a two-acre parcel of pasture we’re coaxing out of what was only a few years ago dense woods, we generally push the cows in a given paddock for a day longer than normal. This is because we’re trying to maximize animal impact, in part so they trample unwanted plant species, in part so they spread prolific quantities of shit, and in part because when they run out of forage, we feed out a bale of hay, which adds both carbon and seed to the evolving pasture.
The central challenge we face with grazing is that from June to about the middle of July, our pasture produces enough forage to support three times as many animals as we have. Try as they might, our motley crew of ruminants simply can’t consume it fast enough, and we end up either having to bush hog ungrazed pasture, or let it wither on the stem. We hate mowing, but the benefits to pasture are tremendous, because the mown grass becomes a nutritive mulch that returns nutrients to the soil. Of course, leaving it on the stem accomplishes much the same eventually, but it also smothers consecutive growth, which we desperately need come August and September, when we have to start thinking real hard about how we’ll manage what forage remains.
Now, some astute reader’s probably going to ask “why don’t you just take a cut of hay off the pasture?” The answer to that is at least twofold. For one, we don’t own the necessary equipment. For two, to hire it done would likely cost more than we could afford. For three (see? I said at least two fold), by taking the grass/hay off the pasture, we are essentially robbing the soil of nutrients, which means we need to think about how to return nutrients. If you’re looking for one golden soil rule to live by, whether you’re talking about hayfield, pasture, or garden, here’s my suggestion: For everything to you take, be it bale of hay, gallon of milk, or ear of corn, something must be returned.
There. Two lessons for one day. Crikey, I’ve outdone myself. To recap:
- I fear I will never make much of a hunter
- Something must be returned
April 28, 2014 § 5 Comments
The weather was cool and damp and tired-feeling all weekend long and by the time I came indoors both Saturday and Sunday evenings, on the tail end of a solid 10 or more hours of mucking about, much the same could have been said about me. The diversity of the the weekend’s undertakings – build chicken coop, move chicken coop, set up piggy paddock, haul firewood, split firewood, stack firewood, plant trees, sink cedar posts for grape arbor, organize the mess of things we can’t quite bring ourselves to let go of (including but not limited to: five partial rolls of chicken wire in varying states of disrepair, a leaky tea kettle, six cloudy lengths of well-used polycarbonate roofing, a batch of weathered fiberglass fence posts that cannot be handled without gloves, a non-functioning tractor starter, and so on) – was typical of a spring weekend on this holding, and it left me sweetly fatigued in a way that’s too long been missing. Muscles not so much sore, but used. Fingernails packed with grease and sawdust and who knows what all. Hands dirtied more thoroughly than soap can remedy. I know not everyone appreciates these things, and I know that if I were compelled to labor toward someone else’s profits rather than those of my family, I might not appreciate them so much, myself. But damn. The way it sits, it feels just right.
By Sunday night, I was bleary enough that when my eyelids began drooping at 7:30, I did not fight their descent and allowed myself the luxury of slipping into a slumber that lasted until Blood’s crowing returned me to consciousness nearly 10 hours later. Blood’s the only alarm clock we have in this house. He does a fair job of it, too, though I wouldn’t mind a bit if the ole bird had a snooze button.
Last week, I turned in the book to my editor, and that was some relieving, let me tell you. Not because it wasn’t a whole mess of fun to work on – it sure enough was – but because there is just so much good stuff to be done out-of-doors. We are excited about this summer, in part because we can feel our place coming together in a way that is hard to adequately express in words, but is nonetheless perfectly clear to us. Maybe it wouldn’t be clear to anyone else; it might only be obvious through the lens of context and our relationship to it. Whatever the case, something has shifted over the past few years, and it feels to us as if we are coming nearer to our ideal of this small farm as being not merely a collection of plants, animals, infrastructure, and humans, but an actual living, breathing entity with its own personality and intent.
Yes, we are still shaping it, and hopefully will be until the day we die. But both Penny and I increasingly feel as if this place is guiding us, rather than the other way ’round. I’m not sure precisely how or why or when this happened. Probably it was always true, and we were just too dim to recognize it. Sometimes, I’m not even sure if it’s a real phenomenon, or just imagined.
Of course, sometimes the difference between what is real and what is imagined isn’t so much of a difference after all.
April 23, 2014 § 18 Comments
The boys and I busted out early this morning to scout turkeys, for turkey season is nigh and the fellas are full of hope. I did not want to go into the woods at 5 a.m. but I did, and once I was moving it felt good enough. We sat for a while at the edge of Melvin’s back pasture but did not hear any gobbles. We were home by 6, did chores, cooked breakfast, and that was that. Another day begun.
The past couple of weeks have been pretty intense, what with the book and the onset of spring proper. Most mornings I’ve been at my desk by 5:00, managing to stay put for maybe a half-dozen hours, before heading outside until dark or nearly so. There is much to be done. The upper greenhouse needs new hip and base boards and a door built. We need a new chicken coop. There is still more firewood to be split and stacked, and perhaps even more to be pulled from the woods; I thought I’d be well and done by now, but the deep snows of March kept me out of the woods. By the time our various tree orders all arrive, there will be somewhere around 200 trees and bushes to plant. The copse of fir I started clearing January needs finishing. There is a large pile of sawlogs awaiting the mill’s toothy embrace. And so on. It is not a small amount of work.
In one of the chapters of the Chelsea Green book, I talk about the skills we call on most. More and more, I’m realizing that skills of the hand play a relatively minor role in the success (or lack thereof) of our holding. It’s the skills of the head that get us through, and perhaps none are so important as equanimity. Yesterday was one of those days when I almost lost my cool; I felt as if I could not keep straight in my head everything that needed to be done, and in the process even the smallest and simplest of tasks came to tower above me like a penance for misdeeds I’d long ago forgotten or perhaps had never even recognized as such.
At 5:30, when I remembered that I needed to bring the seedlings in off the porch – a 15 minute job, if that – I almost lost my shit. Penny was still planting peas, there were no plans for dinner, and the house was a mess – dishes high in the sink, muddy foot prints from one end to the other, something like six consecutive loads of clean laundry in a jumbled pile at the top of the stairs, and so on. But the boys chipped in and we got the seedlings tucked away for the night and I made strawberry smoothies for dinner and Penny got the peas planted and I put away the laundry, wiped up the muddy prints with an old tee shirt, and did the most offensive of the dishes. You know what? It was still only 8.
For anyone out there who hopes to someday grow their own food, cut their own firewood, build their own buildings, kill their own pigs, and so on, here’s my unasked for advice: Learn the skills of the hand, definitely, because lord knows, you’re gonna need them. But the real secret to making this place work has little to do with work of the muscles. The real secret is doing what needs to be done without letting what needs to be done become bigger than it actually is.
Truth is, it’s the work of the mind that gets us by.
April 17, 2014 § 6 Comments
I was up and out before sunrise, my path to the woodshed lit by the 4/5 moon. Cold, it was, no more than a dozen degrees, the ground a patchwork of snow and winter-dead grass. Hard to believe we’ll be grazing in only a month. I loaded the cookstove, then strolled back outside and down to the tomato house, where the chickens are stationed for the next few weeks, until we knock together a suitable summer coop (the old, cobbled-together hovel of the past few years was finally dismantled last fall, the hens cheering with each swing of the wrecking ball). I’d forgotten to close them in last night, and if they’re allowed to range in the morning hours they lay wherever they darn well please, which means that in six months or so the boys are going to stumble on a clutch of eggs and commence to shoot them with the .22 before we can put a stop to their antics and the whole place is gonna stink to high heaven. There you have it: Rural livin’ in a nutshell. Or eggshell, I guess. Heck, I’d rather have ‘em shooting rotten eggs than playing video games. I think.
This morning I frost-seeded the winter paddock, along with a couple areas we ran the pigs through last fall. I like frost seeding when there’s a little snow on the ground, so you can check coverage as you go. We’ve been using the pigs to clear for many years, and it’s remarkable what they’re capable of. Indeed, the longer I live with animals, the more remarkable they become, particularly as we refine our practices in ways that liberate them to express their true natures. The same is true of humans, of course, for the people who get to live remarkable lives are those who, due to simple circumstance, dogged hard work, or some combination of the two manage to walk a path illuminated by principles and passions. I’m thinking that’s something worth remembering, if only to remind myself from time-to-time.
Penny and I are jamming on the as-yet-untitled Chelsea Green book. Every morning, we gather at the computer for an hour or two, scrolling through her collection of 8,000-and-something photos, matching image to text. And right now, she’s reading the entire manuscript, all 100,000-words of it, and making what I’m sure are copious and insightful notes in the margins. Next week, I’ll incorporate her comments and we’ll finish selecting photos, and I’ll send the whole shootin’ match off to my exceptionally gracious, kind, and generous editor (Makenna, you’re reading this, right?). And then… well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?
As much fun as it’s been to write this book – and it’s been a lot of fun – I’m ready to reclaim a bit of balance to my days, which have been tilted steeply in the direction of desk-bound sloth. My body actually feels real good, thanks to my commitment to do something vaguely yoga-ish on a daily basis. But the litany of outdoor tasks is mounting, as evidenced by one of Penny’s infamous lists. She jots down those tasks so effortlessly – build layer coop, plant trees, finish clearing farm road woods, shore up small greenhouse, finish firewood, spread amendments, and on and on – and I look at her words and squint a bit and try to imagine them struck through by a blunt-tipped pencil. Every so often, I’ll add a task I’ve already completed, just so I can have the pleasure of crossing it out. You know, like wake up, start fire, eat breakfast.
It’s true, you know. That’s how simple I am.
Hey, I haven’t showed you this in a while!
April 16, 2014 § 22 Comments
April is when this whole eating-off-our-land gig gets a little tiresome. This is particularly true this year, since we had some germination issues in the big greenhouse last fall, so our winter greens rations were especially skimpy. Furthermore, the crops that didn’t produce last fall aren’t regrowing now. If I have to choke down another lacto-fermented green bean or serving of kimchi, I’m gonna track down ole Sandor Katz and give him a good thumping. Which will be difficult, because Sandor’s a nice guy. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
I can’t tell you how long it’s been since we had fresh greens. I got a salad a while back when my mom took me out to dinner, and it was some good, let me tell you. But other than that… whoa. Oh, sure, we’ve had plenty of veggies – we have oodles of frozen green beans and broccoli, and all the aforementioned ferments and of course root crops galore – but a nice fresh salad, with maybe a little cheese crumbled up and enough dressing that when the kids aren’t looking (or maybe even when they are), you lick the plate clean? Oh, man.
The stuff we do have is holding up right nice. We still have good onions, firm potatoes, plenty of garlic. We still have beef (steaks, even!), pork (bacon, even!), venison, chickens, and lamb. We still have gobs of blueberries and strawberries. We could probably eat a quart of berries every day until fresh berries start popping and not run out. We’ve got new syrup and dried chanterelles and dried tomatoes and frozen pesto and I don’t even know what all. We have enough liver pate – beef, chicken, pork, and beaver – to last us until the early part of the next century. Lard. Lots of lard.
We’re out of butter, though, and we haven’t had milk for over a month. That’s a sad state of affairs, to be sure, but we’ve got three cows due in June, so we’ll make up for it then. I’m thinking there’s gonna be an awful lot of ice cream consumed this summer. You know what we put in ice cream? Cream, syrup, egg yolks and whatever berries are fresh. Or maybe a few chopped up sprigs of mint. That’s it. Makes a hell of a breakfast, lemme tell you. Makes a hell of a dinner, come to think of it.
Out of simple curiosity, we’ve been keeping track of what money we spend on food. Over the past two months, we’ve spent $120, which means $15 per week, or about $4/week per person. Of course, that doesn’t include the hay and minerals we feed the cows and sheeps. It doesn’t include the grain that goes to the layers (oh yeah: Eggs. We’re drowning). But still and all. Not bad. I suspect it’s even less come summer, though we’ve never tracked it in summer, so I can’t say for certain. If I think of it, and if we keep on keeping track, I’ll let you know.
We didn’t make a lot of money last year and actually would have qualified for food benefits, which struck us as pretty funny. I have to admit that for about a day, I was smitten by an image of myself in line at the local food co-op, arms laden with all the fancy cheeses and organic micro greens we could afford if we took the benefits. I also have to admit that I actually figured out what our benefit would be: $350-ish/month. Three hundred and fifty dollars per month. Can you imagine? I know that out there in the real world, where most folks are removed from the land and the skills necessary to fill their own freezers, $350/month for a family of four is hardly enough. It probably isn’t enough. But to us… whoa. We’d be eating cheese on our cheese. We’d have boughten butter coming out our ears.
Anyway. I don’t know what got me thinking about all this. Yet another breakfast of eggs, bacon, and kimchi, probably. Another lunch of venison and roots and frozen green bean stew. Dinner… who knows. Not salad, I know that much. Not cheese. Not ice cream. But all those things are coming. And when they get here, they’re gonna be good.
April 15, 2014 § 31 Comments
We’ve given up most of our magazine subscriptions over the years and frankly not missed them much. Well, maybe we’ve missed some of them a little, which explains why I asked my parents to save their back issues of the New Yorker for us. This has the unanticipated fringe benefit of exposing my father’s fondness for the caption contest; in the back of the handed-down issues, we find his half-baked ideas scrawled across the bottom of the page.
Anyway. One of the issues we were recently bequeathed sported a rather illuminating article about Amazon (the online retailer, not the rainforest) and Jeff Bezos’s relentless quest to essentially destroy Main St America. That’s not the explicitly stated objective, of course, but if his goals are realized, there can be no other effective outcome.
The author of the story makes a very salient point: While WalMart is the target of much retail anguish in this country, Amazon gets off largely scot-free, in no small part because it’s not nearly as visible as WalMart. But of course it’s doing at least as much damage, and perhaps even more, particularly when one considers the massive amount of data Amazon collects about its customers. If the article is to be believed, Amazon will soon know what you need (or more realistically, what you want) before you know it. It will then dispatch a drone from its private fleet to deliver your parcel. Even if the drone idea never comes to pass, the extent to which Bezos obsesses over personal data is quite alarming.
We’ve never shopped at WalMart; I can honestly say we’ve never even been tempted. My limited experience with big box stores is that they smell weird, induce tremendous amounts of stress via sensory overload, and tend to be full of a whole bunch of crap I’m better off not owning. But we have shopped on Amazon, having fallen prey to its lack of visibility and our own craven desire for convenience. Never for books (or at least never for new books; I must confess to purchasing used books via Amazon), but certainly for the mercantile minutia of modern American life: Printer ink. Photo paper. An extra battery for Penny’s camera. Etc, etc, etc. And probably more etc. I wouldn’t call us frequent Amazonians, but I bet that over the past handful of years, we’ve bought something from Amazon an average of once per month.
I got to think about all this today after Jimmy called to see if we wanted a tractor bucket full of organic grain for our pigs. He’d cleaned out his silo, and he was just about to dump the cleanings, when it occurred to him that perhaps we could make use of the grain. Hell yeah, says I, because as anyone who’s purchased organic animal feed knows, they don’t exactly give that stuff away (though I bet I could find a good deal on Ama… ah, never mind). So a few minutes later, he rolled down the drive in his John Deere and we dumped the grain from the loader bucket of his tractor into ours, and then I spent a dozen or so minutes shoveling it into buckets for storage. I didn’t weigh it, but it had to’ve been a couple hundred pounds.
I guess I can’t tell you the exact connection between Amazon and my exchange with Jimmy, which was nothing more than one of the small, frequent kindnesses that transpires in rural communities every minute of every day. Ah, but wait: That’s it, right there. That’s the connection. Because the world I wish to inhabit is the one that’s defined by those small kindness, where the feed for our pigs is delivered by a neighbor and we chat for a few minutes in the driveway just as it’s starting to spit rain and then he’s gone again, off to make some syrup because the sap ran something wicked last night and it’s shaping up to be a decent season, after all. The world I wish to inhabit is one where the world’s largest online retailer doesn’t know a damn thing about me and my shopping habits, and furthermore is not scheming to launch a fleet of package delivery drones into the air above my head.
The world I wish to inhabit is one in which we don’t shop on Amazon anymore. So we won’t.