June 23, 2015 § 26 Comments
Rain again this morning. There has been no shortage of rainfall over the past few weeks, though I’m loathe to lament. I’ll take deluge over drought any day of the week, even if we have a house and barn to build over the next few months. Besides, the forced breaks from building are essential to maintaining any semblance of order ’round here. On Sunday we split and stacked what wood we’ll need to get us through the end of October, when we transition to the new land, and then – in my third change of clothes, the other two heaped in watery piles atop the mudroom floor – I dropped a massive, half-rotted sugar maple to block up for next year’s stove wood. This morning, I spent a soggy couple of hours dragging logs I’d felled last winter and running fence. It’s not bad working in the rain. Like most things we tend to consider less than ideal, its desirability (or lack thereof) is relative. Besides, you know how the saying goes: Necessity is the mother of motivation.
The building is going great. With any luck, we’ll be raising barn rafters by week’s end; if not by then, certainly by next. Sheath the roof, then tin, and voila! Dry storage. Then onto the house. It’d all be much faster if we were using plywood, but the pleasure of working with rough sawn boards is of greater value to us than the expediency of manufactured wood products. To say nothing of the manufacturing process itself, along with the aesthetic toll, along with the fact that utilizing rough sawn means buying from a local mill. Thus far, we have used no concrete, no plastic, and no glues in construction of the barn. I suspect we may use a wee bit of caulk here and there, and maybe a little spray foam round window/door jambs (we do plan to insulate the upstairs for use as winter work space, so some air sealing is called for) hopefully, that’ll be about it as far as baby-seal-clubbing materials.
It is good to be working so much, and by working I mean working, none of this white collar, desk-bound, pontificating bullshit. Up at 5 and outside, and most days staying there until near dark. A dozen, even 14 hours per day, seven days a week, with the exception of obvious breaks like the one I’m taking now. My winter-larded belly has been reduced by two belt holes over just the past month; if I stand at just the right angle, sucking in hard enough that it feels as if something inside me might burst, I can almost see the outline of my abdominal muscles in the mirror. Wait… did I just admit to what I think I admitted to? Forget it. Never happened.
I will tell you something else, though you probably know it already: The physical work is as good for mind, emotion, and spirit as it is for body. We tend to forget this, I think, in our rush to extricate ourselves from discomfort and danger. We forget the simple pleasure of true fatigue, of something have risen or been raised by our calloused hands. Maybe not everyone cares to know that feeling anymore, or maybe they never did. Maybe they’re after something more, something prouder and more enlightened than this peasant’s labor.
But for me, at least, it’s enough.
June 21, 2015 § 6 Comments
Warm and rainy, perfect day to cut firewood. Still waiting for a long enough dry spell to make some dry hay. Massive progress on the barn, now framing second floor, rafters next week. Amazing how fast this stage of building happens. Everything going according to plan and within budget with the exception of burning through our stash of homegrown lumber faster than anticipated. Hence the logs in the above photo.
I wanted to alert you to a series of workshops our friends Hart and Michael are hosting at their amazing homestead in nearby West Danville. We’d intended to hold an “Establishing a Homestead” workshop this summer ourownbadselves, but it’s finally dawned on us that maybe we have other fish to fry. It was one of those ideas that seemed real good in the depths of winter when all you have is time to sit around dreaming of all the things you want to do come summer, but once summer comes and you’re actually doing those things you dreamed about and you suddenly realize that even 16 hours of daylight is about four or five hours too few, well…
Anyway. Hart and Michael’s place is amazing, and they hold vast reservoirs of experience. Go. You won’t regret it.
June 15, 2015 § 40 Comments
Over the past week, we have finished framing and decking the barn floor, framed and sheathed two 12-foot-high by 30-foot long side walls, erected said walls, and even attended a Waylon Speed concert, at which the boys witnessed first hand the tragicomic effects of rampant alcohol consumption in otherwise sane adults (don’t worry: Not I. Stone cold sober for the entire show, though the boys and I did share a celebratory root beer).
We had many hands on our side. Michael, Blake, and Bob all pulled and pushed their share of the load. And lo-and-freakin’-behold, even the fellas chipped in a might bit. Penny and I long ago decided to ask little and expect less, which we’ve found to be a pretty reliable technique for managing our expectations. Besides, we figured compelling them to help was a one-way street to the particular hell that’s populated by bitter and disappointed parents, so instead we crossed our fingers and hoped they’d get caught up in the excitement.
So far so good, and it occurs to me that of all the benefits to building these structures, the greatest might be the one we hardly anticipated: That the process will imbue the fellas with an evolved collection of building skills. I am trying to follow my own advice and include them in all steps, despite the toll on my patience, from pulling diagonals to check for square, to laying out the walls, to calculating the number of board feet worth of sheathing necessary for roof underlayment. If I were half as savvy as I’d like you to believe, I woulda turned this whole damn project into a summer-long children’s construction camp, charged a whomping tuition, and then sat in the shade with a sixer and a super-sized bag of pork rinds, whilst your little preciouses toiled under the high, hot sun as I screamed instructions at them between dispensing bandages and initiating them to the sort of gallows folk humor that prevails on male-dominated construction sites. Alas, only now does this occur to me.
Joking aside (I was joking, wasn’t I?), it occurs to me that the failure to teach our youth such fundamental skills as framing a house is yet another shortcoming of the contemporary institutionalized education system. Yeah, I know, I know: Not everyone wants to or even should become a builder. Then again, pretty much everyone needs a place to live, and it seems prudent to me that children have at least a rudimentary understanding of how the roof over their heads got there.
I don’t know. Call me crazy. No doubt it won’t be the first time.
June 9, 2015 § 38 Comments
We are making about four pounds of butter every other day, which is almost twice as much as we eat. This is good. We maximize our butter making during the spring months, when the pasture is peaking and the cream is highest in vitamins and minerals. You can see it in the butter; it is more than yellow.
We churn by hand. I like it, except when I don’t, which honestly isn’t very often. Maybe if I’m in a hurry. Making butter means doing lots of dishes: The jars we store the cream in (it takes about 6 quarts of cream to make 4 pounds of butter), the churn itself, the bowl we use for washing the butter to get the remnants of buttermilk out of it. From churning to clean-up, it takes me about 40 minutes to make four pounds of butter, maybe a little less if I’ve got some good tunes on the hi fi.
We’re in a cloudy spell right now, so our solar collectors aren’t doing much, which means heating water on the cooking range for dishes. It’s sort of a pain, but the thing is, it’s not, really. We live in ridiculous abundance. We are lucky just to be alive. I can think of a million other ways our lives are easier than strictly necessary, and when I do, heating water on the cooking range to wash dishes suddenly ceases to seem like much of a burden. I actually think this is the biggest secret to a contented life: The ability to think of a million other ways in which your life is easier than strictly necessary. Seriously. Try it. And if that doesn’t work, pick up a copy of this anthology. Reading about slurping the cold jellied remains of boiled dog bones in a wall tent at -40 with your toes falling off from frostbite is bound to put a shine on your current state of affairs. Plus, there’s an Edward Abbey piece in there. Can’t hardly go wrong with Abbey.
We’ll milk two cows twice per day for maybe another 10 weeks, at which point we’ll transition to once per day. This is in part because we’ll have a nice stash of butter by then, in part because it’ll be time to start weaning the calves off milk, and in part because we’re lazy. Plus, by then it’ll be about time to start harvesting all sorts of garden-y goodies, so it’s a swell time to free up the evening milking period.
The calves are doing great. We feed 4x/day, a half-gallon each per feeding. Most the boys do the bottle feeding, but sometimes it’s Penny or me. It’s nice, bottle feeding a calf. I mean, yeah, sometimes you’d like to move onto the next thing, but the thing is, you can’t. You gotta wait until those confounded calves are done sucking the last foamy dregs outta those bottles, like an alcoholic nursing his final round beer. Truth is, I sort of like tasks that force me to slow down. To stay present. I need something to keep me on track.
We’re eating like kings. Fresh butter. Kefir made from cream. Haunches of lamb and pork. Salads at least twice each day, topped by Pen’s homemade cheese. For breakfast, eggs and sausage and thick slices of Blake’s bread. Brook trout the boys bring home. We all drink straight from the jar of milk in the fridge whenever we want. There are even still blueberries in the freezer. It’s all super simple and insanely good, and we try not to take it for granted but of course we do.
Despite the homestead abundance, we’ve been buying more convenience foods than is typical for us, a concession to everything we’re juggling. Apples. Hard cheeses. Raisins. Last week, Penny even picked up a bag of some sort of sweet potato chips and the boys were beside themselves. It’s nice to have a treat once in a while. It’s good to be reminded how much groceries cost, too, especially if you’re inclined to get the good stuff, which we are. But holy moly, it adds up real quick. We actually budgeted for this when we did the finances for the building project, and it’s a good thing we did, or we’d’ve been caught off guard.
Raining again. Good day to work in the woods, saw some lumber. Got me a house and barn to build. And more butter to make.
June 8, 2015 § 32 Comments
The rain came in while we slept, a soft rain, the sort that cultivates those sweet and hazy morning dreams, the ones at the very precipice of consciousness, never less sure of what is real and imagined. And if it matters, anyway.
It is fair to say that our lives are a bit intense at the moment. Last week, Jimmy and I installed the leach field; after that Pen and the boys and I set the foundation stones for the barn, the completion of which was followed in short order by the framing of the perimeter band joists with our friend Blake, who’s working with us two days per week. It’s great to have him, and I’d be saying that even if I didn’t know he reads this space: He is young (not even 30!! Can you even imagine?), cheerful and conscientious, at least half as rugged as me, and furthermore brings us loaves of the dense sourdough rye bread he bakes. We eat it with the butter we churned the day before, and the contrast in colors – the almost-orange of the spring butter, the deep earthen hue of the bread – is something to behold. I’d say it’s too pretty to eat, but the evidence suggests otherwise, so I won’t.
For the barn, we are utilizing a BFR foundation. The “B” stands for Big, of course, and the “R” for Rock. The “F” meanwhile, stands for… well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. The BFR was suggested to us by our friend Paul. It’s cheap, environmentally benign (unlike concrete, for instance, which is pretty rapacious stuff), requires minimal soil disturbance, and, with proper drainage, should prove exceptionally stable. Time will tell, I suppose, but so far, I’m feeling real good about it. I think it’s certainly better than piers of wood or concrete, both of which are prone tipping and tilting as the frost works its rude magic.
Oh, and what do I think about God? I believe that just like spirituality, God can be many different things to many different people. To some, the one creator; to others, the feel of soil in the palm or the sounds of cows grazing; to others still, us. I believe that organized religion is often held up as an answer to questions that can seem unanswerable, and that surrendering the mystery of these questions is a great loss. I guess I appreciate a certain amount of mystery in my life. If nothing else, it keeps me on my toes. I like being on my toes.
I do not believe the world is wicked. Nor people. Indeed, I believe precisely the opposite: That the world is almost unfathomably kind and generous. In my experience, the same can be said of people, and on those occasions when it cannot, it is almost always the result of people feeling compelled to behave in ways that are inherently contrary to their nature. I believe this contrariness is the cause of much current malaise, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual (as if we ought make these distinctions at all).
I think one of the great tragedies of the industrialized economy is that it too often it forces us to treat our fellow humans (not to mention all that is non-human, and this is yet another distinction we might reconsider) with something less than the reverence they deserve. I once heard someone describe capitalism as a sociopathic construct, and I believe there is some truth to this. Maybe a lot of truth.
And that’s pretty much what I have to say about that.
June 2, 2015 § 49 Comments
We are milking two cows, twice per day. We milk by hand, in a corner of our humble pole barn. For the past couple of days, we’ve milked to the patter of rain on the tin roof, and that’s been real nice. Penny does most of the milking, though I pinch hit from time-to-time. From beginning to end, including a mid-milking break to feed the calves, it takes about 40 minutes. We both like it. It’s not a burden, though obviously not for the uncommitted.
Milk is the cornerstone of this little operation. It makes our butter, our kefir, our soft cheese. It makes our beef and this year, with a beautiful heifer on the ground, perhaps it will generate a little income. We feed the skimmed milk to our pigs and they are kind enough to convert it into chops and bacon. Good piggies. Thank you.
Of course, our milk comes from our cows, so perhaps it’s actually the cows that are the cornerstone of this little operation. They make the milk, they birth the beef and heifer calves, they graze the grass, they give us something meaningful to do for 40 minutes at the beginning and end of each day. No small point, that last one. It’s actually pretty damn important.
Of course, the cows couldn’t exist without the grass they feed on, so maybe the cornerstone of this little operation is grass. Funny to think about, isn’t it? Grass. The prey of lawnmowers the world over, which is crazy, because it’s actually one of the most abundant perennial food crops in the world. You think you can’t eat grass? That’s nuts. Of course you can eat grass. You just gotta run it through the digestive system of a ruminant first.
Except, well, the grass doesn’t grow without the sun, the rain, the soil. So I guess I was wrong before: These are the cornerstones of this little operation. They make the grass that feeds the cows that make the milk that makes our beef and bacon and butter and (!!!) ice cream. You think you can’t eat sun, soil, and rain?
Truth is, you do it every day.
May 26, 2015 § 31 Comments
I flew out to Sun Valley, Idaho for the weekend, to give a talk at a conference about kids and education and whatnot (that’s what my talk was about, not the conference as a whole). Holy shit is it beautiful out there, I mean really. Just stunning, all sky and mountain, everything stretching for what seems like forever. And the speed limit! 80 mph, but you can set the cruise at 90 and just about take a nap, the roads are so straight. Crazy.
After my talk I hiked from the conference center through a pleasant neighborhood and to the top of a ski hill and then clambered up onto a rock outcropping and got that feeling you get when you see a SUV commercial on TV and the camera’s circling at the very height of the land, a swirling, 360-degree aerial view. You know the commercials I’m talking about. You know the feeling: A little disorienting, that soft butterfly flutter in the stomach.
Sometimes when I travel, I get sort of overwhelmed by all the possibilities of life, and furthermore, the seeming randomness of it all. I mean, hell, given slightly different circumstances, I might’ve ended up living in Sun Valley, or a million other places for that matter. Considering it is for me like standing at the top of that outcropping: A little disorienting, a little fluttery, and I wonder if that sense of disorientation is the very reason conferences like the one I spoke at exist in the first place. It was a wellness conference, focused primarily on the spirit. Elizabeth Gilbert was there, but that was the day before I arrived, so I didn’t get to see her. A fellow named Rich Roll, which is a great name for a guy who transformed himself from recovering-alcoholic, Big-Mac attacking couch potato into a vegan competitive ultra runner in his mid-40’s, an age that of late seems particularly relevant to me. I listened to some of his talk. It was good. Very inspirational. Heck, I might not’ve gone hiking otherwise, and that night at dinner I even passed over the steak in favor of something a little less bloodwet.
That disorientation. It’s like, how do you decide? Everyone at the conference was, as implied by their very attendance, affluent. Maybe not 1% affluent, but you know what I mean: These people have the world by the balls. You could see it: They were all gorgeous, slim, bright-eyed, curious, articulate, almost deferential in their politeness. The buffet of their life choices, while perhaps not infinite (and whose is?), is certainly more bountiful than for most. But it must be sort of confusing at times, too, all that opportunity. Has to be. Is, I mean. I know, because while I was surely on the lower end of the conference attendee’s socioeconomic spectrum, it’s not like I don’t have my share of choices. More than is strictly healthy, I sometimes think.
The night after my talk, I went to Mark Nebo’s presentation. I’d never heard of the dude, but I figured why not. I was there, I was hanging out with some people whose company I was quite enjoying and they were going, I had a complimentary ticket, and besides, I was feeling a little knackered from the hike and furthermore regretting my decision regarding the steak dinner, which came with some sort of blue cheese (blue cheese!) reduction sauce and which, if not for the tempering influence of that confounded vegan-runner dude, who was 49 but looked at least 28, I surely would’ve ordered.
Anyway. I guess Nebo’s pretty famous; Oprah’s a big fan and that sort of launched him a while back. I’d assumed he’d be a little slick for my liking, and his talk was titled “heart work in a spirit world,” and it’s not like I’m opposed to heart work or spirit worlds or anything, but, well… you know. But honestly, I could see the appeal. He talked some and read some passages from his books and a few poems he wrote, and lo-and-behold, he’s a fantastic writer. Good enough that if you were a writer yourself, you might find yourself thinking hell’s bells. And he didn’t try to whip us into a frenzy. He wasn’t trying to convince anyone of anything. He was just offering what he had to offer in an unassuming way. It was very endearing.
What did he have to offer? A lot, way more than I can remember. Except one thing, something pretty obvious, I guess, but still: Not something I’d thought much about (a well-provisioned category, this one). “Remember,” he said, toward the end of his talk. He widened his eyes just a bit. “Remember how rare it is that you are even here.” He didn’t mean “here” as in in this room. He meant “here” as in here. The big “here.”
The first thing I thought was Rare: Like steak.
The second thing I thought was Damn: He’s right.