Swim or Drift?

August 14, 2014 § 46 Comments


First, a brief correction to my fermentation post. It’s not Napa cabbage that we grow, but Bravo. Not sure where the hell Napa came from. Musta been thinking auto parts. Anyway, we like Bravo because a) it’s big, b) it’s big, and c) it’s juicy, which means it pounds out real nice and makes lots of moisture. Also, I realized my version of “loose” in regards to screwing on the jar lids might not be the same as everyone’s version of loose (what with me being so rugged and all). To be clear: Not loosey-goosey, but not mighty-tighty, either. Just somewhat less than cranked down. Then, once the initial ferment is over (again, 3 to 4 days at room temp), you can really give’r.

There. See why I’m scared to do too many how-to posts?

         •     •     •

So the story I did for Outside is getting a fair bit of play, at least judging from the number of emails I’ve received and the amount of “shares” over on Outside’s website. That’s good, I guess, though I have to admit it makes me a little uneasy. It’s funny: You get so accustomed to writing for a particular, small audience, and then when you’ve suddenly got a bigger audience, which you’ve always secretly hoped for in a way you’re half loathe to admit, you don’t really know what to think. You don’t know if it’s good or bad. If it matters.

Anyway. Over in the comments section of Outside’s site, someone left this question:

What advice would you give to families that try to homeschool or unschool and are constantly confronted with the computer issue? In a city setting, computers are everywhere.

It made me realize that I’ve never really addressed the technology issue head-on. Partly, that’s because I’m a little afraid of it. It seems to me as if there’s a lot of high emotions and defensiveness surrounding the nexus of children and digitized technology. Honestly, I think this is because most parents are immersed in it themselves, and for all the complaining they might do about its impact on their lives, they actually like being immersed in it. Or maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe it’s more that they’ve become so accustomed to being immersed in it they can no longer imagine life without it. This is not a judgment. It’s merely a theory based on personal observation.

Obviously, we have computers. Two, actually: My laptop and a “family” desktop. We have high speed internet. We listen to music on a computer and Penny manages her photos on a computer. During the winter months, or on cool, rainy evenings like last night, we watch movies on the computer, though never more than once per week. We even have a cell phone, one of those cheapo things you get when you buy the pre-paid minute plans. We have never received a call on our cell phone. I couldn’t tell you the number if you put a gun to my head. But we have it, mostly for my occasional travel.

For us, the trick is to figure out how to make these technologies captive to our needs, rather than allowing ourselves to become captive to them. I think that’s a surprising hard balance to strike, particularly in a world where these technologies are so ubiquitous. This is the aspect of modern smart phones I despise so very much: It’s all in our face all the time and we forget what it’s like to not have it in our face and we begin to use these technologies out of simple habit. And as that habit builds, it becomes something more than a habit. I won’t say addiction, though I suspect that’s possible. But I will say that we forget we don’t actually need these devices and all the information they convey. We forget that much of that information – most of it, probably – does nothing to enrich our lives. It just clutters them.

I can’t say we’ve got it all figured out. I can say that we’ve shunned certain technologies (or more accurately, certain manifestations of technology) entirely. Video games. Mobile devices (our archaic and little-used cell phone notwithstanding). We don’t have a television. There’s no GPS or DVD player in our car.

But the way I see it, our shunning is not so much a rejection as an embrace of all the things we experience in the time we’d otherwise spend engaged with these machines. I guess the way I view all this stuff is through the lens of the life I truly want to live, the one that feels most honest and healthy and fulfilling. Do I want to feel as if I am tethered to these technologies, or to the people, land, and animals around me? Maybe these things aren’t mutually exclusive, but for myself and for my sons, I’d rather not take the risk.

And I’m just now realizing that I haven’t yet answered the original question. I guess that’s because I’m not certain I have a satisfying answer, or that I’m qualified to answer. I do know that it is always more difficult to swim against the tide than to drift with it, and that’s really what the commenter is talking about, isn’t it? Do you swim, or do you drift? Or can you do some of each?

So maybe I’ll turn this one over to my readers, some of who live in cities and are maybe confronted with the same dilemma. What do you all think?

Everything Else Will Follow

August 13, 2014 § 18 Comments


A storm is blowing in, and it should be a good one. Per the established pattern of what has been perhaps the most idyllic summer I can remember, Penny and I had just been commenting how we could use a little rain. And presto! It’s like we’ve got a direct line to the big guy. Or gal, I suppose.

Summer is moving fast. Summer always moves fast, but this one seems more fleeting than usual, probably the result of cold, late spring and the inherent injustice of aging, which of course is that the less time you have left, the more quickly it seems to pass. Man. What’s up with that, anyway? How come all these damn cliches keep coming true?

Sometimes I can’t help but consider how recently it feels that Penny and I bought this land, built a house, had children. Sometimes I can’t help but extrapolate those years forward, measuring them against the sped-up clock of middle age. If it feels like only a few years ago that Fin slept on a pillow between our heads, us fretting over every gurgle and fart, how quickly might the next twelve years pass? If it feels like only a handful of years have has passed since we first stepped foot on this land, what will it feel like 18 years from now, when I think back to that idyllic summer of 2014?

It’s good, you know. I like a small sense of urgency in my life, like the energy I feel on those first chill mornings of late summer, when the intent of the coming season can no longer be denied. Or the urgency of the season’s first sap run: Get the taps in, get the buckets hung, it’s gonna run hard tomorrow. Or the small pressure of the harvest season, each crop ripening of its own accord, offering its own small window for reaping and processing.

I don’t hope for too much, but I do hope to be one of those people who always have too much to do, whose curiosities cannot fit inside one life. I see that in Penny; indeed, it’s one of the things I love so much about her. She is always pining to learn something new and to refine those skills she has learned. I admire that and I realize that the people who fascinate me most are those who are always learning. Not necessarily because they want to be smarter or more skilled or more employable, but because they’re simply interested.

I know how fortunate I am to have found a path early in my adult life that fascinates me, which is really the only person I need to worry about fascinating. But not infrequently, being fascinated means living with the understanding that one life can only accommodate so much. Truth is, I’ll never have all the skills I’d like to have. I’ll never know all the interesting people I’d like to know, hold my sons’ hands all the times I’d like to hold their hands. I’ll never eat as much homemade ice cream as I’d like to eat, though I sure as hell am gonna try.

I’m sure that as I age, there will be times when the perceived brevity of my days on this piece of ground will leave me a little breathless. A little sad. Wanting more of the very thing that can’t be bought or accumulated, but which is being spent every minute of every day. You too, of course. You ain’t getting out of it, either. Death and taxes, baby. Don’t forget it for a second.

I guess this might all sound a little morbid, but why, really? It just is, as inevitable as the first frost of autumn and the way it wilts the pasture grass and the small urgency we feel, goading us to harvest the squash, the carrots. The potatoes can wait a bit, but not too long because a harder frost is coming, driving deeper into the ground. Then snow. That’s inevitable, too, or at least I hope it is. I like snow.

There’s nothing I can do to change the perception that the seasons and years are passing ever more quickly. Not a damn thing. They’re gonna come and go and come again, and irony is, the harder I try to hold onto them, the more slippery they’re sure to become. You can’t catch that stuff no matter how hard you try. If you’re real lucky, you get those little crystalized memories, like the image I hold of the boys etched against the sky at the peak of Melvin’s pasture, pushing their bikes on the way home from driving the cows down for evening chores. Or when they used to play inside the old hollow oak above his barnyard.

So yeah, for me, at least, the trick isn’t trying to slow things down, or to flail against my own perception of time’s passage. That’s a losing battle, a foolish one. The trick is so much simpler than that. It’s the one piece of sage advice I’ll pass along to my boys on the off chance they finally recognize my wisdom and come asking: Be interested. Stay interested.

Everything else will follow.


I Wrote A Little Story

August 12, 2014 § 21 Comments

It begins like this: 

On a recent morning in early September, in a wood clapboarded house situated on a 40-acre farm just outside a small town in northern Vermont, two boys awaken. They are brothers; the older is 12 and the younger is 9, and they arise to a day that has barely emerged from the clutches of dark. It is not yet autumn, but already the air has begun to change, the soft nights of summer lengthening and chilling into the season to come. Outside the boys’ bedroom window, the grass is dew-bent and lush, the leaves on the maples just starting to turn.

School is back in session and has been for two weeks or more, but the boys are unhurried. They dress slowly, quietly: Faded and frayed thrift store camo pants. Flannel shirts. Rubber barn boots. Around their waists, leather belts affixed with knife sheaths. In each sheath, a fixed blade knife.

By 6:30, with the first rays of sun burning through the dense, ground level fog, the boys are outside. At some point in the next hour or so, a long yellow school bus will rumble past the end of the driveway that connects the farm to the town road. The bus will be full of children the boys’ age, their foreheads pressed against the window glass, gazing at the unfurling landscape, the fields and hills and forests of the small working class community they call home.

The boys will pay the bus no heed. This could be because they will be seated at the kitchen table, eating breakfast with their parents. Or it might be because they are already deep in the woods below the house, where a prolific brook trout stream sluices through a stand of balsam fir; there is an old stone bridge abutment at the stream’s edge, and the boys enjoy standing atop it, dangling fresh-dug worms into the water below. Perhaps they won’t notice the bus because they are already immersed in some project or another: Tillering a long bow of beech or black locust, or starting a fire over which to cook the quartet of brookies they’ve carried back from the stream. They heat a flat rock at the fire’s edge and the hot stone turns the fishes’ flesh milky white and flaky.

Or here’s an alternate theory: Maybe the boys will pay the bus no heed because it’s passing is meaningless to them. Maybe they have never ridden in a school bus, and maybe this is because they have never been to school. Perhaps they have not passed even a single day of their short childhoods inside the four walls of a classroom, their gaze shifting between window and clock, window and clock, counting the restless minutes and interminable hours until release.

Maybe the boys in question are actually my sons, and maybe their names are Finlay and Rye, and maybe, if my wife Penny and I get our way, they will never go to school.

Hey, a father can dream, can’t he?

You can read the rest of it here. 

Fermentation: It Rots!

August 12, 2014 § 12 Comments


Finally, the oft-requested (sounds a lot better than “occasionally” requested, which is closer to the truth) kimchi recipe.

Coupla notes: We never follow this to the letter. Part of the fun of fermenting is playing with it a bit. If we don’t have an ingredient, we don’t put it in – with the exceptions of cabbage, salt, and water, any of the following can be omitted. Second, we like relatively chunky kimchi, so we hand chop pretty much everything, though we’re prone to getting lazy and putting the garlic and ginger in the processor. Or we freeze the ginger and grate it. That works real swell. Third, you should wash of any obvious dirt, but don’t go scrubbing like crazy. You want the good, naturally occurring bacteria on your veggies (esp your cabbage) to stay put. And never, ever use any chlorinated water!!! The chlorine inhibits bacterial activity. Although, truth is, you shouldn’t need to add much, if any, additional water. The moisture in the cell walls of your vegetables should be adequate.

Finally, in terms of storage, we leave packed jars at room temp (leave the lids slightly loose and put a towel under the jars, ’cause they need to bubble a bit and release some pressure, or you risk explosions) for three or four days. Then we transfer to the root cellar, which runs 40-50 degrees depending on time of year. We have very little spoilage loss under these conditions; maybe a jar or two out of 50 or 60. Sometimes, none. We’ve eaten three-year old kimchi out of our root cellar with no adverse affects. It was a little soft, but not bad.

Fermentation: It rots!

This recipe makes about 18 to 20-quarts of kimchi, depending on how tight you pack the jars

30-pounds cabbage – we like Napa

11-ounces sea salt – use good, mineralized salt, not the cheap crap from the supermarket. Generally speaking, the whiter it is, the more it should be avoided

4-pounds carrots

21-ounce daikon radish

21-ounces onion

7-ounces kale

2.75-ounces garlic

1.75-ounces ginger

10 matchbox peppers - more or less depending on your preference for spicy foods

After we chop everything, we mix it all in a cooler we’ve appropriated for the task. Once mixed, we pound it with a wooden mallet to break down the cell walls and release the moisture. Then we let it sit for a while (an hour or two) to allow the salt to draw out more moisture. Then we pack it in jars. The key is to be sure the water is covering the veggies in the jar – that’s how you avoid mold (though a little mold isn’t the worst thing in the world; just scrape off the moldy bits and dive in). If you can’t get the water level over the veggies, make a brine of 2 Tablespoons salt per quart of water and top off your kimchi jars. But if you pound enough and wait long enough, you shouldn’t need to add any brine.

Some folks like “green” kimchi that’s only a few days old, but we generally wait at least a month before digging in.

The thing I love about fermenting (other than the taste) is that it’s probably the most egalitarian food preservation method going. Both processing and storage require zero energy inputs and there’s no doubt it contributes to your underlying health and well being, ensuring that you have the gumption to keep sticking it to the man. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Finally, if this isn’t clear enough, we’re pretty sure we’re going to host a half-day fermenting workshop in early October. We’ll all make kimchi and talk about other ferments – kefir, other veggies, kombucha, sausage, etc. And everyone’ll go home with a quart of fresh ‘chi. Email me if you’re interested, or stay tuned for more details.

Also, Sandor Katz’s books Wild Fermentation and the Art of Fermentation are fantastic resources. So is Nourishing Traditions.



Sometimes You Just Gotta Bear It

August 11, 2014 § 25 Comments

In addition to my rather unhelpful advice that the best way to keep smiling during food processing is to keep smiling (wow, thanks a lot, Hewitt. Now there’s a real piece of genius), I offer the following:

1. Forget canning. Way too much fuss and bother. Pretty much the only thing we can anymore is applesauce, and only every second year. Fermenting is eons easier, uses zero energy, doesn’t make you sweat like scalded cat, and takes a fraction of the time. Healthier, too, by a long shot. Honestly, I can hardly fathom the fuss of canning anymore.

2. Plan wicked smart. As in, don’t kill and cut pigs in the middle of July when there’s a quadrillion other things going on. I mean, really: What sort of goob would do that? Oh…

3. Get help. For us, that mostly means enlisting the boys, particularly now that they’re at the age when they can contribute in a meaningful way. Sometimes, we have help from friends on larger tasks (cutting meat, for instance).

4. Prepare the night before. For instance, when we make sausage, I always get the grinder set up and mix up the spices the night before. When we make kimchi, we set up our “work station” the day before. It’s a small detail that makes a big difference.

5. Music. Gotta have it. Loud and fast as Penny will tolerate. Which ain’t very. But you do what you can do.

6. Don’t stress. Assuming you’ve planned for abundance, it’s not a big deal if you don’t every last freakin’ pea shelled or every last ‘tater dug. For obvious reasons, you don’t want to go wasting a bunch of food, but don’t go losing your cool over it. Often, once we’ve reached our quota, we’ll invite friends to come harvest whatever remains.

7. Get your storage organized well ahead of time. For instance, we do our annual freezer clean-out in late spring/early summer, when they’re as close to empty as they get. We work real hard to be sure we’re not piling this year’s stores on top of last years’. Ditto for the root cellar, which is due for its annual hoeing out right about now.

8. Also, have your packaging figured out and set up beforehand. Nothing more frustrating than having to scramble for butcher paper in the middle of a hog. And don’t be afraid to experiment. For instance, for pesto, we’ve learned that the most space-efficient way to store it is to first freeze it on cookie trays in cup-size “pancakes.” Then we transfer all those pancakes to a two-gallon freezer bag. It’s quick, clean, and makes the most of precious freezer space.

9. Know what you need. We’re constantly adjusting the quantities of the foods we put up in relation to our shifting needs. For instance, we used to ferment a whole lotta salsa. But over the years, our appetite for lacto-fermented salsa has been on the decline. We always keep track of what we put up, then we pay attention to what’s left over from the year prior and adjust accordingly.

10. Don’t be a freakin’ wuss. Because the truth is, sometime you just gotta grit yer teeth and git r dun. I say this only partly in jest, because I’m pretty sure that most of us (myself most definitely included) have gotten a bit soft when it comes to the gritty realities of providing for ourselves. Truth is, processing food is a lot of work, no matter how big a smile you got pasted across your mug or how much time you spend remembering that it’s a reminder that life is in fact not the least bit boring.

Truth is, sometimes you just gotta bear it.



Not the Least Bit Boring

August 11, 2014 § 14 Comments

A boy and a basket

A boy and a basket

Down the field this early morning I moved the cows and meat birds under a dimming moon. The moon was full or nearly so, fading by the minute under the pressure of daybreak. I was dressed in long sleeves and happy for it – there’s been a hint of fall in the air recently, a certain urgent chill and slanted light at the fringes of the day. It’s been an idyllic summer, weather-wise – long, sweet stretches of sun and warmth interrupted by rain only a day or two before our feet start kicking up dust as we make our rounds.

The pack basket workshop exceeded all expectations. Or all of my expectations, anyway. To transform a simple log into something of such function and beauty using only the most basic of tools is something everyone should get to experience, if only because it dents the false logic of so many tenets upon which the modern market economy is built. Convenience. Expedience. Reliance on industry. Our dwindled human capabilities for labor and craft.

I think that’s what I like most about gatherings like the one this weekend: Like the beaver hide tanning workshop Nate led this winter, and like the fiber dyeing workshop Prin is facilitating next month, and like the many more skill-share gatherings we hope to host over the coming months and years, it was an embrace of the sort of self-determined logic that allows one to prosper on equally self-directed terms.

That, and as Nate wrote in his original workshop description, wearing a pack basket is a reminder that life is in fact not the least bit boring.

•      •     •

One of the things I’d like to improve about this space is my responsiveness to questions. Truth is, I have a finite amount of time I can devote to writing here, so it often feels like a choice between answering specific questions or incessant rambling on whatever strikes my fancy. For some reason, I seem to keep choosing the latter. There’s also the issue that I actually can’t answer many of the questions without guidance: Penny is the reservoir for much of our collective wisdom regarding cultivation specifics, so answering these questions generally means that first I have to push away from my desk, tromp downstairs, stumble across the boys’ detritus to the front door, fling it open, scream “Peeeennnnyyy!”, follow the sound of her return shriek from down the field or deep in the woods or wherever the hell she’s shrieking from, pose the question, saunter back to the house, stumble back across the (muddy/sharp/explosive) detritus, hump myself back up the stairs, settle into my desk chair, and try to remember what my wife told me.

Ok. So it’s not always that complicated. But you get the gist of it.

(And, rather ironically, here I am having wasted approximately as much time writing about how I don’t have enough time to answer questions as it would’ve taken me to answer a few of the said questions)

Anyway. I’m gonna work on it. There’s a bit of a backlog (kimchi recipe, insect/pest issues, and probably some others I don’t recall at the moment) but for the time being, I’m intrigued by this one: Does your family have tricks to fitting in all the food processing with cheery smiles?

I like this question because I think it hints at one of the primary stumbling blocks to a life of decreased dependence on industry (I almost wrote “a life of self-reliance,” but I believe self-reliance is a flawed ideology, so I didn’t): Namely, that the work essential to this decreased dependence on industry often feels overwhelming.

There is a large number number of excellent resources teaching the “hard skills” of growing and processing food and other essentials. In part because of this, learning these skills is the easy part. For me, at least, the much more difficult aspect is developing the “soft skills” that enable me to apply the hard skills effectively. I’ve written of this before, though I can’t remember exactly when. But the thesis was – as it remains – that simply maintaining my sense of equanimity in the face of the occasional overwhelming nature of our little holding is a far greater asset than the actual skills themselves.

To an extent, these things go hand-in-hand, because as one becomes more skilled and experienced, tasks that once overwhelmed become almost routine. To put this in the context of the question at hand (remaining cheery during food processing, if you’ve forgotten in the intervening ramble), I think of tasks like processing pigs or putting up our annual 60-quart stash of kimchi. Both these tasks were, at one point, daunting to us. But through repetition, both have become routine. No, that’s not quite right. Not quite routine. More like ritualistic, but in a way that demands little forethought, the preparation and motions having been honed by years and years of practice.

Here’s the thing, though: No matter how much we know and learn, no matter how many skills we acquire, there are always more on the horizon. And our ability to continue acquiring these skills and the knowledge and experience they contain is dependent on us maintaining that sense of equanimity. Otherwise, we’d always be too overwhelmed to even consider tackling something new.

To bring this ‘round to the specific question yet again: I think the best trick we have to fitting in all the processing with cheery smiles is to simply keep smiling. To remember that we are four of the luckiest people walking this great, beautiful, spinning orb. To not lose sight of the fact that being able to live in accordance with the self-determined logic I spoke of earlier is no small thing and is worth almost whatever it takes. Maybe you could even scratch the “almost.” Finally, to remember that all of this tasks are just like wearing a pack basket: A reminder that life is in fact not the least bit boring.

Oh, and you know what else works real good, especially with kids? Pea shelling races.


August 10, 2014 § 14 Comments

A lot of black ash pack baskets got made this weekend. It was good because making things is good and making things with good people is even gooder. I think I might like to do it a bit more often.

Pounding splints. If I had tats on my biceps like Greg, maybe I'd be strong enough to wield the hammer

Pounding splints. If I had tats on my biceps like Greg, maybe I’d be strong enough to wield the hammer


 Erin laying out her uprights

A teachable moment: Lucian politely critiquing my work


Baskets soaking in the pond during lunch


Nate teaching hard. Not only does he dress in buckskin clothing he made himself, he is a phenomenal teacher




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