February 21, 2014 § 33 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.
February 13, 2014 § 5 Comments
Just a couple of quick notes as I prepare for the impending storm (16″… hell YEAH!).
First, ran across this a while back and have been meaning to mention it. It’s well worth your time. And for those of you who are justifiably leery of clicking on an unnamed link in one of my posts, I promise it has nothing to do with David Lee Roth. Well, except that it’s genius.
Second, you really should come out to the second annual spelling bee at the Kellogg Hubbard Library in Montpeculiar, VT this Saturday. Last year’s event was a genyouwhine hoot.
February 11, 2014 § 11 Comments
I was up early, propelled by the feeling that too many days had passed since I’d greeted the rising sun with sweat on my brow, so I coaxed the fires to life, slipped out the door, and stepped into my skis. It was still dark and an even zero degrees, but it’s been the sort of winter that makes a zero degree morning feel like just the way things are, so I wasn’t cold. I glided up past the barn and the still-prone cows, and I fancied myself the image of them turning their shaggy heads toward me in greeting or maybe just curiosity, but the truth is, it was too dark to know if they so much as glanced my way.
Out on Melvin’s field, at the height of the land, I slotted into the packed depression left by the big, lugged tire of his New Holland on his way to gather firewood the afternoon before. The sky was ever so slightly bluing above me, and I skied fast as the cold snow would let me. Over by the old hollow oak I could see down to Melvin’s barn. Light shone through a window. Chore time. It was almost six, so I knew Melvin was probably feeding out at that very moment, and for some reason I remembered Thanksgiving, when we’d all been sitting around our big farmhouse table, shifting ever so slightly in our chairs to relieve the post-meal discomfort of expanded bellies pressing against waistbands. We’d had one serious cold snap already, and I said something like “I hope it’s a good, hard winter.” Melvin didn’t miss a beat: “Spoken like someone who makes his living at a desk,” he said, and he was grinning like he does when he’s heckling me but also knows he’s speaking the truth and furthermore knows that I know he’s speaking the truth. It’s a tidy arrangement, really.
That old oak. The boys used to squeeze themselves into it all the time. They’d spend hours in and around that tree, lost to their imagining. We’d read My Side of the Mountain, and I suppose that had something to do with it, but I bet they would have found that tree no matter what. Just the other day Fin told me they can’t fit into it anymore. Ain’t that the way it goes. I suppose it would’ve made me sort of sad if it didn’t reveal the simple fact that they still wanted to fit into it. That they’d tried. Maybe trying to fit inside a hollow tree is as important as actually fitting into it. I know that tree’s days are numbered. It’s going in Melvin’s furnace, if not this winter, then next. If not next winter, the one after that. That’s ok. My boys don’t fit in there anymore, and a furnace doesn’t run on sentiment.
By the time I returned home, I’d gotten the sweat I’d wanted. I could taste it on my upper lip. I skied past the cows again, and this time, I could see that they did look my way. Wanting hay. Wanting fresh water. I went into the house, changed into my chore boots, and stepped back outside.
February 10, 2014 § 19 Comments
Yesterday we made 120-pounds of sausage from the pig we killed the day before. It was a huge day; I was chopping and mixing herbs and spices and whatnot by 6 a.m., and we finished cleaning up at 8 last night, with only a few short breaks for chores and other tasks related to the ongoing well being of our smallholding. A lot of what takes us so long is that we like to make cased sausage, rather than loose, and stuffing is a time-consuming process. But by gum and tarnation there’s something about a good cased sausage, especially a chorizo or maybe a nice little fennel, the way it gets all plump and juicy on the stove, the insides steaming a bit from the wine we mixed in, even as the outside sears against the hot surface of the pan.
Generally, from kill to sausage is a three-day affair. You kill on one day, usually in the afternoon, let the carcass hang over night to stiffen and cool (otherwise, it’s too mushy to cut with any precision), butcher the second day and maybe grind your sausage meat, and then actually make the sausage on the third day. Of course, in a week or so, there’s another day devoted to smoking the bacons and hams that have been brining since slaughter, but that’s another story.
Anyhow, this weekend I had a mind to compress the process into only two days, so Rye and I were down at the pigpen by 8 on Saturday morning, .22 and sticking knife in hand. It was just a few degrees above zero, but dressing a pig is surprisingly physical work, particularly if you don’t use an electric saw, which we don’t. Rye shot the pig, I stuck her, and we got the girl hitched up to the bucket of the tractor and hauled up to a nice sunny spot in the yard by the time the half-hour had rolled around. It was up to about 5 degrees, with the sun was building in the sky, and other than my hands, which I had to keep sticking in the bucket of warm knife-washing water, I was perfectly comfortable. By 10:00, the pig was dressed and halved; I moved the tractor into a shady spot so she’d cool quicker and bopped over to our friend Jim’s place, who’s a woodworker by trade and gifts us his shop shavings to use as animal bedding. Kiln dried hardwood shavings: One of those things that’s hard to truly appreciate until you have livestock in need of bedding.
By 4:30, we deemed the carcass sufficiently cool to cut, so Penny and I humped it into the kitchen, and with the help of the boys got it hoisted onto the big cutting block that’s built into the island in the middle of our kitchen, one of the few truly intelligent design considerations in our entire house, the others being… um… wait a sec… it’ll come to me… oh, forget it. We had a fire going in the cookstove and yet more Isbell cranking, and we were in fine fettle. I mean, really, how could we not be? We had literally eaten the last package of sausage from the last pig we did only the morning before, and now we had something like 300-pounds of fresh pork at our disposal, a sweet and gentle girl whose very life would be absorbed into ours. As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t feel called to overt expressions of gratitude and/or sorrow when we take the life of an animal. But if you can’t approach the process with a certain lightness of being and good humor, a spring in your step for all that is right in this imperfect world? Well, hell. Far as I’m concerned, you might’s well just hire it done. Or not do it at all.
It took about two n’ half hours or maybe a wee bit more to get both halves chunked for grinding and also to fashion any cuts we wanted. From the loins, we cleaved a passel of chops and a few roasts; the hams were of overwhelming girth, so we cut one in half and dropped it into a brine bucket. The other we chunked for grinding. Both bellies were cut into slabs and went into the brine; both shoulders went to sausage. A couple packages of ribs. The tenderloins. We cleaned the trotters and put them in a bag for future processing. The liver got soaked in milk for mellowing before becoming pate. The heart and kidneys went into the sausage mix. Ditto the jowls. Rye has some sort of deal going with Nate for the brains, so he took an axe to the skull and scooped them out and now there’s a container in the freezer that reads “Pig Brains” in his careful lettering.
This is long, and I haven’t even got to the sausage making part, though of course I’ve written of it a time or two before. Suffice it to say, we made chorizo, a simple salt/pepper/garlic for drying, maple breakfast (and lunch and dinner), sage/garlic/ginger, and a sassy little fennel number. Besides the sausage, we have all the aforementioned cuts, and in a week or so, we’ll have a mess of smoked bacon and ham. We made ten cups of real good pate. Even Daisy dog made out, as there’s a bag o’ bones in the freezer with her name on them. And Nate’ll get his brains. Thank goodness for that.
Never doubt the inherent generosity of a pig. For six or maybe seven months, I had the great pleasure of feeding the one we killed this weekend, of stopping by Jimmy and Sara’s farm every couple of days to pick up buckets of organic colostrum, which can’t be put in the tank. Most often, we stand and chat for a few minutes as the cows shuffle and chew and we talk about the minutia of our days on the Vermont hill we all call home. In this manner, we have slowly become not just neighbors, but friends, and all for a little pig food. Furthermore, over the weekend, I got to watch my younger son’s confidence and sense of responsibility expand as he lodged a bullet in precisely the right spot and the pig whumped to the ground, suddenly knowing nothing. Or perhaps knowing everything. I got to spend all of yesterday with Penny, the boys flitting in and out of the house, or retreating to the couch to read, occasionally stopping by the kitchen to do some grinding or fry up a sample or two.
And of course, all that meat, to be eaten at our table and shared with family and friends, the pig’s generosity doing precisely what all generosity is meant to do: Not be corralled, but allowed to slide through our fingers, on its way to places we can only imagine, its passing being at least as significant as whatever portion remains with us.
Once upon a time I might have seen a pig, that humble creature of snout and hoof, and thought to myself “hey, it’s just a pig.”
But now I know the truth: It’s never just a pig.