March 12, 2015 § 66 Comments
I think sometimes folks get the mistaken impression that we live entirely off the bounty of the land (gee, wonder where they mighta cottoned to that idea). Or they think that just because on the cover of one of my books I claimed to have quit worrying about money, we actually don’t worry about money (really? You believed me?!?). Or they figure we’re milking the trust fund teat for all she’s worth (someone actually accused me of this recently, and then refused to believe me when I told her it wasn’t true, and I just sorta shrugged my shoulders because what, really, are you going to do with that scenario?).
Anyhow. Truth is, we spend plenty of dough. Pretty much everything we make, as a matter of fact, which generally adds up to somewhere around $3ok annually, although over the past couple of years we have managed to save more of a cushion than we’ve had in goodly while (we’ll probably blow it all this summer, however. You know, on crazy stuff, like putting a roof over our heads). In some regards, I suspect our expenses are a bit different than most folks; in some regards, I suspect they’re probably pretty similar. We don’t budget; I’ve always felt as if budgeting is a colossal waste of time, not to mention being right up there with plucking nose hairs on the fun-o-meter.
Generally speaking, I consider us thrifty, more than frugal. This is because to me, thriftiness speaks of an ethos of respect and perhaps even reverence for what we consume – it is what compels us to catch the blood from the sticking wounds of our pigs, for instance – while frugality is merely about pinching Penny pennies. Admittedly, I haven’t actually researched the official definitions of these words, so take this all with a grain of salt.
Anyhow again. I thought it might be kinda fun to talk a bit about where we spend the bulk of our dough.
Transportation: Because we don’t have a mortgage, this is by far our single biggest expense. We drive a crazy amount. How much, you ask? Honestly, I don’t want to tell you, ‘cause I’ll bleed out every last drop of so-called sustainability cred I might otherwise have accrued over the years. Your notion of me as flowing haired, robe-clad benevolent will go up in same hazy cloud of smoke that bellows from the dual tailpipes of our truck on startup.
Ah, screw it. I wasn’t fooling anyone, anyway: We drive somewhere around 25,000 miles annually, split between the car (about 23k) and the truck (you do the math). Our car is a 2005 Subaru that was gifted to us when Penny’s folks quit driving. It is BY FAR the nicest, most reliable vehicle we’ve owned, though it is old enough to require occasional mechanical interventions and, like all Subarus, it’s a thirsty little bugger: We average about 23mpg, and except when I’m learning the boys how to blow donuts, we go real easy on her.
Our truck is a 1997 Ford F350 Powerstroke. It’s been a real good truck overall, but we are ready to let it go, in large part because Penny is super-sensitive to the sweet nectar of diesel exhaust, and they don’t call these pigs Powersmokes for nothing. Unfortunately, we need a big truck, because we do tow on occasion (hay and tractor), and though we don’t drive the truck much, when we use it, we tend to use it, if you know what I mean. Anyhow, if any of ya’ll have a nice, rust-free ¾ or 1 ton 4wd gas pickup you want to let go for a song, drop a line, eh? Likewise, if any of you are looking for a solid plow rig, and furthermore have a healthy appreciation for diesel fumes, lemme know.
The sum total of all this is that we spend upwards of $3k a year just on fuel for our rigs, plus maybe another $300 in diesel for the tractor. This is ENORMOUSLY frustrating to me, and never mind that maintenance is probably about that much again – for instance, in the past six months, we had to do the head gasket in the ‘ru, deal with some fuel related BS in the truck, fix the front end on the truck, do new brakes on the ‘ru (ouch), and a few other odds and ends. I wish I could say I was mechanically inclined, but alas, I cannot. I’d like to think that if I had some sort of shelter in which to flail around, I might accomplish something of value, but I suspect that’s a pipe dream.
By-the-by, at least half the miles we put on the car are work-related, what with all the driving I do for book events and reporting stories and whatnot. So there’s that.
Food: As I’ve written before, it’s sort of hard to determine how much we actually spend stuffing our faces. I mean, I could add up all the inputs – hay, grain, amendments, and so on – and I could even include depreciation on equipment. But I’d still be faced with trying to put a value on all we get besides food. For instance, last fall I trucked something like 45 yards of compost up to the new land. I don’t really know what a yard of organic compost goes for these days, but I bet it’s north of $60.
So yeah, this is a hard one. I can say that our grocery store spending is real low; most months, not more than $100. But this is dependent on eating habits that most people simply aren’t willing to adopt. With the sole exception of a head of broccoli we bought to put in the soup we made for the spoon carving workshop, we haven’t purchased fresh vegetables all winter. No meat, obviously. No milk, though we’re out of our butter, so we’re onto the boughten stuff until the cows freshen in May. We buy a little flour for the occasional loaf of bread or pancakes, and we buy cheese now and again. Anyway. I’ve been through all this before, so I’ll shut my yap.
Actually, I won’t, because I think this is a real Achilles heel for those who aspire to some version of this life. Truth is, it’s not always easy to eat primarily what we produce, even given the diversity of our little operation. I mean, I’d rip your throat out for fresh greens right now. I ain’t kidding: If you’re sporting fresh greens, you ought just stay clear, ok, ’cause for the past five months or so, it’s been fermented this and fermented that, dried this and dried that, meanwhile rationing out the precious frozen peas and green beans (“son, it’s a very special day: You can have TWO peas!”). Oh, and potatoes and squash sixteen ways to Sunday. And beets. Damn, but I hate me some beets.
This is getting too long. Might have to pick it up another day. If any of you have specific questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll try and get to ‘em.
March 11, 2015 § 28 Comments
I was awakened in the night by the sound of snow releasing from the roof. Always startling, that sound: The slide, then the whump of it landing, the small shudder of the house shaking off the load. Startling, but also a tonic, a precursor to spring, an emblem of change. The main roof is clear now; only the shallow-pitched woodshed still wears its top hat, but it is lopsided, curling over the eave further than seems possible, gravitating lower inch-by-inch. Rye worries that his cat will walk beneath it at precisely the wrong time. He whispers in Winslow’s ear to give the woodshed wide berth, and the little ball of fur and purr seems to understand. I watch him choose his path carefully. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a fluke.
Charles Eisenstein likes to talk about “the space between the stories.” I like Charles. I’m a fan, even if phrases like “the space between the stories” sound to me like the sort of new age vernacular I’m normally inclined to flatten beneath my too-big truck (admittedly, this is probably because I’m still stuck in that space myself). But I think I know what he means. I think he means that space we inhabit when we know the way we’ve been doing things is well and truly fucked, and we have this sense – no, not sense, but actual knowing – that it doesn’t have to be this way, and yet we can’t quite figure out how to get from one story to the other.
I was thinking about the space between stories yesterday, mostly in relation to our educational choices, but also relating to many of our decisions about how we conduct our lives. And it seems to me that whatever struggles we face are almost always the result of living in this space, of choosing to try and cross whatever it is – river, canyon, interstate, mountain range, who friggin’ knows – separating the old story from the new. Or, more likely, the old stories from the new stories; my sense is that there aren’t merely two stories, but an infinite number of overlapping stories, the sum total of which are governed by laws defined both by government and culture. Economy, too. Sometimes I think it’s these laws more than anything that keeps us from moving toward the stories that speak to us.
I hear from a lot of parents who want to rewrite the story of school. They know there’s a more beautiful story (to borrow another of Charles’s terms) for their family, but they have little or even no support. Or it’s worse than that: They have negative support. I think about our own struggles over the years, knowing that in so many ways it would have been so much easier if we’d just sent the boys to school, with its built in social platform and educational process. Instead, we have had to work – and work hard – to create these things for ourselves. It would not be so challenging if the new story were fully formed. It would not be so challenging if we knew exactly what the new story was.
I see it in my work, too, and the difficulty I face in trying to make the work that matters most to me also be the work that puts diesel in the truck I use to crush new age vernacular. Last week, I had lunch with someone who’s in the same boat. She knows where her talents lie; she knows what she feels called to do. It’s not merely a self-inflated opinion of her work, because other people tell her the same. They tell her how much they value this work. Yet she struggles, and I think this is because in the old story, her work has little monetary value. I suspect the same is true of most of what I write.
In My Ishmael, Ismael speaks of the need for an “industrial revolution” of ideas about how to exist. We need a million different people doing a million different things, in the process writing a million different stories. And then we need to share these stories, along with the occasional triumphs, our inevitable failures.
And what do we take from this? The best of the stories will be shared more widely, become more polished. The lesser stories will be discarded. We’ll still probably exist in the space Charles speaks of, maybe forever. Maybe there is no fully realized more beautiful story. I think that’s a real possibility. Probability, even.
But then again, maybe it’s not the outcome that’s so damn important. Maybe it’s the process.
March 10, 2015 § 57 Comments
Back in late ’13 or thereabouts, I interviewed a number of adults who had been unschooled. There were two common refrains: 1) I wouldn’t have traded it for anything and 2) That said, I do sorta wish my folks had taught me a bit more math.
Much to the boys’ consternation, Penny and I have taken the latter refrain to heart, and what’s been particularly interesting to both of us is how little math we’ve retained ourselves and how much of what we have retained is specific to our work on this land. Fractions, for instance, well engrained by a multitude of on-going building projects, or the quick in-our-heads addition and subtraction, multiplication and division necessitated by commerce and the extrapolating of recipes to meet our unique needs (if the kimchi recipe calls for two tablespoons of salt per quart, and we’re making, oh, about 70 quarts, how many cups of salt do we need?). That sort of stuff.
Anyway. There’s a point in there somewhere… lemme just see if I can find it… ah… there we are. I think we owe it to ourselves (and more importantly, to our kids) to not become rigidly dogmatic in our educational path. Certainly I ask this of others, even as I am no doubt guilty of it myself, in part because of my personal experiences within the institutionalized educational system and in part because I cannot help but see how this system is engineered to feed an economy that exploits on so many levels. Environmental. Emotional. Spiritual. And so on.
But wait! There’s another point, and it’s lurking in Penny’s and my recognition of how little math we’ve retained. Granted, I wasn’t exactly teacher’s friggin’ pet – there weren’t many gold stars plastered on my worksheets, lemme tell ya – but still. Given all the hours I spent figuring algebraic equations, don’t you think I’d remember some of them? And it’s not just me – Penny’s in the same boat, and she was a gold star girl all the way. Heck, I bet she got double gold stars.
I’ve talked to enough schooled adults to know we’re not unique. Few remember much of what they learned in the classroom, and most agree that in hindsight, the majority of what they learned in the classroom really only mattered in the vacuum of academics. In other words, you learned what you were told you needed to learn so you could advance to the next level of learning what you needed to learn (meanwhile forgetting what you’d learned previously because what, really, was the incentive to remember it? I mean, it’s not like you were interested or anything) so you could advance to the next level of… oh, never mind. You get the point.
(Are there exceptions to this rule? Of course. There always are)
I see now that the aforementioned points are somewhat contradictory. Penny and I are essentially forcing our children to do some (albeit a fraction, though as evidenced by their caterwauls of complaint, it must be an exceptionally painful fraction) of the same sit down math lessons neither of us can recall, probably because we were forced to do them ourselves. Oy. Can we truly do no better than this?
Which I suppose leads me to my third and final point: We’re only human.
March 4, 2015 § 84 Comments
Yesterday afternoon Penny and I spent a couple hours in the kitchen. We did a bunch of things. First we sliced up a pair of chuck roasts real thin for beef jerky. The trick to slicing meat thin enough for good jerky is twofold: A sharp knife and a partially frozen roast. Then we chopped up a whole lot of garlic – we grow way more garlic than we can eat, but we sure do try – and mixed it into some tamari and a little honey. Penny might’ve put something else in there, too… I’m not sure. It’s her recipe; I don’t ask questions. We put the sliced meat in a bowl, poured the marinade over it, and stuck it in our passively vented icebox for the night.
When we finished slicing the meat, I went to the basement and dug a few carrots out of one of the burlap bags in the basement. This winter, we experimented with storing our carrots in dead leaves, and it’s worked out pretty good. We raked the leaves off the paths in our neighbor’s sugarwoods. I remember the boys jumped and wrestled in the raked up piles and I thought I should join them but I didn’t. Still, it was fun just watching them. I took the carrots upstairs. Washed them. Peeled them. Cut them small for stew.
I had some chunks of venison browning in lard on the wood cookstove. It smelled good. Earthy. The lard was from the pigs we slaughtered in January; the meat was from a fat little roadkill doe Fin and I came upon last fall, ironically just after we’d gotten home from rifle hunting. I would tell you how many roadkill deer we’ve harvested in the past six years or so, but it’s such an outrageously high number you’d never believe me and I’d only look like an idiot for having tried to pull the wool over your eyes (even though I didn’t). So let’s just say we haven’t gone without venison in a real long time, none of which were killed by our own hand or (thankfully) even our own vehicle. Sometimes I think it’d be cool to spend a year just living off roadkill and wild greens. But… nah.
While we worked, Penny and I got to talking about some things we’d heard on the radio. We generally listen only when we’re driving solo, and we’ve each been driving too much lately, so we had lots to talk about. She told me about some fellow who’d done a segment on his new coffee maker, which apparently communicated with his smartphone. I guess the way it worked is that the coffee machine would actually call him when it needed tending. Sort of like an aging parent or a teenage child, I said, and she laughed, and I was pleased, because in my experience there’s not much better than making someone you care about laugh, especially if she generally finds your jokes lacking. Anyhow, I digress.
I told her about something I’d heard that very morning, about how the cereal makers are in big trouble. No one’s buying Cocoa Frosted Death Flakes anymore, and I thought for sure they were gonna say it’s because people are finally getting wise to that shit, but lo-and-behold it was for a much more pedestrian reason: People want something more convenient than cold cereal these days. In other words, it’s too much work to pull the box and a bowl out of the cupboard, the milk out of the fridge, and a spoon out of the drawer. It’s too much work to “prepare” a bowl of cold cereal – the pouring of the flakes and the milk is simply too great a drain on the precious commodities of time and convenience. And then all those dishes to wash! So what’s the next big thing? Breakfast bars, apparently, because you can eat them in the car on your way to work. Tear open the package with your teeth, stuff your gullet whilst navigating traffic (it’s a pain in the ass, I know, but don’t fret: Driverless cars are coming soon!) and then stick the empty wrapper under the seat with the cast off detritus of previous breakfasts. Or maybe just throw it out the window. Yeah. That’d be even easier.
A story to ground all this: About a decade ago, we ripped the propane cookstove out of our kitchen and replaced it with a wood burner. I recall being a little anxious about the amount of work I perceived to be involved with cooking on wood. No more would I be able to twist a dial and have blue flames leap at my command. Now it was fell the tree, buck the log, split the wood, stack the wood, haul the wood inside, crumple the paper, lay the kindling, strike the match, feed the fire. Then coffee. Then breakfast. It all seemed like a bit much at the time, though clearly there was something about it that called to me.
Another story: A few years back, we turned off our gas-fired hot water heater. Let me be perfectly honest: This was no great hardship – we have solar collectors and a rather ineffectual loop through the wood cookstove – but it still means there are large swathes of time when we do not have hot water at the tap. Want to do dishes? Do ‘em in cold water, or heat some on the stovetop. Want a bath? Heat in on the stovetop (but mind the step!). And so on. As with the installation of the wood cookstove, I remember being a little nervous about extinguishing the pilot light in the water heater. As with the wood cookstove, I hardly remember that we ever had it differently, and now we burn only a couple dozen gallons of propane each year to fire the gas range we ripped out of the kitchen and stuck on the porch for use in the summer months. Honestly, I can’t say I’m more happy now that we don’t use our propane water heater, but I do experience a smallish delight in knowing how well we can live without it.
What’s my point? Actually, I think I have something like a half dozen points, though I may not get to them all. The first is that convenience (or the lack thereof) is almost 100% relative and almost 100% unrelated to happiness. When we lived without any plumbing at all, which we did for years while saving for this land, we thought running cold water would be the pinnacle of convenience (we didn’t even dare dream of hot water at the tap, lest we anger the gods with our greed). Funny thing is, we weren’t any less happy then than we are now.
Point number two: In far too many cases, without us even knowing it is happening to us, convenience sucks the simple pleasures out of our lives. I’m thinking of my boys wrestling in those piles of leaves I inconveniently raked in order to inconveniently store the carrots we inconveniently grew. I’m thinking of this morning, as I sat by the cookstove fire, writing the first half of this post and waiting for my coffee to perc. I’m thinking of splitting wood, the way my body feels after a day with the maul. I’m thinking of how that beef jerky is going to taste, I can smell it now from my office; Penny must have spread it across the drying racks. It’ll be ready by tomorrow morning, I bet. I’m thinking that Erik’s going to be here for lunch and we’ll eat venison stew from a deer my son and I hoisted into the back of our Subaru and butchered on our kitchen counter. Even at the time, I remember feeling a little put out by the inconvenience of it all: I’d had other plans for the day. But now I don’t remember what they were.
Point number three: I’m thinking that appeals to our desire for convenience are actually nothing more than sleights-of-hand intended to further ensnare us in the sticky web of consumption. And in doing so, furthermore erode our ability to care for our communities and ourselves. For what skills do these conveniences require? Only the skills necessary to maintain the jobs necessary to pay for them. To plug them in, to rip open the packaging with our bare teeth, one hand still on the wheel, weaving in and out of traffic, perhaps recalling that once upon a time we actually had to eat from a bowl, and oh! How wonderful it is to have been freed of that burden.
March 3, 2015 § 52 Comments
Some years back, going on better than two decades now, I worked at a bike and ski shop in Vermont’s capitol city of Montpelier. For the most part, I loved that job, in no small part because I loved to ride my bike and ski. Truthfully, at that point in my life, there was little else I really wanted to do (though Penny was about to mess with that equation a bit), and I thought it was real fun to spend my days working on and selling the equipment that made possible the things I loved to do.
I learned a lot working retail. For instance, most customers were inherently kind, understanding, and forgiving of my occasional blunders (perhaps I sent them home with the wrong part, or maybe I didn’t fix the mysterious shifting issue on their bike, or I could have made any of the other myriad errors of being an imperfect human in an imperfect world), so I learned to have faith in people who were, by-and-large, strangers to me. This was a good lesson.
Conversely, a minority of my customers were not inherently kind, understanding, and forgiving of my occasional blunders. Or (and in hindsight, this seems more likely to me) maybe they did embody these qualities, but for one reason or another, they’d lost sight of them. In doing so, they seemed to assume that I’d been sent to earth for the express purpose of making their lives more difficult than they apparently already were, and so I learned that a minority of people are afflicted with the view that the world and its inhabitants are out to get them. This was also a good lesson.
The other thing I learned pretty early on is that there is only one way to deal with the latter category: Compassionately. With ten times or more the basic kindness and understanding we all deserve. You don’t just kill them with kindness, you friggin’ annihilate them with kindness. To be sure, you do this in part because it’s the most effective way of getting them out of your hair, but you also do it because you know that the only possible reason someone can treat you so poorly is because they are unhappy. Maybe even miserable. And even though you cannot see the wound of their unhappiness, you know it is just as real as if the blood flowing from it were pooling on the floor.
I got to thinking about all this in the aftermath of the recent Washington Post interview (it also ran in the Toronto Star) and the resulting comments, some of which are downright vitriolic. It is never fun to see such hateful language directed toward myself and my family, but is immeasurably helpful to understand that no one could write such things if the blood of their unhappiness were not gathering at their feet. It is immeasurably helpful to understand that the lack of enlightenment we see in others is almost always a reflection of the lack of enlightenment we see in ourselves. Don’t ever forget that, particularly when you’re thinking poorly of someone. It is immeasurably helpful to view the unkind comments as force akin to the wind, something that cannot be stopped, something that I can choose to futilely argue against, or simply allow to blow through me.
(I suppose there’s a third alternative: I could hide from it. But isn’t there enough hiding going on already?)
Choosing to share some of our stories publicly has been by turns one of the most rewarding and challenging things I’ve ever done. Perhaps it has been rewarding because it has been challenging. Part of that challenge is that my words are parsed for meaning I may or may not have intended (I’ve written about this before), or used as support of a pre-existing narrative. Part of the challenge is that we inhabit a society where, generally speaking, we no longer perceive the well-being and support of others to be part and parcel of the well-being and support of ourselves. Of course, I am also guilty of all the above.
Funny thing is, I got on here for one purpose and one purpose only: To mention our upcoming brown ash berry basket workshop, Saturday, March 28, from 1 – 5. So I’ll stop blabbing and say only one thing more: You should come!
March 2, 2015 § 17 Comments
We awoke to a small riot of snow, the flakes twirling and skipping as they fell, riding the whims of a north wind. The air has a hazy, almost blurred quality, as if everything were wrapped in a thin layer of gauze. Or maybe as if we were wrapped in a thin layer of gauze.
For a moment, I felt the sinking sensation of weather-induced exasperation, followed in short order by an image of myself floundering through the snow, harnessed to a sled full of maple sap. There’s a certain rise in Melvin’s field that always threatens to reverse the proper order of this arrangement: Not I pulling the sled forward, but the sled pulling me backward, sliding and stumbling toward the point at which the slope flattens into a perpendicular-running length of barbed wire.
I bet I’ve hauled 2,000 or more gallons of sap over that fence and up that hill, one or both of the boys stabilizing the sled from behind. When the snow melts, we switch to the garden cart, weaving around the holdout pockets of snow, the ones fortunate enough to have fallen in the shade cast by the big tree line maples. Even where the snow has mostly melted, the packed ribbon of our sled track remains, diminishing day by day. Then gone.
I walked outside this morning with these thoughts in my mind, bearing the weight of the new snow and all that has preceded it, three-feet deep or more on the flat. And then I was in the snow, and it was falling on and around me in that same flighty, wind borne way. I could feel it brush the exposed skin of my face, but only barely. I realized it weighed almost nothing, and I remembered to be amazed.
• • •
The knife sharpening/spoon carving workshop exceeded our wildest expectations. For eight hours, our home was filled to capacity (and perhaps a little beyond) with the infectious energy of people bent to a productive task with purpose and curiosity. There were men and women, young children and elders. Lucian and Andre did an outstanding job of tending to the varying needs of this diverse array.
Penny and I had expected that we might feel a little worn down by hosting the event, but the opposite is true: We feel gratified and energized. Which is a darn good thing, because our next gathering – a half-day brown ash berry/foraging basket workshop – is only a few weeks away. Details real soon!
February 27, 2015 § 43 Comments
Addendum: Tomorrow night is the 3rd annual Cabin Fever Spelling Bee, at which yours truly, along with dear ole dad and a whole bunch of other ne’er-do-wells, will compete for bragging rights. It’s a benefit for the Kellogg Hubbard Library. Hilarity has been known to ensue. Get your tickets here!
Early this morning I came upon a snowy owl dining on one of our ducks. Upon my approach, he swooped into the low branch of a nearby hemlock. I could hear the soft whoosh of his glide. We watched one another for 30 seconds or more, and I called to Penny and the boys, who were bustling about the barn, but I dared not raise my voice high, and they did not hear me. So it was just the owl and me and the dead duck.
Then he flew.
• • •
It was ten below again this morning. I have come to view the cold as a temporary installation of performance art, and as is so often the case, I am struck by how profoundly this simple shift of perspective has altered my relationship to forces beyond my control. Truth is, we are living through something historic – the coldest February on record, and the second-coldest month ever recorded in Vermont, which is pretty badass, considering that February is typically the month that tips into spring. Already, I am relishing the image of myself balancing a grandchild on each knee, regaling them with tales of the winter of ’15, the one in which the snow fell for 64 days straight, the temperature didn’t rise above 40 below until the middle of April, and I bare-handedly defended our ducks from a pack of marauding wolves.
Of course, my tenuous acceptance of the cold is aided by the fact that we are well provisioned. We still have dry firewood, and I’m increasingly optimistic that scavenging will remain unnecessary (ok, so I have been mixing a bit of sugaring wood into the remaining reserves). No water lines have frozen, a testament to our
savvy engineering dumb luck when building this place. All the animals (singular duck excepted) are in fine fettle, and our stores of hay are plentiful. And even this morning, cold as it is, carries that particular expectation of spring, the sun rising early and high enough that when I arrived at the barn to tell Penny about the owl, she and Pip were awash in light. I stood quiet for a moment before I spoke, listening to the metronomic sound of milk accumulating in the pail.
• • •
Not sure what happened, but I’ve picked up a lot of new readers over the past week or so. Actually, my traffic has almost doubled, though I’m sure it will settle down again. Anyway. For those new to this space, I would like to humbly point you to the Generosity Enabler icon (see below or in the righthand margin of the home page).
As always, this space remains free of advertisements and any expectation of financial recompense. That said, Penny and I both put a great deal of effort into our work here (all the photos are hers) and believe it has value. If you agree, and if you posses the means to contribute, and if you are inclined to do so, please know that your support is greatly appreciated.