Bound Together

January 15, 2015 § 64 Comments

Spalted maple spoon in progress

Spalted maple spoon in progress

January 15. Six-below. The light comes noticeably earlier now. I always have the sense at this time of year that winter is too short. I like feeling this way. It helps me appreciate the cold while it’s here, though I know it’s a fleeting appreciation. Come late March or early April, and the inevitable late season arctic front, or the final heavy snow before the first spring rain, my gratitude will have soured. We’ll be down to the last row of firewood, the last stack of hay, the last frayed vestiges of our current delight at the unique beauty of mornings like these: Trees frosted, early sun glinting off branches, the cows and their frozen whiskers.

We had a heifer wander last night, tracing the boot trod path from house to barn back to house again, and even now I like thinking of her out there in the dark, walking that narrow path while we slept. This morning, I found her lying in the barn, waiting to be returned to her kind. I led her into the paddock and walked back to the house. I could feel her hoof prints through the soles of my boots.

 •     •     •

I had an interview last night with a woman who writes a parenting column for the Washington Post. She has at least one school going child, aged seven. She wanted to know how our boys learned to read. She seemed surprised that they learned without being told they must. Without being told how and when they must. She seemed surprised that they enjoy reading so much. Speaking of her own child, she said I keep asking the teacher when the love of reading will come.

It’s hard to love something you’re forced to do, I said.

Actually, I didn’t. But I sort of wish I had.

•    •    •

Thank you for your feedback relating to yesterday’s post. Something I failed to mention is that it won’t actually be us doing the majority of the teaching; our desire is primarily to act as the catalyst, to create a gathering space that facilitates the sharing of these skills, so many of which can be better demonstrated by others. Certainly, we’ll lead some classes, but as I wrote in The Nourishing Homestead, if we specialize in anything, it’s in being generalists, not specialists. Fortunately, we have a fair number of incredibly talented friends who are excited for the opportunity to share what they’ve learned. In many cases, what they’ve dedicated their lives to learning.

The non-profit vs for-profit structure is a conundrum, for sure. My experience with non-profits – both as a long-serving board member and as friend to many who have headed non-profits – suggests to me that we are not well suited to the bureaucratic and structural constraints they impose.

On the other hand, I acknowledge their might be a perception problem with declaring ourselves a for-profit business, which in short is that we’re in this to grow the business and make a bunch of dough. Nothing could be further from the truth; while we are adamant about instructors being justly compensated for their time and experience, and while we will have to earn something to cover the basic costs of overhead and time invested, we do not view this as a profit generating venture.

Anyway. I realize that no one can make these decisions for us, but I do appreciate hearing others’ experience and insights.

•     •     •

Finally, a quick word about the “ironic bind” of encouraging people to go out and buy something, even as I extol frugality. There is, of course, some truth to this. I think most of us who endeavor to thrive on our own terms are thus bound to some degree or another by an economy that depends on us not thriving on our own terms. Indeed, this is one of our primary motivations for launching Lazy Mill Living Arts in the first place: To cultivate the skills necessary for becoming less bound.

That said I admittedly feel a bit defensive when someone points to my own ironic bind, and particularly when it’s someone who reads this space regularly. I put a lot of time into this blog and I demand nothing in return. I am able to do so only because enough (and just enough) people find value in my work and are furthermore in a position to place a number on that value. They are, in effect, paying the way for those who cannot or simply will not compensate me, either via donation or buying my books. My guess is that most of them are happy to do so.

I guess what I’m saying is this: Yes, I recognize the ironic bind (or is it a hypocritical bind?) inherent to selling my work. Maybe even to raising money for a community-based project like LMLA. I feel this bind. But to those who read my work for free (and don’t get me wrong, I encourage you to keep doing so), I caution you against becoming blind to your own ironic binds, including the fact that others are paying to ensure this space remains free for you.

Still, I think the ultimate solution lies in all of us looking beyond our personal ironic binds – acknowledging them, yes, but not dwelling on them and certainly not (as I have done here) wasting precious time and energy defending them  – and simply rolling up our sleeves to do what we can do to lessen their grip on us all. Because for better or for worse, like it or not, we’re all bound together.

Thank you.

We’ll Just Have to be Ready Now

January 14, 2015 § 48 Comments

Final spoon orders. Rye thanks you for your patience.

Final spoon orders. Rye thanks you for your patience.

I plumb forgot that the bio attached to the Yankee magazine essay I linked to yesterday included a mention of Lazy Mill Living Arts, a fact that did not escape the attention of at least a handful of particularly observant readers.

We were sort of waiting for the website to be complete before a formal announcement (believe me, I’ll let you know when it’s ready for public consumption). Maybe even more so, I suspect we were also waiting until we plain and simple felt ready, passing mention in the Yankee bio notwithstanding. I guess we’ll just have to be ready now, eh?

We’ve been kicking around this idea for a good long while, and last year, we hosted a handful of workshops. A test drive, if you will. We liked it. We met great people. We had fun. Most importantly, it felt right, a natural evolution of our life with the land, something we can offer that is tangible and – we’d like to think – meaningful. Specific to me, it feels like an analog extension of my written work, a way to connect and share that transcends the inevitable distancing of screen and page. It bothers me, this distancing. But you knew that.

None of which explains exactly what Lazy Mill Living Arts really is, which is perhaps best articulated by the brief description I wrote for the website-in-progress:

Lazy Mill Living Arts is dedicated to reviving traditional skills of hand and land. Lazy Mill was founded on a single tenet: That with the benefit of simple tools and basic knowledge, we all have the capacity to shape our world as we imagine it.

At Lazy Mill, we teach skills that are at once practical, beautiful, and necessary to the art of providing for one’s self and community. We are motivated by the thought of our students returning to their home towns to disperse these skills like seeds, restoring vibrancy, resiliency, and the unrivaled satisfaction of honest work.

What are these skills? They are as basic as honing a pocket knife or planning a garden, as emotionally and physically difficult as slaughtering and processing a hog, as pleasurable as carving a spoon from a limb of apple wood, as gracefully intricate as weaving a black ash pack basket, and as crucial as making medicine from plants. They are skills that emphasize production over consumption, and that honor the complex web of relationships comprising the natural world and our place within it.

There will be much more to say as this project evolves and unfolds, and of course I will keep you updated as things progress. Oh, one other thing I can mention now: Children. Yes.

•     •     •

One aspect we’re struggling with right now is funding, pertaining mostly to the need for workshop space. We have been kicking around the idea of crowdfunding, but I’ll be honest: We can’t quite decide how we feel about this option. Partly this is because we’re just not sure we have what it takes to sufficiently humble ourselves to the process (as a friend of ours who ran a successful crowdfunding campaign put it to me: “It’s like walking around with your pants down”).

But it’s also in part because we can’t figure out how to feel about crowdfunding in general. I’ve heard it referred to as “Internet begging,” and while that seems a tad harsh, I can’t deny the vague sense of aversion I feel every time the subject comes up. Then again, perhaps that sense of aversion is nothing more than my resistance to humbling myself, to standing up in full view with my pants ‘round my ankles, saying, in effect, this matters to me and I need your support.

Anyway. I offer this because I am interested to hear your thoughts on the matter, both in regards to the project itself, and the funding dilemma. Thank you.

The Learning Never Stops

January 13, 2015 § 29 Comments

The Nourishing Homestead

I know I do not do a great job of promoting my work (conversely, perhaps I do such a good job that I can say something like I know I do not do a great job of promoting my work and you actually believe me and feel a little sorry for me and therefore buy all my books AND hit the generosity enabler).

In all seriousness, I am not comfortable trumpeting my written work, and in particular, my books and articles. I generally mention them only to the extent they are present in my life, but rarely as entities unto themselves, if that makes any sense. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it might have something to do with my perception of my credibility. Or maybe my authenticity, to use one of the more over-used words of our time. I can’t say I fully understand the connection between self-promotion and credibility/authenticity, and it’s not as if I think authors who promote their work necessarily lack these qualities.

The flip side of all this is that selling my work is what makes all this possible. By “all this,” I mean our lives, or at least the version of our lives we’ve become so accustomed to. And I mean this blog, because despite the handful (ok, two handfuls) of readers who generously support my work in this space on a regular basis, my presence here cannot exist without the support of my books and articles, because if I did not have books and articles to sell, I’d like as not be employed in a manner that would not grant me the luxury of writing here.

Point being, I have a book coming out very soon. Basically, now. Actually, it’s Penny and I who have a book coming out. I’ve mentioned it in passing before. It’s called The Nourishing Homestead: One Back-to-the-Land Family’s (because I guess that’s what we are: A back-to-the-land family) Plan for Cultivating Soil, Skills, and Spirit. You can learn a bit more about it here. You can also order it there, or directly from me, or (my preference) from your local book seller. Huh. Seems as if I forgot to mention Amazon. Funny. But yeah, it’s there, too.

This book is about a lot of things – how we raise our animals, how we grow and process our annual and perennial crops, how we amend our soils, even how to determine the edibility of roadkill (no, really). It’s also about why we do these things, which to me is at least as important. Still, it’s primarily a how-to book; perhaps the best analogy I can make is to say it’s a lot like this blog, but with instructions. Maybe 30% philosophy and 70% practice. Oh, and there are lots and lots of photos. I think we submitted something like 250; I know a few got cut, but I’m guessing there are still more than 200 color images.

I worked harder on this manuscript than any previous (if any of my other editors are reading this, I’m lying). Part of that is because Penny played a huge role in its development, but equally, it’s simply more material than any of my previous books. It runs 120,000 words, which means it’s about 119,500 more words than than I’ve written thus far in this post. That’s a lot of words, and it doesn’t even include the tens of thousands of others that were discarded in the process.

Everything in The Nourishing Homestead – the mistakes, the triumphs, the lessons learned, and so on – is rooted in our experience, which collectively adds up to more than 40 years. Still, we could not have written this book ten or maybe even five years ago; we just weren’t ready. In some ways, it strikes me as a little presumptuous to believe we are ready now – there is still so much to learn. But then, there always will be. That is one of the greatest gifts of this life: The learning never stops.

I don’t think our book is the last word in homesteading resources. But I do think it’s pretty unique. Far as I know, it’s the only homesteading book to discuss soil remineralization in some depth. It goes pretty deep into whole foods nutrition. It explores site design and building techniques. A lot of animal husbandry. There’s even a recipe for beaver liver pate (don’t worry: You can substitute chicken, beef, or pork livers if you’re running short of beav).

Anyway. At the risk of somehow diminishing my credibility/authenticity (if not in your mind, then in mine), I’m actually kinda proud of this book. In short, I think it’s pretty good, and I hope you will buy it. Furthermore, if you buy it and you like it, I hope you will tell others about it. Conversely, if you think it sucks, I hope you will keep it to yourself. But honestly, I really don’t think you will. Well, unless you’re a vegan, in which case it’s a distinct possibility.

Oh, yeah, and one other thing, whilst I’m on a role: My amazing, generous friend Marie set up and oversees a Facebook page for me. I don’t entirely understand how FB works, and I don’t spend much time there, but here it is for your convenience. Oh, another thing: I’m writing a series of essays for Yankee magazine. For this year, they are about living on a northern Vermont homestead; next year, they will expand to include, well, whatever catches my eye. And ear: I will be producing a series of podcasts relating to the stories that catch my eye. I’m really looking forward to that.

As always, thank you for your support, both material and otherwise.



We Just Got Too Tired

January 12, 2015 § 32 Comments

An oldie. I always liked this picture.

An oldie. I always liked this picture.

We spent much of the weekend purging the basement, which, as is the wont of basements the world over, had become a repository for a diverse array of material goods. Stuff, I guess you’d call it. Many of these goods had outlived their usefulness to us, while some had merely never been particularly useful from the get-go: A folding table frame with two bent legs and no top; a pair of bush hog blades that do not fit our bush hog; a boom box with one speaker, a non-working CD player, and the disorienting tendency to switch between AM and FM according to its own unknowable whims; a pair of those rubbery beach sandals I haven’t worn since the last time we went on winter vacation, back in (I think) ’98. Hope springs eternal and all, but the only sand I’m likely to see for the foreseeable future are the occasional shovelfuls I liberate from the town garage to spread on our ice-covered driveway.

For the past year or so, we have felt a mounting sensation of heaviness relating to our accumulation of material goods. It pains me to admit this, mostly because I like to think of us as being thoughtful consumers, too evolved of spirit and intellect to fall for the commonplace notion that these items can make our lives better than they’d previously been.

Of course the tricky thing is that in some cases, it’s actually true. For instance, my life is better right now because I’m wearing pants (this makes your life better, too, because otherwise I might feel compelled to mention that I’m not wearing pants, and then you’d be stuck with that sorry image). And not just any pants, but a pair of thick Johnson Woolen pants Penny snagged at the thrift store for a ten-spot. I love these pants. I wear them almost every day from, oh, about December 1 to mid-March or so. I think they might be the best use of $10 thus far in my adult life, but that’s only because our wedding rings cost $15 each and thus do not qualify.

Actually, there’s a lot of stuff that makes my life better. But thoughtful as we’ve been, I bet that for every item we own that improves our lives, there’s at least one item we own that does not. The trick, of course, is distinguishing between the two, and what I’m finding as I age is that the former category is shrinking, as the latter grows. Mostly, it’s a lateral transition: Items that once made our lives better, or that we believed would someday make our lives better, have slowly drifted into the collection of those that have come to feel as if they are, in a manner that almost defies explanation, stifling us. Or maybe I don’t need to explain. Maybe you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Our needs seem to be shrinking. Wants, too. Mostly I do not question this, but every so often, I wonder why it is so. So far, the only explanation I’ve come up with is this: The human body is a vessel. It can carry only so much. And as we fill it with experiences and ideas and relationships, there becomes less room for everything else. Or at least, anything that does not contribute to these experiences, ideas, and relationships.

All the stuff that until yesterday was in basement – the sandals, the boom box, the bush hog blades, the metal table frame – wasn’t just in our basement. With every lumbering step we took, we carried some fraction of its weight, and I can honestly say that we didn’t get rid of them out of some high-falutin’ notion of further simplifying our lives.

Truth is, we just got too tired.

The Feeling That Lives in Pursuit

January 9, 2015 § 41 Comments

Winslow, admonishing me for not finishing the woodshed siding

Winslow, admonishing me for not finishing the woodshed siding

We are all still in the clutches of this evil virus, stuporing through our days one foot-dragging step at a time. And before you chime in with your preferred folk remedy, know that we’ve tried ‘em all. We did the fermented beaver foreskin in a puree of raw garlic. We tried the reduction of sheep jowl in a soufflé of echinacea. We stripped naked and slathered ourselves in a tincture of hot rendered lard and desecrated wood nettles (that actually felt pretty good, though it sort of stung going on the tender parts). As of this morning, I’m back on my usual chest cold routine: A cup of cheap bourbon neat but for precisely two teaspoons of chamomile tea. Oh, and an extra cup of coffee. Funny, it’s the best I’ve felt all week.

A quick follow up to Wednesday’s post. You know, the one where I played it off like I actually have some particular insight into the craft of writing. Heh. As if. Still, if you believed me then, you might just believe me now; in that spirit, a couple of further thoughts come to mind.

First, I hope no one took that post as license to go and beat their poor, fool noggins against the same brick wall until – miracle of miracles – they eventually break through and the light of a thousand harp playing angels filters through the head-sized hole. Truth is, I think it’s pretty important to know when to quit. I struggle with that sometimes; I’m forever trying to recognize the small deviations of thought and emotion separating those moments when I ought just keep pushing, and those moments when I’d be better served by retreat. What are those deviations? That, my friends, is the secret hiding behind the consulting link in the left-most margin of this page. Hah. No, not really. Truth is, it doesn’t work like that. Truth is, you’ve gotta figure out your own deviations for yourself.

Still, my larger point remains: Only occasionally will it flow the way you probably want it to flow. Even if you’re the bastard child of Faulkner, Twain, Abbey, and (trying to think of a woman so I don’t come off as sexist… ah, I got one!) Mary Oliver, as clearly born to write as if you’d sprung from the womb with a stack of sharpened #2 Ticonderoga pencils in your pink, wrinkled paw, you’re gonna struggle. And therefore, those moments when you don’t struggle, when you can’t write fast enough to keep up with the genius flowing off your frontal cortex (or wherever genius flows off of), will stand in sharper relief. They’ll be all the sweeter.

One other thing before I refill my cup of, um, tea. Another of my students recently asked me if, in so many words, she has what it takes. If (and again, I’m paraphrasing) the quality of her work suggested to me that it was really worth pursuing her writing. For anyone wondering the same, here’s what I think about that: If you’re getting something out of the process, it’s worth it. If, through all struggle and hopefully the occasional trickle of genius, you feel as if it’s illuminating something for you, it’s worth pursuing. If it’s plain and simple fun, it’s worth pursuing. If you get some strange pleasure out of it, something that might even defy your ability to articulate it, it’s worth pursuing.

I often think about it in relation to my guitar playing, which I’ve been doing a lot of lately. I’m not very good, and I strongly suspect that five years from now, I’ll still be not very good. But every so often, something I play sounds halfway decent. Every so often, I feel like I think it might feel to be someone who really, truly knows how to play the damn thing (for the link-leery: Don’t fret, that’s some classy shit, right there). It doesn’t matter that what I play sounds nothing like that. As is so often the case in life, what matters isn’t the result itself, but rather the feeling that lives in pursuit of the result. Make sense?

Oh, wait, one more thing, and it’s probably the most valuable thing I’ve had to say about writing yet and yet it’s so friggin’ simple. You really want to improve your writing? Read it aloud to yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you hear, all the glitches and hiccups of words and syntax and pacing you’d never have noticed otherwise.








The Wall That Isn’t There

January 8, 2015 § 17 Comments


Last night in Melvin’s barn frost almost covered the interior walls and when I went to fill the wheelbarrow with sawdust, I had to chip it away from the pile in frozen-together chunks. Melvin told me how when he was a boy and it got real cold, he’d go at the sawdust pile with an ax, chop it almost like firewood.

I rolled the bale down the aisle, listened as the chorus of chewing built in my wake. You ever stood in the middle of 40 chewing cows? My advise is if you get the chance, don’t turn it down. Besides the chewing, there was the metronomic backdrop of the gutter cleaner, clacking as it carried the day’s worth of shit and piss up and out of the barn. Melvin straddled the cleaner at a strategic point near the exit, using a shovel to guide the slurry so it didn’t overflow the sides.

When I came out of the barn, it was 7 below zero and the wind was picking up. I went home. Had soup. Stoked the fire. Bed.

This morning, it was 23 below zero when I set out to milk. I’d been up in the night listening to the wind and thinking of the animals. I can’t help it when it’s this cold. The night before I’d given the pigs a fresh bale of bedding and an extra ration of milk, the cows and sheep a serving of precious second-cut from the small stash reserved for such occasions. Web duck got a particularly fat handful of grain, and everyone was fine. They’re always fine.

We milk by hand, in an open-sided pole barn, and I thought I was going to be cold, but I wasn’t. Chores had warmed me, brought blood to fingers and toes. The sun was coming over the eastern horizon. It looked like it was rising straight out of Melvin’s hayfield. Web duck had her head tucked deep into her back feathers. She was next to me. Waiting for her milk. Waiting for the sun to slide a little higher, slant its way through the wall that isn’t there.


It Can Be No Other Way

January 7, 2015 § 40 Comments



Not many people reading this blog know it, but a while back (like, two decades ago, which was probably when some of you still needed a reminder to pull down your pants before you peed and damn but if that ain’t humbling to an ole fart like myself) I was a pretty good competitive cyclist. I raced mountain bikes mostly, in the preferred format of the day, which generally involved two hour, mass start events. At the time, cross country mountain bike racing was hugely popular; it was on the verge of becoming an Olympic sport, and the number of people willing to drive multiple hours so they could saddle their bicycles and pay to ride in circles until they vomited was really something to behold.

I raced at the highest regional level, and while I didn’t win very many events, I was consistently toward the front. I stood on the podium fairly regularly, though most commonly on its bottom step. I think the biggest thing separating me from the absolute best guys was pretty simple: I didn’t care enough. It never really bothered me that I didn’t win very often. In fact, I was always sort of amazed that I did as well as I did, and I couldn’t fathom doing many of the things the guys who were beating me did. Fly to Arizona to train in February, for instance. Or shaving their legs. Eating rice cakes. Living in their parents’ basement. That sort of stuff.

Anyway, what I really loved about riding my bike competitively was that every so often, I’d have a transcendental performance. I mean, I’d seriously be crying on the bike, and not from pain or grief, but from the pure gratitude of being allowed a glimpse of what being human can feel like. Everything would click so perfectly that I almost couldn’t feel the effort being expended, it was as if the bike were racing itself and I was merely fortunate enough to be along for the ride. This didn’t happen often – maybe one out of every seven or eight races – but it happened often enough that I never forgot the feeling. I never thought I wouldn’t experience it again. I just had to keep looking for it.

What happened the other 85% of the time? Usually, it was sort of average. Not miserable, but certainly not transcendental. Just a skinny, lycra-clad dude huffing and puffing and sweating. And on occasion, it was truly miserable. Legs like lead balloons. Lungs burning. Mind fixated on counting down the interminable minutes until the finish line. Questioning everything: the hours wasted training, the self-loathing of knowing Penny was at home, mixing cement for the concrete piers of our original cabin, while I was doing… what, exactly? Riding my bike in circles like a circus monkey and furthermore, spending money we barely had for the privilege? I’d bring her flowers if I placed high enough, lay them right in her blistered hands.

I mention this because I received an email from one of my writing students; she’s struggling with her work.  I mean I know how I want to write, I just can’t seem to get this new way to come out on paper, if that makes any sense, she tells me. Oh, yeah, A, it makes sense. It makes a whole freakin’ lot of sense. It especially makes sense to me lately, ’cause truth is, I’ve been struggling, too. Like this woman, I’ve had the sense over the past couple of weeks that I know how I want to write, but I can’t quite get it to come out on paper. My suspicion is that most writers – even so-called “professional” writers – feel that way an awful lot of the time. They probably don’t want you to know that. We pros like to think there’s something sacred about our craft, that we’re the beneficiaries of a particular genius you poor commoners will never understand. Bullocks. 

Here’s what I think about writing. No, scratch that: Here’s what I think about life. And bike racing, for that matter, which was the whole point of my long-winded introduction. You gotta muddle your way through a lot of shit to get to the sweet spots. Actually, it’s even more than that: You can’t even find the sweet spots if you don’t muddle through the crap. If you don’t hurt a little, if you don’t drag your sorry sick ass outside to do chores on a four below morning, you’ll never fully appreciate those August mornings when you rise at 5 full of piss and vinegar and you’re on the land by 5:30, and the cows are right where they’re supposed to be, waiting for you to drop the fence and the grass is boot-top high and so green you think there should be another word for it. If you don’t stick out the long months of winter, the truck that won’t start despite three – three! – cycles of the glow plugs, the 4:30 darkness, that craving you have for just a glimpse of sun please, please, please but even the long term forecast is all clouds and cold, you’ll never fully appreciate that day in early March when it hits 47 and the sap is running something fierce and you’re down to a tee shirt and sunburned by noon.

To my student, and to anyone who struggles with their writing (and therefore, to myself), I say this: If you don’t write the sentences that, no matter how many times you rewrite and reorder and rework them, never seem to say what you want them to say, if you don’t do that over and over and over again…. well. You’ll never find the ones that write themselves, the ones that fall into place as if they already existed (and truth is, they probably did). You’ll never know how effortless it can be – not always, not often, certainly not as frequently as you’d like. But often enough to keep calling you forward. Often enough that you do what I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks, lurching along, doing what needs to be done. It can be a little painful. If you’re offering your work for public appraisal, as I am, it can be a little embarrassing.

It can also be no other way.


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