Funny How That Works

October 13, 2014 § 35 Comments

Pan fried grey squirrel. Damn tasty, actually

Pan fried grey squirrel. Damn tasty, actually

It’s been more than a year since we grid-connected, and after a recent email exchange with my friend Ben Falk about electricity consumption, I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about the experience of living with essentially unlimited cheap power after a decade-and-a-half of being off grid.

I won’t get into too much detail regarding our decision to hook-up; suffice it to say that after much debate and soul searching, we determined that given the relatively short life span of the expensive storage batteries off-grid living demands, connecting to the utility grid wasn’t about giving up our electricity “independence”: It was about trading one type of dependence (on batteries and the industrial processes required to make those batteries) for another (the grid). The other aspect of off-grid living we were keen to liberate ourselves from is the need for backup production, in the form of a highly inefficient (not to mention noisy and prone to breakdown) gasoline generator.

A lot of people seemed to think that once we grid-connected, our consumption would inevitably rise. In truth it did, but that’s only because we retrieved the three chest freezers we had installed in neighbors’ basements. But overall, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how little electricity we consume. Over the past year, we’ve averaged 5 kWh/day, and that’s with 5 chest freezers residing in the basement. Our consumption varies according to season; in winter, when we press our passive ice box fridge into action, and when the ambient temperature of our basement drops (this means the freezers don’t have to work as hard), our consumption averages 4 kWh/day. In summer, with the plug-in fridge humming and the increased use of power tools, it averages 6. For comparison’s sake, the average American household uses 30-ish kWh daily, and it’s a safe bet they don’t have 5 chest freezers.

Since our solar production feeds back into the grid to offset our consumption, our actual daily net consumption is generally in the 1 or 2 kWh range. Obviously, our electricity bill isn’t much to speak off. A few bucks per month at most, though there’s a baseline connection fee that’s adds about a tenner.

Thus far, I see no downsides in our decision to grid connect, other than the upfront cost, which was not inconsequential. Fortunately, we hired ourselves to do the bulk of the labor, and were able to connect for about half what the utility originally quoted. But it was nonetheless north of $10k. Still, the batteries we so desperately needed would’ve run us about $6k. So in that sense, we were already half way there.

If anything, being connected has motivated us to be even thriftier. What’s amazing to me is how easy it truly is to live well on so little electricity. As I remarked to Ben F, I can’t fathom how most families even manage to burn through 30 kWh/day. I assume there’s a lot of screen time involved, and maybe a hair dryer or two. AC. An electric hot water heater. Basically, things we just don’t have, proving that the best path toward conservation isn’t always efficiency. It’s simply doing without.

The thing is, not having these things doesn’t diminish the quality of our lives. Indeed, if anything it makes our lives richer.

Funny how that works, eh?




I Can’t Help You in the Least

October 9, 2014 § 21 Comments

Skills group. Basket making, hide smoking, fire starting, and just being

Skills group. Basket making, hide smoking, fire starting, and just being

The other day Penny ran into a friend, someone who’s been tracking the flurry of media coverage pertaining to my Outside article and the release of Home Grown. “Well,” said her friend, “at least now you’ll be able to buy a new truck.” And Penny laughed, because that’s not actually how it works. At all.

For nearly 20 years, the financial support for my family and myself has come via my writing. For most of those 20 years, I wrote for magazines, primarily as a freelancer, although in a couple of instances as a contracted contributor. For instance, I served as eastern editor at SKIING magazine for a half-dozen or so years until the big bad recession made everyone’s palms go sweaty and caused them to dump about half their staff, including yours truly. Let me tell you, that was a pretty swell gig while it lasted. I skied a lot and I got to write about skiing a lot, and I got paid for both. It was ridiculous, really, and even though I’m no longer drawn to lift-service skiing (too crowded, too mechanized, too much driving), I sort of miss the job.

For about the first 15 years of my so-called career, I never imagined writing a book. But one of my favorite things about life is the way things you never could have imagined happening happen. Now, I’m pretty much a book author, though I make some money speaking. We make a little money off the land. Lately, I’ve made a little scratch via the generosity enabler icon, located in the right hand margin of this screen for your utmost convenience. And since I put up the consulting page, I’ve done four consultations, running the gamut from immersion learning, to the business of writing, to homestead design and implementation. Tell you the truth, I liked having those conversations more than I thought I might.

The funny thing about writing books is that while a book immediately grants you a certain degree of credibility, the money’s not nearly as good as what I made when I was magazine writing. During the apex of my freelance magazine years, I actually made a respectable middle class income. But it took me about a dozen years to get there, and it really only lasted two or three years before I realized I’d rather write the books I’d only recently never imagined myself writing.

The central difference between magazine writing and book authorship is that when you write for magazines, you get paid according to what the magazine pays. You’re essentially a hired gun. Most of the magazines I wrote for (and occasionally still write for) paid between $1 and $2 per word, which of course is why I tend toward run-on sentences and a lot, and I mean a whole bunch, a real awful lot, a tremendous amount, really, of repetition in my writing, the written word I put to paper, or more accurately to the screen, but in either case, I’m talking about getting paid by the word, which I’m not now, so I’ll end this sentence here. But when you write books, you’re much more subject to market forces determining your actual value. Apparently, my actual value as an author works out to about $2 per hour. I’m hardly exaggerating. Actually, if anything that’s on the high side, and it occurs to me that on an hourly basis, I could make more money milking cows for Jimmy or Melvin. Of course, there’s the thorny issue of the indisputable fact that I’m far too soft to milk cows for a living. But you get the point.

So, yeah, the recent flurry of media coverage did exactly nothing to impact our immediate financial situation. Well, maybe not nothing: I’ve gotten a few speaking requests, and no doubt the consults I’ve done are at least in part a result of this coverage. But a new truck? Hardly. Maybe a few tanks of diesel, though, and by gum, I’m grateful for that. Maybe even a pair of Truck Nutz, if only Penny would allow.

One of the things I’m slowly learning is to be a bit less shy about promoting myself and my work. It took an awful lot for me to put up that consulting page, let me tell you. A whole awful lot.  Clearly, I’m not shy in general, but I am pretty self-conscious about claiming expertise. This is probably because I’m generally pretty leery of those who hold themselves up as experts. It’s not that I never seek council from those who know more about a particular field than I do. Actually, this happens all the time, given the many gaps in my knowledge. But I’ve observed that the most experienced and knowledgeable people generally don’t go around telling everyone how experienced and knowledgeable they are. I’ve observed that the people who are actually the most capable of helping others don’t go around telling everyone how much they can help. No doubt there are exceptions to this rule.

Anyway. This is gone on long enough and besides, I really have to go. There’s a knock at the door and I’m pretty sure it’s our daily lobster and caviar delivery. Oh, and if you’re interested in a consultation, know this: I probably can’t help you in the least.




Kids and Killing

October 8, 2014 § 27 Comments

The boys honing their skills on a roadkill deer, circa 2010

The boys honing their skills on a roadkill deer, circa 2010

The boys slaughtered a half-dozen or so ducks over the weekend and this was good because I had been craving duck fat potatoes like nobody’s business. If you’ve ever had duck fat potatoes, you know exactly what I’m talking about, because there is no potato equal to that which has been diced into fine strips and immersed in the sizzling essence of quack. It’s like going to heaven without even leaving your kitchen. Who knew heaven was so easy?

Recently someone asked me about how we’ve dealt with slaughter in regards to our children, and it sort of caught me off guard. Frankly, it’s been so long since we’ve thought about it that I sort of forgot that once upon a time, we did think about it. That our thoughts led us to a place of including Fin and Rye in all aspects of animal life and death might by now be obvious, but that doesn’t exactly explain how we got from there to here.

I’m reaching deep into the hazy recesses of my too-frail memory, but I do recall Penny and me debating whether or not to include the fellas in one of our early chicken slaughters. This would’ve been when Fin was maybe three and Rye a spit-up crusted infant, which is to say, nearly a full decade ago. I wish I could remember exactly how that debate unfolded, but I cannot. I only remember that it happened and that it didn’t take us long to decide. I can only remember that the result included Fin carrying live chickens from pen to slaughtering cones, while Rye sat in the shade, propped up in his “boppy pillow” drooling and snotting all over himself (clearly, he was emulating his dear father).

I’m not really sure what to suggest to other parents who are struggling with how to include their children in livestock slaughter. I guess the short version of all this is that I don’t really see why children should be treated any differently than adults when it comes to their awareness of where their food comes from and what it means to take another’s life so that you might live. Penny and I are at a place in our lives where we can not fathom not killing our own animals. This does not mean that every animal on this land dies by our hands (though many do); it only means that we are capable of slaughtering every animal that dies on this land. We know the process intimately, both the physical and emotional. I think that perhaps we are still struggling to fully understand the spiritual implications of it all, but that’s ok. It’s a journey, not a destination.

Generally speaking, I think we tend to underestimate our children and I think most if not all of our collective discomfort around the idea of our children being involved with the death of their food is rooted in our collective discomfort with the idea of us being involved in the death of our food. I’ve written plenty about that, and I see no reason to repeat myself here. Suffice to say I think we do ourselves a tremendous disservice when we refuse to face that discomfort.

Today the boys are capable killers. Ducks and chickens require no assistance from Penny or me. Each has shot and helped dress at least a half-dozen hogs. I suspect they’re only a year or two away from being capable of slaughtering pigs with essentially zero oversight. I am fascinated by their capacity to distinguish between those animals we consider pets and those that are destined for the table. Toward the former, they are fiercely protective. Toward the latter, they are willing and even eager to wield the blade.

I used to puzzle over this dichotomy until I realized the depth of its historical precedence, because until recently we all lived this dichotomy. Until recently, animals had not been reduced to the role of pets and pre-packaged meats. Until recently, the majority of the animals under our care were living, breathing beings who would die by our hands so that we might live. Until recently, we all – including our children – washed blood from under our fingernails.

I’m not sure why it should be any different now.

Maybe Not All Things

October 6, 2014 § 4 Comments


I’ll be at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick tomorrow night at 7:00 reading from Home Grown and blabbing about all things learning and life. Well, maybe not all things. But you get the idea.

Ad Hoc Medicine

October 1, 2014 § 21 Comments


A couple of folks asked about fire cider, and since I’m not feeling particularly thoughtful today, I figured I’d satisfy some curiosity.

Fire cider is a traditional folk remedy in use since September 2, 1673. That’s a joke; I have no idea when it was invented, but it’s safe to say it was a heck of a long time ago, though the name “fire cider” has become common only in the past few decades, since the herbalist Rosemary Gladstar coined it in the 70’s. It’s considered an immune-stimulating cold and flu preventative, as well as an aid to digestion and circulation. I’ve read that it makes short people taller, but I’m not entirely sure I believe that one.


There are countless variations, but the main ingredients are fresh horseradish, garlic, onion, hot pepper, and ginger infused in raw apple cider vinegar. Often, raw honey is added. You know, ’cause it’s honey.

We use the above recipe and throw in any other immune boosting and anti-inflammatory/bacterial/viral ingredients we have on hand. For example, we might include Echinacea root, calendula flowers, yarrow leaves and flowers, sage, thyme, rosemary, rosehips, turmeric, and lemon balm. Or we might not; it really depends on what we have in the garden and/or pantry.


As per our usual style, there are no “correct” amounts of these various ingredients. Very roughly, we use equal parts of horseradish, garlic, and onions – maybe two cups each, for those of you desiring precision. We’ll throw in one cup of ginger and handfuls of the remaining goodies. One of the beauties of this concoction is that ginger is the only boughten ingredient; the rest we have on hand,u unless we don’t, in which case we simply vary the recipe to utilize what we’ve got. It’s ad hoc medicine.


So, the process. We grate the horseradish (and be careful, this is some wicked strong stuff, people have actually passed out food processing it, which is why we stick to grating by hand in the great outdoors. Too, we have the boys do it, because of one of them loses consciousness, they have less far to fall) and chop the rest, being darn well sure not to touch our eyes after handling the hot peppers. We throw it all in bowl and cover with the raw apple cider vinegar, stir it around, and ladle into jars. We let it sit for two months before straining.


Fire cider can be taken as a preventative during cold/flu season in 1 – 2 tablespoon doses. If you actually have symptoms, take a shot every 4 hours or so. You can also mix with hot water and honey to make a tea, use it in place of vinegar in salad dressing, or drizzle on cooked veggies and/or rice. Heck, we’ve even added it to marinades and soups.


By-the-by, there’s a brewhaha over the recent trademarking of the name “Fire Cider” by a small Massachusetts company. I don’t know all the details, so I probably ought keep my trap shut, but in general trademarking the name of a common folk remedy sounds like a load of bullocks to me. So there.

That Was a Nice Day

September 30, 2014 § 24 Comments



We went down to Martin’s place to pick wild apples this morning. Actually, I bet they’re not entirely wild; I bet someone planted those trees, or at least some of them. It would’ve been before I was born. It probably would’ve been before any of you were born, and I know some of you got a few years on me. Maybe even a few decades.

We drove out through Martin’s hayfield and into the back pasture, where his heifers are grazing the last of the sward. The grass has stopped growing; whatever’s on the ground now is all there’ll be until sometime next May. It catches me by surprise every year, just how fast the pasture goes into decline. And now this: Another two weeks of grazing, then seven months of grasslessness. Seven months of throwing bales and busting through iced-over water troughs. I don’t mind. I look forward to it, actually.



The boys weren’t in a great mood this morning and I can’t say why. It happens, I guess. They bickered and wrestled a bit more aggressively than strictly necessary, while Penny and I tried to ignore them. We did a pretty good job of it, too. They didn’t help much but we still let Fin drive back across Martin’s pasture and Rye got behind the wheel for the trip down our quarter-mile driveway, and this seemed to cheer them up considerably.

It’s been an amazing fall thus far. Warm. Dry. The foliage is as fine as I can remember. You stand at the height of our land and you look across the valley and you think it can’t get any better than this. Then one afternoon you’re driving Melvin’s cows down for evening milking and you see his big black and while Holsteins etched against the all that crimson and orange and you realize you were wrong before. Truth is, it can’t get any better than this. Two mornings later, you’re climbing into an old apple tree to shake the fruit down (and sure, the boys are grumpy but screw ‘em) and Martin’s heifers are gathered around, waiting for errant bounces. And then you realize you were wrong that time in Melvin’s field, too, because this is the moment that crystallizes fall. This is the moment you’ll remember in 35 years, when you’re no longer able to climb apple trees to shake the high branches, the ones that stubbornly hold the sweetest fruit. You know what’s funny? I first wrote “truth” instead of “fruit.” I meant to write “fruit” but maybe “truth” works, too.



Nah, I’m smarter than that. I bet I won’t remember this morning, climbing that tree, the sour boys, the gathered heifers, the branch-scratch on my forearm oozing beaded blood. Or if I do remember, it’ll be in some hazy, generalized way, how the four of us used to gather apples every fall and I can almost recall that one September morning, the nicest start to autumn we’d had in years and didn’t Fin drive us back through the pasture?

Yes. Yes. That was a nice day.

Why My Friend Tried to Stab Me

September 29, 2014 § 10 Comments

A friend sent me an email last week to say she’d had a dream in which she and I were eating lunch at a diner and I was blathering on about something in my usual way and she raised her fork at me in a fashion she claims was not menacing and said “No! You listen TO ME!” Because otherwise, she couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

This may mean nothing. On the other hand, I think it’s sort of telling that she didn’t have a dream in which she was trying to get me to speak up.

With that, I present to you my second consecutive nearly-wordless post. Unless you’re one of those deluded sorts who thinks a picture is worth a 1,000 words. I mean, really: 1,000 words? Do you know how friggin’ hard I have to work for 1,000 words?

Eh, never mind. Because now I’m closing in on my fourth paragraph about how maybe I don’t spend enough time with my yap shut.

Damn. I can almost understand why my friend tried to stab me.

Taking the cows down for afternoon milking

Taking the cows down for afternoon milking





Making fire cider

Making fire cider

Surf n' turf

Surf n’ turf



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