I Also Expect…

July 10, 2014 § 15 Comments

… to make a black ash pack basket at this upcoming workshop, led by Nate and hosted by us. Space is limited, so sign up soon!


Make your own pack basket from a tree the old-timey way. We’ll pound on a black ash log until the layers start to separate, strip them into long weavers, and rearrange them into shape as we please so as to best make a useful container to wear on our backs and put things in.

Black Ash pack baskets are remarkably durable, surprisingly comfortable, and incredibly useful. I use mine on a daily basis for such things as mushroom gathering, hiking, canoeing, holding things that I buy (“shopping”), picninc-ing, camping, wandering around, and carrying beavers. Wearing a pack basket is also a good reminder that life is in fact not the least bit boring.

Friday – Sunday, August 8,9, and 10

$175 fee, advance payment required.

To sign up email me (Nate Johnson)

nate (at) ivegottwohands.com

or call (218) 255-1345

Workshop held in Cabot VT at the homestead farm of Ben and Penny Hewitt. There is a pond to swim in and cows to milk. Registration limited so don’t sit around.

What I Expect

July 10, 2014 § 15 Comments

Cheese, please

Cheese, please

To work hard, which is to say, to labor hard. Maybe harder than most, certainly less hard than some.

To eat well. Cream from the jar, berries from the bush, potatoes from the soil, mushrooms from the forest.

To be tired by nightfall. To sleep well. To not set an alarm. To wake most mornings before full light.

To earn a small living doing what I love and to let that be enough.

To have friends.

To remember that the only way I’ll ever have everything I want is not by the accumulation of things but rather by the erosion of wants.

To sometimes forget this.

To watch my boys grow. Not from a distance, but close up. Alongside me. To be devastated when they leave.

To slow down, both by choice and by circumstance.

To become wiser (this might be asking a bit much).

To support Penny and to need her support.

To lose things I never imagined losing.

To gain things I never imagined gaining.

In other words, to be surprised.














Gratitude and Cookies

July 9, 2014 § 25 Comments

Barn bound

Barn bound

The wind woke me sometime around midnight and I just lay there a while, listening to the storm gather. It was a fierce one, all booming and flashing and the sharp crack of a tree succumbing. Then the rain came but it strangely did not fall hard and I slipped back into the untroubled folds of my unconscious, that gauzy world in which the boys are forever telling me how grateful they are for all I do, whilst in the background Penny is slipping yet another batch of cookies into the oven. Gratitude and cookies. Ya know, it might really be that simple.

It’s been a nice little break from this space, during which nothing much out of the ordinary happened and the transition to our mid-summer lull began. We had a cookout with some friends, an event we almost turned stressful by slaughtering the pigs the day before and butchering them the morning of. But mid-afternoon of the day prior, at approximately the time at which the beasts would have needed to be ushered into whatever afterworld awaits piggies on the backside of their earthly exploits, I cast a glance around the house and its assemblage of dirt and clutter and unwashed dishes. “The pigs shall live another day,” I proclaimed, and in hindsight it was perhaps the wisest decision I’ve made in the past six months or more. Realizing that made me inordinately happy, because I am only 42 and if I’m making such wise decisions at this point in my life, one can only imagine how wise they’ll be when I’m truly ripe.

We are glad to be turning this corner, if only because it opens the door to embark on a few long-delayed projects. The pigs, of course. They need to be dealt with and pronto, for every step they take sets loose a small earthquake under the sheer bulk of their milk-fed muscle and fat. It’s mighty unsettling. Furthermore, the piles of sawlogs – one beside the mill and one down the field – seem disinclined to feed themselves to the mill, despite my fervent attempts to will such a thing into being. I might be getting wiser but my supernatural powers are wanting as ever. I still have some work to do on the newly-added front stoop, which ties into the recently constructed woodshed. And yes, I’m gonna play some ball with the fellas.

Every so often, something reminds me of how small my world has become, how its triumphs and failures have come to hinge almost exclusively on the minutia of our life on this scrappy little rise of field and forest. There’s a whole big world out there, where people are getting rich and flying over oceans and curing diseases and starting businesses and I’m sitting here feeling smug for not killing pigs the day before company? For filling the woodshed by the first of June? For clearing up Apple’s mastitis? For getting a new blade on the sawmill and the oil changed, too?

I wonder what makes some people want so much and others so little. Is it merely ambition, or the lack thereof? It is laziness and complacency? Ignorance? I remember years back someone describing their spiritual awakening to me, and how post-awakening he couldn’t help but think of others as being house cats who’d never seen the world outside their doorstep. I remember thinking it was a rather self-important view but then, what did I know? Maybe I was just a housecat, too, purring my little life away.

Truth is, maybe I still am.

Listening In

July 3, 2014 § 20 Comments


As you might have ciphered by now, we listen to a lot of music. We listen to music the way most Americans watch TV, which is to say, it’s almost always on, even if we’re not really paying attention.

The boys are big into music. Rye doesn’t play much but listens a lot. Fin listens a lot and plays his guitar frequently. He’s not big into structured practicing, although the other day I was walking across the field and I could hear him running through the opening riff to Crazy Train time and time again. I couldn’t help smiling. I love that riff.

Obviously, my tastes are eclectic. I like the old time stuff; lately, I’ve been listening to the Steel Wheels a whole lot and loving it. They’ve got a really nice old time/gospel/folk thing going on. I like good ole rock n’ roll, and particularly literate, story-telling rock n’ roll like Isbell or James McMurtry or the late, great Jason Molina and his band Magnolia Electric Co. That’s some fine song writing, right there. Or how ‘bout them Wrinkle Neck Mules? And Fred, of course. And I still like the heavy stuff, the vintage Metallica and Motorhead and Bad Brains that saw me through my teen years. I’ll spare you those links.

What don’t I like? Jazz. Don’t get it at all. Rap. Not my thing. Mainstream country and pop don’t ring my bell, either. Not a big reggae fan. Too bouncy and stoned.

Penny likes most of the same stuff I do, though she’s sadly lost her taste for head banging. She likes some stuff I really can’t stomach, like James Taylor and a few other simpering mewlers. Oh well. No one’s perfect.

Fin’s definitely drawn toward rock, but he loves the old time stuff, too. In addition to the new Waylon Speed, he’s been listening to a lot of AC/DC recently, learning some of those simple, chunky blues riffs they use. Interestingly, he seems to be losing his affection for the really fast stuff. “Can you turn that down, Papa?” he asks when I dial up something like Ace of Spades. I can’t really blame him; that stuff’s really obnoxious if you’re not into it.

Rye’s not into anything heavy. He’s ok with good, literate rock, but I can tell he barely tolerates the louder stuff. If he had his druthers, it’d be Sheesham and Lotus, Steel Wheels, and Fred pretty much forever.

We all like live music. At least a few times each year, we find a good live show and stay out ‘til the wee hours. Penny and I like to point out to the boys that they’re almost always the only kids in attendance. We then wait for them to gush with gratitude for their wickedly hip parents, but for some reason, this never happens. They just shrug their shoulders, as if it’s perfectly natural that their parents would bring them along.

Hell, I don’t know. Maybe it is.

Summer Vacationing for Cheapskates

July 2, 2014 § 15 Comments

First batch down

It’s what’s for dinner

Fin walked down the field with me last night on my way to move the cows. It was 7, or near enough to it, and the light had that lingering quality of high summer, as if reluctant to leave. Fin carried a baseball and as we walked we launched it in high, arcing throws, traces of white against the perfect blue of sky. How long had it been since I’d thrown a ball with my kid? Damn. I couldn’t remember.

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks. There was haying and all of that, and then Apple got one of her teats trampled on by another cow, a fluke of almost incalculably slim odds, considering the diminutive nature of said teat and all the non-teated space the cows have to trod their brutish hooves. The teat was salvageable, though it is a scabbed and nasty-looking mess, but mastitis has set into that quarter. It’s a fairly mild case, but as those of you with milking animals know, the best treatment for mastitis is frequent emptying (known as “stripping”) of the afflicted quarter. This is hassle enough, but coupled with the wounded milk faucet, makes for some challenging times. No doubt any of my readers blessed with mammary glands can fully understand why Apple is, um, resistant to our efforts.

Then, in the midst of it all, Fin’s doe tried to deliver an enormous buckling broadside, with one front foot and one hind foot emerging in tandem, as if the damn thing were trying to somersault out of her. This necessitated nearly a full day of aid and doctoring that sadly did not end well for either buckling or mama. Fin has for the most part taken it in stride. The boys are no strangers to the occasional realities of living with working animals.

Despite my honest efforts to portray this life in glowing terms of affection and appreciation and beauty, the truth is that it is occasionally none of these things. It is occasionally (and sometimes more than occasionally) dirty, hard, and sad. And there are times, like the past couple of weeks, when it is all-consuming, when even 16-hours of daylight feel like too few and a game of catch with my son must be snuck into chores or not played at all. “That was really fun,” Fin said when we got back to the house, and to be honest this made me a little sad, because what it had been was maybe a dozen minutes of tossing a ball on our way to do something else.

In a week or two, we’ll be over the hump. We’ll be into the post-haying, post-planting, post-birthing, hopefully post-mastitis, and pre-harvest lull. It’s our summer vacation, although anyone who thinks of summer vacation as being about beaches and road trips and eating out would think us insane to call it such. But that’s ok; I don’t need any of that stuff. Honestly, I don’t even want it. All I really want is to play a little baseball with my boys and maybe stop getting kicked by my cow.

By those standards, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a hell of a holiday. And think of the money we’ll save!

Cream Always Compensates

June 27, 2014 § 14 Comments

Chicks are fun(ny)

Chicks are fun(ny)

Penny heard this talk on the radio whilst driving somewhere a while back. She’s been pestering me to listen, too, which I have finally done. For those of you who cannot spare the quarter-hour it would take to listen for your ownbadselves, the talk is by a fellow who spent years working with NGO’s to cultivate economic development in developing nations. Yeah, I know: A slippery slope if ever there was one.

But to this fellow’s enduring credit, he soon realized that the standard method of aid – of coming in with suitcases of money and lots of ideas and a particular notion of how things should unfold – was doomed to failure because it was not of the people and region they were trying to help. So he started doing something different.

“You never initiate anything. You never motivate anybody, but you become a servant of the local passion… What you do: You shut up.  You can give somebody an idea (but) if that person doesn’t want to do it, what are you going to do? The passion a person has for their own growth is the most important thing.”

It’s a great talk, and you should hear it. But you know what’s sort of frustrating to me? I just spent an entire friggin’ year writing a 60,000-word book that is in large part about our decision to allow Fin and Rye to self-direct their learning and what that process looks like. And here’s this dude summing it all up in about three sentences.

Ah, well. In other news, the pigs are so fat I’m starting to wonder if I ought feel obligated to leave Weight Watchers brochures lying around in conspicuous places. And Apple freshened, so we have milk. And cream. So while I may have written something like 59,950 more words than strictly needed, at least I’ve got that.

It’s true: Cream always compensates.





Is It Still Just Play?

June 25, 2014 § 31 Comments

When I close my eyes, this is what I see

When I close my eyes, this is what I see

Someone sent me a link to this story on the Atlantic magazine’s website, about the importance of self-directed play and its relationship to something called executive functioning, which is defined in the article as “a broad term for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to switch between activities. It is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth.”

I’m glad to see a mainstream publication like The Atlantic running stories about the importance of self-directed play. Obviously, I agree that self-directed play is important. But the thing that drives me nuts is that it’s not enough to say that self-directed play is important in-and-of-itself. According to the article (and it’s not just this article; I’ve seen others that use similar arguments), unstructured play is not an end, but a means to an end, which in this case happens to be advanced executive functioning, which is itself a vital part of school preparedness and a powerful predictor of academic performance. In other words, self-directed play really only matters because we’ve determined that it improves our children’s performance in the context of the industrial educational system.

For those of us who believe that our children – in conjunction with the world around them – are their own best teachers, I suppose it’s a small slice of affirmation to see an article like the one linked above. I guess I’m glad to know my boys are cultivating cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation and so on, and lord knows I would’ve done well to cultivate these skills a bit more diligently myself. Furthermore, I suppose I’m glad to hear Fin and Rye are developing executive functioning, however much it feels to me like an ironic choice of words for the subject at hand (I can just hear it now: “Go on, shoo! Get outside and play with your friends so you can develop your executive functioning!”).

But the truth is reading the article makes me a little sad, if only because it confirms the extent to which we’ve lost our bearings. No longer is it enough for us to understand that free play is an inherently important part of childhood and maybe even of being an adult. Now, it must be understood that free play is important primarily because it furthers our children’s performance in the arena of school. Now, it must be understood that free play is important because it a “powerful predictor of health and wealth.” Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure these things are true. I mean, it’s all based on a study conducted by a bunch of PhD’s at the University of Colorado, so it must be true.

But here’s the thing: If there’s a goal in mind, there’s an agenda behind it. If there’s an agenda behind it, there’s an expectation.

And if there’s an expectation, is it still just play?



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