The Ugly Stuff

July 16, 2014 § 23 Comments

Morning chores

Morning chores

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the things I really dislike about this medium is how one-dimensional it is. Or maybe not one-dimensional, but certainly lacking the complexity and nuance of what it really means to live as we do. Some of this is my fault, of course. For instance, I could post pictures of what I lovingly call the “white trash zone” directly outside the walkout door from our basement. This is where our garbage accumulates between our annual dump runs, and where we store the cast-off minutia of our rusticated existence. A half-full bucket of hydraulic fluid. Old windows. A random assortment of metal roofing pieces, too small to be of any real use and too big to discard without the nagging sense that someday we’ll wish hadn’t gotten rid of them. Of course, this never happens and the pile only grows bigger and you’d think after enough years of this, we’d put two and two together. But no one said we was the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Or I could be more honest about how difficult certain tasks are and how even now, six or seven hours before we’re due to begin, I’m already half-dreading slaughtering the pigs. “You make killing pigs sound so easy,” someone said to me recently and I felt a little guilty. Because it’s not easy. Actually, it’s pretty friggin’ hard. Messy, too. I don’t love it. I love being done with it. I love what it results in. I love knowing I can do it. But actually doing it? Actually spending the afternoon elbow deep in fat and muscle and blood and guts, sweat beading down my face? Not fun.

Or you might have noticed I haven’t posted many pictures of the inside of our house. Part of that is because we don’t spend a whole lot of time indoors. But the other part is because it’s often pretty messy. I mean, not disgusting or anything, but not something any sane person would aspire to. Piles of clothes in random places. Stacks of books where stacks of books don’t necessarily belong. Right now, a kitchen table covered with fishing tackle, as the boys prepare for a trip with Nate. Mud on the floor. And so on.

I think this is one of the dangers of this whole social media thing. We see what people let us see and generally what people let us see are the things that make them look good and perhaps, by comparison, make us look (and therefore, feel) bad. In a sense this is no different than real life, except in real life as you become closer to people all the other stuff is slowly and inevitably revealed and they either learn to embrace you for the holistic person you are or decide you’re an asshole and move on. But in this medium, we can keep hidden anything and everything we choose to hide. We let the rest of the world peer into the fractional view we offer and if they feel in some small ways (or perhaps in large ones) their own lives don’t measure up, it’s no concern of ours.

Of course, I have no idea if that happens here. Perhaps I flatter myself to even consider it a possibility; more likely, people see what’s going on ‘round these parts and thank their lucky stars they don’t live like those irredeemable hicks up in Cabot. In a way, I sort of hope they do. It makes me uncomfortable to think that anyone might aspire to our life. That’s not what this space is about, although I can see how to a certain extent, I’ve unconsciously cultivated an element of that. I post the pretty pictures. I write the pretty words. But the ugly stuff? I keep that to myself.

So, let me be clear: The house is a mess. The boys just finished squabbling over something ridiculous and although they are at peace now, I know them well enough to know another squabble is forthcoming. I do not look forward to killing the pigs and what’s more, the area immediately beyond our basement door is approaching squalor status. And did you know my office is a shithole? It’s true. The walls are unpainted and the floor is unfinished and I think I might last have swept it during that slow period in December 2012.

Like all of you, I’m guessing, we’re just doing the best we can. And the truth is, it’s not necessarily something to aspire to. It’s just a life.


Oh, Dang: A Story

July 15, 2014 § 13 Comments


I needed a part for the tractor. One of the many small linkage pieces that comprise the three-point hitch, which is the mechanism at the rear of the machine that allows for the operation of numerous implements, had come loose and tumbled unnoticed into the forest duff. I’d searched for longer than was strictly rational; after all, it was a $20 part at best and the spot I’d been working was down on the furthest corner of our land, accessed via nearly a half-mile of tractor road. I walked the half-mile down and back again and down once more, before abandoning my quest and striking out in search of chanterelles, which I knew were popping because the day before the boys had come home with their pockets full. We fried them in fresh butter and ate them with even fresher eggs. Damn.

Not long ago, if I needed a tractor part, I went to Rowell Brothers, the tractor and farm equipment repair business on the outskirts of Hardwick. I always liked going to Rowell Brothers; it was cluttered and confusing and generally unkempt, and smelled of grease and rubber and cleaning solvents. The man behind the counter was named Morris Rowell and I’m not sure how old he was, but certainly older than 70. Maybe older than 80. If Morris didn’t have the part I needed, he’d write it down on a scrap of paper and promise to order it and when I’d call a week later to see if it’d come in, he’d say “oh, dang, I forgot” and then he’d order it. After a while, I learned not to wait a week before my first call. That speeded up the whole process considerably.

There was a two bay garage attached to the parts room and anyone could walk freely into the garage to ask a question of Chris or Fred, the mechanics. There was no “employees only” sign; I doubt Morris gave much thought to liability, though he probably should have, given the profusion of things heavy, jagged, and precarious. These things were invariably as old as me or older; Chris and Fred did not think much of newer machines, though to be fair, the owners of newer machines probably didn’t think much of the minor chaos that prevailed in the garage at Rowell’s.

Rowell Brothers closed last year. Morris spent some time trying to find a buyer but no one stepped forward. It was one of the few times I wished to be wealthy, because I would have loved to buy the place. I wouldn’t have actually wanted to run it, but since I was wealthy, I could’ve just hired someone. Hell, maybe Morris would’ve stayed on for the right deal. Maybe then when I needed a part I could still stop by Rowell’s and Morris would either extract the part from where it was buried under a pile of entirely unrelated parts where no one but Morris could find it, or write it down and then forget to order it and in a few days I’d call to see if it’d come in. “Oh, dang,” he’d say, and then I’d know my part was really on its way.

As it was, I got my part at Tractor Supply, which is sort of like the WalMart of farm and garden supply stores. I’m not sure how many Tractor Supply stores there are across the country, but I think quite a few. I know of three within a one-hour radius of our place, though I’d never really needed to visit one before. Indeed, this was my first visit to a Tractor Supply. I found the part I needed quickly, with no assistance from any of the clerks. It gleamed in a well-lit bin and was cheaper than I’d thought it might be, and I briefly considered buying two, so I’d have a replacement if I lost another. But then I had the irrational notion that maybe I’ll find the original after all and thus have no need for a back up (this has not yet transpired). I checked out and emerged back into the sunlit afternoon. During the entire transaction, I’d spoken only three words: “Cash” and “Thank you.” I suppose I could’ve talked more but to be honest, I just wanted to get out of there. It was making me sad. And it smelled funny. No bad. Just… funny.

People often ask me about what’s happened in Hardwick since my first book was published, if the local food movement (or whatever you want to call it) is still gaining momentum. And I have to say that to be honest, I sort of stopped paying attention a while ago. I mean, I know that new food-based businesses have popped up over the past few years and I’ve heard they’re thriving and I’m glad for them.

You’d think that with all the food and ag-related activity in the area, Rowell Brothers could have thrived. And maybe its demise – or at least a piece of it – was by its own hand. After all, I know I wasn’t the only one who had to call Morris to remind him to order the parts he’d promised. Jimmy and I joked about it more than once.

But I also wonder if there was an inherent mismatch between Rowell’s and the shiny new 21st century local food movement, with all its entrepreneurial ambition. That sort of ambition can’t afford to wait for Morris to remember to order parts. That sort of ambition can’t really afford to run the aging, breakdown-prone machinery that needs those parts in the first place. It doesn’t need the encyclopedia of arcane knowledge contained in the heads of Morris and his mechanics. Because for everything Morris forgot, he knew 100 things more.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe Rowell Brother’s was just another business whose time had come and gone, like so many before it. The world will keep spinning. The parts we need to keep our tractor and implements running will keep being made and I’ll still be able to find them in those well-lit bins at Tractor Supply or at the dealer, where I’ll pay twice as much for the same damn thing. That was the other thing about Rowell’s: The prices were real good.

The funny thing is, I actually drove by Rowell’s on my way to Tractor Supply. Someone’s making chairs there, now. They look pretty nice.


I Also Expect…

July 10, 2014 § 16 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)

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!


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