June 8, 2015 § 32 Comments
The rain came in while we slept, a soft rain, the sort that cultivates those sweet and hazy morning dreams, the ones at the very precipice of consciousness, never less sure of what is real and imagined. And if it matters, anyway.
It is fair to say that our lives are a bit intense at the moment. Last week, Jimmy and I installed the leach field; after that Pen and the boys and I set the foundation stones for the barn, the completion of which was followed in short order by the framing of the perimeter band joists with our friend Blake, who’s working with us two days per week. It’s great to have him, and I’d be saying that even if I didn’t know he reads this space: He is young (not even 30!! Can you even imagine?), cheerful and conscientious, at least half as rugged as me, and furthermore brings us loaves of the dense sourdough rye bread he bakes. We eat it with the butter we churned the day before, and the contrast in colors – the almost-orange of the spring butter, the deep earthen hue of the bread – is something to behold. I’d say it’s too pretty to eat, but the evidence suggests otherwise, so I won’t.
For the barn, we are utilizing a BFR foundation. The “B” stands for Big, of course, and the “R” for Rock. The “F” meanwhile, stands for… well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. The BFR was suggested to us by our friend Paul. It’s cheap, environmentally benign (unlike concrete, for instance, which is pretty rapacious stuff), requires minimal soil disturbance, and, with proper drainage, should prove exceptionally stable. Time will tell, I suppose, but so far, I’m feeling real good about it. I think it’s certainly better than piers of wood or concrete, both of which are prone tipping and tilting as the frost works its rude magic.
Oh, and what do I think about God? I believe that just like spirituality, God can be many different things to many different people. To some, the one creator; to others, the feel of soil in the palm or the sounds of cows grazing; to others still, us. I believe that organized religion is often held up as an answer to questions that can seem unanswerable, and that surrendering the mystery of these questions is a great loss. I guess I appreciate a certain amount of mystery in my life. If nothing else, it keeps me on my toes. I like being on my toes.
I do not believe the world is wicked. Nor people. Indeed, I believe precisely the opposite: That the world is almost unfathomably kind and generous. In my experience, the same can be said of people, and on those occasions when it cannot, it is almost always the result of people feeling compelled to behave in ways that are inherently contrary to their nature. I believe this contrariness is the cause of much current malaise, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual (as if we ought make these distinctions at all).
I think one of the great tragedies of the industrialized economy is that it too often it forces us to treat our fellow humans (not to mention all that is non-human, and this is yet another distinction we might reconsider) with something less than the reverence they deserve. I once heard someone describe capitalism as a sociopathic construct, and I believe there is some truth to this. Maybe a lot of truth.
And that’s pretty much what I have to say about that.
June 2, 2015 § 49 Comments
We are milking two cows, twice per day. We milk by hand, in a corner of our humble pole barn. For the past couple of days, we’ve milked to the patter of rain on the tin roof, and that’s been real nice. Penny does most of the milking, though I pinch hit from time-to-time. From beginning to end, including a mid-milking break to feed the calves, it takes about 40 minutes. We both like it. It’s not a burden, though obviously not for the uncommitted.
Milk is the cornerstone of this little operation. It makes our butter, our kefir, our soft cheese. It makes our beef and this year, with a beautiful heifer on the ground, perhaps it will generate a little income. We feed the skimmed milk to our pigs and they are kind enough to convert it into chops and bacon. Good piggies. Thank you.
Of course, our milk comes from our cows, so perhaps it’s actually the cows that are the cornerstone of this little operation. They make the milk, they birth the beef and heifer calves, they graze the grass, they give us something meaningful to do for 40 minutes at the beginning and end of each day. No small point, that last one. It’s actually pretty damn important.
Of course, the cows couldn’t exist without the grass they feed on, so maybe the cornerstone of this little operation is grass. Funny to think about, isn’t it? Grass. The prey of lawnmowers the world over, which is crazy, because it’s actually one of the most abundant perennial food crops in the world. You think you can’t eat grass? That’s nuts. Of course you can eat grass. You just gotta run it through the digestive system of a ruminant first.
Except, well, the grass doesn’t grow without the sun, the rain, the soil. So I guess I was wrong before: These are the cornerstones of this little operation. They make the grass that feeds the cows that make the milk that makes our beef and bacon and butter and (!!!) ice cream. You think you can’t eat sun, soil, and rain?
Truth is, you do it every day.
May 26, 2015 § 31 Comments
I flew out to Sun Valley, Idaho for the weekend, to give a talk at a conference about kids and education and whatnot (that’s what my talk was about, not the conference as a whole). Holy shit is it beautiful out there, I mean really. Just stunning, all sky and mountain, everything stretching for what seems like forever. And the speed limit! 80 mph, but you can set the cruise at 90 and just about take a nap, the roads are so straight. Crazy.
After my talk I hiked from the conference center through a pleasant neighborhood and to the top of a ski hill and then clambered up onto a rock outcropping and got that feeling you get when you see a SUV commercial on TV and the camera’s circling at the very height of the land, a swirling, 360-degree aerial view. You know the commercials I’m talking about. You know the feeling: A little disorienting, that soft butterfly flutter in the stomach.
Sometimes when I travel, I get sort of overwhelmed by all the possibilities of life, and furthermore, the seeming randomness of it all. I mean, hell, given slightly different circumstances, I might’ve ended up living in Sun Valley, or a million other places for that matter. Considering it is for me like standing at the top of that outcropping: A little disorienting, a little fluttery, and I wonder if that sense of disorientation is the very reason conferences like the one I spoke at exist in the first place. It was a wellness conference, focused primarily on the spirit. Elizabeth Gilbert was there, but that was the day before I arrived, so I didn’t get to see her. A fellow named Rich Roll, which is a great name for a guy who transformed himself from recovering-alcoholic, Big-Mac attacking couch potato into a vegan competitive ultra runner in his mid-40’s, an age that of late seems particularly relevant to me. I listened to some of his talk. It was good. Very inspirational. Heck, I might not’ve gone hiking otherwise, and that night at dinner I even passed over the steak in favor of something a little less bloodwet.
That disorientation. It’s like, how do you decide? Everyone at the conference was, as implied by their very attendance, affluent. Maybe not 1% affluent, but you know what I mean: These people have the world by the balls. You could see it: They were all gorgeous, slim, bright-eyed, curious, articulate, almost deferential in their politeness. The buffet of their life choices, while perhaps not infinite (and whose is?), is certainly more bountiful than for most. But it must be sort of confusing at times, too, all that opportunity. Has to be. Is, I mean. I know, because while I was surely on the lower end of the conference attendee’s socioeconomic spectrum, it’s not like I don’t have my share of choices. More than is strictly healthy, I sometimes think.
The night after my talk, I went to Mark Nebo’s presentation. I’d never heard of the dude, but I figured why not. I was there, I was hanging out with some people whose company I was quite enjoying and they were going, I had a complimentary ticket, and besides, I was feeling a little knackered from the hike and furthermore regretting my decision regarding the steak dinner, which came with some sort of blue cheese (blue cheese!) reduction sauce and which, if not for the tempering influence of that confounded vegan-runner dude, who was 49 but looked at least 28, I surely would’ve ordered.
Anyway. I guess Nebo’s pretty famous; Oprah’s a big fan and that sort of launched him a while back. I’d assumed he’d be a little slick for my liking, and his talk was titled “heart work in a spirit world,” and it’s not like I’m opposed to heart work or spirit worlds or anything, but, well… you know. But honestly, I could see the appeal. He talked some and read some passages from his books and a few poems he wrote, and lo-and-behold, he’s a fantastic writer. Good enough that if you were a writer yourself, you might find yourself thinking hell’s bells. And he didn’t try to whip us into a frenzy. He wasn’t trying to convince anyone of anything. He was just offering what he had to offer in an unassuming way. It was very endearing.
What did he have to offer? A lot, way more than I can remember. Except one thing, something pretty obvious, I guess, but still: Not something I’d thought much about (a well-provisioned category, this one). “Remember,” he said, toward the end of his talk. He widened his eyes just a bit. “Remember how rare it is that you are even here.” He didn’t mean “here” as in in this room. He meant “here” as in here. The big “here.”
The first thing I thought was Rare: Like steak.
The second thing I thought was Damn: He’s right.
May 24, 2015 § 40 Comments
Last night I dreamed I was driving, and it was strangely thrilling in that way dreams can heighten the senses, transform the mundane into something novel. A little-traveled gravel road, an unfamiliar car, the sense of speed amplified by my sub-conscious, the metronomic ping of small stones against the rocker panels, dervish of dust in my wake. Destination undetermined, but anticipated.
I drove until I awoke (perhaps that was my destination: Wakefulness), and when I did it was not fully light and below freezing, so I started a fire in the cook stove and made coffee, before walking down the field to retrieve Pip’s day old bull calf, Bilbo. I’d spotted him, barely, from the kitchen window. The little beggar had squeezed through a gap in the barn gate. He’s a beauty, a Shorthorn/Jersey/British White cross, a little half moon of snow white under each eye.
I’ve been thinking lately about contentment and what, exactly, is compelling us to move. Because we love this place and our work here. We have no particular expectations for how our lives will change; this is not about the realization of a long-held ambition, or a belief (which would probably be naïve, anyhow) that this transition will shift something, fulfill a resolution or fill a void. The funny thing is – and I’ve mentioned this before – the moment we realized we’d be perfectly content staying put was the moment we felt liberated to pull this off. I realize that might not make any sense, but that’s ok. The older I get, the less logic seems to matter.
Speaking strictly for myself, I am at the moment held in thrall of the challenge, which is not to say there are not other moments I don’t question the wisdom of it. Don’t get me wrong – there are pragmatic reasons for the move, but in truth, there are also pragmatic reasons to not move, to stay right here, in this place, never more enticing than now, the grass at its annual peak of lushness, the pond still clinging to its winter cold. You jump and when you land, your breath catches hard. A beeline to the shore, clamber out, shake it off, dress. Renewal.
So, no, I don’t expect to be any more (and hopefully not less!) content in our new, yet-to-be-built home. I do not expect to be fundamentally changed by the transition, and after all, it’s not like we’re moving to New York City. Or even New Hampshire, for that matter. Eleven miles due north, that’s all. It’s not much. I could leave now, on foot, and be there by dinner, and that’s with stopping for a nap along the way, which of course I would do. I know exactly where, too. I’ve got it all suss’d out.
In some ways, I suppose it’s a bit of an experiment: Can we do this? But then, I already know the answer: Of course we can. It’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel, here. Plenty of people have done what we’re doing, and under far more challenging circumstances. We’re not unique; this is not some great hardship, particularly with all the good people we have helping us. We’re incredibly fortunate that way. Otherwise, I’m not sure we pull this off. Wouldn’t be half as much fun, anyway.
Maybe it’s enough that we’re enjoying ourselves, and in the process, stretching a bit. Strategizing how to pare down our belongings and then actually paring them. Figuring out how to fit our lives into half the space – certainly not a tiny house (and when’s that bubble gonna pop, anyway? I’m predicting a whiplash reversal in 2017, the market suddenly flooded with 200-square-foot shacks at pennies on the dollar, their former owners, suffering acute claustrophobia, fleeing to the suburban McMansions they once scorned. Hell, you can buy 5 of them, stick them together, knock out a few Lilliputian walls, and you’ll have yourself a livable space) – but still: Half the size of our current home. Determining which comforts we’ll retain and which will go. Penny wants just a hand pump in the house, no pressure tank, no faucet, no hot water but what can be heated in pots atop the wood stove. Why, I asked her the other day. I don’t want all that stuff, she said. It just breaks eventually. It just needs to be replaced. I thought about it for a moment. Fine, I said. If you do all the dishes. She didn’t reply, but I’m predicting running water. Generally speaking, I don’t believe in radical, transformative change absent crisis or catastrophe (and in many cases, not even then). I think that for all the New Year’s resolutions, all the grand promises people make to themselves to do this or quit that or start something new, the majority of change in our lives happens slowly, incrementally. Imperceptibly, even.
Maybe, then, that’s ultimately what this move is about: It’s a piece of our slow march toward an even quieter life. Despite the near term bustle of the physical transition and all it entails, it feels as if we’re winding our lives down a notch or two. One could view this as a sign of decline, I suppose, an unambitious glide path into the second half. When I was a boy, my father used to make what he called “coaster cakes,” the pancakes he half-cooked on the cooling pan after he’d prematurely extinguished the burner to save money. They weren’t bad. A little slimy in the middle is all.
So maybe that’s what we’re doing: Coasting until we’re done. Or (and admittedly, this is my preferred view) one could see it as incremental evolution, as our awareness of how little we really need sharpens, shaping our lives in ways we have yet to imagine. I’d like to say it’s like that dream I had: Destination undetermined and yet anticipated, but that’s not true. We already know how this ends. It’s not if we’ll get there, it’s how we’ll get there.
Which I suppose is exactly why it’s so damn much fun to be alive in the first place.
May 21, 2015 § 20 Comments
Almost every day I intend to break my silence here (break my silence, hear? Heh. Aren’t words fun?), but I seem incapable of diverting my attention from the world beyond my office for long enough to write anything substantive. I’m rolling with it for now, though struggling a bit with a sense of obligation, both to my readers but also to the practice of writing itself. I tell myself I should feel obliged to neither, but like most folks, I don’t always listen to my own best advice. This might explain why I am at this very moment listening to a classic live Maiden concert, puffing on a cigarillo, and enjoying the the mild disorientation of my second post-breakfast whisky.
Oh, well: One out of three ain’t bad.
It is remarkable how fluidly the days pass and how good it feels to be spending so much time out-of-doors, exerting myself in one manner or another. It is a reminder to me that all the blathering I do about the value of honest labor and a connection to the land and a sense of agency over one’s own well-being and blah, blah, freakin’ blah is a poor substitute for the work itself, and I am reminded of one of my favorite lines from Hayden Carruth’s poem Marshall Washer:
Unconsciously I had taken friendship’s measure
from artists elsewhere who had been close to me,
people living for the minutest public dissection
of emotion and belief. But more warmth was,
and is, in Marshall’s quiet “hello” than in all
those others and their wordiest protestations,
more warmth and far less vanity.
I’m sure I’ve quoted this before, though hopefully it was sufficiently long ago that you’ve all forgotten and therefore won’t hardly notice the repetition. But even if you do, perhaps you will (like me) appreciate the reminder that good work done in relative silence and anonymity is something the world could probably use a whole lot more of.
May 13, 2015 § 40 Comments
I turned the cows out to pasture this morning. It’s a bit earlier than ideal – the grass could use a few more days of growth before subjecting it to the insatiable appetites of our cloven-hooved beasts. For a brief moment I weighed this truth against the knowledge that if I didn’t turn them out, I’d have to retrieve one of our two remaining unwrapped round bales from the haymow of Melvin’s barn, necessitating a run down the road on the tractor. At the time of my calculating, it was 50 and raining and already I was a bit chilled due to underdressing for morning chores.
So you see: Sometimes laziness prevails.
A couple folks asked about our sawmill, so I thought I’d riff on that for a few minutes before suiting up and heading back outside to actually use the darn thing. We got our mill a few years back, inheriting it from a dear friend who died unexpectedly. We previously considered purchasing a mill, but as anyone who’s actually priced them knows, they are not cheap. New, you’d be looking at about $8k to get something that has some serious function; there are less expensive mills on the market, but if you’re sawing any quantity of lumber, they’re likely to disappoint. (By-the-by, I have no experience with the chainsaw-powered Alaskan mills, but if you’re on a budget, they might be a good option).
Anyway. The mill we inherited is a SMG, which is made up ta Quebec. It’s a basic push bandsaw mill, which means that a) I have to push it down the length of the log (fancier mills run on hydraulics) and b) it cuts with a bandsaw blade. I can cut logs up to a bit more than 17-feet long and 30-inches in diameter, which is about as big a log as I can safely handle. Bigger just gets too heavy and generally unwieldy for a feeb like myself.
So, here’s how it works: I drop the log on the mill tracks and make the first cut. Then, using my trusty cant dog, I flip it 90-degrees and make another cut. Do that twice more, and I have what’s known as a “cant,” which is simple a squared-off log that’s ready to be cut into dimensional lumber. Once I’ve got my cant, I take measurements and figure out the thriftiest way to reduce it into useable lumber in the proper dimensions.
Depending on quality of my logs, sawing lumber is either incredibly productive or an exercise in frustration. I’ve got enough experience by now to know that there’s a real sweet spot for the log size – anything smaller than about 10” in diameter means a lot of handling for relatively little material, while anything bigger than about 24” in diameter means a lot of struggling to maneuver. Species matters, too: I love me some good balsam fir, which cuts like butter. Spruce, on the other hand, has a wicked tight grain, which means I’ve gotta go real slow with the mill, or the blade will dive and I’ll end up with “wavy” edges. Hemlock is just hemlock: Cuts easy enough, but heavy as all tarnation and not really the best stuff to build with, as it’s prone to twisting and cracking. Pine’s not bad; we just don’t have much of it.
On a good day, I can saw 1,000 board feet working alone (this assumes Penny hasn’t made a fresh batch of cookies or doughnuts, events that necessitate frequent “rest” breaks and thus put a real dent in productivity). ‘Round these parts, that’s about $600 worth of rough cut lumber, though of course the actual sawing is only part of the equation, because of course I had to drop the trees and get them to the mill in the first place. Roughly, I’d say I’m earning somewhere ‘round $35 – $40/hour to saw our lumber, which sounds real good until you account for depreciation of machinery and the associated hazards, both of which are not inconsequential.
Still, there’s one huge benefit to sawing our own lumber, beyond the obvious cost savings: I can saw pretty much anything I need, whenever I need it, saving me the time and hassle of driving down to the local mill for, say, a half-dozen 2 x 6’s. Assuming I have the raw materials on hand, I can probably saw a half-dozen 2 x 6’s faster than I can drive to purchase them. Actually, I can probably saw a couple dozen 2 x 6’s faster than I can drive to purchase them.
So there’s that. And there’s also the fact that sawing is some of the most rewarding work I do around here. If you’ve been hanging ‘round these parts for any length of time, you know I get a wicked kick out of transforming raw materials into the building blocks of my family’s well being, and in this regard, our sawmill has few equals. For that reason alone, if you have the means and inclination (and a woodlot… a woodlot really helps!), I’d highly recommend one.
If any of you have specific questions, I’ll do my best to answer them in the comments.
May 11, 2015 § 15 Comments
The transition in the weather this spring was as sudden and complete as any I can recall. Already, after only two weeks warmth and sun, the long, hard winter is a faded, forgiven thing, an event worth retelling but not belaboring or begrudging. It’s gone, over, kaput, worn out, as worthy of our attention as the announcement of yet another presidential hopeful. Now it’s leafing trees and slowing emerging apple blossoms, the cows eyeing the lengthening pasture grass from the confines of their fenced paddock. Onions planted. Potatoes, too. Peas well established. My face is tanned and my forearms are stained with softwood pitch from the lumber I’ve been sawing daily. I sawed nearly 1,500 board feet over the past two days, an accomplishment that doesn’t quite justify bragging, which is why I’m sneaking it in at the end of this paragraph, pretending it worthy of only this passing mention. Still, it’s a nice pile of lumber. Fir, mostly, but a bit of spruce and the odd stick of hemlock. I’m guessing I’m approaching 4,000 board feet total, with about another 1,000-feet of logs left to go. I could probably finish in a day if I wasn’t such a lazy sack. I like to look at the piles of sawlogs and stacks of sawn lumber and imagine them as a house. It takes a pretty good imagination, though, and sometimes I can’t quite pull it off. To be entirely honest, sometimes it just looks like a big ole mess. And a shitload of work.
I was driving yesterday and heard some stuff on the radio. First, I heard this. Then, I heard something about Bernie, which reminded me that the first house Bernie lived in when he moved to Vermont is right across the road from our land. It’s a modest place, a little red cape that looks like it’s been there a good while. It’s not the sort of place you imagine a presidential candidate owning; then again, Bernie’s not exactly the sort of dude you imagine running for president. The folks who live there now are real nice. He’s a carpenter; I think she might be retired, but I’m not sure. They’re a bit older than us. “It’s nice to have some kids in the neighborhood,” she said the other day. Heh. We’ll see how she feels a year from now.
I got nothing profound for you today (I know, I know: Nothing new there). Wait a sec: Listen to this. I think that qualifies as profound, no? Damn. Dude’s got what it takes and then some. The boys don’t know it, but I’m thinking of taking them to see him play this week.
Oh yeah: me n’ Heather have something cookin’. I think that’s gonna be pretty cool.