Doesn’t Happen Every Day

April 4, 2014 § 7 Comments


Yesterday, I collected 21 eggs from 19 hens which, if my math is correct, means there were two more eggs than we have chickens. There is no surer sign of spring than getting more eggs than you have chickens.

This morning at 7, Rye and I pulled the sap gathering sled down to the big maples. It was 20-degrees and our boots left only the faintest sign of our passing in the frozen snow. We could walk anywhere without punching through. Because we could, we ran in big loops. We jumped up and down and still we didn’t punch through. There wasn’t as much sap as I’d hoped – the trees are taking their time loosening up after the deep cold – so we left the sled and buckets down the field for later and raced back to the house. I went inside and Rye got out his bike and took off across Melvin’s field atop the snow, which is still at least 18-inches deep. Like riding on water. I should’ve gotten on my bike too, but I didn’t.

We’re about halfway through the first boil. We fired up our little rig yesterday and I fixed a broken extension cord so we run power to the blower we prop up in the opening of the ash clean out door. We’re gonna make us some syrup this year. Not as much as last year, I’m certain of that, but some. A few gallons, anyway.

I guess it was a hard winter. I read it was the coldest March on record. I read it was the second coldest February-March on record. There was a period when it felt hard to me. That was a few weeks ago, when the boys were sour and sat around listlessly flipping through their trapping catalogs and books, reading and rereading. When he wasn’t scheming the future demise of fur bearers, Fin wore his electric guitar, playing along unplugged to an endless loop of Waylon Speed. He is developing a decent ear. I’m glad for that.

We didn’t go anywhere this year. We don’t go anywhere any years, though during that same period a few weeks back when winter felt hard, we fantasized a bit about where we’d go if we did go, even as we knew we wouldn’t. Couldn’t, really, given the associated expense and all the complications of leaving this place. I know it’s stupid, but there’s a part of me that’s a little proud of sticking it out, as if I were some rugged pioneer on the plains, huddled around the stove gnawing stale wheaten cakes with my malnourished family. But still: The coldest March on record and we were here for every friggin’ 10-below morning of it, milking bare handed in the open-sided barn, flipping the metaphorical bird to that vast, unrelenting mass of arctic air. And believe you me, it was a metaphorical raised middle finger, if only because our hands were too damn cold to raise it for real.

So here we are. We made it, by gum. Enough firewood, though just barely. Enough hay, though just barely. The sap is running, though just barely. It’ll start running hard real soon. Tray upon tray of seedlings, little emblems of faith in our future on this land. The animals all fat and sleek. My stupid, small-minded pride at having stuck it out for the entirety of another winter, and a real one, at that. 21 eggs from 19 hens.

And me and my boy walking on water. That sure doesn’t happen every day.



First Gather

April 2, 2014 § 20 Comments


I arrived home at 3-ish yesterday afternoon, strung out from the juxtaposed sensations of hurtling through the sky and the physical stagnation necessitated by air travel. Leaving the small bubble of my life is always shocking; one could forget (as I do) what has happened to wide swaths of America’s landscape, and particularly those swaths extending from our urban centers. Traveling for dozens of miles past a seemingly endless array of convenience stores, fast food franchises, chain hotels, and shopping centers, the traffic an equally endless flow of color, sound, and smell is not something I experience very often.

I can never help but wonder what used to exist in these places, what sort of plants and animals have been displaced by our need for discount electronics, premium unleaded, and 99-cent cheeseburgers. And I cannot help but believe that over time the body and mind eventually become if not immune, than at least inured to this landscape of endless commerce and concrete until one no longer thinks about what might once have lived in these places. And if no one thinks of such things, no one cares of such things, and no one is forced to confront one’s own role in the tragedy unfolding just beyond their windshield. Or perhaps it’s just that one no longer sees any hope for one’s own survival outside the teeming mess of it all. To some extent or another, we’re all complicit. We’re all dependent.

Enough of that. It was good to pull back down our driveway, which is still covered in snow and ice, though finally thawing a bit under the high sun. Within a half-dozen minutes of exiting the car, I’d shucked my one set of presentable other-world clothes and donned my usual shit-stained garb and had embarked on evening chores which, in my excitement to be sprung free of vehicular travel, I began approximately two hours earlier that normal. But this was good, for it allowed me to finish by four, which furthermore allowed me a solid hour-and-a-half of bucking and splitting firewood before dinner. Three minutes in, and I was down to a tee shirt. Given the still abundant snow-pack, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but spring has begun in earnest.

This morning, I gathered the season’s first sap, pulling the utility sled down Melvin’s field to the big maples that define our shared boundary. Our little sugaring operation is an absurdity, really: We hang about 65 buckets, and the most productive trees are more than a quarter mile away, necessitating the hauling of hundreds upon hundreds of gallons of sap across the sags and hummocks of Melvin’s hay field. This year will be more challenging than usual, given the snowpack, and if I’m to be entirely honest, there comes a point every sugaring season – generally when I’ve slipped and fallen while pulling 150-pounds worth of sap and am powerless to halt the sled or cart (precisely which depends on how much snow is on the ground) as it slides backward under it’s own power, retreating across all those precious inches of effort I’ve just expended – when I seriously question the wisdom of it all.

But this morning I did not slip, and the sun felt good on my face, and Rye walked behind me, keeping an eye on the full buckets in the sled in case they began to lean. And though I guess it was sort of hard, and though we’d gathered only enough sap for a pint, maybe a pint-and-a-half of syrup, and though the whole process had taken more time that I felt as if I could spare, and certainly more time that anyone could reasonably consider worth expending on a pint of syrup, never mind that we still had to actually make the stuff, the memory of pavement and speed and all the things that don’t exist anymore was still thick in my head.

You know what? I was grateful for that. I really was. Because it reminded me of what’s really absurd, and I’m pretty sure it’s not my son and me, trudging across a Vermont hayfield on a morning in early April, the muscles in my shoulders pulled taut by the weight of sap and sled, little beads of sweat rising on my forehead.

And then Rye started pushing on the back of the sled, and we really made some ground.

No Safety Card

March 31, 2014 § 14 Comments

Morning chores

Morning chores

I flew down to PA yesterday for a talk I’m doing relating to my first book, and as always when I fly (which is fairly infrequently, thank goodness), I marveled at the whole process and how demeaning it has become. Partly it’s the security, of course, but even more so, it’s the way you can spend an entire day inside mechanical boxes, inhaling stale air, and drinking too much coffee in a futile attempt to thwart the narcotizing effect of it all: The machines, the weird smells, the sense of being herded at every juncture. Sometimes it occurs to me that an awful lot of people spend an awful lot of their lives in just such environments, and that makes me sad.

When I fly, I am never quite sure what to do during the pre-flight safety instructions. Is it rude to not pick up the safety card and read along, as requested? But if I did, I’d be the only one doing so, and since I’m already out of my element and feeling a bit insecure, do I really want to be the guy who’s actually reading about how “in the unlikely event of a water landing” I should calmly slide my arms into the straps along the bottom of my seat cushion, which conveniently doubles as a flotation device? Besides, once you start adding up all the “unlikely’s”: The water landing (unlikely), the surviving the water landing (very unlikely), the getting out of the plane before it sinks (not-exactly-likely), the not going hypothermic in a handful of minutes (are you kidding?), and so on, you start to realize how futile it all its, how it all boils down to the rude truth that you’re either going to make it to your destination or you’re going to die. I mean, is there really a chance in hell I’m going to end up floating in some body of water, my seat cushion strapped to my rapidly numbing body, thinking to myself thank goodness I read the safety card, while all around me the bodies of my traveling companions – who didn’t read the card – sink to their shared murky grave? Talk about unfriggin’likely.

I guess everyone else figured this all out a long time ago, which is why they don’t bother to read those safety cards, either. Or maybe they’ve just realized that if they actually read about all the unlikely things that can happen, they’d never get on another plane in their life.

•       •       •

I am currently reading over what’s known as the “first pass” pages of Home Grown; these are the edited pages laid out as they will be in the book. My instructions are to correct egregious errors only; it is too late for substantial changes to the text.

I don’t know about other writers, but this is the point at which I generally experience a bit of panic regarding my work. I have read it so many times that I have lost all context. Is it good? Maybe. Is it bad? Seems possible. Is it good in places and bad in others? Could be. Will I be mocked and derided when the book finally comes out? Probably not, although there are moments when it feels as if there can no other outcome.

It’s funny business, putting out a book. Part of me wishes it didn’t take so long, so I didn’t have so much time to second-guess myself. And part of me wishes it took much longer, so I could keep changing and tweaking and cutting and so on, which, given enough time, I’d probably keep doing until I got the whole thing down to a sentence or two. I’d call it a poem and my old man, who actually is a poet, would never let me hear the end of it after all the years I’ve been heckling him about writing poetry.

I guess writing a book is sort of like most things in life: At some point (and for me, that point is approximately now) you have to let go. At some point you have to trust that you’ve done the best you can do, and it’ll all work out just fine. Because there’s no safety card for writing books. And that’s probably a good thing, because of course the only way to make writing books truly safe is to not do it at all.

Funny how many things are like that, huh?


That’s What I’m Talking ‘Bout

March 28, 2014 § 4 Comments

Loyal. When it suits her.

Loyal. When it suits her.

I’ll be away early next week. In the meantime, enjoy.

To Be of Use

By Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

From Circles on the Water (1982), by Alfred A. Knopf

Planned Relevance

March 27, 2014 § 16 Comments

Seeding time. Check the snow against the hoop house!

Exhibit A: Basket being useful. Check the snow against the hoop house!

A couple nights ago we pulled our butt-sprung couch up to the computer and sunk ourselves down into its pile of worn, torn, and forlorn cushions. Penny propped up her worn, torn, and forlorn appendage in all its raw and glistening glory, and we watched a short documentary I’d heard about a ways back called The Lightbulb Conspiracy.

In short, the film is about planned obsolescence, and one of the first documented efforts to engineer planned obsolesce into consumer products. As you’ve probably figured out by now that effort, coordinated by numerous manufacturers in the late 1920′s, was aimed at light bulbs. Apparently, many of the early bulb designs had a fatal flaw: They lasted too long. And because they lasted too long, they did not need frequent replacement. And because they did not need frequent replacement, consumers didn’t do what consumers are expected to do in the post industrial revolution economy: Consume. Or consume enough, at least.

As the movie documents, what happened to lightbulbs – which was to cut their lifespan by more than half – happened to numerous products over the years. Appliances. Textiles. Electronics, certainly. Still, perhaps the most profound example of planned obsolescence is the planned obsolescence of manipulated emotion. The vast majority of consumer waste is generated not because something wears out or is broken (although there’s plenty of that, too), but because the buyer simply wants something newer. This desire – one that is entirely fabricated by the consortium of mass media and the social pressures this messaging gives rise to – can be seen across a broad spectrum of industries, perhaps most notably fashion and technology.

Anyway. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized how perfectly the planned obsolescence of consumer products dovetails with something Penny and I have been talking about a whole bunch recently: Usefulness. I’ve written in this space about how important it is for children to feel useful, and about how enabling our sons to feel this way as often and much as possible is a defining motivation for our decision to allow them to learn at home. But just recently, and perhaps not inconsequential to the fact that I’ve lately been spending the bulk of my days at my desk and therefore not engaged with the land as much as I’ve become accustomed to,  I’ve been struck by my own need to feel useful. And by “useful” I mean in a hands-dirty, sweat-streaked way. I mean with muscles and soil and wood and plants and pigs. I mean real work, not this highbrow pontificating-by-keyboard.

Exhibit A: Boy being useful

Exhibit B: Boy being useful

Anyway. This got me thinking about something I’d written in an early draft of Home Grown. For reasons that escape me now, I’d discarded it. Maybe because it’s not actually all that good, although reading it now, I think it’s at least fair-to-middlin’. Hell, I don’t know why I got rid of it. Maybe it just didn’t fit. But anyway, here it is, incomplete and unedited. But that’s ok, and besides, the same could be said of pretty much everything I write here. And it is relevant to subject of planned obsolescence, because I think feeling tangibly useful is the humanized antidote to planned obsolescence.

In a sense, being useful is planning for our own relevance, and I like that idea a whole lot.

Oh, and watch that flick. It’s worth an hour of your time.

There are many reasons to work the land. There is the real food one can grow, and the sense of vitality that comes of it. There is the luxury of honest labor and the strength of body and mind that results. There are the animals and the pleasure of their company, which is no small thing, itself. 

But above all, there is the satisfaction and soft pride inherent to feeling capable. Useful. And with that feeling, a sense of meaning and purpose and affection for all the tasks that foster it. Because I believe that one must feel useful if one’s life is to have meaning. I also believe that it’s becoming harder and harder to feel useful in this world; amidst all of the smoothed over edges and polished surfaces of modern world first world society, one must claim their usefulness. It’s a claim worth making.

When people ask us about our practices and techniques, I often wonder if that’s what they’re really searching for: A way to feel useful. Relevant. Connected. I think that these good people, many of whom have spent a portion of their adult lives in work that does not satisfy them, understand that the reason for their dissatisfaction is simple. This understanding may not take the shape of intellectual knowing; it may take the shape of a desire to grow and eat real food, or to swing a splitting maul, or to build something, or simply to walk barefoot down the aisle of their garden in cool, early hour before the sun is high and fierce. It may even take the shape of fear that the modern industrial economy stands at the brink of crisis and that returning to the land and a simpler way of life is not so much a choice, as a necessity. Not merely for human survival, but for the survival of all the wild beings and places we hold sacred.  

Exhibit C, for Eumaeus: A woman named Penny, having been useful, has made her own shoes

Exhibit C, added for Eumaeus’s benefit: A woman named Penny, having been useful, has made her own shoes


Thanks For the Post

March 26, 2014 § 14 Comments



I’d just been thinking I had nothing much to say; the days are sort of morphing into one another in their snowbound sameness. Me rising at 5:30 to settle by the fire, nurse a coffee and bang out 1,000 or so words on the book before the rest of the family stirs, Penny thumping down the stairs in a hoppity way necessitated by her misadventure with the water pot, then out to chores while my wife irrigates and redresses her wounds, then breakfast, then back to the desk until lunch, then lunch, then back to the desk, then chores, then reading, then sleep. Crikey, it’s almost like I have a real job. Truth is, I’m sort of enjoying it; the style and content of this book is so different than anything I’ve done before, and for the first time it’s a truly collaborative effort, because as anyone who knows us understands, the primary reservoir of knowledge and experience on this homestead is not me. Pains me to admit it, but I am if nothing else committed to truth. Except when I’m not.

Anyhow. Here I was thinking I’d skip another day of posting, and then remembering all the generosity that’s flowed in this direction over the past couple weeks and with it a certain sense of obligation which I’d very much planned to avoid but what can I say? I’m only human. And then, this:

When you say “unschooled” what, exactly, do you mean? Do you mean something along the lines of child-directed learning (ie teach them things as they express interest?) If they never express interest in something, does that mean you won’t teach it to them? Is it possible that they’ll come to their 20-something years not knowing multiplication and division? And is this fine with you?
I’m not making judgements, just curious as to what your stance here is. Will these types of questions be covered in your book?

Ah, perfect. A question that pretty much writes the post for me! More, please!

So, first thing, yes, these questions are covered extensively in my upcoming book which, unless things change unexpectedly, is to be titled Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting Off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting With Nature.

But quickly, I will say that we consider unschooling to be child-directed, adult-facilitated learning. The facilitated part is key, you know. As I’ve written before, unschooling in this family does not simply mean leaving the boys to their own devices, come hell or high water. There’s plenty of that, sure, but the greater truth is that we are often helping them get a project started, or ferrying them to their trapline, or arranging days with one of their mentors, or… you get the picture. Unschooling, at least the way we do it, is not for the lazy, although I sometimes wish it were.

Regarding whether or not we expose (I tend to steer clear of the word “teach” probably because I’ve always hate being “taught.” It feels passive to me and furthermore like something I’m being compelled to do. These are probably just my personal associations with the word, but to me, they’re real) them to subjects they show no interest in, it really depends on the subject. Like every unschooling family I know, we struggle a bit with math; neither Penny nor I are drawn to numbers, though we use basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division every day (and no calculators, by gum!).

But clearly, the fellas have gotta learn some math, so we have imposed a certain amount of number play upon them. They don’t like it, but if we couch it in the context of their interests, they generally acquiesce. Would it be fine with me if they never learned this stuff? No, not really. I mean, it’d be fine with me if they never learned calculus or even algebra; honestly, I can’t remember the last time I used even a wee bit of that stuff, and I’m still trudging along. I still understand that there are three types of people in this world: Those who understand math, and those who don’t. Also, I’m confident that if my boys ever needed advanced math skills as adults, they could learn them, but I don’t feel as if their lives will be unavoidably bereft if they don’t learn advanced math. But basic math is something they clearly need to know. It’s a means of communication, really.

The only other consistent minor struggle is hand-writing. They don’t like to write much, at least not the physical act of putting pen to paper (they very much love concocting elaborate stories verbally). They both can write, and they’re getting better at it, but they resist. Again, this is something we tackle in the context of their interests. For instance, they just wrote thank you notes to all the landowners who gave them access to their land for hunting and trapping. Their desire to express their thanks and (let’s be honest, here) maintain good relations prevailed over their distaste of the writing itself.

To sum it all up again. In this family, unschooling = self-directed, facilitated learning.

Thanks for the question, Rina. Heck, thanks for the post!



Might as Well Laugh

March 25, 2014 § 27 Comments

It's crow season. Pretty tasty, but a little tough

It’s crow season. Pretty tasty, but a little on the tough side

My recent short absence from this space owes itself to a couple of factors. First, I’ve shifted into git r’ dun mode in relation to my forthcoming book with Chelsea Green. It’s like a meaty bone in my mouth, that project, and I’m gnawing like I ain’t been fed in weeks. I’m closing in on a complete first draft, and as a writer, that’s a fun place to be. Well, it’s a fun place to be if things are coming together as hoped, which in this case they thankfully are, though I suppose there’s still plenty of time for things to go to shit, so I’d be wise to shut my self-satisfied yap right now.

Actually, just a few days ago we got a thorny little reminder of how quickly things can go awry (this being the other factor relating to my absence from this space). Just a day or two after I waxed poetic about the return of consistent hot water, we had a couple cloudy days during which we used up the cook stove hot water on dishes and what not. Therefore, Penny, who desired  (and certainly deserved) a hot bath, found herself lugging a five-gallon stock pot of near-to-boiling water up the stairs, bound for the tub. You can perhaps see where this is going, which is to a place of spillage and a large swath of melted-off skin along her right thigh. I was gonna post a pic of it, but truthfully, I don’t want to upset anyone. It’s real gnarly, multiple square inches of  red and oozing leg meat. The pain is quite intense, and that’s just the pain I feel when I fail to avert my eyes in time and my gaze happens to fall across it.

So P’s hobbling, and I’m on for all chores and other physical endeavors, at least for the next day or two. And the boys are bickering a lot, all het up with cabin fever and pining for warmer days. And I’ve got this book deadline bearing down and it’s real freaking cold  (ten below! In late March! That’s the real deal right there, folks) and yesterday just for giggles I went for a little walk in the woods: In many places, the snow came right on up and snuggled my crotch. That is some serious snow pack, my friends.

The other day I was walking up from dropping off the truck at Doug’s (the plow is still acting up, sadly) and I ran into Melvin coming from picking up a round bale in his tractor. He stopped, and we chatted for a few minutes in the middle of the empty road. About things broken. About injuries. About the snow and cold and our respective waning stocks of hay and how in this weather, the cows just won’t stop eating and who knows when the pasture will be ready for grazing, anyway.

Then we shared a rueful chuckle about it all, and why not? Because if the choice is between laughing and not laughing, as the choice so often is, you might as well laugh.




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