Our Own Small Corners of the World

February 20, 2015 § 68 Comments

20 degrees. Above zero!

20 degrees. Above zero!

About 9,10, maybe even 11 years ago, we had a friend who got us real worried about the impending collapse of pretty much everything. His main concern was peak oil, followed in short order by the demise of the dollar, and not long after that, by the global warming-related havoc that was (is?) sure to come. I think there was also something in there about marauding Manhattanites.

I gotta be honest: He really had us fretting. Ok, well, so he really had me fretting; for the most part, Penny maintained her enviable equanimity. She’s just not one to relinquish her emotional well being to forces beyond her control, though it’s possible she got just a little nervous when the 2008 recession hit and oil went to $140/barrel and our friend, who’d invested heavily in gold way back when it was something like $300/ounce, was suddenly sitting on a whole lot of virtual dough and look real freakin’ smart. Meanwhile, we did the exact wrong thing, which was to flip out and convert our already-meager retirement savings to cash at very nearly the bottom of the market. (Actually, I’m no longer convinced this was the wrong thing to do, given the rapacious work of the corporations funded by our so-called investments. But still. Strictly from a financial perspective, it was a bone-headed move, albeit not without its compensations, since we now have so little in those accounts, we needn’t worry about what to do with it)

Anyhow. I digress. Our friend did many things to prepare for collapse. He got solar panels. He got cows. Bees. Planted lots of gardens. Built a real nice barn. I’m not sure what else, but it was a lot. He had some resources – not limitless, but not inconsequential, either – and then there was all that gold, which had quadrupled in value since he’d bought in.

We just sort of kept plugging along, doing what we’d been doing for the past dozen years or so. But I gotta tell you, I was pretty tweaked. This was well before the recession, by the way, back in the mid-2000’s, when the real estate market was still on a tear, and, from the perspective of the growth economy, everything was still coming up roses. But thanks to the wise counsel of our friend, I could see the truth: Everything was well and truly fucked. The ship was sinking, and only the strongest would survive. There simply wasn’t enough of anything – oil, money, water, food, fertilizer – for everyone.

Not surprisingly, my view of everything being in decline had a profound impact on how I perceived my surroundings; the more worried I became, the more I saw everything through the prism of scarcity, and the stingier I felt. I started having hoarding fantasies: Fuel, salt, batteries, chainsaw parts, ammo, Spinal Tap DVDs, basically anything I thought we couldn’t live without once the trucks stopped running and the real suffering set in. In hindsight, I can’t tell you how grateful I am that we didn’t have the money to actually carry out any of this tomfoolery (ok, so I did buy a big bag of salt, which we’re still using).

So what happened? I can’t really say. I guess at some point I just realized that I was becoming captive to my expectation of collapse, and in that regard, I was actually collapsing myself. I don’t mean that literally. Or maybe I do. Because I think that once you begin to embody your feelings and perceptions of the world around you, you become those feelings and perceptions, and those feelings and perceptions in turn begin to influence the world around you. I think that’s what’s commonly referred to as a “vicious cycle.” I guess what I’m saying is the same thing I said a while back: The feelings we bring to the world are the feelings the world brings to us. Because when you think about it, what, really, is the difference between “us” and “the world”?

Will our economy collapse? Maybe. Probably. Will the waters of the Atlantic someday flow down Wall Street? Could be. Will I someday wish I’d figured out a way to fill our basement with sea salt and that super-soft quilted toilet paper I’m partial to? Perhaps. Really, who the hell knows. Certainly, I don’t know. What I do know is that my emotional well-being is immeasurably better than it was a decade ago, at the height of my fretting. What I also know is that to live as we live for any other reasons than the simple pleasures of good food, honest work, the relationships it fosters, and the appreciation of this imperfect world’s amazing, almost infinite generosity would allow us to experience only a fraction of the joy this life has to offer.

And our friend? The cows are gone. The bees are gone. The solar panels are still there, but last time I saw them, they were buried under a thick blanket of snow. He’s still got the barn, of course, but the gardens have pretty much gone by the wayside. I haven’t talked to him in a while, so I don’t know if he still worries about collapse or not. Probably he does. I mean, in some ways, you’d sort of have to be crazy not to, right? The writing’s all over the wall.

But here’s the thing. I think that when you begin to embody an understanding that the way you think, act, and perceive the world is a reflection of the world you wish to inhabit, you erase just a little bit of that writing. When you stop viewing yourself as being separate from your surroundings, from the people and the plants and the animals, you erase just a little bit of that writing.

This doesn’t mean we can magically wish away all the tragedy in this world and all the forces underlying all the collapse scenarios I used to worry about. That doesn’t mean we should stop protesting the myriad injustices against people and planet; I’m not saying it’s all good, man, party on. It just means it’s worth pausing a moment to recognize and acknowledge the role our own thoughts and emotions play in feeding these tragedies and injustices. Not directly, of course (or at least, hopefully not), but from a distance, filtered through the prism of our own small lives, in our own small corners of the world.


On Kids and Kutting

February 18, 2015 § 30 Comments

If this boy had a knife, he could defend himself against that damn chicken

If this boy had a knife, he could defend himself against that damn chicken

Six below zero this morning. Nice to have a warm spell. Better yet, the high branches of the big maples demarcating our southern boundary are motionless, the stilled  blades of the windmill etched in perfect relief against the bluing sky. It must sound ridiculous to suggest that you can feel the approach of spring on a six-below morning, but it’s true. It’s not so much the temperature, but the certain angle of the sun from all the familiar vantage points of my morning routine: The cow paddock fence, the chicken house, the pig snuggery, then back to the house to fry the bacon, scramble the eggs.

From the left-most window above the kitchen sink, I can just see the cows. They are bent to their morning ration of hay, the early sun falling across their broad, furred backs. You know what the best smell in the world is? It’s the smell of cow in the sun on a morning like this, right after you’ve nicked the sisal twine on a bale of first cut. The bales are bound so tight you can actually hear them expanding upon release, the exhale of the dried grasses moving against one another.

•    •    •

Hell bells. I guess we should start a school, eh? (Oh, wait, I guess we sort of are). Anyway, it’s fun to see everyone get all fired up about it.

In the spirit of the Friggin’ School (that’s the revised name of the school we’re not starting), and because I’ve gotten a few questions about kids and knives over the years, I thought I’d talk a bit about our experiences.

First things first, you gotta get a decent knife. Not just for your kid(s), but for yourself. We’re real partial to the knives offered by Ragweed Forge. For new knife users, check out the Mora #611 with the single blade guard. You might think the double blade guard would be safer, but it makes it impossible to use a thumb against the back edge of the blade, which greatly reduces cutting edge control in many situations. We also like the Craftline Allaround (#11999) for general purpose work. The nice thing about Mora knives is that they’re real inexpensive, but of relatively high quality. They take and hold an edge very well. Probably the best cutting value out there, at least that we’re aware of.

Second, get yourself a good stone. Actually, get two, because you need both coarse and fine grits. We have both diamond and regular stones. For whatever reason, we can’t make the diamond stones work nearly as well for us, but some people love ‘em. If it were me, I’d order the soft and hard Arkansas stones at the link above, as well as a handful of the ceramic sticks, which are awesome for quick in-the-field honing. There’s a real art to sharpening, which we’re still learning, and which, if the class weren’t full-to-freakin’-capacity, you could learn at our upcoming workshop. But we’ll hold another workshop soon, or better yet, find an old-timer in your community to show you the ropes.

In terms of actually getting your kids started, a lot of it depends on their individual temperaments. We started our boys at 4, and we allowed them to carry their knives on their belts at all times, with the understanding that they’d be unsheathed only in our presence. Honestly, for our boys, I think a lot of the appeal was simply being trusted with the knives in the first place, and we were confident that they wouldn’t use them when we weren’t around (if they did actually use them when we weren’t around, we’re not aware of it, which of course makes it ok). You’ll have to take measure of your children’s temperaments and your confidence/tolerance for risk before determining your own knife rules.

For the first year, the boys didn’t do much but whittle sticks to nothing. I vividly remember Fin whittling stick after stick after stick to the point that it was nothing but a pile of shavings and the whole routine looked to me like a big ole waste of time. But of course it wasn’t, and after about a year, his knife work started to look as if it had a purpose. And it was at about this time – after a year of supervised use only – that we liberated them to work with their knives beyond our immediate view. Again, you’ll have to determine your own comfort level, here.

Cuts. Yeah, there’s been a few. Right from the get go, we showed the boys how to wash their wounds and treat them with tea tree oil, where to find the bandages, and so on. Mostly, we tried to model the notion that a small flesh wound was nothing to get worked up about – wash it out, wrap it up, and get the frig on with it. It is my humble opinion that most parents make waaaay too much of their children’s minor injuries and illnesses.

But that’s probably just because I’m a cold-hearted SOB.

If I Ran the Friggin’ School

February 17, 2015 § 82 Comments

Still curious

Still curious

Last night, I noticed a spike in my traffic. Ever curious, I traced it to a comment someone had left on Mr Money Mustache. I’d never heard of the dude, but from my cursory examination of his blog, I’d probably like him. For instance, he’s big into badassity, which seems real similar to something we’re into. Furthermore, he writes with enviable cogence and wit about money and all things associated, albeit from the perspective of radically different lifestyle choices.

Indeed, the specific piece of his that prompted the comment linking to this space was about education, called “If I ran the school, things would be different,” and it got me thinking a bit this morning about what my school would look like, were I to be so naive as to embark upon such a venture. Which I’m not, so don’t worry: The children of America are safe from my nefarious influence. Well, all but two of them, anyway.

Without further ado, inspired by MMM, my version of “If I ran the school, things would be different,” which I have taken the liberty of retitling “If I ran the friggin’ school, you can better friggin’ believe things would be real friggin’ different. Got that?”

1. If I ran the school, incoming students aged 5 and above would be issued a fixed blade belt knife, a sharpening stone, and a box of bandages (We actually gave our boys knives at age 4, but I realize that’s maybe a wee outside most parents’ comfort zone). Why a fixed blade belt knife? Well, for one, because folding pocket knives are actually far more hazardous, and for two, because proper knife handling is one of the most liberating and useful skills a child can have. Why a sharpening stone? Because dull knives are dangerous knives. Why a box of bandages? Because hell yes, they are going to cut themselves, and being taught how to doctor their own wounds is yet another incredibly useful skill that almost no children learn these days.

2. If I ran the school, every classroom would have doors and windows that opened to the outdoors, and every bit of wall space that wasn’t comprised of doors and windows would be filled with books. Thin books, fat books, comic books, classic books. Books upon books upon books upon friggin’ books.

3. If I ran the school, classes would not be age-segregated, and younger students would likely spend as much – if not more – time learning from older students as they did from “teachers.”

4. If I ran the school, children would learn how to cook before they learned calculus. Actually, they’d start learning how to cook before they learned addition and subtraction. Actually, they’d learn addition and subtraction as they learned how to cook. Actually, they’d already have learned addition and subtraction while determining how much garden space they needed to grow the ingredients they’d use to feed themselves.

5. If I ran the school, students would spend more time outdoors than in. But you knew that.

6. If I ran the school, every child would learn how to use basic hand tools. They would use these tools to build a shelter in which they would spend the night. In winter.

7. If I ran the school, there would be lots and lots of toys in every room. These toys would look suspiciously like sticks, rocks, scraps of fabric, paper, paints, and other found objects. There would be no legos. There would be nothing that lit-up and beeped, unless the children were clever enough to make something that lit up and beeped. There would be none of these ridiculously overpriced natural wooden toys that any child with half a brain, the right tools, and the weeniest bit of facilitation can damn well make for themselves.

8. If I ran the school, there would be instruments in every room. Guitars, hand drums, and pretty much everything but accordions and nose flutes (don’t ask). These instruments would be inexpensive and well-used, so that no one would be tempted to tell the students to “be careful.” No one would say “don’t play it like that.”

9. If I ran the school, the primary economics text book would be Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred EconomicsThe primary history/sociology text books would be Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and My Ishmael . Meanwhile, the dangers of drug use, casual sex, and excessive rocking-the-fuck-out would be demonstrated via exposure to Motorhead and repeated viewings of the movie Lemmy.

10. If I ran the school, there would be a bicycle for every child. If the school I ran were in a four-season climate (and it would be, because I’m not moving out of a four-season climate just to run a school), there would be cross-country skis for every child.

11. If I ran the school, I would not talk about how my students are more likely to gain admittance to the college or university of their choosing than conventionally-schooled children, or about how the skills, curiosity, and resourcefulness my school engenders will make them more suited to the contemporary job market. Because while these things might well be true, they are not the point! 

Which is probably why my school would not be very large.






Each One’s Comfort Depending on the Other

February 16, 2015 § 43 Comments

Scraping a hide

Scraping a hide

I lay in the night listening to the wind and thinking that I should probably figure out what to do with the rest of my life. The wind was what had wakened me, gusting 30 mph or more, that thrumming rush of air, and the temperature had fallen to 15 below, and then there’s Penny with her confounded insistence on sleeping beneath a partially-opened window. I thought of closing it, but knew that would only wake her, and while I am generally the more selfish of the two of us, this does not preclude enduring minor suffering on her behalf, so I pulled the covers to my lower lip and allowed fretting over my future to usurp the small discomfort caused by the flow of frigid air across our bedroom.

It took me about a dozen minutes to determine that my future is no more or less certain than it was before the cold had pulled me from slumber, which is not to say that it’s particularly certain, but then again, it’s a degree of certainty (or lack thereof) I’ve lived with for nearly all my adult life, so why worry now? Still, I was not yet warm enough to recommence drooling into my pillow, so I started thinking about this story and what it says about our culture and these times.

And then, because at 2:15 (I knew the time because I’d descended to the clock-equipped kitchen to stoke the wood stove, and yes, I recognized well enough the folly of feeding the fire while my wife dozed under an open window), I was not of mind to fully grasp the implications, I thought of the piglets down in their shed. I’d taken them another bale of bedding hay just before we turned in – their eyes glinted in the beam of my headlamp, and they stood and leaned toward me expectantly – and I knew they’d nested deep for the night, each one’s comfort depending on the other.

There was something about the image I held of the pigs in their hay, coupled with that thought, indeed, that very phrase – each one’s comfort depending on the other – that slowed my mind. I could actually feel my thoughts decelerating. Softening.

I soon fell back to sleep.

The Body’s Task

February 13, 2015 § 18 Comments

New piglets. They're curious.

New piglets. They’re curious.

Ten below and the wind coming hard from the northwest. I am grateful for the impetus of chores, the ever-present needs of the fur and feather that draw us into the world beyond wall and window. Fin tends to the calves and fills the woodbox. Rye feeds and waters his goats. Penny milks. I move from cows, to chickens, to pigs, my routine made efficient by repetition, the thousands of chore times that have preceded this one.

There are mornings to dally, but this is not one of them, and barely 20 minutes after stepping outside,  blood rushing to my cheeks in defense against the wind-driven cold, I’m back indoors, sliding yet another log into the insatiable maw of the firebox. The woodshed’s looking skinny. We’ll get through one way or ‘nother, but it might involve some late-season scavenging.

The cold has been relentless. It’s been better than a month since the temperature has risen above the freezing mark, and the number of below-zero mornings has eclipsed any winter I can remember. The snow comes in repeating series of minor storms – four-inches, then six, then three, then eight – and because there have been no thaws, each accumulation adds to those that preceded it. We’ve been skiing nearly every day, running laps around our field and Melvin’s, occasionally venturing down into the woods, where we sink nearly to our knees. The depth of snow coaxes us down the steepest pitches, momentarily forgetting that what goes down must inevitably come up, and we return home sweat-wet and weary from the uphill slog.

Still, it is a welcome weariness. It is a reminder of the inherent pleasure of a body in motion, the good work of lung and muscle, the way the body’s task can free the mind.





A Long One

February 11, 2015 § 99 Comments

Morning chores

Morning chores

Back in high school I spent a lot of time with my friend Jim. Jim was a few years old than me. He had an old Saab he’d bought cheap and we liked to drive around listening to music and maybe smoking a little weed. I said “maybe” and “a little,” ok?

Anyway. Back then, we mostly listened to Rush. My favorite Rush album was (and remains) 2112. I guess you’d call 2112 a “concept” album, or at least the first half of it, which consists of an uninterrupted 20-minute expanse of music that tells of a dystopian future in which a commoner stumbles upon an acoustic guitar long after such instruments have been judged frivolous and thus jettisoned somewhere between now and then.

The lyrics begin like this:

“We’ve taken care of everything/the words you read the songs you sing/the pictures that give pleasure to your eye/It’s one for all and all for one/We work together common sons/never need to wonder how or why.” 

I liked 2112 so much, I think, because it fit my worldview at the time, which was largely oriented around an acute sense of disempowerment related primarily to my schooling. (It’s probably telling that another of my favorite songs was a Bad Brains number called The Regulator, a one-minute, seven-second hardcore punk riff on, well, being regulated). This is how I described my relationship to high school in Home Grown:

Did I hate school? Well, yes, I suppose so, but only in aggregate. There were elements of it I liked very much. For instance, I liked hanging out in the parking lot with my friends. That was a lot of fun, or at least, it fit my version of fun at the time. I liked Creative Writing, one of the few classes I rarely cut. I liked my physics class, not because I liked Physics (I flunked it, along with Algebra, Calculus, History, and French) but because Tom, my teacher, was something of an oddball. He smelled horrific, wearing the accumulation of his fetid perspiration like a badge of honor. But despite the odor, and despite my flailing half attempts to succeed in his class, there were compensations, such as the time he encouraged my friend Django and me to paint an old steel barrel with the international warning symbol for nuclear waste and leave it in a conspicuous place on school grounds. In no way could I discern how this had anything to do with physics.

“Why?” we asked him.

He raised his walrus-ian eyebrows into inverted V’s. “To see what happens,” he replied.

We jettisoned the barrel in a shallow depression at the edge of one of the playing fields, after which followed a sleepless night listening to the Bad Brains and fretting over the legal ramifications of creating counterfeit toxic waste. What special sort of wrath might the law reserve for a couple of sixteen-year-olds with an old barrel, a can of spray paint, and an ingrained sense of mischief? At two thirty a.m., in the lonely darkness of my childhood bedroom, my imagination ran toward long years of solitary confinement in the sort of juvenile facilities that are, at some point in the distant future, revealed to have been riddled with abuse.

The following morning, the barrel was gone. Django and I waited anxiously for news of its discovery, but none came, and for reasons I still do not understand, this delighted Tom.

Despite these shenanigans and despite the pleasure I derived from my creative writing class, the prevailing theme of my truncated high school career was one of simple boredom. And with it, a sense of my time being wasted, of my life slipping through my young fingers. In class after class, I slumped in my chair, quietly seething at my captors and, more broadly, at the unquestioned assumption that I should be held captive in the first place. Where was the relevance in what I was learning? In what ways might it inform and improve my life outside the context of school? It felt to me as if the entire experience was unfolding in a vacuum and that, once I graduated, the seal on the vacuum would burst, and I would be helplessly sucked into the real world, for which my schooling had done little to prepare me. I think this feeling frightened me, although I doubt I would have admitted so at the time.

Restlessly, I would shift my gaze from the algebraic equations scrawled across the chalkboard to the fields and forest and sky that for the majority of my waking hours remained achingly out of reach beyond the classroom’s plate glass windows which, for all their transparency, felt like nothing so much as the bars of a prison cell. What was I looking for? Nothing in particular, frankly. Nothing more than simple escape, a refuge from captivity, where the information I was being forced to memorize and recite (as if the latter were proof of having learned something) felt as if it mattered only against the backdrop of school.

Again I must return to the article I quoted from a few days back:

Education and upbringing is a hallmark example of the extent to which the system of control has saturated our lives, bodies and minds. We do not realize is how extensively our way of seeing the world and more importantly; how we see ourselves in it, is a direct result of our upbringing and education. As Ivan Illich, the author of “Deschooling Society” puts it: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”

I think Illich is precisely right in the above quote: School is the advertising agency which makes us believe that we need the society as it is, and it is incredibly effective precisely because so few parents (but interestingly, maybe not so few children) recognize this. I wonder if this is ultimately why I felt so disempowered by it: It was trying to force me to accept a view of myself, the world, and the confluence of the two that did not jibe with what I felt and understood to be true. I also wonder if this is why some people are so threatened by the notion of children being reared in the absence of compulsory “learning”: It is not merely a repudiation of their views on education, it’s a repudiation of their views on life.

Or – and I’m guessing this might be closer to the truth – maybe they’re so threatened precisely because on some level, they do recognize the extent to which the system of control has saturated their lives. They recognize it, but it is simply too frightening to acknowledge. They are too immersed it in to see a way out, and therefore, they will do whatever they can to make themselves comfortable within its confines. I guess maybe we all do this to a certain extent, no?

Even among those parents who do see the messaging implicit to compulsory institutional education, fewer still have the luxury of choosing differently. Or maybe they are simply too afraid for their children’s economic futures to choose differently – I’ve heard some variation of this theme from numerous parents. I know it’s not great, but how else will he get into college? Who will hire her? Etc, etc. Pragmatism over passion, though I suppose the two needn’t always be mutually exclusive.

For those of us who have chosen a different path, the challenge is that we forever exist on the fringes. For most families, school creates a default community. It offers a way to pass the days, a place for children to go while parents are working or otherwise engaged. This I hear a lot, too: I’d love to homeschool my children, but I could never spend that much time with them. That’s what I was thinking of yesterday when I wrote about working alongside, talking to, and learning from our children. That’s not something many parents know how to do these days. I know I’m still figuring it out. But my point, really, is that by opting out of school, you’re not merely opting out of school, and whether you believe that is for the better or the worse, it is no small thing.

I am meandering, now, losing sight of my message, so I guess I’ll pull the old writer’s trick of circling around to the beginning, running in that old Saab with Jim. As you know, I dropped out of school, while Jim went on to a technical college, before ultimately founding a solar installation business. He was smart enough to see what school could offer him, the stuff he needed to know to do the stuff he wanted to do. I don’t think he felt as trapped or disempowered as I did. It’d be interesting to ask him about it now, but I can’t, because he died a few years ago. His heart just up and quit while he was sleeping.

A few months before he died, Jim invited me to a Rush concert in Saratoga Springs. I demurred, so his wife went with him instead. They had a great time, and though there’s part of me that wishes I could claim the memory of my friend and me at the concert, pumping our fists and singing along to 2112, there’s another part of me that figures his wife deserves to remember that at least as much as I do.



And Tomorrow The Same

February 10, 2015 § 33 Comments


Mid-winter. The snow is laughably deep. We slip and shuffle on the boot-packed chore trails, wallow and wade everywhere else. We spent much of the weekend in the woods, cutting and splitting firewood as the snow fell around us. Not heavy, but steady, almost constant. You could reach out a gloved hand and watch the individual flakes land, held for a moment in suspension, before melting into the work-warmed leather.

In the radio segment I linked to yesterday, the author being interviewed talked about how the human brain has been steadily shrinking for a century or more, the result of our dependence on industry to provide. No more must we understand the minutia of our environment or even how to effectively wield our bodies against a stick of stubborn birch or beech. No more must we know how to erect our shelters, cut the pig so it bleeds quick, sow the seed and tend the seedling, work alongside our children, talk to and learn from them, discern the deadly galerina marginata from the delicious and profuse honey mushroom, entertain ourselves, make soup from scratch, tend our wounds.

I think of one of the paragraphs of the article I mentioned a couple of posts back: Each area of our lives that we dare to look upon with brutal self-honesty and see for what it truly is, through the veil of conformity, and thus take responsibility for changing, will be a significant and imperative key to rewrite the codes that govern our lives. It will not happen overnight and it will not be a global revolution where the whole world will joyously join together in some grand awakening. Instead it will happen one individual at a time, on a one-on-one level, from within the very depths of the system, in the miniscule seemingly insignificant everyday moments of our lives.

I like that paragraph a lot. I like it because it promises little while demanding much (it’s no small think to see through the veil of conformity, after all), and to me, that suggests honesty. And maybe I like it because it mirrors my experience, which is that the “minuscule seemingly insignificant everyday moments” of my life are precisely the ones that form the bridge between the brokenness of this world and its possibilities. I know this is a privilege.

So I guess I take some comfort in knowing that I can do the little things I mentioned above. And I can do them over and over and over, make them so routine as to seem insignificant. The maul rising and falling, the way our porch will soon be a sea of green shoots, even the soup we ate for dinner last night, full of mushrooms from the woods, the onions that grew from last spring’s green shoots, the beef we took last summer, warted carrots from the root cellar.

No grand awakening, and my brain arguably still too small. Just firewood. Just plants. Just dinner.

And tomorrow the same.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,500 other followers