How We Come to Know Our Place

April 21, 2015 § 28 Comments

Pounding ash for basket splints

Pounding ash for basket splints

We awoke to the sound and smell of rain this morning, not heavy, but heavy enough to celebrate. Because what we need now is rain. We need it to melt the remaining pockets of snow, stubborn on the north-facing slopes and in the woods, sheltered beneath the canopy of fir and spruce. We need it to soak into the soil, bring life to the dormant grasses. It’s a race now between our remaining hay reserves and the greening of our pasture. It’s gonna be a close one, that’s for damn sure, but my money’s on the pasture, by about a dozen bales.

We’re firmly into the physicality of the season and it feels better than I can rightly express. Splitting firewood. Dropping spruce for the mill. The peas sowed and the trellis uprights pounded deep, the remaining frost yielding beneath the force of a six-pound sledge. I went softer this winter than usual, and because we did not sugar (well, we did tap one big mother maple just because we couldn’t do nothing), the lard that came upon me over the deep of winter has only just begun to render under the heat of activity.

Of course I exaggerate; I’m not prone to excessive thickening, but it is possible that my mid-section is somewhat more expansive than in previous years. Mostly, though, the sense of softness is the result of muscles gone dormant and callouses losing their protective structure and, perhaps most profoundly, a certain loss of intellectual and emotional sharpness that befalls me whenever I succumb to languor.

There’s something addictive about the urgency of the season. I feel it year after year after year, though perhaps it holds a somewhat finer edge this spring, simply for everything that must be done to ensure our well-being come the return of cold and snow. But still. Even the force of a typical spring and all that depends on it is enough to hold me in its sway. It is times like these that my gratitude for this life runs deepest. I am grateful for the wood to be split, for ache in my shoulders after splitting, for the fencing to be strung, for the soil to be turned, for the protective husks reforming over decades-old callouses, for the cows fat with May calves, even for the snarl of the sawmill, each board I lift from its bed another piece of the puzzle that will, when finally assembled, result in my family’s shelter.

I know it’s somewhat illusory to believe we have control over our destiny; there are simply too many forces above and beyond our control, and there are many ways in which we are reliant on these forces, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.

But that’s ok. I don’t need to be in control. It’s enough to be participating. It’s enough to help fit the pieces of the puzzle together, to see how the whole is formed, and within it, how we come to know our place.



As They Are

April 14, 2015 § 24 Comments

I picked up a load of single pane barn sash on the cheap. Paint, paint, paint!

I picked up a load of single pane barn sash on the cheap. Paint, paint, paint!

I stopped up to Jimmy’s sugarhouse last night. The sap’s been running hard the past couple days, so I figured he’d be boiling. And he was.

I settled into a chair a few feet from the evaporator. Condensed steam dripped off the underside the metal roof onto my lap. I might’ve moved, but it would have been like dodging raindrops.

The sugarhouse was hot. Jimmy boils on wood, the way almost everyone used to boil. He has about 2,500 taps; on a good year, he’ll make about 1,000 gallons of syrup. This is not turning out to be a good year; late to start and, if the forecast hold true, quick to finish.

Jimmy looked tired, his face puffy with fatigue and red from the heat. He’d slept four hours the night before and only two hours the night before that. He milks cows, too, which is why he has to boil at night. We got to talking about the vagaries of the maple market. “That’s why I love those cows,” Jimmy told me. “I don’t have to tap a single tree and I can still make my payments.” He tossed a half-dozen sticks of wood into the evaporator. The fire roared.

That’s not the way it is for lots of sugar makers these days. There’s been a bit of a maple gold rush happening, and plenty of folks are jumping in with both feet, leveraging themselves to the hilt, cashing in on what, from a certain angle, can look like easy money (it’s not, it never is, it’s just varying degrees of difficult money). But this year the Canadian dollar is way down (syrup is priced in loonies), and the weather has been uncooperative. Prices are low and despite the myriad technological advances, you can’t force the sap to run. One bad year probably won’t be enough to shake out the over-leveraged or less-committed, but it sure won’t help. Then again, maybe the weather will turn. Maybe it’ll still be a decent season.

I left the sugarhouse around 10. Jimmy was winding down anyway. He had a cow due to freshen and needed to check on her before snagging a few hours of sleep. I walked outside. The cool air felt real good.

•    •     •

I’m having even more trouble than anticipated keeping this space updated. The season has shifted in full; my energy is focused almost entirely on the out-of-doors and everything that needs doing. I do plan to keep this space alive, but I cannot promise to what degree. For those of you who’ve kindly chosen to support this site on a monthly basis, know that I’ll have no hard feelings if you decide to reduce or even suspend your payments. Of course, I’ll also have no hard feelings if you just keep things as they are;)


The Push Has Begun

April 10, 2015 § 44 Comments

Hauling sap

Hauling sap

As previously mentioned in passing, one of the keys to building on the cheap is flexibility. For us, this has been most apparent in relation to our window purchases, because it has allowed us to snap up high end windows – most of them brand-y new – for pennies on the dollar. I think the most I’ve paid is 30% of the typical contractor price, which is itself somewhat less than retail. We like a lot of glass in our living spaces, so the overall savings is not insignificant; roughly, I’d estimate we’ve saved a good $12k over new. Of course, we could be buying even cheaper windows, but I’ve done enough building to understand the value of quality glass, and I’m willing to splurge on the good stuff.

It’s sort of astounding to see how many perfectly good windows are sold cheap simply because the customer didn’t like the cosmetics. I picked up a load of seven new-in-the-wrapper double hung Marvin Ultimates for $2k ($1200 + each if you bought ’em at the lumberyard) from a contractor because the mullion pattern the client had liked perfectly well in the catalog didn’t meet her expectations in person. The contractor was eating most of the loss, but he was fine with it. “She’s a great customer,” he told me. “Got lots of money and loves to change things up every few years.” The small bath he took on the windows was nothing compared to the steady shower of her business, which is probably right smart thinking on his part.

Another aspect of flexibility that’s proving key to our impending project is flexibility of assumptions. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard something along the lines of you’re building a smaller house just as your boys are about to become teenagers?!? The accepted wisdom seems to be that as children age, they need more space. Or perhaps the expectation is that we’ll need more space from them. In any event, our  feeling is that if the boys (or us, for that matter) want more space, they can bloody well have it… all they have to do is go outside. It’s fascinating to me how many assumptions become so entrenched in our collective psyche that we don’t even think to question them. Why, really, do we need more space? We spend relatively little time indoors. We generally get along pretty well. Heck, I’d even go so far as to say we like each other. Besides which, is it not all relative? The place we’re building will be about 1,000-square feet. There are plenty of families around the world living contentedly in much less space. Like many of the things we’ve collectively come to believe our happiness and well-being are dependent on, I’m pretty sure the size of our homes isn’t one of them.

Someone asked about building codes in relation to budget. Here’s my general view on building codes (which, other than state stipulations regarding wastewater and a few basic town zoning regs, we don’t have to contend with): I hate them with the sort of burning passion I generally reserve for decaffeinated coffee, top 40 radio, and skim milk. I hate them because most are engineered for the lowest common denominator of idiocy, but mostly I hate them because they are an imposition of someone else’s assumptions about how I should live my life. I know that in some municipalities, you can’t even legally occupy a structure that’s smaller that a certain square footage, probably because property taxes are thus based. Just knowing this is enough to make me want to turn it up and break some shit. Furthermore, most building codes make it significantly more complicated and expensive than necessary to build a perfectly good /safe/sound home, which, I hasten to point out, is probably exactly the point (I know, I know: I’m gonna catch it from the licensed plumbers and electricians among you)

Ok. Over and out. I’m two coats of paint into about half our windows. The push has begun.




Everything Worth Dreaming

April 7, 2015 § 21 Comments


With apologies to (and appreciation of) Nate. We miss you! 

To build a house in Stannard you must
Sharpen your saw on the kitchen table
Sprinkle the filings on your tongue
Brush your teeth with the chain

To build a house in Stannard you must
Kiss your wife three times before 5 a.m.
Milk the cow barehanded at 20-below
That little pocket of warmth between leg and udder


To build a house in Stannard you must
Drop the fir, the spruce, the pine, even the hated hemlock
You must skid the log, saw the log, stack the lumber
You must buy the old windows from the man with the bad breath
Strap them to the Subaru
You should have brought more rope

To build a house in Stannard you must
Stumble through the snow
Shoot the wooly rapids
Climb the vaunted mountain
Urinate off its peak
(Don’t forget to stand upwind!)
Bark at the moon


To build a house in Stannard you must
Dig the hole
Notch the pole
Rewrite the Dead Sea Scrolls

To build a house in Stannard you must
Wait for spring and then wait some more
You must stick the hog, bale the hay, drink the sap
Grow the radish, the cabbage, the sweet corn
Skim the cream, churn the butter,
Forge the blade, carve the handle


To build a house in Stannard you must
Have faith in yourself
Your family
Your friends
Even your enemies deserve your faith
(they perhaps more than anyone)

To build a house in Stannard you must
Accept the unacceptable
Redeem the irredeemable
Forgive the unforgivable
Deny the undeniable
Love the unlovable
And finally (but most importantly!)
Remember the forgotten

To build a house in Stannard you must
Sleep early and waken earlier
Having dreamed everything worth dreaming,
A field of new grass, blisters on your palm,
The smell of fresh cut wood.





























A Passel of Fun and Curiosity

April 2, 2015 § 6 Comments

Document22For awhile now I’ve had this crazy idea of combining a book-making and a writing workshop in one. I think it appeals to me because in some small way it feels like an antidote to the increasing digitization of the written word. Only problem was, I hadn’t the foggiest how to make a book.

Enter Meghan Stotko. If she had a website, I’d link to it, but she doesn’t, so I won’t (but you can learn a bit about her here). Meghan makes incredibly beautiful books from scratch, using the coptic stitch, which was invented by the Copts of Egypt to convert the scroll into a codex around 200 AD. And thus the modern book was born.

So. Here’s what we’ve got. A morning of book making, and an afternoon of exploring what I like to call “curious writing” with yours truly. I like the double entendre, because I think a lot of really good writing is curious in nature, and I think it is so because it evolved from the writers’ curiosity.

I’m fired up about this workshop, and so is Meghan. It’s gonna be a passel of fun and curiosity, and you should come.

It Is Real Nonetheless

March 31, 2015 § 68 Comments

Sometimes a butterfly bandage just doesn't cut it. Heh. "Cut" it... get it?

Sometimes a butterfly bandage just doesn’t cut it. Heh. “Cut” it… get it?

It’s nice that it’s a little warmer now. I dally over chores, stopping at each species to stand watch for a minute or two. I like watching the ducks drink after I chop through the ice in their watering hole. I like watching over the evolving relationship between Web, our pet duck who chooses barn life over communion with her kind, and Rye’s goats, Flora and Monkey. We moved Flora and Monkey from their usual winter shelter because the deep snow had made their fence superfluous, and they’d become prone to wandering.

Their relationship with Web did not get off on a good foot (hoof?): There were head-to-head standoffs between the duck and Monkey, and I’d have been worried if I didn’t know how fast that bird can move when it suits her. But at some point in the week after being introduced, the three made their peace, and now Web is forever preening her former adversaries, perhaps having decided that antagonism was getting her nowhere, and she might just as well annihilate them with kindness. The goats lean into her while she works her way up and down their backs with her bill. The goats are shedding in the changing season; the preening must feel good.

We’ve lived with animals long enough now that it’s hard to imagine a time we didn’t live with animals. I understand why most people don’t want to live with animals (I’m not talking about house pets, which for the most part are so adapted to the human environment that they demand relatively little of us); the commitment is not inconsequential. There’s no question that our lives are defined by our relationships to our animals, both in regards to our day-to-day comings and going, but also in how we perceive the world around us, and even how we perceive ourselves.

I thought about this yesterday, after reading Charles’ recent account of his encounter with a toddler. The piece spoke to me, in no small part because I understand full well what he means about grappling with criticisms both external and, most affecting to me, internal. I suspect this is a common phenomenon among writers or anyone else whose work exists in the public realm. Or maybe it’s straight up common to humanity. I also agree with Charles that part of the value of my work – it’s value to me, at least – is that I sometimes question its value. It is important, that questioning, the same way it’s important to occasionally question just about everything we think we know or believe. I have learned that the people most deserving of my trust and respect are not those who claim to have the answers, or who claim to know what answers I should have, but rather those who leave room in their hearts and minds for the possibility that the stories they cling to might not be as important as they believe.

Our animals do for me what the baby in Charles’ essay did for him: They remind me, on a daily basis, that my written work is merely one aspect of who I am, it is merely one medium for expressing what I think is important to me. And on those days when it feels as if I accomplish nothing else, they provide me the opportunity to know that at least I accomplished this: I fed them. I watered them. I tended to their needs. I stood for a moment and watched a duck preening a goat, something that only a few weeks ago would have seemed an unfathomable kindness between two arch enemies. I watched one cow stretch her rough tongue to scratch the hard-to-reach itch of another, and I wondered how this need is communicated. I stood over the pigs sleeping in their hay, their soft bellies rising and falling with each porcine breath, and I challenged myself to fill their trough without waking them.

I think these interactions – both between myself and our animals, and between our animals themselves – are worth more than any casual observer might understand. Perhaps worth more than even I might understand. Maybe because, as Charles posits, they are in some manner redemptive, almost an atonement for the myriad ways in which I fall short.

Or maybe they are worth so much for an entirely different reason: They are something that no amount of criticism, either external or internal, can sully. There is no viewpoint expressed, no belief espoused, no argument made, no position defended, no status to be attained or denied, and therefore, no ego to be inflated or deflated. There is not even a verbal acknowledgement of appreciation.

There is merely one creature meeting the needs of another, and the minutia of the interactions necessary to the task, so fleeting and routine that it’s easy to lose sight of their value. This is particularly true in a culture that does not acknowledge or even understand this value. For what is gained? I cannot show you. I struggle to even tell you. But I know it is real nonetheless.


If All Else Fails

March 30, 2015 § 40 Comments


For reasons I do not fully understand, I have picked up a lot of new readers over the past six weeks or so. I’m not sure where they’re coming from; things have been pretty quiet on the media front, as has the roll out of the new book. I’m fine with the quiet. Glad for it, actually. The few brushes I’ve had with widespread exposure have taught me that I’m best suited to the same quiet life I’ve been living for 40-odd years and which, if I can just keep a handle on the booze, rock n’ roll, and cigarillos, might be so lucky as to tease out for a few more circles round the sun.


That said, I’m glad for the readership here; it feels to me wholly different than whatever portions of my story are filtered (and inevitably distorted) through the mass media edit process. I’m not saying there’s no filter here; obviously, we are still entitled to our privacy. Still, this is by far the most direct and intimate medium for sharing my written work. Maybe that’s not true for all writers; a few have likely attained that hallowed status as to be uneditable. But to my knowledge, the number of editors out there clamoring so enthusiastically for my work as to be willing to relinquish their rightful authority is precisely zero. (If I’m mistaken, hey, be in touch, ok?)


Anyway. All this new readership comes precisely at the time when I’m faced with the reality of having to slow things down a bit here. I’m not sure exactly what this space is going to look like going forward, but I am pretty sure that it’s not going to include the sheer volume of work and frequency of posting is has over the past few years. This is not for lack of desire on my part – I’ve got more ideas for this space than I could explore even if it were my full-time gig – but rather an acknowledgement of our current reality, which includes the for-pay writing that keeps us in the highfalutin manner to which we’ve become accustomed, the impending building of house, barn, and shop, and our desire to make something of this nutty “living arts” school idea (by-the-by, crazy good ash basket workshop this weekend and if’n you’re interested in our upcoming apple tree workshop, led by our good friend Todd Parlo, be in touch quick… it’s filling right up!).


So what I thought I’d do today, for all these new readers (and perhaps for the old ones, too), is offer a sort of cliffs notes to this space. That way, you can decide if you really want to keep kickin’ round for whatever this blog turns into. Better yet, for those of you who might be inclined to wade through the past 520 posts (feckin’ A! Can you believe that?!?), this could save you a whole lotta time that’d probably be better spent doing something that doesn’t include a screen.


So, without further ado:

1) Childhood education is incredibly important. This explains why we don’t send our children to school.

2) The things you are taught to be afraid of (including, but not limited to: terrorism, death, impoverishment, lack of status, and funny looks from strangers) are almost always a distraction from the things you should actually be afraid of (including, but not limited to: crushing debt [which is to say, an amount of indebtedness our insane culture considers entirely normal], utter dependence on industry, a destroyed biosphere, waking up in the morning wishing you were waking up somewhere else, and fear itself).

3) This is the best contemporary rock n’ roll song ever written. No, wait, this is. Actually, forget it: Rock n’ roll is way overrated.

4) You know what’s crazy? This: Most of the things our culture teaches us to recognize as strength (including, but not limited to: never admitting to needing help from one another, responding to antagonism in kind, and living “independently”) are actually emblematic of weakness. Meanwhile, most of the things our culture teaches us to recognize as weakness (including, but not limited: acknowledging our need for help, emotional honestly/vulnerability, and admitting our weaknesses) are actually emblematic of strength.

5) The best thing you can do for your children is find ways for them to be of use to themselves, their family, and their community.

6) The best thing you can do for yourself is find ways to be useful to yourself, your family, and your community.

7) The same could be said of your elders.

8) Here you go.

9) This is going to sound cheesy, but hell with it, it’s true: More often than we care to admit, the only difference between someone who’s doing what they want to do and someone who’s not is that the former is doing it. Heh. Chew on that one awhile.

10) While you’re chewing, here’s another: If there are only winners, there can be no winners.

11) If ever you have the opportunity to squeeze into a hollow tree, by gum, do not pass it up. Likewise, if you ever have the opportunity to stand between two rows of dairy cows, listening to them chew, jump on it.

12) Make room in your life for discomfort and inconvenience. The really crazy thing is, you might have to work for this; you might actually have to inconvenience yourself in your quest for inconvenience. But it’s totally worth it.

13) Give away something of value, if for no other reason than it’ll help you to remember how rich you actually are.

14) If all else fails, be curious.












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