Two Very Different Things

September 3, 2014 § 25 Comments


Our layers are in a bit of a slump right now – a few molting, a few getting long in the beak (that’s a joke, right? because the saying is actually “long in the tooth” but chickens don’t have teeth, so I wrote “long in the…” Oh, never mind, you got it), and the new pullets are not yet earning their keep. We’re getting four, maybe five eggs a day, which would be fine if we weren’t an eight egg-per-day family. And that’s if we’re on strict rations, as we are now. Unrestrained, we’re probably in the double-digit-per-day range.

This is all merely a long way of saying that last night I found myself driving to a friend’s place to pick up a couple dozen supplemental eggs. It was a nice evening, a little muggy and warm perhaps, but you don’t go complaining about muggy and warm in September because you know that pretty soon there won’t been any muggy and warm to complain about for, oh, eight months. At least.

So on the way home I was listening to the Ted Radio Hour, window open to the deliciously muggy and warm air, and lo and behold what should the topic be? Why, learning, that’s what. And even more to the point, how kids learn. My ears perked up some, let me tell you.

I was particularly intrigued because earlier in the day I’d been a guest on a radio show and one of the listeners had called in to suggest that I’m not actually qualified to teach my children. Because, you know, I’m not a licensed teacher and furthermore, I didn’t even finish high school, which I guess most people think is a pre-requisite to knowing something about teaching. I’ve even had people tell me that since I didn’t finish high school (not to mention college ) I’m not educated, which always irritates me a bit. As if there were no other ways to become educated.

Anyway and all, I didn’t have a particularly snappy response to the caller, though I sure tried to summon one forth. I think I said something about disagreeing with her, that in my experience kids don’t need someone to teach them, that they’re perfectly capable of learning in the absence of formal instruction. Truthfully, it was a fine answer. I didn’t stumble over it and it was honest. But I doubt it changed her mind even a little bit, though in my experience, you don’t change someone’s mind during a call-in radio program no matter how convincing you are.

Anyway and all again, the first segment of the TED radio hour featured a fellow named Sugata Mitra. I’m gonna try and keep this short, but basically what Sugata did was install computers in public places in small Indian villages. And then what he did is precisely nothing. He explained nothing, he demonstrated nothing, he taught nothing. And what he observed is that when left to their own devices, children could teach themselves the most amazing things. Like advanced molecular biology. Like foreign languages. Like advanced molecular biology in foreign languages.

To any of you interested in childhood learning, whether you believe that self-directed unschoo… er, immersion learning works or not, I highly recommend listening to the segment. Sugata seems like a delightful fellow and his observations are fascinating and I have no doubt they would extend to adults, if only we could muster the innate confidence and love of learning that resides within our children.

Sadly, I think, many of us have lost confidence in our own ability to learn without formal instruction, and I believe it is from this place of uncertainty that we question our own qualifications to guide our children’s learning. Which, as Sugata so eloquently points out, is actually less about guiding than simply getting out of the way. It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about making room for learning to happen.They sound a lot alike, don’t they? But the truth is, they’re two very different things.

Now You know

September 2, 2014 § 23 Comments

A winter's worth of nettle tea

A winter’s worth of nettle tea

I have two books coming out over the next six months. Most of you probably know about the first; many of you also know about the second, which, in the absence of a finalized title, I’ve charmingly been calling The Chelsea Green Book. You know, because Chelsea Green is the publisher and all.

First, a little backstory. TCGB is actually a joint effort between Penny and myself. It is as close to a “how-to” book as I’m likely to ever have my name on, although there’s plenty of good ole navel gazing, too. I’d say it’s roughly 30% philosophy and backstory and 70% how-to. Or maybe it’s 40/60. Somewhere in that range. There are 200-odd photos, some of which readers of this space will have seen before, but certainly not all. Actually, probably not even half, come to think of it. It’s 115k words, which is by far the longest book I’ve ever written, but then, I didn’t write all of it. Penny actually penned (heh. Get it? Penny? Penned? Oh, never mind…) large swathes of the manuscript. You know how she did that? She actually wrote entire passages by hand, on scraps of paper purloined from the recycling container in our kitchen pantry. I wish I were kidding. Actually, I don’t, because truth is, I think it’s sort of cool to be married to a woman who writes by hand. Maybe that’s silly, but hey. There you have it.

Anyway. TCGB is about our work with this land, our animals, and the varying skills we employ to make it all happen. The book evolved pretty organically; I happen to know an editor at CG and she knew a bit about our place and what we do and she asked if I might be interested in doing a book, which is sort of like asking if I might be interested in two scoops of rum raisin ice cream in a waffle cone.

So the way this worked is that I had to submit a brief proposal. Not a full blown proposal, because they knew I was a pretty safe bet, but a sort of mini-proposal. I can’t remember exactly what I sent, but I know it consisted of a two or three page introduction and a proposed table of contents. Basically, just enough to be sure I actually had a grasp on what the book was supposed to be before they starting writing big checks. Ok, so smallish-medium checks. But still. Real money.

So I wrote this mini-sort-of-proposal and for lack of a better idea, I called it The Nourishing Homestead. Which I wasn’t super fond of , but proposed titles are almost always just that: Proposed. They generally get changed, which explains why I’ve been calling in TCGB. What didn’t I like about Nourishing? Nothing real specific, it just felt a little, I don’t know… soft, I guess. I mean, I’m a big, rugged, AC/DC sing-along guy with muscles hewn of oaken timbers. I can run a 70cc chainsaw in one hand whilst clenching a bottle of Budweiser in the other that I furthermore opened with my teeth. You see what I’m sayin’?

For a long time, Penny and I tried to come up with a title we liked better. She liked Rooted. Me, I was fond of More Than Merely a Living, as in more than merely a living, a life. But the truth is, neither of these really explains what the book is about. They sound nice, but they’re sort of abstract, which is really not good for a book with how-to-ish pretensions. Besides which, I’ve learned that the Internets has placed an additional burden on book titles, which is that they abide by associated search terms.

Meanwhile, everyone at Chelsea Green was really beginning to like The Nourishing Homestead. They were listening to our other ideas, and we kept slinging ‘em, but at the same time, I could see their arguments and I began to come around to it, as evidenced by the brandy-new “nourishing” tattoo on my forehead, which Penny keeps telling me I’ll someday come to regret. But truth is, our place really is nourishing, if I do say so myself. It feeds us, nurtures us, supports us, sustains us. It allows us to wake up every morning excited about what the day will bring. It enables us to pass our waking hours largely in alignment with our beliefs. Hells bells but if that ain’t nourishing, I don’t know what is.( And that thing about me and the chainsaw and the beer? Truth be told, it’s bullticky. I drink Coors, not Bud)

All of which is a long way of saying (have I ever said anything the short way?) that TCGB will henceforth be known as The Nourishing Homestead: One Back-to-the Land Family’s plan for cultivating Soil, Skills, and Spirit. And then, down at the bottom of the cover, where there’s often a few more descriptive words knows as the “reading lines”: A practiculture way to grow nutrient dense food, produce healthy fats, and live the good life. 

Now you know.







For a Little While

August 28, 2014 § 14 Comments


Drying blueberries

Katie Flagg of Seven Days did a nice piece on immersion learning, er, unschooling (thanks, Amy!). 

Tuesday evening we finished unloading bales in Martha and Lynn’s barn at six or so. There were 550 give or take a dozen, but you know what they say about many hands and all. Besides, the bales were light and soft and almost fluffy. Second cut is the Charmin of hay.

Steven rode the wagon behind the baler, stacking in that methodical way he has, never seeming hurried but with an efficiency that trumps speed any day of the week. That efficiency reveals the worker he is: Steven is employed at a sawmill full-time, cuts firewood, plows driveways, and hires out for 101 other rural tasks involving trucks and toothed cutting implements. He works seven days each week. He has a wife and a young son and is saving to buy a new car for his wife in cash. Once, when he and I were baling together, me on the tractor and him on the wagon, load after load after load of hay and none of this fluffy Charmin-esque second cut, but that stem-y first cutting that leaves cross-hatched scratches on the undersides of your forearms, I asked him if he wanted to trade places. He could drive the tractor and I’d stack on the wagon. It was hot. He had to be tired. Shit, I was tired, and all I was doing was steering the Deere down the long rows of loose hay. Steven just shook his head. “Ben, I’m a worker bee,” he told me. “I just like to work.”

I like to work, too, though I’m more of a flailer than Steven. I’m not so good at meting out my efforts, and I tend to work real hard and real fast ‘til I fall over the knife’s edge of exhaustion, at which point I’m pretty useless until someone hands me a sufficient quantity of calories. I guess you could say I’m sort of a binge laborer.

Wednesday morning I went and picked up a load of shavings from our friend Jim, who has a woodworking business in a nearby town with no farms and therefore has a tough time finding folks to take his shavings. The first time he called me to see if I wanted shavings and furthermore for free, I sort of thought it was a joke because ‘round here, a pile of kiln dried hardwood shavings would last about as long as a pie in a pigpen.

But damn if he wasn’t serious as the north wind in January, and so for the past year or so, I’ve driven over every time he’s got a full hopper and filled the back of our old Ford with the finest animal bedding that, in this case at least, money can’t buy. It’s messy, dusty, eye-stinging business, not fun at all, really, except for the satisfaction of a full truck and knowing how good the composted bedding will be. We’ve got a big pile of it up on the hill right now, last year’s dense pack scooped out of the loafing shed, and I swear it’s nearer to being finished than the hay-based pack of the year prior.

The work has been good. The haying, the shavings, the daily routine of chores, now reaching their late summer peak. It pulled me out of my head some, where I’d been hanging out a bit too much in the aftermath of so many questions and conversations relating the Outside story. I mean, those things are good, too, but after a time, I began to recall yet another passage from 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

And with that, I think I’ll shut up. For a little while, at least.



Pretty Damn Boring

August 26, 2014 § 28 Comments


In many of the comments relating to my Outside article, you can see how firmly the story of school is embedded in the American psyche (by the way, it appears the NY Times is getting in on the game. I sure wish the reporter had called me, but oh well. And “Mr. Hewitt”? Really?). I have to admit this surprised me, although in hindsight perhaps it shouldn’t have, because I am coming to realize that the story of school is itself a chapter in the story of achievement, which it itself a chapter in the story of success and prosperity. All of these, of course, are chapters in the story of what it means to be human, the masters of our domain and ultimately the pinnacle of evolution.

Whoa. That’s some heavy thinking for a simple fellow like myself, eh? And it’s only Tuesday; just imagine where we’ll be come Friday! But I think there’s some truth to it. I do think that many people are threatened by the idea of unschooling in part because on some level it calls to question some very basic assumptions regarding what it means to be kicking up dust in 21st century America. Or at least, it can call these assumptions to question, because of course unschooling can be a million different things to a million different families. That’s one of the things that so great about it, of course. It’s not homogeneous. It’s not standardized. If you want unschooling to be about your kids getting filthy rich off the salted back sweat of the underclass and the rampant degradation of the earth’s remaining wild places, well hell. That’s what it’ll be about.

That explains in part why Penny and I aren’t terribly fond of the term “unschooling.” It explains nothing, really, except the absence of school. But what does that mean? Nothing, like I said, and I wonder if that’s where some of the more pointed negativity in relation to unschooling comes from: All they hear is the absence of school, and since the story they know best is the one in which school is a chapter in the book of humankind (after all, isn’t that the story most of us grew up inside?), they believe that school is essential to a functioning democracy and a productive economy. Or they contend if parents aren’t involved in their local school, they’re not involved in their community. Or they suggest that keeping children out of school is a means of control (there may actually be some truth to this one, though it’s hard for me to understand how the same couldn’t be said of sending children to school. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice and all that). Or they simply cannot fathom how children can learn without being told  what they must learn, how they must learn, and when they must learn it. That they must learn. 

We all have our stories. I get that. My family’s story tells us that the best path for our sons is “self-directed, adult-facilitied, life-learning in the context of their unique interests.” Our story tells us that subsistence farming is as noble an endeavor as doctoring or lawyering. In one chapter, our story tells us that we are not stewards of the land but rather that the land is the steward of us. There’s even a paragraph or two whispering that perhaps humans are not as mighty and all-knowing as we’ve come to believe. In fact, it suggests to us that we will never know a fraction of the things we don’t know. And that this is actually ok. Our story has us convinced that it’s as important for our sons to feel a connection to the land as it is for them to know calculus. Maybe more important. In this story, our sons’ learning unfolds from a place of natural curiosity. “Papa,” Fin said the other evening, seemingly apropos of nothing. “If heat rises, why is it colder at altitude?”And later that night, during family read, Rye interrupted: “What’s panache?”

You see what I mean?

It’s a hard thing, sometimes, to accept that other people feel as strongly about their stories as we feel about ours. A hard thing, but also an essential one. Every so often, it helps to remind myself that a world with only one story might be peaceful. But it’d also be pretty damn boring.

Maybe it’s the Story

August 25, 2014 § 11 Comments



Last night for dinner we ate corn on the cob with butter I’d made in the morning and that was pretty good. Three ears each and a glass of milk from the morning’s milking and I’d’ve had another ear of corn if there was one. But the boys had picked and shucked only a dozen ears and last time I checked 12 divided by 4 is 3 so that’s what I got. Truth told, it was plenty.

For lunch there’d been ribeye steaks from the beef we’d slaughtered a few weeks prior and I fried up a passel of chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms I collected from Melvin’s woods before I made butter. We had green beans, too. Steamed those suckers, piled on the butter and some salt and they hardly knew what hit ‘em. There were chunked potatoes roasted in lard and I snuck the ‘taters from the far bed in the wedding field, so-named because it’s where our friend Bob and his brother Brian erected the big cedar pole and green-tarp “tent” we had our wedding party under 16 years ago.

Sixteen years. Some of the people who were at our wedding are dead now, some you’d expect and at least one you wouldn’t. The ones who were babies then drive cars now. The ones who were middle age then are wondering what the hell happened, where all the time went, the years between their babies being babies and their babies driving cars. Yesterday my parents were over and Fin drove the truck down the farm road and across the field (he’s 12) and my father said something about him driving and I said “only when I’ve been drinking” which I at least thought was pretty funny. (Q: How do you know when Ben’s told a joke? A: He’s the only one laughing!)

Anyway. You see how it happens.

Breakfast… let’s see. That was an omelet. Eggs still warm from the coop and a filling of fried potatoes, leftover green beans from the night before, a snuck onion, a clove of garlic prized off one of the bulbs hanging above the stove wood on the porch, hedgehog mushrooms I’d gathered the evening before (we’re gathering mushrooms nearly every day now, such is the profusion of edible fungi at this time of year), and a good bit of the maple sausage Penny and I made back when the boys were up in Canada with Nate and we were stuck in the kitchen processing the two pigs we foolishly saw fit to kill in July when there’s way too much going on around here to spend three days killing and cutting pigs. See? We make mistakes all the time. Mistakes we shoulda seen coming months away. Even mistakes we’ve made before but in our stubbornness refused to learn from.

Sometimes I think we eat too well, that we have too much choice, that it’s making us soft and jaded. I remember when Nate was staying here, how I’d stroll down at dinner time to find him stewing a beaver haunch and maybe a few leaves of kale over an open fire. Of course, he also ate with us pretty often, never turned down an invite and seemed to enjoy the fresh butter and eggs and meat at least as much as we do. Probably more, considering the alternative was stewed beaver and kale, though I never got the sense he didn’t enjoy that stuff too, come to think of it. I never heard him complain. I never heard him say “man, not stewed beaver again!” I mean, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with beaver, but it sure ain’t ribeye steaks. It’s not an omelet filled with your own sausage and fried potatoes dug from the ground that once sheltered your wedding party.

On the other hand, to Nate, who’d trapped the beaver, and tanned and smoked its hide for eventual inclusion into the beaver-hide vest he was working on at the time, maybe it’s every bit as good as these things. Because when I think about it, I wonder if maybe it’s not the food that matters so much. Maybe it’s the story.





It’s Better For Everyone That Way

August 22, 2014 § 17 Comments

Mushroom walk

Mushroom walk

Eumaeus believes I am being held up. Erin wonders how I gain the confidence to let other people follow me. Emanuel says “the messiah, follow the messiah!” (It’s ok: Eman and I go back a good ways. He’s snarky, but a good fellow overall)

I hope that none of this is true, that I am not being held up and that people are not simply “following” me. But I know it is true that over the past week or so, I’ve received numerous emails asking very specific advice on how to handle very specific parenting/educational situations. I have uncomfortably answered some of them, mostly because it felt more uncomfortable to ignore them than to answer. I have also not answered some and I’m trying to be ok with that. I have a life beyond this subject, of course. Beyond this desk.

Give the above perhaps some sort of brief disclaimer is necessary. So here it is: What I write about here and elsewhere is based on my life, my experiences, and my observations. It is steeped in the bias and hypocrisy we all bring to this world. It is generally written quickly and is unedited. Sometimes I write things that I later wish I hadn’t, although I have only once taken down a post that I felt was overly self-promotional.

I try to always make it clear that I am speaking from this place of personal bias and experience, but there’s no doubt I sometimes fail to do this adequately. I also try to make it clear that our path is not perfect, in no small part because we are imperfect beings inhabiting an imperfect world. I do not think I know any more about how to teach my children or live my life than anyone else knows about how to teach their children or live their life, although I do think all of us know a hell of a lot more than we think we know. We just seem to have lost touch with that knowledge and in the process cultivated certain assumptions about what it means to be human. To live a good life. To educate our children and ourselves. To achieve and to prosper.

Sometimes people want advice. I get that. Sometimes I want advice. But of course how can anyone rightly give advice to someone whose life they know little about? Far as I can tell (though I might be wrong) there is no single right way to be. Certainly, there are ways that don’t make sense to me. There are things that seem silly to me. There are forces that strike me as destructive and tragic. But not everyone sees them in the same light. For instance, I view car culture as holding us captive, while others view it as liberating. I see the growth economy as a dead end, while others see it as their future. Their children’s future. I believe humans have no more right to this world and its resources than the plants and animals, while others believe the world and its resources belong to humans first and everything else second. If at all.

I guess these alternate viewpoints are part of what makes this world interesting and beautiful. I also guess they might be what is destroying this interesting and beautiful world.

For those who truly crave advice, here are few small pieces I feel comfortable sharing. Take them for what you will. Take them knowing they come from a high school dropout who passed part of yesterday evening singing Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (careful, Rhonda) over and over while washing the dinner dishes.

To the greatest extent possible, stay out of debt

Eat real food

Spend as little time as you can stand staring at a screen. Stop reading this blog, even

Don’t assume there are not other stories than the ones our culture tells us

Sleep outside once in a while

At least on occasion, submit to inconvenience

Make something with your hands, something with shape and texture

Listen to yourself more carefully than you listen to anyone else

Also listen to loud music. Sing along with it while you do the dishes but when your spouse asks you to stop for the third time, stop.

It’s better for everyone that way 


Our Obligations

August 21, 2014 § 23 Comments


How do you discuss and engage in world news with your children? do you talk US and world politics for example? or do the boys know who Malala is? and should they or does it not matter at this point in their lives?

Yesterday the boys disappeared into the woods for a couple of hours, carrying their fly rods down to their favorite brook trout stream. They hadn’t fished it this year until yesterday; over the winter, they read about how it’s important to let even a prolific stream rest every so often. For a while, they fretted the possibility that they’d over-fished it. “What do you think, Papa?” they asked, and I couldn’t rightly tell them, but I agreed that taking a season away couldn’t hurt.

While they were gone, an old friend stopped by. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons, ages 7 and 4. She was in Vermont visiting family and had seen the Outside article and it had kindled something in her that in truth was already smoldering. It just needed a little fuel.

We stood and chatted in the blueberry patch, which is always a good place to stand and chat in the middle of August, what with the profusion of ripened fruit at the ready. She told us of her sorrows regarding her sons’ schooled education, which include the fact that they’re not allowed to romp in the snow, they’re not allowed to touch plants in the playground for fear those plants might be poisonous, and that her seven-year old has homework every night. Already, there have been subtle suggestions that her older son is a little behind the curve in relation to his reading abilities, and recently when she asked him how he liked school, he told her that just pretends he’s in a factory.

After we’d had our fill of berries, we walked back to the house. Fin and Rye emerged from the woods with tales of a brook trout cooked on a hot stone by the waters edge. They brought out their bows to shoot with our friends’ boys, nocking the arrows and pulling the bow string back past the point of utmost resistance to facilitate those young muscles. “He’s in heaven,” our friend said, referring to her son. “This is his dream.”  I watched from the corner of my eye. He did look pretty darn happy.

How does this all relate to the above question? In some ways, I’m not sure. But there was something in what I heard from our friend in the berry patch and what I observed as the boys fired practice arrows into bales of hay that made me think about our expectations for childhood learning. What do our children need to know? Is it important that they know who Malala is, or what happened to James Foley? Should we talk to them about Syria and Putin and Newtown, CT? These are not rhetorical questions; these are real questions that Penny and I grapple with, and they are framed by the backdrop of an even larger question: How do we help our children maintain an awareness of all that is tragic in this world – and in particular, those tragedies over which they can have no immediate influence – without losing sight of everything that is beautiful?

To be even more to the point, we are not heavy news consumers. Penny and I maintain some awareness of national and global events, primarily by listening to the radio during solo drives. Sometimes we discuss what we hear with the boys; sometimes we do not. There are no hard and fast rules for what we talk about and what we do not. In my life, at least, I have noticed that the less time I spend captive to events I am powerless to influence, the healthier I feel. Perhaps more importantly, the more energy and optimism I have to disperse into the very small corner of the world over which I do have influence.

I wish the educators at the school our friends’ children attend would take the time to learn which plants are poisonous (few, if any, most likely) and which are not (the majority, if not all, most likely) and, thus liberated from their fear of flora, would encourage their students to put their hands on as many of those plants as possible. I wish they would let them romp in the snow and not worry about the wet socks, the cold fingers, the runny noses. I wish my friends’ older son did not have to pretend he’s in a factory. I wish he didn’t even think to make that association. I wish he could live his dream for more than a half-hour on a Wednesday afternoon.

I guess what I’m saying is that yes, I think we are obligated to at the very least consider how we engage our children in national and world affairs. But I also think we have a few other obligations to take care of first.


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