One Without The Other

March 26, 2015 § 24 Comments

The girls are back in business

The girls are back in business

It was lights out at 8:00 last night; the boys and I were in recovery mode from the Blackberry Smoke concert we attended the previous evening, a raucous affair that lasted into the wee hours. Courtesy of a highly inebriated middle age couple who took a liking to my children (and then got hauled off by security for being so drunk they could hardly stand [the couple, not my children]), the fellows were afforded a front row perspective, peering over the security barrier in wide-eyed wonder. I suppose some would deem it irresponsible that we expose our children to the debauchery of an honest-to-goodness rock n’ roll show, and indeed, they were the only young ‘uns in attendance. But then, I suspect it’s only a fraction of the debauchery most kids experience over the course of  the average school day, so there. Plus, we have a wicked weakness for old fashioned ass-kicking rock, and BBS definitely qualifies.

'tater and onion pancakes with eggs on top. Not bad at all.

‘tater and onion pancakes with eggs on top. Not bad at all.

The spring thaw has finally commenced. Yesterday touched 50, the sun in full bloom, the snow slowly retreating under its glare. I spent an hour on the tractor, busting out a path for the feeding of our remaining round bales, and at one point I had to just stop and sit for a few minutes, soaking up a dose of Vitamin D. It’s been hard winter. That’s not a complaint; just a statement of fact, and if anything, I am grateful for it, because I know my appreciation for days like yesterday is in large part informed by the preceding weeks and months. I guess it’s analogous to something I wrote about the writing process a while back: The pleasure isn’t just tilting my my face to the sun on the first jacket-less day in five months, but rather in the contrast between all those raw, bundled days and that moment yesterday afternoon when I shut the tractor off and sat in the sudden silence, remembering (not that I’d forgotten, but still: Remembering) that for all its flaws, the world is an amazing place, and that furthermore, for all my flaws, along with the myriad small hardships we endure to live as we do, my life is good. It could even be said, perhaps, that it rocks.

I think this: You cannot have warmth without cold. Satiation without hunger. There is no comfort without discomfort, no restoration of body and spirit without their fatigue. What I’m saying is, you cannot exhale without having inhaled.

Yesterday, I exhaled. And it felt really friggin’ good.



Good Times

March 24, 2015 § 10 Comments



Just a couple of quick notes.

First, we’re super-excited to offer an Earthskills Immersion Camp on our land in Stannard, Vermont this summer, for ages 11-15. For more details, head on over to the LMLA site. This is going to be an awesome camp, chock full of all sorts of wilderness adventure and learning.

Second, I’ll be at one of my most-favorite book stores in all the world this Sunday. I might even bring along a karaoke machine slide projector for added entertainment value! I’d love to see you there.


A Sound You Should Hear

March 23, 2015 § 45 Comments

Rye's sugaring rig, circa '14

Rye’s sugaring rig, circa ’14

I drove up from Connecticut on Friday night in our new-to-us truck, a 25-year old Ford F250 fresh out of Arizona, its body as rustless as the day it rolled off the factory line. It’d been a hell of a day; I’d ridden to Boston with Pen and the boys on their way to visit Penny’s mother, then hopped a bus over to Hartford, then cooled my heels for three hours waiting for the seller to get off work, then steered the old brute into the teeth of a late winter storm, a three-and-a-half hour drive made into nearly six hours by the weather.

The snow was minor but snot-slick, and I passed no fewer than a half-dozen accidents along my journey up Interstate 91, including one particularly disturbing six-car pileup. I let my eyes wander over the twisted metal until they landed on the sight of a rescue crew cutting into the compressed passenger compartment of a turned-over sedan. I averted my gaze and could not help wondering at the things we have come to accept.

It is spring now, or ostensibly so. The cold remains penetrating. Zero this morning, and the wind gusting out of the north. The snowpack is undiminished. The maple trees are frozen, holding tight to their sap, while the sugar makers fret and pace. In deference to all we have on our plates, we tapped only a handful of trees this year, just enough for a bit of “spring tonic,” the fresh sap we’ll make into tea or drink straight from the bucket. We’ve had but one small run thus far.

Yesterday I consolidated the remaining square bales, as much for the work of it as anything else. We have plenty of hay. Well, maybe not “plenty,” but certainly enough. It was cold in the barn but windless, and I broke a sweat.

I feel a bit in limbo, caught between the weather and everything that needs doing. We are keeping ourselves busy – cleaning and re-cleaning, organizing, sketching plans, accumulating materials, jettisoning all the things we will no longer have room for and never really needed to begin with. The home we will build this summer will be less than half the size of this one, and it will not have a basement. There can be nothing extraneous. We will, quite literally, need to reduce our material possessions by 50% or more. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re at the 30% mark. Which means we’re getting to the hard stuff; yesterday, I dismantled a wooden box Fin made for me (birthday? I can’t quite remember, but probably) many years ago, all odd angles and bent-over nails. I pulled the nails, fed the wood to the fire, felt a small ache of sentiment as the flames jumped.

Still. You know what it feels like to be well on your way to dispensing with half your belongings? It feels like a good sweat on a cold day. It feels like the first day of spring – not calendar spring, but real spring, 50-degrees or more, the sun high and strong, the maples finally letting go. Plink. Plink. Plink. The sound of sap into buckets. That’s a good sound. That’s a sound you should hear.



I Like It a Little Less

March 18, 2015 § 83 Comments


For breakfast, I fried a pork chop and scrambled some eggs. Diced a few potatoes, dropped them into hot duck fat and left them there until they crisped up nice. Kimchi. I cut the chop four ways, served everything into the wooden burl bowls Penny carved a while back. Stuck one of her wooden spoons into each bowl, set them around the table. We eat most of our meals out of those bowls now. We joke that when we move to the new land, we’re not taking any plates. Just those bowls. Just those spoons. Actually, we might not be joking.

It’s not true that I’d rip your throat out for a green salad. You knew that, right? For one, it wouldn’t be very nice of me. For another, it’s real hard eating salad with a wooden spoon, though I guess maybe I should start practicing. For yet another, I got my kimchi, my lacto-fermented green beans, my hateful beets, all those potatoes. I got applesauce and blueberries and currants and even a couple more bags of frozen peas. Dried kale, dried celery leaves, dried chanterelles, dried onions. Garlic. Today we start drying off Pip in preparation for late May freshening, so no fresh milk for a good while. But that’s ok: We froze something like 50-quarts of cream. We’ll drink that. No one’s suffering, here. We’ve got our wooden bowls and our wooden spoons and wood for the fire and almost more food than we know what to do with.


For the first time ever, I deleted a comment. It didn’t add anything to the conversation; it was just name-calling, one commenter to another. Unnecessary. I think it’s great that I have readers who don’t always see eye-to-eye with me or with one another. Actually, I think it’s a huge compliment to us all. We talk about polarizing issues, in a polarized world, in a medium that encourages polarization. And yet I rarely see unpleasantries. Maybe we’re not always annihilating one another with kindness, but we’re doing pretty good. Let’s keep it up.


This space is probably going to slow down a bit in the coming months. We have a house to build. A barn. Some sort of workshop. We’ve done it before, we know what to expect, although part of what we expect is the unexpected, the “known unknowns” inherent to any project of this scope. They’ve been getting me up early, all those known unknowns. I sleep like a stone until 4:30 or so, then rise with my head full of uncertainty. I start the fires, drink my coffee, dice the morning potatoes, wait for first light so I can do chores.


It will be good to actually start working, but first we need the snow to melt and the frost to come out of the ground. We are still collecting materials – last night, I crammed 400-square feet of salvaged maple flooring into the poor Subaru. We still need a front door, but that’s about it. I am keeping careful track of expenses, and I will be happy to share those, if anyone’s interested. We have about $30k to spend, maybe $35k if we stretch it a bit. We can’t really go over budget. Well, we can, but then we’d be in debt. So as far as we’re concerned, we can’t. Thus far, the only expense that’s looking as if it will be greater than anticipated is our lumber budget; I’d hoped to cut and saw logs all winter, but the snow pack has made this unfeasible. So we’ll be buying in more lumber than we’d like. Fortunately, lumber’s pretty cheap. Fortunately, I came in low on our window budget, even if I had to drive to western Massachusetts twice to retrieve used units. Even if all the windows don’t quite match. I came in low on the chimney budget, too, got the flooring for less than I’d figured. But things are going to come up. I know that all too well.

Penny says if too many things come up, we’ll just pitch a wall tent and live in that for the winter. The boys like that idea very much. I like it a little less.

At The Exit

March 16, 2015 § 97 Comments

Up next

Up next

Cold again this morning. I started chores early for no good reason than I’d risen early, and it was nice to be outside on the leading edge of daylight, the sky turning shades of pink and blue above me. Yesterday’s snowfall had obscured our bootways, and every third or fourth step I’d land wrong, slide off the packed path, and sink to the thigh. Set down the hay bale, the slop bucket, the water pail, heave out my leg, pick up my load, walk, repeat.

Rebecca Solnit has a nice essay in the new issue of Harper’s, called “Abolish High School.” Here is some of what she writes:

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens, responsible for 4,600 deaths per year. Federal studies report that for every suicide there are at least a hundred attempts – nearly half a million a year. Eight percent of high school students have attempted to kill themselves, and 16 percent have considered trying. That’s a lot of people crying out for something to change.

We tend to think that adolescence is inherently ridden with angst, but much of the misery comes from the cruelty of one’s peers. Twenty-eight percent of public high school students and 21 percent of private school students report being bullied, and though inner-city kids are routinely portrayed in the press as menaces, the highest levels of bullying are reported among white kids and in nonurban areas. Victims of bullying are, according to a Yale study, somewhere between two and nine times more likely to attempt suicide. Why should children be confined to institutions in which these experiences are so common?

Solnit’s question is rhetorical, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer to it. Or many answers, probably, but for the sake of expedience, I’ll suggest only one: Because their parents can’t imagine something different. Part of the reason they can’t imagine something different is because they can’t afford to imagine something different. And partly, it’s because they’re afraid to imagine something different – in my experience, that fear is oriented primarily around their children’s social and economic prospects. In short, they worry that if they don’t send their kids to school, their kids will become outcasts with few prospects for gainful employment. Better to risk the bullying than the job prospects, and besides, at some point, kids have to learn that not everyone’s going to treat them nicely, don’t they?

But I also think many parents can’t imagine something different because they don’t know there’s something different to imagine. They are not aware there are other paths to walk. Because as Solnit also writes: High school is often considered a definitive American experience, in two senses: an experience that nearly everyone shares, and one that can define who you are, for better or worse, for the rest of your life. This is how the story of school has become so foundational; as adults, most of us have been defined by it, and we have come to depend on it to understand, at least in part, who we are.

Which begs the question: Who are we? Many things, of course. Far too many to list here. But among them, we are a culture that compels their children to be confined daily to a space where 28% of them are bullied. Furthermore, we are a society that comprises 4.6% of the world’s population, but consumes 80% of the world’s pain medication. Depending on age group and gender, nearly 25% of us take drugs to treat our depression.

When people read interviews with me and criticize what I have to say about education, I often wonder what they see in the institutionalized school system that is so worthy an alternative. Are they thinking of the 72% of children who aren’t bullied? I mean, hey, that’s a majority! Nice work. But what of the bullies themselves, if one can be so compassionate as to think of them? I’ve known a few bullies in my life; I even know one or two now. None of them seem very happy to me.

Or are they thinking of the economic opportunities they presume unschooled children won’t have? They are, or at least they say they are, and in a way, this makes me saddest of all, because it suggests that a child’s education should first and foremost be subservient to their economic interests.

Still, sometimes I wonder if the reasons stated for their opposition run even deeper. As Solnit writes, school has become a definitive part of the American experience. It is apple pie, it is Fourth of July, it is part and parcel of our faith that the story we’ve all grown up inside, the story we are all – to varying degrees and by varying levels of complicity -invested in is the right story.

As I went about chores this morning, stumbling and slipping along our well-worn boot packs, I was thinking about how our foot travel has mostly been limited to those prescribed paths for so long. And it occurred to me this morning how liberating it will feel to be able to walk where we please, as if, having been trapped in a labyrinth for all this time, we suddenly find ourselves at the exit.

Except When It’s Not

March 13, 2015 § 38 Comments

Wedding day shave, August  15, 1998

Wedding day shave, August 15, 1998

In just the past week, I’ve had email exchanges with three different blog readers, in which each of them expressed a degree of shame for having not contributed to the generosity enabler. Naturally, I berated them as mercilessly as they deserved and furthermore attached photos of the boys undergoing back alley surgeries to remove extraneous organs for resale on the black market. I mean, like I said, we’re in the market for a new-to-us truck, and they don’t just give those things away.

In all seriousness, it is certainly not my intent to sow guilt. I’ve said it before, but I suppose it bears repeating: If you are called to contribute, it is greatly appreciated. Not only is writing how I earn the bulk of our cash living, there are hard costs to the maintenance of this space. I have all sorts of ideas for things I’d like to bring to this site that I believe will be gratifying for myself and my readers alike. For instance, I’m super-interested in creating an audio component, not merely (or even primarily) to tell our stories, but to tell the stories of others. As an example, I love, love, love what Erica is doing with Rumble Strip VT. Whatever I might or might not do will of course be different from what she does in all the ways I am different from Erica. But tarnation, I think it’s a cool idea.

Whenever I bring up money on this site, someone or another seems to get their undies in a bunch. It’s a little mystifying to me, honestly. It’s not like I’m threatening to put it behind a paywall or anything like that. I suspect it would be more acceptable if I just put up a bunch of ads; we’re so accustomed to being exploited in this manner that we hardly notice it anymore. As a friend of mine said to me recently, in relation to his decision to sell ads on his website, “capitalism gets you every time.” Wise words, those. For what it’s worth, I don’t cast aspersions on my friend’s decision; hell, he’s probably definitely the smarter of the two of us.

Anyway. I believe it’s important to be transparent about all this. I don’t ask for contributions because money is tight; I ask for contributions because I have faith in the value of what is offered here, and because I’d like to be able to afford to continue offering it. Maybe even to offer more. It’s as simple as that.

That said, don’t ever feel guilty because you’re not in a position to contribute. That’s not what it’s about.

•     •     •

In the wee hours of this morning, right after Daisy dawg got a hair ‘cross her ass and starting barking to beat the band at 4 a. friggin’ m., I was lying in bed mulling over the whole transportation/materialism issue a bit more. Now, I do not generally have my most-congent thoughts after being awakened at four in the morning, so bear with me, ok?

The first thing I was thinking about was an ad I’d seen in a recent issue of the New Yorker for Lincoln, touting their new Black Label service (I was gonna link to it, but it’s a total waste of your time and mine). “When was the last time you used the word luscious to describe your commute?” reads the ad, and I choked a bit on the bile in my mouth. Luscious? Lusc-fucking-ious? To describe driving to work?

Herein lies at least one problem with our car-addled society: We try to make driving tolerable. Comfortable. Fun, even. I remember when we first got the ‘ru from Penny’s folks, and how utterly blown away we were by all the creature comforts. I mean, did you know that some cars have buttons you can push, and that when you push ’em, your ass gets hot? I am not kidding. Cruise control! Anti-lock brakes (which, as anyone who actually knows how to drive can tell you, make stopping on ice almost impossible. We pulled the damn fuse). The driver’s seat has something like six different adjustments; some nights, when I’m having trouble sleeping, I head for the car. No, I don’t, because I never have trouble sleeping. But you get my point.

Here’s what I think. I think driving should suck. I think car seats should be hewn of bare rusted metal. I think instead of striving for greater fuel efficiency, we should mandate that all cars get 3 mpg tops, making it as financially painful as possible to operate them. Windshields should be outlawed; you wanna go somewhere, you put on your damn aviator goggles and stick your face into the wind/rain/snow. Radios are allowed, but only if permatuned to “today’s best soft rock.” And so on.

I realize that according to this logic, we should just hang onto the diesel truck that gives Penny such fits. Probably oughta pipe a small stream of it’s pungent exhaust into the cab; not enough to make her sick, of course, but enough to ensure the damn thing only gets driven when it well and truly needs to be driven. Stick that really crackly live Motorhead bootleg I’ve got into the tape deck and put it on repeat. Glue the volume knot at 11. That sort of stuff.

Anyway. This all sort of ties into the whole brief frugality/thriftiness/materialism discussion that erupted in the comments pertaining to yesterday’s post, in which it was generally agreed that our society doesn’t need less materialism, but a different sort of materialism, one that actually values, respects, maybe even reveres the material objects under our purview. Someone posted the following passage from John Michael Greer, which I think is spot on:

Americans are arguably the least materialistic people in the world; no actual materialist—no one who had the least appreciation for actual physical matter and its sensory and sensuous qualities—could stand the vile plastic tackiness of America’s built environment and consumer economy for a fraction of a second. Americans don’t care in the least about matter; they’re happy to buy even the most ugly, uncomfortable, shoddily made and absurdly overpriced consumer products you care to imagine, so long as they’ve been convinced that having those products symbolizes some abstract quality they want, such as happiness, freedom, sexual pleasure, or what have you. 

Furthermore, I am reminded of this short list of rules for consumption that someone emailed me, contrived by none other than Wendell Berry.

1 – Be happy with what you’ve got. Don’t be always looking for something better.
2 – Don’t buy anything you don’t need.
3 – Don’t buy what you ought to save. Don’t buy what you ought to make.
4 – Unless you absolutely have got to do it, don’t buy anything new.
5 – If somebody tries to sell you something to “save labor,” look out. If you can work, then work.
6 – If other people want to buy a lot of new stuff and fill up the country with junk, use the junk.
7 – Some good things are cheap, even free. Use them first.
8 – Keep watch for what nobody wants. Sort through the leavings.
9 – You might know, or find out, what it is to need help. So help people.

It’s a good list, and contains valuable reminders for us all, including myself. The only thing I feel compelled to add is that I don’t generally like hard and fast rules (hence my proclivity for making them and then adding ridiculous disclaimers like “this is true, except when it’s not”); the world seems to me like a nuanced place, demanding of a certain amount of nuance to navigate with equanimity. But there’s nothing wrong with a little guidance, either.

Finally, I will say that I believe there’s a fine line between appreciating/respecting/revering our material belongings and becoming captive to their care and feeding. A friend of ours likes to tell the story of someone he knows who is so in love with his truck that he won’t carry anything in the bed, lest it become blemished. I suppose one might argue that this person has a certain reverence for his truck, but I’m not convinced it’s a healthy reverence.

So then. Reverence for material belongings is a good thing.

This is definitely true.

Except when it’s not.



Fermented This and Fermented That

March 12, 2015 § 66 Comments

Rise n' shine

Rise n’ shine

I think sometimes folks get the mistaken impression that we live entirely off the bounty of the land (gee, wonder where they mighta cottoned to that idea). Or they think that just because on the cover of one of my books I claimed to have quit worrying about money, we actually don’t worry about money (really? You believed me?!?). Or they figure we’re milking the trust fund teat for all she’s worth (someone actually accused me of this recently, and then refused to believe me when I told her it wasn’t true, and I just sorta shrugged my shoulders because what, really, are you going to do with that scenario?).

Anyhow. Truth is, we spend plenty of dough. Pretty much everything we make, as a matter of fact, which generally adds up to somewhere around $3ok annually, although over the past couple of years we have managed to save more of a cushion than we’ve had in goodly while (we’ll probably blow it all this summer, however. You know, on crazy stuff, like putting a roof over our heads). In some regards, I suspect our expenses are a bit different than most folks; in some regards, I suspect they’re probably pretty similar. We don’t budget; I’ve always felt as if budgeting is a colossal waste of time, not to mention being right up there with plucking nose hairs on the fun-o-meter.

Generally speaking, I consider us thrifty, more than frugal. This is because to me, thriftiness speaks of an ethos of respect and perhaps even reverence for what we consume – it is what compels us to catch the blood from the sticking wounds of our pigs, for instance – while frugality is merely about pinching Penny pennies. Admittedly, I haven’t actually researched the official definitions of these words, so take this all with a grain of salt.

Anyhow again. I thought it might be kinda fun to talk a bit about where we spend the bulk of our dough.

Transportation: Because we don’t have a mortgage, this is by far our single biggest expense. We drive a crazy amount. How much, you ask? Honestly, I don’t want to tell you, ‘cause I’ll bleed out every last drop of so-called sustainability cred I might otherwise have accrued over the years. Your notion of me as flowing haired, robe-clad benevolent will go up in same hazy cloud of smoke that bellows from the dual tailpipes of our truck on startup.

Ah, screw it. I wasn’t fooling anyone, anyway: We drive somewhere around 25,000 miles annually, split between the car (about 23k) and the truck (you do the math). Our car is a 2005 Subaru that was gifted to us when Penny’s folks quit driving. It is BY FAR the nicest, most reliable vehicle we’ve owned, though it is old enough to require occasional mechanical interventions and, like all Subarus, it’s a thirsty little bugger: We average about 23mpg, and except when I’m learning the boys how to blow donuts, we go real easy on her.

Our truck is a 1997 Ford F350 Powerstroke. It’s been a real good truck overall, but we are ready to let it go, in large part because Penny is super-sensitive to the sweet nectar of diesel exhaust, and they don’t call these pigs Powersmokes for nothing. Unfortunately, we need a big truck, because we do tow on occasion (hay and tractor), and though we don’t drive the truck much, when we use it, we tend to use it, if you know what I mean. Anyhow, if any of ya’ll have a nice, rust-free ¾ or 1 ton 4wd gas pickup you want to let go for a song, drop a line, eh? Likewise, if any of you are looking for a solid plow rig, and furthermore have a healthy appreciation for diesel fumes, lemme know.

The sum total of all this is that we spend upwards of $3k a year just on fuel for our rigs, plus maybe another $300 in diesel for the tractor. This is ENORMOUSLY frustrating to me, and never mind that maintenance is probably about that much again – for instance, in the past six months, we had to do the head gasket in the ‘ru, deal with some fuel related BS in the truck, fix the front end on the truck, do new brakes on the ‘ru (ouch), and a few other odds and ends. I wish I could say I was mechanically inclined, but alas, I cannot. I’d like to think that if I had some sort of shelter in which to flail around, I might accomplish something of value, but I suspect that’s a pipe dream.

By-the-by, at least half the miles we put on the car are work-related, what with all the driving I do for book events and reporting stories and whatnot. So there’s that.

Food: As I’ve written before, it’s sort of hard to determine how much we actually spend stuffing our faces. I mean, I could add up all the inputs – hay, grain, amendments, and so on – and I could even include depreciation on equipment. But I’d still be faced with trying to put a value on all we get besides food. For instance, last fall I trucked something like 45 yards of compost up to the new land. I don’t really know what a yard of organic compost goes for these days, but I bet it’s north of $60.

So yeah, this is a hard one. I can say that our grocery store spending is real low; most months, not more than $100. But this is dependent on eating habits that most people simply aren’t willing to adopt. With the sole exception of a head of broccoli we bought to put in the soup we made for the spoon carving workshop, we haven’t purchased fresh vegetables all winter. No meat, obviously. No milk, though we’re out of our butter, so we’re onto the boughten stuff until the cows freshen in May. We buy a little flour for the occasional loaf of bread or pancakes, and we buy cheese now and again. Anyway. I’ve been through all this before, so I’ll shut my yap.

Actually, I won’t, because I think this is a real Achilles heel for those who aspire to some version of this life. Truth is, it’s not always easy to eat primarily what we produce, even given the diversity of our little operation. I mean, I’d rip your throat out for fresh greens right now. I ain’t kidding: If you’re sporting fresh greens, you ought just stay clear, ok, ’cause for the past five months or so, it’s been fermented this and fermented that, dried this and dried that, meanwhile rationing out the precious frozen peas and green beans (“son, it’s a very special day: You can have TWO peas!”). Oh, and potatoes and squash sixteen ways to Sunday. And beets. Damn, but I hate me some beets.

This is getting too long. Might have to pick it up another day. If any of you have specific questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll try and get to ‘em.


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