Then I Walked Home

Where bad smells live
Where bad smells live

This morning was an early one, what with Rye’s confounded cat Winslow having squoze his way through the gate through which he is not supposed to squeeze and prancing his way upstairs and settling into a spot directly to the right of my slumbering head, where he commenced to purr maliciously. It was 4:45 a.m., or thereabouts, so I tripped into my office and knocked out a few words, and then, just as soon as I thought perhaps I could make out the shaggy forms of the sheep in the predawn gloaming beyond my office window, I strolled outside.

It was eerie warm, the air soup-thick and rank with the smell of the skunks the boys had trapped for our friend Todd. Not for the first time (and certainly not for the last), I cursed my sons’ odd desires and also Penny’s and my willingness to accommodate them. I mean, really: Who in their right freakin’ mind would let their children trap skunks and skin them in the front yard? Who in their right freakin’ mind would let their children build a trapping shed at the junction of lawn and driveway, in plain smell of the house? Don’t get me wrong: I want to support my boys and all, but sometimes it just seems like it’d be a hell of a lot easier if they were into X Box and baseball. Sometimes, it just seems like it’d be a hell of a lot easier if we just said “no” a little more often.

So now the interior of our new-to-us Subaru, an extremely generous and timely gift from Penny’s folks, who have recently given up driving at almost precisely the same moment our old car failed inspection for structural rust issues, and the first vehicle we’ve ever owned that was made in this century, carries the faint odor of dead skunk. I have this fantasy that I’m going to stop for a hitchhiker and he’s gonna get one whiff of the situation and say something like “no thanks, man. I need the exercise, anyway.”

Whatever. I spent the remainder of the early morning moving from animal to animal as the sky went about its business of exchanging dark for light. Pigs, chickens (both meat and layers), and the new piglets, which are down in the nascent nut grove, rutting out the wild raspberries and spreading piggy fertilizer. I strolled down to the cows at the far end of the pasture, and stood under the big apple tree along Melvin’s boundary and ours, just watching. I’d had the idea I might gather some drops for the pigs, but I’d brought no bucket and hadn’t even worn a shirt from which to fashion a carrier, and I realized how foolish I’d been.

A minute passed, maybe two. It was not raining, but it felt as if might start, and I remembered the ending lines of Hayden Carruth’s poem “Cows At Night”:


But I did not want to go,

not yet, nor knew what to do

if I should stay, for how


in that great darkness could I explain

 anything, anything at all.

I stood by the fence. And then

 very gently it began to rain.


Then I walked home.


Just Fine, Too

The boys have been pounding ash for pack baskets
The boys have been pounding ash for pack baskets

Yesterday afternoon I fled my desk around 3:00 and bee-lined for the sawmill. I’ve had my eye on the mill for the past couple of weeks; it’d been at least a month since I’d sawn any lumber, and we’d ‘bout polished off our stash. This place has an insatiable thirst for lumber: For fences, for outbuildings, for the boys to make some ridiculous contraption having to do with some ridiculous game. I stumble across these contraptions all the time – most recently, a pretend guillotine for a fantasy in which Rye had captured Fin’s alter-ego, Dubbins, and was threatening to behead him if he didn’t behave – and while part of me chafes at the sheer volume of these devices, at all the nails and screws and boards that are sacrificed to my sons’ play, a greater part of me is merely grateful that I’m not tripping over the ubiquitous plastic shit that fills most children’s lives these days. Wow, that sounded curmudgeonly. I’m gonna have to try that more often.

Anyway. The mill. And the woodshed, which has a roof (arguably the most important part of a woodshed, I grant you that) but no siding. I have a nice pile of balsam logs from last winter’s exploits, some of which, I knew, would net me 12-inch boards or better. Have you ever lifted a fresh sawn 1 x 12 board off the top of a log you pulled from the forest yourself? Maybe, but my guess is not, and while it’s different strokes for different folks, I’m betting most of ya’ll would feel the same thing I feel when such a thing happens to me. Which, if it were expressed in words, would be hell, yes. To me, the sawmill is one of those tools that despite its noise and fury plainly illustrates the connective thread that runs through all our lives and ties us to the natural world. Forest. Tree. Lumber. Shelter. I like seeing that thread illustrated. I like following it from one end to the other just to see where it leads me.

In any event, I spent a half hour or so dinking with the mill. The hydraulic jack that adjusts blade tension was low on oil and the jack would not hold pressure, so I unbolted it and filled it with fluid. The line that feeds a stream of water onto the blade to cool and clean it during sawing was plugged with sawdust, so I removed it and poked a wire into it until it was clear. And then there was the simple remembering of all the levers and wheels and whatnot; there are numerous adjustments to be made with each and every turn of the log, and after a half-dozen weeks of not making these adjustments, I felt clunky at the controls, pausing after each pass for a second or two, unsure of precisely what I was supposed to do next. But after a few boards came off the mill, I was back in the groove, and I had the feeling of playing an instrument, albeit one that produces only a single, long note and is capable of removing a leg.

By 7:20 or so, with daylight waning fast, I nailed the last board to the north-facing side of the woodshed. It would’ve gone a little quicker, but I was using a bunch of nails I’d pulled from one of the boys’ long-forgotten contraptions, and most of them required a bit of straightening. The other sides of the shed, I suspect, will have to wait until next year or until I get to them, whichever comes first (my money’s on the former). The list of tasks separating us from winter is probably longer than the accumulation of waking hours separating us from winter can accommodate, though I suspect we’ll make it even out somehow. We always do.

And if we don’t? Well, that’ll be just fine, too.


Better Things


When I was a child, I read almost constantly. This was in part because for most of my childhood, I did not have access to a television, and probably in part because I was raised by bookish types: My father wrote poetry (still does, actually, the poor fellow), and my mother has written a couple of children’s books. Furthermore, I was not a terribly popular child. I was kind of fat and slow and ungainly, and I probably don’t have to tell you that these are not revered qualities in elementary and junior high schools.

I have a vivid memory from this period of my life of setting my alarm for 4:30, so that I could read for an hour or two before school began. I’d set up my bed so that the head of it fit into a closet; sounds weird, I know, but there was something cozy and comforting about it and I read in that closet for hour after hour after hour. Reading is just what I did.

We have spent almost no time formally teaching the boys to read, although we have read to them extensively almost since the day they were born. Penny has an enormous capacity for reading aloud; even now, with the boys nearly the ages of  9 and 12, respectively, she reads aloud to them every night before bed, often for more than an hour, and that’s a mere fraction of what she did when they were younger. Fin and Rye favor real life adventure stories, both fiction and non-fiction, and are particular fans of Gary Paulsen, which is convenient, because he’s a pretty fantastic writer.

Fin started reading when he was eight; a month shy of his 9th birthday, Rye is just starting to read. Both of them spend a tremendous amount of time with their faces in books, particularly during the colder months. Fin in particular carries books with him almost everywhere; I suspect that once Rye is fully capable of reading to himself, he’ll do the same.  I remember being somewhat stressed when Fin turned eight and still didn’t read, probably because their ability to self-learn reading felt to me like the first big test of our informal teaching stye. But of course my stress was merely the result of standardized expectations set by the institutionalized schooling system. Without those expectations, set by – well, set by whom, really? I can’t say, but someone, somewhere must have decided children should learn to read by age 7, just like someone, somewhere must have determined every one of the “educational” milestones that define our sons’ and daughters’ school experience. Maybe the people who set these standards and designed these curriculums really do know a whole lot about how children learn and are thus qualified to make such decisions. But I know for a fact they don’t know my children.

I’m struck by the fact that I don’t see many children reading books anymore. I know some do; I just don’t see it much. I’m struck by the fact that as a society, we seem to revere the ability to read, and we seem intent on teaching it to our children as early as they can possibly grasp it. And then what do we do? We take it away from them. Not overtly, of course. Not with any conscious intent, but by slowly filling every “spare” minute of their waking hours with activities and opportunities. I remember an article that ran in a local weekly paper about the implementation of iPads in elementary and junior high school. Here is a revealing passage (the entire story is here. Gotta love the quote about parents who spend their “time cutting down trees in the middle of the woods”):

BFA Fairfax middle school principal Tom Walsh is equally jazzed about iPads and their power to get kids more excited about learning, in and outside the classroom.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of home you come from. Everyone has the same access. Everyone has the same tools,” he says during a tour of the school. “To me, public schools are the last bastion of equity in education.”

Next door to Skerrett’s classroom, an eighth-grade language-arts class is engaged in iPad learning games. One student is playing “Words With Friends,” a crossword game similar to Scrabble. At a desk alone, a young boy is engrossed in “Math Ninja,” a game whose objective is to defend a treehouse using martial-arts weapons.

Walsh asks the boy what he likes about the game. “You get to viciously attack cats and dogs with throwing stars and swords,” the kid says with a perfectly straight face. To reach the next level, however, the player must answer basic math questions, such as 22 divided by 11.

“Not really rigorous learning,” Walsh says, “but if you’ve got downtime, there’s worse things you could be doing.”

Perhaps Walsh is correct. Perhaps there are worse things a child could be doing than viciously attacking cats and dogs with throwing stars and swords on his way to learning that 22 divided by 11 is 2 (which, by the way, either one of my sons could’ve told you long before they reached the age that would correlate with their being in 8th grade).

Yeah, so, perhaps there are worse things. But l know for a fact there are better things, too.