For a Little While

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.




Every Useful thing






No doubt

Marshall’s sorrow is the same as human

sorrow generally, but there is this

difference. To live in a doomed city, a doomed

nation, a doomed world is desolating, and we all

are desolate. But to live on a doomed farm

is worse. It must be worse. There the exact

point of connection, gate of conversion, is –

mind and life. The hilltop farms are going.

Bottomland farms, mechanized, are all that survive.

As more and more developers take over

northern Vermont, values of land increase,

taxes increase, farming is an obsolete vocation –

while half the world goes hungry. Marshall walks

his fields and woods, knowing every useful thing

about them, and knowing his knowledge is useless.


from Hayden Carruth’s poem Marshall Washer. It’s a good one. You can read the rest of it in this book