Locking Up the Food

In progress
In progress

The storm was lesser than forecast. We got maybe three inches of snow, though by this morning the wind had deposited it into sharp-ridged drifts. I pushed through two of them on my way to the barn this morning, both knee-deep, the snow soft and yielding. It was zero, but the early light – thin, uncertain, sunless -made the air feel even colder, and by the time I returned to the house, my fingers stung. I shucked my gloves and held my hands over the hot iron of the cookstove, flipping them every dozen seconds or so until the cold was all burned out.

•    •    •

A few steps of the dance, performed just three or four days a month, enriched their lives greatly and took almost no effort. As here on earth, the people of this planet were not a single people but many peoples, and as time went on, each people developed its own approach to the dance. Some continued to dance just a few steps three or four days a month. Others found it made sense for them to have even more of their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every second or third day. Still others saw no reason why they shouldn’t live mostly on their favorite foods, so they danced a few steps every single day. Things went on this way for tens of thousands of years among the people of this planet, who thought of themselves as living in the hands of the gods and leaving everything to them. For this reason, they called themselves Leavers. 

But one group of Leavers eventually said to themselves “Why should we just live partially on the foods we favor? All we have to do is devote a lot more time to dancing.” So this one particular group took to dancing several hours a day. Because they thought of themselves as taking their welfare into their own hands, we’ll call them the Takers. The results were spectacular. The Takers were inundated with their favorite foods. A manager class soon emerged to look after the accumulation and stores of surpluses -something that hand never been necessary when everyone was just dancing a few hours a week. The members of this manager class were far too busy to do any dancing themselves, and since their work was so critical, they soon came to be regarded as social and political leaders. But after a few years these leaders of the Takers began to notice that food production was dropping, and they went out to see what was going wrong. What they found was that the dancers were slacking off. They weren’t dancing several hours a day, they were dancing only an hour or two and sometimes not even that much. The leaders asked why. 

“What’s the point of all this dancing?” the dancers asked. “It isn’t necessary to dance seven or eight hours a day to get the food we need. There’s plenty of food even if we just dance an hour a day. We’re never hungry. So why shouldn’t we relax and take life easy, the way we used to?” 

The leaders saw things very differently, of course. If the dancers went back to living the way they used to, then the leaders would soon have to do the same, and that didn’t appeal to them at all. They considered and tried many different schemes to encourage or cajole or tempt or shame or force the dancers into dancing longer hours, but nothing worked until one of them came up with the idea of locking up the food.

From My Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I highly recommend it.








Two Swirls


Over the past two days we slaughtered and processed two of our three pigs, a task that to me is always more daunting in anticipation than action. We have now killed and processed enough pigs that the process is etched in our thoughts, emotions, and bodies. I know the particular anxiety I will feel in the moments before death. I know the certain fatigue of six straight hours spent cleaving the carcasses into chops and roasts and sausage trim. I know even the small sorrow of leaving one pig alive, and I wonder how that it is for her. She exhibits no distress, nor displays any change in routine that might be interpreted as such. But still. How can she not miss her mates, if only for the warmth of their bodies at night? Or perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps she’s glad for all the extra space.

I have written enough on this site already about killing animals for meat, so I will add only this: After so many years, it has gotten easier. Maybe I should not admit this, but it has. For better or worse, we have accepted and acclimated to our role in the conversion of others’ flesh into our own. It’s been a humbling process, and this humility feels right to us. There is peace in this humility. I cannot tell you exactly why, and I would never have anticipated such, but we have found it to be true.

On Sunday, after we’d finished dressing the hogs, I washed my hands at the kitchen sink. I’d nicked myself earlier in the day, and now I removed the bandage I’d applied to stem the cuts’ flow. As the water ran over my hands, I watched two distinct swirls form in the sink basin: One my own, the crimson-blood shade of a shallow extremity wound, and the other the russet-red of the pigs’ arterial reserves.

In seconds, drawn by the drainward slope, the two swirls became one. I turned up the water and the blood soon disappeared.


It Can Be No Other Way


Not many people reading this blog know it, but a while back (like, two decades ago, which was probably when some of you still needed a reminder to pull down your pants before you peed and damn but if that ain’t humbling to an ole fart like myself) I was a pretty good competitive cyclist. I raced mountain bikes mostly, in the preferred format of the day, which generally involved two hour, mass start events. At the time, cross country mountain bike racing was hugely popular; it was on the verge of becoming an Olympic sport, and the number of people willing to drive multiple hours so they could saddle their bicycles and pay to ride in circles until they vomited was really something to behold.

I raced at the highest regional level, and while I didn’t win very many events, I was consistently toward the front. I stood on the podium fairly regularly, though most commonly on its bottom step. I think the biggest thing separating me from the absolute best guys was pretty simple: I didn’t care enough. It never really bothered me that I didn’t win very often. In fact, I was always sort of amazed that I did as well as I did, and I couldn’t fathom doing many of the things the guys who were beating me did. Fly to Arizona to train in February, for instance. Or shaving their legs. Eating rice cakes. Living in their parents’ basement. That sort of stuff.

Anyway, what I really loved about riding my bike competitively was that every so often, I’d have a transcendental performance. I mean, I’d seriously be crying on the bike, and not from pain or grief, but from the pure gratitude of being allowed a glimpse of what being human can feel like. Everything would click so perfectly that I almost couldn’t feel the effort being expended, it was as if the bike were racing itself and I was merely fortunate enough to be along for the ride. This didn’t happen often – maybe one out of every seven or eight races – but it happened often enough that I never forgot the feeling. I never thought I wouldn’t experience it again. I just had to keep looking for it.

What happened the other 85% of the time? Usually, it was sort of average. Not miserable, but certainly not transcendental. Just a skinny, lycra-clad dude huffing and puffing and sweating. And on occasion, it was truly miserable. Legs like lead balloons. Lungs burning. Mind fixated on counting down the interminable minutes until the finish line. Questioning everything: the hours wasted training, the self-loathing of knowing Penny was at home, mixing cement for the concrete piers of our original cabin, while I was doing… what, exactly? Riding my bike in circles like a circus monkey and furthermore, spending money we barely had for the privilege? I’d bring her flowers if I placed high enough, lay them right in her blistered hands.

I mention this because I received an email from one of my writing students; she’s struggling with her work.  I mean I know how I want to write, I just can’t seem to get this new way to come out on paper, if that makes any sense, she tells me. Oh, yeah, A, it makes sense. It makes a whole freakin’ lot of sense. It especially makes sense to me lately, ’cause truth is, I’ve been struggling, too. Like this woman, I’ve had the sense over the past couple of weeks that I know how I want to write, but I can’t quite get it to come out on paper. My suspicion is that most writers – even so-called “professional” writers – feel that way an awful lot of the time. They probably don’t want you to know that. We pros like to think there’s something sacred about our craft, that we’re the beneficiaries of a particular genius you poor commoners will never understand. Bullocks. 

Here’s what I think about writing. No, scratch that: Here’s what I think about life. And bike racing, for that matter, which was the whole point of my long-winded introduction. You gotta muddle your way through a lot of shit to get to the sweet spots. Actually, it’s even more than that: You can’t even find the sweet spots if you don’t muddle through the crap. If you don’t hurt a little, if you don’t drag your sorry sick ass outside to do chores on a four below morning, you’ll never fully appreciate those August mornings when you rise at 5 full of piss and vinegar and you’re on the land by 5:30, and the cows are right where they’re supposed to be, waiting for you to drop the fence and the grass is boot-top high and so green you think there should be another word for it. If you don’t stick out the long months of winter, the truck that won’t start despite three – three! – cycles of the glow plugs, the 4:30 darkness, that craving you have for just a glimpse of sun please, please, please but even the long term forecast is all clouds and cold, you’ll never fully appreciate that day in early March when it hits 47 and the sap is running something fierce and you’re down to a tee shirt and sunburned by noon.

To my student, and to anyone who struggles with their writing (and therefore, to myself), I say this: If you don’t write the sentences that, no matter how many times you rewrite and reorder and rework them, never seem to say what you want them to say, if you don’t do that over and over and over again…. well. You’ll never find the ones that write themselves, the ones that fall into place as if they already existed (and truth is, they probably did). You’ll never know how effortless it can be – not always, not often, certainly not as frequently as you’d like. But often enough to keep calling you forward. Often enough that you do what I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks, lurching along, doing what needs to be done. It can be a little painful. If you’re offering your work for public appraisal, as I am, it can be a little embarrassing.

It can also be no other way.


Most Importantly

Ice rimed
Ice rimed

I wrestled the snowplow onto the truck this morning; the wind was gusting fierce from the south, and I watched an empty five-gallon bucket skitter across the yard like a north country homestead tumbleweed. Five gallon buckets are unheralded champions of the rural life, the best damn use of plastic since the 45 rpm. Better yet, they lend a distinctly white trash charm to even the most bucolic homestead landscape, especially when they’re blown willy nilly across the yard by the encroaching cold front. I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the less patience I have with bucolic. I want to see some grit and gumption. I want to see some trash and tarnish. I want to see the exposed, flayed-open underbelly of it all. It’s so much more interesting, don’t you think?

That fuckin’ plow. It’s about 20 years old, one of the early versions of what Fisher calls “Minute Mount” and boy but wouldn’t I have loved to be a fly on the wall for the meeting from which that particular moniker emerged:

Marketing Chump: “Let’s see boys, what should we call this puppy?” 

Engineering Dude: “Well, other than the fact that it takes about 20 solid minutes of knuckle bashing, back-and-forthing, creative cursing, and tool hurling to mount the damn thing, we’ve got ourselves a real good product.”

MC: “Ok, then. We’ll call it Minute Mount.”

And the room dissolves into evil cackling. 

Still and all. Beats the shit out of a shovel, I know that much.

•     •    •

We’re into January proper, which is about the time I start eyeing the firewood and hay reserves with a calculating eye. You’d think after all these years I’d have it down cold, but there are always contingencies. For instance, this year we’re burning mostly what I like to call “grade B” firewood: I cut a patch of white birch pretty heavy last winter, as most of it was slowly rotting on the stem.

I like white birch. It’s good for an awful lot of things. The bark is amazing stuff, and the wood is nice for carving into things like bowls and Cree snow shovels and whatnot. But it’s only halfway decent firewood. That’s because it’s a bit shy in the BTU department and also because it holds a lot of moisture, thus necessitating a relatively longer drying period, which we never seem to manage. And even then, it’s prone to sputtering a bit. On the plus side, the papery, combustible nature of its bark is a thing of beauty. It’s like having built-in firestarter.

Anyway. As I get older, I’m becoming less of a firewood snob (actually, the older I get, the lower my overall standard of living seems to be sinking, which is perhaps a topic for another day). Twas a day I was strictly a hard maple and white ash sort of fellow, but nowadays I throw all sorts of lesser species into the mix. Hell, there’s even a few sticks of poplar in the woodshed this year, which is a new low for us, because if white birch is grade B, poplar failed out years ago and mostly spends his days hanging out on the street corner, selling dime bags of dirt weed.

We’re actually about halfway through our wood reserves, which means we’re well short of abiding by the old chestnut “half your wood and half your hay by Groundhog Day.” But that’s ok. We’re coming close to the return of Sol (please, please let this be true, ’cause it’s been some dreary the past couple months, let me tell you), and the south-facing nature of our house creates an interesting dynamic: We actually burn more firewood in November and December than we do in January and February. A lot more. It surprises me every year, which it shouldn’t, but that’s ok, because I like surprises, especially when the surprise is that we won’t have to spend the month of March scavenging firewood.

So: Today’s lessons.

1) Plastic buckets rock

2) Bucolic is boring

3) Minute Mount plows don’t. Mount in a minute, that is.

4) They still beat a shovel

5) Face your house South. Unless you live below the equator.

And finally, most importantly 6) Let yourself be surprised


Overthrowing the System, One Log at a Time


The confluence of holiday socializing, firewood-gittin’, and a New Year’s virus finally caught up with me this morning, and I came to my desk thinking it Monday and therefore as good a day as any to tuck into the sundry projects begging attention. By the time I realized the start of the work week is still a full 24 hours hence, the snow that fell overnight had turned to rain, and this bleak fact, coupled with the congealed porridge of mucous rattling my every labored breath (hope you weren’t planning on oatmeal for breakfast!), cemented my decision to just stay put.

We launched the New Year with vigor, and this was particularly impressive, considering we stayed up ’til all hours – 10:30! – at a friends’ party. I felled and skidded what I’m currently estimating to be approximately six cords worth of hardwood logs, a calculation arrived at despite my long history of firewood-related optimism and the unflattering truth that year after year after year my initial estimates prove themselves ridiculously inflated. So, yeah, in truth, there’s probably about four cords of firewood at the landing. But that’s still four cords more than were there a few days ago.

While I sawed and skidded, the boys and Penny split and piled, and all in all it was a fine way to ring in the first two days of the New Year. For all the food we grow, and for the multitude of other ways in which we fill the cup of our needs from our own wellspring, putting up the fuel for a winter’s worth of fires – some for warming, some for cooking, all for pleasure – is the act that brings me the greatest sense of satisfaction and, in a way I fear I will struggle to explain, liberation.

As Andrea recently reminded me, it was Edward Abbey who wrote the cliffs notes guide to overthrowing the system: Brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it. Good stuff, Ed, and not a bit of it in the wrong, but for those of us in the north country, I hasten to add one more: Put up your own damn firewood.

•    •    •

The last post brought a few trapping related questions.

First, thanks to everyone who’s recommend it, but we’ve seen Happy People. In an actual theater, even! Got in line at noon for the 7:00 p.m. show. That was a long, lonely wait, let me tell you.

Second, there is very little chance of catching non-target animals in underwater sets, which is one of the reasons the boys are particularly keen on water trapping. Most crucially, there is essentially no chance of bagging someone’s pet.

Third, the boys trap primarily for meat and fur and are committed to utilizing the whole animal (beaver liver pate, anyone? No? How ’bout muskrat pot pie?). They do sell a small number of furs to local craftspeople, but they are not drawn to commodity fur selling.

Fourth, the conibear traps like the one pictured kill instantly.

Fifth (and even though no one asked about it), supporting the boys’ trapping exploits was initially difficult for Penny and me. It was only through significant amounts of research and examination of preconceived notions that we have, over time, become accepting and even appreciative of their passion.