I Visit the Cows


The current stretch of warmth seems unconquerable and at times surreal. Even the nights remain above freezing, and we live amidst a sea of mud, wallowing our way from barn to house, in reverse of historical norms. “That’s how they used to do it,” is what the old timers say when I tell them we’re living in the barn while we build the house. I think their tone is one of nostalgia, but I could be wrong: It could be pity.

Last night our friend Michael came over with a sill he’d made for our front door and we worked by headlamp to install the jamb and hang the door. As we worked, the misting rain made a partial turn toward snow, and we moved quickly, our movements made efficient not only by our individual embodied knowledge, but also by a deep familiarity with one another’s habits.

Michael and I have worked together a fair bit over the years, and it occasionally feels to me as if we operate as extensions of one another, each of us anticipating the others’ next move, quick to have the appropriate tool at hand or a measurement at the ready. His skills are greater than mine (he is a full-time builder and logger), but not so much greater that we cannot work as near-equals, and not so much greater that I cannot understand what he’s doing and why. For this reason, I rarely fail to glean some little nugget or another from working with Michael, and this is pleasing to me. So too does the fact that Michael and I do not want for laughter as we work.

Charles wrote a great essay on the fallacy of numbers-based climate accounting; you can find it here. I don’t have much to add, except that while reading it, I was unable to avoid considering the parallels between the ways we talk about and quantify climate and the ways we talk about and quantify education.

Charles writes: … by focusing on a measurable quantity we devalue that which we cannot measure or choose not to measure. Such issues such as mining, biodiversity, toxic pollution, ecosystem disruption, etc. recede in urgency, because after all, unlike global levels of CO2 they do not pose an existential threat. Certainly one can make carbon-based arguments on all these issues, but to do so is to step onto dangerous ground. Imagine that you are trying to stop a strip mine by citing the fuel use of the equipment and the lost carbon sink of the forest that needs to be cleared, and the mining company says, “OK, we’re going to do this in the most green way possible; we are going to fuel our bulldozers with biofuels, run our computers on solar power, and plant two trees for every tree we chop down.” You get into a tangle of arithmetic, none of which touches the real reason you want to stop the mine — because you love that mountaintop, that forest, those waters that would be poisoned.

I am certain we will not “save our planet” (or at least the ecological basis of civilization) by merely being more clever in our deployment of Earth’s “resources”. We will not escape this crisis so long as we see the planet and everything on it as instruments of our utility. The present climate change narrative veers too close to instrumental utilitarian logic — that we should value the earth because of what will happen to us if we don’t. Where did we develop the habit of making choices based on maximizing or minimizing a number? We got it from the money world. We are seeking to apply our numbers games to a new target, CO2 rather than dollars. I don’t think that is a deep enough revolution. We need a revolution in means, not only a revolution in ends. 

Our culture’s contemporary model for education is also derived from the money world, which is to say it is engineered to transform children into productive economic units. Whether or not our dominant educational system does this effectively is entirely open to debate, but there is little doubt that creating an employable workforce is its primary objective. Perhaps not its only objective, but certainly the one that prevails above all others.

The problem with measuring a child’s education in numerical terms is the same as the problem with measuring the climate in numerical terms: We can only measure what we know how to measure, and therefore, we are trapped in a vacuum of the quantifiable, in the process devaluing that which exists beyond the vacuum, if we’re even able to acknowledge its existence at all. I suppose that’s just a fancy way of saying we don’t know what we don’t know. Or how about this: We don’t feel what we no longer know is possible to feel. Yes. That, too.

This is one of the reasons I become so frustrated when those who’ve chosen alternative educational paths insist on touting the “success” of their children in the context of that vacuum. It is also one of the reasons that I no longer talk much about our educational choices and experiences: I have come to understand that most people want answers I cannot provide, and frankly am not terribly interested in trying to provide. It is almost as if we speak different languages. No doubt it is as indicative of my close-mindedness that I no longer attempt to speak their language as it is of theirs that they do not attempt to speak mine. But there are only so many hours in the day and many ways to pass them.

There is, of course, a correlation between our numbers-based understanding of education and so-called educational solutions and our numbers-based understanding of climate and so-called climate solutions. They are joined at the hip, and, as I suspect Charles might agree, meaningful change in one is unlikely to occur without meaningful change in the other. As to whether these changes happen consecutively or concurrently, well, your guess is as good as mine. As to whether they happen despite or because of our actions and intentions, again, I have no idea.

But most days I do believe they will happen, and that when they do, we will, as Charles writes … realize the importance of those things that we’d relegated to low priority: the mangrove swamps, the deep aquifers, the sacred sites, the biodiversity hotspots, the virgin forests, the elephants, the whales… all the beings that, in mysterious ways invisible to our numbers, maintain the balance of our living planet. Then will we realize that as we do to any part of nature, so, inescapably, we do to ourselves. The current climate change narrative is but a first step toward that understanding.

And on the days I do not believe these things will happen? That’s simple: I visit the cows.


28 thoughts on “I Visit the Cows”

  1. I only know one person without a birthday, my father-in-law. But the gov. didn’t want him to feel left out so they assigned him one. And our midwife, I remember her being very against numbers in general. But we still had her weigh our children at birth. Funny though, right? Was a time when there was not one human being on this planet that had a birthday or a birth weight. But even then we were driving species to extinction. I’m going to visit the cows now…

  2. One can get lost in the fog bank of one’s mind, adrift on a boat going nowhere with nothing to see but the swirl of wet white. In that place it’s easy to get bogged down and see no way out of our predicament, hard to find any silver lining when we face an imminent mass extinction and rising emissions and weather that follows no historical precedent.
    So thank you for the counter point to all that. To borrow from a recent Charlotte Du Cann blog post on Dark Mountain (http://dark-mountain.net/blog/dancing-the-cailleach/) , “Some of us know… that there is a deep place where our presence on Earth is not for nothing.” That is, we are a part of the fabric of the natural world- and can be again if we’ll let ourselves. At the same time, understanding that means we have some responsibility to the wider weave of the world beyond us.
    And when we’re lost in that fog bank, we need to root ourselves in the larger-than-us world. Cows, or the textured play of bark, the wave of branches in the wind, birdsong at dawn.
    Thanks for reminding me.

    1. “Some of us know… that there is a deep place where our presence on Earth is not for nothing.”

      That one was instant recognition!!

      Well, I guess you can consider yourself lucky, Ben for living in the barn under these “winter”.conditions. Would’ve been a lot less fun under similar conditions like last winter, right?
      I used to have a colleague/friend with whom I had a similar relationship. I dearly miss him, but we went our separate ways after he met a woman and I left the country…

  3. Hmmmmm …..food for thought …and YES agree for humans to lead sustaining AND sustainable lives we need to learn to live it in tune with nature ….a long ways to go to the big shift …but if we don’t get our skates on to turn back …simplify …there won’t be much left for us to numerise( is that a word?) …package …and haggle about. ( Let’s face it mainstream education is to package kids for the workplace and feed the capitalist machine)

    Hmmmmm ….if we do become extinct …probably thro self inflicted means unlike the dinosaurs ….the world would maybe have more chance of healing itself.
    It’s the arrogance of humans …seem to struggle with the concept that we are NOT the sole species on the planet.

    Love following your blog ….living in a post industrial town in the north of England …the lifestyle you and your family have sounds very appealing 🙂

  4. I don’t talk about our education choices much anymore either. It took years for my brain to really get it and I’m living it every day. I just don’t know how to communicate that in any kind of way that fits into a conversation.

  5. “I have come to understand that most people want answers I cannot provide, and frankly am not terribly interested in trying to provide. It is almost as if we speak different languages. No doubt it is as indicative of my close-mindedness that I no longer attempt to speak their language as it is of theirs that they do not attempt to speak mine.”

    Ben, No answers asked for or required here. You make people (me) think and for that alone I am appreciative. Hope the new door swings straight and true.

  6. Miles Olson in his book “Unlearn, Rewild” says something similar to Charles, going as far as defining our economy as “a measure of our physical toll on the natural world”. How a culture treats its land is reflected like a mirror in how it treats humans… “Those that abuse the land abuse one another,.. There is no separation.” Excellent post.

  7. The cow thing, I think that’s called, ‘being in the moment’. Which is all there is. So even though the planet is heating up, and there’s this thing called ISIS or ISIL (or whatever the flying fock it’s called, thank you US government for creating it), I still exist. Still here, and I’m okay for some strange reason? If I’m in the moment, I’m okay. If I lay awake at night imagining gruesome scenarios then I’m not okay, so I try not to do that unless it’s a full moon and I’ve succumbed to ego (it’s okay to do that if you blame the full moon btw). Easy way to be in the moment? Oh…that’s called nature. Holy baby jesus I love it! I refuse to capitalize jesus.

    Every once in awhile I feel pressure with the homeschooling thing. Then I remember that I don’t believe in any of these stupid systems. They’re all fear based, money driven, not to mention f’ing annoying. So bless you Ben Hewitt for saying the things you’ve said. Bless you for taking a hit for doing it (if you did). Because it helped me immensely. You helped a bunch of people who just needed that push to get us to listen to ourselves. Unfortunately the robots still outnumber…but everything starts somewhere, and small, until it spreads. Evolution, adaptation, change…it’s my new ‘religion’. Most people hate it because they aren’t in charge. What a bunch of dorks.

    1. Thank you , Ben. That was beautiful and well said. I, personally, have always found the cows to be comforting and instructive.

    2. Very moved by your comment, like your spelling of jesus. He gets way too much attention, a tool of the powerbrokers for the manipulation of we sheep. There were prophets before him and prophets after him and there are prophets now. There are books by Charles Eisenstein, Michael Ruppert, Daniel Quinn, Derrick Jensen and others that can be stacked on top of the bible. Some of those prophets also, have been nailed to the cross by the trump cards…
      Bob Dylan
      “Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
      Behind every beautiful thing there,s been some kind of pain
      She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
      She put down in writing what was on her mind
      I just don’t see why I should even care
      It,s not dark yet but it’s gettin there”

      She, is Mother Nature and she is kindly letting us know what we are doing to her (our selves) but hardly anybody cares, so why should I is what’s said, so it continues at full bore. Darkness awaits if we don’t burn our tractors and get some horses, and get out there on our hands and knees with Penny to plant our beans…

  8. Hey Ben, good thoughts. I’ve long felt that our efforts to repair the world partake of the same habits of mind that have caused it to break down. (If you ever doubted this, check out some of the maniacal geoengineering fixes that have been proposed for climate change.) The basic truth is inescapable, but I’m not sure what to do about it. I think if the world ever gets “fixed” it will be from billions of people living in the moment and starting to act out of their best instincts, rather than a few smart folks coming up with a plan and getting everybody to fall in line. You’re right, it’s probably both. But if we just rely on the latter, we’re definitely cooked. So keep on talking to them cows.

  9. I was thinking as I was reading this post, “wow, he hasn’t talked about education in a while, glad to hear this one!” and then I read your part about why you haven’t been writing much about education.
    Oh. I guess I understand.
    But what about those of us that are here to learn? I’m being serious here, I want to understand your “language”. Within the last year or two is the only time I have really been able to see what’s outside the rhetoric of this “modern world” and I am still trying to learn alternative ways of living – unschooling, gift economy, sustainability, etc. Those unmeasurable elements of life that are hard to see.
    Those of us like me would still sincerely like to hear your opinions and experiences regarding education, and would appreciate your work in that regard.
    I enjoyed the quotes from Charles. Poignant. I also enjoyed your description of working with Michael. I have a friend like that, truly a joy to work with.
    I hope you’re still enjoying the process of building your house. The recent warm weather has been surreal here too, and a real boon to our recent endeavors.
    Best Regards,

  10. You are kind of like Donald Rumsfeld….when he said…. “There are the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.”

  11. okay, but I was just in Belize and it was good to know an estimate of how many Jaguars are left. Helps with a sense of urgency.

  12. I think I understand that not needing to explain yourself ( w/ regard to the unschooling, especially). There is a LOT of information out there, and everyone should decide for themselves, not because Ben or anyone else says so. It is not a template….I also think sometimes, you might mention things that spark the minds of others, thoughts they never knew they might think 🙂
    In that way, your writing is priceless. Thank you for your generosity.
    And being mindful is just about the only way to stay sane, connected, whole.

  13. Thank you for this! It actually gave me peace following a conversation I had about “unschooling” with a friend of mine, and now I feel like I understand why the conversation was so difficult: we were speaking two different languages, comparing apples and oranges 🙂

  14. Merry Christmas Hewitts!

    We are having our usual Colorado mountain Christmas with family and friends and hope that you are all well in body, in mind, and on this day filled with God’s Holy Spirit!

    USPS reports that POB 274 has been closed and the package that I sent forwarded somewhere unspecified. Nebraska wild flower seeds gathered when I was afield on poacher patrol seemed like an appropriate gift for the homesteader.

    1. Haven’t seen ’em yet, but thanks for thinking of us and for the well wishes.

      Definitely feeling full of spirit, though not sure it’s holy.

      1. Well, I hope that you get the box. I will say that collecting the seed heads was the best part of poacher patrol. Much more fun than pulling down deer stands, hauling them out to the road, and cutting them up into piles of scrap.

  15. Speaking of cows, we’re eating the tenderloins from #B86 and #C233 at 3PM today! I’m going to open a few bottles of a Portuguese Cabernet Sauvignon for the guests and, for my Wife, a bottle of Blandy’s Special Madeira.

  16. Well said. There are times when it makes sense to quantify and measure things. And times when it really isn’t that helpful. I could say of today, we had a record high temperature. Or I could say, it was a warm day. I could say this post has generated some good conversation, or I could say it has produced 23 comments.

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