You Can Hardly Remember a Time

Before the rain

Forty-eight hours after I walked the frozen stream a heavy rain began. It rained hard all that night and by morning the water had risen and reopened, pushing sheets of ice onto the banks and into the surrounding forest, pieces of a strange and unsolvable puzzle.

It is hard for me to grapple with the calendar; hard to believe it is almost March. All told, we’ve had maybe a month’s worth of true winter weather, and it feels as if spring is coming too fast, too soon. This does not make it unwelcome, but part of me is disappointed to be cheated out of the sense of a accomplishment a good, hard winter brings. You make it through a real northern winter – a winter like we had last year, or even the one before that, when we burned every last scrap of firewood in the shed and even dipped into the sugaring wood – and you can’t help but feel a little pleased with yourself. Not quite proud, just… satisfied, I guess. There’s not much satisfaction in a winter like this one.

The conversation of late has been about craft and competence and learning, in no particular order. Partly this is because my family just returned from spending a long week with a group of people who have devoted their lives to their relationship with the physical world, in the process elevating many of their skills to the realm of craft. “I wish I’d known it was possible to live like that when I was 20,” Penny said, or something like it, and I recalled something our friend Nate told me once (he being one of those my family spent time with in Minnesota, and one who long ago crossed the threshold from competence to craft in most of his handwork): “There came a point when I realized I didn’t know anything that really mattered.” This was after college, after embarking on something that looked vaguely career-like, after his 30th birthday had come and gone. This was two birch bark canoes, a couple pairs of snowshoes, many axe heads and beaver tail knife sheaths and nights under the stars and lord knows what else ago.

Concurrently, someone mentioned to me that she feels “competence shame” when she reads my work in this space, and I wanted to laugh (but didn’t, because – and this may surprise you – I’m actually a pretty sensitive guy), because of course I feel it, too. Every time I work with Michael, whose building skills are greater than mine will ever be, I feel it. Every time I have to call my friend Paul to help me puzzle through something or another, usually plumbing or electrical related, I feel it. When Luke comes and gets the sawmill running in 23 minutes flat, after I’d already fiddled with the loutish contraption for three infuriating and futile hours, I feel it. There’s more, of course. Actually, I could go on like this for quite some time.

Concurrently again, someone sent me a link to this movie, which I haven’t yet been able to watch in full, but enough to know is about the ways in which western-style education is insidiously eradicating the traditional land based culture in Ladakh. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think that of course the exact same thing happened here; it’s just not so noticeable, because our own land-based culture didn’t last terribly long, perhaps in part because it was itself founded on the eradication of land-based cultures that had thrived here for millennia. Maybe we believed we were always destined for something better. Manifest destiny, and all that.

So. What of my reader’s competence shame? What of mine? What of Penny’s wish that she’d known of certain possibilities almost three decades ago? What of our friend Nate’s realization, the one that spurred him to shift the trajectory of his life in profound ways? These are all, on some level or another, an outgrowth of a cultural meme, one in which our children’s formative years are defined by an educational system that feeds economy first and foremost. Job creator, employee maker, profit taker. Competence as defined by numbers, not by a piece of wood taking shape in the hands. Not a shelter finding its form. Or even something as simple as a meal cooked over fire.

It’s intimidating to consider everything we don’t know, all the ways in which we lack competence, to say nothing of craftsmanship. It is for me, anyway. I know it is for Penny. Certainly for my reader. I bet it was for Nate, even, and might still be at times, despite all he does and does so well. Truly, it can be discouraging, particularly in the inevitable event of comparison with one who has elevated competence to craft. On the drive home from the Davy Knowles concert last month, Fin, an avid guitarist, said “I’m not sure whether to be inspired or depressed.” I thought of all the truly great writers I know of, the ones whose words flow as fluidly as Davy’s notes. I knew exactly, immediately what my son meant.

I guess this is what I want to say – to my reader, to my son, to my wife, to myself, even: The comparisons are inevitable. It’s human nature. There will always be someone whose skills are greater, whose experience is deeper, who has elevated incompetence to competence and then to craft and now seems destined for something even grander. Who plain and simple knows more about the things we wished we knew more about ourselves. If you don’t accept that, it’ll drive you mad. Or worse yet, make you want to give up.

If this is the way you feel, I really think there’s only one thing to do, although there are probably many versions of how to do it. For what it’s worth, here’s mine: Go outside and build yourself a little fire. Pull up a stump or just sit on the ground. Put a chunk of meat on stick or, if you don’t eat meat, one of those gawdawful “notdogs.” Sit there and cook whatever you’re cooking and think about a couple of things.

For one, maybe cooking a meal over a fire you built yourself is enough to make you feel better. I know it works for me.

For another, it’s sure as hell not your fault you were raised in a culture that is doing its level best to eradicate human competence in the physical, non-human world.

Finally, while there is an inherent reward in competence (and presumably craft, though I have little-to-no experience in this realm), there is even greater reward in the process of achieving competence, the slow evolution of skill that stubbornly, lurchingly blossoms under repetition. What I’m saying, I guess, is that competence is not a prerequisite for gratification.

And if you stick with it long enough, remembering to be buoyed along the way by the small satisfactions of process, one day, just maybe, you’ll realize you can hardly remember a time you didn’t know how.


Because You Never Know

Into the woods

On Monday the skies were clear and the sun high, and I walked the woods to the height of our land. Down low, just past the barn and brief expanse of pasture, the trees are dense and predominantly coniferous, but as I climbed the hardwoods increased in number, and I soon came to the sugarbush that comprises the upper swath of our property. Here the understory clears, and the light coursed past the leafless upswept limbs, casting long, serpentine shadows. The effect was almost cathedral-like.

For a time I followed a fresh set of deer tracks, a small animal, young or female or both. It’s been a good winter for the deer; almost every afternoon now, I see them grazing the almost-snowless hayfield across the valley, rendered in miniature by distance. Well, not really a valley; more like a crease.

The tracks led me to the stream the runs almost the length of our property, and where the deer crossed, I turned onto the streambed. The flowing water was covered by ice just thick enough to support my weight (though it cracked and complained of the burden), so I walked directly down the stream’s center, following the bends, clambering over a big cedar that had fallen from one bank to the other. Beneath the ice, I could hear the water folding and churning. Once I broke through into a shallow pool, but the water did not breach my boot tops.

It’s something to walk a frozen stream or riverbed, not at all like walking an iced-over pond or lake. I’ve done it before, a couple years back, following my sons on their trapline, and I remember thinking there was something magical about it. Maybe the motion of the water underneath, maybe the delineated path. Or maybe just the absence of human activity: No ice fishing shanties, no racing snowmobiles, not even the shouts and laughter and slapping puck-sounds from a pick-up game of pond hockey. It is a seasonal path, and even then one that reveals itself only when conditions are right.

Later that afternoon, almost evening really, I was visited by Erica Heilman to record an episode of her Rumblestrip Vermont podcast. To be honest, I’d almost backed out after initially agreeing, but I was glad I did not, because Erica is a phenomenal interviewer, certainly the best I’ve encountered, and I learned a lot. We talked for nearly three hours about writing, ego, building houses, ego, killing pigs, curiosity, ego, education, and making a living, along with a few other things I don’t remember (we might have talked about ego, too), and I was reminded that the best interviews aren’t really interviews at all; they are conversations guided by questions until the balance shifts and the questions themselves become an outgrowth of the conversation. Generally speaking, the fewer questions it takes to shift that balance, the better, though the very best interviewers also know when to put their hands back on the wheel.

Whether conscious or not, Erica has an innate understanding of when to steer and when to follow, which is at least part of why her work is so damn good, and I was reminded that for everything I’ve said here about writing, I’ve yet to speak about interviewing, which for anyone writing about other people is a foundational skill, and one that I know from experience is not always well-honed. So. Given that I’ve now written every scant thing I know about interviewing, I suppose I’ve remedied that shortcoming.

The next day, yesterday, my family returned, overflowing stories of deep woods wall tent-living with a small community of friends new and old, people for whom such circumstances are no novelty, but rather just the way things are. Stove-top biscuits slathered in bear fat. Smoked whitefish. Wild rice from the fall harvest. Beaver and muskrat. Maple sugar from the previous spring’s sugaring camp. Fresh-killed squirrel. And so on.

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As I listened to their stories, I thought about my walk on that frozen stream the day before. And I thought about how, for most of us, life is a bit like the path laid by that stream: It folds and churns, twists and turns, and it can be a wondrous, almost magical thing, especially if we take the time to pull up take notice every so often. But for the most part, we stay between the banks where the walking’s easiest, the risks best understood. (Or, in some cases, I think, not understood at all. Not even acknowledged). And there’s a lot to be said for that. There really is. There’s a whole lot of good living to be done without going too far off course.

Some people, for some reason, just can’t help themselves. They’ve gotta scramble up one of those steep banks, poke their head over the top, and see what’s out there, listen for what calls to them. It might look crazy to the rest of us, might sound like gibberish. But here I am reminded of just one more rule of interviewing: No matter how crazy someone looks or sounds, it’s almost always worth listening to what they have to say. Because you never know what you might learn.


All the Way Home

IMG_0741It’s been an awful, dirty ragged sock of a winter. Already we’ve had more thaws than I have fingers to count them on, and not just because I’ve gotten careless with the table saw. 40-degrees one day, a dozen below the next. Rinse and repeat. Snow in sporadic bursts, hardly enough to cover the detritus emerging from the previous thaw. The damn dog dug out a front hoof from one of the lambs we slaughtered, and then the rain revealed it, and when my wife tried to throw it back to the compost pile she instead hit the truck mirror and broke it to bits. So now when I’m trying to hitch up to the trailer I have to keep getting out and walking around to see how close I am.

(In case it’s not obvious, this whole hoof/mirror anecdote is supposed to be a metaphor for this frigged up winter)

I drove 20 hours over the weekend, to western PA and back, and I couldn’t stop wondering about the lives of the people in the cars I passed. There was a Lincoln Continental, early 90’s era, headed east on I90,  dragging so low in the hind end I just about had myself convinced the trunk was full of bodies. Or drugs. Or guns. Or maybe all three. When I passed, I scarcely dared glance over lest I get shot. But I did anyway (curiosity killed the cat and all that), and just as I passed the Continental we both passed a cop and I looked down and saw I was doing 85, so I hit the brakes hard, and the dude in the Lincoln watched the whole thing and was laughing his ass off. Then he sort of tipped his cap as if we were in on a joke. Which maybe we were, and I was reminded of that wonderful line Jason Molina wrote in the equally wonderful song “North Star.” Half of that was my kind of joke/But I don’t remember which half. (Molina died a couple years back, age of 38. Drank himself to death, basically. Broke my heart a little when I heard)

Honestly, it’s a bit of a curse to be so damn curious. For instance, I’ll never know what was in that trunk, and it’s still bugging me a little. I’ll never know about the guy driving that car, what he does, where he lives, where he was going, and so on. And all the other people out there, like the dreadlocked white woman with the “I love dirty hippies” bumper sticker. Or the tanned couple in the little Ford Feista with Georgia plates. They came by me at 90 +, like they were in a real hurry to get somewhere it wasn’t 37 degrees and spitting rain, and who could blame them for that. The guy was wearing a cut-off shirt, had some sort of tattoo poking out from beneath the frayed edge where his sleeve used to be. That much I could see.

And all those houses right on the interstate! The old abandoned farmhouses, the little ranches with lights in the window and sad old cars in the driveway. One story after another after another, but I can’t know what they are and never will, and it’s really none of my business, anyway. So I guess I’ll just keep my eyes on the road, keep the pedal down, keep pushing toward home. In a couple hours I’ll stop for another coffee, drink it fast and ride that jagged surge of caffeine all the way home.







Improvement by Subtraction

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I was scrolling through some old posts, looking for material to send Heather for a project we’re collaborating on (more at a later date), and I found this. It’s one of the pieces I’ve written that I think has stood the test of time, at least in my mind. Truthfully, there are discouragingly few of these; I always wonder if it’s the same for other writers.

I made a few minor tweaks, culled a handful words and phrases, and then it occurred to me that I can’t remember ever making a piece of writing better by adding to it… improvement seems to always come from subtraction. Here’s the original if you want to compare. 

I was up early, propelled by the feeling that too many days had passed since I’d greeted the rising sun with sweat on my brow, so I coaxed the fires to life, slipped out the door, and stepped into my skis. It was still dark and an even zero degrees, but it’s been the sort of winter that makes a zero degree morning feel like just the way things are, so I wasn’t cold. I glided up past the barn and the still-prone cows, and I fancied myself the image of them turning their shaggy heads toward me in greeting. But it was too dark to know if they so much as glanced my way.

Out on Melvin’s field, at the height of the land, I slotted into the packed depression left by the big, lugged tire of his New Holland on his way to gather firewood the afternoon before. The sky was bluing above me, and I skied fast as the cold snow would let me. Over by the old hollow oak I could see down to Melvin’s barn. Light shone through a window. Chore time. It was almost six, so I knew Melvin was probably feeding the cows at that very moment, and for some reason I remembered Thanksgiving, when we’d all been sitting around our big farmhouse table, shifting ever so slightly in our chairs to relieve the post-meal discomfort of expanded bellies pressing against waistbands. We’d had one serious cold snap already, and I said something like “I hope it’s a good, hard winter.” Melvin didn’t miss a beat: “Spoken like someone who makes his living at a desk,” he said, and he was grinning like he does when he’s heckling me but also knows he’s speaking the truth and furthermore knows that I know he’s speaking the truth. It’s a tidy arrangement, really.

That old oak. The boys used to squeeze themselves into it all the time. They’d spend hours in and around that tree. We’d read My Side of the Mountain, and I suppose that had something to do with it, but I bet they would have found that tree no matter what. Just the other day Fin told me they can’t fit into it anymore. Ain’t that the way it goes. I suppose it would’ve made me sort of sad if it didn’t reveal the simple fact that they still wanted to fit into it. That they’d tried. And maybe trying to fit inside a hollow tree is as important as actually fitting into it.

I know that tree’s days are numbered. It’s going in Melvin’s furnace, if not this winter, then next. If not next winter, the one after that. That’s ok. My boys don’t fit in there anymore, and a furnace doesn’t run on sentiment.

By the time I returned home, I’d gotten the sweat I’d wanted. I could taste it on my upper lip. I skied past the cows again, and this time, I could see that they did look my way. Wanting hay. Wanting fresh water. I went into the house, changed into my chore boots, and stepped back outside.


Only a Fool Attempts Reason

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The cold this weekend was of a serious, clarifying intensity, stripping life to water, wood, and food, in repeating cycles. I made the animal rounds every two hours, flipping their troughs to stomp out the ice, then refilling from a bucket, the fresh water carried 800-feet downhill to the hydrant by the small miracle of gravity.

I tried calling the cows over to drink before the water froze, but they ignored me the way cows will, and I was reminded of one of life’s unalterable truths: You don’t reason with cows. You can milk them, you can eat them, and if you want you can just stand there and be with them awhile, but only a fool attempts reason. So I spent much of the day stomping out full troughs, the same water I’d poured two hours prior having gone to ice before even a single one of their long, lolling tongues broke its surface. And me yelling every time: “here cows, come here cows, water for ya cows,” the spittle from my own tongue freezing to my thin beard before the words were full in the air.

My family is gone for a time. Packed up the car and drove to Minnesota to be with friends in a wall tent somewhere in the deep woods. It’s like they tried to take a winter vacation but took a wrong turn somewhere. I’ve fallen quickly into bachelor habits, eating when and what I wish from the same unwashed plate I’ve used now for three days. I stay up late but strangely wake earlier than usual, though I sleep soundly as ever. Cat on one side, dog on the other. Downstairs the whoosh of the fire.

Today I spent with my friend Michael, hauling loads of spruce and fir and cherry and maple sawlogs, and I wanted to stay at the log yard and just watch for a while as the trucks kept streaming in and the stacks of logs grew higher and higher. So, so many trees. It was stunning, really, hard to watch in a way but also captivating. But Michael was waiting, so I hurried back and we loaded up again.


The Direction of Dependence


We’ve been in the house for a bit over a week now, and are slowly figuring out how to inhabit it. Or maybe how it wants to be inhabited.

This is the second house we’ve built for ourselves, and I suspect it will be the last. But then, I thought that about the first house, so who knows. Truth is, I loved building this house. I mean, I freakin’ loved it. Way more than the first, and I had a pretty good time with that one. In part, I think it’s because this time around we had a much stronger sense of what we wanted; our vision was clearer and more established. Our skills are stronger, too, and that’s no small thing. Plus, we had amazing help. I know I wouldn’t have loved building this place half as much without that help. I guess what I’m saying is that I could actually imagine building another house, crazy as that sounds. The moving part I could do without, but another house? Absolutely.

Early on, we decided we wanted to do all the stuff we hired out on our old place. For instance, we installed the septic system. We developed the spring we found up in the woods, bubbling up from the base of a ledge-y outcropping. We ran the power and phone lines. And so on. Partly, we did these things because doing them saved us a lot of money. But we also did them because we wanted to better understand how these systems worked, if only so we’d know better how to fix them should they fail.

One of the unanticipated benefits of doing this work ourselves is that I now harbor very specific memories. For instance, when I open the tap at our kitchen faucet, I can picture the water running through the pipe my friend Jimmy and I unrolled into the four-foot-deep trench he dug with his excavator. It was a miserable day, raining like all get out, not just cats and dogs but lions and friggin’ wolves, maybe 45 degrees, and I was clambering in and out of the trench, head-to-toe with mud. Not quite shivering, but close, my hands all pruned up and tingly-cold. The roll of pipe was 1,000-feet long, and heavy as fuck, and it was all I could do to keep the damn thing turning. Jimmy spelled me for a bit, and because he is stronger and generally tougher than me, I was glad to see how hard he had to work for it, too.

Not long ago I was talking to one of my magazine editors on the phone. He lives in NYC, where most magazine editors live, and he expressed surprise that we were building our own place. “I didn’t think anyone did that anymore,” is what he said. I thought about it for a minute, and realized I couldn’t think of anyone we know who hasn’t built their own house, isn’t currently building their own house, or doesn’t plan to someday build their own house. Ok, so this is an exaggeration – of course we know people who haven’t built and have no plans to – but it’s not really that far off. Around here, it’s just sort of what you do, at least among the sort of riff-raff we hang with.

I sure don’t think everyone should build their own house, if only because I have a lot of friends in the building trades and I’d hate to see them out of work. But I do think everyone should have at least some idea of how to build a house, even if it’s only to understand the basic fundamentals of it all – how to square up a wall, frame a window opening, set a rafter, use a circular saw. Heck, you could teach this stuff in a week, maybe even less.

It seems to me as if somewhere along the way we decided our children didn’t actually need to learn the skills that are most essential to their survival. In one of his books, Daniel Quinn makes the point that even from the most revered institutions of higher learning in this nation, we are graduating helpless human beings who could no sooner put a roof over their heads than transplant their own heart. Could no sooner grow a carrot or slaughter a hog than fly to Mars, no sooner doctor their own flesh wound or make their own medicine than swim to the bottom of the ocean. Quinn’s larger point is that the loss of these fundamental life skills from our culture is in essence a form of oppression, for it only ensures our continued dependence on the industrialized economy.

I’m not sure where the proper balance lies – I mean, I can put a roof over my head, and I still can’t transplant my own heart, and if I ever do need a heart transplant, I sure as hell want the person on the other side of the scalpel to have graduated from one of those educations of higher learning where they didn’t learn a bloody damn thing ‘cept how to swap out funked-up tickers.

Still, I think Quinn’s right, and it’s not hard to see that how the scales are tipping ever more in the direction of dependence (it’s probably worth differentiating between healthy dependence on one’s family and community, and an unhealthy dependence on institutions that see solely through the lens of money). As I mentioned a while back , American teens now spend an average of nine hours each day on an electronic device, in addition to whatever time spent in school. This is not exactly a recipe for reclaiming essential life skills, though I’m sure there’ll be some swell apps to come of it.

As so happens in this space, I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner, with no real conclusion. So here’s what I’ll do: I’ll leave you with this song, from the concert we saw a few weeks back (skip ahead to 1:30 if you want to miss the banter). It’s about a house. And it’s a real beauty.







First Boil

Homemade buckskin backpack

This strange half-winter endures. Last night I drove a narrow dirt lane, the track made almost riverbed-like by mud and standing water. The truck sluiced between the road’s shoulders, riding the ruts and channels, and I passed a sugarhouse in full boil, steam thick above it, obscuring the emerging night sky. The door was open. I knew the people inside, could picture them gathered around the front pan, full of the first boil’s nervous energy. They’d be hot, down to tee shirts, faces shiny with sweat and evaporated water.

I slowed and thought to stop, but already I was late to retrieve my sons from the dairy barn where they do chores twice weekly, so I put my foot back to the gas and kept rolling. Soon the sugarhouse was distant in my rearview mirror, and then I made a right turn onto another mudded road, and when I looked over my shoulder all I could see was that dense cloud of steam hanging in the too-warm February air.


Sometimes I Just Stand There

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Sanding the floor

Over the weekend we began the move from barn to house, hauling our dressers out the sliding door that connects hay storage to the cows’ run-in shed. This necessitated navigating a minefield of bovine feces, frozen into ankle-twisting mounds like some strange winter-blooming ground fruit.

I was in a foul mood for no reason other than I’d chosen to be. I knew this, yet could not  bring myself to choose otherwise, and as I trudged between barn and house and back again, bent under the weight of our furnishings, weaving an unsteady path through the shit, I marveled at the fickle nature of human emotion. I could identify no root cause of my sourness; indeed, all evidence supported ebullience or, at the very least, a base level of garden variety contentment, for here we were, after three months of barn living, with its myriad demerits, moving onto greener pastures. A doubling of space, a counter top, a sink, and so on. Eventually, even a shower! Much of it still crude by contemporary first-world standards, but hey.

Someone asked in the comments section a while back if I thought we’d be as content with our rustic circumstances if we didn’t have something more commodious pending, how we’d feel if we understood that rather than a being a mere blip in the timeline of our lives, that single room in the barn was as good as it gets. Good as it’d ever be. From here until forever more, that one room, the cold floor, the two bare bulbs, the iced-over windows. And so on.

I thought about this a while, and that led me to thinking about that interview with Stephen Jenkinson I mentioned a while back, in which he talks about hope, and, specifically, how dangerous it can be. Because of course hope is always a future tense condition; you cannot hope for the present moment or for your current circumstances. Thus hope becomes a leash that pulls you incessantly forward, out of this moment and into some unknown future that, no matter how fervently you hope (pray, dream, aspire, wish), might well be no better than the present.

In this manner, hope becomes (or at the very least risks becoming) an anesthetic, a painkiller for what exists in the here and now. Thus sedated, the urgency to affect real change becomes less pressing. It’s easier to simply endure and continue lathering on the hope. Jenkinson talks about being “hope-free” rather than hopeless, a condition I interpret as one of clear-eyed pragmatism, marked by an understanding that neither hope nor hopelessness ever changes one’s life for the better. I’d also add cynicism to that list, because what is cynicism but hopelessness with intellect?

I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with this view, although it’s true I’m not much of a hoper. But it’s also true that my life is an embarrassment of riches; materially, I want for nothing, and all the hope in the world will have no impact on my family’s continued health and well-being. And while I might bemoan the myriad outrages of our political and economic institutions (to name just two of the institutions that compel me to launch into one of my frequent mouth-foaming tirades, particularly if I’m onto a second beer and in the presence of like-minded company), I know that hoping for their reform will change nothing.

So. Would I have been as content living in our barn if the house were not on the horizon? I suppose I cannot say, because that was never our circumstance. Indeed, we did know the house was pending, and maybe that’s what allowed us to inhabit the barn with relative equanimity, sort of like how you endure quinoa and kale casserole because you know there’s banana cream pie for dessert.

It’s nice to be in the house, although there is still plenty to do: Interior walls to frame, wiring to complete, french doors to hang (arched, no less!), a tub/shower to install, and so on. Enough to keep us busy on a part-time basis for weeks, if not months, to come. But for now, we’re in thrall to all those rediscovered conveniences we lived without for the past few months. Thanks to the handiwork of our friend Paul, who artfully rigged up an antique copper boiler tank to our wood cookstove, we even have hot water at the kitchen sink. Can you imagine? Hot, running water. Sometimes I just stand there, running it over my hands until my palms turns pink and tingly.