The Way I Hear the World

Maple sugar

Yesterday morning we awoke to a swirling snow, and upon awakening I recalled that in the night I’d heard the gusting wind and in the haze of half-sleep thought to myself how much sounded like a chant. Rising, falling, leaving off and rising again, the pitch changing according to the force of the air behind it.

After chores, I walked into the woods to collect what sap had flowed in the hours between yesterday’s gather and the cessation of the run. The northwesterly faces of the trees bore long stripes of caked snow, driven by the wind. The ground was soft, the snow sticky enough to not be slippery. There wasn’t much sap. Five, maybe six gallons. I hauled it home. It’s on the stove right now.

I am working on a project with Heather, about our respective experiences with home schooling. It is audio-intensive and interactive, which means it will also be about the experiences of anyone who participates. I am really enjoying the process, in part because I’m sort of fascinated by the audio component (and huge thanks to Erica for so generously sharing her Great Wisdom), and in part because I’m sort of fascinated by the conversations Heather and I are having. She is one of those people who says tremendously insightful things without even realizing she’s done so. This is a quality I deeply admire, and though I know it’s a stretch, I’m hopeful some of it will rub off on me.

So far, Heather and I have talked a lot about our respective – and remarkably divergent – paths, about socialization and community, about the challenges we’ve faced, about deschooling ourselves, and about honoring averageness in both children and adults. We’ve also tried to answer the questions Heather solicited, while acknowledging that every question has many answers, and that neither one of us has this all figured out. We’re as imperfect as anyone. In my case, at least, perhaps even more so.

It’s fun for me to be doing something new, and I’m super-excited about the possibilities. If this project is successful (admittedly, I have no idea what success looks like in this context, but I trust we’ll figure it out along the way), Heather and I have talked about tackling other subjects via this medium. I think the audio component lends a lot of warmth and spontaneity to the collaboration; our conversations thus far have not failed to take us in surprising directions. It also offers a way for folks to participate away from the screen, although to be clear, there will be an online component as well.

While I hope Heather and I will be able collaborate on more of these projects, I’m also looking forward to exploring ways I can include audio in my other work. I’m not sure yet what this will look (sound) like, but I’m enjoying how just thinking about it is impacting the way I hear the world. I think that many writers – including myself – have a tendency to focus on the visual, even as we lose sight (pun intended) of smell, touch, sound, taste, and so on. For anyone interested in improving their writing, I think it’s a great exercise to include at least one description from every one of these senses in their next piece.

It’s been a pretty good sugaring season. The bigger producers I’ve talked to are at about 3/4 of a typical crop, and there should still be a couple weeks to go. I’m glad we hung some buckets; we skipped last year in deference to our preparations for moving, then felt the absence. You do something long enough, and it sort of imprints itself on you, and you don’t even realize it’s happened until you stop.









Then We Could All Be Prophets

Clearing for berries

There is rawness to the landscape now that reminds me of November, though the angle of the March sun diminishes much of that autumnal sternness. And yesterday, while boiling sap atop the cookstove, windows open wide to disperse heat, I sat for a time and listened to a trilling birdsong, so different – softer, lighter – than the severe caws of winter crows and ravens.

Our focus has shifted outdoors, and there is much to accomplish, though the pressure of shelter is behind us. What we have now is a piece of land, our animals, some nursery stock, and our intentions, and the task before us is determining how each can best serve the other. It is a puzzle, nothing more, albeit one that demands a working knowledge of the braided connections between each of these facets. There’s no one right way to assemble the puzzle, but there are plenty of wrong ones, and in some ways I suppose this only makes it more confusing. If only there were one right answer. Then we could all be prophets.

Someone asked me this morning what it’s like to kill and eat animals we’ve known and loved, and I realized how long it’d been since I’d even thought about it, despite having killed two pigs just last week, and cut them on the very table I’m sitting at now. There was a point … no, wait, that’s wrong, there wasn’t a point. There was no specific moment. Instead, I guess I’d describe it as an evolution in both my understanding of the interplay between death and life, and also in my awareness of our animals’ role in the aforementioned puzzle. Which is to say, it is not life that begets life, but rather death; it is decay that necessarily precedes the bloom of regeneration.

I know this will sound callous to some, but it is nonetheless true: I do not mind killing animals I’ve known and loved. Actually, I’d prefer to kill animals I’ve known and loved, if only because it means I got to know and love them. To be sure, there is a certain anxiety inherent to the task, but I’ve come to accept it as an anxiety I must grapple with if my relationship to my livestock and my land is to be whole. I’m not saying it needs to be this way for everyone; I’m merely saying it needs to be this way for me.

Now I see clouds building; the forecast calls for a return to winter weather. It’s ok. We’re swimming in sap from a string of strong runs, and we need a break. We need time to boil. We shouldn’t have tapped; we don’t have a proper set-up, we’ve got way too many other balls in the air. But tap we did, and so just before lunch, I carried two overflowing five gallon buckets of sap down the hill from the sugarbush and through the fenced-in pasture, and as I passed, the cows watched me in that skeptical way they always do. The old fool, at it again. My arms ached, and I willed myself another 50 steps before rest.

But I made it 55.




In One Direction Only


The sun shone all weekend long, high and welcome and almost hot. It was tee shirt weather, or at least it was if you kept moving. So that’s what I did. We killed and processed a fat hog, split firewood, then gathered sap from the distant sugarbush, glad for the aid of gravity in carrying it down the old skid path a quarter-mile or more. Ten gallons of sap per haul, maybe a quart of finished syrup. Makes you look at pancakes in a whole new light. Eventually, we’ll have a rig nearer to the sugarbush. Eventually.

The mud is the worst anyone has seen in years; for a period at the end of last week, many of the back roads were essentially impassible. Having grown up in Vermont and navigated better than four decades of mud seasons, I consider myself something of an expert in the craft. Still, I managed to sink the Subaru to the floorboards, though at least I was within easy walking distance to home, and the situation was soon enough remedied via truck, chain, and the oversight of my offspring, who seem to have inherited my unflattering delight in the application of brute force remedies.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how fortunate I am to live where I do, that just down the road there is a farm where often I see horses pulling sawlogs from the surrounding forest, that twice each week my sons go to work on a small dairy farm, where they unroll a round bale for the milkers and feed flakes from squares to the heifers, that yesterday afternoon on a short drive I passed no fewer than four sugarhouses in full boil. A visitor last summer told us that the thing he liked most was the simple fact that everywhere he went, he found people outside, just doing things. “It’s not like that where I’m from,” he told me.

Don’t let me romanticize this place. There is hardship aplenty in these hills: Deep, seemingly intractable poverty, drug use and abuse, capricious weather, that damnable mud. Soon, the perennial scourge of spring, black flies. Furthermore, Vermont is not immune to external pressures, and economic transitions are being imposed. The opportunities to make a reasonable living working the land on a modest scale are becoming fewer and farther between. I know some who still do so, but the hours are mostly unreasonable and probably not sustainable into the latter seasons of their lives. Nor are they finding it easy to set aside the money they’ll need to survive when their bodies succumb.

Those who have a certain cleverness with technology are finding workarounds (I suppose this includes myself, though “cleverness” may be a bit of a reach), but I cannot help wondering if is it just to leverage the very tools that are helping displace the working landscape in our quest to preserve it. There is an excellent piece by Thomas Frank in the new Harper’s, titled Nor A Lender Be: Hilary Clinton, Liberal Virtue, and the Cult of the Microloan. I’m going a close with a pertinent excerpt, but to fully understand the context, and perhaps gain other significant insights, I highly encourage you to read the entire article.

… The so-called Twitter Revolution fit neatly into the beloved idea that new communications technologies – technologies invented or dominated by Americans, that is – militate by their very nature against dictatorships, a market-populist article of faith shared everywhere from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. 

Then there was the economic side of the single, unified Internet, and it, too, was all about liberation. For the “people at the bottom of the world’s economic ladder,” Hilary Clinton averred on that day in 2010, the Internet was a savior. She knew of farmers in Kenya who were using “mobile banking technology,” and of “women entrepreneurs” somewhere else in Africa who were getting “microcredit loans,” and of a doctor who used a search engine to diagnose a disease. I guess she hadn’t heard about what these same technologies were doing to the livelihoods of journalists or musicians or taxi drivers in her own country, but I quibble; as long as this technology was free, anyone could see that it pushed in one direction only, and that was up. 










I Guess You Had to Be There


The sun was high and strong for most of the weekend, and yesterday afternoon I walked up the hill to where our 30-ish buckets hang, listening hopefully for the telltale metronomic plink of dripping sap. But it was barely above freezing, and the trees had yet to loosen up, so I found only dry buckets and heard only the near-silent movement of a lazy breeze through the leafless forest. I turned and walked back down the old skid path, the red-and-yellow steeple of the old town church visible in the distance. I like seeing that steeple, it’s settling to me. The new leaves will hide it soon enough.

Just as well the sap didn’t run, I guess. We’d promised ourselves not to sugar this year, to instead apply ourselves to the long list of tasks forsaken in last summer’s quest for tin over beasts both human and otherwise. But then the days began to stretch at both ends, and we felt the sun on our sallow cheeks, and we began to overestimate ourselves the way we often do. In a fit of ambition, I took to a dense copse of spruce and fir that kept the garden in full shade during the mid-morning hours. Got a few sawlogs out of the deal and a big ole burn pile. I picked up three piglets to supplant the three that have yet to find their way to the freezer, but which will soon be making that one-way journey. Bucked up the first of next winter’s stovewood, a honking big red maple gone soft in the heart, and a smaller white birch. I love birch. Best quick-cooking wood there is, takes off like a rocket. Penny built a seedling shelf and prepped for onions. The boys hunted rabbits and we ate them for dinner one evening and again for breakfast the next morning. Michael owed us a day of work in exchange for the sawlogs I’d hauled for him, so he came by and he and Penny and the boys framed walls in the upstairs while I cleaned up some of the mess I’d made of the trees, and we joked that instead of paneling the walls, we should just add studs at three-inch spacing, as if the boy’s rooms were actually jail cells.

Well. I guess you had to be there.

My conversation with Erica provoked some interesting discussion (along with some great photos submitted by other folks). No doubt much more could be said about judgement and ambivalence and abnegation of self. Actually, I’m not sure what abnegation of self is, though it probably wouldn’t take too long to figure out.

But right now I mostly feel like shutting up and getting back to work.







A number of you asked to be alerted when Erica posted our conversation. Here it is.

I always feel ambivalent about doing these recorded interviews, I think in part because I do not feel as if I’m terribly articulate in person. While I love talking with just about anyone, I don’t enjoy being reminded that I tend to stumble here and there, and say you know and um, and swear more than I should.

That’s in part why I often decline interview requests (I wrote “often” because it makes it sound as if I get waaay more requests than I actually do). But I really like and trust Erica, and I feel honored to be the subject of her particular brand of craft. She’s the Terry Gross of Vermont. Or maybe I should say that Terry Gross is the Erica Heilman of NPR. Yeah. I like that better.

Anyway. I hope you enjoy it.