All the Possibilities I’ll Never Know

img_5282I worked the woods all of Saturday, racing the impending storm that will surely render my skid roads impassable. They’re near to that already; the snow has accumulated to impressive depths. In places it reaches to my thighs, and though the temperature never lifted out of the single digits, I sweated profusely as I wallowed between the tractor and the fated trees, leaning sharply forward against the resistance of the unspooling winch cable clenched in gloved hand, savoring the delicious awareness of my body at work, muscles soaked in pounding blood, pillows of lungs expanding with each breath right down into their pale wrinkled corners.

Today I am flying many states away for work, sneaking out just before the storm and all its inherent complications for both travel and home. I don’t travel much; whenever I do, I am disoriented by the juxtaposition between the smallness of my life at home and the vastness of everything beyond. It’s not merely the scale of the geography passing 30,000-feet beneath the belly of this strange flying beast, but also the incalculable reach of unknown possibility sprawled across that distant land. It’s unmooring to me, so I sit and watch the ocean of clouds that extends beyond the wings’ reach, subsisting on cut-rate airplane air breathed through the shallow half-breaths of a body at rest. It’s like drinking skim milk.

I think many of you will appreciate Erica’s latest over at Rumblestrip; it is my favorite of all her episodes thus far, perhaps because I can so keenly relate to the sense of frustration she expresses regarding her capacity to make a difference in her community. Any difference at all. What a crazy, fucked-up world we inhabit. How seemingly intractable its crises, how wrong-headed our responses to these crises, how unfounded our fears. How lacking in empathy and compassion we can be. How stingy. Don’t think I’m absolving myself, either.

I guess what I’d like to say to Erica (who I know reads this space, so I guess I am saying this to Erica) is that you can’t dismiss the little things, like the fellow in your podcast talking about resurrection by colon cleanse, or your feelings about small groups and holding space, or even the other fellow who says “faith” like “fate” and it takes you a minute to figure out what he’s saying. These are all little gifts to your community. You might not have intended them as such, you might just have been doing what you do because you can’t figure out how to not do it. But that’s got nothing to do with it, really.

And I’d like to tell Erica about the times I pass our friend Tom’s farm down the road, and I see John out working his horses. He doesn’t even notice my passing, doesn’t have the foggiest idea that I’m watching, nor that my day is made better for having been granted this fleeting window into his life. I’ve not mentioned it to him, though perhaps he’ll read this, or maybe someday I’ll get around to telling him how fine I feel in these moments, and how that feeling stays with me awhile. How it’s an affirmation that really good things can come of really small things, even when those small things were never intended to be anything more than what they are: A young man, hitching his horses to an implement, preparing for a morning of work. Or maybe just standing at their sides. I think he’s talking to them. I wish I could hear what he’s saying.

I guess what I’m saying is that I think sometimes people get too caught up in trying create change in some measurable, quantifiable way. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that; no, I’m certain there’s nothing wrong with that. But I also think it’s a mistake to lose sight of the small things you might never have even intended to make much of an impact on anything or anyone. Like farming with horses. Like making a podcast about the quirks and corners of Vermont. Like a million other things.

So now the plane has descended through the cloudbank, and I can see the spread of the land, the rows of houses, the rivers of roads, the sun glinting off the windshields of the cars drifting along them. No snow here, not even a trace, way too far south for that. Still sipping the sorrowful airplane air, still thinking how good it felt to work the woods.

And then, looking down at the fast-approaching ground, of all the possibilities I’ll never know.




34 thoughts on “All the Possibilities I’ll Never Know”

  1. Boy oh boy ain’t that the truth! I’ve said more than once that I want to go everywhere at least once. Now I know I’ll never do it. Too tied to this land and what it needs of me but that’s OK. I’ll go where I can. Maybe to Raymond. Maybe to Hornitos. Maybe farther to Lone Pine and Stovepipe Wells. And, yes, I agree. The little things are important because the big things are made out of little things and let’s never forget that.

  2. I can’t think of anything more important right now then the type of efforts you and others like you are committing to causes like Groundswell. You may never know the full extent of the impact, but I’m certain there will be one, measurable or not. My sincere best wishes on your journeys.

  3. I think that it is unfortunate that more people don’t have the opportunity to travel across our great Country and see how other Americans live and work. I find that rural folks often have the least understanding and appreciation about what other people and places are like, since a lot of their perceptions come straight from TV.

    There is an eye opening 2008 report on http://www.pewsocialtrends.org, “American mobility; Who moves? Who stays put? Where’s home?”, that claims that 37% of Americans have never left their hometowns. There are a lot of people who I grew up with and/or who passed through my life during my travels who were quite capable of achieving greater success (material wealth?) than they have, but they lacked the confidence to stretch themselves and settled for that which they knew.

    I hope that your trip is safe, your connections are on time, and you enjoy the people and things that you interface with.

    PS – I was talking to a friend in Piermont, NH, and he told me that he only has about 8″ of snow in the woods at his place. He says that it is enough snow to make skidding next year’s firewood logs out of the woods, put not so much that getting around is a challenge.

    1. I don’t always agree with you, Jeff, but I sure do now. There’s nothing like actually meeting people in real life to gain insight into their experience. And with that, empathy.

      And I appreciate the ? following “material wealth” 😉

      Yeah, eight-inches is just about perfect for working in the woods… we’ve got about 400% more than that, and they’re calling for at least another foot today into tomorrow. It’s real beautiful, but doesn’t make for easy tractor logging.


      1. The paths that our lives have taken are very different and I don’t always agree with you, but I do enjoy your insightful blog as it (kind of) reminds me of what my life might have been like if, like the 37%, I’d never left the Uppe Valley of NH.

  4. Like all your posts, this brings so many thoughts to mind. As a homemaker and mother of small children, I exist in the small stuff and I am sad to think that some think it is not enough. Revolutions come in all sizes and we need the grand gestures and showy ones as well as the smaller, quieter ones. An obvious quote is the one by Mother Teresa, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” That thought is where I live and I am grateful to find it so fulfilling if not overwhelming.
    Can’t remember who recommended the Sharon Astyk book “Making Home” in the space recently. Upon reading the comment, I ordered a used copy and am almost finished. The whole idea of adapting in space is fascinating to me, a military kid who actually only moved twice but had a mother who made every place feel like home while seizing the day in a big way in whatever culture we found ourselves. A real skill I have come to appreciate. Hope others read it, too.
    Enjoy your travels if only because they make you appreciate your own corner of the world more.

      1. It is a great book. Just finished re-reading it and ready to re-read Kathy Harrison’s book “Just in Case”, also a fabulous book. Independence Days by Sharon is also worth reading.

    1. I’ve lived in 3 different states of Australia, before I finally left home and was able to choose a permanent location. There’s a price for travelling a lot. Depth of perception. Because you only ever see a snapshot of someone else’s existence. You never get to experience it fully. You can’t.

      Someone who lives a grounded life however, experiencing what their neighbours experience, well they get the gift of the depth of perception. It’s quicker to develop that perception from a small enterprise, than a grand one too.

      So when you feel that depth of perception, struggling with the expanse before you now – don’t feel uncertain. It’s just your gift. Earned from living, and sharing, your life with others. Land. It’s everywhere. But perception. Now that’s a rare gift indeed.

  5. If we had a newspaper published every day with all the small, wonderful miracle of life, it would be so huge it could never be published. I remind myself of that fact when I spend an hour on the front fucking, depressing page of the Sunday NYT. You’d be in the great big daily I have in mind. Thank you, wherever you have landed, and know that I look forward to hearing about some of the possiblities I know you will discover.

  6. Lately I have felt similar to how Erica feels (just listening to her tired voice, poor lady)….I have driven around looking at everything and out loud I say, ‘What is the point?’ The buildings, oversize houses sitting, rotting. Everybody inside. Poverty, new construction, piles of garbage, polluted water. I hear his name every 5 minutes, I see his face (he’s so fucking ugly and distorted looking), his eyes reveal it all. My husband spends his free time fighting the city and their plans… just trying to hold them accountable and expose their actions. Those hours spent have small ripples but damn, the beast is so huge! And interconnected, and powerful (even in a small city, which makes me feel totally helpless against government on a federal level). Same with all these ‘systems’. I have to stop reading about it….or something. I agree with what Karen said, your project and others like it are pretty important. Seeds grow, right? C’mon and germinate already (patience!). Oh, and I suspect that half this town has lived here their entire life, AND IT SHOWS. Please people….go someplace, anyplace.

  7. Listening to a radio programme yesterday, a woman wanting to say thanks to the unknown nurse who pushed her mums bed to the phone 21 years ago so she could speak with her mum after an emergency admission to hospital. Turned out to be the last time they spoke before she died a few days later. She was grateful for the small act of kindness from the nurse that made a difference for her. We never know what the impact of our smallest acts will be. May as well be for good than ill.

  8. “What resurrection are you taking part in?”. I liked that. Thank you, Ben, thank you, Erica. I like the resurrection of hope that I witnessed a couple days ago at a homeschool coop, with so many bright-eyed children. One boy showed me his drawing, I said his colors were amazing, and he ran over and gave me a hug. That resurrection. The old man, a stranger, in a new neighborhood, who invited us to his house to show how units look like and talked to us for an hour, the neighbor who came over and brought an article in Sunday paper on a subject he knows I like.
    The disparity in this country baffles me. We’ve traveled through some of the most beautiful yet poorest, cracked, boarded up, abandoned areas in Michigan, Kentucky, Tennesee.. and then I see mountain top houses poping up like mushrooms here, 5,000 sq feet, and roads dug deep through the heart of the mountain, a road like a rope tying up the mountain… For what? What are we doing here?
    I will send you that book, Ben, “A Man Apart”, in which Peter Forbes goes deeper into his thoughts and feelings about our civic duties, big things, speaches miles away from home vs little (??) things, living it like Bill Coperthwaite. Your thoughts again reminded of Peter’s struggle. Best of luck with the trip.

    1. The portion of your post about the the big house on top of a mountain comes across as being envious to me. Why do you care what other people do with their money? If they earned it honestly, don’t they have a right to spend it any way that they want?

      After all, houses on the tops of mountains have nice views and big houses have more room to fill with extraneous “stuff”.

      1. Envy. It sounds like Bee was referring to the impracticality of the roads, in a place where nature is best suited. As someone who lives in a smaller version of what Bee is describing, I have first hand experience of how poor, roads are at managing run-off down slopes.

        It’s a reasonable question to ask – “what are we doing here”, when what we’re doing is less superior, to the natural system already in place. It’s a question I ask myself and think of my neighbours, when I see the tonnes of soil being displaced every rainy season. I try and do something about it on my land, others ignore it as part of “nature”.

        I like my neighbours by the way. They’re hard working people. I respect them. But gee, you know, some things just don’t occur to them, as something they need to address. If they actually asked themselves the question, “what are we doing here”, they might consider the effects of their choices, and provide solutions.

      2. Chris,

        Maybe so. But it has been my experience that when other people complain about what other people do with their property it is motivated by envy.

      3. I have to say, Jeff, your humorous comment virtually made my day. I do work with my jealousy at times indeed. I get jealous of those folks who can walk into their barn and smell fresh garlic drying, who can bed themselves aside their cows on a fresh hay pillow. I got much work to do yet to not get jealous about those senses. As far as the mountaintop houses, I do care what people do. I do care that we dig strips in the mountain and clear miles of natural habitat for no other reason, not even to feed ourselves, but just so 1 or 2 people can sit in one of the 20 rooms looking at the views through tinted glass. It hurts me to see the land ripped apart, enormous power lines cutting through the wild to power those homes, materials and fossil fuels used to construct and maintain those structures. We dont just feed and shelter ourselves. We feast ad nauseum at the expense of other live creatures. 😦
        I found my perfect 250 sf foot cabin in the woods. If you have a good campaign I can use to convince my family to buy into that, let me know. Otherwise, you can read Will Falk’s essay on human supremacism here and tell me we are not insatiable gluts in every respect:

  9. I too am disoriented when I travel. Even when I drive downtown! It is heartening though to notice on your travels that folks all over are generally good. They may want their way a little more than you do while walking the airport or driving, and maybe nobody waves like they do back home, but they’re generally good.

  10. If Erica is reading this space, and is still worried about making a difference, she should know that she already has. It takes a lot of guts to walk into the Barre Dunkin’ Donuts with a microphone and just start talking to real people. The voices she has captured (trappers eating bobcat, kids hiding in the cemetery below Gifford hospital, Special Olympians celebrating their sport) have given a context and nuance to life in Vermont that makes my life the richer.

    P.S. Erica, get some skis or skates or snowshoes and go outside. It’s the only way of dealing with a Vermont winter.

  11. It’s the little things, and levity, that sustains my life.
    Love to see you write about them,
    and bring to me other things that I don’t normally ‘see’.

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  13. I was also stuck on planes this past week… BUT the positive part is a chance to watch movies.

    I suggest we all view ‘Captain Fantastic’. It is a rather stupid title designed to get more viewers than would watch the story – but what an incredible story. Gives ‘Home Grown’ a run for its money (though Home Grown and the Nourishing Homestead remain my favourite reads!)

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