So, it has now been 8 months since my last post. Putting this in the forum of the internet contextualizes it in such a way that it seems an incredibly long time. But that is an artificial construct, and one much unlike the actual construct(ion)s of what I'm spending most of my time on. In this age of content-driven media and communication it seems to me that most of the emphasis is placed on quicker pacing, higher volume (of shorter length), and perpetual novelty. It's quite an interesting phenomenon to me, partly because engaging with it the little extant that I do, I tend to view it almost as if I was a cultural outsider. In my real-time, steady, deliberate, often hand-powered world of homesteading, 8 months is not very long at all. It's not very short either. Neither is it very medium-length. It's simply how much time it's taken me to do everything since I wrote the last flog (farm log) post. One ancient Chinese proverb says, "A man's house is done when he is dead." My understanding of that statement is growing in tandem with experience. (And that's not even considering the barn...)
If you look at the picture beginning this post, and scan your eyes from left to right, you will see, a large pile of 'slab' (waste) wood from milling, a large pile of sawdust, 100 or so logs remaining of the 250 we started with this year, and the house with it's freshly laid subroof, ready for slate. The blue sky in there was mostly pine tree canopy until last November. The foreground of the picture (mostly shadow), is now a new rye/ clover pasture. It's coming in very strong thanks to our plentiful June rains this year. This flat (for Vermont anyway) clearing is about one sixth of an acre as accurately as I can measure it. Since most of us don't really experience the world in acres, try to envision from the end zone to the 16 yard line, with the full width of the playing field. It's also enough forage for maybe a third of one cow. We'd prefer to have a whole cow, (for whole milk?), so we're either going to have to make sure she's long enough to have her head in another pasture, or we're going to clear many more sixths of an acre--maybe 30 or so. Eventually.
In the mean time, luckily, we are fortunate enough to have our neighbors, the Cochrans, offering us grazing on their 7 acre upper field (that's 42 sixths, for those of you following my math), through a short path in the woods. All of this land was part of the Lynde family dairy farm two generations ago. According to Ken Lynde, who grew up chasing cows through our property, they used to call this clearing the "Big Flat."
The less flat half of the Big Flat.
7 acres will support a couple of whole cows and calves. So were ready to jump in! As long as you don't consider the barn. (Coincidentally, the old dairy barn and farmhouse are still there on the road. The barn is now used as a two-car garage. This acreage will feed 0% of one domestic or foreign car.)
We're certainly learning a lot about how to build a farm from the ground up, and from the treetops down. Not the least of which is how often the 'success' of farming in a given time and place has everything to do with markets, and only somewhat to do with the farm-ibility of the land. Vermont was its most cleared in the nineteenth century, primarily for wool sheared from Merino sheep. Vermont wasn't any less suitable to sheep in the eighteenth century, or now for that matter. It was simply a side-effect of the tariffs placed on wool coming from Spain. In that particular context, it became profitable (enough) to raise sheep in Vermont. And when the tariff ended, so did the sheep farming. Today, there is a small, growing movement of localized agriculture, but make no mistake that many societal forces and norms are still chugging right along with habitual momentum not making it any easier. Cleared land costs three times as much as forested land around here, and most of the really fertile spots have the nicest old farmhouses. Therefore, they are the most likely to be second, third or fourth homes of people who live much of their lives somewhere else, and when for sale, are priced accordingly. Thus, young farmers (such as ourselves) often end up working what is called marginal land. (Not to be confused with margarine land, which is acreage grown for neon yellow goop.)
I'm optimistic about the potential for the contexts to change. Here in the northeast, where people used to grow the vast majority of the food they ate, food buying habits have swung to the complete other extreme. That means for each small local farm like ourselves, it would only take a small percentage of local people changing a small or moderate amount of where they purchased their food for our financial viability to be realized. How about some tariffs on veggies from California?
There have been so many predictions and declarations of the end of oil, or the end of cheap oil over the past fifty years. It's really not clear to me at this moment whether or not that particular energy context will change drastically during my lifetime. It seems that any change would probably be in the "closer is cheaper" direction. I like that. And even if oil stays relatively affordable, I still think it's possible that more people will at least come to realize how poor the quality and taste of so many distantly-sourced foods are, and how wonderful local food can be. And if we're going to have the number of people we currently do have here in New England eating more food grown locally, it will require much more cleared land, and much less forest. I just hope that this time, people realize the potential of holding that swinging motion in the center, allowing wild forest and domestic field to work side by side. In my experience, no area of human habitation can match it's balanced beauty. And that's not even considering the barns.
The mayhem that is the clearing of land.
It's been two months since my last post, and in that time we've raised our house with an amazing outpouring of community effort, spent two weeks getting the first iteration of our roof set for the winter, and we now are spending all suitable weather clearing more around the house. This is a return to the first work we did here at the land, and it feels very familiar. This time, as opposed to before, we're going to have our heavy-machine operator of choice, Jim Herrick, use his excavator to compile our logs at the mill, and move some of the branches and stumps to the edge of the clearing. We'll most likely burn some brush (which we haven't done in the past) as well. The hand-rolling of logs with peaveys has been the most physically and emotionally taxing work of all, so we're going to save ourselves some stress there. And we've already ordered many apple trees from FedCo which will quickly be residing in newly opened niches of the topography.
I've been thinking recently of how destructive we humans are just as a matter of existence. I don't intend that statement to carry negative connotation, to me it's a fact. I often like to think of how similar we are to beavers in the way we change our immediate environment to suit our preferential version of living, rather than adapting ourselves to wherever we happen to be. They help me to perceive it as one of the natural approaches to living on this planet. There is nothing necessarily good or bad about that preference it seems to me, rather, positive and negative results seem to be more related to the scope of that alteration, and how it fits in with it's particular habitat. Not unlike the beavers, Meggie and I are cutting down trees in order that we may use them to our benefit, and also utilize the space they once inhabited to provide room for our home and a micro-environment that suits our sustenance of choice. If you look at the picture accompanying the beginning of this entry, you see the current (as of a couple days ago) state of one part of our clearing efforts near the house. Even though I'm consciously deciding to proceed with the homestead in this way, the process looks incredibly destructive, because it is. We need to destroy, or end, the lives of many other things in order that our lives continue. It's hard to get around this basic principle in nature. If we accept this precept, and consider the scale of destruction and alteration required to support one human being in this current cultural context, I think it follows that we're way up at the top of the list of "Creatures Requiring the Most Resources." This is why I have the hardest time understanding the apparently assumed truism that more people is always a good circumstance, that reproducing is always a good choice, that economic and population growth are inherently good goals. Why can't we collectively see the faults in this logic? Population dynamics in all species of plants and animals work in cycles and balance. All species are limited by the same existent amounts of any given energy or resource. Historically, these dances of predator and prey circling around each other in abundance and lack have occurred in particular parts of the environment. Islands have often proven to be especially instructive since their borders of resources are so obvious and static. Now, I think it's time we consider the island that is the Earth. Our population trajectory is only a "success" story if you don't read the last chapter of the book, because we too, eventually reach that limit of resources. We can disagree about when that may happen, but no one can presume it won't without engaging in willful ignorance.
Here I end the life of an 80+ year old pine to help support my own.
The human species certainly is clever if not wise. Over and over again we have figured out ways to inhabit every part of this planet whether hospitable or not, moving and removing resources from one place in support of another, hiding waste and decay out of sight and out of mind. It's so complex now that most people have very little or no idea of what it takes to support their life, and from how many different continents the needed resources are taken. Probably no one can understand it as a whole. But satellites and space junk notwithstanding, this entire play happens within the bounds of our planetary island. And our species' lives are not more precious or important than any others in this world. We are all subjected to the same limitations--hawks, chickadees, butterflies, efts, spider mites. How pressing these considerations are to you depend on how you think of the value of human life. Are two deaths twice as bad as one? Four deaths twice as bad as two? When the beavers exploit one region of habitat and their population surges just as the resources run out, they experience a population crash. This has happened to human cultures before too. But if we continue to tell ourselves that more of us is always better, we will ride that misconception onward past 10 billion people, and when that population crashes, well...you do the math.
I started writing this post as a comment for an article on huffingtonpost.com (or more specifically as a comment on the other comments. You can read the article here.) Green Mountain College in Vermont is going to be slaughtering their farm's oxen team and using the meat to feed the students. This has created an uproar across the internet, seemingly mostly with people who don't go to the college. I wanted to elevate the discussion above finger pointing and name calling, because we're dealing with these same issues on our farm right now, and it can be helpful to have differing opinions. (Who woulda thunk it?!) In this internet world of forced brevity, my comment was too long to post (actually, I believe it was 386 words over the limit of 250). So instead of altering my thoughts to fit into their website, I'm altering the website where I write it, to fit my thoughts. Enjoy.
Unfortunately, as usual these difficult issues seem to set people into a place of dictating to each other, rather than using questioning as a way to help clarify the issue for themselves. I would like to inject my voice here as a farmer in southern Vermont. I have been working on vegetable farms for 7 years now, and over the past 3 years my partner and I have started our own. Part of this process has been to start a flock of laying hens, and we also have plans of more livestock to come. I think something most people don't understand is that even if you don't eat meat (which I haven't for over ten years now), it's very hard to find examples of how to farm without needing animal inputs. The standard way to organically fertilize vegetable plots around here is to use animal (usually dairy cow) manure. Remember that in order for dairy cows to be lactating, they need to be calving for the duration of their productive life. If they have bull calves, they are usually used for meat (with the occasional exception used for breeding stock.) If you eat diary (and I do), you are linked into these processes. So let's assume that you don't want to use their manure. If you don't have the privilege (and most do not) to have extremely fertile alluvial soils, then the only way to support perpetual vegetable growth is to add fertility annually. Using plants as green manures is another option, though to do that you need to have large gas or diesel-powered equipment in order to incorporate all of the plant matter into the soil. That brings up a whole other side to this discussion, which is that the main alternative to animal manure is petroleum based fertilizer. I'm hard pressed to think of how that is a better option, considering the large scale environmental degradations associated with it.
I think the important thing is for us to understand that there is no easy answer. In order for us to live, it requires the death of other creatures. There is no way around this fact of nature. So it would be helpful to give the discussion the level of serious consideration it deserves. I believe anyone who claims they have the obvious guilt-free solution hasn't truly looked into all parts of these processes. Our culture has divorced us from most of the basic parts of life sustenance, and it's hard to come face to face with them lacking informed context.
Even though I haven't eaten meat in ten years, last week I killed my first chicken, because she was eating her eggs, and it's a habit that spreads through the flock if not removed. This was a very difficult thing to do, and I'm continuing to try to understand what it means for me. But, we all have to remember that farming is practiced in an economic context. We lose money on selling eggs unless the flock is highly productive. Even for farmers such as myself who are trying to live on as little money as possible, it's very hard to figure out a way to do so without these decisions being made. Anyone who thinks that this is not the case I would have to think is not trying to make a living at it themselves.
I'm not to any place of final resolution. There are so many other ways that death is interlinked with farming that can't be given adequate space in a comment posting. I don't know that there is one single place we can arrive where this is agreed upon, or even understood within ourselves. But let's try to move in that direction by continuing to talk about it without stubbornly taking sides.
The westerly view from our house-becoming.
Hello--whoever you are. Is anybody actually reading this? Maybe you're only me, proofreading my own post? That's a weird thing about sending thoughts onto the internet. Here I am, practicing a life with each action intended to create physical results, ones that I can pick up and hold, or lean against, or ingest, or burn, and this evening I am instead trying to alter my typical journal entry, which I usually write to myself, to help myself understand and develop myself's philosophical underpinnings, and this altered entry style is intended to do....what exactly? I'm not quite sure, but if you actually are someone other than me, then bear with me, and see if it does anything for you.
Today we spent most of the day doing joinery work on our sill beams. This entailed much sawing, measuring, chiseling, mortising, etc. These beams will hold the timber girders and joists, which will in turn hold the flooring on which we will walk. I really enjoy this part of the house work. It is not as physically taxing as rolling logs with peaveys (long poles with hooks), it is not as loud or exhaust-producing as milling the logs to beams, it is not as weighty as ending the life of a defenseless tree (whatever beam I'm working on has already had that decision made by us in the past), and satisfying results are within a single-day's reach. I like to envision where exactly this post or beam will rest in our house, what part of the structure it will support, what activities I will do for years to come on top of or next to it. All of these thoughts motivate me in my work. And all of these thoughts also serve as long-term understanding for my mixed feelings about taking these trees' lives. I'm sure much of the confusion in me is simply the result of having had a typical contemporary American existence until my early to mid-twenties. That is to say, I had no real, personal idea of what the ramifications were of any of my actions. Though, even if this was an earlier century when most people had direct knowledge of their impacts by necessity, I still think it is always a valid exercise to question any action--routine or otherwise.
As we start to establish routine in our work here at the homestead, we often contextualize our choices based on our hiking and other long-term travel experiences from years past. I have spent so much of my life as passive traveler in all types of woods, from marginal to majestic. They have been the backdrop to the play that is my life. The clearing of forest is no small decision in my eyes. Like John Muir said, "Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed - chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides....God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools..." So it is with strong intent at wise action that we see a tree in this forest, and make that critical decision, to end it's life in the service of ours. I cannot compare this experience of familiarity and intimacy with the wood from an individual tree to any prior. Unlike the purchase of forest-derived products from the national chain-store, this experience is in no way an economic one. It is far too enriching to be that. And, if I buy boards from the lumberyard, I may intellectually understand what it took for those items to become what they are, but I can never know them in the sense that I know these beams we cut and chisel today. I saw the hemlock standing in it's rightful place, I counted all one hundred and thirty growth rings, and I feel much responsibility for honoring that fact of life.
Recording moments from our journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. (All pre-2015 entries are Patrick's words on work and life at the homestead).