Saturday, August 30, 2008

Farmer Boy

Boys don’t generally read the ‘Little House’ books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I certainly didn’t, not when I was younger. Girls, I think, are much more open to books generally considered for boys than boys are to 'girl's' books. I guess we just always feel we have more on the line for being considered interested in that ‘girly’ stuff. I was a pretty voracious reader and even had a sort of secret curiosity about those stories (I’ve always loved tales of survival) but never considered reading them back then. I also avoided Nancy Drew, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess and Anne of Green Gables.

Most of those I still have yet to read, but a few years ago I started reading the Little House books, and I loved them. I picked them up because I was starting to write a children’s novel of my own and wanted to consume just about every classic I could think of, and also because my youngest sister Esme was reading them and enjoying them and my curiosity was again piqued. I discovered that not only are they enjoyable page-turners with interesting, diverse characters and suspenseful story-lines, they are truly treasures of American history, full to the brim of the clearest writing you’ll ever read of how the settlers and rural folk of this young country made their way on the ever-expanding American frontier.

Unsurprisingly, I was endlessly fascinated by all the details of how they ate; what they grew, what they shot and foraged, how they preserved it, how they cooked and ate it, how they enjoyed it. Boy, how they enjoyed it. The undeniable truth of living as a homesteader back then comes through in the general joy the characters get from almost every bite they take, whether it is their morning porridge or a once a year treat of maple syrup poured into the snow. Wilder’s writing really comes alive talking about food, sparking my appetite over and over. It’s clear that food really meant something to her and her family, and their connection to what they ate was primal and sophisticated at once.

Currently I’m reading Farmer Boy, which follows a year in the life of the young Almanzo Wilder, future husband of Laura Ingalls, on his family’s farm in New York state. The work, of course, is never ending and endlessly physical, and so is the young boy’s appetite. In particular, I am struck by how much pie he eats. It seems he closes every single meal, breakfast, dinner, supper, with two or three (or more) pieces of spicy apple pie, and frequently runs into to grab a slice or two during a quick break from pitching hay.

I never read Farmer Boy when I took in all the other Little House books a few years ago, mostly because I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative of the Wilder family as they moved from the big woods to the little house to the banks of plum creek, etc. Now, with a season working on a farm looming in my near future, it seemed the right time to head back and finish off the series with this book, and I’m glad I did. 

And, of course, this one’s not particularly girly, so I'm safe, right? 

Friday, August 22, 2008


Almost ten years ago I quit my job in Cincinnati to hike the Appalachian trail. By the time I stepped onto the trail in a cold rain, mid-March in the north Georgia hills, I had spent six months planning, daydreaming, and longing for the countless steps that would take me from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. I collected books of all kinds on the subject: humorous, practical, poetic, mystical, historical, personal. I examined my gear; I bought new gear (I threw out some of this and bought even more along the trail, finding much of the stuff I started with either superfluous or way to heavy). I examined my reasons and motivations for going; I tried explaining these to other people, as much to work it out for myself as for any other reason.

So what were my reasons? I’m not sure I really remember, though I do recall what I told people at the time: “I want to experience a different way of living,” I would say, “and for a long time so that it’s not a vacation, but just my life.” I wanted to stop staring at a computer, which I was doing way too much of. I was realizing that I had ignored a part of myself that loved the woods, the open air, birdsong and the sound of tumbling water for far too long and I wanted it back. I wanted change, and I wanted to feel like I had accomplished something.

I spent about a month on the trail, going somewhere around 250 miles through Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee to the northeast end of Smoky Mountain National Park, well short of the 2100 miles that was my goal. I remember telling myself that the experience and the process was what was important, more so than finishing; maybe that was why I didn’t. But I can see other reasons I stopped hiking, from the sharp pains in my knee (I can no longer remember which one it was without consulting a photograph) to the new songs that ran through my head, calling for a fuller realization, a guitar and some kind of recording device. But I also just don’t think I was quite ready for this kind of journey. I didn’t have the drive to finish at all costs, and I didn’t have the maturity or peace to accept the experience for what it was, whatever it was.

As much as I hate to admit it, I fell into a trap of boredom. I did enjoy my time, sometimes blissfully so. I particularly loved the late afternoons and evenings, hunting for a good spot to camp, pitching my tent and rummaging for a proper meal, firing my stove, chatting and relaxing with fellow hikers, drinking cocoa, zipping myself in as night closed in and the nocturnal creatures awoke. But too much of the hiking became drudgery, or trudgery, and I developed a tunnel vision that blotted out much of the trip. I think you have to be open to each step to really make it the distance on a trek like this, and most of mine were lost. It finally was too easy to get off during a dispiriting moment when my aching knees couldn’t keep up with a small group of friends I had been hiking with. Still, it was a valuable and enjoyable time, and many memories and faces loom large in my thoughts.

Now, I am soon embarking upon another change, another journey, physical, personal, spiritual, practical. Next year I will be spending a full growing season, some eight months worth, on a farm in Ipswich, Massachusetts as an apprentice. The folks up there run a successful, 500 share CSA up there, and I will be trading my labor, a considerable amount of it, for education and experience in all that they do, whether it be tractor work, seeding, harvesting and weeding or managing the distribution of more than 100 different crops to the local shareholders.

I hadn’t really connected my Appalachian Trail experience with my new plans until I noticed that I will be starting up my apprenticeship almost exactly ten years from the moment I stepped onto that trail in north Georgia, and that got me thinking. One obvious thought – we all change and grow as we pass through life, and sometimes we need to step into new shoes to do so and keep our feet healthy. On a personal level, I looked at my experience ten years ago, at what I learned, at how I failed and how I succeeded, if those are even appropriate terms; better to say at how I lived up to my expectations of myself and how I didn’t. I’ve looked at who I am today, wondering how this person is different than that person, and what would happen if we switched places.

I’d like to think that I’m more prepared now for something like that, a six-month journey through the long green tunnel; more prepared to simply accept what the experience gives me. Maybe. I still don’t think it’s right for me, not yet. I still have some growing yet to do in order to spend that much time inside my own head and skin without going a little stir crazy. This apprenticeship thing shares many things with my hike, but really, it’s a much more practical affair, and has been undertaken as much as a career stepping-stone and practical education as any kind of personal journey.

But if I can take any lesson from ten years ago, from thirty or so difficult, enlightening, beautiful, painful, monotonous days in the rugged green hills of the South, it’s to be as open as I can to what I see, hear, feel, taste and smell. To listen and learn, to learn by doing, to pay attention to what the soil feels like in my hands, and to watch little green plants grow up, day after day, reaching for the sun.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Pictures from Canada

A spiritual moment for Harper.

Your intrepid blog host.

A mouse-eye view of a mushroom.

An interesting flower amidst the blueberry field.

A very interesting mushroom.

Yet another mushroom.  There were lots of them.

A classic Canada sunset.

Esme and her cello.

In the blueberry jungle.

Uncle Jim and Esme, on her first round of waterskiing.

Brad catching some hang time on the wakeboard.

Dad at the dock with moon.