Being Aware of My Surroundings

This morning in Vermont it is more like winter and not so spring-like. The sun greeted us and some clear sky, but the temperature is a cold 12 degrees Fahrenheit. I have cleaned up the snowfall from Monday night, almost of foot of wet snow – glad I got my tractor back from John Deere as this makes the clean up an easy chore.

For some unexplained reason this thought popped into my head this morning. I am remembering being a young boy and sitting on a deer stand in the woods with my father on some November morning that looked and felt a lot like this morning. I remember noticing that contrary to what you would expect, but I remember it got colder and the wind picked up with sunrise. We had walked in to our stand in the dark and waited for the day to break, me hoping it would get warmer than it was before dawn.

My father taught me to be aware of my surroundings and to try and become part of the natural world. He taught me to be still, quiet, and observe – and to think about what I was seeing. He would say, look for piece of motion and movement, look for horizontal lines that seem out of place in the woods. I mean, in the woods, almost everything is vertical, but deer and other wildlife are not. When I first started going with him and I was more of a companion, and not a hunter, I would rummage in the leaves for beechnuts and sit there making a racket and also enjoying the beechnuts. I know we saw fewer deer then, but sometimes the noise I made was not as much out of place, as it was the same noise the deer made when they were rummaging for beechnuts. My father shared with me that as a boy, his family would go out in the fall and gather beechnuts to store down cellar and use over the winter. I thought about this and wondered about a different time and a different way of life. We did not gather beechnuts in my childhood, although we did pick apples from the old orchards at the farm and my grandmother stored them in her cellar. The apples found their way into many pies over the winter and I always marveled at how well they kept over the winter. You could always go down in her cellar and find an apple that was just as good as it was the previous October.

Getting back to my story, I learned to notice and be aware of the world around me sitting in the woods on those cold November days. I watched animals start their day and go about whatever they needed to do to survive. I learned how to be non intrusive in this environment. I have many tales of animals coming right up to me, almost close enough to reach out and touch. I can see these memories in my mind like I am watching little motion pictures. I have always told my students to make movies in their heads of what they see and read – it is easier to learn this way, and more fun too.

I tried to continue hunting after my father passed, but it just was not the same. I admit to shooting a few deer in my lifetime, and there was a time when this was important to me, but not any more.

My last day in the woods as a hunter I watched a doe and two yearlings approach me. The doe must have picked up my scent, as she stopped about 30 yards from me and snorted a few times. The yearlings, a young buck and a young doe, kept coming until they were about ten feet from me. They were very curious and studied me for a bit, and then decided I was not dangerous. They continued browsing and looking for food on the forest floor. The young buck was legal, he had the antlers of a young deer, but his live weight would not be 100 lbs.

There was a time when I would have taken this young buck, but I had no interest in doing this on that morning. You see, I had been having a debate in my head about my hunting for a long time, really from before my father died. I did not need this deer to feed my family so I could not justify taking its life. I thought the only reason for taking this deer is some perverse pleasure I might get from killing it. I thought, if that is the case, stop, get out of the woods now. You should not be here in the woods.

Finally, after enjoying these yearlings, I literally shooed them away and they ran back to their mother. The doe gathering them in and walked off. Soon they were out of sight.

They had been gone for about five minutes when I heard a shot from the direction they had gone to. I knew what had happened. I picked up my back pack and said to myself, “That’s it. You are done with hunting. ” I have never been since.

I do have some wonderful memories of being in the woods with my dad. He taught me so much during those times, not just about the natural world, but about being a good person. I will always remember one deer he shot, and then him saying, “Why did I do this? We were having such a good time and this ends it.”

The woods and the natural environment are a wonderful place. I am so glad I had those times to learn about being aware of your surroundings, paying attention, and having the pleasure of lots of quiet thinking time. Those are the movies I play back in my head now. I have a library of film in my head just waiting to be spooled up again and played for me to enjoy.

Take care.

Ed Pirie – West Topsham, Vermont

The Way I See It

The onset of a pandemic is exposing a lot of vulnerability in our society and economy. The stock market has been trashed in a couple of weeks. The bond market, usually a safe haven in times when the market is being wrecked has revealed how much it is over extended on near junk bond corporate debt. American corporations have binged on debt in the last several years and the bond market has been less than prudent in my opinion. A lot of this added debt was used to buy back shares and prop up share prices in the absence of earnings that would do the same. Bankers used to be careful with other people’s money, but not so much now days.

Our central banking system, the Federal Reserve has quickly exhausted its resources. There is not a lot left that the Fed can do for the economy. Trump never understood that the Federal Reserve has never recovered from fighting the 2008-09 Great Recession. He acts like a real estate developer that just wants to work on somebody else’s money, and the paying back is never a consideration. I think Trump’s multiple bankruptcies make this argument for me.

Many Americans work for an hourly wage and do not have any paid sick leave benefits. Many of these same perform essential services for all of us, and we know they do. Too many in this country cannot make it from paycheck to paycheck. So often, I hear it is their fault they did not make more of themselves, yet we have trashed the dignity of work in the last 30 years or so as we have drank the kool-aide of “trickle down economics.” We have worshipped at the altar of business and labor has been just a commodity that when possible, we find overseas for less cost.

Well, I don’t like any of this. I don’t like how little we value the dignity of work. I do not like how little we value the needs of a family and providing for their well-being. I do not like that the biggest single cause of bankruptcy in this country is a health care crisis. I don’t like that Americans have to work in jobs that do not pay a living wage. I do not like that we have skewed our wealth to the top of the pyramid.

After the war (WWII) it was not like this here, and America built a great middle class. We educated many with GI Bill benefits and we grew an economy that was the envy of the world. The jobs were here, not overseas. We actually made good things here.

Yes, this corona virus is exposing so many of our misplaced priorities. Our leaders have made too many choices that have benefited just the few and the powerful. We get sucked in with all kinds of slogans and culture war campaigns, but that is not the real battle. That is just smoke and mirrors. The looting of the country to just benefit a few is what we are not all seeing.

And, then along comes a national emergency like the corona virus. And the Republican Senate cannot bring themselves to cover American workers that lack paid sick leave as a benefit. Well, Moscow Mitch, I expect you are proud in a perverse way. All that you do Moscow Mitch, will always be perverse, but it will for sure benefit you, your place of power, and the GOP.

Sorry for the long ramble here. This pandemic is revealing a bigger story than itself. Hardly seems possible, but it is.

A Vermonter Talks About Being Ready for the Corona Virus (Connee Virus)

A little bit about hoarding – I am a Vermonter and being ready for the whatever is coming is in our genes. My earliest memories of both my grandparents are of they’re having shelves down cellar stocked. My grandfather always bought food he used all the time by the case – it was also cheaper this way. My other grandparents always stocked up when necessities and staples were on sale. If something you always used was on sale, then you didn’t just buy one, you bought three or four or whatever.

Many of us do not live where a grocery store is close by. And then, there is the need to have enough to get by a rough patch. It is a lot like having a winter or twos worth of firewood put up way before that winter gets here. There is no greater feeling of contentment than looking out a woodpile that is nice and dry and at least a winter ahead. It is like money in the bank.

This all came up at last week’s staff meeting. it was interesting that the folks from away (not Vermonters – I’ll be polite here) were a little shocked that us old natives did not need to be told to have at least three weeks of necessities on hand. I said, “Hell, we always do. I’d be in a panic if we didn’t.”

It is kind of like anticipating a coming flu season. My mother used to say it was good to put on a little weight before winter so you had something to fall back on if you got the flu. Well, same with being prepared and stocked up on the things we need to get by with.

So, I imagine there are at least a few old Vermonters like me that were all stocked up long before this connee virus thing came around. It is sort of like I must have heard a million times when I was growing up, “Back during the Depression.” You just kind get this ingrained and you try to be ready. We are all good old Scouts here – “Be Prepared,” and yes, having plenty of toilet paper is a good idea – haha.

And as far as staying away from crowds – most old Vermonters do not need to be told to stay away from crowds. Many of us would be perfectly happy if they closed the Interstates permanently so people could not get in.

Thinking About the Stock Market

I have been watching the run-up in the U.S. stock market very closely this fall and early winter. I was rather puzzled by it as a driver for such a run-up, namely earnings growth, did not seem to be there, or was not being presented. It seemed to me like some over blown speculation that made me skeptical.

Anyway, I admit to be a very conservative Scot when it comes to money. It is too hard to come by to be speculating – just not my cup of tea so to speak.

Well, I recently saw some similar concerns expressed by the brokerage/investment firm of Goldman/Sachs. The piece I read from Goldman said that there were little to no corporate earnings to justify this run-up in the stock market, and that it was mostly due to the Fed giving a pause in interest rate increases, and also some high hopes for an improvement in the trade war with China.

This kind of thing seems to me to be hardly the way to invest money, especially if you would like to see your money again some day. It seems that any market that goes up like this just on pure speculation can also come down just as quickly and just as dramatically.

So, the economy is working, but not quite like the stock market would indicate. It ought to work after being juiced with the big corporate tax cut that was passed. We are growing our deficit and that scares me as I see my children and grandchildren being faced with paying back this money some day just so some big corporations could increase dividends and buy back more of their own shares.

Yes, some folks made some money during this run-up (I was not one of them – haha). I find it so hard to take chances as I do not have a whole life time ahead of me to recover from bad choices, and I hate to lose what is so hard to earn and save.

Just my 2 cents here.

Still Trying to Understand 2016 (And Beyond)

I suggest you read the above opinion piece from today’s “New York Times.” I have been trying for the last three plus years to understand the 2016 election, and also the changes occurring in the American electorate. I have bounced around a lot of opinion pieces and articles, even books, but I think this piece comes very close to tying the strings together, at least for me. If you are inclined, give it a read as it is helpful. Maybe what I have written here is some good synthesis – I hope so.

The title is really misleading in that the article is more about what is happening in American communities with immigration, perceived, and real, especially perceived threats due to immigration from Hispanic populations. There is an interesting comment that many of the Trump voters and supporters in the 2016 election were former Democrats that moved to the right in response to perceived threats from immigration, especially Hispanic immigration. I keep trying to understand the American electorate, and I sense there is a great deal of truth to this. The writers also suggest that with the move to the right by traditional Democratic voters feeling threatened by immigration, also resulted in the adoption/support of a host of right wing positions that traditionally have been not supported by Democratic voters and are apt to be inconsistent with traditional working/middle class values. A lot to try to understand and think about. For me, I fear that this is underneath so much of what is going on, not only here, but in other parts of the world too. So much for Christian values I guess, and more for it is “us against them” – kind of makes many of us into hypocrites.

Sometimes, I think I am glad I will not be around for a lot more years. The direction of things is not good, especially if you have a heart. I see struggles and greater migrations over things like clean water, food, and safety. Who can blame any family for trying to get themselves to a place that has food, clean water, and safety. I will forever have the image of that father and his two year old daughter snuggled inside his t-shirt and floating face down in the Rio Grande River this last summer after their failed attempt to cross to safety.

And of course, this is all being exacerbated by climate change (shh – that’s a dirty word and bad science if you accept the right wing position). Problem is, some may not accept the idea due to political bias, but they will be forced to accept the consequences regardless.

I believe we will see greater migrations and dislocations of people due to the effects of climate change and political instability around the world. It seems like there is the potential to be of great assistance to the populations of the world so adversely affected, or there is the potential to react selfishly, build walls, and promote racial prejudices/fears, and try to keep the world out. I don’t like that position – it just does not settle well with me. I may be a lousy Christian, but I do have a heart.

Impeachment Does Overturn the Results of an Election – That’s the Intention of Impeachment

The Founding Fathers worried about a president like President Trump. They wrote about their fears, and they wrote about when impeachment would be a necessary remedy. Yes, it overturns the results of an election, and it has rarely been used in our history. We are at one of those times now when the acts of an elected official betray his oath to the Constitution and the lawful conduct of a president.

We all should view the potential impeachment of President Trump as very serious, and not look at this impeachment through the lens of partisanship. Our politicians were able to do this during the Nixon presidency. We need to find the same higher calling to providing good government, and not some misplaced loyalties to a political party.

An outside observer sees a country deeply divided, not about being Americans, but divided over the hyper partisanship of political parties. The last time we were like this was during the period leading up to the Civil War. Only now, there is no institution of slavery that we are divided over, we are divided because our political parties sense they benefit from this divide. The parties exacerbate and fan the flames of division. If America shipwrecks on some rocky shoals, it will be the shoals of hyper partisanship.

Any act to invite foreign intervention in our politics or elections whether it is asking the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton, meet with Russians to get dirt on an opponent, asking Ukraine to investigate a political opponent and his son, or asking China to investigate Hunter Biden should be a crime, and are a pattern of conduct that should be impeachable.

There is nothing here that is patriotic or American. Trump has no respect or sense of duty to our Constitution and the norms of conduct for a president. He behaves just like he boasted in the Access Hollywood tapes – like he has privilege and can do whatever he wants because of his privilege. This is the way a crime boss acts, not a president.

When this presidency is ended, whether through impeachment or the ballot box, we need leadership that will bring this nation back together. Any leader that campaigns on the issues of division and hatred is not a leader America needs. We need to remember how to compromise and find a common path that will benefit America, and not just one party at the expense of the other. We need to reject the leadership of division and hatred before it destroys us.

Got Some “Splaining” to Do

I was listening to “Vermont Edition” yesterday on VPR and the program was a panel response to the 3rd Democratic debates. The panel was comprised of a Dartmouth professor, a Middlebury professor, a Norwich professor, and Bob Kinzel from VPR.

I picked up on a couple of points that resonated with me. One was made by the Dartmouth professor when she spoke about the country being in a period of very low trust of government. She added that it is a big challenge to add to government programs and services like the health care proposals during periods of low trust in government.

I think she is right. Any programs or laws written that are transformational like a health care proposal or a tax overhaul that are not passed with bipartisan support are doomed from the beginning. I cannot understand why our Congress does not get this. I always say, “Set the table first. Build receptivity, and then write your law.” This does not happen today, and it only adds to the bitter divisions in our politics. It is really rule by political bullies, and we need to end it.

The other discussion that caught my attention came at the very end of the program, and it had to do with the need for a “very good explainer.” The suggestion was made that Elizabeth Warren is a “very good explainer.”

I will get to both of these take aways. First, I will share some ideas on the problem of low trust.

In my opinion, the low trust problem is the result of hyper partisanship. The two parties do not trust each other. They do not have personal relationships and friendships across the aisle like they used to. They consider compromise as a sign of weakness. I will always go back to Newt Gingrich when this topic comes up. He transformed American politics into a trench war with no prisoners to be taken. Mitch McConnell has made a living with hyper partisanship. He has made no secret that this is what drives and motivates him every day. The two parties have added to this bitter warfare with way they have written rules for how Congress operates. Forget any images of floor debates and exchange of ideas. Congress is just a place where party rule is recognized and legitimized.

It has only gotten worse with political action committees and special interest groups getting a green light from the Supreme Court in Citizens United to bring unprecedented levels of bitter politics to our tables. I see hyper partisans on both sides as people with closed minds and no tolerance for dialogue or compromise. They are plain and simple, a curse to be avoided.

The second piece that caught my attention is the notion of a good explainer. Boy, do we need good honest explainers. Our lives continue to spiral towards higher levels of complexity. The choices are difficult to discern, and then to evaluate as well. We need leaders that can explain the issues in simple and clear language that all Americans can understand. And then listen to our feedback, trust us, and do some more explaining if needed.

I work in education and I see over and over communications that come from the Agency of Education that are written by bureaucrats, and for an audience of bureaucrats. It is almost like people writing policy for the person in the cubicle next to them and not for the public. There is a constant push for ever more policy. Hey, folks, we are filling the world with these damn three-ring binders full of jack ass policy. You do not add clarity, you only muddy the water over and over again. The justification is the “data says.” Well, the data is not human. It leaves the human side out of the equation. I say, “Horseshit.” Let some common sense guide the policy and the interests of the people paying the bills, and quit writing policy for bureaucrats, and by bureaucrats. The language is convoluted and confusing – what don’t you folks understand?

We need a leader that can listen, understand the issues, and ultimately the choices, and then explain them to all of us. I would hope then the “explainer” will have their ears to the ground to hear what we think. Communication is a feedback loop, not just somebody on the soap box telling everyone what they think. Explain, and listen, and then explain some more.

Then, maybe we will have some trust again in government, and maybe the chance to fix our health care system, steward the world we are living on, and get along with each other.

Baked Beans, Church Suppers, and a Pig in the Poke

My favorite season is upon us, the season of church suppers. Last night our church in Waits River had a Baked Bean and Ham Supper. If you like church suppers, this is one of the best, and I baked the beans. Yup, I did, and this is our church in Waits River in the picture.

I’ll have to back up here a bit and explain. I love baked beans, good ones, that is. My grandmother always made baked beans, and there was a time that you could count on somebody bringing baked beans to some sort of a gathering. Well, those days are quite as dependable as they used to be.

Susan, my wife, has never been especially fond of baked beans, and I could see she would not be the one to carry on the tradition. So, I took it upon myself to learn how to make baked beans. I asked my grandmother for help, and she told me how she baked beans. I asked another family member, my great aunt Elsie Riddel how she made baked beans and the two recipes were very close, if not the same.

Well, like most new adventures, this one was just waiting for me to stick my big toe in the water. I did.

They are really an easy dish, but you can mess them up too. If you follow the recipe I have, you cannot go wrong. You need to start with State of Maine yellow eye beans, not soldier beans, yellow eyes. You will need some good molasses, some good Vermont maple syrup, about half a pound of salt pork for a two pound bean pot, some dry mustard, a pinch of salt and a pinch of black pepper, and a medium sized onion.

To start with, soak your beans overnight. The next morning, get your beans boiling. I use a roasting pan with a cover that is sometimes called a beaner. You will want to gently boil your beans for about 20-30 minutes. You will know they are ready when you can take a few on a spoon and blow on them. You should see the skins on the beans split and wrinkle. Then, they are ready for the bean pot.

My kids gave me a crockware bean pot many years ago for Christmas. This one is made in Canada and looks like crockware or stone ware. It is meant for baking beans. I will put a pealed medium sized onion in the bottom of the pot and dump my par-boiled beans on top of the onion. The onion will find its way to the top of the pot during the baking.

Next, you want to mix about a cup of molasses, one-half or so cup of maple syrup, two teaspoons of dry mustard, a pinch of salt and and pinch of black pepper in a small mixing bowl. I add a little hot water to the mix that I have heated in a tea kettle on the stove. This helps it all flow around the beans better when you dump it in the bean pot over the beans. A word to the wise, don’t over do the maple syrup as your beans will be too sweet and apt to be mushy too. And, no, you do not need to add any sugar to this mix. The molasses and maple syrup will do just fine as sweeteners.

Now, take your salt pork and use a sharp knife to score the rind. You do not want to cut all the way through the rind, just score it. This will it break up in the beans during the baking. Get a good piece of salt pork, about half a pound, and not all fat, you want some lean to it too.

Take your scored piece of salt pork and put it on top of the beans in the bean pot. Add more water to just cover your beans, put the cover back on the beanpot,  and then bake in your preheated oven at 350 for about 3 hours. You should check your beans after an hour or so, and again after two hours to make sure they are not baking dry. If they are not still just submerged in the juice, add a little bit more water to keep them from baking dry.

You will notice the most wonderful smells filling your kitchen as you bake these beans. It will say “it’s fall in Vermont” to you over and over again. Enjoy this wonderful dish and it will become a favorite for family and friend gatherings.

To get back to the story of our church supper, I took my baked beans last night and they were served first, and damn, they were all gone, so I have none left to bring home. The ladies at the church like my beans and they put them out first in the supper.  Now, I’ve got to make some more for home. Oh well, I am glad everybody likes them.  And, if you really want to get clever here, add some nice brown bread. Serve it warm with the beans and some good Vermont butter, never mind the margarines and the other fake crap, get real butter.

I’ll tell the story of the pig in the poke another time.

What’s On My Reading Table

Yea, like I’m Bill Gates, and I am going to put out a summer reading list. Well, not exactly, and as you can imagine – “not exactly” is an understatement (that is, me being like Bill Gates).

I am a great reader though, and I always have at least half a dozen books with bookmarks poking out, and reminding me of where I left off. I used to be better about the finishing part of reading a book, but my age has become my reading enemy. I get tired and fall asleep way too easy now days.

So, what am I reading right now? You may find my reading pile interesting and you may say, “Ugh.”  You’ll just have to read on and decide for yourself.

I’ll start with pure entertainment, a Daniel Silva espionage book titled, “The English Girl.” I have probably read at least a dozen of Daniel Silva’s spy books, and they are all good, but I am getting a little bored with Mr. Silva. I thought his first books in the saga of Gabriel Allon, Israeli spy, master assassin, and art restorer were great. Now, the books have become, in my opinion, too formulaic, and I am not as enthused as I once was with this series. If you are inclined, go and read the early books Mr. Silva wrote in this set. They are better stories. Or better yet, stick with John LeCarre. You cannot beat “Smiley’s People” and all of the other LeCarre espionage books.

Next in my reading pile is a book of essays by Noel Perrin titled, “Second Person Rural.” I am finding I enjoy essays more and more in my geriatric age (might have something to do with I can read them in one sitting from beginning to end),  and Noel Perrin writes about all things rural in my neck of the woods, Orange County, Vermont. This book is one of a series of essays about part-time farming and rural living in Vermont. The first one is titled naturally, “First Person Rural.” There is also a “Third Person Rural,” and one more after that. Mr. Perrin was a Dartmouth professor, he writes well, and is entertaining. I have read all of his stuff years ago and I am finding my way to revisit these books. It might have something to do with me being some sort of a “…person rural” in heart and mind.

Moving down through my stack, I see where I have a bookmark left in “The Mueller Report.” I will get back to this one, maybe next winter, or someday soon. Someone other than me will write the final chapter on Trump, sooner rather than later I hope. I know enough to understand that impeachment is really a political process, and obstruction of justice is about committing a crime. If these two converge sometime along, there is a war that is yet to be fought. The divisions in our country have become deep and hard. Too many are doing all they can to divide us both politically and culturally. There is nothing encouraging about any of this. I will leave “The Mueller Report” half read for a while longer.

A little deeper in my reading pile is a copy of “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us” by Joseph Ellis. He is a good historian. You may have read an earlier book of his titled, “Founding Brothers.” I am about half way through “American Dialogue.” I picked it up because I am interested in the time when our constitution was being written, argued over, and finding its way into a living document as a grand example of compromise. Just being able to compromise about anything, and in this case, something so close to our core fascinates me. We need some lessons in the art of compromise. Contrary to the opinions of today’s political parties, compromise is not a dirty word, it is essential to the health of a democracy. The notion of “the health of a democracy” is something too many leaders today have totally lost sight of. I curse them every day for this – yes, I do.

Oh boy, now a heavy tome if there every was one, and in many ways. I am coming to a wonderful book (for me, at least) by an economic historian, Adam Tooze. The book I am about half way through is titled, “CRASHED: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.” Some of you may be familiar with Adam Tooze. He occasionally has opinion pieces about economics in the “New York Times.” I picked this book because I realize I do not understand the economics and financial system as it works today. I am totally baffled how some jerky president can tweet some nonsense and this will impact the stock market in a big way from one day to the next. I always thought investing was a careful and deliberative process – I am far from a believer in this anymore. Too many talking heads seem to be able to influence the markets in a big way from one day to the next just by running their mouths. Can you tell my prejudice here?

Anyway, “CRASHED” by Adam Tooze goes a long way to explaining what happened in the fall of 2008, what led up to this financial meltdown, and what has been happening since – or why has the recovery been so slow, or non-existent for many. This book gets deep into the weeds of economics and finance with a lot of history to give you the backstory and also an understanding of what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and is it going to be fixed. My big take-away from this book so far is that we were so close to falling off a financial cliff in 2008-9, and we did not. We narrowly avoided a complete financial disaster that could have made the “Great Depression” look like a small problem. Most Americans have no idea how close we came to revisiting an economic Stone Age. Many much smarter than I am pulled us though this, the story is fascinating, and yes, it was a bipartisan effort. The effort stalled with the election of 2010 and the loss of Congress to the Republicans. This did not need to be the end of the recovery, but it was due to hyper partisanship – enter Mitch McConnell and some of his jerky buddies in the House Freedom Caucus, aka Tea Party.  Well, enough said here.

My last book in my reading pile is one I have read at least once before, a collection of essays by Barbara Kingsolver titled, “Small Wonder.” I like Barbara Kingsolver and have been a fan her writing for some time. I think I need to ditch Daniel Silva and stick with Barbara Kingsolver more and more.

“Small Wonder” is a collection of Ms. Kingsolver’s essays that speak to issues of the environment, peace, and family. It is kind of nice to get back to some writing that makes your heart feel good and this happens with Barbara Kingsolver’s, “Small Wonder.”

I should close with mentioning that I am always game for good short stories, especially American classics.  I am reading again an anthology of great American short stories (after all, we perfected this genre). I always like to keep these stories close at hand. They remind me what good writing is all about.

I hope my sharing here is interesting and revealing too. I will revisit my reading stack from time to time and share good reads with you.  Take care, good reading.

The Farm in Washington, Vermont

Sometime during World War II, my grandfather bought an old Vermont hill farm in the town of Washington. The farm was typical of the farms in this part of Vermont, mostly hills, small fields, a couple of apple orchards, and lots of woods, about 600 acres all together. There were a couple of small barns, an ice house, a spring fed water tub for the dairy cows, a farm house with an attached woodshed, and a small pond that was used to cut ice in the winter. The ice was packed in sawdust to keep over the year, and used to chill the milk cans kept in a small milk house waiting for the creamery truck to pick them up every day.

This farm was like so many all over Vermont. It had all it needed to support a family and make a living right there. They needed to work hard and watch their pennies, but this is what Vermonters have always done. Their world was right there and met them every day through the four seasons. They kept a few cows, and sold some milk in cans to the local creamery, heated their house and cooked with wood cut and split right there, logged a little in the woods, sugared in the early spring, picked apples in the fall, and probably raised most of their food right there. It was a simple life, full of hard work, and full of satisfaction too.

After my grandfather bought the farm, we never farmed it. The farm  was a summer home for us, and the best place on earth for me. I roamed the woods, learned about all the wildlife we shared the farm with, fished the brooks and pond, and when I was older, hunted deer there with my dad.

The house was heated with a big central fireplace with heatilator vents built into the brickwork. You could go over to the farm in the middle of a Vermont winter, open up the house, and get a fire going that would bring the house up to a comfortable temp in a couple of hours.

I learned to split wood out in the wood shed attached to the house. My father taught me how to use an ax to split wood, how to read the grain of the wood, work around the knots, and how to use your wrists and give a little wrinkle with your wrists just when the ax hits the block of wood. Wood splitting is about rhythm, reading the grain,  and a good swing, not trying to bull your way through a block of wood with your back doing all the work. I loved the time spent splitting wood out in that wood shed – I always thought of it as thinking time – time to be alone with your thoughts.

 We always had some old dead elm cut up and waiting to be split. My dad would have me split up a block or two of the elm just to teach me patience. Elm is wiry and its grain is not straight and goes every which way. It is always a puzzle for the man swinging the ax, but it is a puzzle that can be solved.

The floor of the wood shed was littered with wood chips and pieces of bark. You sank in a little when you walked around. On one end of the wood shed, there was a privy – an outhouse. This one was a two seater. I always wondered about that – did folks use it together sometimes, or what? Well, I still don’t know the answer to that question.

One night, I was splitting wood out in the wood shed and I must have disturbed a mother mouse. She had a whole bunch of babies clinging to her and she was trying to get from one side of the wood shed to the other with all her babies and having to navigate the floor deep with wood chips. I sat down on the chopping block and watched her make her way. I can still see this picture in my mind.

In the kitchen, there was a combination wood and electric stove. On one side of the stove, you could build a wood fire to cook with and on the other side there were two electric burners. The wood stove part took up some of the space that would have made the oven bigger. You needed to cut small wood for the cook stove part. We did not use it much, but it did add some heat to the kitchen.

This farm was from a different time, a time that is hard to imagine today. In many ways, it was a time I am more suited for than the time we live in. It was not a time of machines, but mostly of doing for yourself, and doing it with your hands. It was a time when muscles did most of the work, people learned to be good with hand tools and do fine work, and take care of themselves and each other.

I’ll share more about the farm in my writing to come. Like I said, it was a special place for me.