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Bread Labor Party

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

I'm reading a lot about the Nearings, intensely committed folk who came from NYC to Vermont before the Back to the Land movement existed, during the depression. They were the original gangsters who left New York City in search of what they call, "The Good Life". They're extreme. They don't eat bread. They don't eat ice cream! They did not put their maple syrup on vanilla ice cream, like I love. They're perfected, they're regimented, they're scientific, they're precise.

They're everything I'm not.

Spring is here, and the preparations are underway. And instead of being excited, I'm spending a lot of time worrying how I'm going to screw everything up. Planting the seeds, weeding, raising new animals, transplanting, making sure the flowers are all nice and alert–oh my god it just makes me want to crawl into a little stone hut that I built myself and stay there until next winter. What if I suck at gardening?

This, of course, is a common problem: people fear what they don't yet know. But it feels like the loneliest thing in the world when it's you who doesn't know anything, and everyone else around seems to be just the dandiest planter on the east coast. Where are all of the other misguided, misinformed, maladjusted young people around here? Am I the only person having a meltdown as I watch the snow melt away? I've gotten used to winter, for crying out loud. Why does everything all of a sudden have to change? I mean, I've just become accustomed to the idea that I can man the fires, feed the cows, bake cornbread in the wood stove, skate on ponds, drive in blizzards–and I practically ride muddy driveways now for sport. But gardening? Fugettaboutit. I'm totally trippin'. It feels like when I lived in Colorado and everyone was a Grand Canyon River Guide or an ice climber or Lance Armstrong. You'd go get your coffee in the morning at the bakery and sixty-five mountain bikers would be rolling in from a forty-mile morning ride! Gangsters. And here I am, biting my nails over whether or not to mulch.

The first flowers came up this weekend–little Snow Bells. Those brave little buds with their teeny, white heads lowered and braced against the chilly wind. Frida was interested in them, too–she's about as clueless as I am, adopted from a pound in Brooklyn and all, fresh to the land. Together we threw a bale of hay to the cows, and sort of tripped around the melting lumps of ice in the backyard and I wondered what Helen Nearing would say to me, if she were there. Something tells me we wouldn't be smoking a joint together. Work! There is work to be done! There's always more and more and more work! I can't wait for it, actually, is the truth. It freaks me out because I'm no master at it, but I'm desperate for manual work. Too much thinking about the garden…time to get busy.

I was thinking about another thing I never did when I lived in New York: listen to the radio. It's not really part of the culture there, to click on NPR in the mornings, or at least not among my friends. Maybe because everyone has access to TV and newspapers and blogs, so the radio is too slow, too talky for the busy commuter. I love the radio, but it's not that uplifting these days. With the G20 summit meeting about how to handle the financial crisis, the protests, the jobless streaming in the streets, unable to afford health care while bankers take trips to the Bahamas on their bonus bucks–the world is in pretty tough shape. It reminds me how lucky I am, to be able to consider self-sufficiency, or at least aspire to it. What would it be like, in this day and age, to actually function apart from the market economy, for real? Some people can't really consider it, for so many reasons. But I've heard of the Transition Towns who seek the redefinition of money and community…and I'm into it. To rely on the labor of friends, the trading between neighbors (syrup for firewood, beef for cider, butter for beer). It sounds like a hippy notion, but it's so possible–and it's already happening. More and more young people are re-thinking their lives, and the possibilities. And perhaps bread labor (which is what the Nearings called it–the labor you need in order to put bread on your table) will replace the act of making money to spend money, on things we don't need.

I'm going to learn how to make bread this weekend. That will be my version of bread labor. Maybe one of these days, I won't need to buy it at all.

This just in! I have begun planning a chicken tractor. A brilliant concoction created by permaculturist Toby Hemenway.

Horse-Drawn Sleds & Sap Tea: My First Time Sugaring in Rural Vermont

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

When we moved to Vermont we left a society gripped by depression and unemployment, falling prey to fascism, and on the verge of another world-wide military free-for-all; and entered a pre-industrial, rural community…Instead of the hectic rush of busyness we intended a quiet pace, with time to wonder, ponder and observe.
–Helen and Scott Nearing, from "The Good Life"

I didn't know anything about the Nearings when I moved from New York City to Vermont. To be honest, I barely had heard of the Back to the Land movement of the 1970s, which was launched in part by Helen and Scott Nearing, and their radical move from city/sophisticated/academic life to the rural farm. I don't know much about the Nearings yet (I'm still just beginning to read about them), but I have heard that Scott was a radical professor who popularized the game Monopoly, as a kind of mockery of capitalism–now, of course, Monopoly has become commodified and branded by the very thing it once mocked–and that they were big maple syrup makers.

It's sugaring season in Vermont–the season of syrup-making. That three-week period (or one month, depending on the weather) where those who sugar emerge from their states of hibernation and start work on their land. Loggers have been plugging away throughout the winter, but the farms are pretty quiet (except for those incorporating season-extension techniques), and you can tell everyone's anxious to get out there, socialize, and work with their bodies. I'd never sugared before this weekend, and never really knew how maple syrup was made. But what better place to sugar for the first time than Bob C.'s, a local expert and former Back to the Lander who's sugared for years and years. Bob claims he's never turned on a computer, his house only got electricity a several years ago, and he and his wife built the damn thing. Homesteaders, of sorts. And wicked funny.

Bob and his wife rely on maple syrup as a significant source of their income (as many people do in Vermont), which means they have three weeks to make up to 250 gallons of syrup, and a hearty chunk of money. The sugar season is short, and if you're relying on old-time techniques for gathering sap–Bob uses a homemade, horse drawn sled instead of a diesel tractor, for example–it calls for a workforce. They rely on friends and family to come help out and pay them in quarts of syrup, hot dogs grilled under the arch, and future favors in return. Their sugarbush is beautiful: the light filters through the maples and reflects off of the snow, the breeze is chilly but you can smell spring, and the horses are happy to be out of the barn and working again.

There were six of us helping Bob on Sunday. We spread out in the woods, pouring sap from each silver bucket hanging from the trees, into five gallon plastic buckets, and transporting those into the metal vat on the sled. The snow is starting to melt, so we would fall often, sometimes waist-deep. I drove the horses for a while, and I'd slow them to a halt when we'd pull up to the dump station, located in the center of the woods. Then we'd lower the tube from the sled vat (brimming with sap) into the mouth of a long plastic pipeline, and watch the sap shoot downhill towards the sugar house, where it collects in order to be boiled down into syrup. At one point I bent down to the clear, shooting sap stream, which looks like spring water, and took a sip–it's the purest, coldest, sweetest tasting thing in the world.

Once the light faded and we had gathered from every tapped tree, we headed down to the sugarhouse. There, Bob talked about proper boiling point, the level of sap in the arch, feeding the fire with wood from the splitter, and how to filter the syrup when it's ready. It's a science, in a way, or a type of alchemy. I'm afraid of sounding overly dramatic; but it's mystical. Mythological. This is man combining his mind with the land. A friend brought me a mug he had dipped in the arch, filled with boiling sap and a tea bag (sap tea, unlike anything I've tasted.) We debated dunking hot dogs in the liquid (a classic sugaring staple), but Bob was adamant we not–his vegan customers would not be pleased.

When we got home, we watched Eddie Murphy's stand up comedy from the 80s. He wears a tight, orange leather jumpsuit! I was so tired I didn't bother to brush my teeth, and slept soundly with syrup on my tongue.

I Just Saved About Fifteen Bucks Making a Handmade Box.

Friday, March 20th, 2009

I needed somewhere to put my binder clips. They're pesky, and scattered all over my desk.

I just used up the last of my Yogi Tea bags (African Redbush Peach). And right before I tossed it in the recycling bin, I noticed the inside of the box was…beautiful. Like henna. I unglued the box and flipped it inside out. I folded it again, into a box. A new box. Label free.

This all took about two minutes.

I'm going home tonight, digging through the recycling, and doing this many more times. Either I'll use the re-formed boxes for wrapping gifts, or to package my own tea come harvest season (I'm growing chamomile.)

Try it. Save money on packaging and feel good about creating your own art, using trash.

Trash ART

Back to the Land, and Grapes of Wrath

Monday, March 16th, 2009

It's been two months and one week since I moved from New York City to rural Vermont, and I'm in the middle of reading Grapes of Wrath. It's so…current. Maybe it's the notion that something intangible runs our way of life–our food, our shelter, our land, the future of our children–and in the same way that it provides us work, it grinds us down, wears us thin, and kicks us out of our own house. Steinbeck called it The Monster. From the layoffs, to the Madoffs, to the big corporate payoffs, what I find craziest is that up until recently we've been fine with this economic system. Now we're pissed, but shouldn't we have expected this? The American economic system has been one of inherent exclusion and exploitation, and it's not the first time in history the economy has had to reckon with its greed and negligence. So why are we surprised by the current in-sustainability of massive production and wealth amassment? It's just like Grapes of Wrath! I read somewhere one of Madoff's victims quoted as saying we should "stone him to death." Which–for the novice in antiquated execution methods–is throwing stones at someone for a long time until they are dead. I mean, I'm as furious as everyone else, but isn't this the twenty-first century, people? What's next, burning witches at the stake? I'm hiding my homeopathics under the mattress.

Anyway.

This weekend, another New Yorker came up to visit the farm–Claire, my best friend from childhood. She told me about my aloe plant I gave her when I moved (it's since gotten huge), and the strawberry and tomato plants she has on her windowsill in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It made me think about urban gardening. Could I have lasted in New York if I lived in Brooklyn, or had the capacity to grow my own food? I know people, like Claire, who are doing okay in Brooklyn, who have more space, or are close to the park, or have backyards where their dogs can run. Maybe it has to do with the "dailyness" of food production, and what that means for a person. For me, at this point in life, I need to touch ground and see mountains. I love the daily process: waking up and feeding the fire, then the cows, feeling Vermont's air, the crunching of hardened snow…how my mind revs up and what revs it.

This morning, for example, I woke up early, while the moon was setting. After feeding the cows, I took my coffee to the car and started out. My commute is about an hour each way–which sounds like a lot to everyone–but I'm in love with it. Turning off our muddy road, the sky appears, massive and blue from horizon to horizon. The snow is mostly melted (for now), and the earth is a dusty brown. Route 110 follows rolling hills that dip and curve and salute the sun. People say you should pay to drive this road; the warm light reveals each beam in every house along the way, the brilliant red from barn siding, each pointed needle on the pines, and every wave on the river that has now loosened up and flows along the roads. To see this, first thing every morning, is a gift (although I should probably consider bio diesel.)

This weekend, besides read Steinbeck (and US Weekly, a gift from the big city!), I made myself a seed diary in a simple composition book (black and white, like in grade school) with handmade duct tape dividers, arranged by vegetable type. I recorded everything we ordered for this season's garden, and plan on noting what grows well, what fails, and what flourishes, for reference sake. I'm not usually this organized, but it's helping me familiarize myself with the seeds, the growth period for each type (early, mid and late season potatoes for example: French Fingerling, Gold Rush and All Blue), and I'm beginning to visualize where things will go in their beds come planting time.

I experimented with fermentation, too. I had some cabbages in the fridge and decided to make sauerkraut, Sandor Katz style. I sliced up some purple and white cabbages, diced some garlic, and threw them in a bowl with a bunch of salt. It's so simple, and yet I have never taken the time to make my own! All you have to do is squeeze the salted cabbage for a while until it starts to expel liquid. I think I added a little too much salt because my hands were stinging. In about ten minutes I pressed down the cabbage until it was submerged in its own juice, and then stamped it down, weighted with a can of roasted tomatoes on a plate. Down in the root cellar it went, along with Gordita, the nosey cat who pees in the basement. In about ten days once it's fermented, I'm going to fry up some sausages and try it out! I hope it doesn't mold.

Until then, I plan to finish Grapes of Wrath, eat leftovers, and think about what it means that I fled to a farm, as opposed to being kicked off one. Not to mention how to stay positive in a world that sounds like it's crumbling…and bankers who keep getting bonuses.

How I'm Saving Money in My New Life in Rural Vermont

Monday, March 9th, 2009

I don't think I'm alone when I say: I'm looking to save some dough. Along with other good capitalists of this nation, up until this economic crisis I've wasted a lot of money on things I don't need. (Maybe I was depressed about the fact I turned the radio down every time I heard Bush's voice–now I turn it up for Barack.) A friend of mine always says it costs you ten dollars for every block you walk down in New York City, because there are so many things to tempt you. Well, when I lived there, I spent every last dollar on crap. Then, in a packing fiasco on my way outta Dodge, I threw it all out. So now I own very few things (a mustard colored dresser, a favorite t-shirt, long underwear, sweaters with holes in the armpits, ghost-like garments from my corporate past stuffed way in the back of my dresser…) and financially, I'm starting at zero. It's an interesting position to be in, though. I have almost nothing to spend, and a whole new life. I do have a little bit of debt, but I'm pretending it doesn't exist for the time being. Money, money, money. I hate thinking about it, and can't stop thinking about it. My question is: how do I manage what I make? How do I stay above water, when the whole world is drowning in debt? Is this boring to talk about? It sounds like NPR, but such is life. (For more interesting musings on money and the state of the world, check out Slow Money and How the Rich Are Destroying The Earth.)

One thing (of many) that's different about my life here in rural Vermont: I almost never go out to eat, and if I do, it's for some grand occasion like I got a job, someone got their masters in something, or my mother's in town. I rarely cooked in New York, mostly because I felt like no one had enough time to sit down with me, and my kitchen was miniscule and practically in my bedroom. There was too much take-out in the surrounding area, and I was too depressed at the end of each day working in a concrete tower to consider anything but take-out, or cereal. But here, when there's a snowstorm and nothing in the fridge, nobody's calling Dominos. I like it. Another thing I'm doing to save money: I'm growing my own food. I ordered my seeds last night, a lot of seeds, and it only cost $63.15! With hard work and good weather, I'm going to save a lot of green come summer. Here's what I ordered:

Provider bush green beans (top-seller at Fedco), Vermont Cranberry beans (speckled dry beans for soups and stews), Hopi Blue Flour corn (dry, for cornmeal), Cross Country cucumbers (for pickling), Eight Ball zucchini (the size of pool balls!), Lumina pumpkin (for carving and selling), Jaune du Doubs carrots (yellow guys), Sugarsnax carrots (long and orange), Cherry Belle radishes (smooth, small and red), White Egg turnip (sweet, for mashing or raw), Parris Island Cos romaine lettuce, Mesclun Mix lettuce, Bright Lights swiss chard (multi-colored, for chard pie), Arnica Chamissonis (yellow flowering herb for bruises), Sweet basil, German Chamomile, Purple Coneflower Echinacea (herb for immune system), Vincenza Blue Lavender, White Yarrow (white flowers for allergies, cold and flu), Stuttgarter Onion Sets, Yellow Moon Dutch Shallots, French Fingerling potatoes, Gold Rush potatoes, All Blue potatoes…and more. Some we're getting in plant form (tomatoes and artichokes.)

Now that I'm saving money on food, I have to start saving for something else. Mud season looms in my mind like a monster eating away at my tires and hankering to kill me. I want Muck Boots. I desire Muck Boots. I can think only of Muck Boots (and saving money.) But I want Muck Boots for my walk up the driveway when my car gets sucked into the void. I can't afford these fancy rubber boots, but I need Muck Boots, right? Those ugly duck looking boots impervious to all forms of goo? It seems that way, and here's why I think so:

This Sunday, I went to the annual Pancake Bash of a well-known family in the area. Every year they gather all their friends (many of whom came to Vermont during the Back to the Land movement in the 70s–artists, carpenters, teachers, farmers, foresters, herb goddesses, etc.) and kick off the sugaring season by devouring all the syrup they have left over from the past year. The pancakes were epic, the syrup delicious. Mason jars brimming with the stuff–along with some apple juice from their business, Honest to Goodness–were lined along the counters. The house was octagonal, built halfway into the earth, and awesome. [I've seen a couple houses like these in Vermont so far, and for more, check out: The Earth Sheltered House.] And there were tons of people. I haven't seen this many people in one place all winter (except the local high school girls' championship basketball game at the famous "Aud" in Barre.) The sunny, warmish morning marked the unofficial beginning of the sugaring season, and a breath of fresh air after way too many months of solitude. Everyone was talking about sugaring; how many buckets they have up, and how many taps on how many trees. There were heaps of melting snow outside but people were talking sap and springtime and–even further away–summer soccer leagues. (Of course, it's blizzarding out today. Welcome to Vermont.)

After a while, we realized it was time to go; one of our friends needed help hitching up a young Belgian workhorse to his sugaring sled. We bid our goodbyes, and made our way to the exit, first going to the bathroom (a hole in the ground with no flush, a canister of sawdust placed adjacent, with a gorgeous view out the window.) Upstairs in the mudroom, however, all hell had broken loose. There were Muck Boots everywhere! All different shapes and sizes, greens and browns and darker greens and browns. Muck Boots as far as the eye could see! Glorious Muck Boots, but no one could find their own pair. Every single person and their child at the Pancake Bash must have worn Muck Boots to the party. Except for me.

So I'm saving up.

How I Got Back to the Land, Car Trouble, and 'Eco-Sexy'

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

It's March. I fled New York City two and a half months ago, and moved to the outskirts of a small town in the hills of central Vermont. I wake up each morning, look out my window, breathe in the fresh air, and think: Damn. Two months ago I was miserable and felt like life was a vertical line of accumulation. Now I don't.

Up here, it's that time before spring when the weather gets a little warmer, and–even though it's going to snow through the end of the month–I'm starting to think about what's going to be in our garden come May. I still get so excited when I think of having a garden! (How did I get here?!) I have Eliot Coleman's The New Organic Grower on my bedside table and I'm taking notes–this book is perfect for those interested in starting a garden, by the way. Today, I am considering artichoke plants. I'm going to buy ten or fifteen of them at Cedar Circle Farm, an organic farmstand and education center in East Thetford, VT (co-manager, Will Allen, wrote The War on Bugs), which is about half an hour from my house. It's still a bit early for ordering the rest of our seeds, but I'm already researching good mayonnaise recipes for the chokes. Any tips? Before I continue though, here are some things for the sake of background, to flesh myself out.

One: I went to high school in NYC, but I grew up in the backwoods of Colorado until I was ten, so I'm not 100% city girl. What I mean is, I own dresses and whatnot, but I will be sharing no stories of slipping in pig manure in stiletto heels. Two: When I was sixteen, I spent a semester of high school at a Vermont farm school in Vershire (The Mountain School) and it changed my life. Then, during college, I worked on a farm for the summer, as a member of The Mountain School farm crew. So I'm not completely a stranger to the world of agriculture and farming as a way of life. I'm more of a semi-novice. Three: I'm living with someone who has a small farm and wants me to run it with him. We have a dog (Frida), electricity, the internet, and a subscription to Netflix. So I'm not doing this alone, or in a lopsided shack on a dead end road. And last, I found a day job, right here at Chelsea Green. So I'm not going to be farming, sewing, or slaughtering all day–but it's not like I'm sitting on a massive inheritance, or dabbling in egg-collecting on my days off from Exxon Mobil business school. Just thought I'd wipe away all inklings of the Devil Wears Prada bullshit I am not that interested in perpetuating. There will be drama, yah. But nothing "eco-sexy." I hate that. I'm talking an exploration into the grounded, the intentional–an engagement into the sensuality that is life.

This week, I was faced with not so sensual realities of driving in Vermont. I was on my way home for the weekend, and it was raining pretty hard. Our driveway is long, uphill, and lately pretty roughed up by logging trucks coming in to chip. On the worst turn up past a section of land being logged pretty heavily, I got stuck in a muddy rut and slid on some ice into the bank. Sitting in a stuck car–with tires whirring and rain coming down–is horror movie material. And while I knew this wasn't life or death, a pathetic sense of helplessness set in. I'd have to walk the rest of the way, and I didn't want to. I looked around for a flashlight, and nada. No cell phone service, either. I'm not the biggest fan of the dark, but I got out of the car anyway (what else could I do?) and walked about a mile up the road using my cell phone light to guide me on mud and ice. I saw wolves everywhere. Stumps loomed and lunged at me. I sang T-Rex "By the Light of the Magical Moon" which had been playing in the car, to scare away forest beasts. I walked and walked, and I will admit, I was flipping out a bit–it was pitch black, and I'd had some bad anxiety in New York, and felt it coming back. I'm still getting used to a world where cell phones don't work in most places, weather defines how people live, and at times all you have is just yourself on a dark road, your groceries left a ways back in a bottomed-out car by the side of the road.

But in the end, it wasn't that bad. I got home alive and drank a beer and then we went out with the truck, hitched up the car, and dragged it out. Took about five minutes. I slept well, woke up on Saturday, ate eggs from a farm in Bethel, and went to see the local high school girls' basketball team make it to the playoffs. No big deal! This week, I'm ordering seeds and de-worming the dog, for starters. I'll keep you posted…

Sustainably Sane: Why I Fled the City to Find the Good Life

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

About two months ago, I decided it was time to change my life. During the most historic presidential inauguration and election of my lifetime, in the throes of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, at the emotional peak (or precipice) of my mid-twenties, from the mean streets of New York City-a Greenwich Village apartment, a big job in publishing, and mounting debt-I left my job, packed up my life into a friend's pickup truck, and moved to the middle of rural Vermont. I had a place to live, in a wood heated house that cost about one fifteenth of my rent in the city. But I had no job waiting for me. I didn't have a car, or a clue what I would do when I got there. Thank god.

Why did I do this? While living in the city, I didn't wake up feeling good about my life. I thought only in terms of the future-getting somewhere "important". But I didn't believe in my job. I felt like a machine. I felt disconnected from my body, alienated from my community (which felt illusory and fractured to begin with), and to be frank, not sure what it was that made me feel human. I bought a lot of stuff I didn't need because I thought it would make me feel better, like a $45 plant for my windowsill. I ate a lot of processed foods, and didn't have time to cook. But my biggest impetus to get the hell out of there was that I lay up nights fantasizing about one day living a full life in a beautiful place, living within my means, where I might wake up excited about the day. I'd worked one summer on a farm during college, and loved it. And even though I was working with Pulitzer Prize winning authors, and handling book contracts with world leaders, I thought about farming all the time. Eventually, I decided I wasn't going to spend any more time killing myself for any job, any thing, any social ‘norm' I couldn't take with me when I die. This meant redefining simple things such as: production, consumption, and connection. Basics. So I left the job. Subletted my apartment. Freaked my mother out.

Here's what I plan to change. I'm moving to a cabin up a dirt road (now snowy), on the outskirts of a town with less than 1,000 people. I'm going to learn how to grow my own food. I'm going to raise my own meat. I'm going to press my own cider, and make my own beer. I'm going to spend as little money as possible on things I don't need. I'm going to sew instead of buy new. I'm going to cut my own hair. I'm going to learn how to drive a tractor. I'm going to bake my own bread. I'm going to work in a job that promotes ideas I believe in. And other stuff I can't plan for. Bring it.

I'll keep you posted.