Jilly D.

Archive for March, 2014|Monthly archive page

Ch. 3 Madness in March

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 31, 2014 at 2:26 pm

100_0931An eager student of a more sustainable lifestyle, I spent most of our first winter together interviewing Sam whenever we could find time to meet. Teaching four classes a day at Ithaca College that spring semester, I curtailed any additional demands on my time. I couldn’t wait to find more time to spend with this self-educated genius.

We met around dusk or else we didn’t see each other that day. Sam ate supper and went to bed soon after the sun set. Some days I didn’t start teaching my last class of the day until 4 pm. Three or four days a week we’d cook supper together and spend a few hours talking.

One March evening around 6:45 p.m., I decided it still looked light enough. The days were getting longer and I decided to walk down to Sam’s cabin at dusk. I saw through the window he was home preparing supper. I stared at him for a long time. He didn’t see me. I finally rapped on the window pane.

Sam dropped the pan on the table and with one move had his rifle pointed at the window. In that split second I realized he couldn’t see out into the darkness and I dropped to the ground face flat in snow.

I scrambled around to the door and knocked. He still had his rifle ready.

“Sam, Sam. It’s me! Jill. Sam! Don’t shoot!”

“Don’t you EVER do that again! I didn’t see you or hear you. You know I’m practically deaf. This cabin is lit up and anyone out there can see in but I can’t see out. Don’t ever sneak up on me like that again.” Sam scared me.

I’d never been around guns. Heard them go off a lot when I lived on the south side of Chicago, but I had never held one, used one, or owned one. Sam got his first hunting rifle at age 12. An Ithaca Gun. It hung on the wall within easy reach.

His loss of hearing often makes Sam feel vulnerable. From all the work he’s done with power tools and engines his hearing is marginal. Even as a teenager, he played drums in a rock band and loved the eardrum-breaking volume levels of music.

“Hunh?” is the word he says more than any other.Ithaca NY May 29-June 9 2009 Trip 215

“Did you read in the seed catalog about all the new kinds of tomato varieties?” I ask.

“Why would you wash your shoes in baking soda?” he responds. When Sam thinks he heard something and replies with a non sequitar, it’s funny to everyone but him. His hearing deficit makes me think about what I want to say and the clearest way to say it before I open my mouth.

All winter long I peppered him with questions about himself, his background, his home, his interests, his likes and dislikes, his friends and family, his land, his plans, his work, his projects, his intentions. How many questions I asked Sam that first year. Stupid questions. What do farmers do in winter? What is that machine? How does that work? When will the sun rise tomorrow? What are you thinking about? Should I make a salad? How did you learn that? What does that mean? What purpose does it serve? Do you like that?  How do you do that?

We didn’t even notice the blizzards that year. Every year thereafter, March seemed nothing more than a month of blizzards. Moods turn blue. Seasonal affective disorder is not an official diagnosis; it’s the result of living by the seasons and being in the March moment.

When you live by the weather, your moods are largely determined by climate conditions.  Clinical depression is a diagnosis for a mental condition of the blues with no basis in reality. Being bummed out is a realistic, if not healthy, response to living where it’s grey every day. The days get longer and longer and you get more and more frustrated that even though there is sunlight you can’t do the things you want to do because of the weather. In the middle of March it is simply depressing.

Sam's babies

Sam’s babies

As the years passed on we found ourselves in a rut come March. Sam wouldn’t get away for a weekend much less a vacation because he had to tend to the animals and the fire, the solar panels and the windmills. The weather made him ornery, miserable, crotchety and downright mean some days. Complain about the cold. Announce the windchill factor. Stare out the window glumly. You would have thought the weather was my fault. Crying in his beer and doing the self-pity dance didn’t go very far with me.

Every time my voice got on a girly whine or I threw a hissy fit, Sam would let me know he expected me to suck it up and pull my weight. “No sense bitching. It gets you nowhere,” he’s said once if not a thousand times.

If I wanted to be strong and healthy, I knew he was right. But when he got to whining about the weather at the end of winter, I came to the end of my patience. We argued. About nothing. About everything.936213-R1-12-13A

When we argued it seemed as though my life fell apart. I wasn’t sure you could argue and not break up.

“I will let you know long in advance if I am going to break up with you,” Sam would reassure me. I didn’t believe it, because I wasn’t sure every time I got angry I wasn’t going to break up with him. I hated going to sleep angry. I couldn’t sleep angry. When we argued I’d get out of a good sleep cycle and start to feel really miserable.

“If I meet another woman and I am interested in her, I am going to tell you before I do anything about the other woman,” Sam swore. “I am not going to walk away from a really good long term thing with you.”

These words would come at the end of our arguments. He’s not a man of many words. I admit I did a number of things to really piss him off. Most were unintentional. My lack of common sense of about how things work and my absent-minded professor personality played a role, certainly. Leaving the coffeepot on the stove to burn. Forgetting to leave the pump on and running a boiler dry. Letting the fire go out while I read a book. The freezer door left ajar. Leaving a project right in the middle and move on to something else. Putting something right in the pathway where he walks.Ithaca NY May 29-June 9 2009 Trip 218

Our arguments got volatile. On two occasions, his parents intervened and Mother Warren took me home and put me to bed sobbing in their spare room overnight. New lessons in apologies and civil arguments.

March madness set in seriously the year I started going through menopause. I started to have hot flashes after the summer’s heat had passed. That winter I’d wake in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. My power surges made me a new force to be reckoned with in midwinter.

Sam had talked to his mother about the hormonal changes I was going through and what he should expect. What she said and what he heard were somewhat related. Janet explained that hormonal changes occur and some women take hormonal replacement therapy to minimize some of my symptoms he described to her. He heard there was a pill I could take to stop making me so angry and crazy.

In the middle of a March blizzard Sam started to pick an argument with me as we finished dinner. It escalated quickly with insults and angry accusations. I was mad and my mouth was in overdrive. Sam called his mother and said, “Get her out of here before I kill her.”

Chuck drove Janet down the driveway. I was mad. I was sick of being the one who had to leave; never would this feel like my home. It was always his house. His way.

557054-R1-19-20A_020“Jill, get in the car. You’re going home with us tonight,” Janet announced when she walked in the front door of the cabin.

That pissed me right off. “No, I’m not,” I said. “Sam doesn’t want to listen to me. Sam doesn’t want to hear anything I have to say. He expects me to listen to his complaining, make his dinner, wash his clothes, keep his house, tend his fire, bring in the wood, do the dishes, walk his dogs, and lay down like a rug so he can walk all over me. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he has to call his mother.” I took them both on at once. Chuck stood in the corner silently; my corner.

Janet’s eyes went wild and they flashed with anger.

“Mom, she’s just crazy. This menopause is driving me nuts. Tell her to go to the doctor and get her a pill,” Sam said.

“The two of you are arguing for no reason. He’s depressed and you’ve listened to enough of him. I’ve heard enough; get in the car, Jill.” Mother Warren was mad.

“NO. I am tired of this. My menopause is no excuse for your son being an asshole. There is no pill that is going to cure me of my problem. This is not my problem. This is our problem. The pills you are thinking about are ones my mother took; and they took her cervix in cancer. No thank you to you and your pills.” I was shouting. Sam, Janet and Charlie didn’t say a word.

Janet hadn’t known my mother had survived cancer or the risks I faced from hormone replacement therapy. I hadn’t wanted my mother to take them. I planned to let my body do its own thing naturally. I learned to ride hot flashes like waves in my own tropical moments.492703-R1-20-21A

Learning to weather the emotional storms of a farm in winter is an ongoing lesson; for both of us. There have been no more nights at Mother Warren’s and no more volatile fights. There is a lot more middle-aged melancholy in midwinter as we manage the rage against the vicissitudes of the weather and nature and time.

For Sam, learning to withstand the challenges of weather means preparing for storms. Wind storms and rain in March are the norm. Wind gusts and torrential downpours are not; but have become more frequent in the past three or four years.

In the middle of a March night we will hear it rain on snow. Plop-plop on the tin roof wakes us. Rain on snow instead of snow on snow is trouble. Rain then freezes. Rain penetrates the snow and alters its consistency before freezing rock hard. The deer and cows can’t stomp down the snow and eat the green undergrowth in pastures and woodlands. The rain freezes right onto the blades of the windmill. The blades get heavier and heavier. Sometimes the windmill will freeze right up and you’ve got to wait a few days for a good sun shower.

When the winds blow at 60 m.p.h. it tests the wire cables holding the windmill aloft and grounded. Only once has the windmill atop the 80 foot tower broken under gale force winds. It required taking the tower down, taking the windmill off and replacing the blades. More than once, wind gusts have been so extreme as to jolt it into a free spin where the regulator shuts it down and stops generating power. In March last year the gusts at 85 m.p.h. finally fried the big windmill. Sam has the spare parts in the garage and will take it down during the calm days of summer to work on it and replace the generator.

Finding projects for these glum bouts of weather are needed to sublimate the desires of any normal hibernating mammal. There are lots of things to do, although most of them are not ones we look forward to doing. Procrastinating paperwork and tax preparation, for example. Oiling and seasoning all the cast iron pans and skillets, polishing the silver, sharpening the knives with a whetstone, cleaning off desks and workbenches, organizing tools and balancing the checkbook.

Sam studies the farm newspapers and magazines. March is a good time to go to auctions. Nobody else has any money to spend this time of year, and the weather is so bad nobody needs to use any equipment yet, so prices are lower.  I learned to love Saturday morning road trips to farm auction sites; preview the goods with a hot cup of coffee from the traveling food wagon. Sam is so good at finding deals because he knows he can repair anything that’s broke.

We spend time during the longest month of the year doing hands-on research related to the farm. One year we attended a regional conference of deer and elk farmers to learn more about legislative initiatives and marketing efforts to promote deer farming. Sam and I participated in a public forum held on the Ithaca College campus regarding sustainability and wind farming. Sam spoke at public hearings held at the Enfield Town Board meetings regarding the viability of a new wind farm near Buck Hill. I took a month long course offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension at the Rural-Urban Center in Montour Falls on How to Build a Sustainable Farm Business Plan. Extension Services offered a variety of workshops in March that proved useful: Marketing Local Meats, Agritourism in the Finger Lakes, Promoting Local Farmers Markets. Sam drove around to several other deer, elk and buffalo ranches in New York and Pennsylvania to learn first-hand from experienced farmers.

Despite having taken my fair share of multiple choice tests, including the SAT, ACT, and GREs, and despite having constructed more than my fair share of closed-end objective assessment tests, I worried about passing my Wildlife Rehabilitator’s License exam. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation requires a test before you are allowed to practice wildlife rehabilitation. There are no essays, so I couldn’t explain my answers. I spent hours reviewing exam questions with Sam.

“What are the most likely rabies vector species you will encounter in your work as a wildlife rehabilitator in New York State?” Sam would ask.

“Bats, raccoons,” I blurted out. This was like playing Jeopardy, but the stakes involved the welfare of wild animals.

“How long is the gestation period of rabbits?” he’d ask.

“Twenty-one days.” I knew how fast rabbits could reproduce.

“Define hypothermia. Define hyperthermia.” Sam kept quizzing me. I loved it. Even if I didn’t know all the answers, I was learning them from Sam.

The icicles begin to drip. The snow begins to melt. The waterwheel turns Po-dunk. The swish and force of water pushing steel make spring percussion.

The seed catalogs pile high. We wade through them and begin to make plans for the next growing season.

Quality is like fresh oats

Quality is like fresh oats

“Plant oats in the mud. Buckwheat in the dust. That’s what Uncle Donald taught me,” Sam says. Uncle Donald and Sam’s dad farmed oats and buckwheat for seed crops. During the 1950s and 1960s most of the farmland around here was used to grow seed crops. Since the 1800s when Mecklenburg and Enfield established working mills based on the power generated from waterwheels, these fields have yielded grains and produce for feed and seed. The number of seed companies dropped precipitously since the 1980s. Seed saving today is making a comeback and I harvest, dry, clean, and sort all kinds of seeds from our crops of lettuces, greens, beets, radishes, sunflowers, calendula, cilantro and basil.

Mecklenburg MillSam remembers the mill in Mecklenburg. Known for milling the best buckwheat flour in the northeast, Mecklenburg was once a thriving community. This nearby hamlet had three stores, the Grange and a gas station when he was a boy. He worked for Phil White, who owned White’s Nursery – across from the Post Office. When Sam was 10 years old he planted every one of the white pine trees in the acreage adjacent to our property on the southern edge.

Sam acquired a body of experiential knowledge growing up when and where he did. Wisdom passed to him by his teachers: his dad, Uncle Donald, Kermit Leonard, Hopi Linton, Grandfathers Minor Updike and Harry Warren. Sam has no idea how smart he is.

Sam Warren grew up a blond, blue-eyed farm boy in a time when schools devalued his natural curiosity, diminished his creative talents, and punished his independent thought. Told he was stupid by teachers, he began to believe it at an early age. At least in school. His grades reflected his teachers’ expectations. He graduated with a certificate in welding. His mother instilled in him the dangerous idea that he could do anything he wanted as long as he worked hard and tried his best.

My parents were not college graduates either, but they instilled a strong work ethic and valued books.  I may not be the smartest, but I worked the hardest.

My mother was raised on a farm near Lake of the Woods, Minnesota; a homestead lost during the Depression. My dad’s father owned a furniture store as the son of an immigrant Swede who was the Harbor Master and ran the lumber yard along the Mississippi in north Minneapolis. Dad worked in food service before taking over his father’s business; just 18 months before grandpa suddenly died of a heart attack. After the race riots of the late 1960s and a fire, dad sold the furniture store and went back into college food service.

The Swenson home movies show me in River Falls at the University of Wisconsin campus where I feed sheep and toddle around the barnyard. My dad named me “Jill,” after a cow at the Ag School. I took to school from my first day in Kindergarten at the Jenny Lind Elementary School in the Camden neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis. By third grade I was conducting summer school in the backyard where I was the teacher. I established a lending library from my parents’ personal collection. I got into the Great Books Program and started learning German in fourth grade at Lakeview Elementary in Robbinsdale, Minnesota.

I discovered at an early age I was really good at school and learning was fun. My experiences in early education differed dramatically from Sam’s.  That didn’t mean I had an easier time socially. I wore glasses at the age of 5 after having several corrective eye surgeries. I had been born cross-eyed. Chubby, bookish and bespectacled, I was an odd girl.

I lived inside the world of books. School was my sanctuary. I had taken a personal vow that I would continue to go to school every day as long as it remained fun. Teaching became a way to keep learning without paying tuition. When school stopped being fun was when it stopped being about the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

Facts don’t seem to matter anymore. The truth is whatever sells; whatever is most popular. Weapons of mass distraction lead to world destruction. I pursued critical thinking skills and fact checking. Truth is built on facts. Knowledge is not constructed out of rumor or gossip, but hard data. Scholarship took on the fashion of postmodern theory: things in and of themselves matter less than the mediated signs and symbols of these things. In short, they think reality is secondary to media. I am not convinced.

After several years of observing the geese arrive and depart from Warren Pond, I came across a tattered typewritten sheet of paper from long before I had met Sam. For some reason I had saved these words from “Lessons from Geese,” but I knew I hadn’t written them. What was the source for this natural wisdom?

Fact 1: As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an“uplift” for the birds that follow. By flying in a V formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.

Lesson 1: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

Fact 2: When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.

Lesson 2: If we have as much sense as a goose we stay in formation with those who are headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give help to others.

Fact 3: When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to the point position.

Lesson 3: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. As with geese, people are interdependent on each other’s skills, capabilities, and unique arrangements of gifts, talents, or resources.

Fact 4: The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

Lesson 4: We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater. The power of encouragement (to stand by one’s heart or core values and encourage the heart and core of others) is the quality of honking we seek.

Fact 5: When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.

Lesson 5: If we have as much sense as geese we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

The “Lessons of Geese” I’d saved all things years captured several essential truths based on natural observations. I had wanted to find the original source since it is such a wonderful example of how nature offers transcendent knowledge if only we pay it proper attention. I spent countless hours fruitlessly searching online for the elusive American Naturalist Milton Olson and his copyright on an essay about the behavioral traits of geese.

I did find the “Lessons from Geese” used by Toastmasters International, the Boy Scouts of America, Outward Bound, speeches by cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien and countless other business executives and leadership gurus. The essay appears on thousands of websites, business magazines and professional journals.

Julia GrinsmanTrying to locate the original source, I put my problem in the hands of a professional: my local reference librarian, Julia Grimsman. Within two hours she ended my two month wild goose chase. Milton Olson wasn’t an American Naturalist; he was a pastor at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Minnesota, from 1958-1963. This might explain how I had come into possession of this piece of paper as a good little Lutheran girl.

Private detective in the Reference Section, Julia quickly discovered Milton Olson is not the author of “Lessons of Geese.” Dr. Robert McNeish of Baltimore wrote it first for a sermon he delivered in his church. For many years a science teacher, Dr. McNeish claimed he wrote it up based on a flyer filled with interesting facts about geese that he picked up along the Maryland shore where he routinely observed birds. Because the essay involved “facts” a good ornithologist should know about it.

Julia was keen to find out whether there is any scientific basis to these lessons A gifted reference librarian, she quickly discovered Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology had published this essay many years ago and refuted some of its scientific claims.

The truth loomed larger than the “facts” reported on a piece of paper. The reason I searched for the original source is that I didn’t quite believe my own direct and deeply personal observations of geese were original. Of course not. People have watched geese and reflected upon their behavior for centuries. There is no sense to finding an original printed source. Silly goose. The truth is found when you apply lessons learned from natural observation.

966591-R1-04-5AGeese return from their southern migration in March. Our pond serves as a way station along their flight pattern. The first couples arrive ahead of the others. With first dibs on the lush nesting areas in the natural habitat, the geese are happy to be here. They lay their eggs and wait for the rest of the geese to follow within days.

When the gang is all here there must be a thousand birds or more in the pond. It is a marvelous sight. If you didn’t see them, you’d swear you were listening to a big party at the neighbors: the talking, squawking, rustling, and splashing sounds like humans gathered in celebration.

The first spring when the geese arrived on Warren Pond and I observed them as a woman who was loved, I found their monogamy charming. I had decided to get my tubes tied after Sam and I had discussed our mutual reluctance in becoming parents at this stage of our lives. Snip, snip; outpatient surgery.

My scholarly work schedule dictated a trip to the Washington, DC, area the weekend after my procedure. Consulting for an organization on quality of life issues, I still neglected some of my own.  I packed up and was ready to depart for DC when I noticed the geese honking at me from the pond. Sam reluctantly sent me off on my trip. The geese followed.

As I traveled the interstate south I noticed the flock of geese as though they were tracking me and my vehicle. Five long hours driving south with rest stops along the way, I kept observing these same geese. When I reached the Maryland border, I thought for sure they had found their breeding ground. That night I noticed the bruising on my abdomen; physical evidence of my new lack of fertility. Not acknowledging the trauma and significance of a tubal ligation, I threw myself into my work.

As we sat during our conference meetings, I kept noticing how many geese had inhabited the surrounding lawns. Odd, I thought, that geese should linger here when they are so close to their destination.

Canada_goose_flight_cropped_and_NRWhen I got in my car to make the journey home, I noticed a noisy goose in the yard. She honked at me louder than the horn on my dashboard. I sped off toward Interstate Route 81 north. Just as I got to the onramp and picked up speed I saw one goose take flight and then others appeared out of nowhere to join her. I headed north and so did this group of geese. They tracked me all the way home. As I pulled into driveway down to the cabin, the geese made an incredible swoosh landing on Warren Pond.

This is true and based on direct observations of facts. I couldn’t look it up in the library. The geese brought me home. I couldn’t explain it. I could only know it. And my knowledge was visceral; escaping words altogether.

Self-Reliance-Ralph-Waldo-EmersonThe transcendence of nature resonated with my recollections of books I’d read decades ago in school. I reread Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sam had never read these books and yet he lived their wisdom. How did he know this stuff? What I hadn’t understood when I read them as an adolescent was their enduring relevance. Sam didn’t need the words; he put ideas into practice. Reason is a tool to solve problems and fix things.

IMG003Sam and I find common ground in our suspicions of modern technologies. We have no need of most electrical appliances others take for granted: hair dryers, electric blankets, can openers, blenders, pencil sharpeners, vacuum cleaners, clothes dryers, etc. All of these things waste energy. Doing things by hand is just as easy and much more economical. And there is something so much more fulfilling about doing or making something with your own hands.

492703-R1-10-11AMachines and tools have their place and purpose. What goes wrong is we become a tool in the hands of technology instead of the technology serving our purposes. As a college professor with an email account and office hours I resisted the technology of voicemail. My Dean insisted we utilize this telephone feature on all School of Communications office lines.

“Press one now if you’ve seen Elvis. Press two for Finnish language. Press three or wait until the beep if you have to leave voicemail for Jill Swenson.” I fulfilled my Dean’s request. His secretaries were the only ones to leave me messages.

Instead, I would have email from the hundreds of students enrolled in my classes each semester. If they missed a class they would write and ask for a brief summary of what they missed. Whatever happened to asking your classmate for lecture notes? I would get 20-30 of the same messages from different students every day asking me to repeat something individually to them that had been communicated previously in class, in print or online. Email is not a time saver; it simply makes more work than there was before. And you don’t get paid per email response. Whoever thought carpal tunnel syndrome would be an industrial work hazard for college professors?

As I drive past a bus stop on my way to Ithaca, I notice a young woman with an infant strapped to her chest. She holds a cell phone in her right hand with her arm extended away from the baby at her breast. Struggling to use the telephone without the interference of her baby provided a very disturbing picture of a modern mom.

I got in line to pick up photos from the 35 mm film I’d left to be developed. There were a half dozen people before me. The young woman in front of me had her cell phone in her hand. She phoned the store and asked for the photo department. We all heard the phone ring and interrupt the sales clerk who had to answer the phone.

“Hello, Photo Department,” the clerk answered.

“Hi, I’m wondering if my photos are ready for pickup today?” the young woman in front of me inquired and gave her last name.

The clerk put the phone down, went over to the cabinets, found the package of photos, put it back in its place and returned to the phone.

“Yes, they are ready for pickup today,” he said.

“Thank you.” Then she hung up.

How dare she cut in front of the customer he was waiting on with her phone call?  He put her photos right back where they were filed. How did that save her or anyone else any time?

You think that is pathetic, try going to a party. Don’t leave your cell phone behind. There is no face to face human interaction these days. Everyone is on their cell phone calling the person across the room from them to surreptitiously chat about the other people in the room; what they are wearing, who they are with, what isn’t being said aloud.

Like nearly a quarter million Americans, we live off-the -grid. That is to say, we do not derive any electricity from the national grid of power lines nor do we feed that corporate system. But in this day and age it means much more. When Thoreau took to the woods there were no such things as cell phones or satellite dishes. When Eliot Wigginton assigned the students in Rabun Gap to collect the local wisdom in the Foxfire series of books they didn’t get TV reception, much less cable or internet access in the north Georgia mountains. When Scott and Helen Nearing took to the Vermont to escape the Depression there was little concern for daily news updates, facebook, twitter or other digital nonsense.  With Homeland Security and constant surveillance of public spaces, going off-the-grid today implies a resistance to the social order.

The “grid” is the electronic infrastructure of modern life. Utility poles mark the grid lines in bold along our roadways. Cable lines, satellites, and fiber optics map the universe with less obvious grid marks. The “grid” is a system of electronic and digital pathways that govern the everyday behavior of citizens and consumers. It includes UPC bar codes, email addresses and the GPS devices for those who can’t read a map or navigate. The “grid” is also a large set of unquestioned assumptions about technology, progress and neoliberal economics.

An absurd example of grid logic is the large organic farm in California willing to pay an intern $60/hr to Tweet live from the fields where vegetables and fruits were growing to promote sales. How much do you think they paid the laborers to pick those same fruits and vegetables? I’m guessing it was closer to $6/hr.

During my 30s I collected all of my electronic identification cards on a string I wore around my neck as a reminder of my grid life. There was my license, my campus identification card, my credit cards, my video rental card, my library cards, the photocopy cards, dozens of check cashing cards and a host of other identity cards issued in my name marking my cyberexistence. When I moved, I just added dozens more cards to my string of electronic pearls. When I left Ithaca College I took the yoke of my e-existence off and had free rein to create face to face systems of accountability.

Sam’s vengeance against grid logic is more vitriolic than mine. “Calculators were invented for dummies,” says Sam who can do math in his head. “Why do you have to write it down? Can’t you remember it?” he asks whenever I’m keyboarding or taking notes. “Whatever happened to penmanship? I think you should grade these blue book essay exams based on legibility. These kids can’t even write,” he used to comment looking over my shoulder as I reviewed students’ finals.

When I left my tenured position at Ithaca College, I wanted to try to make my way in the world in a different way. Using my own hands, head and heart, I yearned to produce more than I consumed in the world.  I wanted to produce something real; something tangible. I knew I had no control over what everyone else was doing, but it didn’t let me off the hook. I didn’t have to plug in. I could resist. Drop out, unplug, disconnect, hang up, and get off the grid. I resist because I can and I can’t not resist.

Dropping out of the wage-salary economy, flying under the radar screen of digital surveillance, resisting war taxes by refusing to earn more income or buy more taxable goods, living by daylight, refusing to maintain a cyber-identity, and operating on a use-value instead of market-value system are all new millennial acts of digital disobedience.

100_1029Sam had been off-the-grid so long even the IRS didn’t know where to find him. I lurked on the digital edge in the Ulysses Philomatic Society, i.e., the public library in Trumansburg. This gorgeous new Georgian style brick building stands on the corner of Main and South Streets. Inside there is a fireplace with comfy stuffed chairs nearby; new wooden tables spread with local and regional newspapers; banks of computers and catalog search monitors and under the high ceilings are stacks after stacks of books. The light, warmth and spirit of this place welcome everyone who enters the doors.

The library is used by so many adults during the day you can hardly find a place to sit down much less use one of the library’s computers. The number of terminals has doubled, but the public’s use has quadrupled. I am no longer alone on a March morning with the volunteers who restock the library shelves. Unemployment and underemployment lead many to use the library’s computers for job searches and online social networking. You can read the daily newspaper for free. You can search online without a computer of your own. The library can get its hands on just about any book you want through the Inter-library loan system.

Joe Doyle is a retired single gentleman who volunteers every week at the front check-out desk of the Ulysses Philomatic Society. After the stock market crash in the fall of ’09, I asked him how he had fared. He lives on a fixed income.

“Lost nearly everything. I’ve got no way to make that up. My monthly income is now half what it was,” Joe said. “But others have it just as bad; some worse.” Joe helps patrons utilize the resources of the public library, especially the computers. Patrons tell Joe their stories.

I set up a free email account at the library for the farm business because the farmers markets, department of agriculture and markets, customers and suppliers all asked for it. When Sam and I decided to market our new cottage rentals, I knew we needed a website. And I knew Sam wouldn’t build it; he hates computers. I had been able to keep cyberspace and the digital universe at arm’s length for nearly five years. I confess I liked it that way. Keeping it off the property maintained physical distance from unreality.

yellow beansPeople don’t buy their peas or beans online here in upstate New York. I’ve read about the Fresh Direct delivery trucks in New York City but it seems surreal to me. Here people come to the farm or the farmer’s market for local seasonal produce. Many more join local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture; where you buy a share of the farm’s yield at the start of season). While there are plenty of farmers and local small businesses who have websites, I really couldn’t see the point. The cost of building a website would never be earned back in bean sales at $3 per quart. I sold produce face to face and enjoyed a direct and personal relationship with my customers. I ate the same thing I sold them and I hoped they enjoyed it half as much as I did.

But when someone is looking for a low-carbon footprint vacation destination, where do they search? The internet. People look online before they consult the yellow pages or a travel agent anymore. I argue with Sam that the internet saves gas so people don’t drive all over and it saves paper. If we were to become known as a vacation destination we needed to establish a web presence.

I built a website with the help of my friend, Tina MacCheyne, from High Point Farm LLC in Trumansburg. She built her own website for their grass-fed beef business. I learn a lot from Tina. She was the first around here to set up a meat CSA offering pasture-raised pork, grass-fed beef, chicken, eggs and cheese.

Most days I feel as though blogging about the farm is like leaving messages in bottles. You send them out into the ocean and they wind up on the most exotic of shores.

For many months the farm’s website has been the center of attention to spammers in Burkina Faso and the Cote d’Ivoire who beg me in email solicitations to help them deposit their millions of dollars into my bank account or book their royal guests in our humble lodgings.

Can you hear time getting sucked into a vacuum? Sounds like the whirring of the computer booting up and the stillness of World Wide Waiting. Computers are enormous time-suckers. I prefer to spend more time offline. In summer I don’t have time to blog. In winter, I only work for two hours at a time on the keyboard. That’s about as long as the battery lasts. When I go to the library, I charge up the battery and use the internet which takes no more than two hours. I can’t afford any more time than that sitting at the computer. I feel as though I am consuming far more than I am producing.

“You can’t eat, heat with, or wear that computer, so what good is it?” Sam asks me. Time wasted on the computer is the most vicious time waste of all. The opportunity costs are enormous. I could be spinning. I could be baking bread. I could be reading a good article or book. I could be sewing a button back on my coat. I could be. I should be.

Intellectually I know we face the end of the fossil fuel era and suspect this consumer-driven economy will fall like a house of cards sometime soon. I had lived my daily life disconnected from what I knew to be true. The world can not go on like this. I had been alienated from my colleagues, my students, and myself, my own body and especially my own labor. I didn’t stop to question my participation in my own oppression. With a hope and a prayer, the missives into cyberspace go out where those who seek a retreat from grid logic might book lodgings in Sam’s new venture into agri-tourism.

966966-R1-19-20AFrankly, it is easier to be alienated. For example, most people choose not to raise, feed, water, breed, tend, then slaughter, butcher and eat the meat of their own animals. Most people prefer meat come wrapped in clear plastic on Styrofoam trays and soaked in a saline solution or pumped with gas.  Knowing where your meat comes from and how the farmer treated the animal is one of the most important pieces of consumer information you can have about the health risks and benefits of what you eat. But that means an unalienated relationship to the animal you consume. That’s not so easy. Wrapping the meat from an animal slaughtered, hung, dry-aged and butchered is one of the most unalienating experiences of my life.100_1224

“Go take pictures of that carcass hanging in the meat room, Jill,” Sam instructed me the day before we were to cut up our first European Red Deer. As resident photographer, I took pictures of all of our projects on the farm. Looking through the camera lens at the red flesh and white bones I no longer saw the animal I had known since his birth. I saw meat.

“Take each cut as I hand it to you and wrap it and mark it,” Sam said. The buzzing of the meat saw and the hum of the fluorescent lights matched my emotional state. I took each piece of flesh as it was cut, inserted it in a plastic bag, twisted the tie, cut a piece of white butcher paper and folded it around the package of meat. With a piece of freezer tape I sealed it shut and took my MarksALot black pen and wrote on the paper: hamburg, sirloin, t-bone, filet, ribs, roast, etc. Then the packages went into the deep freeze. By the time we took out a venison roast to thaw for Sunday dinner, the meat tasted better because we have a full and conscious appreciation of what was involved in bringing it to the table.100_1226

Like meat, it may be easier to be alienated from one’s own labor. Rather than do things for myself, it was easier to hire someone else to perform certain tasks. Instead of mowing the lawn myself, I hired a neighbor kid to do it for me. I was too busy with “work.” Rather than make my own meals, I found myself eating out of vending machines and paying high prices for restaurant meals. I had to have oil changes, new tires, brakes, and a radiator. Then pay drycleaners, beauticians,  housekeeper, florist and grocers. Not enough hours in the day to do much myself other than my job. Because I had no time except to “work,” I had to spend what I earned paying others what I could do for myself. Instead of spending 50 hours a week doing one thing, now I do 50 different things a week.

I had been working, but my life wasn’t. I could see no product, harvest or “yield” from my efforts. Was I producing knowledge? Was the product the number of students I graduated? As education became a business, I found myself treated more and more like a waitress. When the student is the customer and the customer is always right, I found myself alienated as the teacher. “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” one student challenged me. “If you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart?” I replied.

Not all students are above average; even in Lakewobegone. Not all marriages can be saved; nor should they. Ask any professional marriage counselor. Not all court cases can be won by a well paid attorney; justice is blind and weighs the evidence. Not all patients get well; despite the best paid doctors. But every student is expected to pass if their tuition bill is paid? Unlike counselors, lawyers, and doctors, my professional status had been undermined by the retail model of higher education. I had become a cog in the bureaucratic wheel of the business of degree certification. Failing students was not acceptable to my Dean; even when they earned the F.

Soon enough I began to figure out people my age were sacrificing their own retirement for their children’s tuition payments. When the annual tuition hit $40,000 a year it shocked me. What students’ parents paid in tuition each year was comparable to annual faculty salaries. Annual faculty salaries averaged less than the annual tuition rate.

I had spent $140,000 myself on college tuition and graduate studies. It was worth every penny, because nobody could ever take it away from me; unlike a house or a car. But I could never get a rate of return on my investment in education to make it an economically sound investment. Teaching, like farming, is a labor of love. When it stopped being about learning and starting being about satisfying customers, I felt alienated.

Since I left academia I realized I had lived in a parallel universe to the real world. I never see any of the people with whom I worked day in and day out for a decade. We live in the same community and yet their existence never intersects with mine. It is not that I avoid former colleagues. I simply have no contact or interaction. I live in the real world.

766018-R1-00-1A

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Estranged relations in the meat department

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 30, 2014 at 2:06 pm

966966-R1-19-20AFrankly, it is easier to be alienated. For example, most people choose not to raise, feed, water, breed, tend, then slaughter, butcher and eat the meat of their own animals. Most people prefer meat come wrapped in clear plastic on Styrofoam trays and soaked in a saline solution or pumped with gas.  Knowing where your meat comes from and how the farmer treated the animal is one of the most important pieces of consumer information you can have about the health risks and benefits of what you eat. But that means an unalienated relationship to the animal you consume. That’s not so easy. Wrapping the meat from an animal slaughtered, hung, dry-aged and butchered is one of the most unalienating experiences of my life.100_1224

“Go take pictures of that carcass hanging in the meat room, Jill,” Sam instructed me the day before we were to cut up our first European Red Deer. As resident photographer, I took pictures of all of our projects on the farm. Looking through the camera lens at the red flesh and white bones I no longer saw the animal I had known since his birth. I saw meat.

“Take each cut as I hand it to you and wrap it and mark it,” Sam said. The buzzing of the meat saw and the hum of the fluorescent lights matched my emotional state. I took each piece of flesh as it was cut, inserted it in a plastic bag, twisted the tie, cut a piece of white butcher paper and folded it around the package of meat. With a piece of freezer tape I sealed it shut and took my MarksALot black pen and wrote on the paper: hamburg, sirloin, t-bone, filet, ribs, roast, etc. Then the packages went into the deep freeze. By the time we took out a venison roast to thaw for Sunday dinner, the meat tasted better because we have a full and conscious appreciation of what was involved in bringing it to the table.100_1226

Like meat, it may be easier to be alienated from one’s own labor. Rather than do things for myself, it was easier to hire someone else to perform certain tasks. Instead of mowing the lawn myself, I hired a neighbor kid to do it for me. I was too busy with “work.” Rather than make my own meals, I found myself eating out of vending machines and paying high prices for restaurant meals. I had to have oil changes, new tires, brakes, and a radiator. Then pay drycleaners, beauticians,  housekeeper, florist and grocers. Not enough hours in the day to do much myself other than my job. Because I had no time except to “work,” I had to spend what I earned paying others what I could do for myself. Instead of spending 50 hours a week doing one thing, now I do 50 different things a week.

I had been working, but my life wasn’t. I could see no product, harvest or “yield” from my efforts. Was I producing knowledge? Was the product the number of students I graduated? As education became a business, I found myself treated more and more like a waitress. When the student is the customer and the customer is always right, I found myself alienated as the teacher. “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” one student challenged me. “If you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart?” I replied.

Not all students are above average; even in Lakewobegone. Not all marriages can be saved; nor should they. Ask any professional marriage counselor. Not all court cases can be won by a well paid attorney; justice is blind and weighs the evidence. Not all patients get well; despite the best paid doctors. But every student is expected to pass if their tuition bill is paid? Unlike counselors, lawyers, and doctors, my professional status had been undermined by the retail model of higher education. I had become a cog in the bureaucratic wheel of the business of degree certification. Failing students was not acceptable to my Dean; even when they earned the F.

Soon enough I began to figure out people my age were sacrificing their own retirement for their children’s tuition payments. When the annual tuition hit $40,000 a year it shocked me. What students’ parents paid in tuition each year was comparable to annual faculty salaries. Annual faculty salaries averaged less than the annual tuition rate.

I had spent $140,000 myself on college tuition and graduate studies. It was worth every penny, because nobody could ever take it away from me; unlike a house or a car. But I could never get a rate of return on my investment in education to make it an economically sound investment. Teaching, like farming, is a labor of love. When it stopped being about learning and starting being about satisfying customers, I felt alienated.

Since I left academia I realized I had lived in a parallel universe to the real world. I never see any of the people with whom I worked day in and day out for a decade. We live in the same community and yet their existence never intersects with mine. It is not that I avoid former colleagues. I simply have no contact or interaction. I live in the real world.

766018-R1-00-1A

Lurking on the digital edge at the Ulysses Philomatic Society

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 28, 2014 at 2:05 pm

100_1029Sam had been off-the-grid so long even the IRS didn’t know where to find him. I lurked on the digital edge in the Ulysses Philomatic Society, i.e., the public library in Trumansburg. This gorgeous new Georgian style brick building stands on the corner of Main and South Streets. Inside there is a fireplace with comfy stuffed chairs nearby; new wooden tables spread with local and regional newspapers; banks of computers and catalog search monitors and under the high ceilings are stacks after stacks of books. The light, warmth and spirit of this place welcome everyone who enters the doors.

The library is used by so many adults during the day you can hardly find a place to sit down much less use one of the library’s computers. The number of terminals has doubled, but the public’s use has quadrupled. I am no longer alone on a March morning with the volunteers who restock the library shelves. Unemployment and underemployment lead many to use the library’s computers for job searches and online social networking. You can read the daily newspaper for free. You can search online without a computer of your own. The library can get its hands on just about any book you want through the Inter-library loan system.

Joe Doyle is a retired single gentleman who volunteers every week at the front check-out desk of the Ulysses Philomatic Society. After the stock market crash in the fall of ’09, I asked him how he had fared. He lives on a fixed income.

“Lost nearly everything. I’ve got no way to make that up. My monthly income is now half what it was,” Joe said. “But others have it just as bad; some worse.” Joe helps patrons utilize the resources of the public library, especially the computers. Patrons tell Joe their stories.

I set up a free email account at the library for the farm business because the farmers markets, department of agriculture and markets, customers and suppliers all asked for it. When Sam and I decided to market our new cottage rentals, I knew we needed a website. And I knew Sam wouldn’t build it; he hates computers. I had been able to keep cyberspace and the digital universe at arm’s length for nearly five years. I confess I liked it that way. Keeping it off the property maintained physical distance from unreality.

yellow beansPeople don’t buy their peas or beans online here in upstate New York. I’ve read about the Fresh Direct delivery trucks in New York City but it seems surreal to me. Here people come to the farm or the farmer’s market for local seasonal produce. Many more join local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture; where you buy a share of the farm’s yield at the start of season). While there are plenty of farmers and local small businesses who have websites, I really couldn’t see the point. The cost of building a website would never be earned back in bean sales at $3 per quart. I sold produce face to face and enjoyed a direct and personal relationship with my customers. I ate the same thing I sold them and I hoped they enjoyed it half as much as I did.

But when someone is looking for a low-carbon footprint vacation destination, where do they search? The internet. People look online before they consult the yellow pages or a travel agent anymore. I argue with Sam that the internet saves gas so people don’t drive all over and it saves paper. If we were to become known as a vacation destination we needed to establish a web presence.

I built a website with the help of my friend, Tina MacCheyne, from High Point Farm LLC in Trumansburg. She built her own website for their grass-fed beef business. I learn a lot from Tina. She was the first around here to set up a meat CSA offering pasture-raised pork, grass-fed beef, chicken, eggs and cheese.

Most days I feel as though blogging about the farm is like leaving messages in bottles. You send them out into the ocean and they wind up on the most exotic of shores.

For many months the farm’s website has been the center of attention to spammers in Burkina Faso and the Cote d’Ivoire who beg me in email solicitations to help them deposit their millions of dollars into my bank account or book their royal guests in our humble lodgings.

Can you hear time getting sucked into a vacuum? Sounds like the whirring of the computer booting up and the stillness of World Wide Waiting. Computers are enormous time-suckers. I prefer to spend more time offline. In summer I don’t have time to blog. In winter, I only work for two hours at a time on the keyboard. That’s about as long as the battery lasts. When I go to the library, I charge up the battery and use the internet which takes no more than two hours. I can’t afford any more time than that sitting at the computer. I feel as though I am consuming far more than I am producing.

“You can’t eat, heat with, or wear that computer, so what good is it?” Sam asks me. Time wasted on the computer is the most vicious time waste of all. The opportunity costs are enormous. I could be spinning. I could be baking bread. I could be reading a good article or book. I could be sewing a button back on my coat. I could be. I should be.

Intellectually I know we face the end of the fossil fuel era and suspect this consumer-driven economy will fall like a house of cards sometime soon. I had lived my daily life disconnected from what I knew to be true. The world can not go on like this. I had been alienated from my colleagues, my students, and myself, my own body and especially my own labor. I didn’t stop to question my participation in my own oppression. With a hope and a prayer, the missives into cyberspace go out where those who seek a retreat from grid logic might book lodgings in Sam’s new venture into agri-tourism.

Resist grid logic

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 23, 2014 at 3:11 pm

IMG003Sam and I find common ground in our suspicions of modern technologies. We have no need of most electrical appliances others take for granted: hair dryers, electric blankets, can openers, blenders, pencil sharpeners, vacuum cleaners, clothes dryers, etc. All of these things waste energy. Doing things by hand is just as easy and much more economical. And there is something so much more fulfilling about doing or making something with your own hands.

492703-R1-10-11AMachines and tools have their place and purpose. What goes wrong is we become a tool in the hands of technology instead of the technology serving our purposes. As a college professor with an email account and office hours I resisted the technology of voicemail. My Dean insisted we utilize this telephone feature on all School of Communications office lines.

“Press one now if you’ve seen Elvis. Press two for Finnish language. Press three or wait until the beep if you have to leave voicemail for Jill Swenson.” I fulfilled my Dean’s request. His secretaries were the only ones to leave me messages.

Instead, I would have email from the hundreds of students enrolled in my classes each semester. If they missed a class they would write and ask for a brief summary of what they missed. Whatever happened to asking your classmate for lecture notes? I would get 20-30 of the same messages from different students every day asking me to repeat something individually to them that had been communicated previously in class, in print or online. Email is not a time saver; it simply makes more work than there was before. And you don’t get paid per email response. Whoever thought carpal tunnel syndrome would be an industrial work hazard for college professors?

As I drive past a bus stop on my way to Ithaca, I notice a young woman with an infant strapped to her chest. She holds a cell phone in her right hand with her arm extended away from the baby at her breast. Struggling to use the telephone without the interference of her baby provided a very disturbing picture of a modern mom.

I got in line to pick up photos from the 35 mm film I’d left to be developed. There were a half dozen people before me. The young woman in front of me had her cell phone in her hand. She phoned the store and asked for the photo department. We all heard the phone ring and interrupt the sales clerk who had to answer the phone.

“Hello, Photo Department,” the clerk answered.

“Hi, I’m wondering if my photos are ready for pickup today?” the young woman in front of me inquired and gave her last name.

The clerk put the phone down, went over to the cabinets, found the package of photos, put it back in its place and returned to the phone.

“Yes, they are ready for pickup today,” he said.

“Thank you.” Then she hung up.

How dare she cut in front of the customer he was waiting on with her phone call?  He put her photos right back where they were filed. How did that save her or anyone else any time?

You think that is pathetic, try going to a party. Don’t leave your cell phone behind. There is no face to face human interaction these days. Everyone is on their cell phone calling the person across the room from them to surreptitiously chat about the other people in the room; what they are wearing, who they are with, what isn’t being said aloud.

Like nearly a quarter million Americans, we live off-the -grid. That is to say, we do not derive any electricity from the national grid of power lines nor do we feed that corporate system. But in this day and age it means much more. When Thoreau took to the woods there were no such things as cell phones or satellite dishes. When Eliot Wigginton assigned the students in Rabun Gap to collect the local wisdom in the Foxfire series of books they didn’t get TV reception, much less cable or internet access in the north Georgia mountains. When Scott and Helen Nearing took to the Vermont to escape the Depression there was little concern for daily news updates, facebook, twitter or other digital nonsense.  With Homeland Security and constant surveillance of public spaces, going off-the-grid today implies a resistance to the social order.

The “grid” is the electronic infrastructure of modern life. Utility poles mark the grid lines in bold along our roadways. Cable lines, satellites, and fiber optics map the universe with less obvious grid marks. The “grid” is a system of electronic and digital pathways that govern the everyday behavior of citizens and consumers. It includes UPC bar codes, email addresses and the GPS devices for those who can’t read a map or navigate. The “grid” is also a large set of unquestioned assumptions about technology, progress and neoliberal economics.

An absurd example of grid logic is the large organic farm in California willing to pay an intern $60/hr to Tweet live from the fields where vegetables and fruits were growing to promote sales. How much do you think they paid the laborers to pick those same fruits and vegetables? I’m guessing it was closer to $6/hr.

During my 30s I collected all of my electronic identification cards on a string I wore around my neck as a reminder of my grid life. There was my license, my campus identification card, my credit cards, my video rental card, my library cards, the photocopy cards, dozens of check cashing cards and a host of other identity cards issued in my name marking my cyberexistence. When I moved, I just added dozens more cards to my string of electronic pearls. When I left Ithaca College I took the yoke of my e-existence off and had free rein to create face to face systems of accountability.

Sam’s vengeance against grid logic is more vitriolic than mine. “Calculators were invented for dummies,” says Sam who can do math in his head. “Why do you have to write it down? Can’t you remember it?” he asks whenever I’m keyboarding or taking notes. “Whatever happened to penmanship? I think you should grade these blue book essay exams based on legibility. These kids can’t even write,” he used to comment looking over my shoulder as I reviewed students’ finals.

When I left my tenured position at Ithaca College, I wanted to try to make my way in the world in a different way. Using my own hands, head and heart, I yearned to produce more than I consumed in the world.  I wanted to produce something real; something tangible. I knew I had no control over what everyone else was doing, but it didn’t let me off the hook. I didn’t have to plug in. I could resist. Drop out, unplug, disconnect, hang up, and get off the grid. I resist because I can and I can’t not resist.

Dropping out of the wage-salary economy, flying under the radar screen of digital surveillance, resisting war taxes by refusing to earn more income or buy more taxable goods, living by daylight, refusing to maintain a cyber-identity, and operating on a use-value instead of market-value system are all new millennial acts of digital disobedience.

The geese brought me home

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 21, 2014 at 2:56 pm

966591-R1-04-5AGeese return from their southern migration in March. Our pond serves as a way station along their flight pattern. The first couples arrive ahead of the others. With first dibs on the lush nesting areas in the natural habitat, the geese are happy to be here. They lay their eggs and wait for the rest of the geese to follow within days.

When the gang is all here there must be a thousand birds or more in the pond. It is a marvelous sight. If you didn’t see them, you’d swear you were listening to a big party at the neighbors: the talking, squawking, rustling, and splashing sounds like humans gathered in celebration.

The first spring when the geese arrived on Warren Pond and I observed them as a woman who was loved, I found their monogamy charming. I had decided to get my tubes tied after Sam and I had discussed our mutual reluctance in becoming parents at this stage of our lives. Snip, snip; outpatient surgery.

My scholarly work schedule dictated a trip to the Washington, DC, area the weekend after my procedure. Consulting for an organization on quality of life issues, I still neglected some of my own.  I packed up and was ready to depart for DC when I noticed the geese honking at me from the pond. Sam reluctantly sent me off on my trip. The geese followed.

As I traveled the interstate south I noticed the flock of geese as though they were tracking me and my vehicle. Five long hours driving south with rest stops along the way, I kept observing these same geese. When I reached the Maryland border, I thought for sure they had found their breeding ground. That night I noticed the bruising on my abdomen; physical evidence of my new lack of fertility. Not acknowledging the trauma and significance of a tubal ligation, I threw myself into my work.

As we sat during our conference meetings, I kept noticing how many geese had inhabited the surrounding lawns. Odd, I thought, that geese should linger here when they are so close to their destination.

Canada_goose_flight_cropped_and_NRWhen I got in my car to make the journey home, I noticed a noisy goose in the yard. She honked at me louder than the horn on my dashboard. I sped off toward Interstate Route 81 north. Just as I got to the onramp and picked up speed I saw one goose take flight and then others appeared out of nowhere to join her. I headed north and so did this group of geese. They tracked me all the way home. As I pulled into driveway down to the cabin, the geese made an incredible swoosh landing on Warren Pond.

This is true and based on direct observations of facts. I couldn’t look it up in the library. The geese brought me home. I couldn’t explain it. I could only know it. And my knowledge was visceral; escaping words altogether.

Self-Reliance-Ralph-Waldo-EmersonThe transcendence of nature resonated with my recollections of books I’d read decades ago in school. I reread Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sam had never read these books and yet he lived their wisdom. How did he know this stuff? What I hadn’t understood when I read them as an adolescent was their enduring relevance. Sam didn’t need the words; he put ideas into practice. Reason is a tool to solve problems and fix things.

Silly goose: lessons in learning truth

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 15, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Mecklenburg MillSam remembers the mill in Mecklenburg. Known for milling the best buckwheat flour in the northeast, Mecklenburg was once a thriving community. This nearby hamlet had three stores, the Grange and a gas station when he was a boy. He worked for Phil White, who owned White’s Nursery – across from the Post Office. When Sam was 10 years old he planted every one of the white pine trees in the acreage adjacent to our property on the southern edge.

Sam acquired a body of experiential knowledge growing up when and where he did. Wisdom passed to him by his teachers: his dad, Uncle Donald, Kermit Leonard, Hopi Linton, Grandfathers Minor Updike and Harry Warren. Sam has no idea how smart he is.

Sam Warren grew up a blond, blue-eyed farm boy in a time when schools devalued his natural curiosity, diminished his creative talents, and punished his independent thought. Told he was stupid by teachers, he began to believe it at an early age. At least in school. His grades reflected his teachers’ expectations. He graduated with a certificate in welding. His mother instilled in him the dangerous idea that he could do anything he wanted as long as he worked hard and tried his best.

My parents were not college graduates either, but they instilled a strong work ethic and valued books.  I may not be the smartest, but I worked the hardest.

My mother was raised on a farm near Lake of the Woods, Minnesota; a homestead lost during the Depression. My dad’s father owned a furniture store as the son of an immigrant Swede who was the Harbor Master and ran the lumber yard along the Mississippi in north Minneapolis. Dad worked in food service before taking over his father’s business; just 18 months before grandpa suddenly died of a heart attack. After the race riots of the late 1960s and a fire, dad sold the furniture store and went back into college food service.

The Swenson home movies show me in River Falls at the University of Wisconsin campus where I feed sheep and toddle around the barnyard. My dad named me “Jill,” after a cow at the Ag School. I took to school from my first day in Kindergarten at the Jenny Lind Elementary School in the Camden neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis. By third grade I was conducting summer school in the backyard where I was the teacher. I established a lending library from my parents’ personal collection. I got into the Great Books Program and started learning German in fourth grade at Lakeview Elementary in Robbinsdale, Minnesota.

I discovered at an early age I was really good at school and learning was fun. My experiences in early education differed dramatically from Sam’s.  That didn’t mean I had an easier time socially. I wore glasses at the age of 5 after having several corrective eye surgeries. I had been born cross-eyed. Chubby, bookish and bespectacled, I was an odd girl.

I lived inside the world of books. School was my sanctuary. I had taken a personal vow that I would continue to go to school every day as long as it remained fun. Teaching became a way to keep learning without paying tuition. When school stopped being fun was when it stopped being about the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

Facts don’t seem to matter anymore. The truth is whatever sells; whatever is most popular. Weapons of mass distraction lead to world destruction. I pursued critical thinking skills and fact checking. Truth is built on facts. Knowledge is not constructed out of rumor or gossip, but hard data. Scholarship took on the fashion of postmodern theory: things in and of themselves matter less than the mediated signs and symbols of these things. In short, they think reality is secondary to media. I am not convinced.

After several years of observing the geese arrive and depart from Warren Pond, I came across a tattered typewritten sheet of paper from long before I had met Sam. For some reason I had saved these words from “Lessons from Geese,” but I knew I hadn’t written them. What was the source for this natural wisdom?

Fact 1: As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an“uplift” for the birds that follow. By flying in a V formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.

Lesson 1: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

Fact 2: When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.

Lesson 2: If we have as much sense as a goose we stay in formation with those who are headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give help to others.

Fact 3: When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to the point position.

Lesson 3: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. As with geese, people are interdependent on each other’s skills, capabilities, and unique arrangements of gifts, talents, or resources.

Fact 4: The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

Lesson 4: We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater. The power of encouragement (to stand by one’s heart or core values and encourage the heart and core of others) is the quality of honking we seek.

Fact 5: When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.

Lesson 5: If we have as much sense as geese we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

The “Lessons of Geese” I’d saved all things years captured several essential truths based on natural observations. I had wanted to find the original source since it is such a wonderful example of how nature offers transcendent knowledge if only we pay it proper attention. I spent countless hours fruitlessly searching online for the elusive American Naturalist Milton Olson and his copyright on an essay about the behavioral traits of geese.

I did find the “Lessons from Geese” used by Toastmasters International, the Boy Scouts of America, Outward Bound, speeches by cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien and countless other business executives and leadership gurus. The essay appears on thousands of websites, business magazines and professional journals.

Julia GrinsmanTrying to locate the original source, I put my problem in the hands of a professional: my local reference librarian, Julia Grimsman. Within two hours she ended my two month wild goose chase. Milton Olson wasn’t an American Naturalist; he was a pastor at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Minnesota, from 1958-1963. This might explain how I had come into possession of this piece of paper as a good little Lutheran girl.

Private detective in the Reference Section, Julia quickly discovered Milton Olson is not the author of “Lessons of Geese.” Dr. Robert McNeish of Baltimore wrote it first for a sermon he delivered in his church. For many years a science teacher, Dr. McNeish claimed he wrote it up based on a flyer filled with interesting facts about geese that he picked up along the Maryland shore where he routinely observed birds. Because the essay involved “facts” a good ornithologist should know about it.

Julia was keen to find out whether there is any scientific basis to these lessons A gifted reference librarian, she quickly discovered Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology had published this essay many years ago and refuted some of its scientific claims.

The truth loomed larger than the “facts” reported on a piece of paper. The reason I searched for the original source is that I didn’t quite believe my own direct and deeply personal observations of geese were original. Of course not. People have watched geese and reflected upon their behavior for centuries. There is no sense to finding an original printed source. Silly goose. The truth is found when you apply lessons learned from natural observation.

Waiting for spring: wild winds

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 14, 2014 at 1:51 pm

100_1025For Sam, learning to withstand the challenges of weather means preparing for storms. Wind storms and rain in March are the norm. Wind gusts and torrential downpours are not; but have become more frequent in the past three or four years.

In the middle of a March night we will hear it rain on snow. Plop-plop on the tin roof wakes us. Rain on snow instead of snow on snow is trouble. Rain then freezes. Rain penetrates the snow and alters its consistency before freezing rock hard. The deer and cows can’t stomp down the snow and eat the green undergrowth in pastures and woodlands. The rain freezes right onto the blades of the windmill. The blades get heavier and heavier. Sometimes the windmill will freeze right up and you’ve got to wait a few days for a good sun shower.

When the winds blow at 60 m.p.h. it tests the wire cables holding the windmill aloft and grounded. Only once has the windmill atop the 80 foot tower broken under gale force winds. It required taking the tower down, taking the windmill off and replacing the blades. More than once, wind gusts have been so extreme as to jolt it into a free spin where the regulator shuts it down and stops generating power. In March last year the gusts at 85 m.p.h. finally fried the big windmill. Sam has the spare parts in the garage and will take it down during the calm days of summer to work on it and replace the generator.

Finding projects for these glum bouts of weather are needed to sublimate the desires of any normal hibernating mammal. There are lots of things to do, although most of them are not ones we look forward to doing. Procrastinating paperwork and tax preparation, for example. Oiling and seasoning all the cast iron pans and skillets, polishing the silver, sharpening the knives with a whetstone, cleaning off desks and workbenches, organizing tools and balancing the checkbook.

Sam studies the farm newspapers and magazines. March is a good time to go to auctions. Nobody else has any money to spend this time of year, and the weather is so bad nobody needs to use any equipment yet, so prices are lower.  I learned to love Saturday morning road trips to farm auction sites; preview the goods with a hot cup of coffee from the traveling food wagon. Sam is so good at finding deals because he knows he can repair anything that’s broke.

We spend time during the longest month of the year doing hands-on research related to the farm. One year we attended a regional conference of deer and elk farmers to learn more about legislative initiatives and marketing efforts to promote deer farming. Sam and I participated in a public forum held on the Ithaca College campus regarding sustainability and wind farming. Sam spoke at public hearings held at the Enfield Town Board meetings regarding the viability of a new wind farm near Buck Hill. I took a month long course offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension at the Rural-Urban Center in Montour Falls on How to Build a Sustainable Farm Business Plan. Extension Services offered a variety of workshops in March that proved useful: Marketing Local Meats, Agritourism in the Finger Lakes, Promoting Local Farmers Markets. Sam drove around to several other deer, elk and buffalo ranches in New York and Pennsylvania to learn first-hand from experienced farmers.

Despite having taken my fair share of multiple choice tests, including the SAT, ACT, and GREs, and despite having constructed more than my fair share of closed-end objective assessment tests, I worried about passing my Wildlife Rehabilitator’s License exam. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation requires a test before you are allowed to practice wildlife rehabilitation. There are no essays, so I couldn’t explain my answers. I spent hours reviewing exam questions with Sam.

“What are the most likely rabies vector species you will encounter in your work as a wildlife rehabilitator in New York State?” Sam would ask.

“Bats, raccoons,” I blurted out. This was like playing Jeopardy, but the stakes involved the welfare of wild animals.

“How long is the gestation period of rabbits?” he’d ask.

“Twenty-one days.” I knew how fast rabbits could reproduce.

“Define hypothermia. Define hyperthermia.” Sam kept quizzing me. I loved it. Even if I didn’t know all the answers, I was learning them from Sam.

100_0931The icicles begin to drip. The snow begins to melt. The waterwheel turns Po-dunk. The swish and force of water pushing steel make spring percussion.

The seed catalogs pile high. We wade through them and begin to make plans for the next growing season.

“Plant oats in the mud. Buckwheat in the dust. That’s what Uncle Donald taught me,” Sam says. Uncle Donald and Sam’s dad farmed oats and buckwheat for seed crops. During the 1950s and 1960s most of the farmland around here was used to grow seed crops. Since the 1800s when Mecklenburg and Enfield established working mills based on the power generated from waterwheels, these fields have yielded grains and produce for feed and seed. The number of seed companies dropped precipitously since the 1980s. Seed saving today is making a comeback and I harvest, dry, clean, and sort all kinds of seeds from our crops of lettuces, greens, beets, radishes, sunflowers, calendula, cilantro and basil.

Quality is like fresh oats

Quality is like fresh oats

Mad and menopausal

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 9, 2014 at 1:38 pm
Sam's babies

Sam’s babies

As the years passed on we found ourselves in a rut come March. Sam wouldn’t get away for a weekend much less a vacation because he had to tend to the animals and the fire, the solar panels and the windmills. The weather made him ornery, miserable, crotchety and downright mean some days. Complain about the cold. Announce the windchill factor. Stare out the window glumly. You would have thought the weather was my fault. Crying in his beer and doing the self-pity dance didn’t go very far with me.

Every time my voice got on a girly whine or I threw a hissy fit, Sam would let me know he expected me to suck it up and pull my weight. “No sense bitching. It gets you nowhere,” he’s said once if not a thousand times.

If I wanted to be strong and healthy, I knew he was right. But when he got to whining about the weather at the end of winter, I came to the end of my patience. We argued. About nothing. About everything.936213-R1-12-13A

When we argued it seemed as though my life fell apart. I wasn’t sure you could argue and not break up.

“I will let you know long in advance if I am going to break up with you,” Sam would reassure me. I didn’t believe it, because I wasn’t sure every time I got angry I wasn’t going to break up with him. I hated going to sleep angry. I couldn’t sleep angry. When we argued I’d get out of a good sleep cycle and start to feel really miserable.

“If I meet another woman and I am interested in her, I am going to tell you before I do anything about the other woman,” Sam swore. “I am not going to walk away from a really good long term thing with you.”

These words would come at the end of our arguments. He’s not a man of many words. I admit I did a number of things to really piss him off. Most were unintentional. My lack of common sense of about how things work and my absent-minded professor personality played a role, certainly. Leaving the coffeepot on the stove to burn. Forgetting to leave the pump on and running a boiler dry. Letting the fire go out while I read a book. The freezer door left ajar. Leaving a project right in the middle and move on to something else. Putting something right in the pathway where he walks.Ithaca NY May 29-June 9 2009 Trip 218

Our arguments got volatile. On two occasions, his parents intervened and Mother Warren took me home and put me to bed sobbing in their spare room overnight. New lessons in apologies and civil arguments.

March madness set in seriously the year I started going through menopause. I started to have hot flashes after the summer’s heat had passed. That winter I’d wake in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. My power surges made me a new force to be reckoned with in midwinter.

Sam had talked to his mother about the hormonal changes I was going through and what he should expect. What she said and what he heard were somewhat related. Janet explained that hormonal changes occur and some women take hormonal replacement therapy to minimize some of my symptoms he described to her. He heard there was a pill I could take to stop making me so angry and crazy.

In the middle of a March blizzard Sam started to pick an argument with me as we finished dinner. It escalated quickly with insults and angry accusations. I was mad and my mouth was in overdrive. Sam called his mother and said, “Get her out of here before I kill her.”

Chuck drove Janet down the driveway. I was mad. I was sick of being the one who had to leave; never would this feel like my home. It was always his house. His way.

557054-R1-19-20A_020“Jill, get in the car. You’re going home with us tonight,” Janet announced when she walked in the front door of the cabin.

That pissed me right off. “No, I’m not,” I said. “Sam doesn’t want to listen to me. Sam doesn’t want to hear anything I have to say. He expects me to listen to his complaining, make his dinner, wash his clothes, keep his house, tend his fire, bring in the wood, do the dishes, walk his dogs, and lay down like a rug so he can walk all over me. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he has to call his mother.” I took them both on at once. Chuck stood in the corner silently; my corner.

Janet’s eyes went wild and they flashed with anger.

“Mom, she’s just crazy. This menopause is driving me nuts. Tell her to go to the doctor and get her a pill,” Sam said.

“The two of you are arguing for no reason. He’s depressed and you’ve listened to enough of him. I’ve heard enough; get in the car, Jill.” Mother Warren was mad.

“NO. I am tired of this. My menopause is no excuse for your son being an asshole. There is no pill that is going to cure me of my problem. This is not my problem. This is our problem. The pills you are thinking about are ones my mother took; and they took her cervix in cancer. No thank you to you and your pills.” I was shouting. Sam, Janet and Charlie didn’t say a word.

Janet hadn’t known my mother had survived cancer or the risks I faced from hormone replacement therapy. I hadn’t wanted my mother to take them. I planned to let my body do its own thing naturally. I learned to ride hot flashes like waves in my own tropical moments.492703-R1-20-21A

Learning to weather the emotional storms of a farm in winter is an ongoing lesson; for both of us. There have been no more nights at Mother Warren’s and no more volatile fights. There is a lot more middle-aged melancholy in midwinter as we manage the rage against the vicissitudes of the weather and nature and time.

March Moods

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 7, 2014 at 1:14 pm

100_0931An eager student of a more sustainable lifestyle, I spent most of our first winter together interviewing Sam whenever we could find time to meet. Teaching four classes a day at Ithaca College that spring semester, I curtailed any additional demands on my time. I couldn’t wait to find more time to spend with this self-educated genius.

We met around dusk or else we didn’t see each other that day. Sam ate supper and went to bed soon after the sun set. Some days I didn’t start teaching my last class of the day until 4 pm. Three or four days a week we’d cook supper together and spend a few hours talking.

One March evening around 6:45 p.m., I decided it still looked light enough. The days were getting longer and I decided to walk down to Sam’s cabin at dusk. I saw through the window he was home preparing supper. I stared at him for a long time. He didn’t see me. I finally rapped on the window pane.

Sam dropped the pan on the table and with one move had his rifle pointed at the window. In that split second I realized he couldn’t see out into the darkness and I dropped to the ground face flat in snow.

I scrambled around to the door and knocked. He still had his rifle ready.

“Sam, Sam. It’s me! Jill. Sam! Don’t shoot!”

“Don’t you EVER do that again! I didn’t see you or hear you. You know I’m practically deaf. This cabin is lit up and anyone out there can see in but I can’t see out. Don’t ever sneak up on me like that again.” Sam scared me.

I’d never been around guns. Heard them go off a lot when I lived on the south side of Chicago, but I had never held one, used one, or owned one. Sam got his first hunting rifle at age 12. An Ithaca Gun. It hung on the wall within easy reach.

His loss of hearing often makes Sam feel vulnerable. From all the work he’s done with power tools and engines his hearing is marginal. Even as a teenager, he played drums in a rock band and loved the eardrum-breaking volume levels of music.

“Hunh?” is the word he says more than any other.Ithaca NY May 29-June 9 2009 Trip 215

“Did you read in the seed catalog about all the new kinds of tomato varieties?” I ask.

“Why would you wash your shoes in baking soda?” he responds. When Sam thinks he heard something and replies with a non sequitar, it’s funny to everyone but him. His hearing deficit makes me think about what I want to say and the clearest way to say it before I open my mouth.

All winter long I peppered him with questions about himself, his background, his home, his interests, his likes and dislikes, his friends and family, his land, his plans, his work, his projects, his intentions. How many questions I asked Sam that first year. Stupid questions. What do farmers do in winter? What is that machine? How does that work? When will the sun rise tomorrow? What are you thinking about? Should I make a salad? How did you learn that? What does that mean? What purpose does it serve? Do you like that?  How do you do that?

We didn’t even notice the blizzards that year. Every year thereafter, March seemed nothing more than a month of blizzards. Moods turn blue. Seasonal affective disorder is not an official diagnosis; it’s the result of living by the seasons and being in the March moment.

When you live by the weather, your moods are largely determined by climate conditions.  Clinical depression is a diagnosis for a mental condition of the blues with no basis in reality. Being bummed out is a realistic, if not healthy, response to living where it’s grey every day. The days get longer and longer and you get more and more frustrated that even though there is sunlight you can’t do the things you want to do because of the weather. In the middle of March it is simply depressing.

Ch. 2 February

In Off-The-Grid Memoir, Time and seasons on March 6, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Ithaca NY May 29-June 9 2009 Trip 216Falling in love is a potent remedy. I started to feel better immediately after I met Sam. My fibromyalgia went into remission. I got 8-10 hours sleep every night I visited Sam’s cabin and I spent more nights there than home. Because I felt better I looked better. Within a month after I met Sam I had dropped 20 pounds. The swelling and bloating disappeared. My diet improved as Sam taught me to eat off-the-land and share a daily meal.

Within months after meeting Sam I looked like a new woman.  I weighed what I did when I graduated from high school. From 235 lbs. in January 1996 I effortlessly dropped slowly down to 165 lbs. by spring 1997. The eczema on my feet cleared up. My skinned glowed radiantly. Muscles in my face ached from smiling all day long. I could dance again. I hiked for miles. I couldn’t wait to get naked and swim in that pond I saw frozen outside.

Sam said he liked long hair and he thought I would be even more beautiful if I let it grow.

I hadn’t had hair over my ears since I was in second grade and my mother could not get the rubber band out of my ponytail on the top of my head. Mom just cut it off. Then I think I screamed. Next, we drove straight to the beauty salon. That first Pixie cut was too close to the hairdo of Peter Pan.

Then I got a wedge haircut named after the Olympic skater, “The Dorothy Hammill.”

In the early days of graduate school during the punk period I had a quarter inch of fuzz left on my scalp. Dishpan blonde to mousy brown, my head of superfine hair was either permed, henna red, or cut too short.  I finally let it grow long and thick and auburn. Healthy hair.

Sam let his hair grow, too. Golden tendrils of curls fell down the back of his neck by summer. He was hot.

Sam down the laneThe more I dispensed with any need for fashion, the more beautiful I became.  Because Sam loved me I knew I looked radiant. Never one to wear makeup, perfume, jewelry or fashion accessories, I felt freed by Sam’s love to be more me. I was a knock-out wearing raggedy overalls with the cuffs rolled up to my calves, sleeveless t-shirt and work boots. I got some muscles on and toned those upper arms, thighs and abs.

For the first time in my life I gained the attention of the male persuasion. The unsolicited affections of men surprised me. I was hot.  A woman approached me in the grocery store one day. “Do you know you look like Meryl Streep?” I thought she was coming on to me. When one of my former students, Adam Ellick, visited me down on the farm, he was shocked. “I have been gone two years and you look 10 years younger!” Strange men stopped me in the grocery line or at the red light waiting to cross and flirted widely.

“Heh, baby, you looking good.”

“Pshaw,” I said. I loved being loved by Sam, the man I loved. This good feeling inside made me glow on the outside. Sam was the first guy I met who was not intimidated by me, in the least. Opinionated, too smart for my own good, and set in my ways after living alone for 20 years, I’d convinced myself I didn’t need men in my life. I didn’t. I just wanted this one particular man. And Sam loved me for being me.

Burning love. February. I found his tractor sexy and when I wore an apron I could drive him wild with distraction.

***

Sam liked me the way I was. And the way I was, I needed to sleep. His love was my life sustenance. Go to bed early every night in February.

I call Sam Warren my “daylighter.” He gets up with the sun and goes to sleep shortly after it sets. In June dawn breaks around 5 a.m. and it stays light until almost 10 p.m. But in February, daylighting means we sleep until 7 a.m. and are done with dinner and ready for bed before 7 pm. Twelve hours of sleep during the shortest days of the season makes sense for so many reasons. Love is number one.

The first reason to become a daylighter is to remedy sleep deprivation. Many Americans deprive themselves of sleep to the point where it is more dangerous than drinking and driving.  Contrary to popular myth you cannot make up sleep you lost the night before. Sleep is seasonal. In the cold winter months when the days are shorter we need to sleep more. Sleep is necessary to one’s overall health.

Safer to stay home by the fire

Today the majority of us don’t know the difference between night and day. Most of us get a rush from the speed of our contemporary everyday lives. Electricity made our natural body rhythms subservient to the clock. Time is always ticking away.

I began to think making I’d gotten sick from postmodern malaise of circadian rythm dysfunction. My fatigue and pain are exacerbated from insufficient deep sleep. Sleep alleviates most of the symptoms. The loss of night vision was my body telling me I shouldn’t be out looking around at night. “Go to sleep,” my body told my mind. My mind heard my body, but didn’t or couldn’t obey.

“When was the last time you recall having a dream?”  Dr. Endo had asked me. I couldn’t remember. He said when you start dreaming again, the healing begins. Sleep is the body’s restorative process. In reading the research on fibromyalgia I learned the typical course of treatment prescribed by medical doctors included low doses of anti-depressants as a sleep aid and narcotic pain killers. The effectiveness of these pharmaceuticals paled by comparison to prescribed rest. Sleep doesn’t cost anything so there is no profit to be made. Hence it doesn’t make it into system of health care currently in place. I am glad to have had a physician who had enough common sense to put me on a medical leave and who respected my wishes not to be prescribed narcotics or anti-depressants. Instead he prescribed rest and therapeutic massage. Getting back into a healthy sleep cycle made all the difference. Sleep is very inexpensive medicine.

sunflowerThe second reason to live by the sun’s clock is to decrease overall electric energy consumption. If you can live by daylight there is little use for electric lights. When electric power became nearly universal after the Second World War it changed the way we did everything. With the passage of the Rural Electrification Act, electricity became available to country folks at the same price as city people paid. Night turned into day. Winter turned into summer and summer into winter. Electric power industrialized this nation. A “day” became three 8-hour shifts.

Before electricity when it got dark at night, people went to bed. There wasn’t much you could really do by candle light or oil lamps. Heating and refrigeration weren’t things you could take for granted without wood or ice. Before electricity if you wanted to be warm in the middle of winter, you had to plan years in advance to have the seasoned wood on hand, dried and stacked, hours to start the fire, time to let the house get warmed and time for tending the wood fire.  Before electricity you needed a root cellar to keep produce cool in summer and not freeze in the winter. Before electricity you had to harvest ice from the pond in the middle of winter and store it in a hay barn covered in sawdust for use four to six months later.

Ithaca NY May 29-June 9 2009 Trip 107I grew up with the expectation of an electrified life. I assume at the flick of a switch there to be light, or heat, or sound, an image displayed or a door opened. All at the flick of a switch:  On/Off.  The binary code built the digital universe but it can’t power it. It runs on fossil fuels and is not sustainable. Daylighting offers a natural solution to soaring energy demands.

Our very sense of time has shifted through human history from cyclical to analog to digital. In an agricultural society the sense of time is similar to the cycle of the sun, moon and stars. What has come before will come back round again. From the sundial to a mechanical time piece, the concept of time shifted from a circle to a linear sense of past, present and future.

492896-R1-00-1A lunar calendar and the circle for the face of a clock are remnants of agricultural notions of time. The 19th century shifted time to the industrial concept as a mechanical measurement. In the 21st century we have shifted to the digital sense of time. This notion of time is that now exists and that’s all that matters. What came before is over and what will come next is irrelevant. What gets lost in the new digital era is the sense that the past can inform the future and that what has passed away will come around again. Daylighters don’t lose such sensibilities.

A third reason to practice daylighting is that you will live longer and enjoy life so much more. Do you fight against sleep? Is your instinct to resist drowsiness? Do you push down the urge to close your eyes and rest? Give in to these urges. When you wake up fresh from a full night’s sleep you feel better, do better and accomplish more than when you waken tired. Sleep restores our bodies. The more sleep you get, the less stress on your overall health and well being. There are those who say you live longer the more sleep you get each night.

Sam says sleep is just God’s way of letting us practice for death. When you go to sleep and don’t dream, don’t snore and don’t wake up, death brings you the deepest rest of all. When you are asleep you don’t know if you are dead or alive. You don’t know any pain, any suffering, any thoughts or concerns.20100521GH_284

Sleep is necessary to be fully awake. Just like it takes both the rain and the sun to make a rainbow, it takes sleep to make us fully awake; death to make us alive.

When you live by the seasons, the sun, the moon and the stars, you fall into a natural rhythm of light. The shortest days of the year come in the coldest months and the longest days during summer. Our bodies synchronize themselves with the sun. Come winter we hibernate and in summer the sun’s light accommodates our extended activities.

Living by the sun daily and moons seasonally is to adopt a natural, sustainable and healthy lifestyle. It sounds so simple and yet to practice it year after year is quite radical. In February it is somewhat extreme.

***

I love where I live. I loved it from the very first moment I laid eyes on this place. I loved it even after the blizzard of 1993 when five feet of snow fell in one day. After traveling across several continents, I had never felt more connected to the land. Before I even met Sam, I knew there was something special about this place.

Legend is the Great Spirit left his handprint here. Some part of me believes this Indian origin tale. Scientists claim the last glacial age left its imprint on the terrain. I can see for miles and miles. No sign of man’s hand. The Endless Mountain Range rears its green, blue and grey shoulders into the sunset.Ithaca NY May 29-June 9 2009 Trip 816

Before the Europeans arrived, this place was where the Iroquois nation convened in great meetings and spiritual ceremonies. Henry Hudson conspired with the Algonquin and Delaware and other tribes in an expedition to overthrow the Iroquois from this spot. Henry Hudson on July 6, 1706, shot the first gun the Indians had ever seen and all scattered. An easy victory but a fatal blunder. Hudson earned the enmity of the first true democratic republic; the Iroquois confederation of Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga and Mohawk tribes.

This land is often referred to by historians as the “Burned Over District,” because of General Sullivan’s rapacious destruction carrying out the government’s campaign to rid this region of Injuns. From the start it seems the white man’s government wanted to rip the heart out of true democracy, hoping to have stolen its ideal for a totem.

Between these fingers of God was borne the Suffragette Movement, the Underground Railroad, the Mormons, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and a variety of utopian and intentional communities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today it’s the wineries, artisan cheeseries, emerging Finger Lakes anti-haute cuisine, sheep and alpaca fiber farmers, pasture-raised pork, grass-fed beef, bison and elk, and free-range chicken ranchers, organic produce farmers, Amish craftsmen, Eco-Village, the New Roots High School and family homesteaders who sustain this rural culture here.

It wasn’t the job teaching at Ithaca College that sold me on moving north. It wasn’t the reputation of Ithaca as a progressive, liberal community. It was here that attracted me. I belonged to the land.

When I took the job at Ithaca College, I fell in love with the place. Cathy Webb, a realtor, showed me Bird and Annie’s house on Enfield Center Road which she needed to rent before she could sell them another house in Trumansburg. I talked Bird and Annie into letting me rent the place even though I didn’t have the full deposit. I wasn’t even sure I had the job. When the offer came, I packed up and left the red clay of Georgia behind. This Yank was going north.

My first night on Buck Hill I woke up in the middle of the night. Bob didn’t bark but there was a floodlight shining in on us. A huge strobe light poured in through the windows on the east side of the house. I kept low to the ground, so whoever it was wouldn’t see any movement. I groped around the floor for my eyeglasses.

A full moon had risen in the eastern sky. I swallowed and took a deep breath once the focused view of the familiar moon reached my consciousness. I laid awake and enjoyed how safe and secure I suddenly felt. I loved this place. The moon would look out for me and protect me. While I would work in Ithaca, my home sat upon this hill.IMG020

Here we look each other in the eye. Everybody waves. Nobody locks their cars and half the folks leave the keys in the ignition, just in case somebody needs to move it for the snow plow.

The EPA declares the fish in Cayuga Lake to be healthy and provide good nutrition. From Kindergarten through 12th grade, all the town and country kids attend school together on one campus in the center of the Village of Trumansburg. In a local survey, residents reported the number one issue was the Village police force: too big and too expensive. Village deputies routinely set their speed traps on Main Street and stop cars moving in too big a hurry. Pedestrians halt the 18-wheelers trucking down NY State Route 96 because on Main Street they have the right of way.

There are no parking meters and sidewalks line both sides of Main Street. The paper comes out once a week but everyone knows the places for news are the post office, bank, public library, the coffee shop, and the bulletin boards in the Laundromat and the grocery store. In the Village, disgruntled citizens participate in public assembly at the NAPA Auto parts store and the Pro-Democracy group meets in the Fire Hall. In our neck of the woods, the unemployed and retired men hold daily court at the Citgo gas station and convenience store at the intersection of State Route 79 and Halseyville Road, known as Miller’s Corners.

A ridge separates the glacial waters of Seneca and Cayuga and marks the county line between Tompkins and Schuyler. It is here the Warren family farmed for more than one hundred years. Grampa Harry and his three sons cropped for seed: buckwheat, corn, barley, oats, wheat, clover. Mecklenburg, now nothing more than a Post Office, Fire Hall, Doug’s Auto Repair and the Methodist Church, once had a prosperous grain mill powered by the natural springs and creeks running into Trumansburg Creek and falling into Cayuga Lake.

Even before I met Sam Warren, I would get up and out of Ithaca as quick as I could leave my office behind. I would hurry back to this special place. Up and down Buck Hill Road, I found new animal friends walking my dog along the country roads. The wild turkey and Whitetail deer covered the same trails we did. I watched the hawks and other birds of prey soar in the gusts and streams of wind across the fields. Meeting my human neighbors took longer.

The beef cows at the Fisher’s farm came up to the fence so friendly. Sometimes they had already come through the fence and strolled leisurely on the blacktop road down towards the Millers’ farm. The Fishers had a dog named Patch. She was mostly white with big brown patches. Big and goofy, Patch loved my dog Bob and she laughed at me. Never seen a dog that could smile that wide and chuckle so.

Patch would lope around us as we walked. Some days Patch would walk all the way down to Millers and then back past her house to hang out in the backyard and play with Bob.  I didn’t feed her, so she always went home before dusk. Patch taught Bob how to back into the low branches of the birch tree for a really good back scratch self-induced. A very clever dog.

One afternoon I was walking on the road and Bob and Patch ran along through the yards and gardens of my neighbors near the corner of Enfield Center and Buck Hill Road.

“Why can’t you keep those dogs out of my flower beds?” Up popped a petite gray-haired lady from somewhere in the midst of all those flowers. “Get them out of here!”

“Bob. Patch. Come. Come here! Sorry.” I said.

“You got all this space to walk these dogs and they don’t need to come through my beds.”  She shook her garden trowel and stomped her feet in fury.

“Get a grip, lady. You could be living in the city where there’d be drive-by shootings and gang bangers selling coke in your front yard. This is the country and these old farm dogs aren’t going to hurt anything,” I met her wrath with my fury. I had lived too long on the south side of Chicago for graduate school and then in Georgia where I rented a duplex on a cul-de-sac with 24 hour drive-by cocaine transactions.

I had met Janet Warren, Sam’s mom. She pissed me right off. I said I was sorry. That wasn’t good enough for her. I knew I had crossed her.

Charlie Warren walked “Little Fella,” an old Pomeranian, to the corner and back every afternoon when I first moved to the hill. He introduced himself to me and Bob. Tall with a white shock of hair on his head, he smiled and made small talk whenever our paths crossed walking dogs along the road. I would see them at the grocery sometimes. Chuck always smiled and waved. Janet was cool.

***

Rosehips under freshly fallen snowSam and I got our coats on and left my place in his pickup truck to spend the night at his cabin. He pulled right into his parents’ driveway. He hopped out.

“Aren’t you coming in?” Sam asked.

“To meet your parents?” I looked incredulous. Seemed totally premature. I wasn’t ready to face them but I couldn’t say no. I had spent the last ten days sneaking past their house to the lane that led down to Sam’s cabin.

“I can’t keep hiding you from my mother,” Sam said. “Come on in.”

Janet Warren greeted me at the back door with a kiss and a hug and pulled me inside her home.  Her short hair wasn’t really grey. A natural blonde, her curly locks framed her dimpled smile. Janet’s petite frame contrasted with Chuck’s height. Both of them stood in the kitchen entry next to the coal stove warming their back sides. Chuck in his flannel pajamas and Janet in her silk kimono, they weren’t put off by my unannounced company.

“Mom and Dad, This is Jill; who I have been telling you about.”  Sam made the official introductions.

The smile beamed on Janet’s face. I began to relax.

“Welcome to the Warren family,” Janet pulled me close and gave me a hug and kiss. Chuck chuckled and smiled.

Little did I know the introductions were long overdue. Everybody in the neighborhood had seen Sam’s pickup truck in my driveway. I hadn’t gone unnoticed these many days walking down the lane to Sam’s cabin. Sam’s sister, Judy, and her husband, Wayne, lived on the other side of the driveway and had watched me walked down and wondered. Everybody already knew something was going on.

I quickly discovered in a small rural community there are very few secrets. If Sam were to mess around with other ladies or go to Kuma’s for a night with the boys looking at the nude dancers I would hear about it before he could make it back home. Everybody knows everybody’s business. This kind of security in a relationship seemed foreign to me; my family had moved 7 or 8 times around Minnesota and Wisconsin before I went to college and became a transient academic. These people were born here and died here. If they went away for a period of time, they came back eventually. This land beckons the soul home.

***

Meeting Mother Warren legitimated our relationship in a way no wedding ever could. Sam and I could say our vows in front of an altar, but confessing our love in front of his parents was as good as telling it to God.  I remember calling my mother to tell her and dad I had met the man with whom I intended to spend the rest of my life. They seemed relieved to know it was a man, and somewhat surprised I’d found a match.

Sammy Minor Warren, the son of Charles Warren who is the youngest son of Harry Warren, started driving tractor on this land when he was 5 years old. He remembers Grandpa Warren teaching him how to kill potato bugs by knocking them off the plants into a pie tin filled with gasoline. Sam still prefers his 1951 Allis Chalmers C Tractor for plowing, harrowing and planting in the twenty-first century.

Charles Warren bought this land located one mile south from Sam’s Grandfather Harry Warren’s farm down the county line on the Schuyler County side. Janet and Charlie moved into their home when Sam was born in 1951.  This modest 1840 farmhouse has a bathroom sink installed when the Warrens moved there. The sink is the appropriate height for little Sammy to wash his hands; they haven’t changed it in half a century.

Located 1.5 miles south of New York State Route 79 on South Buck Hill Road our farm is halfway between Watkins Glen and Ithaca, NY. Just past where Enfield Center Road dead ends onto Buck Hill Road, you see the street sign for Deer Run Lane; a wooded one-way unpaved driveway. When you come around the curve, the woods clear and the fields open up. You can see for miles.

At the bottom of the fields lays a crystal clear 5 acre pond, millhouse, woodshed and machine shed. Deer, elk and buffalo graze in paddocks and pastures adjacent to the barn. The windmill atop the 80 ft. tower and the little turbine on the tin roof of the house catch your eye right away. On the southern slant of the woodshed and millhouse roof are banks of solar panels. Inside the millhouse is the waterwheel.

In 1968 Charlie built a state-licensed pond and Sam helped him do it. It is 18 feet deep; spring fed and covers 5 acres. Charlie picked one of the most beautiful places on earth to live. Sam has worked the land and developed the property diligently to honor his father.cabin where sam and jill live

Mother Warren knows how blessed she is to have her family so close to her heart. Her daughter, Judy, and son-in-law, Wayne, spent a few years in the 1970s stationed in Germany. When Wayne left the military they moved to the northeast corner of the original family farm. They still live there. Their son, Jamie, and daughter, Marti-Jo, both grown adults still live within two miles of their parents and grandparents. Sam didn’t go into the city of Ithaca until he was 12 years old, but he made up for it by traveling all across this continent in his 18 wheel rig before he returned home to the farm in 1992 like a prodigal son. He made his mother happy and his father proud.

??????????????Sam and I never married because I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe the government has any right to license or register love. The state issues you a license, but all they test is your blood. Sam already flunked marriage twice. He’d married Sharon when he was 23 years old and had a beautiful daughter, Tricia. After the baby was born, Sharon wasn’t interested in Sam and he sought the solitude of the road as a trucker.

Sam married again 10 years later to a younger woman who bankrupted him with her cocaine habit, but not until she had slept with most of his friends and acquaintances while he was on the road trucking and trying to keep the bills paid. Colette (rhymes with toilet I was instructed) bore a son for whom Sam pays child support but with whom he has never been allowed any contact. Colette’s five husbands since – the last in prison for bank robbery – have all had to pay maintenance on this child given Sam’s name. No piece of paper can make a union work. He messed up his first marriage and was messed over on his second. I was not going to be the third wife. I never intended to marry.

Initially Sam didn’t believe me. What gal doesn’t want the white wedding scenario? The ring? The ensuing babies? Likewise I had difficulty believing any man wasn’t interested in just one thing: sex. We both had a lot to learn; especially about each other. Almost 40 years old I felt as though I’d waited all my life for Sam. I was glad I hadn’t met him any sooner. I had learned to take care of myself. And Sam had taken his own time to mature as a man.

Sam proposed marriage several times over several weeks, but he shifted his proposition to spending our lives together and came to appreciate my view of weddings as an incredible waste of money. I worried the “too soon, too fast” syndrome would ruin what we had started. I was having too much fun playing Little House on Warren Pond.

There are no guarantees in life. I took a risk. I made it to 40 years old without any ex-husbands or step-children. I planned to keep it that way.

***

Sam Warren made many improvements and additions to our homestead over the years; from materials on hand and what we could afford at the time. Most of these projects involved creating additional heat during the coldest days of the year during February. We had plenty of wood. With the enclosure of the porch, he added radiant floor heat.

The radiant floor heat worked well in the coldest months but we found it difficult to moderate the temperatures inside during fall and spring. Radiant heat requires 12-24 hours to take full effect. A cold evening in November or April can sometimes be followed by a sunny, hot afternoon the next day. By the time the floors were really warm it would be sweltering inside.  Adding old fashioned cast iron radiators to the heating system allowed for more rapid heat dispersion in the cabin when needed.

Having hot water running through the pipes in the floor can be costly if you heat water with propane. It has become quite fashionable in home redecorating schemes, but it is not always economical. Sam heated the water circulating throughout the cabin with the help of his old wood cook stove.

100_1027Nearly 20 years ago Sam found this antique 300 lb. cast iron stove in Florida and trucked it back to upstate New York. It is the center of our home. The tiny firebox of 6” X 6” X 18” can quickly raise the temperature of the cabin because of the massive size and weight of the cast iron stove. But it is amazing to see how it can also heat water. The pipes run through the fire chamber of the cook stove and circumvent the need for the propane water heater altogether in winter.

A water heater is a terrible waste of energy for the most part. Electric water heaters are ridiculously inefficient; propane less so. Most of us are so used to having hot water on demand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year that we don’t realize what it costs. New fangled “on-demand hot water” systems are the latest rage for those concerned about wasted energy and expense. Borrowed from the European models, these units heat small volumes of water just before you need them.

A simpler method for controlling the hot water heater is the temperature gauge. Before taking a bath, washing floors or doing a sink full of dishes it is easy to turn the knob up to a hotter temperature (120-140 degrees) about 15 minutes before you start running water. When you are not using hot water, turn the temperature gauge down to its lowest setting. Common sense energy conservation.

In winter, Sam starts a wood fire in the cook stove. The pipes run through the firebox and it heats up the water. The water circulates through the floor and up and down re-purposed cast iron steam radiators. The biggest radiator sits in front of the porch windows to counteract whatever cold air hits us from the south.

Sam decided to add a second hot water manifold around the Ben Franklin wood stove the next year. This one he put underneath the grill we use for indoor barbecues. Pipes run back and forth above the flames of the fire. Hence, the water is heated once by the big wood cook stove and circulated halfway through the cabin before heated again on the Ben Franklin.

After ten years together, I am certain I will never be cold in the winter if I’m with Sam. He likes to keep it cozy and warm. He’s cold if it gets below 70 degrees. Once I hit middle age and experienced my own tropical moments in sub-Arctic conditions, I stopped worrying about ever being too cold again. The best part of the “change,” according to Sam, is that I always come to bed naked. No more flannel nightgowns.

When Sam built the millhouse around the waterwheel, he “remodeled” the kitchen. The old lean-to summer kitchen had nothing more than a small propane gas stove, two shelves two foot long by eight inches wide and an electric fridge. In our first year together, I learned to cook in his place the hard way.

The propane stove was new to me when I agreed to bake blueberry muffins and turned the knob to 350 degrees. After ten minutes I noticed it wasn’t pre-heating. I asked for Sam’s help in getting it to work. He opened the door to the lean-to and lit a match.

KA-BOOM! The force of the explosion knocked him back into the main room. The gas had been filling the lean-to since I’d turned the knob on.

After rushing to him, I helped Sam to his feet.

“Okay. The oven is lit now. You can get supper on,” he said, while staggering to find his usual seat on the bench. He sat down, hung his head and waited for me to make him supper. He didn’t say much about it then, but he’s told the story of how I first tried to kill him dozens of times since.

By 6:30 pm, dinner is done and we haven’t had to turn on any appliances all day. The passive solar heat is generated from the sun hitting the flagstone floor in front of the wall of triple-pane glass on the south side of the cabin. Sam started a fire in the Ben Franklin so we could barbecue chicken for supper. It is 84 degrees inside and only 5 degrees outside. The photovoltaic panels on the roof made enough power to keep one circulating pump and the electric fence going all day and night. The water running through tubing underneath the floor kept it plenty warm all day and it will stay warm all night. The sun sets. Supper is over. Time for bed.

***

February is the month with the fewest days, yet in upstate New York it seems like the longest. The temperatures stay below freezing and it snows and snows. Sometimes the precipitation is something we call “Ithacating”: a fine freezing mist of miniature snow pellets that are not quite hail but darn close. The freezing sting on your face is a deterrent to going outdoors at all. Even the dogs don’t want to go out for a run. One February it got so cold for so many days in a row, one of our chickens froze her feet off entirely. The hen hobbled around on stubs thereafter.

Days go by without any direct sunshine. Days of grey turn into weeks. Either there is no wind just bitter cold, or the chill is delivered by storm force gales of wind.  Too cold to go out and the snow too deep to go anywhere.

Those first years together during February I spent afternoons sledding down the steep hill behind the pond dyke and climbing back up to go down again. Good exercise. I built snow people who waved at us across the pond. Cross-country skiing was another expedition in falling down. I even went ice skating in Cass Park in Ithaca to fall down more. I fell down intentionally in new snow and enjoyed making snow angels.

February is often a falling down time. There is too little money to spend because it may be a long winter. There is no money to be made this time of year. You dare not waste because the winter will last another two months, at least.

Cabin fever breaks out. The overwhelming sense of winter’s oppression sits on your chest and you just want to bolt out the door into a sunny fantasy. Sam and I have planned our escape to Bolivia. We haven’t applied for visas. Nor have we made much progress learning to speak Spanish. It’s a February fantasy.

I do everything in my power not to go stir crazy; and in so doing drive Sam mad. I sat one afternoon knitting for hours and hours on the back of a sweater. I found a mistake and ripped out inches of stitches. As I yanked it all out, Sam sat stunned and then he let go with a howl of another wasted day. Knitting taught me a new lesson in patience.

I drive him to distraction when I go in and out of the summer lean-to kitchen. “You’re wasting heat,” he says. In winter, the summer kitchen becomes our cold storage and pantry and the cool breeze rushes in whenever the door swings open and closed. This in and out and in and out sets off the energy police; Sam’s siren goes off.

“I spend all day trying to get the cabin warm and you waste the heat I make!” Sam is frustrated with my fidgety behavior. I am fidgety because there is nothing I can do without getting hollered at!

I bake my favorite Red Velvet Cake for Valentine’s Day. The recipe is an old Amish secret. You need a 365 degree oven. Sam thinks I need my head examined. He doesn’t eat sweets. Like the Amish, plain and simple is what he prefers.

Sam does love my red apple sauce this time of year. It’s the only fruit he craves. His mother taught me to use a Foley food mill. It makes it simple to cook down the apples whole with the skins on until you can hand crank it through the mill. Depending on the kind of apples I use, my sauces are light pink to dark red sauce. The Macouns and Empire Reds offer the most intense reds to apple sauce.

When the wood cook stove is hot and the griddle is dry I like to spend a February afternoon making lefse. The pleasures of donning my apron and participating in an ancient ritual of my Swedish heritage means a dust cloud of flour fills the cabin air.

Lefse is a flatbread made from leftover cold mashed potatoes mixed with flour. Small balls of the dough are rolled flat in flour and fried on a dry griddle until golden brown. Lefse can be served warm or cold. My family has traditionally eaten lefse as part of any winter holiday meal and my mother makes it best. I learned to love it eating my Grandma Swenson’s homemade lefse.

Sam thinks lefse tastes like shoe leather. He’d rather I make fried mashed potato patties from the leftovers. He’s just lucky this Scandihoovian don’t love lutefisk. (Lutefisk is cod soaked in lye; served with butter and salt and pepper, it is best described as hot slippery snot.) Feeding the cook stove sticks of wood all afternoon makes it warm enough to sweat indoors. Sam thinks when I wear an apron I’m hot.

Sam hates cold weather. It is not the cold that causes cabin fever. It’s not getting outside for too many days or weeks in a row. Getting stuck in an indoor rut and having no escape hatch is the basis of cabin fever. It is the boredom mixed with depression. There is a million things you could and should be doing but don’t really want to do.

Traditionally when cabin fever strikes it is about time for a thaw. A brief interlude of above-freezing temperatures can sometimes make things worse. The sap begins to run in the Maples about the time you think your blood is going to boil from the hardest job of all: doing nothing.

There is always more snow and cold after a thaw; that can add fuel to the fire of cabin fever. It warms up just enough to make you realize how long you have felt miserable in the dreary cold and then it turns back to bitter chilblains.

I conjure up memories of the summers of 1980 and 1981 when I worked as a lifeguard at a swimming pool in a Women’s Center in Saudi Arabia. In the bleak of midwinter I close my eyes and recall the heat and searing dry air of a walk through the village of Yanbu. The sun baked my bones and turned my skin a golden crisp. Sitting out in the sun for 8 hour shifts gave me plenty of time to contemplate heat. When I wasn’t in my bathing suit at the pool, I wore long caftan gowns made of cotton or silk to create a layer of light perspiration constantly evaporating off my burning hot skin. I snuggle comfortably in my long johns and extra undershirt in front of the open fire and try to recreate the Saudi sensations of sweat. I get goosebumps.

Sam retells the stories of traveling south to Texas, Louisiana, Mexico, Florida, Georgia, and Utah. As a truck driver during the era of CB radios and the strength of the Teamsters Union, Sam gathered memories along the road that take him to a warmer place. He followed the sunshine across the nation, avoiding cold weather wherever he went.

Living on the road without a home for years wasn’t a sacrifice he regrets. It is how he could afford this homestead. It is the memories of being a free spirit touring the south when it’s cold in the north that just taunts him this time of year. That the Teamsters took money all those years from his paycheck and now deny him any retirement benefits makes him hot under the collar. Angry, depressed and bored. Not a good combination.

Two adults share 200 square feet day in and day out surrounded by snow, ice and cold. Cabin fever. Temperatures rise inside and tempers flare. Will we go crazy together?

***

Cabin fever usually strikes hardest when there is a soulful yearning for the death of winter. Winter is the hardest season here to live sustainably. There is little or nothing growing in the garden to eat. No fresh local fruit; just root vegetables. Too cold to do anything outdoors. Only old stories to rehash and dreams stirred by seed catalogs.

I used to think enviously about how Sam had the “winters off” as a farmer like he imagined I had “summers off” as a teacher. Farming is a year round proposition and I couldn’t believe how many things Sam did during the winter months. Seemed like he never stopped plowing when it was snowing. He fixed machines, maintained his tools, cleaned up his work bench, repaired equipment, completed a compendium of home improvement projects, read and studied schematics, invented solutions to practical problems, and made plans for warmer weather. On really miserable days, we look through those seed catalogs and have the discussion about what we are going to plant and where.

peasI can never wait to start planning the spring garden. It’s only February, so I start sprouts. Just experiencing the most basic stage of germination is a transcendent experience and affirms the gardener’s soul.

Alfalfa sprouts taste delicious. If you start them in a glass jar the beginning of the month, you’ll have them eaten before the ides of March. I love to jazz it up with radish, pea, watercress, and mustard sprouts. Bean sprouts and fresh farm eggs make for a delicious frittata or egg foo young in February. Every few days I start another jar full of seeds in water.

Flowering geraniums and potted herbs remind me that even plants can overwinter indoors. A transplanted cherry tomato plant wintered over on the stone floor facing a south window sent out branches and tendrils in every direction, but never flowered.

Even when plant life seems most dormant, change is happening. We just don’t always witness it while it is happening. The frost heaves stones up and churns minerals into the soil. The deep freeze is needed for certain indigenous perennials to reappear. I put my vegetable and flower seeds in the freezer for the winter.

Turning, rinsing, draining, and waiting for sprouts is a daily meditation until you can plant outdoors again. Cheesecloth and some recycled glass jars are all you need besides seeds. Even sunflower sprouts are delicious, though I hate to sacrifice my seeds for sprouts instead of waiting for the flower.sunflower

In upstate New York, February is the month that challenges sustainability pioneers who produce their own electricity. You may not see the sun all month. This is when rural life becomes raw. Not everyone has the grit to withstand winter’s vengeance.

That first February Sam had two nanny goats that kidded twins. Born on the full moon and the coldest night of the year, those four kids weren’t going to make it out there. Once you bring a kid goat indoors in winter, they are indoors until the frost lifts. Otherwise you may nurse them to health and they’ll catch the death of pneumonia because they haven’t been conditioned to the cold.

Kid goats danced around and entertained us with bottle-feedings and litter control through the worst of cabin fever the first year. You can’t leave these babies behind for Bolivia.

The following February more kid goats arrived on the full moon again. The oldest nanny, Nutmeg, had triplets. They were tiny. I sat in the barn with her as they were born. I watched in awe as my breath turned white in the midnight air. She cleaned up the first one; licking it slowly and patiently. She turned to the second one before the first one started breathing. She licked the second one and kept licking; harder and harder. The third one dropped from her loins with a thud. She licked the second one harder ignoring the others. The first kid gasped and then baa-ed. Nanny turned and stepped on it. She held the first one down and licked the head and face of the kid. She licked harder. She started sucking on its’ nose and mouth.

Nutmeg let up and turned to the second kid, washing away the afterbirth. The first kid baaed again and Nanny stepped on it. I pushed her off. She butted me away with her horns. She wouldn’t let me get close.

Nutmeg sucked on that first baby’s snout. It scared me. I grabbed the other two wet kids and hid them inside my jacket. I couldn’t get the first one away. I heard her suck the life out of it. I took the other two inside. Sam was up half the night trying to get them warm and take milk, but neither kid made it. They were too small, too weak and it was too cold.

Nanny didn’t have enough milk for three. The mother sucking the life out of a kid goat without a chance in this world was Mother Nature’s way of dealing with real problems. It was almost 20 below zero.

I wasn’t a kid goat anymore. I was in my 40s and watching that real life drama of birth and death in the barn made me get real. This wasn’t news. This wasn’t on TV. This was real. I wasn’t going to let anybody, any job, or any illness suck the life out of me without resistance.  It was time to get smart. What I learned by knowing Sam wasn’t going to be found in a book in the college curriculum.

mind of his own

After more than 10 years together I have only begun to really learn about sustainable living. Like our relationship, understanding deepens over time. Walking this land and learning all it has to teach me becomes a more challenging and difficult curriculum the longer I am here. The intellectual challenges are tremendous but you cannot hurry the kind of knowledge gained from learning the land.

The different kinds of trees, shrubs, flowers, insects, birds, fish, fungi, wildlife and weeds — simple taxonomy of my surroundings that sustain me and yet I am still mastering the basics. Where the turkey hens lay their eggs, how a blue heron catches a large-mouth bass, whether to expect sweet cherries or not, when to watch the dance of fireflies, where the trillium bloom hide in the hedgerow, what time the deer will pass through the field and take a drink in the pond, when the black raspberries are ready and where to find them if the bears haven’t been there already, how to crack open black walnuts and use the hulls for stain, when the time is right to dig potatoes, pull the garlic, plant trees and transplant seedlings, butcher animals, or harvest trees for lumber  – these are things that take years to learn.