Jilly D.

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.

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