How We Learn What We Know

All of the big summer storms come in from the west. They build up their energy somewhere out in the middle of the country and as they move the moisture is drawn up from Lake Champlain before it has a go at us. You can feel it coming for hours, the barometer drops, the birds fly lower across the barnyard and the crows take up positions on the west side of the piggery, sitting hunched up on the split rail fence squawking to each other as if they were making plans. The dogs come in from the lawn about thirty minutes in advance of the first drops of rain, perhaps they can hear the distant thunder as it echoes through the Connecticut River Valley up around Walpole just over the last ridge of hills. They hunker down in a hidey hole under the barn and stay there until the storm has passed, every time. The first peels of thunder reverberate along the Mink Hills, a low rumble that goes on and on, echoing against the granite ledges and steep hillsides along the lake. It’s always a good sign to pick up the tools and make ready for the approaching front. We always sit out the heaviest part of the storm, watching the lightning strikes as they pass overhead, counting the seconds between the flash and the report to judge just how close it will come. We’ve had several strikes on the house and the trees since we’ve lived here, lost our computer to one, had a strike come so close that every hair on my body stood on end and all I could see for half an hour was a jagged blue image whether my eyes were open or shut. After the storms pass to the east the Sun emerges just above the edge of the mountain over the maple orchard and the rays chase the back edge of the front, still raining as it goes. When the light hits it we are treated to massive rainbows, often double, sometimes triples that seem to be fixed above the farm itself, each end rooted in the pastures and the forest of this place we love. Last week my father was visiting us and after the storm passed I told him to come out and see the rainbow a minute or two before it appeared. The kids came running because they knew it would show up and we all stood out on the terrace as the last few drops of rain fell and the peels of thunder receded with the clouds. As if on cue it appeared, a stunner of a rainbow, two annealed together in a wide arc with a third below it, glowing in the colors of the spectrum. We stood together just watching this phenomenon, the red-gold light of the western sky giving off a radiant warmth on our backs.

The interns have turned into a solid unit over the course of the past few weeks. We’ve added some basic mechanical skills to the workload and turned to projects off farm as well. We’ve put a new roof on for the Colonel, run a cookout for a neighboring business, and picked up more off site carbon than you could shake a stick at to turn back into soil. They’ve learned their way around cattle management, watched as the last of the calves have dropped and then taken their place beside their mothers, more heifers than bullocks this year and for some reason I let them name them as they arrived — Mystery, Tex, Star and Liberty. I’ve made a point to hold meetings twice a week, Monday morning and Friday afternoon and we sit together at the new picnic table they built and discuss the plans for the week to come or go over the successes and failures of the week that has passed. Mondays always seem to be filled with promise, Fridays with a good dose of reality. I lay out the expectations, name each project and remind them of the things they’ll need to do. They bring me up to speed on what they require from me, how they feel about the progress from the week just passed and generally reaffirm what it is we’re doing. Each of us states the high water mark of the week and the low point and though they are often different there is an emerging theme. The lowest point used to be a projection — I didn’t give the right instructions, I didn’t provide the details or the proper tools but now it seems to rest on them, they didn’t ask the question or look for what they needed, they forgot to return something to its place or they didn’t pay close enough attention to what I’d said. The highlights are always the same — a personal accomplishment for which they were solely responsible; planting the last of the cutting garden, completing the picket fence, organizing the barn. I have tried to emulate the way that I was taught when I was in basic infantry school a long time ago, I give them an explanation, a demonstration and practical application of whatever the work detail will be and then allow them to succeed or fail. They come to me on occasion, but more often than not they have come to rely on each other to solve the problems they encounter and that has made them into a cohesive unit that handles their own problems and basks in their own successes. We picked up our beef from the slaughterhouse last week and the first thing we did was dig into the rib steaks and grill up more meat than you would have thought five men could eat. It seems lie such a little thing, an evening barbecue after a long day, but it made such an impact that they talked about it for the rest of the week. I told them that they now understood what it was like to have a stake in the game and they laughed at the line even if it wasn’t that funny. Chores are a daily feature of each day but on Sunday the rest of the day is their own. I ask for a written submission at the end of each week and they have all been pretty good about it, submitting a mix of photos and short video clips along with a brief description of the work they’ve been doing and I have made a point to comment to them individually on their writing. As each week has passed the work has improved, not so much because of the practice, but because they clearly understand that what they are doing has meaning, if not in their lives, to ours. The children adore them and love to regale them with stories or memories whenever they get a chance and my wife has made a point to do little things for them like keep the big box freezers filled with popsicles. They spend most of their free time on the farm either fishing or swimming or binge watching Game of Thrones on a sheet they’ve hung in the barn using our old projector that they have ingeniously wired into their devices. One day after they helped a friend of mine remove several tons of salvaged dock from a client’s property he brought them a couple of cases of beer as a thank-you and you would have thought it was Christmas by the way they reacted.

This week started off great at the farm, with the completion of our smoke house we were able to eat fresh homemade apple wood smoked bacon all week. The garden picket fence that has taken us nearly three weeks to complete is almost finished and getting compliments from every visitor we have at the farm. It finally feels like our group has finally figured out how to succeed in working together to complete tasks and it feels great. Overall this work week was our most successful week yet, excluding a few minor errors we had we completed more tasks than ever. The main thing I’ve learned this week did not come from actually working with my hands completing our tasks but through wisdom of others. Later in the week I found out some unsettling news that I feared would come but caught me off guard. This information that I had found out had me confused and hurt, but the only thing I wanted to do was get to the woods to clear my head. I decided to explore the wilderness of New Hampshire and to embark on a hike that would prove beneficial for my physical health and most importantly my mental health. When I found Andrew Brooks Trail I had no idea that I would be climbing a steep mountain. Through creek bottoms and over grown rocky paths, that almost broke my ankle, I was determined to do some serious thinking so I set out to accomplish my goal. As I started my journey up the mountain I found that thinking about my personal problems wasn’t going to happen. All I could think about was where my foot placement was and how I would cross five feet creek sections with out rolling my ankle or getting wet. As the incline increased I grew exhausted, having to stop and catch my breath more often than not. About 20 minutes into my hike I took a break and talked to a fellow hiker named rob who had been to the top of the trail and assured me to keep going that the view was incredible. He informed me of a lake about 45 minutes up that he had been fishing at but with no luck. When we parted I finally had an idea what awaited me at the top and I was even more determined to reach this lake. As I continued the trail became more and more difficult making me more skeptical if I could finish this goal. Every time I thought of giving up I came across fellow hikers descending the mountain with huge smiles on their faces telling me of the most incredible view at the top. This seemed to give me more ambition and will to continue forward. The trail was marked only by a few blue marks on trees surrounding the trail spaced out sporadically. I found my self thinking of nothing but finding that next blue mark. It was almost a game, once I reached one mark I would frantically search for the next one keeping me focused at the task at hand. One hour into the hike I found myself sweaty surrounded by buzzing mosquitos from the wet conditions but surprisingly excited and happy to keep finding these blue markers. What seemed like an impossible goal at first suddenly seemed to be in reach. As i saw the tree tops started to clear and allow more blue sky to filter through I realized I was almost to the top. Eager to reach my destination I seemed to move more quickly jumping across boulders and rocks. Finally I heard people laughing and shouting and this lake appeared. As I joined and talked to the local hikers I couldn’t help but smile that I finished my goal. It was hard to believe that only a few short hours before this I was depressed and ruling in my own negativity. Now I was on the top of this amazing mountain staring down at small houses and trees that looked to be the size of shrubs and a view that lasted for hundreds of miles. On the way down I felt just like a kid again skipping over rocks looking at at the scenery I was reluctant to see on the way up. This hike taught me a life lesson that is currently helping me through my personal issues at hand. At the bottom this seemed impossible to get over but as i continued up with my head down and people to help me along the way. I found out that no matter how big the issue is if i just set a personal goal to completing it or getting over thee issues I will be successful. It might be a long hard road paved with rocks and other hazards that try to slow me down but as long as I’m determined I can and will get over my issues. That the top or end goal is worth all the pain and hard work I had to endure to reach it. This was one of my favorite accomplishments so far, even though it was off the farm and it will stick with me through out my life. Im gong to start to live my life a little more on the edge and do things I normal wouldn’t do or in the words of Tod “ take more left turns than right” in hopes of living my life to the fullest. In the words of Mark Moran “ You only have one life, so why waste it doing things you don’t enjoy or waste it on people that aren’t worth your time”. Even though the end of the week had some hardships I’m more determined than ever to succeed in my life endeavors not for anyone else but for myself.


This week was probably the hardest week physically on the farm yet. It seemed like every morning I would wake up and be more tired than the previous morning. No matter how tired I was, I was always excited to see what the next day had in stored. This week was also one of the most productive weeks for the unit as well. Pat finished up the picket fence around the garden, Bubs finished the fence rails on the orchard fence, and Matt spent the week deep cleaning the main house. We finished up numerous projects around the farm and even had time to touch up the farm. On Wednesday and Thursday Pat and I helped a close friend of Marc, named Todd. Pat and I helped demo a dock and carried the pieces out to a dump trailer. We salvaged and saved a lot of lumber that we plan on using to build an addition to the Sugar House, to maintain all the firewood. After we finished up loading all the lumber and dock pieces, we came back to the farm to see Todd holding 2 thirty packs of beer. After several beers and just listening to all the stories that Todd was telling about his younger life. One thing that I distinctly remember Todd telling us before I browned out was, “If you ever get a chance in life take a left instead of a right and see what happens”.


Our second day here, May 31st, we did our morning routine, which consists of feeding the animals, then went on to projects. Two men dug a trench in order to lay water pipe to make easier access to water the cows, while another employee and I dug holes to set fence posts around the garden. This way we can keep the chickens and dogs out of the garden. Our second day here didn’t consist of a lot but we also learned how the farm cooks its own meals and how actually self-sustaining they are. Any food left over from the meals gets fed to the pigs. Nothing here goes to waste. We even learned that lesson again today. June first, today, we processed a pig so that we would have something to eat this summer. While processing the pig the owner showed what part of the pig was what and what you could do with the different types of cuts of meat. We learned the whole process from when the animal was alive to when it has had its hide removed, its innards pulled out and head and feet cut off. It is now hanging in the barn in order to let it cure. When it is done curing we will go the process of how to butcher the rest of the pig. I find this whole process interesting. It allows me to see the whole process on how we get our food. I get to see start to end, from the raising of the animal all the way to when it goes in my


When I read what they’ve written I get a chance to see how the experience of living this life impacts others. So much of what we have done over the last eight years has been done for each other and to provide for our survival as a family that I wonder if it has any kind of value beyond the limits of our property. We are cognizant of the things we do for the animals, for the soil and the water, for the maple orchard and the wood lot, the children and the marriage, but beyond that it is sometimes hard to tell if we aren’t being in some ways selfish about our labor and resources. The things they write tell us a story that makes our concerns seem silly and when we sit down to eat with the young men, or share a joke or two it becomes obvious that we are giving them something back for all of their time and effort.

Last Fall we had a late farrowing and the sow dropped an unusually large number of piglets. There were a couple of runts and somehow I failed to get rid of one of them and allowed it to remain with the litter longer than I should have. because it was so small it figured out how to get out of the enclosure whenever it liked and grazed contentedly in the apple orchard while his litter mates watched from a distance. He didn’t cause much damage and since we had already harvested most of the crops for the year, he would glean from the raised beds, find the errant fruits dropped in the tall grass and suckle on the sow long after the rest had been weened. it was not intentional that we kept him around, but more of an oversight. He became estranged from the rest of the feeders as they grew and acted more as a mascot to the farm, tagging along with the dogs when they’d herd cattle to their pens, resting in the shadows near me whenever I worked on some project around the barn yard. After a while he caught up to the others in size and when I’d try and restore him to the swineherd he would invariably escape confinement having learned to climb fences as he made his way around the farm in the months previous. We gave up on having him become a part of the feeder herd and allowed him to remain with the big boar, an 800 pound giant with a mellow disposition and his own shed and yard. By Spring when we got ready to sell the hogs at market he was finally put back with the rest of his litter and it turned out that the runt had grown to at least a third as large as the others and he had become the dominant boar of the lot. He was so domesticated by his proximity to us that I could open the gate and just let him out to walk along with me every time I went up to the woodlot to cut firewood and he would simply hang out and watch, rooting through the leaf litter looking for mast as if he’d been assigned to the task. He’s since been chosen to replace the old boar and if I hadn’t seen his development with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. I watched an episode of This American Life not long ago where they’d gone to a hog farm in Iowa, the kind where all the pigs live in crates about the size of a broom closet and the only time they move is to the truck that takes them to the slaughterhouse. The farmer who ran that operation said that they’d been tinkering with the genetics of the hogs that would make them less likely to have anxiety so that their shaking and shivering wouldn’t burn unnecessary calories, thereby wasting feed. I noticed that none of them had tails — they’d been docked at birth so that they would bite them out of nervous habit, that the farmer was almost proud of the fact that “they’ve never been out in the sunlight in their lives so their color is nice and pink” and that when tasters were offered bite sized morsels in the research laboratory where the women in hair nets and lab coats cooked the pork on George Foreman grills, they had to flood the room with red light so that they couldn’t see the color of the meat, thereby influencing their opinion (it was gray in real light and quite unappetizing to my eyes). By the time I got to the end of the piece I felt sorry for the farmer, for the pigs he raised, for the people that would eventually eat the pork that came off of that mechanized, industrial agriculture operation. The only part that gave me any hope at all was when the host asked the farmer — who had earlier told him he’d grown up an an old fashioned type farm where the animals were kept outside and his father would feed them by hand every day instead of using automated conveyors and pre-measured feeds delivered in tanker trucks from Monsanto — if he missed the kind of farming his father had done and living on that kind of farm. The face of the farmer registered an instant of reflection, you could almost see him looking back in time to the barnyard where he’d grown up, spending time with his father in the open air, the sounds of the hogs and the sunlight, and then his face fell, his eyes grew sad and his smile vanished and even as he answered you knew he wasn’t lying to the host, but to himself. “No,” he said flatly, “This is the only way to feed people.” And then he recovered. he went on to explain how much science had done to alter the animal, the environment, the feed and the processing so that more people could have better access to more food at a cheaper price and that the way his father had done things was never coming back, as if he had memorized each line.

Today is the Fourth of July and after chores the day is theirs. I offered to show them how to fire a rifle, how to zero a weapon, tear it apart and clean it afterwards and I have a couple of cases of ammo that they can shoot down in the sand pit before they fire up the grill and throw some sausages and burgers on for their nourishment. They’ve come a very long way in a very short time and I am extremely proud of my son for having had the foresight and the skills to influence these young men to come along with him for the Summer to spend it doing something worthwhile for all of us. Every day they learn something new and every night I reflect on how much I didn’t know before, how the lessons we come to understand as we make our way through this life are present in everything we see and touch and taste and experience. We think that we know a great deal about life, or that our skills and our talents are something we’ve accomplished intentionally, but that’s not the case. Life has plans for us and things to tech that we never expect and if just show up and put in our best effort at being open to what the world has to offer, the learning never ends. That much I know.

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