This week I have had that old and misunderstood teacher, pain, in my life. This time it came in the form of an old piece of oak and a table saw. As good teachers ought to, pain pointed out my stupidity but did so not in a condescending way; my lesson was learned in a split second and by my own hand. I have no excuse, which was the lesson taught.
I have all of my fingers and they all will work normally but for the time being I have thirteen stitches in two of them (nine in my index an four in my thumb). I took the test and failed. However, failure is as it always is, a chance to learn. My Renshi, pain, has not let me down and I have learned; if only I can remember when the lesson is finished.
A teacher and a student are one in the same, but a teacher sometimes needs a reminder that they are a student as well. I’m not sure what lesson Master Pain has learned. My lesson has been one of trust: do not do it with machinery and wood! I have an old adage: comfort is your enemy, and there is another one: familiarity is a teacher of men.
My lesson is all bandaged up now and the learning process has started. Flashbacks of my lesson continue, I cringe, and I type with eight fingers for the time being but the lesson came at a cheap cost. Pain is unforgiving, straightforward, and honest as all good teachers should be. And I am thankful as all understanding students come to be.
Motivated by sheer will and some curiosity mixed with a dose of virtue and the endless misunderstanding of truth the path became home. The roots he had dug up so many times, he carried in his bag which was by now old and worn by the mistakes that he’d made. And it was with these misgivings that the man turned around and considered his past for the first time in his life.
Never noticing it before, it was nevertheless worn from wear. Like a shiny piece of metal washed many times and never found, it was clean…almost luxuriously so. The past mirrored the man as he looked into it’s shiny, blank sheen; not so much did it offer up memories, but misgivings as to what could have been compared to what had been.
The past, he found, was not full of memories, but of imaginative vagueness and ample insecurities.
“Had I only known…”
The sentences formed in his head and his imagination finished them thoroughly and almost automatically. It was as if he had no control over his past.
“But it is mine,” he thought.
“This is my past!”
However, the metal simply stood its ground; the past would have none of his illusions. Stamped in metal by his own meanderings the man realized he no longer owned what he had done, what he had been.
Looking around for an explanation, there was none.
Searching for answers to the puzzle that the past posed, he found none.
“There must be, though; the past is mine. IT’S MINE!!”
But the metal dripped in apathy as the man slowly realized that it was only the tears and he put the past back into his pocket.
There are rituals that we all seem to abide by often without knowing it. These rituals seem so inconspicuous when we are alone but when guests come, or when they are otherwise interrupted, they show themselves in unusual ways. If we work away from the home we tend to enjoy the workplace just a little more; or when we work at home we notice the rituals and how they are being poked at, if just a little.
This is nothing against the guests in our houses; they are welcome and enjoyed. But the little rituals in our lives are, well, just a little put out. If you have pets, especially a dog, you probably notice this. However, when our own rituals must be put on hold, the dog’s perspective doesn’t seem that strange. We, like our pets, live by rituals.
The ritual itself doesn’t really matter, it is not the ritual act that counts. Rather it is the act of having a ritual that seems important. We do things in a certain way, at a certain time. Personally, I notice this when my early morning coffee ritual is changed (read “interrupted”). Coffee itself is a ritual, not just the need and desire for caffeine. Coffee in the morning and a beer (or two) at night are explicit rituals, but what about those small, inane rituals that our lives are filled up with?
We do not notice the small moments in our lives when we are in the middle of living them. It is only when we are reminded of them that they matter. Perhaps rituals are not unlike our past: they are made and then remembered? Perhaps Hume and other philosophers are right when they state that we are nothing but a collection of memories? This may be the case, but if so then the memories themselves are rituals incognito.
Pork and Belly: it has been a pleasure!
It is getting close to doing the inevitable for the last time this year: I must “process” the last twenty-five chickens and more difficult, I must say good-bye to Pork and Belly our two pigs. There is no getting around the fact that death is violent, no matter how we choose to express it. Killing is even more violent. But death and killing are ubiquitious and we must come to understand that sometimes the acts are not necesarily wrong if we are to live with peace of mind.
When the decision was made to make self-sufficiency the goal the decision was also made to act philosophically; to be philosophical we must also act philosophical. And the reality of eating brings upon us the reality of killing. I have run into many that have expressed their opinion of the uselessness of philosophy, but in my years of teaching and trying to live philosophy their conclusion seems empty.
To kill an animal, even for food, honestly, we must look it in the eye and put the knife to its throat; this is the honest thing to do and because honesty is important to the act and so the act is philosophical. The question of killing is most certainly a moral question, one which the homesteader needs to ask themself: is it the moral thing that I am doing?
This is all to say that Pork and Belly present a unique opportunity to put philosophy into action, but also present a moral decision. We started with two pigs and they become as much pets as livestock. So, the obvious answer seems to be: more pigs, less pets. In other words, with more animals on the chopping block we don’t get attached. However, this solution is sidestepping the real question; it is a way of making ourselves immune to the inevitable act of killing an animal.
In the end we must choose: to eat meat or not to eat meat, but in making our decision we must also realize that life includes and is not the dichotomy of death: life and death are one in the same, and this idea (again) is philosophical. As humans, we have the ability, the capacity to choose morally, we must choose philosophically; life does not care, but we must because we can.
In Memory of “Bob” the rooster and one of his girls.
This last week we have lost a beautiful rooster and hen; one to a hawk, and the rooster to (what I believe) to be a fox. These losses were unfortunate, but the fact remains: this is what those animals do. They are predators and they were acting naturally. As a farmer, my natural reaction is and was anger: something must pay, and the hawk and fox were prime possible recipients. As an intelligent person, however, I am capable of understanding justice.
Sometimes we are faced with difficult decisions and in these situations we must make a choice: to react or act. I could shoot hawks and hunt fox but for what reason? There is only one answer to this: revenge. Perhaps killing the fox is necessary for it will return, but the hawk…and at best such a decision is only partially reasonable.
This led me to consider reason. As humans we are emotional creatures with the capacity, with the freedom, to act intelligently. Unfortunately often enough we do not act accordingly. The loss of my rooster and hen presented a situation in which I was presented a choice: to act reasonably or emotionally. But I had left out another choice: the middle ground: to act both reasonably and emotionally.
I was saddened to lose my rooster and hen, but I could not get myself to simply kill animals for what they do naturally: they cannot be held accountable and so it would be immoral of me to kill them for acting the way they act. However, I did not want them to return and kill more livestock. The logical conclusion, was to accept the losses and try to lessen the chances of the predator’s capability of doing what comes naturally: to give them a chance to learn.
Many farmers would tell me that it is not worth the trouble: to kill the animals, and sometimes they would be correct. However, I value my farm animals and other animals and their lives in a different way: as living things. So, according to my values it is “worth” my trouble to find a compromise. Sometimes a little emotion goes a long way, and sometimes (in order to remain moral creatures) we must learn to value all life rather than simply the life we deem worthwhile.
In September, work changes from input to output; that is, canning starts and thoughts of “processing” any animals, the euphemism for killing and cutting up animals, starts sneaking in. Winter work plans are on the back burner; the shop needs a cleaning, planting winter rye and watching the hens scratch it up. Trying to get the newly cut oak posts in the ground (around the garden to keep the hens out) while the ground is still able to be dug in.
Fall kale and beets planted and the greenhouse is closed at night. The trees are turning and as the leaves think about falling, thoughts of last minute winterization roll around in the head. The fall, for some reason, seems to be the starting point when some assess the year past and compare it to the year to come. This comparison is important and painful all at the same time. What we did wrong and what we can do better; the time we wasted and the time coming to make it up.
We stay busy; we are busy and we will be busy. It really doesn’t matter what we do but it seems that a lot of us do. I wonder…what is the comparison in our busy lives? Were we busy last year? Should we be busier next year? Does being busy make us better or just tired? Are we busy working or just busy being busy? There is one other thing that we should compare: time, and how much of it we have used and how much of it we might have left.
But none of this matters to the trees that turn, the canning that continues, and garden that continues growing. Time will churn and we will be busy turning the crank.
The word “adventure” conjures up fun and excitement, endless activities and wide-eyed happiness coupled with friendly unknowns. And while this is true, it is true like most things concerning human life are true: partly. In coffee shops around the world people sit sipping coffee and munching scones, talking about what they “would do” if given the chance; but they never do it. Perhaps, the adventure is already alive, but waiting for us to act upon it.
In the fifty or so years that I have been alive I have travelled to some forty countries, lived in four states, travelled throughout the lower forty eight, been a truck driver, a musician, and a college teacher. I have climbed mountains and trekked the Annapurnas in Nepal, eaten curry in Calcutta, and a Vietnamese sandwich in north and south Vietnam. I have drank instant coffee in a cave high up on the sides of mountains in places that I can’t name and have believed that cup of coffee to be the best I’d ever had. I have drank beer in more pubs than I can count in England and eaten Bratwurst in Germany, spaghetti dinners in Italy, drank Belgian beers in Belgium, meatballs in Sweden, and enjoyed the beaches in Denmark as well as wine in France and crabs in Norway. I am a homesteading farmer and carpenter at present and those activities present me with even more adventures.
This is all to say that the adventures that I have experienced are life: there are good and bad times, boring times, scary times, frustrating and irritating times. There are times when a cup of coffee at a well known coffee shop, surrounded by suburbanites in a “safe” neighborhood is an adventure and there are times when scaling a peak at 13000 feet is an adventure: I’ve tried both and while the feelings are different, they can both get interesting.
An adventure is carved out of the experiences that we have while living. The only time we miss out on adventures is when we choose not to do something because we are afraid, or tired, or lazy. Sometimes an adventure can be had sipping a cup of coffee and sometimes we need to put the cup down and do something. The adventure starts when we know what to do and when to do it.
Much of this blog has centered upon the goal of self-sufficiency, but little do we realize that such goals come with their own baggage. No matter what the goal we have, it will pale in comparison to the idea of that goal. This is simply a reality rather than a judgement. The idea is so opaque, so brittle in its nature; easily breakable but it is the only solid ground we have to stand upon if we are to succeed.
If to simplify we must complicate, then to achieve a goal we must have an idea of that goal . Perhaps the most important act (it does come down to action) is to move forward while remembering the past; to complicate in order to simplify. But again, remembering the past complicates the very simplicity that we desire. It does sound so encumbered, so esoteric. How can self-sufficiency be so complicated? It is because that while life is simple, to act is complicated.
We must all light upon a surface and look around; we must all settle in the security of knowing that the life that we lead is not only up to us, but up to our realizing that there is no ideal. We must acknowledge the silent moments and learn from them what we can; they are so few and far between.
So, as I feed the animals I must take the time to consider them. When I work in the garden, I must look for those moments between the weeds that give me happiness. When I work a piece of wood, I must follow the history of the grains of the tree that it is made of. When I look up, I must realize that in the end we are self-sufficient like it or not; realize it or not. The silence of space reminds me of that, and the act becomes complicated.
Always remember that sometimes it is your expectations that are the problem, they can hold you back. This sounds counterintuitive, but think about it: it is old philosophical news that we act upon our emotional rather than rational motivations. Our expectations are often our long and hard sought rational musings over possible situations, and when we finally act those musings often do not coincide with how we feel.
But should we, as rational beings , act upon our emotions? Our intellect informs us that we are acting emotionally and tries to override how we feel with what we think. Do we act or do we think? We are capable of both, but eventually we will act upon our emotions.
This is problematic for rational-capable beings such as humans. We think knowing all along that we will act emotionally: we have no choice. We know that we will act emotionally and that knowledge is not enough: this is the secret.
Our expectations will always be squandered, they will never be met because they are the product of our understanding. My friend, Chris Ransick, and I have often debated (over scotch of course) terminology (he is a poet and I a philosopher/farmer). I think that we are arguing this exact point: the intellect is our ticket to freewill, but we will consistently act emotionally knowing that we give up our freewill.
This is not a new discussion, it is centuries old in philosophy, and it will continue even given the knowledge that how we feel will determine the outcomes of what we think. This, I believe, is the human condition: we must continue to think seriously about what we feel and why we feel that way.
There is no better way to get a perspective on one’s life than to start raising the very food that you eat. Life is a cycle that is often times invisible to us both mentally and physically but on a farm, a self-sufficient farm where nature is allowed to take its course, that cycle is clear. We raise chicks here on the farm and we start them in an enclosure complete with clean sawdust, clean water and ample food. They enjoy the digs, they eat and drink. Their fate is sealed: they will be dinner. But, they are oblivious to this and most other things, as long as they have their food and water.
As I look down into the box at the chicks as they create their world, I think to myself that their world is not much different than most of ours: we eat, we drink, we sleep and do not question much as long as we are comfortable: our fate is sealed, as long as we have our comfort. At the end of the day there is not much of a difference.
Of course, we have more potential, but what is potential and how many of us actualize that potential? What is potential to the chicks? They are potential food, potential compost makers, they give back what they receive, probably more, but in the end their lives will end on the sharp edge of a knife wielded by me. They will end up in my freezer and will supply me with the comfort of knowing that I will have food. They will supply my compost pile and then my garden.
Their potential is in effect endless. I wonder, then, who is god: us or them? They fulfill their potential without ever knowing it while we struggle to even know ours. They are efficient users of resources and effective suppliers of the very thing that sustains life; we are consumers without understanding what we consume. This is all not to judge, but simply to ponder the fate of god, the fate of us all, which is to supply life in all its confounded mystery and magnificence.