It’s my last week at the sugar house. Next week I start the big Mississippi River bike trip.
I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi – which is superb – and I have been amazed by the sparkling little gems of prose which Twain culled from Parkman. I provide a sample, La Salle’s entering the Gulf of Mexico:
And now they neared their journey’s end. On the 6th of April, the river divided itself into three broad channels. La Salle followed that of the west, and D’Autray that of the east; while Tonty took the middle passage. As he drifted down the turbid current, between the low and marshy shores, the brackish water turned to brine, and the breeze grew fresh with the salt of the sea. Then the broad bosom of the great Gulf opened on his sight, tossing its restless billows, limitless, voiceless, lonely as when born of chaos, without a sail, without a sign of life.
The writing is so superb I thought I needed to take a further look at Parkman. Not only is the word-choice superior – “now they neared” – but the juxtaposition here of man’s little dated efforts with the vast personless forces and infinite time-distances of nature is excellent and characteristic. Even a glance at the Wikipedia page makes it clear that he was a fascinating man:
As a young boy, “Frank” Parkman was found to be of poor health, and was sent to live with his maternal grandfather, who owned a 3,000-acre (12 km²) tract of wilderness in nearby Medford, Massachusetts, in the hopes that a more rustic lifestyle would make him more sturdy. In the four years he stayed there, Parkman developed his love of the forests, which would animate his historical research. Indeed, he would later summarize his books as “the history of the American forest.” He learned how to sleep and hunt, and could survive in the wilderness like a true pioneer. He later even learned to ride bareback, a skill that would come in handy when he found himself living with the Sioux.
I want to see an account of his actual travels.
A friend of mine is an artist – both painter and sculptor, he fashioned a bust of Henry David Thoreau for me which sits on my mantle – and he told me he wanted to build a chapel on my property. I suspect that the term “chapel” is just a way of getting me to agree to the project – cunning, because of course I will do anything for God – and I came to my suspicion the following way: we were determining the location for the chapel, and I asked my friend where he thought the door would go.
“Door?” he said.
I responded, “Don’t I need to get into the chapel to pray?”
He said, “Sure, I guess we can put a door in.”
So perhaps this will be a large sculpture more than a chapel. But what the hell, I’ve got six acres. You don’t need a building permit if the building is less than ten by ten, and we’re not getting a building permit, so it will be small.
Last fall we selected a site and began digging. This year we intend to lay foundations and build. My friend texted me just yesterday, asking if the ground was soft yet. I told him there was still almost a foot of hardened ice on top of frozen ground. He texted:
I had a vision that the church must resume construction. It was either Jesus, or [a friend of mine]‘s gay uncle Tim who used to model as Jesus for bibles in the 70s.
If it was Tim there’s no rush.
Pauperibus vates ego sum, quia pauper amavi; cum dare non possem munera, verba dabam.
“I am the bard of the poor, because I have been a poor man in love; when I had no gifts to give, I gave words.” – Ovid
As we get older, I think we all fear for the things we really love. We know that change will come, and that some changes – even small ones – somehow break the beauty of certain things and certain people. I first kissed a girl beneath a cherry tree in Central Park, and one day I went back there in blossom-season, just to see it – perhaps some new pair of lovers would be beneath it just as she and I were once – but I couldn’t find the tree. I blundered about the area a bit, and then came upon the stump, which was all that remained. Central Park is well run, so I imagine the tree was diseased and had to be taken down. But it was still sad to see nothing in its place – just a stump where once had been a beautiful, craggy, wandering-trunked old tree, ablaze in pink in its season.
So it was with a little trepidation that I decided to return to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday to see La Boheme once again. I’ve probably seen Boheme nine times if I haven’t seen it ten. But I hadn’t been to the opera in two or three years, and Boheme in perhaps seven or eight. And I was going to go as I always went, cheap-date style: standing room, way up back in the Family Circle, the nosebleed not-even-seats at the very furthest point of the hall. I haven’t lived in the city full-time for almost nine years now, and everything I’ve heard about the Bloomberg administration has told me that its motto was not “New York: a great city for cheap dates.” In fact, one of its parting shots was an attempt to give the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is located on City parkland and hence has to play by the city’s rules, the power to rescind its time-immemorial “suggested admission” policy, where you pay what you wish. All through high school the Met was my go-to cheap date: it was always a superior backdrop for romance or conversation, and if you had other places to go you could visit it for just an hour or two and then go elsewhere, keeping as it were the perfume of the museum’s beauty and grandeur with you the rest of the evening. But if I had had to shell out fifty dollars per visit – the suggested admission for two, and the desired Bloomberg policy – I can say honestly that such visits would have almost never happened. And the museum would never have become a defining thread in the fabric of my life, as it is now.
So also with the Metropolitan Opera. In high school I enjoyed big symphonic music, and went to see about as much Beethoven, Sibelius, and Rachmaninov as I could. That was in part just due to my personality. But to enjoy opera or ballet was a bit more difficult – they struck my uneducated outer-borough mind as a bit more effete, let’s say – and I needed some strong personality to draw me in. That personality was one of my brother’s high school English teachers. My brother went to an all-boys military Jesuit school, mostly filled by outer-borough middle class Catholic kids. And for their sake one of the English teachers – an obviously but not flamboyantly or even openly gay man – would arrange trips to the ballet and opera. I was there one year when he brought about twenty students to see The Nutcracker. I remember being struck by those things in him that for young people are so mesmerizing to see in an older person: undimmed enthusiasm, and a willingness to take young people seriously. When he encountered behavior he thought was puerile, he would simply say, “Hey – grow up.” It worked for him, because I think all of us young people wanted precisely that, as long as we could grow up like him, still alive and in love with the world.
We had the cheapest possible seats, in the last row of the last section. During intermission he brought us to the back of the hall, where by the bathroom there was a decent-sized vestibule, which was utterly empty: there he removed from a plastic bag some plastic cups, sparkling cider, a knife, and an Entenmann’s cake. In the vestibule we would have our own little brief cocktail party with cake and cider. We felt like the coolest people in the whole place, and felt that we were cheating the system somehow: we were getting the pleasures of the rich and powerful, for just a few dollars. Even in high school I knew that this was one of the little thrilling living things that made my city so great: there was a little blank spot in the city, so someone showed up to fill it with life, the way a hole in a tree will summon a squirrel’s nest. His enthusiasm similarly created a space where our own could live without any fear of criticism.
He organized trips to various operas and ballets, but his two indispensables were The Nutcracker for ballet and, for opera, La Boheme. I would return to Boheme again and again, with various girlfriends, and later, with students of my own, with the same Entenmann’s cakes and cider.
Opera buffs – and, in my worse moments, I include myself in this – are apt to take Boheme for granted, as an entry-level opera. It seems to be the first opera anyone and everyone falls in love with, and once you have advanced to more difficult pleasures you are not apt to dwell too much on it. But it is truly a magnificent work of art, and can be admired again and again for so many different reasons. Right from the beginning it seems impatient to cast off artistic convention: there is no overture: the orchestra hits a few big excited but somewhat unbalanced notes and the curtain comes up on a painter in a Parisian garret, palette in hand, painting Pharaoh’s army being drowned in the Red Sea – or at least singing about it. He quickly asks his room-mate, a poet, what he is doing: the poet begins complaining about his “lazy swindling old stove,” che vive in ozio come un gran signor, “who lives idle as a great lord.” After discussing sacrificing a chair, they consider burning the painter’s Red Sea – bad fumes from the paint – and finally decide to burn one of the poet’s works, a love-drama in manuscript. As it burns, a third arrives – Colline, the philosopher – and the three make wisecracks about the quality of the drama as it goes up in smoke. Scintillante (“scintillating/sparking”), scopietta (“crisp/crackling”), giusto color (“perfect detailing/appropriate color”). Then a fourth arrives – a musician, who brings food and wine and money, as he says he is coming from a fabulous gig – a rich man hired him, showed him a parrot and said, “Play until that bird dies!” I haven’t the foggiest idea why such a job would exist, but it’s fabulously outrageous, and the musician says he got hourly wages for three straight days of playing. In the end he poisoned the parrot with the help of the rich man’s fetching maid, collected the money, and here he was.
There it is – the Bohemian life, in all its camaraderie, excitement, poverty, and bizarrerie. After brilliantly and comically evading their landlord, with the newfound money they all go off to the Cafe Momus – or rather, three of them do, leaving Rodolfo the poet to try to finish a review for a newspaper. They leave, but he can’t write – Non sono in vena, he says, “I’m not in the vein.” He stands up and there is a beautiful silence onstage – one of those pregnant silences that convey all the angst, the failure, the not living up to one’s standards, the inability to produce, which is also part of the artistic life.
There comes a knock, and in comes a young lady, whose candle went out and needs to get it re-lit. It may be presumed of course that she has no fire in her room at all. She becomes the love-interest, of course, but everything about the scene is natural and fresh as it would be today: she didn’t know her neighbors until she needed them, she tries to excuse herself quickly but finds she has left her key and needs to come back for it, they both look together, he finds it but hides it because he doesn’t want her to leave, she’s aware of this but plays along because she likes the attention – it’s all utterly natural and normal and feels like the way these things always begin. And the music goes along with it: rather than set-pieces that feel like songs inserted into a drama the way a musical might work, the music accompanies the drama as a constant element, providing emotional accent to the text, and building in very simple and subtle and highly effective ways. Helen Greenwald in her excellent notes in the program writes:
The score of La Boheme exerts a uniquely immediate emotional pull. Many of the most memorable melodies in the score are built incrementally, with small intervals between the notes, which carry the listener with them on their lyrical path. This is a distinct contrast to the grand leaps and dives that earlier operas often depended on for emotional effect. Boheme’s melodic structure perfectly captures the “small people” (as Puccini called them) of the drama and the details of everyday life. The two great love arias in Act I seduce the listener, beginning conversationally, with great rushes of emotion seamlessly woven into more trivial expressions.
These two love arias, to me, are dear because they convey so beautifully the life of inner richness which is all the more intense, sometimes, because lived in outward poverty. And they convey the desire somehow to share it – in fact, the desperate need to share it:
I will tell you in two words
Who I am, and what I do,
How I live. May I?
Who am I? I am a poet.
What do I do? I write.
And how do I live? I live.
In my happy poverty
I squander rhymes and love-hymns
Like a great lord.
In dreams and visions
And castles in the air,
I have a millionaire’s soul.
She works as a seamstress and embroiderer:
All alone I make my own dinner.
I don’t always go to mass,
But I pray to God all the time.
I live alone, all alone,
there in a little white room;
I look out over the rooves and the sky,
But when the thaw comes,
The first sun is mine –
The first kiss of April is mine!
Whenever I see this opera, I have the same sensation every time: I know what these people feel. I know what it is to huddle over a cold stove wanting to write more and better, I know what it is to have nothing but the first kiss of April, and I know how precious it is when you are alone and have so little else. And the other characters – Marcello the painter who cannot resist the vixen Musetta, Musetta herself who is a terrible flirt but from the depths of her sinfulness can pray to God like no one else, Schaunard the ridiculous musician who will provide generously when he has anything, Colline the misanthrope who quotes Horace at the cafe – these people live, I know them from my friends, I know them inside myself, and the life that is depicted onstage is still the Bohemian life today.
This is no small achievement in an art form as artificial as opera, to create a highly naturalistic atmosphere. Boheme is the single most successful blend of the high artistic requirements of opera with naturalism, and in part it is because music is a successful way to depict the inner life, and for artists it is the inner life which is interesting. (Some years ago a friend criticized the movie Into Great Silence, with its C-Span-like recording of the monastic life, saying, “It’s like filming a writer writing. The outside is not where the beauty is, in that life.”)
And because the artistic life is such a defining feature of New York, Boheme feels like a part of the city: it feels like something that belongs to us. This is not only true thematically: in actual fact, Boheme has woven itself into the lives of thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers. It is generally considered the most popular opera in the world. It sells out night after night, season after season. It is the opera featured in our own love story “Moonstruck.” The program notes tell us that Boheme has been part of the season’s repertory at the Met in all but nine of the last one hundred fourteen seasons; and the current Zeffirelli production – which is spectacular, and elicits applause from the moment the curtain goes up, for its sheer visual splendor – has been shown continually since 1981.
I have no doubt about the right way to see Boheme – the right way to see it is as Marcello and Rodolfo or Schaunard or Colline would have seen it. It is of course possible that they might have found their way into a box, either by some friend of a friend or by an irrational splurge to impress a lady, but in general the way to do it is cheaply: in the score seats, or in the cheap seats in the “Family Circle.” There is also standing room in the Orchestra, at the back under the overhang. But standing room in the Family Circle is best of all: that little alley at the very rear of the hall where the people who are willing to stand for three hours just for the privilege of being there is the Parisian garret of the Met, and one of the beautiful places in the city.
But as I said, Boheme from the back wall, looking out like Mimi “over the rooves and at the sky,” was such a precious thing that I feared maybe it had been ruined by some change or other. The standing-room rules used to be that tickets were available in person, at the Met, on Saturday for the rest of week’s performances; this made it possible (indeed necessary) to buy Saturday tickets on the same day. So I headed over to the Met in the early afternoon, and asked for a pair of standing room tickets in the Family Circle; and they had them; nineteen-fifty apiece. To this day, this is such a deal: not only is it cheap, but you can make the decision to go on the day of the performance. And God be praised, inside I found everything just as it was: the production just as glorious; a fabulous new tenor just as good as any of the old ones, and indeed more poetic and dashing than most, Vittorio Grigolo; the house full on a Saturday night; the people loving it and happy; so many young people who were obviously seeing their first opera – it all was beautiful. And gloriously unchanged.
The program notes tell us that Boheme grew out of a series of artistic sketches by Henri Murger in the 1840s, Scenes de la Vie Boheme, at a time when “French artists had lost their traditional support base of aristocracy and church and were desperate for new sources of income.” But Puccini found their concerns to be relevant when he premiered his opera in 1896, and poverty and the artistic life are still likely roommates a hundred and twenty years later. Boheme captures the glory and exhilaration – as well as the desperation, of course – of such a life of lieta poverta, “joyous poverty,” and even if Marcello and Rodolfo never perhaps created deathless works of art – Marcello’s girlfriend during a fight with him calls him a “housepainter” – the beauty of the life is argument enough for its preservation, I think.
The survival and preservation of such lives in New York City depends on non-profit organizations – such as the Metropolitan Opera, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art – continuing to allow poor people access to the riches of city life. Michael Bloomberg explicitly pooh-poohed this notion, claiming that New York was a “luxury product,” which by its nature did not need to be made available to all. Complaints that this was the direction the city was headed in dominated the last mayoral election. I will not deny that great cities need great patrons – the Met Opera, in order to be the Met Opera, needs more than just a few starving artists singing along to Boheme in the back row – but if Bloomberg adequately developed that part of city life, that means that we may return to public goods and the wealth that is common to all. Boheme is a reminder of how glorious that part of a city is: all the places that are available to people who love them, for little or no money – the parks, the garrets, the inexpensive museums, the cheap seats at games or shows or operas. Cicero said of the Romans, whose grandest buildings of course were all for the public benefit, such as the Colosseum, the aqueducts, the baths, and indeed the temples and triumphal arches, which were open to all: Odit populus Romanus privatam luxuriam, publicam magnificentiam diligit, “The Roman people hates private luxury; it loves public magnificence.” There is something similar about New York City, whose greatest greatnesses are in its public spaces and parks and museums and libraries. New York is in many ways a wonderful city to be poor: so many things are available even to poor people, which are unavailable even to the rich elsewhere. These things may be one of the great consolations for the poor, and in the case of artists and lovers of the arts, a life lived in close proximity to them and to other such lovers of the arts, may be worth more than all the riches in the world.
My bike has now been pulled out of cold storage. This bike has been across the country, New York to Seattle, and down the West Coast to Tijuana, and has done the length of the Via Appia from Rome to Brundisium. This time the plan is to ascend the Mississippi River, from the Gulf to Minnesota, starting sometime in April.
Reflecting further on what I am looking for, as opposed to what Helen and Scott Nearing were looking for, I find much of the answer in Thoreau as usual:
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.
I find that I am willing to work, when I see the direct connection between the work and my life, or the work and my purposes: I can cut wood willingly, because I need it to keep me warm; I draw my water willingly, because I need it to drink. It’s when life gets too complicated that I find myself losing morale, and my psyche resisting having to work.
As I was sawing wood yesterday after work, I noticed that one of the bark bins I use to gather mulch for my garden was now a good four inches out of the snow. It had been covered up to its edge just a few days before. While we hadn’t had very much of a thaw, the days were longer and brighter and despite generally low temperatures, the snow was melting and compacting. We may have one or two more big snowfalls before winter finally departs, but chances are that the snowpack is now only going to get smaller. The snowshoe days are now numbered.
It’s been almost two months since I was able to get in or out of the cabin comfortably without snowshoes, the longest continuous stretch of snowshoe weather I’ve had since moving to the cabin almost six years ago. I park at the road’s edge, strap on my foot-extensions, and walk the last quarter of a mile to the cabin. I love the fact that in winter my home is surrounded by a vestibule of silence and beauty, through which I have to pass in order to truly be home. On clear winter nights the stars reveal my cabin’s elevation, appearing through the trees on every side as well as above; and sometimes the snow is falling, silencing everything. But all winter long, in all weather, there is no other noise except the slight fall of the shoes into the snow. Once we had some warm weather and thaw enough to hear the river down in the valley; but that was only once. I have heard a few woodpeckers – maybe one a week – and on rare and chosen nights the owls boom and the coyotes scream. But all in all the birds and animals are silent – the only signs of their presence are their tracks – and I hear no machines of men or voices in the woods.
When the snow is frozen solid – as it has been most of the past month – walking on it in snowshoes is almost like walking on pavement, and you move quickly and without difficulty. When the snow is fresh or melting, you sink in, and the going is troublesome. Especially when going uphill. When carrying heavy loads in on melting snow – laundry, or groceries, or gas for the generator – I grumble and sweat and pause on the path to catch my breath. I also have to carry my water up several hundred vertical feet from the spring, and firewood from my sawhorse. But even the heavy loads give you new sensory impressions: carrying a long log on my shoulder, I was amazed to feel the difference in my feet: I could feel how much more deeply I was sinking into the snow.
In the sap woods we have been working in snowshoes as well, so I have been walking many miles in them almost every day. You get used to them, and I even run in them sometimes, though often such flights have the predictable result of falling face-first into the snow. Backing up is an especial problem, creating bad tangles, and for this reason I still refuse to use a chainsaw while on snowshoes: I’d rather sink into the snow than fall with a live chainsaw in hand.
At the beginning of the season I left a big bank of snow by my front door so I could stick the shoes in it; and there they have been each night since. They have been my constant companion up here for the past two months: when I go to work, while I work, when I cut wood, or need water, or visit friends. When someone comes to see me I leave a spare pair behind the barn by the road. It becomes another way of marking off the seasons.
Sometimes when I see my gardening friends in the spring they marvel that I don’t put on weight in the winter – in fact I often lose a little. ”How do you stay in good shape when you’re cooped up all winter?” they ask. I tell them they need to try an exclusive pizza and bagels and beer and pepsi diet and they’d stay in great shape no problem. And a cabin in the woods and a pair of snowshoes probably wouldn’t hurt.
I’ve been reading “The Two Economies” by Wendell Berry again and again the past few days. I don’t quite understand the structure of the essay – or if it really has one – but on point after point, I can’t quite believe how much another man’s paragraphs contain the contents of my own heart.
I am planning a long bike trip this spring, along the entire length of the Mississippi River, from the Gulf to its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota. I’ve long thought of doing this, and I think the time has come. Springtime is an excellent time to do it, and my work at the Sugar Shack has given me just enough – just barely enough – economic freedom to pull this trip off. I’ll depart for it sometime between April First and Fifteenth, depending on how quickly the spring comes on up here. I’ve long wanted to blog about a long trip, and I hope to put a book together about this one.
If anyone has site recommendations, book or movie recommendations, or knows of some good quotations about the area, send them along to me.
A friend lent me the one-volume edition of Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Good Life and Continuing the Good Life a few months ago, and since that time I have worked on it in leaps and starts. The blurb on the back of the book advertises it very well, and explains why I was willing to take the book home:
Helen and Scott Nearing are the great-grandparents of the back-to-the-land movement, having abandoned the city in 1932 for a rural life based on self-reliance, good health, and a minimum of cash… Fascinating, timely, and wholly useful, a mix of the Nearings’ challenging philosophy and expert counsel on practical skills.
So says the Washington Post Book World.
The Nearings’ story, in brief, is as follows: in 1932, after a career as a college professor – he was fired for his Socialist views – Scott Nearing decided to move, at the age of 49, to Vermont, with his twenty-eight-year-old wife Helen. He was a dynamic older man driven by ideology – a biography of him has been written entitled The Making of a Radical – and she was an energetic young woman who appears to have been attracted by older men with charisma of the ideological type (I read she was also linked romantically with Jiddu Krishnamurti, the founder of Theosophy). They were both from well-to-do families, and it being the Depression, they were able to purchase hundreds of acres of land on Stratton Mountain in Vermont for less than three dollars per acre (where now land might sell for fifty thousand dollars an acre). Here they built their own buildings, grew much of their own food, and ran a small but profitable maple syrup business. During the winters they traveled, wrote, and lectured, often on topics related to their Socialist views. After twenty years of such a life, they published a guidebook to maple sugaring still considered standard among hippies (The Maple Sugar Book) and shortly thereafter their first memoir, The Good Life. After World War II Stratton Mountain was developed as a ski resort, bringing massive development to the area, and the Nearings fled to an isolated promontory in Maine, where they recapitulated their success in Vermont, purchasing a large property, building a new home and new outbuildings, growing their own food, and growing blueberries for profit. By that time the Sixties had hit, and the couple had become heroes of the Hippie movement, and their wide social circle of admirers became a deluge of guests looking for “an alternative lifestyle.” In 1979 they published a second memoir, Continuing the Good Life, now published in a single volume with the first. Scott Nearing died in 1983 at the age of 100, and Helen Nearing in 1995 at 91s. The property has now become the headquarters of a nonprofit promoting “the good life,” i.e. homesteading in one form or another.
All this is very interesting to me, though the book was in general disappointing. Frequently the stated goal of back-to-the-landers is “self-sufficiency,” and while I acknowledge this to be one of the axes of a mature, full life – alongside “membership,” or acknowledging that one is a part of a larger body – too often self-sufficiency seems to me to be the goal of a limitless egotism and bristling woundedness. What the Nearings found – and I think this is broadly true – is that anything even remotely approximating self-sufficiency is really produced by scale, of a sort which is (to me) not easily compatible with simplicity. The Roman Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus famously spent the entire latter half of his life – decades – without purchasing a single thing. However, he lived on a villa the size of a county, worked by innumerable slaves who could produce everything he needed from fish to grain to olive oil to bricks to paint and nails. It was a self-sufficiency based on scale (and also on slavery). I live on six acres, which is not a small amount of this world; but the Nearings’ lifestyle, squeezing a living out of the sap of maple trees, required the hundreds of acres they had. They had two farmhouses on their property already, but they needed many more buildings than that to sustain their lifestyle. One of their first projects was building a lumber shed and two-car garage: it was over fifty feet long, twice the size of my entire house. They then built a 12×32 workshop and guest-room, then a second woodshed (!), 12×14; then a 12×16 stand-alone study so Scott could have some privacy from the guests (who apparently provided no small portion of the labor for the farm); then an 18×24 tool-shed, plus an 18×6 greenhouse, and a 9×12 cabin for more guests (and storing sap buckets). And of course the 12×20’ concrete swimming pool. And of course they built a large house as well as their dwelling-place, and while no measurements are given, it had a footprint which by middle-class standards would be considered vast – to the eye more than sixty feet to a side.
I find this excessive, but given their goals I do not consider it unnecessary. I have often marveled at how life in the woods, and alone, seems to require either 1) an infinite supply of tools or 2) a willingness to get absolutely nothing done. You might think you can get by with one wedge, until you get your wedge stuck in a log; then you find you need a rescue wedge to get your original wedge out. You might think a bowsaw will cut your wood, but you find that for limbing trees you really should have a small bowsaw – eighteen inches – and for sawing wood you will need one thirty or more inches in length. Otherwise your work will take the entire day. An axe for felling trees, of course, but also a maul for splitting logs; and if you have a chainsaw you will also need a sharpener (with a mount to control the sharpening angle of the file of course), chain lubricant, motor oil, gasoline (and a container in which to mix the oil and gasoline), and the screwdrivers to take the whole thing apart. This kind of multiplication infects everything. I was thinking about buying or making cloches, movable translucent sheds to put over vegetables in cold weather to protect them from freezing. But then I realized: I would have to build a place to store them. Such a project is worthwhile and vastly extends the growing season, which is crucial for self-reliance. But it requires the Nearings’ approach: literally thousands of square feet of roofed space per person.
Also required was ruthless organization. They were trying to squeeze a living out of a large farm, in which a great deal of capital and labor had been invested, and they needed to work, and work on a schedule. A garden can be killed by a two-week vacation, and maple sap will spoil if you don’t boil it down within days of its running. They were very good at this organization. And since they did not want to be buying new tools all the time (which they could not make for themselves), they took care of the ones they had. Again, given their goals I find this necessary and admirable. But there is unfortunately something rather joyless about the way they write about such a life:
We tackled our practical problems one by one, as we reached them. In each case we followed a pattern which began with a survey of the situation, continued with a discussion or series of discussions which led to a decision, often written down in memorandum, black on white. The decision was elaborated into a plan, also written out and often revised. Finally the plan was checked and coordinated with our ten year plan, adopted as a project and fitted into the work schedule.
Some of our readers will feel that such a life pattern is over-organized. They would not wish to plan their activities so completely. After having tried it out, day after day, and year after year, we know it is the way to get things done. Two people can accomplish much in a day or a month or a year if they have defined objectives, agreed plans, if they work on the program systematically and conscientiously, giving as much attention to details as to the over-all plan.
Take an illustration from the handling and conditioning of tools. We had a place for each tool. Shovels, hoes, rakes and bars were in racks on the right as we entered the tool shed. There were as many holes in the racks as there were tools. No one ever had to hunt for a shovel or a hoe. If one was missing, a glance showed its absence and we searched until we located it. If we could not find it, we replaced it. Actually, with this system, we almost never lost a tool.
After each job was completed in less than a working day, the tools went back into their places. At the end of each day’s work we followed the same procedure. Consequently, tools which were not in place were in actual use and tools not in use were in place. We tried to follow this course even though a tool was used on several jobs in the course of one working day.(44-5)
Again, this is prudent, and if you want to get things done, virtually necessary. But in the Nearings’ case it comes as part of a pattern which is somehow depressing. It seems they left modern mechanical society not because they loved nature but because they found modern society not quite sufficiently mechanical – there was something wastefully and riotously alive about it, and they were hoping to fix that. I am especially sensitive to this kind of Puritanism, because I know I am susceptible to it. I always hope that I anchor my objections to modernity in the joy of nature: I do not want to hate electricity so much as love being able to see the stars. But for the Nearings – and I suspect Scott, the “radical,” was the real source of this – there was something painfully aggressive and lifeless about their efforts. As you read their writing an awareness of their general unlikability seeps in. Yes, we should take good care of our tools. But for them it is more than that: in the fashion of a zealot, the pride in their own mechanistically measurable perfection of morals morphs into curses on the irresponsibility of their good-for-nothing backslider neighbors. It starts slowly enough:
Many of our hammers, saws, planes, shaves and metal tools had been well cared for and had served the needs of two and three generations. Had this equipment been left, even for brief periods, out in the weather, its life would have been shortened. Had it remained outside through the late fall and winter, it soon would have been unfit for use. We argued this point, to little purpose, with several of our neighbors. Invariably they replied that it was easier to leave the tools “handy to the field” than it was to bring them in. Many of these men had shed room and simply failed to use it. (47-8)
It gets more acute as the book progresses, and begins to read like the self-justification of an unhappy person.
On Sundays we varied our schedule by having no schedule and by doing no regular bread-labor. Usually there was a period of music Sunday morning and often a group discussion Sunday evenings. Other evenings there was a period of reading aloud by someone while the others cracked nuts, shelled beans or did some personal chore like darning or knitting. We adhered generally to this daily and weekly routine, but not fanatically. However, unless there was a good and sufficient reason, we did not depart from it.
Need we say that our Vermont neighbors were appalled by such a planned and organized life? They were accustomed to a go-as-you-please existence. They usually ate at noon, but that was the one fixed point in the day unless somone was working out on a regular job and had to report at a specified hour. They got up and went to work, or did not go to work, as a result of accident or whim. If someone else came along and wanted to visit, they would turn from almost any job and chat, sometimes for hours. When they did decide to work, they let inclination determine the object of their efforts. When they got through with a tool, they dropped it. When they wanted it again, sometimes half the day was wasted in search. If the morning looked like rain or snow, they “sat on their heels” in the local vernacular. They naturally regarded our regulated life as self-imposed torture. “Those people work on a treadmill,” said the neighbors pointing in our direction. “Why, they go on a schedule, like a train or bus.” (53)
And they were Puritanical indeed, in ways that seem almost comical. It starts out innocuously enough. They don’t like frivolous luxuries: “We bought no candy, pastries, meats, soft drinks, alcohol, tea, coffee, or tobacco” (155). Needless to say they neither bought them nor made them. But of course they had to prohibit their guests from eating such things as well, making it clear to all that “meat, alcohol, and tobacco are taboo on the place” (198). But lots of other things are taboo as well. Furniture and decoration is bad, and they quote Frank Lloyd Wright to this effect:
The ideal of ‘organic simplicity’ naturally abolished all fixtures, rejected the old furniture, all carpets and most hangings, declaring them to be irrelevant or superficial decoration…. Swift sure lines and clean planes in every way make a better background for living than lace curtains, figured wall paper, machine carved furniture, and elaborate picture frames. (85-6)
Yes, Lord deliver us from “elaborate picture frames.” No pets either:
Cats and dogs live dependent subservient lives under the table tops of humans. Domestic pets kill and drive away wild creatures, whose independent, self-respecting lives seem far more admirable than those of docile, dish-fed retainers. (36)
I do appreciate the insult “dish-fed,” though I also appreciate pets. While I am on the topic of what I like, let me note that I love the beauty of the old, but to them, preservation of old structures was useless and they took pride in getting rid of the old: “If they have no function, we will tear them down at the first opportunity.” (36)
Some of this appears to be a kind of hatred of their own culture, and with it a glorification of the foreign. There is a brief but bizarre attack on silverware:
Our salad we ate with chop sticks, as we found the ‘nimble boys’ (Chinese ‘fai-tze’) more selective and discriminating in picking up food than the shovel-like fork. (148)
I presume they ate everything that was in their salad bowl, so I cannot imagine why their eating utensils needed to be “selective and discriminating,” but obviously this is just some kind of bizarre bit of self-congratulation about how much better they are than their neighbors. No one cares if you want to eat with chopsticks, but don’t tell me there’s something wrong with my fork, please.
What is most striking is just how familiar all this is. It is still a part of the “counterculture” scene almost eighty years later. Almost every wealthy college in America will have some rich kids in a co-op who with the backing of ample family wealth will rail on about modern consumerist society while building an “alternative” lifestyle whose alternative-ness still depends entirely on being a consumer (just of different things): wearing different clothes, eating different food, reading different books, rejecting Western religions/foods/eating utensils/whatever. The food thing, since it is the most elementary consumer item, is paramount to the consumerist self-makeover, and it was paramount to the Nearings, who drone on and on about it, in almost the same words as people use today.
Modern markets are selling everything from baby food to dog and cat food in cans, – pre-cooked, mixed, prepared. Even people who have open land at their disposal find it easier to pick up these products in cans and packages than it is to raise them in a home garden. One lazy gesture with an automatic can opener; spoon the stuff into a pan; heat it, and the meal is ready. Thus an entire generation of humans is being raised, from infancy to maturity, chiefly on processed, prepared, canned and packaged factory foods. Most of such foods have been cooked, peeled, shelled, ground, sliced, minced, tenderized, pasteurized, or in some other manner deprived of their wholeness before they went into the cans or packages. (124)
All true, though I will note that the “entire generation” the Nearings are talking about (in 1950), was the longest-lived generation in human history. The Nearings refer to processed food consistently as “poisoned” food and treat it like the Nazi threat: “at the moment, all too few individuals and families in the United States are doing anything practical to meet the menace of processed, poisoned foods” (134). People are still talking this way. And there is the same hysteria about it:
Milling may sound like a horrible example of food processing. It is only one among many. We refer to it in some detail because the colorless, flavorless and lifeless white flour of the present day in the form of bread, crackers, noodles, cakes and pastries forms so large a part of the diet of western man…. Among the vested interests who have come to the fore in the modern world there are many who deliberately devitalize, drug and poison the population for profit…. Pies, cakes, pastries, cookies, crackers, other products of white flour and of white sugar and white rice must be classed as poisons under the dictionary definition. Baking sodas, baking powders and common salt would come under the definition; so would irritating spices and sauces. (126-7)
We’ve already gotten rid of old buildings, pets, wine, carpets, forks, and elaborate picture frames: now we have to give up pies, white rice, “common salt,” “irritating spices,” birthday cakes, and cookies? Yes indeed, and it even gets worse:
During our entire twenty years in Vermont we never baked a pie, we seldom ate cake or cookies and almost never doughnuts. In a community which serves pie, cake and doughnuts for two if not three meals a day, conduct such as ours was not only unbelievable but reprehensible. (167)
I will confess I am going to support whoever is on the side of doughnuts in this debate. And the book so turned me off to the Nearings that I had to applaud even the inhospitable, outsider-hating obnoxiousness of New Englanders in this one instance:
To the credit of Vermont conservatism it must be said that during the two decades of our stay, after innumerable discussions and long-drawn-out arguments on the subject of white flour, white bread, white sugar, pies and pastries, the necessity for eating raw vegetables, and the revolting practice of consuming decaying animal carcasses, no native Vermont family of our acquaintance made any noticeable change in its food habits. (167)
If you want a sample of these “innumerable discussions and long-drawn-out arguments” – which again, in every college co-op in America right now are still circling on in their endless navel-gazing gyre, here are some bits of the Nearings’ tedious consumerist pedantry, which as usual is distinguished by humorless unsolicited tirades lacking all sense of perspective or proportion:
An uninformed shopper, influenced either by whim, the colorful label, the radio or magazine ads or the bargain price, may upset the health of an entire household by buying the wrong foods. (121)
I will note that both my grandmothers, who ate nothing but white foods and meat, and always bought what was on sale, lived longer than Helen Nearing did. (Nearing did of course die in a car accident, but then again, neither of my grandmothers ever learned to drive, which for personal and global health is probably actually more important a choice than food choices are, so I consider it a fair comparison in the end.)
A whole raw apple or cherry, raw peas or corn, a whole raw carrot, beet, radish or turnip, a raw asparagus shoot, a leaf of lettuce, cress, spinach, endive, chicory, a ripe raspberry or tomato is more delectable to the unperverted taste than any product of the most elaborate food processing. (122)
I’ll have to wait for the person with “unperverted taste” and one hell of an eloquent tongue who can convince me that chocolate (a processed food) is less delectable than chicory. (Really, chicory?)
[Quoting R. Briffault]: “Primitive humanity was, no doubt, like the anthropoids, mainly frugivorous.” … In a recent study, The Recovery of Culture, Henry Bailey Stevens attempts to show that this “blood culture,” with which he also associates war, dates back in human history for only a very brief period. Before the blood culture, which began with the domestication of animals, there was a tree culture based on a diet of fruit, nuts, seeds, shoots and roots. (142)
For sheer food pedantry you can’t beat the section where they tell us what milk and eggs are:
Milk is the secretion of the mammary glands of cows, goats, or sheep. Cheese is a coagulation of the curd of this liquid. Eggs are the reproductive media of birds [wow, is that jargon]. Milk is a highly concentrated infant food, especially designed to stimulate rapid growth in the early stages of development. Human milk should normally be for baby humans, cow’s milk for calves, etc. A calf doubles its weight in a month, a human baby in six months. Food intended by nature for one is not necessarily a desirable food for the other. Adults of any breed should have been weaned and past the milk stage of feeding. (141-2)
So much for ice cream, I suppose. And hot buttered rum is really out. The obvious question is left to be asked by the reader: is this tedious seriousness at all compatible with what can truly be called the good life? Can a person who has succumbed to such self-importance really know that much about it? Even I – who am seriously tedious enough to write five-thousand word essays as a form of enjoyment – insist on breaking apart my serious pleasures with idiocy, and lightening my principles by occasional blatant violations. The other day I was enjoying sawing wood in the winter stillness so much that it became burdensome to me. I went in to the cabin, took out my ghetto blaster and a cassette tape I had made in 1990 and blasted Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” to the unhearing woods. The absurdity of the moment endeared it to me much more than my pristine hardworking industriousness had.
So is there anything in the world the Nearings can take refuge in, some good thing they can believe in, immersed as they are in a capitalist world of pie-makers out to “deliberately devitalize, drug and poison the population for profit”? Why, yes, there is:
What we are doing on a few square yards of a North American farm, the Chinese are doing on a nationwide scale. They are planning their agriculture, dovetailing it with the changing seasons and the weather and building their farming base.
What the Chinese are doing on a national scale, the Soviet Union is attempting on a continent-wide scale. Eurasian rivers, among the largest on the planet, which have flowed north for millennia are being turned around, made to run south into the Central Asian deserts. Twenty years ago this was an engineers’ dream; today millions of desert acres are being irrigated and cultivated. Another twenty years and the desert wastes of barren Central Asia may be feeding and clothing a great section of the human race with its harvests of cereal grains and cotton. (282-3)
The absurdity of this is manifest, though again, I will note that people are still carrying around Mao’s little red book in Co-opistan. There is something deathless about absurdity, so we must accept it. All we ask, I think, is that it come with a little bit of self-awareness and humor to keep it within manageable proportion.
Because there is much about what the Nearings did which is admirable. They worked hard, and while I insist on getting doughnuts if I am going to work hard, their lives and writing still point to the basic truth that we have to work. There is no satisfactory evasion of God’s pronouncement upon Adam, that “in the sweat of your brow shall ye eat bread.” It is a divine pronouncement, which means that it is a curse, but also a blessing. The Nearings were also intelligent, and thought about how to go about their lives without binding themselves to others, and at times their method is to be imitated. Look at how they examined the problem of insuring their business:
We also decided to insure the sugarhouse and its contents. Sugarhouses were littered places, fires in the evaporator were hot and many syrup and sugar makers suffered serious fire losses. We went to an insurance agent. Oh yes, he would insure our sugarhouse and contents for $500, but the risk was great and the premium was high. The policy would cost us annually $125.
We thanked the insurers and went our way. Each year we took $125 from the sugar-business surplus and put it aside. At the end of four years we had $500. With this money we built a second sugarhouse, installed a duplicate set of sugar tools and equipment so that in case the first sugarhouse burned during the sap season we could finish out the season in the second sugarhouse. Incidentally, if we had a big run of sap we operated both sugarhouses at the same time and were able to double our output in a single good sap day. (354-5)
They also turned a critical eye on the rural economy, and I don’t doubt their finding that it was highly individualistic and unable to do anything that might have required real community solidarity. Certain cooperative ventures might have been very useful to rural communities – they discussed starting a cooperative sawmill for processing all the valley’s lumber, but found others not willing to work on cooperative projects and watched the lumber all go to distant sawyers. There was not enough willpower or trust or ideological agreement for such ventures. This created general economic weakness and social dislocation:
Atomism, separatism and consequent isolation have increasingly played havoc with rural life in the United States as the household has decreased in size while the household has shed some of its most essential functions… The resulting absence of group spirit and neighborhood discipline, the chaos and confusion of perpetual movement to and from work, to and from school, to and from the shows and the dances, has destroyed the remnants of rural solidarity and left a shattered, purposeless, functionless, ineffective, unworkable community. (204)
It is interesting to contrast this perspective with Wendell Berry, who basically uses rural America in the 1940s – precisely the same time period – as his ideal. Of course the Nearings were adults then, and Berry just a child, which probably explains the variance in perspective.
There were other things the Nearings did which do raise questions about just how practical their wisdom really was. For example, they built in stone. They had plenty of the stuff and they liked the fact that stone buildings required little maintenance after construction. But they did not have the skill to build tall stone buildings, which meant that for size they needed to increase the footprint of their homes. It was said – and I believe it – by their neighbors that the reason the Nearings traveled so much in the winter is that they found their large stone home, with its vast modern spaces, impossible to keep warm. The old houses had tiny rooms, low ceilings, small windows, and many doors to control where warm air went. They also had second floors, where heat would remain even after it had fled the rest of the house. The Nearings had neither small rooms nor upper floors. Instead, as I have said, the Nearings had two sheds for wood storage, one of which was larger than my entire house. They were cutting and storing vast quantities of wood. They liked the aesthetics of fireplaces, but only the luxury of a very large woodlot and a fair amount of time to indulge in woodcutting can really justify not switching to stoves for wood heat. But you cannot easily make your own stove – it is a product of the industrial system, as opposed to a fireplace, which the Nearings were able to build for themselves. These are the kind of tradeoffs that go into such living: oftentimes energy efficiency can only be created by the superior workmanship of high civilization.
Similarly, while the Nearings speak often about the importance of community, it is clear that their work and their principles were more important than connections between people were. I like my country home because the long blank nights are great for long deep conversation and ancient hospitality. To me, that’s the point. Here is what the Nearings say about hospitality:
We went about our jobs as usual and let guests fend for themselves, or come and help, if they wished. We served no ice tea on the terrace while telling or listening to life histories. By some we were thought uncordial, but we did not aim to entertain. (197)
Again, there is something mechanical and onerous and inhuman about all this. And hence, I think, something unsustainable. I was speaking with a friend who used to go to the Nearings’ house in Maine for the weekly meetings held there, and she reported to me the “scandal” of Helen Nearing’s death, which is that she died in a car accident – while speeding in her fancy sports car. Whether this is true or not I do not know, but the story is eminently believable. Her husband had died some years before, and perhaps she felt a bit freer to indulge in the sorts of things her life with her husband had denied her. Whether she had a pack of Snickers ice creams bars in the trunk I don’t know either, but for sure we cannot keep up the tedious seriousness forever. The quest for the good life goes on, but we have to take our sense of humor and proportion with us on the journey.