A Pilgrimage to the Land of Bourbon, Bluegrass and Berry

A pilgrimage is, by definition, a religious thing. I don’t mean that it is limited to a specific religion, and indeed, it isn’t even limited to an easily identifiable or government-sanctioned religion. But it is, nevertheless, religious. A pilgrimage occurs when the pilgrim chooses to go somewhere for a purpose that transcends the merely worldly. It is not a vacation, it is not a business trip, its purpose is more than practical (though, by being more than practical, it has the potential to become the most practical thing that the pilgrim can do).

Some pilgrims travel the Camino De Santiago possibly on the back of a donkey. Some pilgrims travel to Mecca, to gather by the millions as a humble though inspiring act of piousness. Some travel, every twelve years, to bathe in an Indian river, with over 80 million others.

And some pilgrims, though admittedly few, drive a 20-year old Toyota Tercel to Louisville, Kentucky.

I began my pilgrimage on Friday, September 26, to attend a conference. The conference title was “Making a Home Fit for Humans: Localism Beyond Food” and the overriding, if completely assumed argument, was that it is vital, indeed it is beautiful, for each one of us to center our lives to live well in our place… which, for those long term readers (if I can be said to have any truly long-term readers), is a key concept that I am trying to understand, and more importantly, to live out.

I will hereby step fully into a tangent. It is ironic, I suppose, that in order for me to learn  about how to live locally, I was required to travel to Kentucky. I hereby admit my flagrant sin. However, unlike all the other sinners, I had a good reason to commit mine, which I will soon go into. And thus, through the goodly gift of cognitive dissonance, I am absolved.

Before I get to the conference however (in regards to the chronology of this post… I have in fact already gone to the conference), let me start with my accommodations. I could have stayed in a hotel, those giant boxes on the hillside, giant boxes made of ticky tacky, giant boxes on the hillside, giant boxes all the same. But since the theme was localism, and desiring to limit my peripheral sins as much as possible, I decided to couch surf.

Couch surfing, for those who don’t know, is where you contact an individual, or, in my case, a couple, and ask them to host you for a couple of nights. The accommodation is free, though it is usually polite to provide a gift of sorts, and, other than wondering whether you will be killed and eaten in the middle of the night, it’s usually an incredibly positive experience. For those of you who are concerned, I was not killed and eaten. In fact, my hosts, Chuck and Trang, were incredible. I met them at an ice cream parlour, and then, after meeting some of their friends and taking a free trolley ride (something which Louisville offers on the last Friday of every month), we returned to their apartment. They had a lovely blow up bed with sheets and pillows (such extravagance!) but more importantly, they had many samples of bourbon.

We started with the poor stuff. I don’t remember the name of it. But it was poor. It was perhaps a cross between bourbon and lighter fluid, with an emphasis on the lighter fluid. We moved up. Of course Jim Beam came into the equation. But even Jimmy is fairly poor by any actual standards. We ended with Angel’s Envy. When distilling bourbon, the mist that evaporates, the mist that makes the distillery smell heavenly, is known as the angel’s share. The angels (especially, I assume, the teenage angels) delight in this beautiful bouquet of 80 proof oaken glory. Angel’s Envy however, is the stuff the angel’s do not get. It is the stuff that a certain, highly-repentant sinner gets as he glimpses what quite possibly may be a little bit of heaven-on-earth, a glimpse of the promised land, kingdom come… and it is good.

The conference was the following day, Saturday the 28th for those of you who are checking my facts (I assure you, few facts were harmed in the writing of this post). It was a short walk from Chuck and Trang’s, which is good, since after a fourteen hour drive, I was not looking forward to sitting in a car. I entered the library at the University of Louisville, spoke with some folks milling in the foyer, then took my seat in the second row from the front, dead centre.

The first panel got up, speaking of how they themselves are attempting to live well in their place (another way of speaking is to dwell, I will go into this idea hopefully in the near future). They were all quite good, and I have several quotations which I copied down. I will likely share many of the thoughts in the future, and perhaps, if you are very lucky and I am feeling particularly honest, I will actually attribute them to the proper person, rather than passing the wisdom off as my own.

Near the end of the panel however, something changed. The speakers were still quite articulate and interesting, but I could tell that the room was now different. I saw people looking at the back of the room, grinning the grins of children who know that presents are about to be delivered.

I followed the gaze, knowing what I would see. Or rather, who I would see.

Mr. Wendell Berry had entered the room.

For those of you who know me, Mr. Berry has been one of the biggest influences on my life. His poetry, essays, novels, and way of life, have completely changed my life, challenged me, caused me to consider my vocation, my values, and my aspirations.

Berry and his wife Tanya (pronouced, in Berry’s drawl, Tonya) silently stepped into their seats.

A new panel got up, speaking on the topic of educating for place, which is a very interesting turn on the concept of place-based education, providing, perhaps, a purpose beyond education for the sake of manufacturing an employee. Again, there were some great concepts being addressed, concepts which I would love to share at a later point.

Lunch was next, a local caterer providing local sandwiches made of local ingredients and with a side of Pepsi and Lays potato chips (purchased, presumably, from a local supplier).

After lunch, was Berry’s turn to speak. I will go over it soon, I promise, but I wanted to quickly give an overview of the rest of the day.

After Berry spoke, a third panel came up, addressing the Politics of Place, followed shortly by two authors who were about to be published and who were sharing excerpts from their books. Again, there was much wisdom and much laughter. And again, I will likely share the ideas later on… but I really want to get back to Mr. Berry.

It was an interview, with Jason Peters asking the questions and Berry answering.

There have been few times in my life where I have sat in a room, with a couple hundred other people, waiting with baited breath for somebody to speak. Peters joked at one point that it was difficult to interview Berry because of his penchant for pausing. Indeed, it was often the case that there was an incredibly powerful silence on stage, right before Berry would respond, or rather, continue to respond. In a day and age where silence has become persona non grata, where those with nothing to say unable to stop saying it, it was beautiful to see somebody use pause so effectively. To see somebody actually consider before responding.

The interview lasted for an hour. There was wisdom enough in it to last a lifetime.

I will likely share other key learnings that Mr. Berry shared over that hour, but I wanted to focus here on one thing. Peters asked Berry to address the crowd, specifically the young college kids that were in attendance. What grandfatherly advice would he give them?

Berry responded with a couple of statements, then suddenly, his eyes lit up and he turned and addressed the crowd. (A paraphrase from my hastily jotted notes follows).

“Don’t worry about understanding. The great things of life cannot be understood; they must be lived.”

He went on to share his non-understanding of the Christian scriptures, specifically Psalm 23’s opening line, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” He shared how he didn’t understand that, how, since those words were first penned many years ago, many peoples had starved while knowing that those words were true. But they were a great truth, and as all great truths, they must be lived out, and only then will there be a possibility of understanding. Even then, understanding may escape us continually.

The drive home the following day was long. Made longer perhaps by my ample coffee consumption en route.

But its length was its gift.

As I sat in the car, a bottle of Angel’s Envy in the trunk, I had ample time to consider how to dwell in my place.

How can you live well in your place?

One way, perhaps, is by not worrying about understanding how to do it, but by living it anyways.

University of Louisville

It should be noted here that Louisville is better pronounced “Loo-el-ville,”
though the”Loo” and the “el” are somewhat run together.

The Thinker

I feel more cultured having seen an original famous statue.
Admittedly, it is only one of several made by Rodin, but it’s still nice.

Flier

Making a Home Fit for Humans. A worthy goal.

Wendell Berry

Me standing in line like a little goofy fanboy.Mr. Berry's Autograph

 Yes. I got his autograph.

I’m going to write a post on something he said in regards to this book
(this book being, quite possibly, one of the greatest novels ever written).

Bacon Doughnut

Completely unrelated to anything about the conference…
but this little bakery put a piece of bacon on a maple doughnut.

I’m not sure why Canada has not figured this out.

Moving Outhouses…

Near my tent, there are three outhouses. Being a single individual, I decided early on that I would only worry about keeping one stocked with necessities (bucket, toilet paper, sawdust, farmer’s almanac). I chose the one the faced East in order to catch the early morning rays.

Last week was my last week of class for the semester. As a celebration, I invited the students and faculty of the program out for a bonfire and potluck. It was a beautiful evening by the way. Since I was hosting so many people (at least compared to the camps’s usual population of one), I decided to open up another outhouse and stock it with a bucket, toilet paper and sawdust (I decided against purchasing another farmer’s almanac). This outhouse faces South. It doesn’t get the early morning rays, but it does get light throughout the day. It is nice to change views every now and again.

A few days ago, I needed to use the facilities later on in the evening. When I opened the door of the first outhouse and entered, there was sudden frenetic activity above me. I fled the outhouse followed closely by a robin. Apparently few beings, whether humans or birds, enjoy sharing an outhouse, at least a single seater outhouse.

The following day. I decided to check out the outhouse in the day and sure enough, in the rafters, there was a small robin’s nest. A robin’s nest? In an outhouse? This is no place for a nest I thought. After all, I am a human being. I certainly should receive preference over a bird for my use of the outhouse. So I picked the nest up, ensuring that there were no eggs in it, and flung it out the doorway.

I used the outhouse then. I was convinced that I, in my human righteousness, had been right in my indignation. As I sat there however, I began to think. Thinking is usually a side effect of using an outhouse.

I have three outhouses. I don’t really need three. I don’t really need two. One would certainly suffice.

A robin doesn’t use their nest for long either. Though I don’t know how long a robin sits on her nest, I know that certainly, it will not be long before she and her fledglings have left it.

I do enjoy the robins. They are a very welcome sight in the springtime, especially after this long winter.

By the end of the session, I realized how unfairly I had treated the robin.

I reached down, gently handled the nest, and returned it to it’s perch, hoping that Sister Robin would forgive me for my insolence and not mind it being somewhat more tussled than she had left it…

Last night, I peeked in the building and looked up at the nest. Sure enough, there was Mother sitting vigilantly in her home. I decided to start using the South facing outhouse only.

It’s nice to have neighbours.

 

WB: Men Untrained to Comfort

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This post goes out to my anonymous benefactor who surprised me with two camping plates, two bowls and two mugs. I’m not sure who gave them but I am incredibly thankful for them! Thank you!

————

From Leavings, 2010.

Men Untrained to Comfort

Jason Needly found his father, old Ab, at work
at the age of eighty in the topmost
tier of the barn. “Come down!” Jason called.
“You got no business up there at your age.”
And his father descended, not by a ladder,
there being none, but by inserting his fingers
into the cracks between boards and climbing
down the wall.

And when he was young
and some account and strong and knew
nothing of weariness, old man Milt Wright,
back in the days they called him “Steady,”
carried the rastus plow on his shoulder
up the high hill to his tobacco patch, so
when they got there his mule would be fresh,
unsweated, and ready to go.

Early Rowanberry,
for another, brought a steel-beam breaking plow
at the store in Port William and shouldered it
before the hardly-believing watchers, and carried it
the mile and a half home, down through the woods
along Sand Ripple.

“But the tiredest my daddy
ever got,” his son, Art, told me one day,
“was when he carried fifty rabbits and a big possum
in a sack on his back up onto the point yonder
and out the ridge to town to sell them at the store.”

“But why,” I asked, “didn’t he hitch a team
to the wagon and haul them up there by the road?”

“Well,” Art said, “we didn’t have but two
horses in them days, and we spared them
every way we could. A many a time I’ve seen
my daddy or grandpa jump off the wagon or sled
and take the end of a single tree beside a horse.”

– Wendell Berry

The Build

This weekend has been absolutely crazy. I’ve barely been able to process it myself, let alone put it into a form which would make sense here. Still, I managed to take some shots of the tent building process that happened on Saturday. It was incredible. This post is dedicated to Adar, Caitlin, Tim, Mike, Dave, Sylvia and my parents, who made this build happen. THANK YOU SO MUCH!! I will post more about the build soon… but school starts tomorrow and I’ve been going non-stop since Thursday.

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Shadow is the Russet House Farm Dog. In the summer, he herds cattle. In the winter time, mostly cats.

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We carried a load of pallets down a one kilometre laneway that was completely covered in snow. It was absolutely ridiculous. The fact that I had got quality help is evident from the fact that there wasn’t an open rebellion against me. There should have been. It was bad.

This picture also shows a bit of the site before any work was done.

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After we all had miniature heart attacks from carrying the first load, Sylvia and her 65 Massey Ferguson came to the rescue. She cleared not just the laneway, but also the very site where we were going to build, saving us about a week’s worth of manual labour.

Without this tractor and snowblower, there is no way we could have completed the build.

We drove the rest of the supplies down with my dad’s truck once the laneway was cleared.

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Mike and Tim are laying out the patio stones which were meant to act as support stones in the four corners of the tent. Mike (a landscaper and contractor) and Tim (a high school tech teacher and contractor) felt the stones would work better to balance out the floor. I was easily persuaded to listen to them.

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This is a good shot of the beginning of the pallet sub-floor.

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This picture is in the kitchen of Sylvia and Brian’s house. My parents showed up with chili my mom had made up the night before. We very much needed this lunch.

My mom rocks.

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Caitlin, Dave and Tim screwing in the plywood. Technically it isn’t plywood. I say plywood because it’s easier to say than OSB panels. OSB is cheaper and, for my purposes, pretty functionally equivalent.

Notice the one blue board. Dave named him Harvey.

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My dad helping to pull the tent down over the frame. In this shot, he’s inside the tent.

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Dave hammering in a t-stake that we’ll later tie the tent to in order to prevent it from blowing away. Despite the frozen ground, the fence post driver which he’s using (basically a big, heavy, metal tube) made really quick work of it.

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Caitlin, Adar, Dave and Tim, happy that the job is finished before the sun goes down.

Introduction: Part 2 of 3ish (con’t)

Due to time constraints, this post was originally written on Monday, October 28. Because of my discipline to review and edit posts a couple of times before publicly posting them, as well as a surprise visit from an old friend, I was delayed a bit in publishing it.

Starting in the beginning of 2014, or more accurately the end of 2013, I’ll be living at Russet House Farm, near Cameron, Ontario, while I attend school.
Russet House Farm is owned by two wonderful people, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, who are, in no particular order, academics, theologians, authors and farmers.

When I was looking for a place to live in the greater Lindsay area, I was struggling a bit because of the specific conditions which I required (which hopefully I’ll be able to reveal in a couple of weeks). It is very difficult to randomly e-mail strangers and ask to stay on their land. Or rather, it is very easy to actually e-mail them… the difficult part is the convincing.

When I was bemoaning my struggles to my sister, she mentioned that perhaps, she may know of a couple who would be up for being convinced. She had been to their farm for a book release party, and had been amazed by what she saw there. More importantly, they were counter cultural enough (in the best possible way) to possibly consider my proposition…

And so, my e-mail began: “I’m not really sure how to begin this e-mail as this is probably the most random e-mail that I’ve ever written in my life. Most likely it is also the most random e-mail that you’ve ever received. If it is not, please let me know, so that I can try harder next time.”

Sadly, in the reply I received a couple of days later, I was told that my e-mail may not, in fact, have been the most random e-mail that they had ever received. They were, however, interested in meeting to discuss the possibility of me living there.

Back in August of this year, as I was visiting my family in Uxbridge, I made a trip to Cameron in order to meet with them, bringing my girlfriend, Adar along for moral support and also to show them my better half. The next four hours were amazing. We joked with them, discussed shared acquaintances, shared our stories, ate chips and homemade salsa, marveled at the works of Wendell Berry, toured the property and were amazed by the grace and hospitality that the two of them exuded. We also discussed my request in greater detail, what was required of them, what I could offer as a form of payment, and so forth. When I left, though the final decision had not yet been made, I knew I had been genuinely blessed to meet such an incredible couple.

We exchanged references a little later, they checked out mine while I contacted a couple of their previous interns (who both gave me rave reviews), and, around the middle of September, they offered me a place to stay. I would be given the opportunity to live very closely with this amazing family!

Next week, I will go into a few more details on the actual farm itself… and why it will be a great home base for me to continue my experiment with learning to live well in my place.

Adam

Introduction: Part 2 of 3ish

I’m a firm believer that one of the largest problems facing modern agriculture is the recent loss of the rural culture that was so prevalent for much of human experience. Of late, there has been massive urbanization throughout the world, with the result being a chronic shortage of people left in rural areas. There are a myriad of reasons for this, which I won’t go into today, but the shortage of people in rural areas, coupled with the growth of the consumer culture has largely devastated most rural  communities.

I’m really cognizant of the fact that I am heading into rant territory, but please bear with me. I promise I will not actually rant, but will only skirt the line momentarily.

I believe community is important for all people in all places and at all times. I believe it truly allows us to be fully human, in fact it is required in order for us to truly experience all of human existence. I believe however that it is especially important in rural areas.

Recently, I was driving across Ontario and was blessed to see a group of (I believe) Old-Order Mennonites doing hay. They had two teams of horses pulling the wagons and at least six people loading the hay onto the wagons. I compare this to how most modern farmers do hay, which involves a lot fewer people and a lot more tractor, and the difference is startling. Though I do not believe the Old-Order Mennonites are perfect, I do admire the importance they place on building community, especially through the discipline of work. I would also suggest that a lot of how they farm is incredibly sustainable, and has proven so over a long period of time. I believe there is more than just a coincidence there.

When I first thought of moving to Lindsay, I wanted to take part in building community, in a number of ways. I’ll discuss more of these ways in future posts. One way though that I wanted to build community was to find people I could live with. People who I could learn from, both within agriculture and also in other ways. Our homes are the building blocks of community. From there, from the everyday working out of daily lives, community begins.

While I will relate more details next week, I am happy to say that I have met an incredible family who have agreed to let me stay with them… a family from whom I will learn a LOT from! Let me say that I am so incredibly stoked to be able to get to know them next year.

And no. They are not Old-Order Mennonites.