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.

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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.

 

Hiatus

I would like to apologize and explain my recent hiatus from this blog.

A couple of weeks ago, I was house- and horse-sitting at Garry Lean’s house. Between working on my classes and working with the horses, I simply was not able to spend any time on the blog. That weekend, I was also house- and farm-sitting at Russet House, leaving me little time to do anything between all the chores that needed to be done.

This past week has been a barrage of school assignments. I’m actually getting somewhat ahead, in preparation for Adar’s visit for the next ten days. Luckily, I now have every assignment that needs to be done during her visit finished, which will allow me to relax a little bit.

So, some of the highlights over the past couple of weeks…

1) I drove tractors! I ploughed the laneway at Russet House farm while Brian and Sylvia were away, and also drove them at Baxter Farms, run by Glenn Baxter who is the local tractor mechanic around here. I know this is a simple thing, but it was really a big accomplishment for me to begin my tractor learning.

2) I’m writing a crop plan. We are taking Market Gardening and Greenhouse Operations with Mark Trealot and the primary assignment in this course is to create a crop plan, which is the key piece of planning that every vegetable farmer goes through every year. It’s a lot of work, but saves a tonne of stress during the actual planting year. It’s nice to be able to look on a sheet of paper in mid-July and have it written out what you need to do, when your mind and body are already exhausted from all the stress of farming.

3) I’m learning about seed genetics. This is a really confusing subject for a number of reasons. First, there is a lot of biology involved which was never my strong suit to begin with. Secondly (and much worse), there is a LOT of misinformation out there. Seed genetics are closely tied to a lot of controversial topics in farming (GMOs, hybrids, etc.) and both sides of the controversy are very guilty of not giving honest information, which makes it very difficult to wade through it to determine how I feel about it all. I went to a Seed Saving course a couple of weekends ago which helped a lot, though admittedly it was talking to one of my instructors, Sue Chan, who was helping organize the event, who really made a difference. She’s AMAZING at explaining tougher topics.

4) It’s getting warmer! The tarp over my tent is a dark green on the side facing up, and with the changing sun, it is really heating up the tent. In fact, when I come home after school, my water, which will typically freeze solid overnight, is usually melted. I’m not sure how warm it gets during the day inside… but it is definitely above 0° C. Beautiful! I’ll have to turn the tarp over in the heat of the summer so the white side is up, but for now, this is perfect.

That’s all for now… I’ll have another post hopefully coming out tomorrow and then one on Wednesday…

Sincerely,

Adam

A Glorious Learning Opportunity #2

I am tempted, by my own desire to appear impressive, to focus only on the good parts of tent living. Of eating a glorious steak that I once knew when it was still only a bull calf while sitting around a crackling stove listening to an  owl hooting outside.

The reality is that the positive moments have occurred and they far outnumber the negatives. The problem is that the negative moments can be pretty big. When one is living in the tent, something that, in a house would be a mild annoyance at best, can actually be quite destructive and even potentially deadly.

I will now relate one such story… though I should start by saying that you shouldn’t worry too much… I didn’t actually die in it.

As you will know (since I am sure you have poured over every one of my entries and marveled at my photographs), I finished building the tent last Saturday. You will also remember that we guyed out the tent with t-posts.

Guying out the tent is crucial. The tent is a gigantic piece of canvas, which could, in certain situations, be easily confused for a sail. The guying out process helps to ensure that the tent stays in place (more or less), which is, at least from my limited perspective, preferable to letting it cartwheel across frozen fields in the middle of a January night. The thing is, that t-stakes are fairly expensive, almost $10 each, and, I am in the mind to save money as much as possible. My original plan had eight t-stakes, one in each corner, and one in the middle of each side. When looking at my site, I realized that I had a beautifully thick forest on both my Northern and Western sides, which would act as a great windbreak for the most powerful and coldest blasts of winter air. With this in mind, I decided forego extraneous stakes and only put one in each corner, believing that that would be sufficient.

On Sunday, Adar and I returned to the tent and I lay a heavy tarpaulin over the tent, once again tying it only to the four t-stakes. The tarpaulin, it should be noted, can also, in certain situations, be easily confused for a sail.

On Tuesday afternoon, my first day actually living in the tent, the wind was furiously buffeting the South-Western side of my tent, eagerly finding the gap between the tent and the tarpaulin, causing the tarpaulin to rise and fall, crackling with each gust. I should really have been paying more attention. I began to unpack my things, beginning the long process of organizing a tent and making it generally livable. The wind continued to hit. The tarpaulin was flapping more than I would have liked it to. I really should have been paying more attention.

When wind blows against a house, it is easy to push it out of mind. You may hear a rattling burst of it as it hits the windows or finds a crack underneath a particular draughty door. Perhaps, as you open the front door, the wind will rip it from your hand swinging it wider than you feel comfortable and testing the hinges in a way they were never meant to be tested. Or perhaps it will slam said door behind you, hitting you forcefully on the backside or slamming closed in a perfect mimic of a preteen tantrum.

When wind blows against a tent, you know it is happening. You hear the snap of the tarpaulin against the canvas above you, you feel the canvas walls shaking, perhaps you even see a little puff of smoke shoot out of the air intake on the front of your stove as the flue backdrafts. And you can tell when a particular gust is just a little bit more powerful than the ones before. But, perhaps, you have never really lived in a tent that, let the reader remember, can,  in certain situations, be easily confused for a sail. Perhaps you are used to living in a house, in which a wind storm the likes of this will, at most, make you reconsider going to the mailbox. So you do as you have learned to do and you push it out of mind. I really should have been paying more attention.

When the wind hits, especially a magnificent burst that whole-heartedly outpowers every gust that you have, as of yet, experienced, when it hits after all the previous gusts have caused the tarpaulin to strain the t-posts that they are attached to, gusts that, individually are too weak to loose the post, but collectively can cause enough structural weakness in the soil around the t-post… you can see it. You can see that suddenly, the roof above you is letting in more light than you are used to. You see, not clearly but through the canvas, that it appears, as if, in the North-East corner of the tent, there may not actually be a tarpaulin there anymore. You see this enough to be confused by the sudden change in your environment. But you do not see it enough, at least in the time that you were given to see it, the time that lasts perhaps the half second that a burst of wind takes to blow, to understand what this means.

You do not see the t-stake, still attached to the tarp but now free of its earthly confines, as it launches itself heavenward in a fit of ecstatic passion, thinking perhaps, at least as much as t-stakes are able to think, that perhaps this is what an angel feels like. You do not see the t-stake reaching the maximum height of its trajectory, soaring beautifully through the air, before succumbing to the omnipresent force of gravity coupled with the its still attached earthly tethers and plummeting down from its celestial voyage like a wrought-iron Icarus.

Now picture the final battle of Moby Dick, as Ahab harpoons the great white whale. But picture it from the perspective of  Jonah, who admittedly was not in that particular whale but who, in my retelling of it, was. Unlike Jonah however, you are not repenting of your disobedience to God. You are doing the much more mundane task of organizing your underwear drawer while wondering why exactly it is so suddenly bright in the North-East corner.

And then the harpoon comes through the roof.

There are a lot of things that go through the mind when something completely unexpected happens. It’s always amusing, in hindsight at least, to review the mind attempting to come to grips. Why is there a hole in my roof? Why is there a long piece of metal coming through my roof? Why is the t-stake no longer where we had both seemingly agreed that it should be?

There is the sudden realization that the tarp is now flapping wildly in the breeze, perhaps getting dangerously close to the scalding hot stove pipe.

And then there is the realization that, had I not been organizing my underwear drawer, but instead, had I been organizing my pantry in the North-East corner of the tent, the story of my year in a tent would have had an unexpected twist that not even Shyamalan could have predicted.

After cussing in a way that would perhaps have made Jonah’s sailor friends blush, I ran out, armed with a roll of sisal twine that I had purchased the day before and tied down the flapping Southern edge of the tarpaulin to the grommets in the tent side. I ran up to the barn at Russet House, grabbing the t-post driver and ran back to the tent, hammering the errant t-post back into its home.

The wreckage is fairly big. Three holes are in the tent. Two of them are minor, but the third is over a foot long from tip to tail. Other than a perfect circle where it had melted after connecting with the stove pipe, the tarpaulin was unharmed and covers the holes enough that, temporarily at least, they have not given me too much grief. I will sew them up soon.

The following day, I purchased four more t-posts, hammering them in thoroughly and connecting them with twine to keep the tarpaulin as taut as possible, hopefully preventing future gusts of wind from effectively weakening any one post enough to repeat this episode.

That evening, the evening where I almost met my untimely demise in a way that would have made Meliville proud, I cooked a glorious steak that I once knew when it was still only a bull calf, sat down around a crackling stove and listened to an owl hooting outside.

Living in a tent is a beautiful experience. But, like anything new, there is a lot to learn and many trials to overcome. Like my instructor Gavin Dandy of Everdale said in his first class though, you learn five times more from a mistake than from a success.

Here’s to a year of learning.

Sincerely,

Adam