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.

 

Introduction: Part 2 of 3ish (con’t)

Last week I discussed the people with whom I’ll be living with next year. This week, I’ll be describing the place itself. For those of you who are patiently waiting for me to finish introducing my plans for next year (which, quite honestly includes myself at this point), I’m hopeful that Part 3 will be a single post…  which means we are almost finished this series!

Russet House farm is named after the Russet apple tree that sits prominently in the middle of the garden. It’s been there for a very long time and is nearing the end of its life, though it still provides a few apples every year. The prior owners of the property were very interested in sustainability, and used their farm to model and to teach many different technologies. The house itself was originally built in the late 1800’s, though it has been renovated and added to throughout the years. It is completely off-grid, powered entirely by a photo-voltaic system and heated via a beautiful old wood stove situated in the old farm kitchen. A solar water-heating system is perched on the roof of the house and a small wind turbine stands majestically in the garden… though neither of them currently work (Brian and Sylvia are not convinced that the solar water system ever actually worked, and they have found almost all of the magnets from the wind turbine in the garden over the years, magnets which should, ideally, still be located in the turbine itself).

When Brian and Sylvia bought the land several years ago, they originally purchased it with a community of people, though not everybody necessarily lived there. Instead, it was used as a “meeting place” of sorts, with a beautiful little cob cottage being used for sabbaticals and as a writer’s cabin, and the land itself being used to host a number of different conferences. Through the years, all the other owners left for a variety of reasons, and Brian and Sylvia are now the sole owners of it. Much of the land is still forested, with trails winding through it and little hidden surprises awaiting those with eyes to see.

The farm is primarily a market garden, and Sylvia is dreaming of implementing permaculture methods in the near future. The garden is having a form of sabbath, as the farmers are taking a break to focus on the book that they are writing together. They are still working the land, just not as intensively, giving a much needed rest to both it and to themselves. They have a small herd of cattle (one cow and two steers when we visited, though they have possibly slaughtered one of the steers by now), a few ducks for eggs and a couple of horses for their daughters to ride.

The neighbourhood nearby has deep significance for my family, specifically on my father’s side of the family. Not too far away is the remnant of the cabin that my great-grandmother was raised in, and also the place that my grandmother grew up on. A few kilometers up the road from where I’ll be staying is a farm that my father spent many summers as a boy working on, a farm that my aunt and her family lived on not too many years ago. I remember spending a week or so there every summer for quite a while.

A short bike ride away (or run, or walk) is the Victoria Trail, a converted rail trail that conveniently (for me) goes directly into Lindsay, giving me a beautiful way to commute to school every day. Even better, it goes straight through the Ken Reid conservation area, an area I am really looking forward to exploring and getting to know. The land is near Sturgeon Lake, which is part of the Trent Severn waterway, which, hopefully, I’ll be canoeing on as soon as the ice is clear.

I could go on with more details, but I think that, for now, I have set the stage of where I’ll be staying well enough, while giving myself ample room to explore specifics and expand on many of these themes as I discover more about them. Next week, I will hopefully be sharing the end of the Introduction series.

Adam

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 1 of 3ish

First of all, I would like to thank those of you who read the first posting. I would like to especially thank those of you who sent me a personalized message. I’m not sure if anybody can comment on my post or not… I know I have severely restricted access to my Facebook account for a myriad of reasons, though I would like to have some way to create discussion about my upcoming experiment… I’m trying to figure out how to proceed on this front and so I will keep you all posted on what I decide.

I’m excited and encouraged that people are curious about what I’m up too. Hopefully, as the upcoming year progresses, each of you will continue to check back, following along as I try to better learn how to live well in my place. I hope we can learn from each other.

In my third year at Lakehead, I took a course called Ecological Literacy. What a fantastic name for a course. Through this course, I was introduced to the idea of Place, a concept that still excites me whenever I think about it. Rest assured, I will explain this concept in much further detail in a future post. Through disciplines such as tracking, bird watching and foraging, I began to see the world around me in ways I had not previously seen. I was also introduced to the work of Mr. Wendell Berry. I will also go much further into him in a later post, though for my purposes today, I will provide a quick sketch.

Mr. Berry is a writer. Fiction, poetry and essays are his mediums and his messages include love and fidelity, stewardship and work, conversation and thought, and the power of fellowship, among others. Mr. Berry is living in a community in Kentucky, along the Ohio River, in which he can trace his family for several generations. This looks like it may continue, as his children and grandchildren also currently live there. Mr. Berry, though foremost a writer, is also a farmer. And he writes about farming extensively. Through his work, I began to become interested in perhaps pursuing agriculture as a possible career.

Around that time, I had the option of volunteering with some friends at a local farm. After spending a day there removing some old fencing, I began to realize that perhaps, this was something that I was really interested in. I began to work in agricultural settings. I worked with a historical farm in 2010. The summers of 2011 and 2012 saw me working with a local urban vegetable garden. This past summer I worked at yet another local vegetable farm, in a full-time capacity. Each step of the way, I realized, more and more, that this was something that I enjoyed doing. I enjoyed the feel of the dirt on my hands and under my fingernails. I enjoyed the honestly analytical questions that were required of me to be asked. I enjoyed the humility required by weather and pests and everything else that was outside of my control.

And I knew it was time to stop looking at agriculture as a fun way to spend a summer, and to start looking at it as a life’s vocation…