Or does it?
Recently, while searching for information about raising pigs, I discovered a British term that I really appreciate. Admittedly, I get a bit romantic about the Continent, the Isles included, and, even though I’ve never visited (except on Google Earth) and have no real knowledge on which to base such an opinion, I just sort of assume everything is more idyllic there. Pastoral images of English cottage gardens, Italian vineyards, and rural French countryside definitely resonate with me. A subtle formality can be found in the European rustic form that I feel is missing in most American landscapes. It makes me think ‘that’s the way things ought to look.’ So I’m not at all surprised by my reaction to the term smallholding.
Loosely defined, a smallholding is a small, single family farm designed to provide for and sustain its inhabitants, which is exactly what we are looking to accomplish with our new property. Not agriculture, per se, just us husbanding our little corner of the earth and maybe taking a few links out of our food chain. A process more so than a product, perhaps, but hopefully one that also generates some tangible benefits for the effort.
In keeping with the fine tradition of our good friend Thoreau, I feel inclined to document the entire enterprise, and since this be the medium of our times it seems as good a place as any to do so. Expect to see many more discussions, plans, solicitations of assistance, pictures, updates, trials and errors of this nature in posts to come. Sanctimonious non sequitur will continue to be a mainstay, alongside a running narrative on our smallholding activity.
Obviously, it is quite unlikely that we will ever see any real return on our investment, other than those abstruse benefits reaped from living a pastoral existence. Not even considering capital assets such as land, tractor and existent infrastructure, I doubt the operation could ever break even. But since the validity of that skepticism is something I am interested in substantiating, I will maintain a financial record using Google Docs and will share an other-than-quarterly report from time to time. Seeing as they are our only live stock at the moment, I’m split over whether I ought to include expenses related to the dogs. I tend to think not, though I may throw them in just because.
So far, the only cost has been $13.01 in diesel fuel. Bertha and I spent a day getting reacquainted while we peeled six inches of composted straw and manure from the area where the dog yard is going to be. Bertha has two left feet when I’m at the controls and she nearly foundered herself once when I led her into a particularly greasy patch of gumbo. She was definitely a little overaggressive moving the burn barrel, which she squashed beneath her bucket like an elephant might flatten a cockroach with its trunk. In the end, however, the trapezoid of ground laid out as the dog yard was scraped mostly clean and heaps of rotted straw and manure covered a majority of the proposed garden plot.
I’m not sure what to do about the garden. It needs to be plowed or tilled or all of the above. As with most of my opinions on the matter, I’m inclined toward an animal powered solution, especially since the area in question isn’t really big enough to warrant the acquisition of tractor implements. Currently, I am partial to the idea of getting a couple of pigs next spring and just letting them root up the place. It would mean we’d be forced to wait a season before we could plant, but on the other hand we’d have our own pork and we wouldn’t have to buy a plow or tiller. I haven’t a clue really but I’m banking on the assumption that pigs would break things down to a point that they would be hand-tillable afterwards, which may or may not be the case.
In that same vein, I’m divided as to whether a permanent chicken coop or an ark is a better bet. I’d rather avoid store-bought feed; the most organic, fundamental solution is what I’m after. And I don’t mean ad campaign organic either. I’m referring to the unadulterated interpretation of the word: of developing in a manner analogous to the natural growth and evolution characteristic of living organisms; arising as a natural outgrowth. Basically I’d like to see all the farm animals on the Summerdale smallholding subsisted strictly from the fodder at hand, and even though I realize that is highly unrealistic, I still think it a worthwhile goal.
As well, there is the question of weed control. We have a proliferation of thistle in our little pasture out front and the corral around the barn is thick with some kind of insidious invader. I immediately thought of sheep or goats, but research and nagging fear of the inevitable Siberian on sheep encounter makes me wary. In the end we’ll probably get some anyway, if not for any useful purpose then just for the fun of having them around, for a little while at least.
|Blue and Kona|
Our other objective with the kennel was to acquire a command leader from a proven bloodline that could guide our green dogs and get us started toward building a real sled team. In particular, I was interested in Anadyr dogs, as I had helped handle the purebred Siberian team of J.P. Norris at the Tok Race of Champions and I knew the quality of his line. After months of detective work, Brandi sleuthed out a sled dog operation in Pray, Montana, called Absaroka Dogsled Treks who, as luck would have it, had a command leader and an Anadyr brood bitch they were willing to offer us. Our plan is to travel east early next month to check out these dogs and hopefully acquire what would be an exceptional foundation to our kennel.
|aerial view with planned improvements|
Before we can do that, however, there is the little matter of fencing the dog yard. I called Ken at Bitterroot Fence and made tentative arrangements for his crew to set posts some time early next week, but with four inches of fresh snow and the truck thermometer reading 6 degrees when I left the house this morning I would not be surprised to hear that they were running somewhat behind schedule. Ah, the glory that is winter in Montana!
Now pull back
For some reason, I want to believe that I once heard it said that before the Japanese plant a tree, they carefully consider how its placement will affect the landscape over the course of the next one hundred years. Now this precept may be true, or it could just as easily be something I made up, a product of the same romantic Western notions of Oriental wisdom as Sobe and the Karate Kid. I’m not really sure. What I am sure of is just how much better the world would be given even a fraction of that foresight.
Towering cottonwoods crisscross the Bitterroot between Corvallis and Hamilton in neatly ordered rows. Valley lore maintains that famed Gilded Age industrialist Marcus Daly lined the avenues with these trees so that his carriage would travel in shade everywhere it went. The fact that the Anaconda Copper King passed long before the trees realized their full potential lends credence to more philanthropic motivations than that, but even if the original impetus for their planting was less than altruistic I believe that whoever put them there would be pretty disappointed by our failure to safeguard their legacy.
The trees are all dying. Whole lanes are being stripped as the giant cottonwoods become nothing more than hazards. The avenues, once so elegantly defined, a touch of cultivated formality and order in an otherwise uncivilized landscape, are being denuded. The sentinels, grown old and weary, are falling down. No juveniles stand ready to replace them. Generations have passed yet no generation rises beneath them. In the one hundred years since they were planted, no one has given them much more than cursory consideration.
I find this lack of forethought, this failure to account for the future, this inability to consider the whole rather than the part or the moment, this disavowal of any sort of planned progression indicative of America. Such manner pervades our culture, our economy, our manner and our mode. We are reactive, not proactive. We do not build upon the foundations of the past. We do not invest capital in the future. Ours is a society disposable. This is our zeitgeist.
We have been working on acquiring a foreclosed property from Fannie Mae. Unoccupied for only a short period, it is already quite literally falling to pieces. Owing to a broken hanger, a gutter that listed only slightly on our first visit has since collapsed completely. To the megalithic lien holder the value of this real estate is defined by a set of numbers on a balance sheet. For us, the home has a worth that is a bit more intrinsic.
If not simply to further our own interests, out of respect for Marcus Daly we should have preserved his legacy. We should have accounted for the inevitable demise of one generation and secured the naissance of the next. We should have planted young trees between the mature ones, so that through succession the prescience of Marcus Daly would endure, alive in perpetuity, shading future lanes and carriages for years to come.
On a bench above Corvallis, along the course of Summerdale Lane, there are planted ordered rows of cottonwood trees. How long they will remain is anyone’s guess, but let it be known that, should the Williamsons take up residence upon this path, their numbers shall surely increase.
Leave it better than you found it.
A friend noted the other day that it has been awhile since I’ve put pen to paper, so to speak. Of course, I fully realized this myself and had, on several occasions, attempted to identify a topic about which I was sufficiently passionate enough to write. The little one keeping you too busy, my friend asked. Or is it the Man and his job? Neither actually. I just haven’t come up with anything worth writing about.
Keegan is doing well. A good natured fellow, he takes it pretty easy on us. He hasn’t shown much interest in self-propulsion as of yet and spends most of his free time sitting upright investigating how useful hands can be. He was first in his age group at Stevensville’s Creamery Days Milk Run and has mastered a raucous belly laugh. His presence infuses my routine with a constant yet pleasant bustle, but I wouldn’t say he demands any undue amount of attention.
Work has been infinitely less of imposition. Weather nationwide has conspired to produce what could arguably be the quietest fire season on record, counterpoint to the Great Fire of 1910 centennial. A rogue thunderstorm did kick off a flurry of activity in the Bitterroot recently, including a fire on the hillside above Hamilton, which gave me an excuse to spend a couple days in the hometown helping out at the dispatch center there. But beyond that and a few other minor examples, fire season has been a snore. So I can’t attribute the long recess to my gainful employment either.
And it isn’t that I haven’t had plenty of time to ponder relevant themes. The lengthy drive into work allows me ample opportunity to pine for an alternative to our current transportation scheme, namely an investment by the United States in high speed rail. Scant produce from our garden reinforces the knowledge that we need to focus time and energy on increasing our personal yield. The pile of disposable diapers stacked neatly on the shelves of Keegan’s changing table constantly reminds me of just how “high-impact” our prototypical American lifestyle truly is.
Recreationally, the focus this summer has been on preparing Brandi for the marathon she is running this September in Salmon, Idaho. Saturday is our day off together, and typically consists of Keegan and me crewing for Mom on her long run, plying her with Brawndo and swapping out huskies when they reach their thermal thresholds. We missed the heart of the huckleberry harvest. The only thing on our plate has been finding and buying a house.
About this, I could probably speak volumes, but they would be more economic in nature than ecologic, though I don’t really believe you can separate the two. The process gave me a chance to get out and really examine the human imprint upon the Valley, a sensory roller coaster operating between the limits of “now that’s a nice spread” and “what an absolute waste.” I looked for irrigated acres, fenced pastures, and outbuildings; Brandi kept me honest and ensured our house would be inhabitable. We sought to split the distance between Hamilton and Missoula, concentrating our search between Florence on the north end and Victor on the south.
What we achieved is a beautiful synergy, if you forgive us our abject failure in shortening my daily commute. The property, on which we hope to close next month, lies east of Corvallis, close enough to our dear friends the Pintoks’ place to elicit the comment “guess I better finish siding that eyesore” from Jake. A modest house on two and a half acres, it has mature trees and a barn for the tractor. Gravity fed irrigation from the Big Ditch. A healthy crop of Canadian Thistle. All in all, this American’s Dream.
Before the dream can become a payment, however, we must first negotiate mounds of paperwork, rounds of inspections, and a significant outlay of cash. Signing the buy-sell agreement last night took the better part of an hour, and when I reached the end and affirmed that I had “read and understood” it with one final signature, I just had to laugh. Like a co-worker advised, trying to make sense of it all would be a frustrating exercise in futility. Just keep signing until they hand you the keys.
I was fortunate enough to get out of the office the other day and accompany my boss on a field trip. Much as the land administered by the US Forest Service is broken into National Forests and Ranger Districts, state and private ground overseen by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is organized into Land Offices and Units. Southwestern Land Office, for whom I now work, is headquartered in Missoula, Montana and consists of Hamilton, Clearwater, Anaconda, and Missoula Units. Since I had come on board in May, Mike and I had already made visits to the other three. Anaconda Unit was last on our list.
At Drummond we turned south off I-90 onto MT Highway 1, otherwise known as the Anaconda-Pintler Scenic Route, and passed quickly through a section of pastoral looking ranchlands before beginning the climb to Philipsburg. Around a bend in the road, we happened upon an SUV parked haphazardly along the guardrail. Heads and cameras protruded from its open windows, focused on the highway ahead.
“Little black bear,” Mike said.
As we closed the gap, I too caught sight of the bruin’s shuffling form. It was a young male, probably three years old and just now finding his way on his own. He darted one direction and then another, uncertain as to which was the safer path.
We continued past the parked SUV, closing to within twenty yards before the bear vaulted the guard rail and rumbled down the slope, effectively spoiling the tourists’ photo op. I turned to Mike and gave him as much grief as one can safely give their boss before settling back to appreciate the fact that I live in a place where such titillating sights are a regular occurrence.
By contrast, the appearance of wildlife during my daily commute has a much more somber tone. Instead of a thrill, it is rather a constant reminder of the price the local fauna pays for our 60 mile per hour lifestyle. My count so far is 3 foxes, 2 raccoons, one magpie, numerous house cats and ground squirrels, an elk, and countless deer. That in only six weeks of driving 47 miles each way. I fully accept that it is only a matter of time before I add my contribution to those statistics, but so far I’ve been lucky.
Passing through 88 feet each second, I wonder how many of my fellow commuters even notice these unfortunate figures. Are they as affected as I am by this wanton bloodshed? The skunks must certainly arouse some attention but what about the rest? I can only assume that since these motorists live in Montana they have an appreciation for wildlife, but such constant carnage makes me skeptical. Too many of us are obviously unwilling or unable to make the sacrifices necessary to bring down the body count. What, I wonder, will it take before we realize the value of protecting the quadrapedestrian’s right to cross the road?
Sitting in my car, watching the gas needle plummet and the corpses pile up, this predicament becomes a source of gnawing frustration. How did we come to this, I ask?
Without much planning, is the answer that comes to mind. And in way too big a hurry.
I am sure, as the miles rack up and I surrender more irretrievable minutes of my life to this enterprise, I will too often return to this theme. Our current model for living is seriously flawed. It places value on things that have none and cheapens that which is most precious on Earth. All creatures, great and small.
My mind wandered a mere moment, but that was all it took. I saw a flash of color in the headlights and exclaimed “oh, damn it!” in the instant before the little scurrying creature disappeared beneath the Honda’s tires with an ugly thump.
“What?!” cried Brandi.
Her voice was tinged with panic, more than I expected. A bit further down the road she revealed that for some reason she’d conjured up the thought that I’d hit a person. I hadn’t, but as bad as I felt, I might as well have.
“Skunk,” I replied.
During my hour long commute yesterday I saw a sticker on the bumper of a jet black Toyota pickup. The massive globe and anchor decal on its canopy rear window had caught my attention from several hundred yards out, and from this information I already had a made a host of prejudiced assumptions about the driver, all the more so given my recent viewing of the film Jarhead. Still, the bumper sticker astounded me, even despite my lay understanding of Leatherneck mentality, in large part due to the fact that my mind had at that very moment been contemplating exactly the sentiment it disparaged.
“In the face of terror and murder, the call for peace is not patriotic, it’s cowardice.”
Now I never intended this blog to be a forum for this sort of discussion and I don’t plan to let it become one. But since it is Independence Day weekend and I’m still thinking about the subject, I thought I’d indulge myself.
I realize there are few true followers of Christ left in the world, so I understand that the argument that a braver man offers his other cheek falls on deaf ears here. And, really, that isn’t what amazes me about this bumper sticker. No, what truly dumbfounds me is how antithetical its premise is to the notion of America.
First, I have to say that, as a real American, I fully grant this individual the right to their opinion, even if it absolutely vexed and infuriated me. To each their own. The freedom of expression is exactly what America is all about. But I must also add that I honestly believe any logical analysis of this statement proves it to be wholly Un-American.
Patriotism is the defense of the ideals upon which America was founded. America was founded on the premise that each individual has the right and obligation to self-determination. The call for peace is an exercise of this right. To exercise this right is patriotic. Therefore, it is the patriot who calls for peace in the face of terror.
Et in terra pax hominibus, bonae voluntatis
No sooner had I finished penning my last post when my cell phone rang with a job offer from Mike Kopitzke, Fire Program Manager for the Southwest Land Office of the State of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. I had interviewed for the position of Assistant Center Manager at Missoula Interagency Dispatch Center on Wednesday, and, although I felt I had a better than average shot at getting it, I wasn’t completely certain how I felt about taking the job.
Ever since I began working in dispatch, my goal has been an assistant manager position at one of the zone dispatch centers in Montana. I had basically circumvented that goal in 2008 by taking the position of dispatch coordinator in Tok, working for the Alaska Division of Forestry, and had personal considerations been different (i.e. Brandi had gone with me), I would have been perfectly content with that. However, given that Brandi’s career path had led her to Rocky Mountain Laboratory and that a series of fortunate events had determined that we would live in Hamilton, I was back to square one. A job at the U.S. Forest Service’s Bitterroot center would be ideal, but any opportunity there wouldn’t manifest itself until sometime in the future. That left Missoula.
Taking a job in Missoula meant partaking of two activities in which I would rather not participate: commuting and daycare. Door to door, it is 46.59 miles from our house in Hamilton to the dispatch center in Missoula. So not only does that mean devoting two extra hours a day to work, but, depending on which vehicle I drive, it also entails burning between 15 and 30 gallons of gas a week. That is definitely not my idea of living simply.
After interviewing several of the local day care providers recommended by our friends, we were fortunate enough to secure a spot for Keegan at the one we liked the most. Even so, the whole concept still bothered me. What did we gain, and at what cost? On balance, I wasn’t sold on the premise that taking a full-time job put us in the black.
I have always had difficulty with the fact that, at least in America, what is ideal and what is practicable usually end up being at odds. In the modern era, simple is not easy. Obviously, the beauty of this country is that you can do whatever you choose. But it doesn’t always leave you standing on high ground.
Brandi’s research position at the lab is a term appointment, which for those unfamiliar with federal employment means it has a finite duration, in this case, three years. With that in mind, there was no way I could pass up a permanent position with the State of Montana, even if it meant missing out on ten hours a week of family time or personally assuring scenarios like the Horizon oil well disaster. Most likely, Brandi will get on permanently at the lab. But should she not, we now have a safety net that will keep us living in Western Montana.
Everything comes at a sacrifice. What I have oft wondered is, does it have to? Certainly, we could stick with the status quo and take our chances. Keegan benefits from being with his parents and Brandi can see our house from her office window. No one knows what the future holds, and it might work out beautifully. That is the paradox of human existence; each decision opens some doors while closing others. But here I am not really referring to such abstractions. I am talking about more concrete matters.
There isn’t any reason why we couldn’t have the best of both worlds. Why aren’t there day care centers at every workplace, so parents can be with their children during lunchtime and at breaks? Why haven’t we invested in an infrastructure that cultivates harmony and cooperation instead of one that promotes isolation and discord? If America had sunk half as much capital into developing a rail-based transportation system as it has squandered building cars and roads, I would be able to hop aboard a high-speed commuter train and be in Missoula in half the time I will spend driving there. A reasonable amount of time, not a ridiculous one.
Taming the natural world in such a manner as we have has created a geography that leaves us in the exact same predicament as before. A massive amount of resources, in particular fossil fuels whose true value and benefit we little understand and will never again realize, have been wasted, and we are no more in command of our circumstances now than when we started. In the past our lives were dictated by forces of nature such as weather and topography. Today we are beholden to obligations necessitated by an environment we ourselves have created.
For better or worse, we have arrived at the ends of the Earth. Its entire extent has been inventoried, mapped, and catalogued. There is no hidden wealth waiting to be discovered, no New World left to exploit. What we have is all we’ve got. Yet we continue on blindly, indiscriminately allocating capital as if we did not know this. It seems we could do better.
The world has grown so small that we no longer have the luxury of boundless expansion. The huge herds, the great forests are all gone. It is time we came to grips with the finite nature of the Earth’s resources and began operating accordingly. How we do this while maintaining our identity as the Land of Opportunity is a question that doesn’t have a ready answer. But one thing is certain. To continue on the path of the locust, consuming everything in our path, without consideration for the consequences of such action, is neither ideal nor practical.
But for now, that is exactly where I am.
For those that didn’t know, I’ve been staying home with my son Keegan. Brandi’s maternity leave ended about six weeks ago, and since then it has just been us boys. It took a little getting used to, not so much for Keegan as for me, and that first week saw me begging Brandi to let me fly the coop as soon as she got home. But all and all it has been a truly enjoyable experience.
There really isn’t anything better than being able to stay home with your child. As summer approaches and the likelihood of picking up some fire-related employment increases, I actually find myself more and more reluctant about trundling him off to day care and rejoining the workforce. Miss that first word, first wobbly step? Nothing seems worth that.
Of course, if you had caught me earlier today, when my adorable little boy was screaming himself red in the face, I probably would have told a different story. There are those moments, when nothing that I do seems to placate him, where I really start to question my fitness for this duty. Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to nurture a four-month old. If his screaming was any indication, Keegan certainly didn’t think so.
For awhile things were all peaches and cream. Keegan and I had a great little system worked out. After mom fed him and left for work, he would play contentedly in his gym while I would drink coffee and write. When it was time for a diaper change, he let me know. Then back into the gym until the next bout with the Grumpies, which was the signal that he was ready for a nap. By the time the nap was over, Mom was home for lunch, and then the cycle started over, minus the coffee.
Enter the bottle. Instead of a trip to Mom’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet, lunch is now ala carte. This not only produces discontent at lunchtime, but it also shortens the afternoon play and nap sessions. About an hour prior to mealtime, Keegan starts to think he is pretty darn hungry. That last thirty minutes before Brandi gets home can sometimes be a real bear.
Then young Keegan decided that he would begin sleeping through the night. Oh joy, we thought. Unbeknownst to him, that also meant one less feeding, something I don’t think he fully considered. Surely they’ll make it up to me, is what he probably assumed. No such luck buddy. Doc says you’re way too fat as it is. Ratchet up the discontent a little more.
In truth, I think the correlation between his displeasure and these changes to his routine are coincidental. Though he is obviously going through a period of adjustment, what I really believe is that Keegan has reached a new stage in development and the milieu I’ve been providing simply no longer offers the level of stimulation he requires. Couple that with my failure to interact with him adequately and we have one unhappy little man.
One thing about raising children: if you do it wrong, they’ll let you know.