Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Myers-Benner 2018: Year in Review

Greetings, Friends!

You may not have seen a card from us yet in your mailbox. Actually, I (Jason) am amazed if you did, since we didn't send any! But thanks if you're one of the few who sent one to us.

Last year we didn't even send out a yearly wrap-up email missive, as had been our custom, but elected instead to direct folks to our blog site where we'd made an entry on the topic. That went so well that we're going to do it again. To wit:

The year is drawing to its easy-going close here at Tangly Woods. The Myers-Benner five are more than ready for the change of pace the holidays bring...at least if you don't travel! Having made a wonderful visit to my home place in Pennsylvania at Thanksgiving (which is becoming our yearly tradition), but having endured 10 hours strapped in to a metal box at 65 mph with a three-year-old with normal impulse moderation skills (that is, nearly nil) to accomplish it, we felt it was not reasonable to make a second trip like that a month later, particularly with the challenges of finding animal care over Christmas. So on this Christmas day, we've enjoyed the leisurely opening of stockings full of simple, thoughtful gifts to each other, the crafting and downing of a scrumptious waffle brunch, all hands on deck for animal chores and fresh air, trying out some new games, and the adults taking the youngest out in the jogger stroller for a run while the older two enjoyed some down time. A nap for the little one was thus initiated, and I type while she sleeps.

As I did last year, I will devote a few paragraphs to each of us below; to the notable events and developments of the year, and to our states of mind and being.


Three. Not a huge number, but when it's an age and it's contrasted with two, it's quite a difference. She's still of the nudist persuasion, but usually these days it's with underwear on. Any family members concerned with her future propriety can take hope from the direction it's going, but that's about it. She is still the organized mind, enjoying tracking the details: as we pull away from the curb from a friend's place, she'll often remember to ask whether we left such-and-such item we'd brought with us. If the answer is at first indefinite or a lightning search does not at first produce it, that can be one of the many things that can take her emotions from 0-60 in five seconds flat; explanations or distractions must be of convincing quality and provided promptly if it's not to become (to all appearances at the time) a major life event. However, like most three-year-olds she recovers quickly and without apparent harm.

She also pays more attention to understanding others' emotions now, especially towards her. If, for example, Janelle gets annoyed by something generally, Terah will pipe up, "Mommy is not frustrated with me..." Or if it becomes clear that she is, in fact, the subject of the irritation, she'll modify it to, "Mommy is frustrated, but she still loves me."

This articulation is endearingly clear, but when words fail she accepts hugs and cuddles, sometimes still while breastfeeding, though that is now on the wane. Is it her ability to diversify and understand her attachments more abstractly that is allowing her to let go of the breastfeeding bonding time?

Play dough is a force for good in her life, but it can't match the enrichment gained from immersion in fantasy play with sisters or a close friend, nor hold a candle to pleasant hours spent "helping" adults with their household tasks. The Grandparents are especially sought out for this. When Janelle's parents are around, she mostly wants to be with them. What a gift to her to have them close so often! She also enjoys running errands, especially if she's one-on-one with a parent (though she's not crazy about getting buckled back in to her car seat eight times in one afternoon).

A huge highlight for her (and us all) this year was our July trip to Cape Charles, VA, on the tip of the Delmarva peninsula which delineates the Chesapeake bay. To her delight, the town provided a rack of life jackets for kids, and she was able to swim 'by herself,' which involved lots of pumping of her strong little arms and legs, some spinning in circles, and only the most meager progress in any particular direction. A big person was never more than arms' length away, of course, but to her it was a rite of passage towards independence, and it made quite the impression.

She asks all kinds of great age-appropriate questions, twisting her brow into the sincerest of puzzlements and melting the heart with her pronunciations, which are all the time easier to understand but which still require some concentration from the listener. Sometimes one has to ask her to repeat her words, and sometimes one just wants her to because they sound so sweet.

She is a full four inches shorter than Alida was at this age; it will be interesting to see if she always stays shorter or if she's just on a different schedule. But her comparative stature does not directly correlate to her levels of vavoom and spizzerinktum; maybe they are in fact concentrated! She seems to be of the opinion that if one can run instead of walk to one's destination, then why wouldn't one? She continues to be noticeably agile, athletic, and a bit of a daredevil. And when she gets tired or needs attention, she's great at pushing boundaries and buttons. She will not be ignored! More than our others have, she enjoys the rougher forms of bodily play, such as being thrown in the air, spinning around, chasing, tackling and pouncing. Watch out world! Terah is loose in you.


Now seven and fully a reader, Alida is open to another layer of the world, and she makes good use of that. She is delighted by funny passages from beginner chapter books, and is picking up spelling and new words seamlessly, rarely needing help with either.

She still loves pretty things: flowers and decorations and pictures of anything frilly or ornate. Making crafts with Grandma could--does--occupy her for hours on end. Recently she made a hat or two of which she was clearly proud. But, love of froufy stuff notwithstanding she is also beginning to think of some of the more garish little-kid gear as over-the-top, and when mentioning her favorite color, which is pink, often adds that it's more of a dark pink that she likes best, and that she likes other colors, too. It's so sweet to watch her mature.

What a tease! Alida loves to giggle and to make others laugh, too, and sometimes needs to be alerted to when people really, actually now need to get on with the next thing they need to do: a thing that cannot be done with a tall, strong seven-year-old tenaciously wrapped onto their leg, grinning and with shining eyes.

She is a balanced person, enjoying art (the girls continue with homeschooler art classes at the local art shop), music (she can sometimes be found standing in front of the CD player memorizing songs), reading, games, math, cooking, crafts, and sports, especially SOCCER! She was starting to dominate in her age group this fall...time for a new level. A few weeks ago Janelle got out her old field hockey sticks and balls, and reported to me in wonderment that Alida, having never played before, rarely missed a trap and was sending out some very solid shots. She will hold her own on the ping-pong table shortly.

Being seven, she is still a person who needs help understanding and coping with the emotions that tend to take over her mind in any given moment. This is most evident in game playing, where her competitive attitude can bring her to transports of joy...if she wins. But if someone else shows greater skill in strategy, or if the hands she's been dealt strike her as unfair her grip on equanimity becomes tenuous; she is liable to suffering the pure, ephemeral grief of the child in such situations, and can become sullen and unwilling to risk more humiliation. Janelle is so glad she herself is totally over this life stage and always suffers her game losses with composure and grace (chuckle). Kali and Jason smile behind their hands and try to decide if a hug is a good idea. Terah pounds her play dough, oblivious.

But anyway, we are so glad to have Alida around to spur us on to greater delight in our everyday lives. It is heartwarming to see her learning the joy of sharing, and helping pass that on to Terah. Every time either of them gets a chocolate bar, chunks will be distributed on several occasions, and it looks like they really think that's half the fun. This Christmas she made everyone a paper airplane with a heart-shaped patch of marker work that reflected their favorite colors and hid them in our stockings. She remembered to make an orange one for Nora, the sister she never met.

Nora (In Memory)

This past June marked 10 years since Nora's death at 7 months of age from probable complications of Petty Syndrome. As has been our custom, we marked the date of her passing with a blood drive, which was the orangest one yet! Having picked up on our "Nora's favorite color" theme, the staff at the center had gone all out to mark the moment with us, and it meant a lot. October 30, then, would have been her 11th birthday, which was another great excuse for a blood drive, which we did. At that time we learned that Virginia Blood Services has been acquired by the Red Cross. The details of the transition, including employment status, benefits, and all the rest were unknown to the employees we've been dealing with for years. They really didn't know if we'd be able to continue our drives as-is, or not. We haven't checked back in since, so we still don't know the future of that tradition. Stay tuned!


And where did Alida learn her sweetness and generosity? Janelle and I and the other adults in her life can hope we had something to do with it, but it's hard to ignore the contribution of her older sister. Kali is 15 now, and I said to Janelle the other day, "Don't you think everyone could use a big sister like Kali?" She is a bright spot to everyone around her. She's still young enough to enter in to play with kids of all ages, and her kind and fair approach to situations lends strength to her being a popular presence among them. By way of paradox, this has still not translated into her having a humming, independent social life among her peers, which still seems as much by choice as by default. Surely the continued homeschooling limits her potential contacts, and as her parents we can almost start to feel badly about this, but she does not seem to. Like most kids, she is to be trusted to develop the level of social engagement she will thrive with at the time she is ready, and we aim to stay attentive to her needs and desires, supporting her whenever she wants to branch out. In the meantime, we treasure our time with her, and feel so blessed by her continued interest in spending time with us at home.

She continues to be an avid reader...the rate at which that kid can wing through a library book is shocking. Teen-focused fiction is still the most popular genre in both fantasy and realistic forms, but she branches out to the occasional non-fiction work and is starting to absorb some adult-oriented novels. In social settings, too, there are changes. Now she almost invariably stays at the table or wherever the adults have gathered to listen in on their humorous banter and serious conversation, obviously tracking right along and occasionally offering something of her own. She's good at wordplay, with a good memory for jokes.

As far as structured activities, Unschooling (Learner-directed education) as a form sort of scuttles much of that idea, but Kali has done the art class with Alida, played soccer spring and fall again, and has ventured into the world of piano lessons. She had been digging out the old piano books and advancing quickly on her own, but seemed to us to be ready for more. She was amenable, so it made a good birthday present for her in August.

Math is still a way of seeing the world that she likes to engage with. Solving puzzles has an irresistible draw for her, and it still makes her older-than-they-used-to-be parents shake their heads when she effortlessly snickersnacks her way through logical challenges that tend to make our brains buzz. I found a mathematical calculator for her stocking at the thrift store. Within minutes of its acquisition, she had figured out more about its capacities than I ever did in my several years spent with one in my backpack during middle and high school. Yes, it spent too much time in my backpack and not enough in my hand. I admit it.

With her carefully tended ducks, too, Kali is showing the maturity of her mind. She's always been quite protective of her special pet (the one who was the sole survivor of a power outage during incubation, bonding to her alone and sleeping in a shoe box in her bed for the first week or so), who goes by "Duckie." As such, allowing his flock to run free during the day has been hard for her to countenance, even though it's clearly what they want and predation has mostly been pretty low for the other ducks and the chickens. Recently she has been letting them out more. She figures ducks live ten years or less on average, so he's probably only got a few good years left anyway...what's the point of them if he can't spend them happy? Not that he was unhappy in the pen, but if the risk of running free is the cost of extra joy and interest, then maybe that's a reasonable risk. Many, many adults in our society have not achieved that level of balance in their thinking. She is ready to start facing some of the biggest challenges adults wrestle with: changing social mores, ecological devastation, our clumsy justice system, tribalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, internal and external governmental violence...the human condition of the present day. We welcome her help in solving these puzzles, too.


The big event in Janelle's life this year is only a big event in numbering systems that break on the number 40. Since our culture uses base 10, this was a year to celebrate: Four discreet sets! Yes, she turned 40 this September, and gracefully, too.

Not that it's always felt graceful to her. All of us are followed for quite some time by the issues native to us and developed in our youths, and then at some point we add to those the existential questions related to meaning, death, and aging. For many of us, these collide uncomfortably at around this time; our youthful challenges haven't yet timed out, but the concerns of aging are beginning. So it has been for her, and I regret to inform her, you all, and myself that she has not hit upon a concise explanation for the meaning of life, nor does she have an answer for its ephemeral nature in the face of conscious awareness. Darn. We could have used that.

However, she is the sweet example she's always been of a person who manages to love and accept and work with those around her despite all the great reasons a human has to curl up in a ball and cry inconsolably, and she furthermore recognizes the profound advantages she's had in her life that have allowed her time and space and capacity to think the troubling thoughts of North American middle age.

As she and we all must, we will now leave that where it lies and move on to some details, which is usually where the meaning shows up anyway. We didn't put together a huge shebang for her 40th, but some women did get excited about coming together to celebrate her well, and she came home from that gathering in an affirmed mood, so thanks to those fine friends!

Janelle's life continues to be partly filled with the details of her paying job at EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, where she's worked for 19.5 years now, if you can believe that. Mostly her work there is still an affirmation of her skills and person, and the flexibility of a 30 hour/week position that requires only 2 days in the office and the rest from home (with the substantial fringe benefits associated with longevity at the institution) seems hard to beat. Many times per year we are both reminded of all the great reasons to stick around there, which include contact with peacebuilders from our own context and from around the planet, plus exposure over the long term to faculty and other colleagues who have dedicated their lives authentically to values that we share with them. All the same, the gravitational pull of our farm and family life tugs if anything more strongly on her than when I addressed this topic last year in much the same way, and increasingly she wishes she could turn her attention towards living out and working in service of the same values of justice and harmony that spur the work at CJP, but with an expression more directly channeled through the transformation of food and energy systems and through local community development. She is always up for a conversation on how to form and approach the implied series of life-shaping questions.

In the rest of her life, which is the main part, Janelle employs her wizardry in the kitchen, tends her gardens of children, marriage and friendships, and gets out into the soil, trees and air whenever circumstances allow. She especially enjoys slopping the pigs...how cool that you can make a creature so happy so many times with a bucket of food waste, then enjoy delicious pork! It's a fine line between enough life activity to satisfy her energetic nature and too much; anxiety is always an option! Time spent with her favorite people is her favorite activity, and with this crew there are so many chances to laugh and enjoy life; she takes a lot of them and their preciousness does not escape her.

A new development for Janelle (mostly) was the decision by us and her parents to begin listing their in-law quarters on Airbnb to help them cover their expenses while they are not here, pay for upkeep and improvements as needed to the place, and make the space available for others to enjoy rather than having it sit empty! An added benefit, we thought, could be some amount of exposure to notions and patterns of closer-to-sustainable living for folks maybe not acquainted with it. This has turned out pretty well. Janelle does all the logistics and most of the cleaning and laundry associated with housing guests, and we both share the burden of smiling nicely at them as they come and go. A few of the folks have, indeed, shown an interest in our homestead and what it's about, though most are just glad for the setting for the sake of their own enjoyment. Janelle has decided not to accept more than about 2-3 Airbnb stays per month, which we only allow to be booked once we have blocked out the time Mom and Dad want for their monthly visits (our first preference is to have them occupying their home!), allows for other friends or acquaintances to use the space as needed, and leaves enough time to make the transitions, usually relatively comfortably. People seem to appreciate the space.

The cheesemaking know-how mentioned last year was advanced in 2018, with Janelle zeroing in on a stir curd cheddar as her finest product, the one most desirous to make familiar. And she's done it! Sure, the flavor and texture vary slightly, but with the elimination of waxing the wheels of cheese, the hurdles were lowered and she got into a groove. By now we cycle through a standing supply of 20 cheeses tucked away and aging on a shelf in our root cellar. Every few days another wheel is eligible for breaking into (they must age 60 days), and we enjoy every bite. The root cellar now smells like cheese instead of mildew, the canning jars stored there no longer get moldy around the rims where stray food bits remain, and the cheese rinds rarely if ever show even a spot of mold anymore, whereas at first they did. Thanks, cheddar!


I am still pretty much the same person as the skinny blue-eyed kid with a bowl cut we've just enjoyed watching on a DVD recording of an old home movie my parents saved and my sister copied to disc. I still like running around outside and honing obscure skills in handling objects. I've merely traded the Frisbee in for a wheel hoe, and I have a few more cares these days.

Maybe my lack of interest in growing up is because of (or demonstrated by) my failure to choose a career. Some part of my brain is always casting about for my niche in this economy--the way in which I might join the ranks of the paid and fulfill my calling all from the same position. The trouble seems to be that all the things I have ever been able to think of that I'd enjoy are woefully underpaid professions (potter, musician, songwriter, poet, farmer, sculptor, inventor, outdoor guide, green builder, etc.), require an advanced degree (counselor, nutritionist, university professor/plant and animal breeder, etc.) and/or piles of paperwork (extension agent, teacher at outdoor school, etc.). Then there is the problem of paring it down. My natural tendency is to grow and diversify my interests, and specialization provokes grief and anxiety. Maybe I don't trust the other members of my community to handle such-and-such an aspect of life and therefore can't leave all that stuff to them and focus on what I do well. If you want something done right...

But most of my brain isn't much troubled by these discontents, being so occupied with what is clearly my life's work: my life. Being a father to three great kids, joyfully maintaining my partnership with Janelle, and every day chipping away at the Grand Project: testing, identifying, assembling and refining the plant/animal strains, knowledge and skills needful for a complete life derived primarily from this land. For the details on that project, scroll down to our year of blog posts or start any conversation with me, which is likely to end up on that topic in some way.

Still, there are specifics that stand out from 2018. Raising and butchering pigs is more interesting than ever. This year we bought 4 to grow out until our December slaughter date, then 2 more, having decided to breed 2. Yes, this spring will hopefully bring about the first Tangly Woods litters of piglets. We are all excited, perhaps naively so. So far the learning curve for overwintering pigs in any conditions other than mud hole has been steep, but I am confident we're getting the hang of it, and the resulting deep litter paddock should make wonderful soil for garden crops (cooked products only, on account of the possibility of parasite infection). Learning the life cycle of the domestic hog and its expression in various breeds, learning the animal's natural abilities and instincts, learning its culinary uses, then harmonizing all of those within and with a system that develops the fertility and productive potential of the land...now that is interesting!

Of course my chicken breeding projects continue apace; we are one year closer to each of the four goals in terms of gene expression, but progress on engaging other growers who can refine and prove the selections is slower than I'd like. However, when I think about it, this year has probably had more interest than ever, so I ought not complain. Maybe I'm not accomplishing quite what I think I am, but to me it seems like some pretty special things are happening in the flocks, and we're just getting started. If nothing else, it's proof of concept that crafting a breed to meet your criteria/needs is within reach of a dedicated and creative producer.

Plant breeding also generates highlights, especially the fun that we all have around here when taste-testing comes around. This year there was no popcorn to test, since the neighbor planted their GMO field corn just days after our popcorn went in, so the pollen was flying at the same time, but the flour corn was sown later, so we had a nice generation of that project to select from. The popcorn restriction is, of course, a tribulation induced by human folly and not a natural parameter or challenge, and so it is not helpful to the selection process. The extremely wet weather this year, however (despite being possibly induced by human-produced climate change) was a more natural form of challenge, and from a production standpoint was a real bugger. From a selection standpoint, though, it was almost pure opportunity: any squash that came out tasty and healthy in this year just might have something to contribute. Therefore this year's seed supply is especially valuable (which redeems things a bit in my mind).

In January of last year, I gave a presentation at the Virginia Association of Biological Farming, which got me into the conference for free and seemed to be received well. Topic: The Bioregional Soul of Agriculture. I won't go into it, but details are on our website.  I repeated the presentation in September at the Mountain Run Jam, and also presented on chicken butchering and care at the Allegheny Mountain Institute (AMI), and also presented on regionally adapted seed variety selection and development through the AMI-run hospital farm at Augusta Health Center in Fishersville. This is no way to make a living either, but it's been an interesting way to explore some new angles on sustainable agriculture (and our contribution to its advancement) with a few different groups. I plan to present at VABF again this January, this time including the ways in which we're trying to live out the implications of bioregionalism here on our farm and this time with Janelle by my side.

All told, then, 2018 has been a year I've spent in a paradoxical frame of mind where I have trouble finding things to say when people ask what's new these days, and yet my mind is constantly full of the most stimulating sorts of developments and creative endeavors. This is all in service of a comprehensively occupying attempt to live at a level of connectivity to the planet as it naturally occurs that the average tree toad is immersed in, cradle to grave (or, rather, tadpole to compost). I've also been living with the sense that change is afoot for our family, but beyond the change implied by growth I have nothing clear to point to to justify that intuition. Still, it might pay to be alert for an opportunity or challenge that might come along and could have escaped notice.

If we figure out how to participate in the economy on our terms in 2019, I'm sure you'll hear about it next year at this time. Otherwise, count on me spending the year in the same-old, same-old of sincere homesteading with this fine family here in this fine valley, with the rain that drips off my skin running into the soil, draining into Cub Run and down the storied Shenandoah, out through the tentatively rebounding Chesapeake Bay and into the North Atlantic, where it joins up with whatever rain runs off of your skin, and waits to turn to vapor and then to rain again.

We thank you at this time of year for being in our lives, in the past and/or present, and invite you to be in touch with us about visiting here either as its own private occurrence or to attend one of the several events we host throughout the year, from house concerts to potluck picnics to the biochar burn at winter solstice. This spring there might be piglets to hold! We'd also like to encourage you to explore how homesteading, even in very different form or scale from our own project, might help you to gain more autonomy in your life. Janelle and I have been reading Phillip Ackerman-Leist's Up Tunket Road, which is the account of his and his family's attempts at and thoughts on homesteading, and we can't do better than recommend it to anyone who feels a need to meaningfully diverge, in their life choices, from the prevailing, abusive, and devastating consumer culture and economy. Urban or rural, part time or around the clock, young or old, seasoned or green, any of us can benefit from learning to take responsibility for our lives.

I'll sign off now. Below you can find the series of family photos from 2018, taken on the first of each month on our front porch, as we are found at the time of the photo. They are arranged January through December, top to bottom. October's photo includes Sara, an informal apprentice who stayed with us for the month of October to pick up the processes, vibe, and a few skills associated with our life on the farm. See blog entries from that time for more details. And if you haven't had enough yet and want to review an album of a series of photos taken from various points on our place throughout the year, also on the first of each month, please do so!.

May this season of rest for the soil and plants and hibernating animals restore hope and joy to you as you look forward to the new year and all it might bring.

Love from us all,

Jason for the Myers-Benners

Sunday, December 23, 2018

TWBBGWSC: 5th Annual Biochar Burn!

We'll see if I can manage to crank out a second blog post yet today. I took a break to make a fresh batch of playdough with Terah and Alida in hopes to make it possible while they play with the still-warm dough.

This year was our fifth year doing a biochar burn as the base for our humanure compost pile (now combined with kitchen compost - what doesn't go to pigs that is - and poultry coop litter). The reason we could easily remember how many years it's been is that we have four pits that we rotate through and this was the first time we were reusing a pit - which means we don't have to dig a new hole the morning of the burn (yay, some systems get easier once they are established). This year we did, however, have to siphon water out of the pit first and clean it out a bit.
We did the first few burns ourselves before we got smart! And Jason and Jonathan actually did one in a spot we have since abandoned, so it's actually our 6th burn. Early on Jason wrote a blog post called What We Need is in the Sky that at least started to articulate the "why" behind this now annual ritual! In 2015, Jason and I worked on the burn together with Terah in the pack on me. Then in 2016, we hosted our first party: that was a good idea! In preparation for that Jason wrote a "winter carbon party meditation."

This year we had a good turnout for our Tangly Woods Biochar Burn and General Winter Solstice Celebration (TWBBGWSC) gathering, and lots of young people. It feels like a very important yearly ritual for us now and it feels right to mark it by centering ourselves on not just what we are doing but why. So Jason modified his meditation (to hopefully accommodate all attention spans) and read it for us before lunch and again before we started the fire. Below is the shortened version and if the taste of it gives you the desire to read the full thing, you can reference the link above.

We Kindle this Fire: A Winter Solstice Meditation

We kindle this fire for gratitude.  The wood we have gathered to burn is the flesh of plants, our partners and providers on this earth.  We gratefully acknowledge that we need them more than they could ever need us.

We kindle this fire for memory.  We know that without fire, our species could never have become what we are.  To be human is to burn wood; to use its power to change things to our advantage. 

We kindle this fire for light. Through the plants and like the plants, we need light: to fully understand our world our eyes need to see it reflecting off of our landscapes, and we need it striking our skin to promote our health.  Even in our languages, light is truth and shadows are ignorance.  In this shadow time of year, the light leaping from this fire will be a comfort

We kindle this fire for warmth.  As flames spring from the branches burning here, we will eagerly hold our palms out to face them like leaves, absorbing a small fraction of the heat released there.  This world is our home and we know no other, but it can be a cold place, too. 

We kindle this fire for life.  As the smoke rises, we will be reminded that life changes form; it is always being lost and destroyed, it is always being reborn. The char that is left will be used to enrich the soil—a stable place to store nutrients and habitat for soil organisms. 

We kindle this fire for healing.  In these times too many of us are neglecting our connections to the soil, to the plants, to the Sun.  Our willful ignorance has cost us so much; has been so destructive.  We hope that this one small act of burning a char fire can be a part of a trend of restoration. 

We kindle this fire for our descendants. Like trees stretching their roots into the forest duff made of the decaying bodies of their progenitors, we too live by the gifts of our ancestors to us; gifts of resources and knowledge, skill and values that were a response to their time and place.  We have adapted these for our time in this place, and we know our descendants must do the same.  With this fire we mark our desire to leave to them a world that supports their thriving at least as well as it has ours, and our willingness to work to make it so.

For gratitude, for memory, for light, for warmth, for life, for healing, for our descendants, here and now, we kindle this fire.

This year's gathering was extra special since we welcomed Jason's brother and family, who joined us for the full weekend. We were especially honored by the visit, since they got on the road within and hour or two of Jason's brother being released from the hospital post-surgery. I hope that his visit ends up being a positive step in his recovery - and, no, we did not let him help haul brush! Our two nephews added an extra dose of fun, energy, and spunk to the whole weekend. 

I enjoyed a slow and quiet start to Saturday. As I worked on lunch and dinner and other preparations for the day, the light in the sky caught my attention. The day dawned beautifully and then late that evening I looked out to see a full moon rising (but by this point was too tired to go find my camera and just soaked in the beauty). Over the course of the day we had an additional 39 adults and children join our family for parts of the day. I tried to soak in as much as I could, but I know that I missed a lot. I feel kind of scattered on days like this, as much as I love them! I felt torn much of the day between caring for kids, monitoring kids' safety with the fire, food preparation for both meals, doing lots of dishes, bringing bedding to the pigs in the big muddy puddle and feeding them to relieve Jason of that task since he was tied up with the biochar burn, visiting with friends and family, and did I mention doing dishes? But overall the day went so well, everyone stayed safe and our only main disappointment was also a good learning. We should NOT burn wet wood! This year has been so exceptional in the amount of rain and lack of sun we have had. Our brush pile probably needed to be covered a full month ahead, and we only covered it last week when we saw yet another deluge of rain in the forecast with another flood warning. So the fire was much smokier than other years and therefore not as clean a fire and so it felt like we were taking some steps forward and a few steps back in our goals. As night fell we had gotten through our entire old brush pile and got into the newer one with dryer wood and ended after dark with a hot blazing fire that built up the char in a hurry. That's what we'll aim for for next year!

So the quiet start to the day changed about as quick as our nephews showed up downstairs. Our girls loved having them around - Terah did a lot of observing and while she can be her own ball of energy and a chatterbox, she tends to take a more tentative and observant posture when there are kids around who are louder and more energetic than she! Alida was in heaven most of the time trying to keep them occupied having fun playing with her. At one point this morning, she came into the kitchen and exclaimed, "I'm exhausted." Funny gal! 
The morning was dedicated to cleaning out the pit and preparing it for the burn. There was a fair amount of mud/soil to heap up around the edges. This was mostly one or two person work, so there was plenty of time for others to play soccer, swing on the swings, visit the pigs, or just hang out and visit. As I went down towards the pit, Kali's free range ducks were headed in the opposite direction. They decided to clear out for the day! They hadn't even come up at night when Kali went to put them in. She was pretty sure they were scared of the fire, which was right near their coop. Thankfully, when Jason finally got out to shut in chickens and turn the water off that had been running into the fire pit later on, they had returned safe and sound!
Following a hearty lunch of chili, bread and toppings, we headed out to get the biochar burn going. Then more hands were welcome to haul brush and toss it in as the fire was ready for it. We lit the first around 1:30 or so and it was after dark when Jason called it complete. He said the level of char in the pit this morning was quite adequate and it looked to be burned to the right stage (so again a less smoky fire--burning drier brush--is our only major improvement to focus on for next year).
We had some very dedicated brush haulers that stuck with it all afternoon (our eldest being one of those). Most of the rest of us bopped around a bit more. There were kids all over the place. And inside there was story reading and game playing. I love having the place bustle with activity and people having a good time together!
Those that had lasted till dinner, joined us for a potluck meal. We didn't eat until well after dark since the fire needed to be extinguished first. We had decided to cook up our two hams for the occasion so we had help tasting the two and there were varied opinions - some like the American Guinea Hog (higher fat, more diverse meat flavor) and some the RedRoc (leaner, more consistent)- so I guess they are both good in their own ways or for varied taste buds. I could tell more difference between different parts of the same ham than between the different hams (the saltier parts were the best!). While I worked on dinner dishes, I got to enjoy some live music happening in the living room. A good end to a good day!
The weekend's fun didn't end then, though I think all of us were glad for a good night's sleep before the fun recommenced in the morning. I was happy for some snuggles before the kiddos (and adults) headed back to PA! Oh, I neglected to mention that another highlight of the weekend for the kids was getting to enjoy the train that is set up currently that was my dad's when he was a boy. Speaking of when people were much younger, we are about to enjoy watching some old Benner home videos so it's time for me to wrap this up! And I think the playdough may soon lose its charm and the first request for dinner just came my way...

It's just been two weeks but...

When the girls sat down to look at pictures/videos with me this afternoon, Kali asked, "Have you not downloaded pictures since then (commenting on the snow pictures)?"  There were in fact 240+ photos/videos on the camera...

So this is the hodgepodge post and then I'll do one for our biochar solstice party!

We did have our first "significant" snow of the year - not significant in inches accumulated but significant in that it allowed for some great sledding fun! While the girls and Grandma were engaged in some great snow play, Jason and I got the remaining two pigs moved to their winter quarters. They have since been joined by a borrowed boar so fingers crossed on piglets next spring! We have reason to hope that maybe the red pig is pregnant but only time will tell. Right now my biggest concern regarding the pigs is trying to keep up with bedding so they aren't living in one large mud puddle! If we could get a long stretch of sunny days, we'd have an easier time of it. But every since that snow fall, it seems we haven't had a time without puddles around!
Our girls continue to have their Grandma Myers' love of snow! Terah was sledding confidently solo and loving it! And as you can see in this video, snow and granddaughters will keep my mom young and in shape!!
The snow hadn't melted before our window of opportunity for harvesting our Christmas tree arrived. It didn't take long to find the "perfect one." It's always nice to scout out a tree that would have to come out anyway - this one was growing in the fence that borders our property. So I guess you could say we got our Christmas tree and completed one itty bitty fraction of the clearing job awaiting us! As the five of us headed out to find our tree, I reflected that the ritual always brings such strong memories back for me of the Christmas Nora spent with us. Thanks to my parents being around for a time, Jason and I were both able to go out with Kali for a few minutes to pick our tree. We had done so few things with Kali together while Nora was with us that it has stuck with me as a very poignant memory in that year, which I like being reminded of at least once yearly.
 It works! It's definitely a "Tangly Woods Christmas tree" - about as eclectic as you can get!
For me one of the biggest markers of the holiday season is that we spend a lot more family time together (or more time that is less "productive" in nature - more game playing, movie watching, dance parties, gatherings with friends and family). The last few weeks have had a lot of all of those things! Kali chose our December family night and not surprisingly chose ice skating at the local outdoor rink. The main change this year was that Terah got ice skates for the first time and all 5 of us skated. I was more than a little rusty but was getting it by the end. However, I was not fast enough for Terah and it was a unique situation where she had no interest in being with me and wanted her daddy as her right hand man! As in winters past, the rink just had a really good feel to it - folks in good moods, various ages and abilities on the ice, everyone being kind and considerate to each other... Here's a taste:

On the home front we continue to have semi-regular semi-successful family meetings. The semi- parts of that are related - it's hard to want to do them all that often when we have at least one family member that adds flair and frustration to most meetings - that would be Terah! Alida also waxes and wanes in her interest and ability to focus in on the agenda and be patient with the process. But it seems that for us all they are still a worthwhile expenditure of time - as long as we get enough of a break between them to look forward to the next one!

Alida recently wanted us to talk about having a family president. We all were quite clear that what Alida actually wanted was a dictatorship in which she was the dictator for the purpose of being able to order her subjects to play lots of long games with her. But, as we try to do with all agenda items, it received a fair hearing and over the course of multiple interesting conversations we decided to have a "family president day." I will admit for me the idea of a president is a bit complicated, emotional and distressing at present, so I was glad for Jason's ability to take more of a lead in the conversations with the girls. In the end we agreed the parameters for the office, planned to have a morning president and an afternoon one, and then held an election!

Kali and Alida won the election and determined that Kali would hold the office from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and Alida from 3-9 p.m. Kali, of course, had to be woken for her inauguration. In the end, the day was not a lot different from most days. In many ways it was an affirmation of the healthy functioning of our family system - no new laws were proposed, no one attempted to overthrow the president, and both president and family members seem to feel positive about the day. And I think it was a great unschooling activity - at least in helping our gals get a sense of the role a president can and should play. Here is Kali being sworn in:

One of the activities on our family president's day was cookie baking and decorating with a bunch of neighbor friends. It was their second opportunity to decorate gingerbread cookies as we also had a holiday gathering with some of my family where that was one of the chosen activities! It seems once again there will be no need for us to bake any Christmas cookies as they seem to find their way onto our counter every year from a variety of sources. So we are happily focusing on some other food traditions! The girls are at stages and ages where we can actually enjoy a cooking project all together!

One of our most recent food experiments was making cheddar crackers with homemade butter and homemade cheddar cheese. We made them for the girls' final art class (they loved this class as they have all the others - below is them on their final day) since they were having a little party and were invited to bring along snacks to share. Let's just say that we have already made them once more since that time! It's pretty thrilling for me to have enough cheddar aging now to feel generous with it and for us to be able to experiment using it in different ways. My current "cheese cave" is just one short of full capacity so we may have to look at expanding storage!
While we are on the food theme, our larder is full! As we enter winter, we are at the peak of our stores. The weekend after the hog butchering, Jason did the final round of chicken butchering for 2018. Most of that was made into sausage (it takes up less space in the freezer and we were almost out) and then stock to can. While we were still working on finishing up that project, we accepted a final offering of part of a deer and bones for stock. So for a few days, we were deep in food processing mode (just not the summer veggie kind). I will admit that I was VERY "done" sorting through bones/meat/scraps once I finished off doing so for 14 chicken carcasses and several loads of venison scraps (Jason bailed me out on the last load of that for which I was grateful!). 
Our freezers are both full (though I say you can always fit one more thing in), and they have more meat than I ever thought I would have in my own. It's crazy for us to realize that we still eat way less meat than the "average" person in our country. It is our year's supply but still!
We are all very excited to be done taste testing our Delicata squash. We have plenty of seed for next year and this year provided an opportunity for some pretty intense selection. It was a pathetic Delicata squash year for us - the rain, the lack of sun, our still somewhat degraded soils... So to have any good squashes to keep seeds from felt like a success. And now that all those squashes are tested and either consumed by us or the pigs, we get to move on to the PA Dutch, which, while still not a stellar harvest, has been delightful by comparison! So we are not only entering meat season but the time of year where we have some winter squash in at least one of our meals most days. And Terah would like if I had a container of pureed squash available all the time in the fridge. Pretty much anytime the oven gets turned on, we bake a squash!

Ok, let's wrap this one up before dark! I've had multiple interruptions since the peace in our home is somewhat tentative (between the two younger gals). It's been a very full weekend without naps, with lots of activity, and it's the holiday season where expectations and hopes are high and fun times abound but kiddos still get overstimulated and tired (at least in this household!!).

We have enjoyed two white elephant gift exchanges so far and two more to come! The first was accompanied by a gathering where we debuted our first sausage gravy over sweet potatoes for the year - we were not disappointed! The white elephant game is a semi-risky thing with kids as the whole point of the game is to have a fun time and steal each other's presents. Terah had a mini-meltdown after the first one when she didn't end up with the magnetic tablet (one of those little shopping list ones that often go on the fridge). Of course, she hadn't even stolen it when she could have during the game, but she was still getting the hang of it and her wishes and desires are about as changeable as the weather! So as we prepared for the second one she was very excited but she also nonchalantly informed me, "I might cry." She didn't, but she did hold her box of sidewalk chalks close to her until the game came to a close and it was hers!

One of Terah's favorite places in our home right now is the stuffed animal bin below the stockings. At some point in most meals, she gets up from the table and climbs in. She will then accept bites from her comfy bin surrounded by stuffed friends! I guess she might as well enjoy it while she still fits, as it sure seems like these kiddos aren't staying little long! Jason asked the other day if Kali was taller than me. I was relieved to know I still have about an inch on her, but that likely won't last long! As discombobulated as I have felt emotionally lately, I have had so many surges of being completely in awe of our girls. I can't even articulate with words how privileged I feel to be their mom and to be a part of their growing up and discovering the world and their place in it! I mean, who wouldn't melt when you come upon a scene as sweet as this?
This sometimes can feel like a pretty bleak time of year, but I have been surprised by mystery and beauty all around me even in this season. Recently I enjoyed a reconnecting and beautiful (muddy) hike with a friend who has been journeying with cancer this past year. Along the mountain trail, we stopped to take in this little puddle with bubbles. We were never able to figure out what caused them, so we just savored the moment. I look forward to more hikes together and hope I can not only focus on our meaningful conversations but can be literally stopped in my tracks by things we notice in the natural world around us!

Jason just took a break from his design work to do the evening chores, but most of the time I've been working on this post, he has been designing the work room cabinets. In November, we noted that we just needed to focus on finishing harvesting leaves. In December, we had the hog butchering, then chicken butchering, then biochar weekend. Next up is Jason's conference workshop in January, but we are also ready to finalize our winter indoor project. After weighing our various project options, we have circled back around to the work room cabinets (something on the wish list more or less since we moved in). Thanks for the rain and now the gooshy soils, he's had a nice block of dedicated design time and before long we'll work at plotting out the project and together assessing its feasibility. It's really hard to believe we'll be starting our first seeds in just over a week!