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

No comments:

Post a Comment