Archive for April, 2010

Doing Has No Need of Wishing

Sharon April 29th, 2010

This weekend we attended an event at the library designed to get kids excited about poetry - each age level had a different writing and art project to do.  The project for first graders involved making  a list of wishes, and Isaiah set laboriously to writing down his most secret desire.  At six, he does not write easily or fluently, although his spelling is quite good.  And there, scrawled across a whole page, meant the long list of wishes that one assumes fill the dreams of small children, was this “I wish I had a farm.”

This occasioned some comment among the event’s organizers - a number of the adults mentioned that they too had the same wish, and expressed surprise that a child should wish for this.  There was amusement when I said that we did, in fact,  live on a farm.  But I also knew what Isaiah meant.

You see, Isaiah from as early as I can remember, took to this life in ways my other children did not.  They all love the animals and the open spaces, the creek and the gardens, the climbing trees and the woods to play in, but of all my children, Isaiah is organically, naturally, innately a farm child.  Of my sons, he is the most fascinated by plants and animals, most anxious to participate in anything domestic.  When he was younger, he hated to leave the farm, although he’s grown more adventurous with time.

Isaiah loves to cook and can bake a mean pan of cornbread almost by himself or a sheet full of chocolate chip cookies.  He can name more plants than Eric can, and when Asher scraped a finger recently, Isaiah was the one who ran to the lamb’s ears to make a bandage for him.  Every animal on the farm likes and trusts him, and he alone can pick up every bird on the whole farm.  He loves to build and mend things.  When he was two, as we left for a visit to his Grandmother in New York City, each child was allowed to pick something to bring with them for the trip.  My other children brought favorite books and toys.  Isaiah brought a salad he’d picked himself - sorrel, mint, lettuce, mizuna, arugula - as a gift for his grandmother.  I think that salad still says something deep about my child.

He’s not a perfect child by any means - he can be just as cranky and mean to his brothers as anyone else -  but he has an astounding generosity for a child his age, something that seems innate in him, since he has had it since birth.  When there isn’t enough candy to go around, Isaiah is the first to offer his up to a friend or a brother.  He likes giving things away so much that he saves up his money to make more donations of trees and animals to the Heifer Fund than the ones we subsidize.  If he does spend his money on himself, it is often for plants - while his brothers want candy or toys, Isaiah just bought himself a bamboo plant which he carefully carries out to the porch each morning and in every cold night.  I take no credit for any of this - it all comes from deep inside of him, and we are fortunate that he is so well suited to his place.

And I know, because he tells us, what Isaiah’s farm dream is - he wants more animals, more kinds of creatures.  He wants a tall, two story barn with a hayloft, and ideally, barn cats to chase and bales of hay to climb in.  He wants more of the animals to be his own special ones, his to care for and choose.  He wants to sell more things, be a true working farm with people coming down the drive to buy eggs and plants - and sometimes from him.  He wants it to be beautiful to others, beautiful to us, integral to the landscape and to the community - the place our neighbors come to buy what they need that we can provide.  He wants to be part of the diversified small farm of every child’s dream.

I admit, I dream of a hayloft myself, but I can’t give him that…as yet.  Our hay barn remains a small, low building.  But what we can perhaps give him is precisely the rest of it - slowly, slowly we are returning from days Isaiah can barely remember, to being a true working farm.  Over the years of my intensive writing projects, we’ve let many of things we did in our first CSA years fall apart - the gardens were enough to feed us but have gotten smaller, many maintenence projects were deferred for lack of time and energy as the computer took up more and more of my days.

I still have to finish one more book (by spring of next year), but the pace has slowed and I am able to focus on our next steps.   Like Isaiah, I have a “real farm dream” - but it is slightly different.  It has more perennials in it, and different animals, a hoophouse for winter greens, summer heat lovers and rapid solar drying of my herbs.  It has a small building for displaying our wares - the eggs, the bedding plants and herbs, the tinctures, salves and creams, salad greens and flower,  a list of other products for sale - rabbits, dairy goats, baby chicks. 

Eventually it has a two story barn with a hayloft and room enough for all the creatures that eat our good grass and grow fat and rich with milk.  Eventually, I dream there will be hayloft.

Someday I dream of  barter with the neighbors for pasturage, perhaps, for a pair of working horses to haul logs out of the woods for firewood and cut hay.  Or maybe we’ll finally break down and get a tractor, who knows.  I understand the horses better, though.

Eventually the young perennials I am planting right now will grow large and begin to produce, and I will have nuts and new fruits to sell, and elderberry syrup and currant and aronia juice to sell.  I’m waiting until the children have the fun of climbing up the trees to help the harvest - it is hard to believe that someday they will need to climb.

Eventually, we will begin seeing the fruit of our breeding and selecting of small backyard dairy goats for thrift and hardiness - and I hope we will begin to see them popping up in yards.  I find that the best advertisement for the goats is the goats themselves - it is not possible to meet them without beginning to consider ways you could bring these small creatures home to your own yard.

I’m still mulling over sheep in the long term, and a host of other projects.  My goal is a year round income - products that come and go with each season, workloads that move around the year, if not evenly, gracefully. 

I dream of a place to teach classes, to invite people in.  I dream of neighbors all sitting down to a homegrown thanksgiving turkey.  I dream of open-farm days and tomato tastings. 

I have no idea how many of these dreams will come true, or whether Isaiah will ever get the farm he dreams of.  I hope he does - at least some of it - with us. I hope as he grows bigger, we are wise enough to let him make as much as he can of our place in his image, so that he doesn’t feel he has to go off, seeking a farm that he could never find at home.  I tell him that we can try and make our farm into what he wants - that it will take time and determination and work, and if he’s not afraid of those things, it may well happen.

The old saying “Doing has no need of wishing” is only partly true, you know.  It is true that you need not stand about in hopeless desire for something that seems so far away an unattainable if you set to making it happen.  But there is a time and a place for wishing, for the innocent dreaming of what could be.  I’m glad my son wishes a farm, and I’m looking forward to a long future of doing the work of making both our wishes come true.


Independence Days Update: Say it Ain’t Snow!

Sharon April 27th, 2010

We’re expecting 3 inches of snow tonight.  This does not please me.  It does, however, make me feel a little less guilty about the things I haven’t gotten into the ground yet ;-) .  We had guests, then I  had a cold, then it was raining, and I’m going to be away this weekends, so things are slower than I’d like them to be.  But hey, if it snows, I’ll be vindicated!  Annoyed, cranky, cold, but vindicated.

At least it is precipitating - we have had two weeks of bone dry weather, and the soil was really too dry to plant outside the reaches of our hose - given our climate here, most of my garden is unreachable by any water other than rain, and we’ve never had a problem.  But it does mean occasionally waiting out a dry spell with delicate transplants.  But it is pouring now, at least.

It has been a quiet week here, with guests galore (my sister and her family, Stoneleigh) and not nearly as much work as I’d like.  The new raised beds are coming along slowly, and so is everything else.  

Asparagus and rhubarb are coming in - my first asparagus is just about tall enough to harvest, and down the hill in the valley, they’ve really got it in.  Love, love, love asparagus and rhubarb!

Plant something: lettuce, chard, beets, zinnias, clover, onions, rhubarb, pansies, hollyhocks, carrots, kale, marshmallow

Harvest something: Nettle, raspberry leaves, dandelions, sorrel, chives, rhusbarb, asparagus, eggs, milk.

Preserve something - dried some raspberry leaves

Waste Not: Dandelions galore going for rabbit food, the usual composting and feeding of things to other things.

Want Not: Ordered bulk pasta when I suddenly discovered I had only orzo and lasagna noodles in the house, but nothing in that critical medium size ;-) .

Eat the food: Asparagus wraps (fresh rice paper wraps with asparagus and fresh herbs with dipping sauce), rhubarb compote, stir friend asparagus and tofu .  Yum!

Build community food systems: Really cool new project in the workings, more on this soon!

How about you?


Unschooled Future?

Sharon April 26th, 2010

In my previous post, I observed that I didn’t really have a dog in the hunt of unschooling vs. other homeschooling techniques.  I’m starting to feel like I do, however, mostly because I find the language of unschooling advocates to be so troubling.  I have no doubts that unschooling is a great technique for many children and their parents.  I have no desire to persuade people against unschooling, if that’s the choice they want to make. Moreover, I’ll happily acknowledge that some kids will probably do best unschooled - maybe even many of them.

On the other hand, I find myself quite honestly pissed off by the language of unschoolers - anyone who needs to describe all other methods of parenting and educating with the language of violence using words like “force” and “coercion” to describe loving parenting relations that are different from your own choices deserves some real scrutiny - why is it necessary to then demean all other kinds of parenting or education?  I am deeply suspicious of one true ways, and when people tell me that all children would benefit from one technique, but not all parents are smart enough to pull it off - implicitly impugning the intelligence of anyone who doesn’t make your same choices, I’m turned off.

I am trying really hard to have some sympathy - I understand that people are often hostile to unschoolers, and perhaps these rhetorical techniques are the ones they’ve found work best as a defense - I’m not sure.  But The Light The Truth and The Way in teaching do not appeal to me - not from those who claim that Montessori or Waldorf or whatever is the one true way, and not from the same variety of evangelical (small e) homeschoolers who want to convince us that they too have found the right way to tend children.

That said, I do derive a good bit of my thought from unschooling - we are not really formalized in many areas, and I trust my children to lead us in large degree.  I admire Ivan Ilych and John Holt and other major figures that underly the philosophy of unschooling. My children spend less than an hour most days in formal “schooling” and much of it is self-driven.  Many of the unschoolers I know pretty much do the same things we do, and indeed, given the ubiquity of public education’s single model, I can understand why almost anyone who doesn’t “do school” looks like an unschooler.  My beef here is not with all unschoolers, but with those who seem intent on describe all other parenting as fundamentally destructive.

But besides that, I have of a couple of other problems with what I’m learning about the ideology of radical unschooling.  Part of it is that while I didn’t like a lot of my education, mostly because I found it very boring, the parts that I did like tended to be the ones where the most was expected of me, where I was pushed intellectually beyond the places I would have gone on my own.  Intellectual rigor and discipline in the cause of learning appealed to me - I didn’t find them a turn-off then, and I don’t find it a turn off now.  And while later in my life I could seek out those kinds of teachers, without some experience of that kind of discipline offered to me from an outer source, honestly, I wouldn’t have known where to look for it.

But perhaps the biggest objection I have is this - every unschooler observes to me that “Oh, if my child wants to become a rocket scientist and has never studied higher maths, they can just study hard and learn them, or find teachers and do them quickly.”  And that’s true for some students, in some subjects.  But as someone who has been an autodidact on a number of subjects, it is also true that there is a degree of fluency that often comes from early contact with ideas, a fluency that isn’t always replicable.

I think of it as a crack in the wall - on the other side is an astonishing and glorious wide view that you would not have had before.  But before you get there, you have to do the work of widening the crack enough to see the prospect beyond.  Some children, spotting a crack in the wall, will widen it purely for the fun of seeing what’s on the other side.  Others, however, will only know what’s there if someone encourages - or even requires them to set to the task of widening the view, because without that work and that other perspective, that voice of the person who has seen, there’s no way to fully understand what is there.  I know that many unschoolers have found that their children get to the same place mine will without the price of what they call “coercion.”  But I find myself wondering how big a price the kind of requirements we have “ok, now it is time to” really cost - vs, the risk of never seeing the wide view at all, or waiting until hollowing out the space to see becomes a true burden, more difficult than it ever would have been for a few minutes a day of effort.

I know this can be true - my husband may not have enjoyed Hebrew school every moment during his childhood, but I can see the difference between his fluency with a siddur and my own,  and the difference between my childrens’ relationship to their faith and mine.  Now I know that I could become more fluent with a greater degree of commitment and study, perhaps enough that only I would ever know that it didn’t come easily. But even that knowledge is sufficient - and why condemn my kids to that little hesitation, that limitation, when I can give them life without limits with 15 minutes a day of study - study they enjoy?  I’m not clear on what the case would be for this.  Why demand my teenager give up all the other things he loves to study only maths frantically to meet requirements, when those same things could come to him and he spend his time studying math and reading poetry and working outside? 

Time is not infinite for any of us, and every choice has its cost.  I am open to persuasion that the cost of requiring my children to do things is greater than what they might miss - but I haven’t seen this persuasion made, except in terms I find false - that attempt to equate the coercion one exercises on a prisoner, a colony, a dissident (because this is the language of coercion) with the requirements made by parents who love and teach their children.

Moreover, while the research on how well unschoolers turn out in their skill sets and employability may not be clear, research on some things is very clear.  We know, for example, that Jewish children raised to make up their own minds, without any of the equipment to do so, without the training in prayer and language, history and culture mostly don’t become Jewish.  Plenty of those raised with that training also choose not to be Jews, of course, but the numbers are radically different.  I do not care little enough about my faith to leave to chance whether my children will perceive the benefits of knowing these things before they make a choice - and make it difficult for themselves to acquire this knowledge.  I see no reason to believe that the rules are different for any profession, faith or culture that requires a background skill set that takes a long time to acquire - of course people *can* do it as adults and do.  But I know few people who have done it as an adult who think that they were happier or better off for not having the knowledge in the first place.

And while we do not know whether this is true of everything else, I would suspect it is true of more things than not - indeed, in at least one area, I now it it to be true.  Many of us, for example, grew up spending time with grandparents watching them do subsistence activities that are now largely abandoned, that most of us now have to relearn.  Grandma was there, offering us a useful model of how to can, knit, garden and use herbs.  Grandpa could have taught us to milk the cow and bank a fire in a woodstove and chop wood smoothly and sharpen tools. Some of us did, in fact, take advantage of that knowledge, and have it to pass on.  But most of us lived unschooling for a while, at the feet of our grandparents - and we didn’t learn enough, and now we are scrambling to catch up.  I hear daily from people who know that they can teach themselves these things - but for whom there are not enough hours in the day, and for whom those lost opportunities are a sharp and real sorrow. 

I live in a world where so many people are mourning the lost opportunity to learn - the chance was there, the opportunity, the willing teacher.  And in many cases, what was lacking seems to have been some externally imposed discipline - because no one said “what Grandma is doing is really important, so you need to help her with the gardening” two generations lost their knowledge.  I know some people who complain that they were required to go out in the garden with Grandpa, and then didn’t want to do it for the next forty years too - but not nearly so many as those who mourn the chance and wish someone had given them guidance and some gentle discipline, imposed by someone who has enough experience to see what’s on the other side of the crack in the wall if you just do the work of expanding the view..


Homeschooling, Unschooling…

Sharon April 22nd, 2010

Note, somehow a draft version of this post went up before it was supposed to - apologies for the weird bit.

Crunchy Chicken is exploring the topic of Unschooling at her blog, with a lively discussion in the comments thread.  Her questions about unschooling, (which for the most part seem to go unanswered in favor of easier answers from the unschooling advocates) are whether it is possible for most children to consistently get a good education in some subjects without the discipline of some kind of driving adult force behind them.

The relevant question that underlies this seems to me to be “what are the ultimate limits of auto-didactism for most kids.”  IMHO, neither attacks on bad public schools (which may make the case for some kind of homeschooling or alternative, but don’t make the case for unschooling per se) nor the occasional genius offers a really compelling answer to the question of whether we can ultimately trust kids to lead their own education.

I say this as a homeschooler who uses some elements of unschooling, but who wouldn’t call herself a full unschooler. My own take is that some subjects - music, math, language chief among them - are subjects that can be difficult for older children or adults to pick up without routine and habitual practice.  Moreover, with some of them, there’s an intellectual window at which it is easier to learn them. It is manifestly easier to learn languages when you are young than when you are older - so if they don’t come your way until you suddenly realize their utility later in life, you’ve missed an opportunity.

There are also elements of my life that I simply don’t have a problem with making non-optional.  My kids are part of a Jewish community, and like all the kids in that community will be expected to have a level of Jewish literacy.  I’m glad my kids are interested, but if they weren’t, that wouldn’t matter, because not learning this stuff isn’t optional, and IMHO, it shouldn’t be.  I don’t feel, for example, that a child not required to learn the language, prayers and culture of their people can make a fully rational choice about whether they consider that knoweldge to be of value. 

On the other hand, I’m an auto-didact in some respects - certainly my field of expertise now, environmentalism, is nothing I was ever trained in.  My research and learning curve involved apprenticeships (informal) to other people who knew more and independent research.  Eventually, I started out participating casually and later, wrote as someone with some small expertise. 

My children continually astound me at how huge a range of material they cover on their own - my eight year old reads Arabic and Hindi  and is learning Mandarin- because he thinks they are cool. We require him to learn Spanish and Hebrew, but he picked up the others on his own.  Many things that we might believe he wouldn’t be interested in are of interest to him - in part, I think because he’s never gone to school and joined into the culture of disdain that goes with them.  So I’ve heard my child actually ask my mother, with some excitement “Nana, what’s your favorite punctuation mark?”

There’s something important to be said about preserving children’s enthusiasm and energy in teaching.  And something also to be said about encouraging discipline and participation. I honestly don’t have a dog in this hunt, so I’m curious - what do you think?

Independence Days Update: At Twilight

Sharon April 21st, 2010

During the day it can be very hard to pay attention.  There’s so much work to do, so much laundry to hang and food to cook and digging to do. We’re into the part of the year where the days stretch out into exhausting proportions, and while we’re outside, often I’m looking down or sweating as I haul something and trying not to trip over the goats.

And then there are the kids, who are wonderful, and engaged, and who are little question factories, demanding thought and attention.  Just as I enter the meditative mode, digging, I hear “Mom, who was President when Laura Ingalls was born?  What about when Ma was born?” from Isaiah, or from Simon “Did you know that there can be six different species of algae on a two-toed sloth?  Aren’t sloths cool?!”

From Eli there’s a request for an apple, from Asher for help with his bike or a push on the swing. Isaiah wants to know if he can help me, which entails finding a small shovel, and now Asher needs one too.  Simon brings a bug over for identification, and we all troop over to watch the green snake sunning herself.  There is a constant stream of observations and talk, but not much time for listening.  Then there’s schooling, which goes on while we dig, reciting multiplication tables and poems and discussing soil biology.

Which is why I find myself seeking excuses to go out at twilight, after the kids are settled in their rooms, after the chores are done.  Perhaps because the human life is quieter then, the creatures are less shy - or maybe they were there all along and I just wasn’t in a position to notice.  Last night I watched the lesser flycatchers chasing bugs.  The barn swallows haven’t returned yet, so they have the small side yard field to themselves.

The night before, I watched a lone Canada Goose land in the pond across the road and call for her companions.  They came down thunderously to spend the night, dismaying the beavers who were swimming the ponds.  With a slap of  flat tails the beavers retreated, probably cursing in beaver language.

There are the peepers of course, and the sight of new plants and blossoms each day.  I watch Culpeper trotting across a field, vole in mouth and hear the dogs speaking to other dogs miles away.  On the night of the first thunderstorm of the season (way early for us), we watched the dogs - we could detect the smell of a storm in the air, but they could hear the thunder long before we could, and tell us about it.

It is at twilight that I spot the yellow warbler’s nest - she always builds it in the lilac bush, but this year it was cannily concealed beneath a vine.  I can hear the cedar waxwings, although I can’t see them, and the wrens that nest on the porch are building, because I can see two twigs and a scrap of straw that weren’t there before.  In daylight, I’d never notice it.

At twilight, as we put them in, I notice one of the young ducks has shifted from his baby peep to an assertive quack.  At twilight along the creek, I know I will see the first firefly - not yet, but eventually.  At twilight all the change building around me becomes visible - not because it was not there, but because now I can see.

Daytimes, however, are for work.  The barn is finally almost clean - it was a tough chore this year - because of the heavy snows in early March, it was April before we could begin it, and an extra month of bedding represents many, many extra trips to the compost pile and garden, and pounds of manure and bedding.  We only have to clear out the stall where the rabbits wintered, since it will be our kidding pen.

The big excitement this week was the arrival of a gift from my husband - 500 lightly used cinder blocks, salvaged from an industrial building project.  I’ve replaced the sides of my raised beds too many times - time to build permanent ones.  They are heavy as hell, and we’re moving them by wheelbarrow, but boy will it be worth it.Eric and I also cleaned out the root cellar, which needed it.  We composted only a few veggies this year, and I’m pleased about that. 

We’re eating sorrel, dandelion, good king henry and chives and nettles and the first lettuces in abundance now.  Beet greens and spinach are nearly ready.  And the ramps and fiddleheads are producing now, so the first greens of the season are up.  I don’t think of our growing season as officially starting, however, until we get something red - it is the rhubarb that is the official first crop, the rest are thinnings and good fortune.  And that we’re still waiting for.

We have tons of milk and enough eggs to feed Canada these days, so that’s good - these are our primary crops right now.  As we build the new beds, the medicinals are waiting for their spots - some of them don’t need beds, since we’re focusing on producing wetland herbs, but most of them aren’t quite large enough not to get lost in the weeds!  So there’s a ton to do and not enough hours in the day - but it is so satisfying, and there’s always twilight for noticing.

Plant something: Lettuce, kale, broccoli, mache, chard, beets, carrots, peas, sweet peas, pansies, dianthus, fava beans, cilantro, dill, turnips, cabbage, probably some other stuff too ;-) .  Also marigolds and calendula in flats, chard, cabbage, brussels sprouts and late tomatoes in flats.

Harvest something: sorrel, dandelions, burdock root, marshmallow root, chives, lettuce thinnings, nettle shoots.  Also, milk, eggs and angora fiber.

Preserve something: Nah, too early to bother.

Waste Not: Reduced waste in rotting root cellar produce by better management or good luck (not sure which this year, let’s see if I can duplicate it), built raised beds with manures, used feed sacks for mulch, compsted and fed things to other things as usual, salvaged used cinder blocks for raised beds.

Want Not: Nothing this week, too busy.

Eat the food: Lots of salads and stir fried greens, nothing really fancy.

Build community food systems: Nothing, too tired.  Oh, wait, one radio show.

How about you?


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