An entry in How To Be Poor
As has likely been noticed by regular readers, the How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty has not seen a new entry in over two months. In the last post in the series, Ending Our Exuberance, I wrote of my intention to address some of the ways in which I would have to manage a new living situation so as not to fall into the traps of an overly abundant lifestyle, instead staying focused on my attempts to scale back my life and live within modest means. I planned to write about ways to craft the context of my living so as to assist me in my goals, making that the subject of the next few posts in the series.
A few occurrences have conspired to keep me from that goal, however. First of all, I find I need more time to figure out something of a coherent philosophy and set of behaviors for how to live well on the grid. I’ve been spending some time thinking on this, but I’m not yet ready to write any particularly helpful posts in that regard. Furthermore, as I noted in my last post, I recently slipped into some bad habits and a resulting mental funk that has distracted me from this blog and some of the behavioral goals the blog is about. That accounted for much of my quiet over the last few weeks. However, it also has provided me the opportunity to think about the subject of distractions and habits and how they relate to my attempt to live a simpler life. And so, being an opportunist, I want to recalibrate the current thrust of this series to address the topic of distraction.
This isn’t a complete reversal from the previous topic of context, as distraction is a part of the context of my current living situation. Of course, distraction has been available at every place I’ve lived—the difference lies in what kinds of distraction are available and prevalent. Ultimately, the reality of distraction comes down not to the specific place I’m living, but my own behavior and mentality. The simple truth is that I tend toward distraction, in ways that can border on, and even slip into, addiction. I’ve known this about myself for awhile now. For instance, I spent a good chunk of my childhood addicted to television, consuming it for hours on end and losing much my life to the flickering images of easy emotional comfort. I grew overweight and depressed watching TV, which tended to reinforce my addiction. It wasn’t until I started to play basketball that I began to watch less (but still plenty of) TV and dropped quite a bit of weight, playing myself into a healthier state.
Coincidentally, basketball is my current distraction. Not playing it, though, but watching it on TV—which is available in the place I’m living. The NBA playoffs are in full swing and I’ve been watching them for a month now. Anyone who happens to be familiar with the NBA knows that, up until the championship series, there is generally one or more games on every single night. And while I certainly haven’t watched every game, I’ve watched enough that I’ve given a majority of nights over to this particular distraction.
While I don’t consider watching basketball a sin of the highest degree, it is most certainly a distraction from the multitude of goals I have for myself this year, particularly with the gardening season in full swing. I work two jobs (though even between the two, they don’t make for a full 40 hour work week) and am trying to get a large garden going. I’m also writing this blog and aiming to get a full compliment of homesteading activities in place. Add into all that my propensity for reading, a desire for semi-regular socializing, the urge to revive my fiction writing, household chores, cooking, and the fact that I’m the sort of person who enjoys and benefits from a decent amount of rest or recreational time to think and reflect, and I’m looking at a mighty busy schedule—provided I follow through at least somewhat on all these goals. Such a schedule requires not just a general lack of significant distraction, but also an avoidance of negative, patterned behavior.
Except that significant distraction and negative, patterned behavior is exactly what I’ve provided myself throughout much of the last month.
Watching basketball most nights not only took away from the various aforementioned activities, but worked to slip me into a pattern of negative behavior that saw me actively avoiding much of that work. I still did my regular jobs, of course, and kept up with my obligations to others, but the work that depended on my own personal motivation began to fall by the wayside. Aside from watching basketball, I spent more time clicking around aimlessly on the internet. I started to fall into a trap that I know too well, in which I shirk certain duties for a bit too long, causing me to then double down and avoid them out of guilt for having not already taken care of them. It’s a bad pattern of behavior to get into and I fell head on into it.
Now, before I roundly flog myself, I will note that I did accomplish some things. I worked up a couple beds in the hoop house and planted tomatoes. I started to go up to the farm I lived at last year for some socializing with newly arrived WWOOFers. My work hours picked up a bit. But there still were many days with multiple free hours during which I could have done more work on the garden or experimented with some homesteading, written posts for this blog, responded more readily to comments, did some reading, or revived my long-dormant fiction writing ways. There was no shortage of productive work I could have been doing; just a shortage of motivation to do it.
This is an interesting phenomenon to think about. I don’t think I’m particularly alone here in America in falling into this trap. While I know plenty of people who are much better at getting to work than I am, I also have seen countless others who lose an incredible number of hours to television or the internet, video games, movies or other distracting media. At the risk of sounding like a broken record—but keeping within the theme of this blog—I can’t help but see the tie to an overabundant lifestyle. Much as it’s bizarre to speak of voluntary poverty as a challenge, it’s a bit bizarre to speak of doing the work that needs to be done as a challenge. This isn’t because work can’t be hard—it certainly can be, though it can also be invigorating and joyous—but because we live in an overly abundant society in which distractions are available and pervasive. Furthermore, we live in a society in which we are cultured to partake in these distractions at every possible point, and at the expense of a more meaningful and satisfying life. This is bizarre not just because of its ability to disconnect us from good work and good living, but also because it’s rooted in an abundant wealth that provides the possibility of our turning away from the necessary work of making our living, instead outsourcing it to the industrial economy.
That’s odd. Every other animal goes about making itself a basic living and acting out fairly natural behaviors. Humans, on the other hands—in recent centuries—have gained access to amazing amounts of temporary wealth and resources and used that odd happenstance to specialize to an unprecedented degree and plunge a significant percentage of the population into a life that centers, as much as anything, around manufactured distraction. The circus is forever in town and we’re handed a loaf of bread and a ticket to the main event each day after our allotted work schedule. Our agency plummets, our unease rises, and society crows about how all its ducks are in a row, even as the ducks teeter and topple. Every night the circus tent looks a bit more ragged and the loaf of bread is smaller, but we continue to watch the ever-more-chaotic show.
How odd, then, that as I write this blog about skipping the circus, breaking away from the allotted work schedule and at least occasionally baking your own bread, I found myself suddenly spending more and more nights at the circus, unhappy and disappointed in myself, yet still somehow enthralled by the spectacle. It’s nothing new for me; I’ve spent much my life vacillating between activities that are a distraction from larger goals and the necessary work of achieving those goals.
It’s been a long road for me, getting away from the spectacle and distraction, and I’m only partway down it. I take occasional detours. I get discouraged by the long haul and at times explore a side path, even if I know I need to stay focused on the long term goal. Not to mention—and I’m going to be talking about this more down the line—I live in this house alone and it’s hard not having a partner to help keep me on track. I’m most effective in keeping my obligations to others. When I have only to keep an obligation to myself, I’m far more likely to fail. I think that reality grows out of feedback patterns as much as anything else. I don’t tend toward having a dominant will. It shows up at times, granted—I can get on a tear under the right conditions—but I’m far more likely to go with the flow, to move within the current. That makes this path much harder, as the cultural and societal current is very much going in the opposite direction from where I want to go.
That’s why it’s important for me to craft a different sort of life, featuring different pillars of support and encouragement than our standard society offers. I need others around me who understand and at least somewhat support what I’m doing. I need the natural feedback that the land and the seasons offer. I need those glorious moments of accomplishment that confirm the beauty and necessity of what I’m doing. I need sunny and warm days, or enthralling storms, or the quiet doings of the many other creatures around me, always somewhere within my view, ready to remind me of what’s real and honest and important. I need nights of good socialization, with drinks and campfires and home cooked pizzas and the ease of a night on the farm, the soft glory of a warm summer evening, laughter and shared experience and a place where this life is normal, not bizarre and contradictory.
I also may need, on occasion, the promise and opportunity of a 90 by 40 foot patch of tilled earth staring me in the face. As I wrote in the last post, it was the sudden and unexpected sight of that soil on a warm and sunny day a couple weeks ago that brought me back to a good place. The farmer within me responded with a surprising ferocity and I grew giddy at the thought of what I might be able to do with that gardening space. Since then, I’ve planted potatoes, lettuce, chard, kale, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, parsley—and I keep adding more tomato plants in the hoop house and will soon be getting in peppers, summer and winter squash, a couple globe artichokes, basil, direct-seeded carrots and beets and, well, so much more. I’m a bit slow going on the garden, but every time I get out there and work on it, it brings me a joy and confirmation and sense of purpose that just resonates throughout me. It’s so, so good. It’s so much better than an evening spent watching basketball.
However, I’m still doing that on occasion. Should I? I don’t know—it’s debatable. But I’m watching the Western Conference Finals, which is playing every other night. On Tuesday, I watched it after a long day of building fence and hauling wood, followed up by a few garden maintenance activities. It felt earned at that point and I watched without guilt. Yet, at the same time, my intention to write this post after the game ended gave way to the fatigue brought on by the long day of work. If I had skipped the game, I likely would have finished this post and had it up Tuesday evening. So there are trade offs.
Yet the distractions aren’t going to go away anytime soon. Much of it may yet go away in my lifetime, but I’m not going to get the easy out of all these societal distractions suddenly no longer being available. I’m going to have to either make them more unavailable to me or become better at avoiding them, at choosing the good and necessary work. Or I’m going to have to fail in my goals. These really are my options and I think they’re the options for many people attempting a path similar to mine.
Voluntary poverty, voluntary simplicity, a simpler way of living, a life lived with less resources—whatever you want to call it, it necessarily involves a lot of work, much of which is not sanctioned by our society. It’s the sort of good work that the media-based distractions so prevalent in our society are designed to lead us away from. A life with more agency, more community, and more good work is a life that leads one to spend less, to be less dependent on the industrial economy, and to tend toward a greater degree of self-determination and, I dare say, a greater degree of skepticism toward the so-called leaders in our society. There’s a reason that all this distraction exists: it serves the existing power structures well. That’s not to say it’s a vast conspiracy, as I don’t believe it is. It’s just that there’s money to be made, a system to be maintained, and power to be held onto and the various distractions available to us in America and in many other industrialized nations serve those goals. They arise naturally out of the system.
As such, any attempt to live one’s life in a scaled back and more self-sufficient manner is going to necessarily involve divesting oneself of many of those distractions. They reinforce behavioral and thought patterns that are antithetical to voluntary poverty and consistently reinforce the values of a society that is actively hostile to such a life. I speak from way too much experience on this topic. In the coming weeks, I’m going to use that experience to explore some of the ways in which our society offers up distraction, how we can go about avoiding those distractions, and how we can turn the natural desires and needs that those distractions target away from the destructive fulfillment that society at large offers and toward a more human-centered set of behaviors. I’ll be exploring different forms of media, what they’ve become in our industrial society, and in what ways they might serve as a healthy part of a community. Then I’ll be turning this all back to an exploration of the necessity of human community in a world of restricted wealth and resources.
That’s the goal, anyway. We’ll see how many detours and side paths I discover on my way there.
The weather here this week has been beautiful. It’s been sunny and warm, which is a real blessing this time of year as it can just as easily be cool and rainy. I’ve been glorying in it and getting some work done on my long-delayed garden plans. I’ve also been socializing and working otherwise, so that’s part of the reason there’s been no new post in the last week.
I have more gardening, working and socializing happening today, so here are a few pictures of the Oregon coast to help tide you all over. I actually will be heading out to the first pictured spot later today with some friends. It’s a place that always calms and reinvigorates me.
Waves crashing against the cliffs, along the Oregon coast.
Looking north from Cape Falcon, on the Oregon coast.
When I lived in Portland, I paid $10 for a gallon of milk.
This wasn’t store bought milk, of course, but raw milk. It came from a farm south of the city—a piece of land leased by two wonderful women, Karyn and Carissa, who kept a couple milking cows and a small flock of chickens. These two women deeply cared for their animals and treated them—as well as their customers—as part of their family. Initially, their milk came from a Jersey named Opal; later on, Kaycee, a Fleckvieh, joined the family. They both produced amazing milk, but I started with Opal and she always remained my favorite. Often I would find myself faced with a shelf full of half gallon Mason jars, each one labeled with a name—Opal or Kaycee—and the date of milking. Given the choice, I always snagged Opal jars. The richness of the milk was one of the reasons, as the milk’s fat content had been measured at close to six percent in one test. But affection played a role, too.
The first time I met Opal, I fell a bit in love. She was small—for a cow, anyway—and brown, had those long Jersey eyelashes, was calm and clean and on grass, looking the picture-perfect cow. I came near her and put my hand against her hide, spoke to her. Karyn and Carissa raved about how easy she was to milk, about her gentle demeanor. I could sense that gentle spirit when I met her and something about that moment—about putting my hand on her, seeing her eyes, knowing that this was the creature who provided me good food and nourishment—struck a deep chord.
Looking back, I think part of that was a small awakening of the agrarian in me. At that time, I had never farmed and had only started to learn more about food, to better understand what it could and could not be, to better understand the care that could be taken in growing and raising it or the destruction that could be wrought in the same process. It also was a moment of connection unfamiliar to me. Much of my life, I didn’t know where my food came from, though throughout much of my childhood we did have a large garden that I worked in. Still, I ate so much from the store and so much fast food and processed food. I grew up mostly in the suburbs and had never known farming, or ever been much interested in it. For a good portion of my life, food had been little more than a requirement and I had literally said numerous times that if I didn’t have to eat, I happily wouldn’t.
Now, I farm. I’ve worked on three vegetable farms and currently work for two farms that raise pastured animals for meat, one of which has a dairy component, as well. The presence of cows is routine for me these days. I’m much more familiar with the sight of them, their smell and feel, their sound and behavior. But I still love to see a Jersey and almost every time I do, I think of Opal and I think of her milk.
— ∞ —
As I already noted, Opal’s milk had a high fat content, at nearly twice the fat of whole milk bought at the store. Her milk was sometimes so rich and creamy and sweet from the good grass she ate, it felt and tasted almost like drinking ice cream. It may seem silly to wax poetic over milk—it’s just milk, after all, such a standard food. Except that’s the point. There was nothing standard about Opal’s milk in comparison to what you would buy at the store. The store milk couldn’t compare. It couldn’t begin to. The sweetness of Opal’s milk, the freshness, the lack of that subtle burnt flavor often imparted by pasteurization (which one generally needs to drink raw milk to begin to detect in pasteurized milk) the creaminess of it, the health and vitality—it was all there.
It had flavor, and that flavor changed over the course of the year. The changing grass—Opal’s fluctuating diet—effected the taste of the milk. It evolved, as well, as it sat in the fridge. Each day it grew a bit different in its taste as it would slowly work its way to the point of souring, which is a natural process in raw milk rather than the putrification that happens with pasteurized milk. Sour raw milk isn’t rotten; it’s changed. It’s going through the same sort of process that creates yogurt, though the result isn’t the same. But it still can be used once it sours and remains a healthy and living food.
As I became more familiar with raw milk, I began to understand how it offered a different experience than store bought milk. Raw milk was a real, non-standardized food that functioned within the same sort of systems and patterns that other living food does. It changed depending on its circumstances—the flavor and fat content altered by Opal’s diet and it’s taste and composition changing as the milk aged and the bacterial ecosystem within it grew and evolved (with that bacteria generally being of the beneficial kind, along the same lines as the critical microfauna found in the human digestive system.) Leave the milk alone for a few hours and the cream begins to rise to the top. Shake it and you’re back to having it dispersed within the milk.
This milk hadn’t been homogenized or standardized. It hadn’t had the flavor burnt out of it or its unique bacteria profile killed via pasteurization. It didn’t have an exact expiration date. In many ways, it didn’t have any expiration date, as its evolving stages lent itself to changing uses. It wasn’t a conglomeration of hundreds or thousands of different cows’ milk and it wasn’t untraceable or virtually untraceable by dint of it being the end result of a vast, complicated and confusing industrial dairy system. It was Opal’s milk. It came from a cow I had met and spoken to and touched, it had been milked by the hands of two women whom I knew and am friends with, it was the result of eaten grass from a pasture I had stood in. I knew exactly where it came from and how it had come to me.
— ∞ —
Getting Opal’s milk took a community. In fact, learning about Opal’s milk took a community.
I first learned of the availability of Opal’s milk via a homesteading group I participated in. Started by my friend Eric and his girlfriend, the group met once a month and covered a predetermined topic, taught by a few members from the group who already had knowledge of that activity or had been tasked with researching it and then presenting information to the group. I loved the group and learned quite a bit from it. As it happened, some of the members were interested in getting raw milk and Eric, via his work on an urban farm, had learned of Karyn and Carissa and the milk they had available.
Getting Opal’s milk was far different from going to the store. According to Oregon state law, you can only sell raw cow milk on the farm. There also is a restriction of only having two producing cows on the premises and advertising raw milk is illegal, so the only way for people to find out about it is via customer word of mouth. Due to these restrictions and because the farm was about a 35 mile drive from us, we needed to get together a group of people who could take turns driving to the farm each week to make the arrangement viable. We eventually cobbled together enough people so that, with each of us taking a turn, nobody would have to make the drive down to the farm more often than every eight or ten weeks.
All of this required communication and organization. We had an email list and a schedule worked out a couple months in advance. Everyone would sign up for a week and knew that on their day they would have to load up their car with coolers and ice packs, drive down to the farm, pick up the milk, bring it back, and store it in a central location in Portland where everyone would come to get their milk for the week. For the most part, everyone performed well. Every once in awhile some snafu would take place and there would be some frantic rearranging or a notice would go out that the milk was running late. In other words, our little community functioned as you would expect a community to function: mostly well, but with the occasional hiccup. Everyone took these hiccups in stride.
We had a shared goal, after all. In our small way, we were a community working for our own common good.
— ∞ —
Picking up the milk was not a chore. It was a visit and, in its own way, a small celebration.
On the appointed day, I would make the drive down to the farm and visit with Carissa. Sometimes I visited with Karyn, too, but she was often at her job as a dairy tester, so more often than not it was Carissa’s company I kept. The beautiful thing about Karyn and Carissa is that they seemed to love the visits and always treated them as one of the high points of their week. On arrival, I was almost always offered tea, with fresh raw cream of course available for it. It was not uncommon for there to be a snack, as well—cookies or brownies or something else delicious. Most important, though, was the conversation. I would arrive, come in, sit down and we would start to chat about the farm, the cows, whatever was happening in our lives. I spoke of my interest in farming, we talked about food issues, we sometimes talked a bit of politics or other news. We shared our observations on society. We chatted about gardening, about chickens, about the weather. The conversations were easy and a joy and they usually ended upon the realization that I had to get the coolers loaded up and the milk back before the official start of pickup time. They always seemed to end out of necessity rather than desire.
Sometimes we would go and visit the animals, saying a hello to Opal and Kaycee, walking in the pasture. I regularly saw the source of my food and always Opal looked happy and content, usually munching away on grass, often paired with Kaycee.
On one of my visits my friend Peter came along, as he was looking for a source of raw milk. He grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania and spoke with Carissa at great length and with much enthusiasm about dairy farming, chatting about different breeds and the differences between the larger farm he grew up on and the very small operation Karyn and Carissa ran. We went out and visited Opal and Kaycee and Jazmine, a young calf. Jazmine came up to Peter and he put out a few fingers for her to suck and attempt to nurse on. She bucked against him so hard that he soon found his hand bleeding. Yet, as far as I could tell, he loved every moment of it, his enthusiasm boundless, the visit bringing back a multitude of memories from his childhood.
— ∞ —
The land Karyn and Carissa farmed was not their own, instead being leased. As time went on, they became less certain about their ability to stay on the land long term. That led to a period of transition in which they started to look for good homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine. They didn’t take them to the auction or sell them off to a high bidder. They researched and looked around and put out the word, visited farms and farmers, and patiently looked for the perfect fit. Giving up these members of their families wasn’t going to be easy and they certainly weren’t going to make it worse by sending them to less-than-perfect new homes.
Throughout this process, all of us who were getting milk or had gotten milk in the past from this family were sent email updates and given all the latest news. We were told what was happening and why it was happening, and given a window into the process of finding new homes from the cows who had so steadfastly fed us over the months and years.
As Karyn and Carissa found new homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine, they told us where they would be going and gave us updates on the transition. The new owners sent out emails as well, offering updates and providing those of us who wanted to stay with the cows we knew the opportunity to sign up to buy their milk from them. I didn’t sign up—not, of course, because I didn’t still want Opal’s milk, but because I was moving to the Oregon coast to begin work on my third farm. And yet, despite the fact that I didn’t sign up to receive milk, I still receive the occasional email update about Opal. When Opal calved a year ago, I received an announcement and a picture of her beautiful daughter. It brightened my day.
— ∞ —
I’ve seen someone, a skeptic of raw milk, wonder why on earth someone would pay $10 for a gallon of milk. Well, all of the above memories exist because of $10 a gallon milk.
Every time I received Opal’s milk, I knew where it came from. I knew who it came from. I knew Opal lived a good life. I knew what I was paying for: care and affection, love, good work, good food, community, friendship, authenticity and an overriding ethic that touched everyone involved. I paid to know that the milk I drank was the healthiest and tastiest milk I would ever drink. I paid $10 a gallon to know that I was supporting a farm that made the world better, that I was supporting farmers who bettered their community, that I was supporting an entirely different model rooted in a love and respect that the industrial model of farming can’t even comprehend, much less engage. I paid $10 a gallon to live and eat well. I paid $10 a gallon for connection and for a weekly joy that arrived steadfast and unerringly. I have drunk store bought milk uncountable times in my life and never did I know the cow it came from, the people who produced it, or how it came to me. Correspondingly, I never felt a real joy drinking that milk. But almost every single time I drank some of Opal’s milk, I felt an honest-to-god joy, a satisfaction I cherished.
Of course I would pay $10 a gallon for that. It’s not even a question. And I’ve never made much money. But I always found the money to pay extra for milk that was worth it—for a community that was worth it.
I wrote in my post on making butter about patterns and systems and it’s those exact patterns and systems that have led me numerous times in my life to happily pay more for Opal’s milk, for milk that’s rooted in my local community and provided to me via love and affection and the sort of good work that’s become rare in our industrial economy. Of course that’s worth the money. If anything’s worth buying—if anything’s worth supporting—it’s that.
Now I have a source of raw milk that’s less expensive. I have over a gallon of milk in my refrigerator right this moment. And I have very limited income. But if someone were to walk up to me right now with a gallon of Opal’s milk, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay $10 for it. I wouldn’t hesitate to part with $10 for the chance to taste her milk again, to relive some of those memories she’s given to me, to remember the community that we all built around her milk and the amazing women who provided us with it.
If I can’t use what little money I have to help support and build these sorts of communities, what the hell good is it? This is why we’re here, folks. Someone asks why I would pay $10 for a gallon of milk? Community and affection is my answer. If we can’t be bothered to support those—even when it costs more, or it’s less convenient, a greater challenge—than we’re in dire straights, indeed. We have to think about and see the patterns. A gallon of milk is not a gallon of milk. A carrot is not a carrot. A human being is not a human being and a community not a community. They’re all dependent on context. They can be happy or miserable, healthy or diseased, abundant or denuded.
As Wendell Berry recently said, and E.M. Forster said before him, it all turns on affection. We can’t have a good world if we don’t love.
We can’t do this if we don’t care.
Opal’s baby girl, born about a year ago.
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