Random notes

I’m not posting infrequently because I’m short on things to write, but just on time to write them. And I don’t know how long it’ll be before things change. This is the time of year when longer-term projects cry out to be completed, and I usually discover that I’ve put things off longer than is wise. Right now I’m editing the first set of recordings for the Plain Talk series; it’s going well, but it’s taking a bit more time than I expected.After that I need to add about twenty-five new family reading time books to the website; each one of those needs a description written for it, and then I need to create a family reading time page. Then I need to review the website and make sure all the book descriptions are up to snuff, in preparation for the work I’ll be doing in January on the 2006 catalog.

All those chores crowd out not just weblogging but other useful work I need to be doing around the house—finish laying the hardwood floors, mud and sand the closet drywall, paint, patch holes, etc. That work needs to continue at a steady if slow pace, and so it fills in cracks that might otherwise be used for posting to this weblog.

Chris and I are preparing for the year’s final performances. Our friend Ron Short is staging his Christmas in Appalachia program in three separate locations on three consecutive Fridays. It is a cross between a performance and a community sing which has gone on for fifteen years now. We performed at one of them last year, held at the Appalshop; it was a highlight of the year for us, having 200 people in a small theater paying close attention. So even though we only perform three songs at each event, we’ve chosen them carefully and worked pretty hard on them. We’ll be doing more than three songs total, saving our favorites for the final performance, which will be held at the Appalshop. One of those is our own arrangement of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”, one that surprised even us by turning out so well.

Last Tuesday we attended another workshop put on by the Kentucky Arts Council, this one helping artists understand the ins and outs of doing a residency in the public schools. Musicians often develop programs that they can take around to the schools; it’s not a living, but it does provide paying work during the slow part of the year. I don’t have any qualms about being paid to run a program in a public school, any more than I would about doing janitorial work for one or selling one food. The process is complicated and time-consuming, so I don’t know whether we would ever actually do such a thing, but it’s something we wanted to know more about.

The workshop was divided into two parts, with the afternoon devoted to artists and the evening to teachers. The artists who attended in the afternoon were invited to stay for the first part of the evening workshop and make a short presentation to the teachers who might be interested in working with them. We stayed, said a few words about the sort of programs we might be capable of putting together, and then sang them a song, the unaccompanied Primitive Baptist hymn “Here in the Vineyard.” I doubt that most of them had ever heard such a thing, but it went over well. As we were ducking out, the workshop organizer caught us and asked for a business card, saying she had a couple of projects in mind that we might be able to help her with. That sort of contact is a good part of the reason we go to these things.

I’m still learning how to properly operate our wood stove. Not being ready to learn how to wield an axe, I bought a wood-splitting gizmo that was safer and more manageable. Chris has spent a few days now making smaller logs out of big ones, and it seems to do the job well. And I’m finding it much easier to build and maintain a good fire using the smaller logs. Another helpful accessory I bought is a thermometer that attaches magnetically to the stove; I can now see whether my variations in technique are actually making the stove hotter or cooler. I can consistently get the stove to 600 degrees on the outside (the manual says that the insidetemperature for a good burn will be 1100 degrees or higher), and at that point it keeps the downstairs toasty and the upstairs surprisingly warm.

A happy Thanksgiving Day

We generally don’t take official holidays, preferring to work or rest according to the situation rather than the calendar. Thanksgiving is a bit of an exception because we do like to have a bountiful midday meal, which calls for a lot of preparation in the kitchen as well as cleanup afterwards, and we have to recognize that a full belly is going to require a relaxed pace in the afternoon. So we usually treat it as a half-day off.

Today was an exception to the exception. In the morning the weather was so good that it would have been a shame for the kids not to spend it outside playing, so they did. Meanwhile I finished up a long post about my grand visitation tour to Christian agrarian bloggers to the north and west of here, and that hardly seemed like work at all. Around 1pm the fruits of some diligent kitchen work by Debbie and Maggie started to hit the dining table—turkey, ham, corn, green beans, stuffing, cranberry sauce, rolls, homemade butter, apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, all washed down with real milk, clean water, and strong coffee.

And bowing to reality, the “work” for the afternoon was to lounge around the family room reviewing a new DVD we’d been asked to carry, a two-hour tour of Joel Salatin’s farming operation. The video was excellent, the chairs and couches were comfortable, and the wood stove was pouring out the heat. Too much easy lifting like that would be bad for us, but it was a pleasant and yet productive way to finish up the afternoon.

Then tonight we’ll have another pleasant challenge, as the temperature drops to 18 degrees and we see how well our wood stove measures up.

Plain Talk

I always have a handful of ambitious but vague projects brewing. I keep them to myself as long as possible, because most of them will never get beyond the thinking stage. and it’s easy to get a reputation for being all hat and no cattle, i.e. all talk and no action.

Occasionally I will announce a project in its early stages, as a way of pushing myself to make it a reality. But this can backfire if the project hasn’t spent enough time in the thinking stage. Good examples include the series of study guides that I have promised and failed to deliver on multiple occasions, and the plan to exhibit at homeschool conventions that we abandoned at the last minute earlier this year. Both were projects I thought were very important to complete, and because I was having trouble getting them off the ground I tried announcing them early as a way of forcing the issue. Further thinking revealed that the study guides needed, well, further thinking, and that exhibiting at a homeschool conference was just a bad idea. If I hadn’t broadcast my plans early on, I would have been spared some embarrassment.

One of the projects I have been thinking over for the past six months or so is recording a series of conversations with fairly ordinary people who are passionately involved in something that is of general interest. It’s my experience that nearly everyone becomes articulate and persuasive when discussing a topic that is close to their heart. I especially like to listen in on such conversations when the folks talking aren’t hampered by highly developed speaking skills; the talk is plain and direct, and can move a sympathetic listener to action. And I think the passionate testimony of someone who just happens to know and love a particular matter is more affecting than a similar message from someone who is in the business of communicating such messages. So for awhile now I’ve been wanting to produce a series of recordings called Plain Talk, which would be just that—straightforward conversations with ordinary folks on topics that are important to everyday living.

More recently, I realized that the growing community of Christian agrarian webloggers were exactly the sort of folks I was looking to talk with. In fact, I saw that for many of them their passion for agrarian living had trumped their natural reluctance to engage in something as self-focused as weblogging. They are driven to edify and encourage others by telling their own stories, and to do so they will risk coming off as immodest. I understand their passion, having kept my own weblog for five years now for the same reason. And I’ve been greatly edified and encouraged by them as I’ve made slow, stumbling progress on my own agrarian journey.

So it seemed good to start the conversation with them. Early this summer I asked a few of the Christian agrarian webloggers if they would be williing to participate. Some were hesitant; still struggling with the matter of public writing, they were uncomfortable positioning themselves as public speakers. But again the drive to get the message out overcame their uncertainty, and they agreed to give it a try.

At that point the plan was still vague, and a busy summer and fall kept it on the back burner. But one of the ongoing jobs this fall has been to revise and expand our offerings in preparation for the next catalog, due in February 2006, and the thought kept coming up that it would be very good to have a bunch of the Plain Talk recordings available for sale by that point. I decided to try to have eight of them ready by the end of 2005, and to get a start on the project sometime in November.

Happily, unrelated circumstances forced me to start the project. Chad Degenhart let me know that he and his family would be passing through, and we asked them to come visit. Chad was on the list of folks I knew I wanted to talk with, so we decided to try recording a conversation during their visit. We did, and it went well enough to get me thinking through the details of how to get another seven of them recorded.

I looked down my list of folks I hoped to talk with, and saw that six of them lived along a loop to the west and north of me—Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Indiana. Assuming their schedules would permit it and that I didn’t linger too long in any one place, I could drive that loop in six days. Then I looked at our calendar and found that the only full week available before the end of the year was the following week. None of the six people knew about the project, so I quickly sent emails to all of them explaining the idea, asking if they were willing to participate, and asking if they would be available the next week. All six were surprised to be asked; some were pleased to help out, and some were a bit hesitant, but soon enough I had appointments set with all of them.

I left home Sunday afternoon and drove to the west side of St. Louis. The next day I drove to Covenant Reformed Church in Rayville, Missouri, where I met Pastor Thomas McConnell in his basement office for a noonday recording session. Our visit was brief—I was on the road again by 2pm—but the conversation was excellent, just the sort of thing I had hoped for. Pastor McConnell has a vision for Covenant Reformed Church and the town of Rayville that is well thought out, practical, and stirring. I think our conversation will inspire many of the folks who are taking their first hesitant steps along the path to a Christian agrarian life, and may lead some of them to consider participating in the work that he is doing there.

By 7pm I was some distance into Kansas, visiting with Brian and Christina Fuller of Fuller Family Farms. Like many of us I’d come to treasure Christina’s weblog, both for its own sake and for the fact that it provided constant practical encouragement for women who were pursuing an agrarian life for their families; it’s a kind of encouragement we need more of, and so I was particularly hopeful that we could record a conversation that would be similarly helpful. There are obvious and reasonable questions, though, about the propriety of me having this sort of conversation with a woman, particularly a homeschooling mom whose husband works away from home during the day. Brian and Christina decided to give it a try, during the evening when Brian could be present. I spent a little time beforehand talking with Christina about the project and my own background, while eating away at some excellent Fuller family cheese. Then we recorded our conversation, which I think was a great success; the Fullers’ family story is a compelling one, and Christina tells it in a lively and thoughtful way. I left late that evening, taking some of that delicious cheese with me, again wishing I could have stayed longer to visit.

The next morning I looked out my hotel room window and saw snow on the ground; so much for my plan to avoid winter weather by making my tour in mid-November. That day I drove to Ames, Iowa through lots of slushy, blinding snow, and although it wasn’t cold enough for the roads to freeze there was enough accumulation that every time a truck pass me it would coat the windshield with so much snow that it took long scary seconds for the wipers to clear the view. Around 4pm I arrived at Shady Larch Farm to visit with Jim Cutler and his family. This was going to be the most leisurely part of my trip, since I was staying the night with the Cutlers, and of course we spent the afternoon and early evening talking away. I was a bit worried that when we turned on the recorder about 9pm that we had talked ourselves out, but no such thing—again the conversation was very good, just the sort I had been hoping for.

That night was a cozy one, sleeping in a well-insulated farmhouse heated by a wood stove while 50 mph winds came blowing across the plains from the north. After another chance to eat the Cutlers’ wonderful home cooking, I drove over icy roads into the town of Ames to visit with John VanDyk, a friend I met through his weblog five years ago, when he and I were part of what was then a very small community. At the time John was homesteading, a word whose meaning I barely knew, on acreage 30 minutes outside of Ames while still working at Iowa State University in town; since then he has moved to the outskirts of town. I learned a lot from reading John’s running account of his experiences as a homesteader, and when I first started making noise earlier this year about moving onto acreage and trying my hand at farming John was gracious enough to send me a detailed email warning me against being overly starry-eyed about rural life. It was a much-needed corrective, and I was looking forward to covering much of the same ground in our recorded conversation.

Once I arrived we agreed to plunge right into the recording, then go out to lunch afterwards. Because I know John and enjoy talking with him, our session ended up being much more of a conversation—in fact, I probably did too much of the talking—but I think it went well and I hope others will enjoy it. When we were done we lingered over a great meal at Hickory Park, and then I was back on the road, arriving in St. Cloud, MN around 7pm.

The next morning I drove another half-hour north through frigid but sunny weather to visit with Tom Scepaniak, who has been chronicling his ongoing transition from commercial to traditional farming methods. I drove up just as Tom and his father were finishing the morning chores; the three of us chatted a bit, and then Tom drove me around his farm, showing off his cows and his corn, noting how he was glad for the cold weather because it froze the muddy ground. We then went to his home, next door to his father, and proceeded to record a conversation that explored the farm life from the point of view of a man who had grown up on a farm, gone part of the way toward commercial farming, but then decided to break free of the agribusiness model. Again I had to be on the road shortly after we were done, in order to drive part of the distance to my final stop.

That final stop was at Pilgrim’s Wayside Farm just outside Indianapolis, to visit with John Mesko and his family. As I arrived early in the afternoon, John was driving his John Deere tractor onto a flatbed trailer so that he could drive it to Minnesota the next day. The Meskos are pretty busy right now, but were gracious enough to make time for our conversation, and we talked about their efforts to create a farm that would not only sustain their family but would also reach out to the community and teach them about agrarian living. As I was leaving, the Meskos were distressed enough that I couldn’t stay for supper that they insisted I take one of their chickens and a couple dozen eggs along (they didn’t have to inisist very hard). Five hours later I was home again.

You won’t be surprised to learn that each and every family was more delightful in person than they are as an internet presence; I wish they all lived next door, and I hope there’ll be chances in the future for longer visits. My biggest regret was that there was so little time available to get to know them in person. But I hope that the conversations we recorded will give people a chance to get to know them better than is possible through their weblogs. Although the project isn’t complete yet, it’s far enough along that I’m confident enough to talk about it publicly. I’ve begun editing the conversations, and if things go well they should be available for sale in a few weeks.

My second biggest regret? That I drove through Kansas City—twice!—without being able to stop and eat there. Some of the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten, and some of the best pan-fried chicken, is served in Kansas City, and folks who know me well will understand how painful it was for me to pass them up. But I was a man on a mission, and for once the mission trumped my stomach.

Wood heat

(Still working on that trip report …)

Last Friday we had a wood stove installed. We inherited a Pioneer Maid kitchen stove with the house, which is not only for cooking but also for heating the house. But it’ll be a long time if ever before we’re cooking with wood, and so we decided that it was worth the extra expense to install a heating stove in the family room where we’d enjoy it more.

We’re still figuring out how to fire the stove properly. There is a lot of good information available on the internet, particularly at the woodheat.org website, but even a five-page detailed description of how to build and maintain a wood fire didn’t explain it all to me. So for the past few days I’ve been prodding and poking and rearranging and watching, and (I think) slowly learning how to produce sufficient heat while burning as long as possible. I haven’t yet figured out how to get a good overnight burn—right now I get up around 3am to feed the stove—but I am confident it will come.

One thing I heard tuned out to be true, namely that purchased firewood is almost always too big. We hope to be harvesting our own wood next year, but this year we had to buy it, and the pieces are a good length (16″) but much too thick to be stacked easily in the stove. Once we’re equipped to split wood ourselves, we’ll take this wood and break it up, and then I think I’ll be able to properly pack the stove for a long burn.

It also turns out to be true that Amish floorplans are well suited for heating with a wood stove. The hot air goes right up the stairway, and although it’s cooler upstairs it is warm enough, particularly at night. Soon we’ll probably install floor registers (i.e. holes in the floor through to the ceiling below) in all the upstairs rooms, so that the hot air will rise up the stairwell, then fall through the registers back into the family room when it cools.

Safely home again

Late Friday evening I returned home from a week-long road trip around the area to the west and north of Kentucky, during which I made stops in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Indiana. The rental car receipt tells me I drove a total of 3000 miles, but I’m skeptical about that. The road trip was part of a project that has been on my mind for awhile but only recently left the thinking stages. For those of you who helped me out this past week, thanks so much for helping to turn the idea into reality. For the rest of you, I don’t mean to keep things mysterious; in fact, I’m working on a long post describing the project and the work that was done for it last week. But it’ll be another day or two before I’m finished writing it. Meanwhile, it was a good week’s work, but it’s also good to be home.

Workshop on press kits

Monday Chris and I drove over to Jackson County for a workshop on how to put together a good press kit. The workshop was presented by Carla Gover and Mitch Barrett, collectively known as Zoe Speaks; they are singer-songwriters whose music draws heavily on their Appalachian upbringing, and their music is quite good. The workshop was sponsored by the Kentucky Arts Council, which seems to be pretty actively involved in helping local musicians.

I couldn’t tell how much the other participants were getting from the presentation—sometimes I think people come to such things hoping to hear the “secret” that will allow them to break into the circle, rather than to learn how they can apply themselves to the task of becoming better musicians—but Chris and I found it very helpful. Many of the things we had heard or read before, but it made a big difference to have it all put in context by working musicians who had done just such things; they shared stories of what had worked and what hadn’t worked, and it all became much more concrete in our minds. We came away with lots of helpful advice on how to improve the materials we already have, plus a greater understanding of how those materials fit into the overall project of becoming working musicians. We also learned some things that started us thinking about how to present ourselves in a more focused way, so that people can know as quickly as possible what we’re about and what to expect from us.

There will be at least two more workshops for musicians in the next few weeks, one on business dealings for musicians (working with booking agents, record labels, etc.) and one on how to get work doing programs at Kentucky schools. We’ll be attending those and any others we learn about, both to learn what we can and to meet other Kentucky musicians.


Yesterday Chris and I spent the afternoon in Virginia with our friend and mentor Ron Short, then joined him at a benefit concert that evening. As we were leaving the theater, I nearly backed the car off a three-foot-high retaining wall, but fortunately Chris stopped me in time. Then on the freeway home early this morning a deer crashed into our car, causing major damage—smashed windshield and rear passenger window, crushed fender, bent rear passenger door.

The good news, of course, is that God spared our lives. Even better, the car was still drivable (although the rear passenger door wouldn’t latch shut), and we made it home without further difficulty. As I drove home my mind was spinning with concerns about how I was going to deal with the results. In the light of day everything turns out to be fairly straightforward. The insurance company is about to regret that they refused to give us more than a $500 collision deductible on our policy; an adjuster will be here in a couple of days to look things over and then write a check for the repairs. For the most part we can get by with one vehicle, and for the short stretch where we can’t I was able to find a good price on a rental car. What little worrying I did was wasted.

There’s always the tempation to interpret unusual events. Wake-up call? Reminder of God’s providence? Satanic attack? I don’t know, and I suppose I never will on this side of Jordan. There may come a time when I’ll look back and understand better exactly what it was about. Meanwhile I’m grateful (as always) that God’s bountiful provision for us in the past will mean that this glitch won’t be burdensome.