Parenting off the beaten path and unschooling to keep kids connected with nature.
In middle March I walk the upper pasture, stumbling under the weight of a pair of five-gallon buckets sloshing sap. The ground is nearly bare; the winter past was a feeble, fleeting thing, almost dreamlike in its rapid passing. Did it really happen? Was I really there? Why, I got the plow truck stuck only once, and two full rows of firewood remain in the shed. I’ll be glad for them come fall.
A gallon of sap weighs eight pounds, and I carry 10 gallons (or maybe nine; I’ve lost some over the bucket rims). Seventy, 80 pounds. Not so much, but the far taps are a quarter mile down the field, hung from the old maples that define the border between our land and our neighbor Melvin’s dairy farm. They are big and graceful trees, overseers of decades and generations, and I cannot help thinking of all the cows that have loafed in their shade. I cannot stop myself thinking of all the storms they’ve survived, all the haying seasons they’ve known. The horse-drawn mowers, then the old Fords and Masseys, and now Melvin’s big New Holland that can lay down the entire field in an afternoon. And every year, they give their sap. Am I honoring or exploiting them by accepting this gift? Strange how it can sometimes seem as if there’s not much difference between the two.
Still, it humbles me to consider all they have seen and all they have given, as if these somehow juxtapose each other in a way that makes me unworthy of their gift. I am glad for the toil: the trudging through the late-February snowpack to drill and tap and hang, and now the daily shoulder-burning haul up the field to the small evaporator, fed with lengths of slabwood pulled off the sawmill as we boil down to the sweet essence of it all.
Halfway home. I stop at another tree, but of course the buckets are too full. I’ll have to come back. Down in the valley, I hear the distant whine of a two-stroke engine, either an end-of-season snowmobile run along some shaded ribbon of snow or an early-season dirt bike. The noise fades into the distance and I can hear the high-pitched bleating of the lambs in the barn and I know they are running to and fro, energized by the warmth and sun and perhaps some instinctual knowledge that soon they will be turned out to the season’s first tender shoots.
I set the buckets on the ground and for a minute, maybe two, I allow my mind to return to the previous morning. It was a cold one, barely a dozen degrees above zero and not yet full light when Rye slipped outside. The boy has caught the “fever,” which is the preferred colloquialism for the affliction that strikes a certain subset of the population that will spend the latter half of March bloodletting the sugar maple trees. The fever is common as mud around here; we have neighbors whose livelihood is utterly dependent on the annual sap run, who for three or four weeks every year don’t sleep more than a few hours per night, having spent the previous 11 months preparing for these hazy, exhausted days. We see them in town, at the post office or the hardware store, and the circles under their eyes tell us everything we need to know about what sort of season it’s been. The bigger the circles, the better the sap’s running, because of course no sugar maker worth his salt will rest when there’s syrup to be made.
For the past month, Rye has been amassing his own pile of slabwood scraps, and yesterday he arranged a small stone fire pit, over which he’ll boil away the 39 parts of water necessary to glean one part of syrup. Concerned that Fin might beat him to the more productive trees before he got a chance to have at them, Rye marked his territory with strands of red yarn days ago.
It looked as if the trees wore necklaces around their trunks. “Those are my trees,” he told Fin, as serious as if his livelihood depended on it, and Fin said OK, fine, whatever, he’d find his own.
One morning after chores, with Rye already stoking his fire and tendrils of steam just beginning to rise off the pot he’d appropriated for the task, I followed my son’s tracks through the waning snowpack, just to see which trees he’d tapped. (“That way,” was all he’d told me when I’d asked, pointing a gloved hand. Rye takes after Penny in that he rarely uses more words than necessary. Someday he might understand what a gift this is.) Down past the pond, over the hill at the pond’s western shore, up the hill after that, and finally, down into the woods, the pitch so steep I had to slide down it on my ass. There, he’d drilled holes into nearly a dozen trees, a small copse of maples so tucked away I hadn’t even known it existed. It was more than a quarter mile from his fire pit, and the haul—on some days, dozens of gallons—would be mostly uphill.
Down in the woods, I remembered a story Penny had told me a few days prior, how when she was driving Rye home from his weekly banjo lesson, she mentioned that there were times she still wished to travel. Penny’s always been like that; when we met, she’d just returned from a year of backpacking and ranch work in Australia and New Zealand, and she can’t quite pluck out the last few strands of wanderlust woven into her DNA. Someday, after the boys are grown, I’ll probably wake up to a note on the kitchen counter: “Pack your bags. We’re going to Africa.” Anyway, Rye said sure, he’d be fine with some travel, no problem. “But we have to be home for sugarin’ and haying,” he implored. “I can’t miss those.”
Late that afternoon, I visited my son again. I kissed his head, his hair damp from steam, tasting of smoke and maple. He’d sat by the hungry fire all day, feeding it whenever it began to wane. Now his pile of wood was nearly gone and the buckets of sap were nearly empty, those 39 parts of water having evaporated as if they were nothing at all.
“How much do you think I’ll get?” he asked, and I peered into his finishing pot, where perhaps a pint of almost-syrup roiled.
“I don’t know,” I replied, unsure of exactly how to break the news that his hours of labor and attention had been reduced to so little. I looked at my boy. His face was smudged with soot. I couldn’t lie. “Maybe a pint?”
“Really? You mean a whole pint?” He tipped his face to me, beaming as surely as if I’d told him his haul would be measured in gallons rather than cups.
“Yeah,” I said, grinning back at him. “A pint. A whole pint.”
My children have enormous freedom to do as they please. This is by design; we have engineered it into our lives, the way most people make room for a career, or strategize their retirement. Most mornings after chores and breakfast, the boys set out on some adventure or another, into the woods or down the field. Usually they do this together, although it is not infrequent that one returns before the other, complaining of a grave injustice: Rye didn’t want to pretend they were carrying a .30-30, and everyone knows you can’t hunt deer with a .22. Rye put wet wood on the fire and it went out. Fin made Rye carry the heavy backpack. Like I said, grave injustices. But they often disappear for hours, returning only when they become hungry or when whatever force that motivated their journey has waned.
“Where’d you guys go?” I’ll ask, and the reply is often long and by necessity detailed: Down the snowmobile trail to Celley’s stream, but the fish weren’t biting, so up the banks of the stream onto the Ackermanns’ land, then doubling back through the hayfield and Keith’s sugarwoods, before returning to camp. “We saw moose tracks,” Fin tells me. “Yeah,” says Rye, “and the scat was fresh. Last night, probably. We found these, too.” He reaches a grubby hand into a pocket, and for a moment, I’m almost afraid of what he’ll extract—Moose poop? Something dead?—but it’s only a handful of wild onions, small white bulbs we’ll slice so thin they become translucent before frying them in butter.
From a parenting perspective, there is a downside to the tremendous degree of freedom they have been afforded: The boys have become rather discerning regarding how they spend their time. In short, when the occasion calls for them to do something they’d rather not do, they are not always accommodating. Part of this, of course, is simply a child’s inability to grapple with time: What is happening right now is everything to a child. There is little awareness that it will pass, that something else will take its place. There is little capacity to understand that an unpleasant task is temporary, that its unpleasantness is a fleeting thing and, furthermore, only as unpleasant as it is believed to be.
Penny and I talk about this a lot. “Are we giving them too much freedom?” I ask, standing in the kitchen in the aftermath of a conflagration with one of my sons or the other, often over a requested task deemed unworthy of their efforts. “I don’t know,” she says, and it’s not a non-answer, because she doesn’t know. Neither do I.
Depending on our mood, and the degree to which the boys have managed to invoke our ire, our perspective on their entitlement spans a broad chasm of possible outcomes. The worst of these, we figure, is that we’ve failed them completely and they will never amount to much of anything, being unwilling to do anything but what suits them in the moment. The best is that we are teaching them to be particular about how they pass their time, that time is a finite resource, and that this will serve them well as they go out into a world that does not encourage such discernment.
I suspect the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, if only because experience has taught me that this is where the truth most often lurks. They will, of course, need to learn how to accept that life will not always meet their expectations. They will benefit greatly if they learn that some of what will be required of them will not be pleasant. They will need to learn that what is not pleasant will be only as unpleasant as they allow it to be.
Still, I can’t help but think of how my own sense of discernment over my time has shaped my life, and generally for the better. I did not like school, so I walked away from it. I did not like working for others, so I chose not to. I do not like to spend a lot of time indoors, so I don’t. The truth is, I want to live the way I want to live, convention be damned, and I can only hope for my sons to know they can be so free.
The boys are building a shelter down in the woods, inspired by a recent trip to help raise a barn. The fellows raising the barn—two mid-twenties college buddies who soured on corporate life and went in on a 30-acre parcel half a stone’s throw from the Canadian border—are living for the summer in a netted tent constructed of small trees and a few sheets of metal roofing. The tent is situated on a jut of land by the banks of a stream, and it’s impossible not to imagine how it might be to fall asleep there, with the water rushing by and the breeze stealing through the net. I could see my sons’ imaginations kick into overdrive the moment they saw the structure; I could tell simply from how their faces were arranged that they’d decided to build one for themselves. This decision had been reached in approximately four-and-a-half seconds. Not a word had been spoken.
The very next morning before Blood had halted his crowing, before the sun was yet full in the sky, before Penny and I had finished morning chores, the boys were down in the woods, scouting locations for their shelter. They’d brought a post hole digger, a handsaw, and numerous sections of baling twine, with which they’d lash the framing posts together.
We called them for breakfast, and they arrived with dirt and bark clinging to their skin. “We’ve got most of the posts cut,” Fin said. “And the holes dug!” Rye chimed in. They ate hurriedly, in a slurping fashion, and then retreated back to the woods.
Three hours later, Rye slipped into the house, left hand tucked into right armpit. “What’s going on?” I asked, although by the way he carried himself and how quiet he was, I knew perfectly well what was going on: He’d hurt himself. “Cut myself,” he said softly, pawing through the first-aid drawer with his uninjured fingers. He extracted a bandage and the bottle of tree tea oil, and commenced to doctor his wounded digit. I continued washing dishes and tried not to watch out of the corner of my eye.
Two hours after that, Fin tromped through the kitchen and also bee-lined for the first-aid drawer. “What’s going on?” I asked, although again I knew perfectly well: He’d hurt himself, smashed a thumb with his hammer, and blood was oozing out from beneath his thumbnail. “Hit my thumb with the hammer, YOWZA,” he said, hopping up and down a little, in an attempt to distract himself from the pain. He pawed through the first-aid drawer with his uninjured fingers, extracted a bandage and the bottle of tea tree oil, and commenced to doctor his wounded digit. I continued preparing lunch and tried not to watch out of the corner of my eye.
By dinner, with no further bloodshed, the boys had erected a sturdy frame. At each juncture of wood, twine had been wrapped and tied. The roof was peaked, and a sturdy ridgepole supported rafters of small red-maple and fir poles. They’d dug a pit off to one side and lined it with rocks to contain their cooking fires. During all of this, they’d asked for and received no help from Penny or me, although clearly one of us would need to cut the metal roofing for them. But otherwise, this project was theirs. The mistakes were theirs. The arguments over how to space the roof strapping were theirs. The small triumph of seeing it assembled was theirs. Even the associated injuries and treatment of them were theirs.
It’s taken me a long time, probably longer than it should have, but I think I might finally be learning to let go. To let my boys saw and hammer. To let them negotiate and argue and yell. To let them screw up and start over and screw up again. To let them bleed and to let them stop their bleeding. To let them follow the spark of an idea and see where it takes them.
What do my children most need from me? The answer is humbling: They need me to let them be.
Ben Hewitt is a popular lecturer, activist, and author. He and his family live in a self-built, solar-powered house in Cabot, Vermont, and operate a 40-acre livestock, vegetable, and berry farm. Excerpted from Home Grown by Ben Hewitt, © 2014 by Ben Hewitt. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA.