The Hewitts keep six cows, most of them Jersey/Milking Shorthorn crosses.
Photo Credit : Penny Hewitt
Given that this is our first column together, I suppose it makes sense to begin with a description of our place, its features both natural and manmade, the folds and hollows of field and woodland, and the hard, etched lines of house and barn and outbuildings. Probably, too, I should introduce myself and my family, whose faces (especially those of my children, so often the subject of my wife Penny’s photography) will undoubtedly be a commonplace sight in these pages.
I am Ben Hewitt, and I live with Penny and our two sons, Finlay, 12, and Rye, 9, on a 40-acre hill farm in Cabot, Vermont, just a few miles from the traditional boundary of the Northeast Kingdom. You’ve probably heard of Cabot; it’s where Cabot Creamery cheese comes from. Fin and Rye are unquestionably products of their environment. They know how to milk a cow. They know how to butcher a hog and wield a splitting maul. They can identify at least six different edible wild mushrooms in our woods. They can shoot a gun and drive a tractor and erect a watertight shelter of twigs and leaves. They know many of the things most children their age once knew in this country.
My family and I don’t farm for our income, at least not in the common understanding of income as being composed solely of money. That’s not to say we don’t sell some of our farm products, because we do. But the majority of what we produce stays in our home, or finds its way to the homes of our immediate neighbors and family, often via informal barter. Meanwhile, the bulk of our moneyed income is earned via my writing, both in these pages and elsewhere. I once heard a writer describe his craft as a poor living but a great life, and I can find little to disagree with in that sentiment. Come to think of it, I once heard a farmer say the same thing. He was right, too.
On our farm we currently have six cows, two of which are in milk, the rest of which will become beef at some later date. We have a small flock of sheep, usually a half-dozen or so; we raise them for meat and for wool. Each year, we fatten a few hogs on waste milk from our cows and from the dairy farm located a quarter-mile up the road. There’s a flock of laying hens, of course, and the boys husband a small herd of goats. Every summer, we raise a batch of broiler chickens for the freezer.
We have 100 mature blueberry bushes, which means there’s a day every summer that one or both of the boys come running down the field, clutching the season’s first ripe specimens in a grubby fist. It also means that we eat blueberries all winter long: over pancakes, in yogurt, straight out of the bags we freeze them in. There’s a small orchard, which is really more like two small orchards, though we’re slowly filling the space between them with more trees. Every spring, we hang 60 or so sap buckets, enough that we don’t buy much maple syrup, or even sugar, for that matter. There are gardens, three of them totaling perhaps a quarter-acre, and from these we harvest enough vegetables to satisfy our annual produce needs.
My family and I live in a house we started to build in the late ’90s, although, truthfully, it’s still not quite finished. This is because we built the house around us, like a crustacean growing its shell, sleeping and working in a construction zone for years. That’s not a bad way to make a home, but it does become tiresome, and as it becomes tiresome, “done enough” thinking begins to take root. The unfinished trim along the stairwell is done enough. My office, with its windows still in primer, is done enough. That temporary heat shield behind the stove? You guessed it: done enough.
Still, it’s a proud house, simple, sturdy, and tight. It’s a humble house, too, which might seem a contradiction, but isn’t. It’s proud of its humility. It knows what it is, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. House or human, I think that’s not a bad way to be. This is a hard winter. I know this because Rye has just returned from morning chores. “It’s warm out,” he says, shrugging out of his sweater and hanging it on a peg by the woodstove. It’s 7:25 a.m.
I glance at the thermometer: three degrees above zero. “Warm out,” says my son. Three degrees above zero is warm only when it’s the first morning in nearly two weeks when the temperature can be measured in positive numbers. Three degrees above zero is warm only if the day before it never got above three degrees below zero and you had to break the ice on the cows’ water four times between morning and evening chores. Three degrees above zero is warm only if the mind and body have come to understand that cold is subjective: What is cold can feel warm. Presumably, what is warm can also feel cold, though it’s hard to imagine that now.
And I know this is a hard winter because we’re burning through our firewood at an alarming rate. “Half your wood and half your hay by Groundhog Day” is what the oldtimers say, speaking from a reservoir of experience that eclipses my own by decades, if not generations. As of yesterday, a bit more than two weeks until this traditional midwinter measure, the empty portion of our woodshed comprises at least half the available space, and no matter which angle I choose, or how determinedly I squint my eyes, the emptiness remains, the wood it once contained having literally gone up in smoke.
We put up about six cords of firewood each year. This generally leaves us with a half-cord or maybe a bit more to carry over into the following autumn. I don’t mind passing that remaining row of wood during the muggy days of early June, when the unfilled portion of the woodshed serves as a quiet admonishment. Every year we plan to have all the coming winter’s firewood under cover by the end of May, and every year, we don’t. We cling stubbornly to a self-imposed deadline that we know months in advance will be broken—a deadline I can already see breaking by the end of February, when we still don’t have enough logs hauled from our woodlot—because relinquishing it feels like a slippery slope; we might fall even further behind. And in a way, I’ve come to understand that if we have all our firewood under cover by the fourth of July, we’ve actually hit our deadline. This is damaged logic, I concede, but it’s damaged logic that keeps us warm year after year.
I used to think we burned a lot of wood, until I told our neighbor, Melvin. He didn’t merely chuckle; he flat-out laughed. “Six cords?” he said. “Try 15.” Melvin is a dairy farmer in his mid-sixties; his farm abuts the southern and western boundaries of our land. He still puts up most of those 15 cords himself, one tractor-bucket load at a time, typically gathered only a handful of hours before he’s to feed it to his furnace. Melvin has deadlines for putting up firewood, too; they just happen to be a bit more pressing than ours. I often see him on his way to the woods, high in the cab of his big New Holland. He always waves and smiles; he doesn’t seem to mind the work, nor does the lack of a shed full of dry wood seem to cause him consternation.
I try to remember this now, with our wood disappearing into the hungry maw of our big Elm stove one precious wedge at a time. Three degrees above zero may seem warm to my son, but it’s not warm enough that we can stop stoking the fire that is all that stands between us and frozen water lines. We have no backup heat; it’s not as if we can just decide to stop burning wood when the shed is empty, and I suspect it may not be long before Melvin and I are passing each other on our tractors on our way to our respective woodlots. I resolve to wave and smile at least as broadly as I know he will.
With the exception of two winters in my early twenties when I inhabited rental properties, I’ve been warmed by wood for the entirety of my 42 years. When you become accustomed to the particular heat of wood—dry, contained, and forceful in a way that somehow seems to embody the labor required—you develop partial immunity to other heating fuels. I can never be truly warm in a house heated by electricity or oil; the heat they produce is like a ghost heat to me, and no matter the temperature, I find myself always looking for the source, the place where I can stand, rotating front to back like a rotisserie chicken.
Sunday is our day to work on firewood as a family. Some families go to church; we cut and split wood. Sometimes I think there’s not much difference between the two. Both are expressions of faith in forces beyond our control. At the landing where I’ve deposited the lengths of beech, maple, birch, cherry, and ash, Penny and I use chainsaws to buck the wood into stove-length rounds. We split by hand; this is everyone’s favorite chore, because the satisfaction of watching a piece of wood cleave beneath a wedge of steel propelled by your own muscles is one of those distinctly rural charms, like snitching the season’s first almost-ripe tomato straight off the vine before the boys get to it. Such charms don’t wane with the passage of time.
When we split, Fin and Rye hoard the rounds of ash, which seem almost to fall into perfect wedges at the mere threat of being struck. At their ages, it’s fair enough for the boys to get the easy-splitting wood, though it occurs to me that at some point in the not-too-distant future, this arrangement will reverse itself. “Here, Papa,” they’ll say, “you take the ash.” I’ll pretend to be offended, and perhaps I will be, just a little. But mostly, I’ll be grateful.
For now, though, I’m vigorous enough to revel in the labor necessary to reduce even the most recalcitrant logs to stove-size pieces. I love the way swinging a maul quickens the pulse, limbers the muscles, and raises beads of sweat across our brows before falling to melt divots into the snow. And I love the unheralded skill splitting wood requires, a skill that’s acquired only through seasons of countless repetition, thousands upon thousands of swings, until it’s unquestioned. Split enough wood and you don’t need to think or hope you’ll hit the target; you needn’t even plan to hit it. You will hit it, and you know you will hit it, and this knowledge is quietly pleasing in a way that says something about what it means to have mastered a task so essential to your well-being.
For all its abundance and convenience, the modern world offers precious few opportunities to cultivate these skills, and I sometimes wonder if that’s what truly draws Penny and me to this life. It’s an attraction that’s not easily explained in terms of logic and reason. Just as we could buy so many of the things we produce on this land, we could buy our firewood. It wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive, and I suspect that were I to calculate the moneyed returns on our efforts to fill the woodshed, I’d come to view minimum wage as something to aspire to. I’d come to see that putting up our own firewood is illogical.
But when I’m in the woods taking a break, and the tractor and saw are shut off, and it’s so quiet I can hear a pile of snow slough off a spruce bough and whump to the ground 30 feet away, I’m reminded that one of the greatest measures of wealth is the freedom to decide for oneself what makes sense. And what makes sense, in this particular moment, is that I get off my butt and haul a pile of logs back to the house so we can keep on splitting.