The Names of Things – Front Porch Republic


I wrote about our farm for Front Porch Republic.  The essay is called “The Names of Things”


An old painting by John Miles of Northleach imagines Adam in the midst of naming all the animals in the Garden of Eden. Adam stands in the middle of the frame; the animals surround him waiting to receive their names. Unlike earlier versions that show Adam receiving just a few animals, Miles’ version captures the overwhelming scope of the task by lining up animals nose to tail back and forth across the scene like people waiting for the Jungle Cruise at Walt Disney World or in an understaffed passport control line. I have been where that lion in the foreground is. Stuck in an absurd, unmoving line, he has let go of his mind. He is past frustration, rage, and tears. He lies down next to a lamb, not in supernatural peace or out of any interspecies fraternity, but out of pure, absolute resignation and ennui. The king of the jungle has been reduced to one direct and knowing look: “you see what I’m dealing with here, right?” his eyes dimly blink. The tiger behind him is even worse off. Drape the tiger’s paw over a dead body, and he is . . .

The Nose

Image result for the nose el cap
As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth.
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed
And by a part of all thy glory live.
Look, what is best, that best I wish in thee:
This wish I have; then ten times happy me!
                                     -Shakespeare, Sonnet 37

As we were getting ready for bed last night, my seven-year-old asked me, “If you train really hard, do you think you would like to climb the Nose someday?”  

The question wasn’t totally out of the blue.  We had watched The Dawn Wall the night before.  It’s the remarkable story of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s first ascent of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, the the hardest big wall climb in the world.  Peter understood the movie’s message well —  except for just a couple of people, the Dawn Wall is impossible to climb.  So he asked if I was interested in climbing the Nose, which is easier.

The Nose is also really hard.  Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, and George Whitmore, spent 47 days climbing it in 1958 to complete the first ascent.  They drilled bolts and hung on gear the whole way up.  Nobody climbed it without hanging on bolts and gear until Lynn Hill freed it in 1993.  In the 25 years since Hill’s first free ascent, only a half dozen people have repeated the climb. 

Warren-Harding-El-Cap  Lynn-on-Pancake-Flake-Nose-2

So when Peter asked if I was planning to climb the Nose, I answered immediately and decisively, “No. It’s too hard.  I’m too old.”  A look of shock and dismay spread across his face.  He was crestfallen.  

Peter’s dejection was born out of his experience watching me climb. Since the first of the year I’ve been climbing a lot.  Feeling old and out of shape, I started training again like I did in my mid-20s.  I’ve taken the kids along several times.  I belay them and they watch me boulder.  Peter knows that I can climb things that he can’t even start. He thinks I am very strong.  I can do pull-ups and push ups.  I can carry him sleeping from the car to his bed.  I can lift rocks and logs that he can’t push.  I open plastic bottles that his hands can’t twist. He doesn’t know how sore my back can get from sitting in a chair.  He doesn’t know that I pull hamstrings and quads if I don’t jog and stretch for twenty minutes before I climb.  He doesn’t know how much I worry about my finger tendons.

Though he’s not as absolutely strong as me, Peter is a really good seven-year-old climber.  He moves with balance and boldnesss.  He’s often too short to reach holds set for adult climbers, so he figures out clever, reachy solutions. He moves off of tiny handholds that are really just foot chips with amazing finger strength.

A moment after I told him that I would never be able to climb the Nose, I added, “But you might be able to do it someday.”  His look of dismay broke, and a huge smile broke across his face.  “Maybe I could lead it and then help you up,” he said.  “I would love that,” I said, unable to contain my own enormous smile.

Not fifteen minutes later, I found him trying to traverse from a door jam to a window casing along the baseboard in bare feet.  It was a really great move; he was super stretched out and barely got a finger tip to the window casing.  I am pretty sure he was pretending to be Kevin Jorgeson on pitch fifteen.


A (non-contiguous) Week on the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers

fox riverI’m putting together a panel for next summer’s ASLE conference.  The idea is to turn the panel’s revised essays into an edited collection.  Let me know if you are interested in the project but aren’t able to make the trip to UC-Davis for ASLE.  Here’s the plan:

Just fifteen miles separate Aldo Leopold’s Shack from the farm where John Muir spent his boyhood. Twenty-five miles of Wisconsin and Fox River water (and one mucky canal) connects them. For so important a cultural landscape, this river route is surprisingly unexplored and unremarked upon. This panel aims to bring together scholars, writers, and thinkers to explore this stretch of river and write about it in a compelling way.

All panel participants will make the journey from Leopold’s Shack to Muir’s farm (hopefully by canoe, but perhaps by bike, on foot, or on skis instead) and will write about what they saw, experienced, or discovered. A dream panel would consist of some of the following: an archaeologist, a poet, a hydrologist, an ornithologist, former inhabitants and native peoples, a geographer, a limnologist, an entomologist, a geologist, an historian, Native American studies scholars, visual artists, and photographers. In gathering voices from across the arts, humanities, and sciences, the panel builds upon Scott Slovic and Nalini Nadkarni’s 2017 ASLE seminar “To Feel and To Know: The Art and Science of Environmental Writing” which brought together “thinkers who might not otherwise readily meet each other: ecocritics and environmental artists, academics and public officials, humanists and scientists.”

Approaches to the essays and their emphases will vary (the diversity of writing about a relatively narrowly defined place will be one of the panel’s chief appeals), but hopefully all the authors will “mov[e] through the landscape with wonder, but also with care” and “aspire to see with a scientific eye and write with literary effect” as Jason Cowley has described the best of the New Nature Writing. Collaborations are especially welcome between scientists who are less comfortable writing with literary effect and writers whose scientific eyesight is less sharp than they would hope. The panel organizers are willing to help coordinate these collaborations as well as travel arrangements.

Please send questions and proposals to Josh Mabie (


“Oh” to the West Wind


“Oh” to the West Wind

Well I suppose you are expecting thanks

For that black cherry tree, or half a tree

You laid across my field two nights ago.


I realize now you must have seen me cut

And roughly plane cap’lin from God knows where:

“Its lumber local, something with a story.”


They always say it is the thought that counts;

Forgive me though, if I seem less than thrilled

About your gift so wantonly given.


You see I’m not that kind of farmer yet

My chainsaw is still in its Christmas box

I have no uncle or cousin I could call.


The grass is high, the garden full of weeds.

What would I do right now with a cord of wood?

Or hundred feet of board too green to work?


Your unsought gift was right and true, and pure, but

Before you go knock down my other trees

Won’t you just ask if I would like them please.

Dawn and the Highest of the Arts


“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Last night at bedtime my kindergartner asked me if we could wake up “still in the nighttime” and go on an adventure before school. I told him sure, but that he’d have to wake me up. This morning at precisely 6:15 am, I felt a small hand on my shoulder and a whispered, “Dad, it’s getup time.” Without opening my eyes I whispered back, “ok just a few minutes.” He refused to snooze and appealed to my sense of honor: “You promised last night that we could get up in the nighttime. Is it morningtime now?” I acquiesced and rolled out of bed. Within five minutes we were both stepping into wellies and zipping up down jackets. He wore a hat. I couldn’t find mine.

I have wanted to go for a dawn walk in the woods for the past couple of weeks now. I even worked out a plan for doing a morning walk at exactly the same time and on the exact same route every morning for a year and writing about it, a sort of human time lapse. Such rigid discipline appeals to my imagination, but not to my body. It took a persistent five-year-old to actually get me out into the woods at dawn.

Yesterday I walked around the farm on a cloudy afternoon to take some pictures for this website. Except for the green halo around a few just-budded maple trees, the whole farm was a flat duochrome of gray and brown. This morning everything was soaked in the golden orange of low-angle dawn light. The same green buds and grass now sparkled with heavy dew. Long tree shadows reached far into the meadow and field.

We grabbed the Nikon before we went out, and I let him carry it. Yesterday when I was taking pictures, I moved fallen branches that cluttered a shot of the woods and a long orange cinch strap out of a picture of the barn. I stood next to the Weber grill so that it would be out of the home page picture. My son hasn’t yet learned to frame discordant or ugly elements out of his shots, and the result is a pure form of realism. He’s just trying to capture the world he sees; he’s not trying to present it to anybody. His camera work captured a couple embarrassing pictures of soggy moving boxes that have cluttered our driveway for far too long and a couple of beautiful low angle (ie. from about 3’6”) shots of the sunrise. My favorite is this one,  “Broken Down Tree.” The picture and its title are all his.


Aldo Leopold famously wrote that the chief spiritual dangers of not owning a farm are the faulty suppositions that food comes from a grocery and that heat comes from a furnace. Fair enough, but, having recently purchased a farm, I have become well acquainted with farms’ many, many hazards. Some of the dangers, like Leopold’s benefits, are spiritual, but just as many are physical and economic.

I can’t say that I wasn’t warned about farm ownership. Thoreau is clear about the hazards:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?

I read these lines with glee as an unlanded and untethered twenty-year-old, and they have never been far from my mind in the years since, bubbling up to the foreground of my consciousness at title company closing tables and Home Depot checkout lines. I’ve always kind of regarded Thoreau’s warning as a sort of metaphorical exhortation about the dangers of material possessions generally, not farm ownership specifically. Once again I am reminded that it’s always a danger to abstract Thoreau too far from the particular thing he describes. A pond bottom, a mountain ridge, or a farm may point at some other truth, but it’s never just a symbol of a spiritual fact. A pond is a pond, a mountain is a mountain, and in this case, a farm really is a farm.

My farmhouse has occupied nearly every non-working[1], waking minute of my life since we closed on it in October. Sometimes the work is a joy,  as it was yesterday when I was jointing the edges of cherry shelves with a no. 5 Stanley plane in spring sunshine. If there is a more elegant tool than a well-tuned jack plane I haven’t come across it.   Other times the work does indeed feel like a march towards death, as when I pulled rotten plaster and mouse droppings and insulation down on my head in search of something, anything, sound to which I could anchor a new ceiling. Or when I nearly cut the top of my right thumb off reaching blindly into my tool box in search of a phillips screw driver, finding only the edge of an open PEX cutter. That thumb has almost healed enough to allow me to button shirts or buckle carseats without excruciating pain, and this is a good thing, because I’ve recently lost pain-free use of my left index finger to a nasty splinter.

But the thing is, my children who are directly in line to someday inherit the farm, its house, its barn, its tools, they love it. On Sunday afternoon I hung a hammock with them at the edge of the woods and the meadow to loaf in the first truly warm day of the spring: “you can read books with them and maybe even snooze a bit with them,” Kerstin told me optimistically as she climbed into the car to run to the grocery store unencumbered. I lay in the bottom of the hammock trying to steal a few moments of sleep, but they quickly imagined the hammock into a ship on the high seas. Small knees and feet and elbows kneeled and stepped and pressed on me as my children took turns climbing to the hammock’s prow to lean out over the prairie grass as a figurehead and to hike out over its nylon gunwale. These inadvertent steps I could mostly ignore, but eventually my children interrupted whatever snatches of sleep (seconds really, definitely not minutes) I had stollen with shark attacks and giant swells that swayed and rolled the hammock-ship. I finally abandoned my attempts to sleep in favor of landing shrieking and laughing sharks.

I love the farm too, now that I’ve had a few moments to enjoy it. Last night I read eighty pages of Nikolaus Butler’s The Hearts of Men for pleasure while my family slept. Sensing that I was reading far too late into the night, I turned off the light exhausted. I couldn’t sleep though, so I got up, made myself some herbal tea, and set up shop to do some writing in my Morris chair. It was the first time I had read for pleasure in a long time and the first time I sat in a chair in the living room, even though I had lived in the house for two weeks. I had often imagined myself reading and writing in the house as I worked on it, and these few stolen minutes late at night were a joy that I paid for with a sort of literary hangover this morning.

[1] Working, here, means reading and summarizing seventeenth-century books of travel as I promised I would do in my fellowship application.