Living as an Author Teetering Among Many Roles


Highs and lows and everything in between. Getting the axe from a comfortable job, navigating a crisis located smack dab in the middle of life, publishing a book, working to gain traction on a second, farming, painting houses, fathering, husbanding (animals, wife, children), book marketing, being the proud spouse/booster of an artist, and striving each and every day not to give in to a feeling of being cast adrift. It can be overwhelming.

I never went into this lifestyle expecting an easy or comfortable existence, but I’ve been surprised to learn that the life of an author (joining the 99% who aren’t famous) entails effectively transitioning between these many roles. Transitioning doesn’t exactly come naturally to me, either. The great task is to be fully engaged in the present, referred to by some as “The Eternal Now,” while cheerfully moving within these various roles.

A writer is an observer. The imperative is to suck the marrow out of all of life, which should be intensely interesting and surprising. There’s so very much to delight in, figure out, and process. The depth of my ignorance in every area of life seems to be bottomless, but on the bright side, this provides a lifelong opportunity for adventure and discovery. I really don’t know how to further my “career.” Farming at minimum wage, for example, makes zero sense/cents, especially when considering that an average roundtrip commute each day is more than two hours long (equal parts bicycle and rideshare by automobile). I return home to my other job as a part-time dishwasher for my family in the dark—bike trail illuminated by a light loaned to me by a good friend—exhausted at the end of a 12-hour-day. It feels good, though. After spending a dozen years in front of computers vocationally, I find that I love to get dirty while doing honest, wholesome work. In the picture above I am enjoying the farm’s impressive rope swing. In the lower-right hand corner you can see a bucket. It contains gleanings from vegetables that wouldn’t otherwise be sold. I love bringing these home to the family.

Here are my cabbage-picking buddies. Aren’t the coveralls great? I’d love to get a pair of my own along with some overalls now that I’m bona fide and all…

cabbage buddies

Book marketing is a mystery. It’s a tough slog, punctuated by unexpected moments  of encouragement. Check out a recent review on Perfect Duluth Day, where my book was one of two featured for Fall reading (alongside our Mayor’s new release). Duluth Superior Living magazine also ran a two-page feature on me, which you can read here (navigate to pages 26-27).

I also got the endorsement of Mayor Don Ness, which was pretty sweet:


Most of my efforts haven’t resulted in flashy success, however. It’s more of a day in and day out slog to market individual copies. Here you can see a recent event I participated in near my house called the Lester River Rendezvous. The organizers allowed me to set up my “wares” at the last minute. My goal was to sell 10 books.


The event was a wild success. I liberated 11 books from their box, and had a great time doing it. However, this required sitting there all day long and hauling books and gear by bike. I sold nothing and hardly spoke to a soul for the first two hours. Hard work, indeed. Nothing comes easy. As with most things, perseverance paid off in the end. That said, the amount of effort expended certainly exceeded the bottom-line profit. However, it’s those first nudges of the snowball that are the most difficult. I hope!

I was proud of this little display. In the background you can see my bright red union suit flapping in the breeze. Nobody asked about this curious sight. It’s a subtle reference to airing out my dirty laundry. The tent, backpack, and bike are all featured prominently in the book. I sat in the chair, had an extra beside me, and invited free conversations. I partook in many, most of which were enjoyable. The goal was to provide a bit of an oasis from all the buying and selling (while hopefully unloading some books at the same time). I was located on the outside edge among numerous booths selling various crafts, toys, clothing, jewelry, and other wares. I was definitely the only author, so nobody else was competing for the attention of the few voracious readers walking by. I even gave away a copy of my audiobook through a drawing, which I have yet to market effectively. Listen to an audio sample here!

Each and every experience adds to our own patch of soil, hopefully growing in fertility with each passing day.

I pulled an agate out of the soil while harvesting carrots one day—soil so soft and rich that I couldn’t resist toiling in bare feet once—and looked up to discover that my fellow farmhand was sporting a shirt that I had previously donated to the same thrift store where she picked it up for herself. One of the broken buttons was unmistakable. What are the odds of that???? Helga and my old green shirt (donated during one of my purges) appear in the lower lefthand corner of this photo:

my shirt

By the way, I dumped and washed all of those carrots (and another load just like it) in the carrot-washer. I kind of feel like Louis Anderson from Coming to America:

I started out harvesting leeks. I moved on to cabbages. Now I’m washing carrots and potatoes. Soon I’ll be driving the tractor!

Glamorous, indeed!

This past weekend, though I have MUCH bigger fish to fry, obsession found  opportunity after a neighbor cut down several large branches from apple trees. Inspired by my friends at The Duluth Grill (see most recent post), I decided to build a hugel bed. Very few things inspire me like rotting organic material! Hugelkultur is so weirdly counterintuitive that I just had to give it a try. It’s a simple concept, and is just a bunch of rotting, buried wood. My raised garden bed will be somewhere between three and five feet high. Logs and brush will slowly rot, inviting beneficial activity in the soil. I’ll post on this when it’s complete, but here’s to sweet beginnings:

hugel bed

hugel 2

Our gardening efforts have been uninspired for a couple years. This provides an opportunity to be inspired again. All this rotting debris is a lot like the stuff of our own lives, which makes us who we are. Rather than casting off memories and hard times like unwanted detritus, we can learn from them as they slowly become incorporated into rich, fertile, soil.

With that, I’ll leave you with these Thanksgiving turkeys, which are entering their last month of life. They have had a good life. Such sights help me to be thankful for so many, small things. High quality meat is less likely to be ungratefully discarded and wasted if it is greeted as a whole, living creature first. Like so many other blessings…


Inefficient, Crazy, and Utterly Delicious

I sell quite a few books at The Duluth Grill. Delivering them by bike requires a significant investment of time as it requires me to haul them across town. Occasionally, the need to replenish the stock comes at an inconvenient time, but always, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, the experience is the highlight of my week. This particular visit was particularly satisfying, because it included a 90 minute visit with the owner (completely impromptu and unplanned) that helped me understand why this place brings so much joy. Additionally, I’ve been working at one of the local farms that supplies them with much of their produce. Tomorrow I’ll be helping to harvest some of their future potatoes, in fact. It is extremely rewarding to be somewhat involved, or to at least observe, the full process from farm-to-table. Here’s an expanded version of a column I recently wrote for the Duluth Budgeteer:

admiring the gardens

If Tom Hanson, owner of the Duluth Grill, were the CEO of a large corporation he’d be fired. His chief failure to the suits would be his indifference to the goal of extracting and concentrating wealth at the top.

Tom says, “I prefer to do things the hard way.” This was his response to my quizzical look upon hearing that he is doing his own demolition work inside the building that will become his next restaurant in Lincoln Park (a rough part of town but now showing signs of rebound): OMC Smokehouse. That’s short for Oink, Moo, Cluck.

His path to “success” wasn’t easy. With no college education he cut his teeth by working for the Ground Round prior to launching out on his own with very little cash and lots of debt. He remains approachable, down-to-earth, and is the opposite of what one might expect of the owner of a business grossing over $100K in sales per week.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Hanson exemplifies what Mayor Ness was quoted as saying in Bicycling Magazine at the end of last year:

Most cities put a premium on making life easy; cities like Duluth put a premium on making life interesting. It’s not for everyone; it will never be an American standard. But I think a lot of people are looking for that.

His own profits seem to be an afterthought, almost accidental. He chooses to keep things interesting, sustainable, local, and community-based.

This average-sized diner employs a whopping 120 people. Hanson could easily heap more work on his employees, increase stress and turnover, and keep more of the profits for himself. Worker pay is well above average in the industry. Twelve managers earn healthy salaries while working reasonable hours and having actual lives, and this includes a farm manager. This is unheard of for a restaurant of this size!


Having done time in food service, I spot unhappiness and stress immediately. The atmosphere at the Grill is the complete opposite. Workers are fulfilled, happy, and proud to work there. During a busy lunch rush I encountered employees across the hierarchy. Even the dishwasher had an immense smile. At other establishments they tend to feel overworked, unappreciated, under-paid.

One reason for this is the fact that everybody, regardless of title, pitches in wherever help is needed. Here is an example of servant leadership at it’s best. General manager, Jeff Petcoff, swabs the deck with the best of ’em:

servant leader

Additionally, the owner’s son, Louis, doesn’t walk around like he’s some sort of big shot. Here Tom and I interrupted him in the middle of food prep (observe the fresh, local ingredients):

Father and son

Meanwhile, Tom lives in a small home in Lincoln Park. He could be living high off the hog if he chose to.

Hanson home

His yard—a bona fide urban farm—is ridiculous for the unbelievable productivity coming out of a small city lot AND paradoxically for how little financial sense it makes. Not only did he blast his driveway to smithereens to create space for gardens and a walking path, he has employed multiple gardeners. Indulging and delighting in the obsessions of his extremely talented crew can’t be cheap.

A commercial-sized aquaponics system perhaps 25 feet long graces the inside of the greenhouse. A solar array outside passively heats the water within a complicated circulation system. Soon it will be filled with hundreds of growing pacu fish, which may make it onto the menu eventually.


The remaining space outside is maximized with lush beds of vegetables and even a rabbit hutch. Vegetable scraps from the restaurant and gardens are fed to the bunnies, which convert feed into meat very efficiently. Rabbits reproduce so rapidly that a single pair can produce 50% more meat in a year than an average-sized year-old beef steer. Farm-to-table sustainability is being taken to new heights.

Entering Tom’s backyard (a paradise that enthralled my 10-year-old son):


Full-time gardener, Patrick, was an excellent tour guide. He is one of many happy employees of the restaurant, exclaiming that he’s both a fish and a horticultural nerd. The man is ecstatic to be fortunate enough to be able to indulge in both interests. Here he is beside the rabbit hutch. Once again, this is all within one rather small city lot…


Having dreams larger than available space, Hanson purchased the neighboring home. The prized lawn space is being overhauled for the sake of more crops, which will be cultivated within innovative hugelkultur beds, while his parents have taken up residence within the house.

Most surprising, considering the relatively steep hill, is that the new gardens will be 100% handicapped accessible. The Duluth Grill employs a botanist who works from a wheelchair.

Neighboring yard on the cusp of some serious transformation:

neighboring yard
Due to Tom and company’s passion for fresh and local, they have created a logistical challenge by having over 100 vendors. While we spoke, Tom personally signed a check paying the local farmer that produces their pickles. One delivery from a semi-truck would be so much more efficient!

This is a small array of examples that would serve as an indictment for larger businesses obsessed with efficiency. Not only does he make a profit, these projects inspire an entire city. Mixed lovingly, these ingredients create utter deliciousness.

****Due to space, I was unable to get into the serious challenges Tom has faced over the years: a partnership that went bad and that nearly forced the closure of the restaurant due to large amounts of debt and taxes not paid by the partners that had a 51% stake in the place, the mortgage that almost fell through that enabled him to buy the property but was saved at the last minute by a waitress on his team who loaned him enough for the down payment on the last possible day, credit card loans to get through payroll, and on and on.

Challenges today are taken with a healthy dose of humor, such as when the Grill received 500 extra pounds of green peppers from the university’s sustainable farming program. Rather than get frustrated, Tom treated the experience as an opportunity to get creative. His story is a remarkable example of perseverance, and of the benefits of surrounding yourself with gifted people who have the freedom to flourish. We’ve barely scratched the surface, but this is already too much goodness to take in through only one helping!

Gladly laboring for minimum wage down on the farm

It’s a cold, rainy day. I’m inside my “shack” enjoying the first fire of the season, and I can’t help but think about my friends toiling away in the fields beneath and within sheets of rain. With boots three times as heavy as normal from all the mud and relentless moisture dampening spirits, I suspect they’ll be ready for warm baths come quitting time at 6 pm.

I shared in their labor for two fulfilling days, and will rejoin them here and there to aid in the harvest for the remainder of the season. Yesterday was a very full day, lasting 12 hours when including a partial commute by bike. I pedaled home with a large squash in my backpack—one of many fringe benefits—after earning minimum wage ($58 for a day’s work).

I can’t recall ever having worked for actual minimum wage (discounting service as a waiter). The experience is a valuable one. It provides an opportunity to taste just a bit of what it feels like to work for $7.25/hr: a remarkably sore back and legs from bending over hundreds of times. I am now in even greater solidarity with Food Farm for raising the cost of a summer CSA share this year for the purpose of paying more sustainable wages, which everyone admits is still not high enough when considering the difficulty of the work. I’m happy to say that my committed compatriots are EARNING more than the mandated minimum.

My actual time on the clock only amounted to 11 hours over two days (be sure to check out my last post), and I rode my bike 50 miles in order to earn a total haul of $79.75, a large squash, and several consumed carrots. For many of the world’s poor this is normal, everyday life. They live on the brink of starvation and homelessness. Money earned is exhausted entirely on food and shelter. While I sit here in relative luxury with a body that feels like it has been through a meat grinder, they cannot rest. They’d be back on the bike today (if wealthy enough to own one) and would eagerly work in the rain so their kids don’t starve.

The field work produced an even greater appreciation and context for what I gleaned while reading The Grapes of Wrath recently. The book takes place not that long ago, when my grandfather was 25 years of age. Desperate migrant workers did back-breaking work without the benefit of a minimum wage. Many watched their children slowly die of starvation. The paltry sum of money earned for a day’s work often wasn’t sufficient to provide for a healthy meal for a family. The reminder, a most vivid one, is that Jesus is on the side of the poor….

Here I am on the way out to the back field (a meandering half-mile ride through forest and a former pasture):

on the way to the fields

By the way…. Check out that shirt. On the way to meeting my ride in the morning I pedaled up to the facility that was hosting a closed event featuring Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) as speaker. Due to an impossible coincidence, a large group of people mingled outside wearing shirts the identical shade of green as mine. Since I had a mole in the organization I slipped in among the hundreds packing the building and fit right in! I was there to deliver a copy of my book, destined to eventually be placed into Cheryl’s hands. We’ll see if she does anything with it, but I’m very happy to have had my book handed to her personally. There are many similarities between her story, which became a bestseller and was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon simply because she had the audacity to send a copy to the actress, and mine. Thus, this post also illustrates the craziness of the life of a budding writer. We need to engage in guerrilla marketing, pursue interesting and unusual experiences, while also earning a buck occasionally. It’s quite the balancing act.

Here are some of the farm peeps returning with one of several loads of squash:

three amigos

The one on the left, who suggested that I may refer to her as Helga in a future book, met her boyfriend at a folk dance, of all things. The one on the right rooms in a house with folks that play old-timey music. Being a violin player, she’s learning fiddle-style. They play small concerts and jam sessions on their porch and in a nearby field. The middle one, like the rest, is intelligent, sensitive, and interesting as well. These three amigas aren’t terribly concerned with making money or acquiring material goods. I found it rather rewarding to work with 20-something females, actually. On the cusp of forty, married and with children, there is none of the tension that formerly existed when I was young and among a group of girls. With so much of life ahead of them, and few responsibilities to nail them down, it’s rewarding to hear of their hopes as they ponder a world of possibilities—wide as the horizon—that lies ahead.

Here we are bagging hundreds of pounds of carrots bound for the Whole Foods Co-op and Duluth Grill in the prep and pack area adjoining Food Farm’s new root cellar. We also boxed up potatoes, including some scrumptious German butterballs.

bagging carrots

Here’s the pond that holds water for irrigation. One of many necessities and details that most eaters take for granted.

irrigation pond

I’ve included these photos solely for the purpose of showing that real food is being grown and harvested by real people on land near you right now. I humbly suggest that you’ll be better off obtaining more of your food from them. It’s healthier for you, for the land, and for the economy (which is to say ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS). If you missed the earlier posts about Food Farm and of my encounters with other organic farmers in the area, take a gander at my new locally grown category on the right.

Sunset just a few miles from home. Beyond exhausted, but happy….

sunset after long day

It’s official. I’m a bona fide farmer!

That’s right people. I just earned cold hard cash by doing farm work! This was so important to me that I even biked 30 miles just to get to work today, and boy am I tired. This after just three hours of harvesting tomatoes and squash. It turns out that farming is tough work! I’m tempted to get a belt buckle like this and proudly wear it every day for the rest of my life:


Yeah, this has always been a dream. It’s definitely going on the resume. You’ll think I’m crazy, but I biked the 30 miles (across the entire city, briefly into the state of Wisconsin for a quarter mile, and straight up a mile-long hill that proved to be hellacious this time) to an organic farm in Wrenshall, MN, for the pleasure of working for minimum wage for a mere three hours (yup, that’s $7.25/hr). Tomorrow I’ll be back for a full eight hours. I won’t complain. Many people volunteer to do this work for free. Also, I think it’s beneficial to actually see what minimum wage looks and feels like. Paradoxically, low wage jobs tend to be tremendously demanding physically.

I arrived 10 minutes late after a 138-minute commute that carried me straight into a 25 mph southerly headwind. It was an uncharacteristically warm day in the upper 70s, so I was steaming in the hot sun, lobster-like, and immediately pedaled to the back of the 240 acre farm to join the fun without taking a break. It felt like moving between stages of a triathlon, or maybe even a pentathlon! After tomato picking was finished we spent the rest of the time in squash heaven. Pumpkins and various winter squash were harvested gently and carefully placed into the piles. The latter will be placed within Food Farm’s state-of-the-art root cellar. Exhausting work indeed, but the people and environment were fantastic.

squash heaven

Rather than biking home in darkness, I was fortunate to catch a ride home. Tomorrow’s commute will only be about nine miles early in the morning to a rendezvous point, because I’ll be riding in an actual automobile with some of the rest of the crew. How exciting!

This makes for a really nice diversion. I’ve been finding it difficult to do any writing between painting jobs. The transition between painting and writing is rather difficult. Furthermore, I’ve been surprised to discover that I’m unable to do any serious thinking or pondering while painting. Though it’s mindless work, one must stay fully engaged in the little details. The act of scratching this farming itch should grease along the process somewhat. Plus, I do need to earn a little cash here and there and this is better than nothing.

Last but not least, our current flock of chickens began laying eggs TODAY, earlier than expected at 20 weeks of age. Coincidence? I THINK NOT!!!!!!!!!!!!

Finally, I’d like to thank the mysterious anonymous donor who sent our family $200 in gift cards for the grocery store. What a gift, unexpected, generous. We are grateful. These funds will go to good use. Thank you so much. There have been others over the past few months who have sent gifts of money as well. We’re touched by the unsolicited generosity. These gifts have been heartwarming and sustaining in ways that go beyond dollars and cents. Gracias.

Weaving Community Connections On My Historic Bicycle

painting and Albert

A thousand words and emotions are embedded in this image. My wife’s painting spent a month in the city council chambers a while back, and I was just now able to retrieve it from the Duluth Art Institute (by the way, leave all of February open to enjoy her upcoming show there — the Depot). Albert Woolson holds court in the background. He died in Duluth in 1956, at the age of 109, as the last surviving Union veteran of the Civil War. Old Al was born nine years before my city was platted as a little village carved out of the wilderness. You can read more about him here, and even see a picture of him shoveling his walk at the age of 106! President Eisenhower, upon learning of his death, President Eisenhower issued the following remark:

“By the death of Albert Woolson, the American people have lost the last personal link with the union army. His passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherished the memory of the brave men on both sides of the War Between the States.”

I had begrudgingly hitched up the trailer. It seemed excessive for the sake of delivering 10 copies of my memoir to the Duluth Grill for sale. I spent four hours on this journey through the city, enjoying a profit of $50 on the sale of the books, but this trip always proves to be far more rewarding than for merely the monetary considerations. On my return trip I thrilled in the 90 minute conversation I had enjoyed with the owner of the establishment, Tom Hanson, while pulling a load consisting of three gallons of milk (we make our own yogurt here), a couple dozen eggs (my chickens should begin laying next month), butter, and finally these paintings carefully placed on top and wrapped in a blanket.

I’ll share more about our conversation another time, but here’s a photo of Tom with his son Louie deep inside Duluth Grill’s kitchen:

Father and son

I’ve been floundering a bit, of late. Transitioning from the relatively mindless manual labor involved in completing a high-quality paint job to that of cultivating ideas into written words is really tough! Receiving that incredibly encouraging email requesting another 10 copies of my book is an amazing boost at such times. I dropped everything (which is to say nearly nothing) to fulfill the order. Even at times of great busyness, however, the ride along the Lake and then through the grittier part of town is always fantastic. It’s like a reset button for my soul.

These journeys have rekindled a love for the Trek 1200 bicycle you see in the photo. I’m so proud of this bike. I bought it used in 1990 at the age of 14 with $400 of my very own hard-earned dollars. It remains my primary vehicle of transportation to this day. This is the very same bike described in chapter 12 of my book. It was a portal into other worlds. An escape from a home mired in filth, struggle, and loneliness. A gateway to friendships and positive experiences across a wide geographical area.

All summer long I pedaled 40 miles roundtrip each day to hang out with my friend Andy and enjoyed extended glimpses into his family life. I returned home with reluctance each day, but paradoxically raced back as fast as my small muscles would carry me (both to beat the darkness and because exhaustion aided the transition). Some days found me riding 140 miles or more, because we occasionally enjoyed century rides that began and ended at Andy’s. I probably would have gone crazy if it weren’t for this particular bike that I will never sell. Here’s a passage from page 97 that describes the return from my first trip away with his family. This is emblematic of what it was like to return to reality after being out and about in a world of beauty:

The stench of dog (and unfortunately my own) urine, feces, rotting food, mold, and only God knows what else, immediately hit me upon entering the house. Opening the front door was like breaking the seal from a can of sardines. The saturated atmosphere within rushed to consume the fresh air outside. Quick shut the door before the whole world is contaminated! When Andy and his family drove off, crushing loneliness immediately overwhelmed me. My playful dog Curly eagerly licked my face as I wept by myself among all our junk that barely offered any place to sit. This was a can’t-catch-your-breath style of weeping, and one that required a full rehydrating glass of water along with a face washing afterward. It was a complete derailment.

This four-hour tour through the city provided the physical activity that brain and body need to thrive, a dose of culture and history for the soul, a stimulating conversation with one of our city’s most inspiring entrepreneurs (more on that later), and so much more. These ingredients are all necessary to establish and maintain a connection within your community.  Ironically, I returned home to discover that the local bookstore needed books as well. I had just passed within mere feet of the Bookstore at Fitgers, so I wasn’t pleased to hop back onto the saddle to be perfectly honest. Someone from out-of-town requested it, and they were fresh out. I fantasize that a band member from Cloud Cult (mentioned in the previous post) wanted it, and was grateful for the ride with a friend this time, as we pedaled to the Bridge Festival and an extraordinary performance from this band that I suddenly find myself a Superfan of. We biked home together in complete darkness on the Lakewalk at 11 pm, my fourth trip beside Superior that day. Legs ached. Spirits soared. Gratitude swelled like a big tick lodged ankle-deep within a large, warm mammal.

Humanity blooms in struggle. Plus, home economics for a family of starving artists.

Like a ship bashing into a coral reef, my head was gashed and deeply pierced by the corner of a deck board today. With blood flowing liberally, I completed my paint job after running my head under the frigid water of the outdoor spigot to the point of numbness. Then, 30 minutes later I bashed the same tender spot again, starting the bloodletting over again. By the time I reached home I was eager to sit in the adirondack chair outside and read the paper for a spell.


The odds are staggering. Keep in mind that I have a fairly large head. The plop I felt after a few minutes could have landed anywhere upon a vast area only somewhat smaller than Montana. Furthermore, I’m probably only pooped on about once every few years. That white bird poop from high above just happened to land smack dab on and into the large open wound on my head. Amazing. I couldn’t help but laugh. There’s not much else one can do at that point.

For all this pain I earned $176 today. Who am I to complain? That’s more than I made in a month from book royalties. It turns out that today was quite a day for us financially, in fact, as my wife sold a painting online and netted $160 from the deal. Plus, this weekend I sold a whopping 15 books! I reckon this is the three-legged stool that we are pursuing. My house painting + book sales + Shawna’s artwork. Perhaps all three combined will equal a full salary someday. I sure hope so.

It does feel good to have income drip in from a variety of areas, even if this is only a short season of our lives. Instead of something I leave home and do battle for out in the workaday world, we’re all pulling the load together as a family. We’re trying to at any rate. I’m incredibly blessed to have a wife who supports this vision of achieving a sustainable household income by working together. It feels like authentic home economics. Though our income has been halved, and is not guaranteed, we seem to be getting by. Frugality has reached new heights. I bike just about everywhere. Multiple cars are a recipe for bankruptcy, the financial variety being just one variety of which. Other than a pesky student loan lumbering toward it’s conclusion and a modest mortgage, we have no debt. Otherwise we’d be sunk. For this I am thankful.

Pain. Raw, intense emotions. Small joys that occasionally provide illumination of the highest order. Honest-to-goodness struggling day after day. Working together as a family toward a common goal. All this serves to recover a bit of the humanity lost in cubicle world over about a dozen years. It’s starting to pay off! This past weekend I was authenticated as a human, in fact. I received the armband pictured below to prove it, and experienced an amazing Cloud Cult concert as a reward. This is a band that appreciates struggle, mystery, and searching. So, if you’re struggling, like me, don’t run from it or wish it away. There’s value in hacking through. Melancholy, sadness, and cognitive dissonance, are all useful. Perhaps they can be employed as a sort of lever to pry up old patterns in order to unearth new creative possibilities or another way of seeing altogether. If nothing else, they make simple pleasures that much sweeter.

birds in hand

Winning the Lottery With Berry, consuming The Grapes of Wrath, and Some Relevance for Labor Day

It was like I won the lottery. Picked as the lucky winner, I could pick virtually any book on Earth and have it shipped to me for FREE! Being a frequent user of the library, and facing a significant cash shortage, I haven’t purchased a book for myself in years. Such extravagance! Additionally, I’ve been purging books from the collection. I don’t need hundreds of books laying around and gathering dust. They should be out in the world doing their job. With such considerations in mind, what book would I choose?

After 72 hours of careful deliberation I settled on Wendell Berry. This dude is The Man. He’s pretty much a prophet for the local food movement and the local movement in general. This is a man whose words I will always have room for on my bookshelf.


What Are People For? is a collection of Wendell’s essays that I received by mail all the way from England’s Book Depository as a result of winning the drawing from Caffeine and Books. Alicia is the English book blogger who wrote the amazing review of my book you can read here. So, it’s like I won the lottery twice with her.

On the heels of sampling more of Berry, I was absolutely floored by the vivid imagery in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. This is one of the greatest American books of the 20th century. It reads well after a little Wendell Berry. Perhaps I also found it to be particularly moving following my own job loss of a year ago, a situation that still has me reeling.


The Grapes of Wrath is the sort of book that has the power to change your life and attitudes, which is the type I gravitate toward. Published in 1939, it deeply impacted the nation. The following year it won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and has sold a total of 14 million copies thus far. Controversy swirled all around it. The Associated Farmers of California were greatly incensed over the depiction of their treatment of migrant workers. Big business was also not thrilled over the national conversation that developed.


In a nutshell, the story is about the hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans that fled the Dust Bowl, and the banks that had driven them off their land, by packing old jalopies and travelling Route 66 all the way to the Promised Land of California. Handbills had circulated throughout the region impacted by the Dust Bowl promising good paying jobs at the many fruit and cotton farms. They arrived to discover that the clever marketing was merely a ploy to have a surplus of workers competing for jobs picking produce at wages that failed to even feed a family adequately (much less provide decent shelter).


Entire families starved, and society did nothing in many cases as children slowly withered away to nothing. Unreal. They were exploited by the rich, forced to endure desperate poverty, abused by the police, and basically spat upon by “polite” society. A century and a half after securing independence from England, our nation faced its greatest challenge as the Great Depression raged on. The very soul of our people was hollowing out. The national dialogue produced real change, but the story remains relevant today.

The book’s wrath is directed at those who abuse power and concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. Then, and now, large corporate interests squeezed small farmers out through deplorable practices. The subject is complex, multifaceted, and one that we should all be acquainted with. What’s more, we should actually give a rat’s rear-end about these themes.

Steinbeck’s work is timeless, and Wendell Berry’s words fit squarely into this tradition. Prophetically, he deftly navigates the worlds of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The man is mad as hell, as seen in his Mad Farmer poems. We all should be alarmed at what is taking place in the countryside and within our local economies that rot away from within. We the people have the power to slow the concentration of wealth into a plutocracy, which is where we’re headed if we continue on business as usual.

Better than any other living human being I’m aware of, Wendell Berry articulates the need for strong, local economies. This includes local agriculture, prosperous farmers, locally owned shops, and much more. The current system would reduce us all to nothing more than consumers, as we mindlessly fill our gas tanks and drive around to characterless big box stores owned by amoral corporations in shapeless suburbs bereft of soul or identity.

Locally grown food is a great place to start. Just this past week I read a story about salmonella-tainted cucumbers grown in a land far far away sickening individuals, even to the point of death. Meanwhile, I eat my cucumbers whole, kind of like apples, with confidence. Some I grow myself, and others I receive in my weekly CSA box from a local, organic farm. I don’t even need to wash the darn things. They taste better, and the experience is qualitatively superior. Now that’s just cucumbers. Extend this to countless other fruits of the land and even the clothing you wear, and life for all can be better in a myriad of ways. For me, the challenge is figuring out this great task of being a locavore and that of being a locally minded individual and family within the context of having very limited resources. I believe it’s possible. These ideals need not be limited to that of the boutique, snobbish even, luxury for the wealthy few.

It requires a restructuring of life from the bland status quo of suburban life that suffices as the American Dream for so many. Perhaps we don’t need to consume so much. Maybe then we can afford the additional cost of only a few higher quality items, while enjoying more leisure and quality time with our families. Perhaps 10,000 pounds or more of automobiles aren’t necessary for sustaining the American Dream for a family. Maybe, just maybe, we can get by with one modest vehicle (or even none). Daily life can rather easily be centered around a two to four mile radius from one’s home if careful consideration is given for where you put down roots.

Rendering of proposed 494/169 interchange

Rendering of proposed 494/169 interchange

Wendell Berry helps show us that caring for the land is not just the purview of hippy environmentalists, for one cannot divorce the treatment of the land from people. We all depend on the land, and should work with nature in promoting healthy, decentralized economies that are not fully dependent on greedy outside interests who only wish to rape and plunder the good land we’ve been given by extracting minerals, lumber, and other God-given assets, all in the name of providing “jobs,” but in the express purpose of sucking the profits into the far off bank accounts of the privileged elites who will abandon your community later on (in a much worse condition than they found it) when the economics direct them to another part of the world that can be plundered more cheaply.

It is possible to harvest the fruits of the land and forest sustainably, and this almost always means by locally owned small businesses. In other words, people who have a vested interest in caring for the land and people, if for no other reason than to maintain a good reputation.

Wendell has changed my opinion on a lot of things, and I love that he self-identifies as a Christian. He’s one of the few individuals who share my faith that are articulating these ideas effectively. For the most part it seems the church is virtually silent in these matters, which really chaps my hide. Change is coming, though. It billows up on the horizon like an impending storm. The status quo is morally and spiritually bankrupt. An increasing number won’t stand for fast food culture and mindless consumption much longer.

I have barely scratched the surface of Wendell Berry, but here’s my suggestion for where you may begin:

  1. The Memory of Old Jack – fiction
  2. The Unsettling of America – non-fiction
  3. Jayber Crow – fiction
  4. The Mad Farmer Poems or perhaps A Timbered Choir – poetry
  5. Pick a collection of essays to wade through, slowly and contemplatively. What Are People For? is pretty good, but there are numerous others. For whatever reason this collection is front-loaded with thoughts on writing and literary criticism in the first section that may cause some to lose interest. He writes on quite a variety of topics. I value the wisdom of the old man in all of them, even when they aren’t exactly page-turners. I’ve wanted to give The Art of the Commonplace (a collection of agrarian essays) a look for a while, so perhaps that’ll be next for me.

You will find a great deal of repetition and overlap in his works. This is because the subject is so large and overarching of all of our lives. The problems facing both rural and metropolitan communities are incredibly complex. Wendell breaks off a little at a time, as should we all. Do not read him or Steinbeck if you wish to remain ignorant, refuse change, or can’t see the value in being brought to the point of tears over what has been lost.

Finally, I wish to share a bright moment that transpired just the other night. My daughter, who has been forced to end the summer on crutches, asked me to retrieve her new brush for her. I handed it to her, and her face beamed with pride as she said, “That’s my brush….” There was so much in that look. Happiness. Contentment. Love. My wife shelled out the two or three bucks for her to have her own brush, and Emma was filled with gratitude. This makes me so happy as we find ourselves navigating a world of far less cash, one in which gifts are relatively few and infrequent.

My great hope is that our kids will be blessed in and through this experience. We simply can’t afford many things. That which we have been entrusted with should be loved and taken care of. All of life should be marked by gratitude, even for things like a brush, clean running water coming out of a tap at will, and for our chickens that will soon produce fresh eggs daily. We have so much to be thankful for. Why, just yesterday Duluth experienced one of only a handful of days each year that are marked by oppressive heat and humidity. I was afforded the luxury of finishing the last 150 pages of The Grapes of Wrath, guilt-free, in a cool air-conditioned room. Normally I resist turning the window unit on at all costs, but with a daughter in a cast we enjoyed the luxury without compulsion.

What a gift, and what a contrast to the lives the Okies experienced in the book I read. I have nothing to complain about. If you lack the desire to read this book, you should probably find the 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda. This is how I plan to introduce some of these difficult ideas to my family.

Lastly, and I realize I’ve rambled rather incoherently here, I’ve been left with a sense of the great value in being mad at the things that make God mad. Scripture is replete with God’s great hatred and condemnation of injustice of all kinds. I found myself mad as a hornet at how these people were treated, and rightly so. The book doesn’t exactly portray all Christians positively. Unfortunately, I found Steinbeck’s image of the judgmental “Jesus-lovers” sneering in righteous indignation at the “hug-dancing” taking place during Saturday night dances in a government camp to ring with authenticity from the era. Once again, there is value in being mad about the things God is most angry about—real things worthy of real anger—while doing something about them.