Reaching across the divide

Do you ever wonder about people who voted for Donald Trump? Has the country become so polarized that we can’t imagine what motivates people whose life experiences and attitudes are different?

On Saturday morning, I attended an extraordinary event in Leverett, a small town six miles north of where I live. Eleven people who live in Letcher County in eastern Kentucky were visiting for three days as part of a cultural exchange. The goal  was for Leverett people and Kentucky people to listen to each other and break down stereotypes they’d formed of each other.

hands across hills logoThe two places couldn’t be more different. While 79.8 percent of Letcher County voted for Trump, only 14.4 percent did in Leverett. Forty percent of children in Letcher County live in poverty, and 34 percent of residents smoke cigarettes. Leverett, a rural but wealthy town where most people commute to jobs elsewhere, is host to Buddhist, Sikh, and Quaker houses of worship, as well as Christian ones. Life expectancy in Letcher County is more than eight years lower.

“I can see better by the light in your eyes,” sang local recording artist Sarah Pirtle with two Kentucky women to open the program. They sang a song Pirtle wrote called “Hands Across the Hills,” the name of the exchange program.

Leverett resident Paula Green, who has brought together disparate groups for dialogue all over the world, praised the visitors for “the bravery it took to come here.” The goal of the weekend is to “discover each others’ cares and joys and build on our common dreams.”

She explained that after the election, many Leverett residents sought a way to respond that would be from the heart rather than from anger and frustration. They discovered Letcher County through a Connecticut-raised community organizer who has lived there for two years and wrote an article on called “Building Democracy in Trump Country.”

Green, who founded the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, said she wants to “move from demonization to humanization” and encourage other groups to accept a similar challenge. She encouraged the hundreds of local residents who came to the presentation to be curious and friendly with the Kentucky visitors, and not try to convince or change them.

The visitors introduced themselves. Letha Dollarhyde said her stereotype of New Englanders as cool and distant was totally shattered. Valerie Horn said that although Letcher County is poor, there is a program for free food at a farmers’ market. Teenager Alyssa Helton said that in Letcher County “everyone knows everyone,” and showed slides of a mountain, a waterfall, a lake and the school where she learned to play the fiddle.

They were asked about climate change and coal, which is Letcher County’s only industry. Tyler Ward responded that he and his neighbors are not averse to science, but many people are concerned more with daily existence and coal companies are among the few employers.

There were presentations about Leverett’s history and how it is now populated by longtime families, aging hippies and cosmopolitan professionals. The Leverett Community Chorus sang songs to celebrate folkways of Appalachia and New England, and there was a potluck lunch. A contradance was scheduled for the evening.

I was deeply moved by the event, even though I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of the Kentucky visitors. It made me think about how useful it would be to seek reconciliation with those I disagree with in my own town. Since the election, I have tried to understand the rural mindset better by reading books like “Hillbilly Elegy” and “Strangers in Their Own Land,” and this event helped me realize our common humanity.

It reminded me of my friendship with the head police detective in the town where I live, who I got to know through my newspaper work. He and I couldn’t be more different culturally, but we bonded over a common interest in baseball trivia. As our conversations got deeper, I came to realize that he wasn’t quite as conservative as I thought, and he realized that I wasn’t quite as liberal as he thought.

I think we could all benefit from listening to people who are different from us, and looking for common ground.

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A piece of paper from the City Hall

Thirty-eight years after our wedding, we became legally married on Wednesday, exactly 40 years after the day we met.

We remember Joni Mitchell singing in carefree 1972, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall.” Turns out Joni was wrong; you do need that piece of paper. And life is seldom as simple as it seems.

Our wedding was on July 14, 1979 at the First Church of Deerfield. But because of some  glitch that we still don’t understand, no marriage certificate was filed. Since then, we have bought a house together, raised two children, filed joint income tax returns, and thought of ourselves as being married.

We didn’t discover the problem until Betsy turned 66 and applied for spousal benefits from Social Security. She was told she must present a marriage certificate, but she couldn’t find one in our records.

She wrote to the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, which could find no evidence of a marriage certificate. She contacted Deerfield Town Hall, and the county seat in Greenfield, and the answer was the same.

We were living in Worcester in 1979. Fortunately, we had applied for a marriage license there, though we don’t remember doing so. This was from a time before the Worcester city clerk digitized the records, so someone had to search through dusty old books to find evidence of our application.

Without that, we would have had to hire a lawyer and go before a judge. But even with this filing of “marriage intentions,” we had to gather notarized statements from two witnesses to the wedding and a statement from the minister of the church.

So we went back to the church in Deerfield to meet the Rev. Liza Knapp (who, like Betsy, had been a religion major at Swarthmore). Liza had talked on the phone to the minister who officiated at our wedding, now retired and living in California. She signed a document stating that we had, indeed, gotten married in 1979 in her church.

Marriage certificateSo on Wednesday we drove to Worcester, where we met with the assistant city clerk. We showed him the documents, photos from our wedding and the newspaper announcements (“Former area newsman takes bride in Deerfield” was the headline in the Greenfield Recorder).

We raised our right hands, swore that the information was correct, signed our names, wrote a check for $24, and received a “certificate of marriage.”

It’s a humorous story, but it got us thinking about some serious things. For years, gay and lesbian couples could have a wedding in some churches, but couldn’t get that piece of paper that entitled them to benefits that straight couples take for granted. And it reminded us of a Russian visitor who said that in his country, marriage is a two-part process, with a civil marriage performed first and, if desired, a later religious ceremony.

So we jumped through the hoops, got the piece of paper and we are good to go. It’s been an adventure!

For new readers of this blog, here’s an index of more than 150 past posts, divided into categories such as simple living, cooking, gardening, living without and climate change. Or hover on Index above to read all the posts in a particular category.






Dear deer: You’re welcome, but…

Dear deer,

Welcome to the wet area in the back of our property! We’ve caught glimpses of you and your faun, and the sight has filled us with wonder at your wild beauty.

At the same time, we are dedicated vegetable gardeners, and as our crops ripen, we respectfully request that you observe our boundaries.

IMG_20170705_080200841We have enjoyed looking for evidence of your visits to our back yard. We’ve seen the jewel weed you’ve decapitated and the four-foot-high leaves of wild grapes that you’ve chomped on. We’ve seen your hoof marks on the wood chips that define the paths through our back-yard wilderness. (We took a photo of the jewel weed to show our friends.)

We have marveled that you are so adaptive that you have found a livable habitat less than a mile from the center of Amherst.

To help you know where the boundaries are, we’ve installed some signals that you can discern with your eyes, nose and ears. We’ve hung up bright, shiny objects (compact discs) at the back of our garden. We’ve placed some bags of human hair and scented soap nearby. And we have repaired some old wind chimes to give you audio cues.

IMG_20170705_080632704We do have a three-foot-high fence around our garden, and another three feet of string trellis, but we’ve heard that you’re quite capable of jumping over it. Please remember that you are welcome to browse on any of the vegetation growing outside the fence, but we’d like to reserve our veggies for ourselves and our friends. Thanks.

We like having wildlife around. We seem to be in flyover country for many bird species, and there’s been a baby bunny boom, bolstered by the buffet of red clover and other plants in our yard. We have seen foxes. Except for woodchucks, who have not dared come near our yard this year (with good reason!), we get along well with our fellow creatures.

We are happy to share the bounty of our land with you. There’s enough for everyone, but we don’t want to give away the vegetables we like to eat and work so hard to grow. So please, when you see those shiny objects, smell that hair and soap, and hear those chimes, know your limits.

And the next time we meet face to face, please don’t run away. We’d love to take a picture of you.


Nick and Betsy

Here is an index of 170 past posts on this blog, in categories such as frugality, simple living, gardening, living without and climate change. You can also hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.





Lettuce feast

The cool, wet weather has forced me to hold off on planting tomatoes, but it has also extended our lettuce harvest..

Lettuce leaves love this weather. They are, after all, 94.9 percent water. And while many of us are eager to put on shorts, when the temperature goes above 75 lettuce reaches for the sky (or “bolts”) and develops a bitter taste. The 65-degree high temperature forecast for Monday and Tuesday will be ideal.

What are we going to do with all this lettuce? Unlike most vegetables, you can’t freeze it, can it, dry it or store it for more than a week. We have recipes for Lettuce Pie, Lettuce Soup and Lettuce Custard, but they just seem weird.

So we’re having large salads every night and giving away lettuce to friends. We’ll put some in a cooler and take it with us when we go on a trip next week, to give as hostess presents.

IMG_20170531_142702071Betsy is the lettuce mistress in our household. In March, she planted lots of seeds (Fedco winter lettuce mix) and put them under fluorescent lights near a south-facing window. She transplanted them in mid-April into our fenced garden (sorry, rabbits).

In addition, lots of lettuce that she planted in early fall survived the winter, protected under cut-in-half overturned milk jugs and inside plastic-covered hoop houses.

In most years, our lettuce has been attacked by slugs, but I’ve seen none so far. Last winter, I turned over the soil in the garden just before every cold snap, hoping to expose and freeze out insect pests. Maybe this technique reduced the slug population.

Lettuce has an ancient and racy history. It was first cultivated by the Egyptians, who saw it as a symbol of sexual prowess, with women believing it promoted love and childbearing. Ancient Romans believed it increased sexual potency, but 19th-century British women believed it caused infertility.

In folk medicine, it has been prescribed for ailments such as rheumatism, tension, coughing and insanity, though there is no scientific proof that it works. It is known to be an excellent source of Vitamins K and A. Lettuce has mild narcotic properties, though these are more present in wild varieties than in cultivated ones.

It’s in the nature of gardening that some years you get a feast of a particular crop, and in others a famine. Last year’s drought was great for tomatoes, but the previous one the crop was decimated by late blight. This year, lettuce is our garden star so far.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick outline of 170 past posts, in categories such as frugality, gardening, living without and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.

Homemade haircuts

I have not been to a barber in 40 years.Every five months, Betsy gets out her sharpest scissors and I put a towel around my neck, and she starts snipping away.

This started as another exercise in radical frugality, a concept I wrote about here. Although homemade haircuts don’t save that much money (less than $50 a year) I hate spending money when I don’t have to.

And homemade haircuts, for me,  have a history. When I was a boy, I hated going to the barber because I didn’t like being fussed over. So my mother started cutting my hair at home. Then, in the long-hair era of the late 1960s and ’70s, I almost completely stopped getting my hair cut. Must have been a tough time for the barbering profession.

img_20170202_075125135We enjoy the experience of cutting my hair. There’s a certain, uh, intimacy of Betsy wielding sharp objects close to my flesh. And for her, cutting my hair is sensual  and aesthetic, a form of creativity. She’s a very handy person, and this is the ultimate hands-on task.

When we’re done, it’s my job to clean up the hair that has spilled on the floor. I  put it in the compost bucket to be turned into garden fertilizer.

I do go to the barber shop — for other people’s hair. I read that critters that prey on our vegetable garden are deterred by the human scent that lingers in hair. So every year I collect lots of it from a friendly barber and put it near critter-sensitive plants that are outside our garden fence.

When I’ve gone more than four months without cutting my hair, I have to wash it often or it looks unkempt and greasy (as in the photo above). So now that my hair is short, I don’t have to worry so much about it.

Betsy has developed a system with her own hair of getting it cut once a year, in the fall. Then she lets it grow until, by the time the hot weather arrives, her hair is long enough that she can pin it up off her neck to keep cool. She sees this as another way to economize on hair cutting, by just not doing very much of it!

What are some of the DIY habits you have developed that save money and lead the way out of the mainstream culture and into The Good Life?

New readers of this blog can get a quick summary of more than 150 past posts on frugality, simple living, gardening, climate change, life lessons and living without. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a given category.