Calling Out the Buccaneer-Scholars


The word buccaneer is woefully underused. It’s vibrant, bringing to mind all sorts of lively images. Apparently, buccaneers in history were, aside from the pillaging, remarkably progressive. According to The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates by Peter T. Leeson, pirates made use of constitutional democracy 50 years before the United States did so. They also regulated behaviors such as smoking and drinking, compensated their injured workers, and assured greater racial and class equality than could be found as law-abiding mariners.

Some believe that modern-day pirates are also, beyond the violence of hostage-taking and ransom demands, acting on a desperate need for greater global justice.

I’ve been ruminating every which way about buccaneer living ever since reading James Marcus Bach’s book, Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success.

Bach is now an internationally recognized expert in software testing. He’s a self-taught man who thrives except when caged by conventional expectations. School and other strictures made him an angry youth. He got into so many fights that his mother and stepfather sent him off to a motel room, where he lived on his own for two years. There he learned to program his computer and skipped as many high school classes as he could before dropping out at age 16. He describes his education this way:

“I watched a huge amount of television and read a lot of science fiction and fantasy novels. I started lots of things I never finished. I purchased books I didn’t read. I daydreamed. I brooded. I wasted time in lots of ways. I also loved arguing, and learned a lot about logic from arguing. I honed my skills in early online bulletin board services, before the invention of the web. This aimlessness would become important later on, when I was introduced to general systems thinking, which is all about the underlying patterns that connect apparently different things.”

Bach’s own son tired of schooling after sixth grade, so now Oliver is an unschooling teen, which means in their family, “…we treat Oliver as a sovereign and trustworthy individual in all aspects of life, not just education.”

This philosophy dovetails perfectly into Bach’s concern with finding unifying patterns and consistencies in a society oriented to separations and justifying distinctions. As he says, “When I deal with my son I can’t tell him to turn off his moral judgment while I use threats to scare him into learning what I wish him to learn. He’s learning about morality and ethics continuously as he experiences the world around him.”

This buccaneer is also a man of wisdom. A passage from his blog deals with his stepfather’s long-ago attempt to comfort him. Bach writes,

When you speak to your child, and you feel that he is not listening, maybe he isn’t. When you speak to him and you suspect he’s silently ridiculing you, maybe he is. When the gift of your advice or sympathy fails in every way to touch him, and you believe yourself a failure, maybe you are. For now.

Bide your time.

Just imagine the man he will be, someday. His now subtle and caring mind clambering back through his life, looking for support in the events that shaped him– just imagine how he’ll come upon your words. The gift you tried to give. Faded on the outside, yet vital still inside, it will open like a blossom. Even thirty years later.

Thanks Jon.

When you speak to your children today, you are also speaking to every day of their future selves. Parenting is outside of time. Take care and take heart in that.

Bach gives us a great deal to think about. I’m ruminating about ways we tend to suppress the natural buccaneer spirit.  I’ll be trying to more fully enjoy the vibrant, difficult, ornery and completely unique people in my life who have blessedly held on to the buccaneering approach.

Two wise people in my life who are buccaneers as well as scholars.

Two wise people in my life who are buccaneers as well as scholars.

Edible Knowledge

cherrytomatoes Living on a farm we can’t help but be connected to the food on our table. We’re by no means perfect when it comes to eating locally. We’ll never come close unless chocolate and coffee start sprouting up in Ohio.

While more of us are paying attention to adopting better habits for our own health and planetary health, it’s easy to overlook the vital and wondrous learning that is directly related to food. For my family, those lessons often have to do with shared experiences.

~Many years we head out to pick apples together on a bright fall day. After an indulgent week of eating and baking with as many apples as possible, we devote a day to applesauce. We cook the remaining bushels of fruit down, cranking Grandma’s Victorio strainer that pushes with sauce out one side and pulp out the other (pulp eagerly eaten by the chickens), then can jars of applesauce to eat all winter long.

~We have encouraged each child to choose his or her own “crop” to plant and tend in the vegetable garden. Harvesting and sharing the bounty of one’s own fresh green beans teaches the satisfaction of work right along with lessons in botany and soil health.

~We try recipes from around the world, not only while learning about other cultures, but also because we freely trade garden bounty with friends, and have to do something with unfamiliar herbs, roots and fruits.

~We visit nearby farms. Observation and conversations with those who live on the land have been instructive, teaching us practices we want to emulate and those we hope to avoid.

~We eat meals together every day. Cooking frugally by choice as well as necessity has brought us myriad conversations about health, trends, politics and defining worth for ourselves. Of course our meals also precipitate family humor related to home ground grains that result in breads darker than wet cardboard and yes, we’ve had one or two loaded spatula chases around the kitchen. Oh wait, that didn’t involve the kids, just me thinking it might be funny to fling frosting at my husband.

~Unintentionally we learn by making plenty of mistakes. Ordering 25 pounds of organic buckwheat from the food co-op before knowing if anyone would eat it, raising our first flock of turkeys on faith more than fact, repeatedly attempting to make cheddar cheese although we can’t maintain the temperature needed to age it, well, this list could go on.

10 Things We Should Teach Every Kid About Food, recently posted on Every Kitchen Table, offers a handy list of important food-related categories to explore with our children.  The ideas are important and too often overlooked, such as the precepts of the industrial food system and the insidious effect of food advertising.

Here are some related resources:

Improve School Lunches With Locally Grown Food This article offers information plus strategies to bring positive change to your school district, whether you have children in school or not.

Don’t Buy It A non-profit site with learning games to help kids evaluate and analyze media messages.

I Buy Different A website sponsored by New Dream and World Wildlife Fund with tools to help tweens and teens be, live, and buy differently to make a difference.

Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children

I Love Dirt!: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature

What are some ways that learning, growing and eating work best in your family?100_5960

Learning from Wisdom of Elder Farmers


The sight of Ron’s farm is like a quiet blessing. I wait for my first glimpse of it over the rise of a hill each time I take the dogs for a walk down our street. The house and several outbuildings are in shambles, but that’s because Ron puts his energy into keeping his small dairy farm going.

His herd of around fifty Ayrshire, Holstein, Guernsey and Brown Swiss graze on pasture so lush that the grasses sway in the wind. Many of the old fence posts surrounding the fields are wire-wrapped osage orange and hickory trunks, since farmers a few generations ago knew these durable woods would serve while alive and long after.

Ron puts his cows out on pasture each spring by a calculation that remains a mystery to me, something to do with phases of the moon. He adheres to other timeworn methods that aren’t fancy enough to be termed eco-friendly or green. For example, Ron drives his old car back to the hayfield before it’s time to cut. He walks through the field handpicking weeds that aren’t good for his cows. He doesn’t confine his cows year round, dose them with production-boosting hormones or follow any other agricultural trends.

Ron’s back is bent; his face is weathered and creased into a permanent smile. Already he looks like his father, Herb, who died a few years ago, probably already in his nineties. We asked Herb’s advice back when we first started farming. Herb told us he’d walked over to see our cows a few times, meaning he’d hiked through fields and woods to reassure himself that all was well.

How many of us can still benefit from the benevolent instinct of a neighboring farmer? How many are lucky enough to learn from examples of those who are deeply rooted, as Lisa Hamilton’s wonderful new book Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness is aptly named?

Dairy farms all over the country are selling cows, selling land and going out of business. The price they are being paid is about the same as it was in the 1970’s, although feed and fuel is much higher.  Government aid under consideration for small farms is steered to prompt farmers into selling cows, meaning even more milk will come from huge confinement agricultural operations. Losing small farms also means that the wisdom of farmers like Ron will be left behind at an ever faster pace. This includes specific wisdom about the land and wider wisdom about ways to live.

True connection to the land is so easily crushed beneath the weight of society’s pressing demand for immediate gratification and quick profits. But then, much is lost. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “This palpable world, which we are used to treating with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association, is a holy place.”

Perhaps most obviously, common sense is lost. Small farms are actually more efficient. The Institute for Food and Development Policy amassed available data from every country to compare productivity of smaller farms versus larger farms (total output of agricultural products per unit area — per acre or hectare.)  Their research showed that smaller farms are anywhere from 200 to 1,000 percent more productive.

Ron’s son-in-law and grandson help on the farm, but his family talks to him about getting out of the business. They know he’s losing money. Ron says that he watched his father go through hard times and he learned that the way you stay farming is to hang on. So he’s hanging on.

Ron’s rootedness to his farm and his land is part of who he is, like the farmer Gene Logsdon describes in a recent blog post “…he is a last member of an ancient tribe—the genuine traditional farmers who committed themselves lovingly to a piece of land and husbanded it from generation to generation, carrying in their memories a lifetime of their own experiences and that of their fathers and grandfathers on that land.”

So today I will walk in his direction, grateful for Ron’s farm. I’ll pay attention to the sight of cows resting in tall grass and the sound of a slack board on the house creaking in the breeze, hoping perhaps each thing we look upon with love somehow is more likely to endure.