A Life: Carl B. Russell; ‘He was so generous’

  • Carl Russell takes Tom, part of a draft horse team rescued from a Massachusetts farm, on his first test drive in a loop around the barn at Stitchdown Farm in Bethel, Vt., on May 21, 2015. Russell is boarding the pair, Mike and Tom, at Stitchdown while getting them ready to work. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Sarah Priestap

  • Carl Russell looks to the canopy of a stand of red and white pines he is clearing for pasture on his farm with Lucky, left, and Marvelous, right, his team of oxen in Bethel Gilead, Vt., Thursday, Jan. 13, 2021. Russell also works with horses. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Carl Russell leads a workshop about draft animal-powered ecological forestry at a field day held at Earthwise Farm and Forest in Bethel, Vt., in 2005. Russell and his family have been working the 150-acre farm with horses and oxen. (Family photograph)

  • Carl Russell and Lisa McCrory with their daughter Tuilelaith and newborn son Timber in 2002. (Family photograph) Family photographs

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 8/21/2022 9:01:46 PM
Modified: 8/21/2022 8:58:13 PM

Life is the flow of energy from the Earth through all things. It is the relationships between all things that keep the energy flowing.

Like everything else, humans gather energy, then expend it, and eventually we return in totality to the source. Along the way, it is the relationships that we make that define our participation.

— Carl Russell, from his essay Food from Thought

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BETHEL — Barely 10 weeks after the June 9 morning on which Carl Russell never awoke, his family, his fellow draft-horse loggers, and the farmers he counseled are still racing the summer to its finish line.

Racing to harvest trees.

Hustling to pick vegetables and berries and other produce for their farmstands, and for canning ahead of winter.

Hurrying to milk cows and goats, and to turn the liquid into cheese and butter.

Hastening to slaughter chickens and turkeys and beef cattle, and to package their meat.

And in stolen moments during this hectic homestretch of the harvest, members of his wide network are wondering how Carl Russell found the time, between tackling those and other chores at his 150-acre Earthwise Farm & Forest in the Gilead section of Bethel, to ruminate on and to offer guidance — sometimes in person, sometimes online, often at length and always at depth — about living and sustaining life, well, sustainably.

“The summer that he and (Russell’s wife) Lisa (McCrory) mentored me, he was so generous,” East Roxbury, Vt., farmer Rachel Field recalled last week. “I felt like I slowed him down from what he was showing me and from what else he had to do, because we got talking about everything: The world, love of the Earth, what it meant to be a human being.”

Especially a human being struggling to collaborate with a draft horse, as Field was doing with Rasta — “one of my two unruly boys” — this past March on her Heartberry Hollow homestead.

“Keep in mind that none of this is out of the ordinary,” Russell wrote in an email. “... It is easy to focus our presence as a ‘calming’ force on those around us, but that is an outward expression, taking cues from those around us, and responding accordingly. Part of self-respect, I’m finding, is being more vulnerable with myself, more compassionate to myself, more acknowledging of my feelings during my interactions with people and animals. It is another layer to peel off, of bringing my true self forward. That caregiver we provide to our people and our animals, is there for us, too. Possibly, the more we provide it for ourselves, the more it is present for others.

“So, try to recognize those times when you are focused — overfocused? — on the horse’s reactions, and try to feel why that is. What does focusing on all of their actions provide for us? What feelings are we missing, or possibly avoiding?”

So much for the stereotype of the tunnel-visioned toiler that we associate with farmers in northern New England.

“He was thinking about these things all the time — when he was feeding animals, building fence, walking the woodlot,” Lisa McCrory, Russell’s wife of 21 years, said on the eve of hosting a workshop on making butter, yogurt and cheese for Vermont Open Farm Week. “He was quite a thinker, and quite the writer about all the things he was thinking about.”

Russell wrote early, often and, on occasion, poetically in cyberspace conversations with fellow foresters and draft-animal loggers.

“Many of them are going through the listservs he contributed to over the years,” McCrory said. “He wrote a lot on technical aspects of draft-animal power, so you can expect to see a few books covering his expertise as well as his creative expression. When somebody asked a question, he didn’t write, like, three sentences.

“It was many paragraphs.”

Most of which Rick Alger read with pleasure, during the decade and a half that he logged with draft horses all over New Hampshire.

“Carl really knew his stuff,” Alger, a retired professor of English, said last week. “The thing I liked about him was, he wasn’t in it for nostalgia. He was convinced that horses could do a lot of things better than machines. He was able to convey forestry applications with horses that were not necessarily profitable, but could return some income and preserve the ecosystem. There’s no borderline.

“He’s an Aldo Leopold, for sure.”

And a poet who calls to mind Robert Frost, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, yet always in his own, practical voice. Take Of Their Personal Denial, in which his narrator addresses a fellow draft-animal practitioner:

There is no doubt,

Mr. Jones,

That the sound

of a moldboard

slicing through soil,

muffled footsteps,

in cadence of eight,

and the odorous medley

of horse sweat

and freshly turned Earth,


the physical connection

to living power,

moving in unison

to your silent command,

will touch something deep inside.

Bank that;

it is the value

that will support you

as you leave the readers

and bean counters

in the dust....

As if John Smolinsky, to whom Russell dedicated the poem in 2014, weren’t awed enough by the man to whom he apprenticed himself for 13 weeks between his junior and senior years at Sterling College in the Northeast Kingdom.

“It changed the course of my life, toward a distinctive way of life,” said Smolinsky, who employs draft animals at his Cabot, Vt.-based Earthbound Forest Services. “He had a big impact on me, not only on how to harvest wood and be in the woods professionally. He gave me a perspective on how to behave in life, as a professional teamster and as a steward of the Earth.

“There’s no textbook for the way he got the work done.”

Russell’s own education began long before he studied forestry at the University of Vermont in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In his essay Food from Thought, he recounts facing, as a teen growing up in Norwich, the revelation that, ethically, he should be killing and processing the animals he was raising for meat, instead of letting someone else slaughter them, or just buying pork, beef and poultry at the store.

“I stood outside the pen where I raised my first pigs,” he writes. “... My parents had insisted that as a young hunter I eat everything I killed. This helped in part to shape the current motivation, but it had also tempered my desire to kill things. A bird on the wing, or a white-tail deer at fifty yards, is quite different than a pig at hand.

“... As I readied myself to enter the pigs’ pen, I could see the shimmering in their eyes, too close, too far, too narrow. ... To this day, I have no idea why I trusted myself to take that step, but I entered the pen and did what needed to be done.”

His relationships with animals deepened during the summers he spent learning to work draft horses and oxen at the Farmington, N.H., tree farm of his uncle, Les Barden.

“Les was a mentor and like a second father to him,” Rick Alger recalled. “Carl carried a lot of that forward and was generous in sharing it.”

By 2000, Russell had been working draft horses for 14 years on the Gilead land that his grandfather had bought in 1938 with plans to build a working farm. While his grandfather deferred that dream because of failing health, he managed to establish a 30-acre lot of softwood timber there, and Russell’s parents maintained gardens and cut firewood on the property until Carl was ready to start homesteading.

The transition to a fully organic operation began in 2001, after Russell married Lisa McCrory. They’d met the year before, during a kitchen meeting she was hosting on the topic of genetically-modified seed and food.

“We kept crossing paths a lot after that,” McCrory recalled. “We knew many of the same people, and realized we had a lot of the same ideals in common.”

They started putting those ideals into practice while building a house, and within a few years they also had a daughter, Tuilelaith Russell-McCrory, and sons Timber and Bazel Russell — all of whom are now helping their mother carry Carl’s vision forward, to the extent possible.

For now.

“I’ve got my kids, and we always have one or two volunteers,” McCrory said. “We’re processing about half as many meat birds as usual, we’re down to one milk cow and we’ve just got oxen now, found someone to take the horses. If we get back into draft horses, we’ll work with a smaller team.

“Inevitably, the personality of the farm is going to be slightly different. We’ve really just got to go through a year, get used to Carl not being here.”

So must dozens, maybe hundreds of peers and disciples and apostles who learned at the feet of Carl Russell. Learned not only animal husbandry and wizardry, but ways to spread the word.

“I really feel he’s still around, in every decision we make,” Rachel Field said. “On our farm, we’ve been inviting more people onto the land, to share what we’ve picked up along the way, the way Carl and Lisa did for so many people. When we talk to them, there’s always some phrase of Carl’s that comes out of my mouth or Jonathan’s mouth.

“We feel like it’s his voice that we’re filtering through our land.”

The Russell family is encouraging donations in Carl Russell’s memory to the nonprofit Draft Animal-Power Network, which he co-founded; donations are welcome either by check mailed to P.O. Box 24, Greenwich, N.Y., 12834, or online at https://www.draftanimalpower.org/donate-advertise. At press time, donations were approaching $3,000. The network will celebrate Carl Russell’s contributions on Sept. 30 and on Oct. 1 and 2, during its annual Field Days conference at Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon, N.H.

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