Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why I Live on a Farm

(This was a post for another site, but I figured I'd put it here too.)

Instead of describing the philosophical and practical reason I live on a farm first I think it would be more effective to describe a day on the farm and then draw from that my reasons.

The family wakes early before sunrise.  I’m not sure of the time, because there seems to occur naturally a rhythm of life that goes more with the sun than the clock, especially during that man-made absurdity of daylight savings time (as if we can change the amount of hours in the day by massaging the clock).  After warming ourselves for a bit by the fire, my three year old son looks at me.

“Where’s my eggs?” he asks bluntly.  “I’ll go get them son - they’re coming.”

Stepping into my boots, flannel jammies still on, I walk out to the chicken coop, open it up, and nudge the hens off of their eggs and bring them in.  As I scramble them in the butter made from our cow’s milk my wife brews the coffee from fresh ground beans.  After hastily getting everything on the table I try to stop the boys from eating so we can pray as my daughter stumbles out last and sits down after my morning kiss.  Breakfast doesn’t really end, but rather transitions to chores as we finish eggs and coffee (my youngest son of one prefers his black).  I stay the longest at the table, inwardly feeling entitled to it after braving the cold for the eggs in the first place.

From there we assemble the buckets, rags, and such for milking and head to the cows.  They meet us at the stanchion, a wooden feeding area that locks them in place while we milk, still stretching (they sleep in).  The kids wander around the barn and woods looking for adventure and find it occasionally.  During milking my wife and I discuss whatever pops up.  After milking we bring food scraps (slop) and milk byproducts - mostly whey and skimmed milk from making cheese and butter - to the pigs who convert it into bacon for me.  Unlike politicians they have very good second terms (butchering time) because they really trim the pork from the budget.  The pigs are also the garden tillers.  We also check on the growing heifer calf who is currently with the pigs - this is basically petting and letting her lick my sleepy hair, giving me an actual cow-lick.  We had a bull calf too but he’s in the fridge.  I love veal.

Heading back to the house the chickens swarm the kids awaiting their feed.  The youngest, who likes the black coffee, loves to sit right next to the feeder and actually eats the feed with them.  At least its organic.  We then pour and cool the milk.

After farm chores are through I go prepare for my other job which I do from my home office.  We try to sneak in the Angelus with varied success at this point, since the sun is really up now.  This is also when I usually get my morning prayer in, since I often fail to rise before the kids to do it.

After a few hours in the office we eat lunch, which consisted today of farm-raised pig liver pate on sourdough bread with rosemary farmer’s cheese on top, a side of some fermented food and a big glass of uber-fresh milk.  I also really like to have those veal steaks for lunch - they cook really well and fast in the oven.

Then we handle random farm issues - feed ordering, barn roofs, or more recently preparing an old rusty livestock trailer to be able to haul the pigs to slaughter soon.  (We’ve slaughtered all of our meat chickens and turkeys ourselves at this point, but sadly we don’t really have the time or setup for hogs).

I go back into the office for the afternoon work stretch and quit between 4 and 5 so we can eat dinner, clean the kitchen, and prepare for evening chores before it gets too far into the night.  After the kids are prepared for bed, we head off to milk again, check pigs again, then process milk again.  After the kids are asleep we either make some sort of dairy product - milk, cheese, yogurt, whipped cream, sour cream, ice cream, butter, etc. - Or I study for school or get some more work done next to my wife who is reading some sort of geeky food or farm thing.

After the evening time with the wife, I often deliver milk to other folks nearby who we barter with.  Tonight when I got home I was struck by a choral piece that was on the radio as well as the stars which were particularly bright.  At night in the country the hills and forest become black with darkness but the sky is brilliantly illuminated, especially in the winter.  It stops a man in his tracks.  As I sat there I decided to offer up a burnt offering (tobacco) as I sat with our mouser (known as a “cat” in the suburbs).

Why We’re Here

I grew up in the country, but as I was living in my third city since my childhood I was completely disjointed by the writings of many Catholic authors regarding the land - G.K. Chesterton, Romano Guardini, Belloc, Fr. Vincent McNabb, and others.  I was also struck by the example of Kevin Ford over at the New Catholic Land Movement.  Here’s some of the core realities that we get to face on a farm:

  • Visceral Interaction with Nature.  St. Bernard said that before we can read the Book of God in the Bible, we need to read the Book of Nature all around us.  I completely understand the sentiments of pagans that see divinity all around them in the rocks and trees, but how much more glorious it is to know that it is the loving and divine Father of us all that is speaking, not the tree itself.  A farm is a place of natural things - life and death.  When my children hear at Mass that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” they know that that has everything to do with throats being slit so that they can live and nothing to do with Jesus being cute.  
  • Reality.  The Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper wrote beautiful and illuminating books on the virtues (here and here), which we men are called to cultivate within ourselves.   He says that virtue can only be lived in response to reality - virtue is the right response to nature and real things so we must perceive (or receive) those things as they truly are.  In our society today, we are surrounded with un-reality.  On a farm your contact with the real is guaranteed.  There’s no one processing reality and projecting it onto a screen for me.  I see it.  This encounter with real things helps me to adjust my living to conform with reality - the reality God made.  This is very different from the idealist philosophies of society that tell us to generate “ideals” and then try to conform ourselves and the world around us to it - or of the group mentalities and philosophies that spawn from online interaction.  
  • Good Work.  My office job is probably a lot like yours.  Much of it exists in internet “clouds” and is rather intangible.  Work that occurs under actual clouds is good for the soul.  It would be easy to go on at this point on the philosophical reasons why this is good, like the goodness of having a physical connection to the things you produce, but I think most men know this intuitively, even poetically.  If you haven’t experienced that kind of hard physical work out in the fresh air I suggest you find out when your closest farmer is cutting hay next.  Go there and work with him.  After utter exhaustion and with bleeding hands you will thank the Lord for that good work He provided.
  • Lessons in Virtue.  The mother is the inward heart of a home.  As children venture from her they encounter the more outward realm of the father.  The father provides the example of virtue (assuming he has virtue) that gives the children the skills to interact with that world, with reality, rightly.  Throughout history, fathers were very near the home practicing their craft or farming.  Husband, after all, means “house bound”.  The home began deteriorating not when the mothers left the home for work, but when the fathers did during the industrial revolution.  Prior to that he was house bound and was the primary educator of his children in virtue, with a deep connection between what was happening in the home with mama and outside with papa (like my wife cooking something I just harvested).  Now the entire family leaves the home and children are even entrusted mostly to the state for their formation.  The lives of husbands and wives lack the connectedness that a farm cultivates.  This clearly has its problems.  The home is a community, a domestic church, not a hotel for working individuals.
  • Beauty.  Its a beautiful life here, even in the mucking of manure.  There’s a goodness that really and truly shines into our lives here.  It stops me and slows me down often times.  How many of us need more of that?  

We all can’t live on farms.  I know that.  But it seems clear to me that the many men that are feeling the ache to return to the land should do everything they can to do just that.  From Adam the tiller of the land to David the herdsmen to Peter the fishermen to the farming monasteries and tiny agrarian villages that once dotted Christendom - it is on the farm that men have found peace and the joyful working life.  I challenge you today, especially in this time when so many are looking for exercise routines to shake off the office shackles, get out and get your hands in the dirt from which you came.  It’ll be good for your soul.

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