I have been rereading Kristin Kimball’s thoughtful, charming, and often very funny book, The Dirty Life. Kristin farms with her husband Mark about 45 minutes away from us, down in the Champlain Valley. I’ve heard through the local grapevine about their operation ever since they started in 2004, and Lucy and I met them at a draft horse workshop last January.
Kristin writes of their five hundred acres:
This land had been farmed since before the American Revolution. The stock, the crops, the fence lines, the buildings, and the farmers had come and gone, passing over the fields like shadows in the course of the day. You can’t truly own a farm, no matter what the deed says. It has a life of its own. You can love it beyond measure, and you are responsible for it, but at most you’re married to it.
So much of Kristin’s book captures my own experience in shimmering, exact prose. At this last sentence, however, I lifted my eyes from the page. The metaphor seemed wrong.
For me a farm is not like a marriage. It is like a child.
You can love it beyond measure and you are responsible for it. You also pour all your energy and creativity and problem-solving and dreams for the future into it. You delight in its strengths and plot endless strategies for its weaknesses. You go without sleep and push yourself to exhaustion to help it thrive. But at the end of the day a farm, like a child, is outside your control. You cannot keep it safe from hardship or disaster. And eventually a farm will go on, or not, without you.
My elderly friend Allen and I were once eating lunch in my truck. We’d been working hard and were tired. He looked out at the rolling, newly-cleared back acres, sighed, and shook his head. “Someday your kids will sell it and it will all be condos.”
I was horrified. “Never!”
He regarded me over his Thermos of coffee with a smile that forgave my naiveté. “Prob’ly.”
Allen understood and was resigned to the reality that no matter how great your desire or how hard you try, you can’t control the future. This has been one of the toughest lessons for me to grasp as a parent. Often when your child is a toddler you can maintain the illusion that if you are only vigilant enough, if you are tirelessly attentive to every detail, you can protect him or her from all hurt or unhappiness. Then your children grow, life knocks them down, or sometimes their choices knock you down — and you are forced, step by step, to accept that ultimate outcomes are out of your hands.
In the same way, I can spread countless tons of manure, I can hire heavy equipment until Kingdom Come, I can scrimp and save for fencing, I can tend my animals, I can even build a barn and a house. But in the end, sheep and cows will die, trees will fall on fences, the weather is uncontrollable, buildings crumble, and probably neither of my children as adults will ever want to live here. A medical emergency, or even just exhaustion, could make my farm impossible tomorrow.
So why do it? Why knock oneself out? Like parenting small children, small farming can be lonely and hard. The hours are long and relentless. No one ever went into either occupation for the money.
I think it can only be for the joy along the way.