Once, in my late 20’s, I fell into a cycle while on a theatre tour: I’d get sick, be down for a couple of days, start feeling better, go back to work, and get sick again. My stomach pains got so bad at one stage, that my sister threw my protesting self into the back of her pickup truck and drove me to the hospital emergency room, where they jumped to the conclusion that I was miscarrying (I wasn’t). Eventually, I found an intelligent doctor at a local free clinic, who had gotten through med school on a football scholarship. He diagnosed me with extreme exhaustion, something he’d experienced himself, a pure physical breakdown that meant that my body would pick up an infection, fight it off, and then, having used up all of its limited resources to fight the infection, collapse again upon being asked to withstand the rigors of the tour. I’ve had varying levels of that kind of exhaustion since then – everyone in my field knows about the ‘post-show breakdown’ phenomenon – but until these past few months, fatigue hasn’t held on for so long, or through so many versions of cold and flu. Farming has replicated two things from my former life: how exhausting it is…and how much I love it.
One of my friends, someone who has known and supported me through almost 30 years of adventuring, theorizes that one of the reasons I love my new life as a farmer so much, is that it is as demanding, as all-consuming, as anything I’ve ever done before. It demands 100% of me and my husband – we live and breathe this place. She says such focus is a central need of mine, for me to be happy in a pursuit. I think she’s probably right. Like the geeks I tend to be drawn to in my personal life (my husband is a Scottish independence/history geek, my first husband was/still is a film geek), I get obsessed with the thing I feel passionate about. I ‘lean in’ so far, I often risk tipping over. I’ve been leaning a lot, in the past couple of years. We both have.
I joined my husband on the farm a little over two years ago, as, thanks to being the primary caregiver for his Mum, he couldn’t join me, in my home. And it’s been full on since then. The first gift he ever gave me was a pair of wellies, and I tried them out that day, helping to clear a drainage ditch. Two years ago this month, we bought 12 sheep; we now have a flock of 64. We’ve brought four fields into production for hay and other crops. We planted an orchard in the week before Christmas, knee deep in mud, because that’s when the trees were finally delivered, and they needed to get into the ground. Up until June of this year, we were on 24/7 duty as the main caretakers for his Mum, who lived in her own cottage across the steading from us here on the farm, with help from a team made up of a combination of his brother and sister-in-law, and the Scottish government’s health- and social care service. We were busy. And then we decided to get married.
Because I live in Scotland with him, and my blood and non-blood family lives in my former countries of birth and residence, scheduling the ceremony was a challenge. Trying to find a time that fit into the farm schedule, and coincided with the godchildren’s school holidays, was one part of it. But the other was that I had an intuition that we should do it rather sooner than later, so that Mum could be a part of it. At close to 97, deaf, blind and housebound, she’d been getting weaker over the past year…
We eventually scheduled it to coincide with the end of lambing, as the children could be here on their spring break; their next shot was in October, and I was afraid to wait that long. Events were to prove me right, sadly.
All but one of our ewes were finished lambing by April 17th, our first guests arrived on the farm on the 20th, we were married on the 23rd (we hired a local lad to watch the final ewe, fully expecting to be called out of the ceremony at any minute), put our final guest on the train on the 28th, and helped the ewe through a difficult birth on the 29th. Then we bottle fed one of her lambs for two weeks, in a fruitless attempt to keep it alive. In the midst of all that, we got our potato, oat, and vegetable crops planted, while helping some of our nursing mamas through their udder issues.
Then, on June 6th, that early morning call came that every family member dreads. It came in on my mobile, as my husband takes his hearing aids out at night; when I moved in, my number moved to the top of Mum’s call list. Within the next hour, she was being airlifted to the hospital in Inverness, an hour’s drive away, where she would stay for the next two months, one or more of us by her side for most of that time. Until the day she shooed my brother-in-law out of the room, sending him home to his bed, and went to sleep for the final time. We miss her. The farm is …different…without her presence in the cottage. But we take solace in the memory of her dancing and singing (she said she didn’t want to waste a captive audience!) at our wedding, and the pleasure she took from hearing our daily reports on bringing the farm back into production.
Since then, while going through what every family goes through at such a time, plus dealing with the farm estate/inheritance issues that some families go through, plus trying to save whatever crops we could from the effects of a dry start to the growing season, the neglect of those two months, and a wet harvest, plus the surprise of a couple of unexpected lambs (found in the field the day before Mum’s passing) from when the ram got into the gimmer enclosure in February, plus juggling the outside work that brings money in to support the farm…we’ve both been nursing one cold after another. As we go into autumn, we are not yet recovered from the summer.
Is it any wonder? No. Is it unusual? No.
In the evenings, when we’ve collapsed onto our collapsing couch, if we’re not binge-watching a post-apocalyptic zombie/alien series – because we think nobody works harder than farmers, except people fighting aliens and zombies 😉 – we watch BBC farm programs. We’ve just finished another season of ‘This Farming Life’. It’s like a little busman’s holiday, without ever leaving the farm. Watching what the other farmers go through is enlightening, educational, and a relief. A relief, because it assures us that what we’re doing here, how we go about it, isn’t so unusual after all – in spite of tradition telling us not to name or fall in love with our sheep, it seems a common practice among at least some of the farming community. The daily struggles, the story of one couple who actually did have to leave a wedding (not their own) to deal with a troubled birth, the 24/7 struggle to balance everything: finances, family, time, skills, and the weather. We sit on our couch, watching other people’s stories, and sigh a sigh of relief, knowing our own story is not unique. We are not alone. I wonder how many farmers have colds today, and a long day of foot trimming and dosing in the field shelter tomorrow? Probably a goodly number of them.
So why do we do it? Why does anyone?
Because we love it. It’s gotten into our blood. I think, at a deep level, you’re either a farmer to your core…or you’re just not. And we both are. We’re a little surprised at this, as we both spent many years happily doing something else before we came to this. But we love every blade of grass, every sheep and bird and frog on this place. We love the evenings, when the dog demands his daily ballgames, and the tups want a little cuddle too. If we’re lucky, there’ll be a clearing of the skies, a bit of a breeze, and no midges. We really love that! We love the few blueberries coming onto the bushes planted in pots this year, because we had no time to get them into a field before they blossomed. We love the manky little plums we got from Mum’s old plum tree, finally coming back to life, just as she was leaving it behind. The single rose, like a reminder of something, on the bush I bought her last year. We love the potatoes coming into the field, scabby as they are from that dry spring and wet harvest. When some of our sheep go into the food chain for the first time this month, we’ll learn to love that too. Because – as I counselled young artists once, in a long ago life, if you can’t take the hard parts, choose another career. If you can be happy in any other career – choose that one. Because in farming, as it was my former career, it’s all part and parcel. And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m also content, for the absolute first time in my life. And I think the hubby would probably say the same. We are content with our lot. And our farm. It’s gotten into our blood, and under our skin. And it’s stronger than any flu bug.
So, that’s what we did this summer. And spring. And that’s what we’ll be doing in the seasons ahead.
So yes, I can honestly say that I haven’t worked this hard since I left my show business career behind in New York. But I can also honestly say that I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
But I think we need to take some more vitamins. 😉