The Growing Pains of Changing Attitudes

Posted by Nick  | 10 Aug 2019  | 7 comments

Living out here has been the most important education of our lives. And I don’t just mean all the practical skills we’ve acquired in the past five years. Sure, we’ve taught ourselves how to operate and repair shaky old farm machinery, erect fences, resource management, and animal husbandry. But those aspects of country-living are learnt skills like any other. There are deeper, subtler lessons on offer out here on the farm, where life and death go hand in hand, and the success of one’s endeavours are at the mercy of nature. Here, where blood, sweat, and tears are palpable, one is forced to reexamine their attitudes towards life and question their very worldview.

When we moved to the farm almost five years ago, I was only beginning to emerge from an eight-year-long bout of severe depression and anxiety, worsened by constant pain from my arthritis. My spirits were lifting at the idea of a new life where I had the space (and head-space) to be closer to nature and could fill my days with productiveness and creativity. But that promise of a brighter future in the countryside became quickly tarnished by the reality of the job I had signed up for.

Our first couple of years on the farm were both exhilarating and frightening (at least to me). There was the excitement of claiming our own bucolic space to restore native bush, grow an orchard, and get our hands grubby with fulfilling DIY projects. But in tandem to those aspects of hobbit heaven was a litany of unfortunate events when it came to lambing and calving.

We tried and failed to save lambs stuck inside their mothers, forcing us to put the ewes out of their misery. We watched with tears in our eyes as the babies within squirmed for a minute before becoming still. We had to make the call to shoot sick animals after weeks of hopeful treatment. We had a pet cow that gave birth to an oversized dead calf, who then never fully recovered and died herself, despite an exorbitant vet bill. We performed a cesarean operation on a ewe by shooting her and then hastily cutting into her uterus to save her lambs. We even had to remove another oversized calf that had died inside its mother, by cutting its head and forelimbs off with a piano wire whilst still inside her to safely fish it out. All of this when we were new to farming, fresh from the city. Fate, it seemed, was intent on throwing us into the deep end.

For someone like me who obsesses over morality and regularly encounters existential dread, being suddenly exposed to these frightful bloody facts of life was a catastrophic shock that made me question whether life was worth living at all. Melodramatic, I know.

To put how I felt into context, consider this: I have the bad habit of neurotically subscribing to philosophical schools of thought and letting them mould my worldview a little too authoritatively. During that time in my life when we’d just moved to the farm, I called myself an anti-natalist – the rare and controversial position that it is ethically wrong to create life, that it’s better off not existing. To an anti-natalist, willingly bringing life into the world is akin to rape, for the creature cannot give its consent to life, and you have condemned it to all the potential/inevitable suffering that goes with it. It assumes that a life has a net-negative value. It had even been a recurring theme in our discussions about having children one day.

As you can imagine, that dissonant worldview of mine was only exacerbated by me being the guardian of a field-full of creatures which could suffer (some of which were), and by having a very tangible hands-on involvement in the prolonging of any suffering as well as their demise. It was traumatising seeing animals in pain and not being able to help them, and feeling indirectly responsible for their suffering.

The dead vegetarian inside me who I had buried years ago was scratching at the surface, raking me with questions like: “Is farming really something you want to be a part of?” — “Do you really think you’re the kind of person to stomach this aspect of life?” — “Do you really want to become the kind of person this life will make you into?” — “Is this really how you want to spend your life?” And no monologue was more repeated in my head than the self-deprecating mantra “I can’t do this!” – the very same defeatist mindset I had to applied to school, university, work, and even at low points, life itself. I felt like a fish out of water.

Digging a deep grave for a pet cow.

Every livestock death or illness on the farm was darkly coloured by this perspective I held, which was fortified every time there was a gruesome task to be done. To make matters worse, I was alone out here for much of it, as Char would commute to Auckland and stay there for half the week. She was supportive and empathetic, of course, even apologetic, and listened to my incessant woes. But I shortly realised that no amount of complaining was going to change how powerless I was to influence the unpredictable nature of life on a farm.

Our plan has always been to get the farm to a financially viable state where it pays for our living costs, so then we can both live here full-time as semi-self-sufficient homesteaders (where the more joyous work of gardening and the like commences). So during this bloody crisis, I was desperate to conjure up some lucrative alternative to sheep and cattle farming, but failed (I’m certainly no entrepreneur; business has never made much sense to me). I had a straightforward decision to make: Quit and destroy our future vision… or soldier on. With that in mind, I realised there wasn’t really any choice.

For the time being, working the farm was my job and the path forward to the self-reliant life we had envisioned together. I told myself I could continue to be scared, horrified, and angry – but I must do what was required of me anyway. It would take a lot of mental and emotional effort as well as an iron will – traits I inherently lack. Nonetheless, I couldn’t let our dream die. A boy had to become a man.

Over the years as I became more competent on the farm and more confident in being able to handle any task, my worldview began to miraculously shift… I was no longer viewing grisly events as wounds that would scar me, but as opportunities that would grow me. A psychological workout to build emotional resilience, you could say. Char and I talked about this on many occasions, and we found that we dreaded the unfortunate less and less, naturally adopting the attitude of come what may. We were realising that at the end of any troublesome task we felt just that little bit wiser and more confident, whatever the outcome, success or failure.

I discovered that my depression was lifting consistently with this change in attitude, and my anxiety too (perhaps with a little help from mindful meditation and stoic philosophy). It became apparent that my worldview had previously been informed less by logic and more by fear. Fear of trauma, fear of losing control, fear of not being able to cope. It’s amazing how we seek self-confirming philosophies that align with our emotional states. We adhere to them as justifications for our attitudes and excuses for our behaviours. Confirmation bias is one hell of a drug.

And it wasn’t as if these experiences were just making me become desensitised, numb, or apathetic. On the contrary, I was actually becoming more caring and less resentful towards the animals and their natures, and more open to experiencing a full spectrum of feelings, rather than being lost in a haze of melancholy and negative rumination. Life became abundantly self-evident that it was worth living, and that not all life had a net-negative value.

It also became clear just how removed from the natural order of life and death many of us are who grow up in cities, and how detrimental that is to formulating beliefs about such matters without the complete picture, as I had done. Shedding a tear over shooting a ewe in the head and then laughing with joy at having pulled two living lambs from her belly is an eye-opening contrast that lets you understand and appreciate the balance.

Being thrown into the deep end was a blessing in disguise. Although it was traumatic at the time, we’re able to look back fondly of how far we’ve come. The experience slapped me in the face with cold hard reality, but in so doing it woke me from a fever-dream of believing in the grim pointlessness of existence. I realised that to be capable of a daunting and sometimes gruesome task has less to do with one’s inbuilt constitution and emotional rigour, and more to do with a simple decision to stare fear and doubt in the face and say “I can do this.” Moreover, with that attitude adopted, one might come away from any traumatic experience with the perspective of having grown stronger from it, rather than that of becoming a victim of life.

And yeah, I know life is f-ing hard sometimes, for almost everyone. There are days where no-one wants to contend with their lot, regardless of how privileged their life may appear. But I’ve come to realise through these harsh lessons that the corny old advice to “focus on the positive” deserves more merit. Negative events in life somehow feel weightier, but they can be vastly outnumbered by the positive with a little modification to perspective. Not only that, but even the negative can be viewed in a positive light. Our struggles can be our enemies, or our teachers. There is nothing more transformative than a forced change in perspective. For me, those early years on the farm did just that. The stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote in the Enchiridion: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”

Of course, deep-seated automatic modes of thinking and ingrained behaviours don’t change overnight. Every day I continue to have to make a conscious effort to rein in that screechy little monkey mind. But I’m lucky – the harshness and ruggedness of a life closer to nature seems to create more tangible experiences to reflect on. I think this is in part why so many people are yearning to go back to the land, to be moved more deeply by real life. Wisdom is tied to the senses here, hidden in contrast; between the stink of shit or rot, and the sweet aroma of hay or dew; between the wracking cold wind or rain, and the relief of a warm sun emerging from storm clouds; between the weight of the dead, and the lightness of the living. Here, reality is solid, graspable, relevant.

Like any situation or circumstance in life, the farm can be a forlorn place, such as on a freezing blustery night when newborn lambs might die from exposure. Although harrowing, that period of uncertainty is brief, and enormously outweighed by the ensuing joviality of two-dozen healthy spring lambs gleefully bounding after one another on many warm and colourful afternoons. None of it possible without the blood, sweat, and tears for which I was once resentful, but am now appreciative and even grateful.

Grateful because there really is so much about life to be loved if you go looking for it, even in the shadows. And the more we love, the brighter the world becomes (not just for ourselves, but also those around us). In the years following that initial crisis, I came to realise that a life saturated with beauty and wonder is waiting to be embraced by any of us, waiting for us to let down those dark-tinted visors of victim-hood so we might define our own capabilities. As Einstein said, “once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”

7 comments Leave a comment

David Boulton
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A great read as always Gus. I know things began very differently to how things are now, but it was still so easy to forget just how tough it was in the beginning. I’m glad to have shared many of those moments over the years, and and look forward to enjoying many more. Every step of the way you’ve impressed me with the stoic determination with which you have just gotten things done, even if underneath you might have been struggling with it more than you let on on the surface.

“I told myself I could continue to be scared, horrified, and angry – but *I must do what was required of me anyway*. It would take a lot of mental and emotional effort as well as an iron will – traits I inherently lack. Nonetheless, I couldn’t let our dream die. A boy had to become a man.”

These lines moved me the most, and I think in a way, this might be one of the important insights that we must all reckon with as we come of age, whatever age that may actually be.

I remember us saying something similar during one of our teenage nights out on the Sycamore bench – something to the effect of: your argument counts for nothing against the face of an oncoming train. Stand in the middle of the tracks, yell and scream at it all you like, you really only have two choices – do something; move, get out of the way. Or, be prepared to face oblivion.

While we might have known this conceptually as early as our teens, I don’t think we fully realized its implications. We thought of it in terms of philosophy and other intangible ideas. It was more like an academic perspective, rather than an experiential one. Certainly, *we* were not two people standing on the tracks trying to argue with the speeding train. Not us, on high, on our bench!

But indeed, it turns out this is all of us, all the time. There is just life, and its contents. What will be, will be, and only action – only doing things in the world might ever make the world better to live in. Or it won’t. But either way, there will be life; we will wake up every morning without failure, until one day we don’t. And before that happens, within every conscious span of every day there will be, as you say, “so much about life to be loved if you go looking for it, even in the shadows.” And so look we shall. 🙂


Thanks, Gus. Oh how my younger self would run in terror from many a scene here on the farm! We had a thirst for wisdom at a young age – but I don’t expect my youthful idealism could have ever prepared me for this reality, haha. Nonetheless, I owe a lot to our conversations of yesteryear, which taught me, if nothing else, how to examine my thoughts and feelings – a useful skill in being able to work through them.

George Shears
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BRAVO, NICK AND CHAR! I received an email notification of your most recent blog post late last evening (8/10/19). My heart soared as I read it. I immediately summoned my wife, Mildred, and read it again, aloud, while she looked over my shoulder at the many poignantly beautiful photos it contains. Then, in her usual down-to-earth sincerity, she suggested an alternative title for this post: “Living the Life I Never Could Have Imagined.” Given my somewhat more exuberant nature, I would likely preface this apt title with “WOW!—” What an awesome and delightful crescendo this wonderful post added to what had already been a bountiful and beautiful day.
I dearly wish that I could adequately convey, in a few concise words, the depth and magnitude of empathic happiness that I feel in learning how you and Char have so courageously opened yourselves to receive and internalize the awesome—and seemingly often brutal–healing blessings that Mother Earth has so graciously bestowed upon you. Unfortunately, my addiction to verbosity is a major impediment here.
Having personally partaken throughout my life of our Great Mother’s unequaled transformative healing power, I can readily understand and appreciate how this miracle has gradually and lawfully unfolded for you and Char over the past five years, as you have been cradled in Her beautiful loving arms. I’m quite certain, then, that you both share my immense gratitude for these bountiful blessings—as well as the deep sorrow and anger about how–out of the boundless and malignant greed, hatred and delusion of our species, we have so horrendously raped and pillaged our unconditionally compassionate Mother.
I’m strongly convinced that the pervasive human delusion of separateness from our beautiful biosphere–as well as from the entire cosmos–is the deepest root cause of ALL the past and present woes of the world. Accordingly, I strongly agree with your perception that vast numbers of our human brothers and sisters have a deep—albeit, perhaps, unconscious–desire to go “back to the land.” My sympathetic joy in your personal transformation, then, is greatly accentuated by a comparable degree of deep admiration and gratitude for your whole-hearted dedication in helping to heal Her massive wounds. BRAVO, BRAVO, INDEED!!!
In accordance with the seamless unity and great need of all of the awesomely beautiful beings that inhabit our planetary biosphere, may you both continue to courageously surrender, with “don’t know mind,” into the Great Mystery of Life, dedicating the abundant merits of your healing journey for the welfare of all beings.
Mildred lovingly recommends that you remember and be guided in all of your future endeavors by the very wise and simple advice that the cow offered to Babe in the movie of the same name:
“. . .that the way things are is the way things are.”
Here’s wishing you all the best from “way up over” to “way down under.”
With deep love,
P.S. BTW, Nick, if you ever need or want independent validation of your impressive transformation, I will happily provide it, based on our extensive, online correspondence over the past several years. Interestingly, our friendship was initiated by your remarkably honest self-disclosure in a YouTube video that caught my eye (and ear) at that time. This same highly-admirable personal trait comes through loud and clear again in this most recent blog post, wherein you have elegantly “outed” yourself as the Great Being you truly are. May Mother Nature continue to provide much benevolent wind for your sails as you continue on in your transformative journey.


Your verbosity is very endearing, George. I always have a big grin when reading your thoughtful messages. Thank you for the words of encouragement!

Harry Vossen
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Nick, this was a great read. Have you considered running classes—in anything from wooden step- or pump-making to digging post-holes to wrangling sheep—on the farm? I know that as an aspiring escapee from the Big Smoke I would happily shell out some money to be a helping hand for you guys and learn something in the process.


Hi Harry, thanks for the kind words. We’ve definitely thought about running classes of some kind in the future, but for now we’re still newbies in most areas. It’s only now, after five years or so, that we’re starting to see the success of our labours, such as a productive orchard and established bush strips and shelter belts. Not to mention the waterwheel, which has been an ongoing experiment for the past two years and has only now reached it’s final phase (post coming soon). Awesome to hear that you think we have something worth sharing, and of course we’re very keen to help as many city slickers – as we once were – make new lives in the countryside. Stay tuned!

Harry Vossen

I most certainly will stay tuned. I’ve been watching your blog closely! Have you read Wendell Berry, at all? I would highly recommend him (the last ten short essays in “What are people for?” is a good kick-off point) for an intelligent, thoughtful, rural-and-self-sustainability-oriented perspective on the world that I think gels nicely with posts like the one above.

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