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.
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.”