I traveled 600kms the other day to visit some friends from a previous life. From the concrete jungle I now live in, through the rich tapestry of trees in the Blue Mountains, already teetering on the verge of brushfire season, having barely recovered from the previous year. And on, heading West, until I am in parched, open fields of soft, tan coloured crops. The sky seemingly endless, hugging me to the earth. The air still and laden with the sounds of insects drunk on the heat.
Over a cuppa and a piece of lemon slice, the first of many, we work out that it has been 7 years since we have seen each other, the last time being a few months before I headed off to a war zone. Much has changed in our lives… except for this friendship we share. It is as it has always been, warm and easy, and such that within a few minutes we are talking as though no time has passed at all. Skimming over the small things, diving into deeper waters – including the weather, farming, debt, deciding not to have children, living with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), dad’s death, and yoga. Yes, the big things include yoga.
Since I last saw them, my friends’ holdings have increased significantly. They have expanded their livestock from sheep to heifers, and manage an endless rotation of crops stretching as far as the eye can see. There’s a strong case for diversifying in the face of Australia’s erratic weather.
Try telling them, and every other farmer, that there’s no such thing as climate change.
As we stand in one of the many paddocks, the sun setting across acres and acres of wheat, turning the land golden and soft, we watch as, with no moisture to hold it in place, the earth lifts and settles, lifts and settles. By the time we get back to the homestead we too are golden and soft, and join “Red Dog” in shaking it off before heading back inside for another cuppa and a home-cooked dinner.
The next morning I am awake with the sun, and the menagerie that has gathered outside my window. Propagated and tended by my friends’ teenage daughter – when she’s not at school or driving a truck loaded with lucerne – this part of the farm includes a dozen chickens, watched over by four roosters whose pecking order is apparent by the number of tail feathers remaining. There’s a goose that’s been known to deter foxes, and who seems largely unimpressed by everything going on around her. Three horses, who require daily oral hygiene assistance (which, fyi, requires said teenage daughter shoving her hand in those massive choppers and giving it a good, old fashioned, clean out) and unexpected llama (although to be fair, llama are always unexpected). Then there’s the usual assortment of cats, the working dog, the neighbourhood possums, the magpies and anything else that stops by for shade or water. Including, king browns. It’s a ridiculously harmonious scene (minus the visiting browns) – all creatures great and small, eating alongside each other (as opposed to ‘eating each other’). And although my friend tries to convince me that it isn’t always so, there is no evidence to the contrary.
I dub my friend’s husband the ‘Philosophical Farmer’. With the sort of debt that would make my bank book curl at the edges in fear and living a life that would seem to be entirely beholden on the weather, I expect to see stress etched in every sun-baked crease in his face. But like the harmonious menagerie, he surprises me. In answer to my question about the potential effect of the forecast rain on the current harvest cycle, he tells me “it doesn’t matter”. You can’t sweat the stuff you can’t control. After years of drought, followed by flood, followed by hail, followed by dust storms, followed by a falling dollar, at some point they reached their threshold of ‘what ifs’ and decided to live with the ‘now’. And not, I think, because they read any books to that effect, but because it makes good sense.
It hasn’t always been that way though. It took chronic back pain for the Philosophical Farmer to realise that somewhere between the passing of the property from his father’s generation to his own, the men and women of the land had “swapped work for worry”. With such unpredictable weather patterns, over time it had become increasingly common for there to be nothing to tend, no crops to harvest, no money to pay the bills – just worry.
It didn’t mean Philosophical Farmer and friends stayed home, drank cups of tea and waited for the good times. The land still had to be toiled and prepared. The livestock had to be fed and watered and moved. Fences had to be mended. Trees had to be planted. Sheep had to be shorn. The requirements of the seasons still had to be acknowledged. And so regardless of mounting debts, growing aches and pains, farmers (all across Australia) rose before dawn, returned after dark and spent long days climbing in and out of vehicles of all shapes and sizes, lifting, pulling, wrestling with equipment and beasts alike, all the while looking out over their land and worrying. And though there was little to show for all their effort, their bodies suffered – their backs giving way, until young men became old before their time.
And then everything changed.
Tired of seeing their men in pain and ageing before their eyes, the women in this small blink and miss it town, in Western NSW, arranged for their yoga instructor, from a neighbouring town, to run an additional, one off, men’s only yoga class. And then corralled their male friends, husbands, brothers, fathers into attending.
The first time Philosophical Farmer did yoga it was a revelation. A lot of cussing, farting and laughing in a room full of men with the flexibility of a fencing pole, but nonetheless, a revelation. Now months on, at 5pm on a Thursday, there’s no corralling needed. The men voluntarily climb off their tractors, wash off the dust, set aside their worries and give everything over to sun salutations and downward dogs and breathing.
Yes, the farting and cussing continues. But so does the laughing. And the backs are straighter, the sleep is easier, and the worries are discussed rather than mulled over alone on a tractor late into the night. Yoga won’t change the climate, it won’t calm the weather or pay the bills, but it is tending the body and the spirit of the men (and women) who in turn tend the land.
After breakfast my friend and I drive out to ‘survey’ some of their new land. I’m particularly interested in an old farm house that has come with the increased territory. I shift the “monster truck” into gear, and navigate the bumps and tracks while my friend jumps in and out of the vehicle to open and close gates. RP means that she no longer drives. It also means that every shift of light has an impact on her ability to see, as well as judge changes in surface levels and therefore navigate her environment. And on this occasion it also means she misses the fact that she is standing on a heaving ant nest until she climbs back in the truck and the biting frenzy begins. We’re laughing and slapping as she tells me about the time she realised she had been standing on a nest for so long that she was covered head to toe and had to strip down to her undies to shake them off. She had only just put her top back on and zipped her pants when the sound of a truck alerted her to arrival of the livestock buyer.
The old homestead we arrive at is a beautiful picture of decay. I fall in love in an instant as we ‘snake stomp’ our way to the front door where a million spiders, ants, and other hideous nasties lurk. Despite all this, I want to move in and make it home, immediately. Well, perhaps after a few strategically placed ‘pest bombs’, stripping it back, painting it, putting in a hot water system (or in fact, any water system) and reattaching the fly screens. After that, it would be perfect. Roll out a swag, light a candle when the sun sets and power up an old radio set to a scratchy am station. Some plastic tumblers and an eskie for the champagne.
When it comes time to return to my life I feel a strange reluctance. I’m not a farm girl. Far from it. In my Fryes and demin I am a tourist in my friends’ world, filling their reality with my own romantic notions. But driving back through the mountains it’s as though my spirit is a rubber band, stretching tighter with each kilometre, ready to snap back or break. It makes me wonder if city life is really for me, or for anyone. Are we not unwittingly creating concrete nests swarming with angry ants? Hustling between one location to the next, always “busy, busy”, until that very statement becomes the ‘bite’. Irritating us all.
The further away I drive, the deeper my sense of disconnect and I find myself wondering how this happened. When exactly did we unplug so completely from this planet we call home and become hitchhikers on this journey? And is it too late to reconnect?
When I think about #2 – doing what I love – I know that I derive a certain pleasure from bush bashing, getting dirt under my nails, collecting freshly laid eggs, waking with the sun and not being ‘on the clock’. I love the feel of cold metal and the swing of the gate as it releases. The sight of a dog fly across a paddock in sheer joy of the assigned job. The texture of home baking melting in my mouth. The sound of a possum terrorising across a tin roof at dusk. And the night sky ablaze with stars that are too often lost in the light pollution of a cityscape.
And I know that it’s part of the reason why in the past few years I have found myself retreating to a forested island on the other side of the world that is only accessible by car ferry, where I stay in a cottage with no power or running water and suffer the indignity of a pit toilet. There’s a certain sense of ownership in building the fire, collecting mushrooms from the forest for dinner and fetching water from the well so many times during the course of a single day that your arms ache by lunchtime. A quiet sense of achievement to be found in washing my clothes by hand, in small buckets filled with ice cold water, before wringing them out and hanging them on a rope strung between a tree and the cottage. In understanding what you use, how you use it and why. In connecting to the purpose in every act and behind every item.
When I arrive home from the farm, take the elevator to my floor, throw my clothes in the washing machine and stand under my rain shower, while I wait for the take-out to arrive, it becomes all too clear. It’s all TOO easy.
And this tug I feel, this reluctance to re-enter my world, is because ‘easy’ is not the same as free.
‘Easy’ steals small parts of who we are every day. It takes away our innate competencies, our self-confidence, our independence and smothers the survivor in us all. It makes us dependent – and not in a good way, not on each other or on ourselves. Instead of giving us more time to get back to our roots and connect with ourselves, one another and our world, ‘easy’ does the opposite. It breaks down the bonds, the sense of community, it robs us of moments of small civility. ‘Easy’ has become the shackles that keep us in our homes, in our offices, in malls, on Facebook, in bars, in restaurants – that invites us to become the other half of a transaction that require no enduring connection.
‘Easy’ are the books churned out en-masse filled with formulaic responses to life’s problems. ‘Easy’ are the automatic doors, the elevators, the escalators, the planes, trains and automobiles hurtling us towards ‘easy’ mini-breaks and ‘easy’ resorts catering to our every ‘need’. ‘Easy’ is the 7/11, the online booking system, the take-out, the frozen dinner, the microwave, the energy drink. ‘Easy’ is the pre-pay bowser, the tap-and-go, the ATM, the BPAY. ‘Easy’ is the quick fix diet pill, the eight week body transformation, the detox. ‘Easy’ is the thought stopping cliche, the statistics telling us change takes time, the rut.
And yet, for all the ‘ease’ we have surrounded ourselves with, when I ‘survey’ this territory I see little of the freedom we have been trying to engineer. Instead, unwittingly we have stripped ourselves of who we are, have disconnected from our roots and in so from our spirit, and filled the void created by ‘easy’ with worry, self-doubt, fear, neglect, envy and gluttony.
‘Easy’ is the route that takes us away from understanding who we are, the contribution we can make and the value we all add when we engage and connect with the land, with others, with ourselves.
Perhaps instead of seeking the easy life, we should change the dialogue and seek the ‘good life’. Whether that’s in the shape of a farm, in planting a vegetable garden in your backyard, in hiking on the weekend with your family, baking your own bread, taking a bush survival course or learning to make jam.
Maybe it’s about making pancakes from scratch, not from a bottle that says “just add water”. And about asking ourselves, why? Why do I need to eliminate the steps involved in something as simple as making pancakes? Why is it not already enough that I don’t have to grow the wheat, harvest it, and grind it? Why is it so important to cut ourselves off so entirely from the process of life that we put the ingredients we need in a small plastic bottle?
There is little that is ‘easy’ about my friends’ lives. There’s debt, ongoing education costs, living with RP, ageing parents, vehicles that break down, fires that break out while harvesting, flood, hail, drought and aching bones. There’s the very real risk of snake bite in summer, of frost killing crops in late winters. The constant repairs and maintenance for equipment and property. Finding money to pay the shearers. The bank manager. There’s livestock death. Seasonal deadlines. And it’s a two hour return trip to a grocery store, which only one adult can drive.
Yet in every action, every decision, every conversation, I sense that they are grounded and connected. That they understand the immediacy of life and their role. And in that sense, everything they do redefines my belief system about ‘easy’.