Hands On Farming

by Kate Tvelia Athearn

Hands On Farming

Junghwa Park

I’d like to say I was doing farm chores when I discovered the tree, but it’s more accurate to say that I was escaping farm chores. And maybe, just a little bit, my family. I love them with all my heart, but after months of squabbling over whose turn it is to feed the animals or bring in firewood, frustration and resentment can reach an intolerable level, particularly while trapped inside our tiny, boot-cluttered house during an endless blizzard.

The morning after one particular storm I snuck out at daybreak. Attempting to lose myself in the muffled crunch and squeak of powdery snow under my feet, the sunshine sparkling on icy fence posts, I was headed for the woods, snowshoes strapped to my feet and a desperate urge to flee in my heart.

The tree – a 70-foot locust – wasn’t just missing a few branches or a major limb; it was ripped right out of the ground, its pale roots exposed to the sun and wind in a most undignified pose. It was sprawled across a fence, taking down a gate that separated the back pastures. I took a moment to behold nature’s mighty power and to text a photo of it to my husband, then carried on with my walk, completely uninterested in doing anything farm-related.

This is the kind of thing that happens in the winter on a farm. Ice and snow and wind conspire to destroy fences and latches and barn roofs, and our spirits. We can romanticize farming in the summer, with its sun-kissed strawberries and baby lambs bounding across meadows of wildflowers, but in the winter, we rush through our chores while blinking fat slushy snowflakes from our eyes, juggling hay bales and flashlights and snow shovels and dreams of flying south with the osprey.

Luckily, I have a husband who is much more motivated and farmerly than I. A few days after the storm in question, he set about the task of clearing the fallen tree and turning it into wood stove fuel. It isn’t that he is always cheerful about such a task; he can often be downright grouchy in the face of unexpected events. But he is compelled by a force that is greater than himself, greater than the pull of his spot on the couch next to the wood stove, greater than irritation and impatience. He feels a connection with our land and our farm, a responsibility for it, to care for it when it needs him. And I’m sure there is a tiny part of him that looks forward to some time outside the house, away from us, to drown out the constant bickering with the buzz of his chainsaw.

When he returned hours later, there was a palpable change in the energy swirling around him as he scrambled to close the door behind him without letting too much cold air in. He put his boots away and told us about his day – the awesome power of the tractor, how he figured out what was wrong with the four wheeler, how much wood we have for next winter, and how much brighter that back pasture is going to be with one less tree, how much thicker the grass will be for the sheep this spring.

After cutting up and clearing the big sections of tree away, he had to do the rest of the clean up by hand: lifting the fallen fence back up, leaning to support it while he secured the posts in place, repairing the gate’s hinges, making sure it latched properly. This is the little-known side of farming- taking care of our farm. It isn’t flashy, like growing and harvesting, and to the untrained eye, it probably doesn’t seem as satisfying. There is no immediate reward in repairing a fence or re-shingling a barn roof. Food doesn’t magically appear when we finally chip the ice off of that frozen latch on the chicken coop.

But these are the moments when we are at our most connected, our most accomplished. That connection to the land, that sense of purpose, is what gives us the ambition and hope it takes to start over again each spring.

As we sat down that night for dinner, I noticed that the fog of grumpiness that had settled over our house was starting to lift, thanks to the infectious nature of my husband’s cheerfulness. It was fully dark outside, the temperature dropped and the wind picked back up, and yet our kitchen was a cozy refuge of roasting pork and good-natured familial banter. Call it chi or positive energy, or just plain unconditional love. Whatever it is, when my husband turns it on, the farm can’t help but blossom under it. And neither can we.