Outside, the cold wind bites my face as I walk across the path next to our newest field, the one we covered with sheep manure compost a month ago, and then covered again in raked leaves. I can feel my cheeks and nose getting red, and my fingers are wanting mittens instead of these ragged work gloves. I’ve only been outside 10 or 15 minutes.
Twice a day I come out to open and close the chickens, and stay outside for a bit of chores each time. Tonight it was restocking one of the woodpiles nearest the house, and gathering some wood chip snacks for the stove.
It’s not that cold tonight, about 20 degrees, but the wind is blowing hard out of the north. I wear my coveralls and thick sweatshirt on top of a few layers underneath, doubled up gloves and a stocking cap. The path is drifted over with blowing snow, but we’ve had so little snow (compared to the rest of the eastern US this year) that there’s only an inch or so covering this morning’s footprints - mine, and a small deer’s, and a polydactyl cat.
This is still new to me, this sense of being a farmer and not just playing at farming. I’m outside working every day now, cold or rain or hot. There’s always something to do, and always something to get out of hand if you don’t. We have over a hundred creatures outdoors depending on us, so it’s not exactly a choice. I lived fifty years as a city boy, and now I’m a farmer, inside and out.
The outer part is this, the cold wind and chapped cheeks, the everyday get up and go do and be. The inner part is… well, what is it? How do I explain the city-to-farm boy mental adjustment? How do I convince someone that inside me there has always been a farm boy waiting to come out? Or is it something else?
I have journal entries from my teen years, places I kept lists of hopes and dreams for the future, visions of living off the land and living simply on less. I wanted to grow my own food, I wrote, and chop wood. I created these records apart from any attachment to any life partner plans… I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, this was something of my own imagination. And it was imagination certainly, because I lived in an Ohio industrial city and was allergic to every variety of mammalian hair and avian feathers… I couldn’t sleep under wool or down, I couldn’t ride horseback without getting asthma and just forget about pets. Just a fluffy dream that fit with my growing aspirations as a 70’s environmentalist mainly, and sounded like fun even if I had no more idea how to grow my own food or chop wood than I did to build an airplane.
I chose a different path. Oh I picked geology as a college major to keep my butt outdoors, but after college I took urban jobs and rarely did field work at first. Then to another city for my PhD, then to another university to teach, a city boy teaching geology in the city, with the occasional field trip to keep it real. I taught environmental truths and sustainable dreams, and personally recycled more than the average urbanite, but I never came close to my earlier aspirations. I had left childish things behind.
It’s dark now, and the chickens are roosting, the woodstove is near and I’m writing this for… myself. Outside is a tiny farm that I know nearly every square foot of, and everyday I’m tromping across part of it. It comforts me to walk in the cold and rain and heat each day, to feel in my bones instead of my brain how short the days are now, and how long they were six months ago.
I have chickens who know me and trust me, as well as a few who know me and don’t (it’s mutual). I have cats who climb onto my shoulder and ride shotgun for every chore except chopping wood. If the wood doesn’t get chopped, we’re cold. If the chickens don’t get watered, they’ll die. I have to go out, I have to live part of every day outside, working on the farm.
But I don’t. I don’t have to. I want to. I have longed for this all my life. At certain points in my urbanified life I tried to make more money per hour so that I could pay others at less money per hour to do some of my more mundane chores for me. Now I rejoice in the opportunity to trudge through the blowing snow to feed chickens in an operation that barely breaks even, but makes us ever so happy. The eggs are, of course, to die for. And the joy of sharing those wonderful eggs with grateful others (at $4/dozen to cover our feed costs) is icing on the cake.
Outside, it’s cold and the wind is blowing - I can hear it right now. Inside… inside me, I’m having my cake and eating it too. I can’t wait to get outside in the cold and rain and heat every day. I am thrilled that I have to plan my days to allow an hour before anything else to get those chickens out free ranging in the morning… it’s my childhood dream completely realized. At one point I thought I’d have died if I had to live on a farm, what with my allergies and all. At this point, I don’t know what happened to all those allergies. I help drive horse teams for other farmers, stack hay bales in the mow, and live with cats and chickens. I couldn’t be happier inside to be outside every day, and needed out there.
Yes, the wind makes my cheeks cold. But that cold is all on the outside. Inside I’m warmer on this winter farm than I ever thought I could be anywhere. And it just keeps getting better.