How the Family Farm Stole My Sense of Self—For the Better
On Sunday, there is a break in the rain. There is a lot we could be doing in that break: painting beehives, knocking back the weeds around the grapes and blueberries, mowing the lawn, taking the girls for a slow amble to one of the nearby ponds, catching up on needed sleep.
I wanted my accomplishments. I wanted my identity. I wanted them more than love itself.
We are doing none of those things. We are down at the farm. The girls are inside having breakfast with Grammie and Pop Pop, while Bob and I run around with lists in our back pockets, pulling meat from the freezer, grabbing blankets and yarn and stacking them in the back of our trailer, counting change in the money box.
We don’t customarily take on Sunday markets, as it is our only true day off during the growing season. But this year, we’ve chosen a few special-event markets to attend. It is looking like Ula will need weekly vision therapy, which will increase our monthly expenses by about $600 for the next few years. We’re not exactly panicking, but we are scrambling.
I have just left the freezer in the garage, where I filled a cooler with ground beef. I am hauling it out to the trailer when the clouds shift and the sun spills down on a patch of tired ground in front of the grain room, spotlighting Foie Gras, one of our resident ganders. He is mounted on top of his mate. With his beak, he pins her long neck to the ground in a tussle. His own serpentine neck uncoils while he inches backward until he is finally able to initiate the coital kiss that will fertilize her eggs.
I feel as though I shouldn’t be watching, but I am transfixed: an agrarian voyeur. It is not the act of mating so much that holds my attention—it is what happens next.
Evidently boasting of his virility, Foie Gras begins to perform a circle dance around the barnyard, singing out to all who will listen the details of his magnificent feats. But the goose’s role in the dance is different. She hunkers down and waits for him to get close, then launches a surprise attack, seizing his neck in her beak, latching onto his throat as he attempts to shout his headlines.
An ornithologist might have an explanation for this behavior. But in my view, she’s pissed. She recognizes the commitment she has just fallen into for the next few months. As the days grow warmer, she won’t be free to splat about in the mud puddles or paddle through the stream. She won’t be able to frolic along behind Pop Pop on his way to feed the chickens, picking up the bits of grain he scatters en route. Her life is no longer her own. Her life is about the nest.
Foie Gras turns quickly and ducks to the right, giving her the slip. But she is not yet avenged. She grabs his tail feathers and proceeds to bite his behind as he honks his victory to the wider world.
My mind jumps to a similar spring morning several years ago, when I was still in grad school. One of my best friends from high school was getting married in her barn down in the village. I went to the wedding alone, hunkered down in my yellow slicker as I tried to disappear along the back wall. A few years away from marriage myself, I was lukewarm on the idea at that point, and found it hard to believe that a bright young woman would surrender herself to matrimony at such an early age. And then the minister read this line from Matthew 19:6:
So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.
When we choose marriage, when we choose family, we surrender a degree of individuality.
Hearing that verse, my stomach began to turn. My palms began to sweat. After the ceremony, I went up to my radiant friend to offer her my congratulations with moist eyes. I think she thought I was touched. In truth, I was frightened and horrified to the point of tears. I left the wedding as early as I could and climbed up the mountain, where Bob was at the farm.
I begged him never to marry me. I begged him, in the event that we should one day marry, to never ever let that Bible verse be said in my presence. I would never be of one flesh with anyone. I would never promise it. I wanted my accomplishments. I wanted my identity. I wanted them more than love itself.
It was about four years later that we did finally marry, in a four-minute ceremony by a justice of the peace in a snowstorm. Matthew 19:6 was nowhere to be found. Instead, we wrote our own vows, where we promised to encourage each other’s creativity and nurture each other’s spirit.
And here I was, 13 years later, watching a couple of copulating geese on a Sunday morning as we worked to schlep a few hundred pounds of meat, a couple boxes of yarn, a crate of wool blankets, and a case of soaps, salves and lip balms to a farmers’ market.
The bitter truth was that taking a minute to think there in the barnyard was the first moment I’d had all week to feel creatively encouraged by my husband. He was accomplishing this by wisely choosing not to ask why his wife was standing gape-jawed in a pile of dung watching fornicating fowl when there was so much work to get done.
When we got married, our promises were about creating our life vision together. We were cleaving a path in the mountains. We were choosing to live by our hands and our bodies and our spirits. We were choosing to forego the trappings of the mainstream culture. We were choosing to be unhurried, uncomplicated, free.
But my marriage has not been about any of these things this past week. Each day that Bob has gone to the farm, my life has been about phone calls and appointments: scheduling the vet; meeting with the accountant; researching vision therapy for Ula; calling insurance companies; filling out forms for doctor’s visits; faxing medical records; reviewing Bob’s latest blood tests; making sure he had the right meals and snacks to maintain proper blood sugar levels; monitoring the kid’s meals; sitting down with Ula to do her home therapy exercises; trying to think of fun things to do so she would forget she was wearing her eye patch.
I didn’t write. I didn’t work in the garden. I didn’t create a thing. I did the invisible work of the marriage and felt not one bit of the glow and euphoria that follows the completion of a creative endeavor. I was the goose on the nest, and I fully understood why she would grab that gander by the neck, and then bite his ass.
Bob doesn’t strut and brag like Foie Gras. But, like the gander, he has mated with me for life, and he, too, pays a price. Foie Gras doesn’t play in the stream or run after Pop Pop with the feed bucket when his goose is on her nest. He stays near and guards her fiercely. Bob, too, has his share of duties. He has to sort through the junk in the basement, wash the dishes, clean up behind the girls and me, and take the recycling to the dump. He has taken not only my flesh as his own, but my parents’ as well.
His life is not his own. It belongs to me, to my children, to my parents, to our family farm.
My ego hums a merry tune when I am able to carve a few hours to cater to my individual creative drive. But my happiness comes from being part of the whole.
I may have avoided having Matthew 19:6 read at my wedding, but the observation still holds, whether I like it or not. When we choose marriage, when we choose family, we surrender a degree of individuality. And we don’t just surrender that individuality to our spouse.
It is a greater capitulation. I see it as I stand in the barnyard, gazing back at the house filled with my parents and my children, at the neighbor’s car as it pulls in the driveway. I see it as I take in the lambs as they suckle their mothers, the pigs as they root around in the pasture, the chickens as they forage for bugs, the dogs that bump my legs, eager for attention.
It is not only the husband and wife who are one flesh; it is our entire extended family, and the ecosystem and community that supports us. When we wrote our own vow, to encourage each other’s creativity and nurture each other’s spirit, we keenly understood the role of mutually supported independence in our creative growth. We had yet to discover that the second part of the vow, nourishing each other’s spirit, would demand surrendering some of that same independence.
My ego hums a merry tune when I am able to carve a few hours to cater to my individual creative drive. But my happiness comes from being part of the whole. And maintaining the whole means phone calls and doctor’s appointments and trips to the dentist and blood tests and medical records and eye patches and schedule coordination.
That’s just part of my job as the goose. Of course, it also entitles me to periodically seize my gander around the neck and bite his ass…
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.