By the time we arrived at Yellow Bird Farm near Woodbury, TN we felt like seasoned WWOOFers. Farm rhythms had seeped into our lives (even though we never acquired the habit of waking early to feed and water the animals – which I now regret.) I finally felt confident that I knew a lot about what to do, how to do it and how I could be helpful in a valuable way. Which, in my new non-earning stage in life, had become extremely important to me. Somehow, I had learned to enjoy being, living and learning instead of torturing myself over how much I wasn’t achieving. (Yes, there is a contradiction there, but we can overlook it for now, can’t we?)
We chose Yellow Bird Farm and Keachi Acres (our subsequent stop) precisely because they were not traditional farms with a CSA or a self-sufficiency goal. We felt that we had gained a substantial set of skills related to growing food and we wanted to broaden our experience. Yellow Bird was described as an “art farm” with both artist-in-residence and wildlife refuge programs while Keachi seemed to be a camp of some kind. We found these places on WWOOF and thereby had some expectations that they possessed some kind of organic food/farming element. And once again, expectations do as they do and muddy the water. But more on that in a later post.
Yellow Bird is located in a fairly rural area about an hour and a half southeast of Nashville. David Wood, the director, is a professor of environmental philosophy at Vanderbilt University. He’s tall and slender with a tuft of frizzy salt and pepper hair. When we arrived he had recently misplaced his normal glasses and wore a pair of groovy Ray Ban-esque shades. He has a laid back cool one would normally find in a veteran jazz musician and a particular-ness that belies his British roots. David bought the main part of the property – something like 175 acres of gentle but tall hills, fields and forests – in 2002. Then, when the house at the bottom of the hill adjacent to his property became available, he snatched it up and moved in. We stayed in a guest room in the house while we were there and it was like sleeping in an Alpine inn – gorgeous gleaming wood soaking your vision, ski lodge ceilings, understated, Euro-feeling design elements. David’s dream is to further develop Yellow Bird into a complete creative/meditative retreat with sustainable buildings for events and a walking tour of environmental and other sculpture placed strategically around the property.
And then there was Boomer. We had picked him up just outside Nashville and were still trying to find him a home. (Well, thinking about finding him a home is probably more accurate.) We were getting used to his adorable puppy antics and his slinky way of moving about. At the same time, we were trying to be responsible foster parents, getting him the appropriate shots and neutering. David was bemused at the idea that we would give him up and would say things like, “You really can’t keep him?” This was a strange relief, as I had imagined farm owners being miffed about us bringing a second dog, especially when we were sleeping in their house. But I think David fell a little bit in love with him and might have wanted to keep him (Boomer will make a fantastic farm dog) but he was looking after his son’s two cats and besides, Boomer had somehow secured the bottom rung of our pack while we weren’t looking.
Our first few days at Yellow Bird, I was tasked with weeding the garden, a fenced in third of an acre lying just below the house. I took to this task with relish even though it was the first time I had ever used a lawn mower or a weed whacker. Once I had used the machines on the walkways between the raised beds, I cleared a bed and planted several brassicas. Then I turned to the rest of the beds, ready to deploy my transformational weeding skills on the slightly shaggy garden, but David hustled me out of there and up the hill to work with JC. I suppose in places with real seasons, people don’t normally spend too much time in the garden in October.
Meanwhile, each morning, JC would attach his tools for the day to the back of one of two ATVs and then roar his way up the hill with Boomer easily keeping pace (before his surgery). After my gardening stint was over, I started commuting up the hill as well. JC was working on Shambhala, a small round house and outdoor area sitting on a hill above the barn. It was built as a place for meditation and reflection with natural materials and is outfitted with a few built-in details that lend it warmth and personality. My favorite was a series of small circular windows of about 6 inches in diameter (made, I assume, from PVC pipe) that give partial yet specific views out onto a yin-yang garden. Out back, there is a sort of patio area formed partially of bedrock. JC and I spent most of our time there, clearing the space and ringing it with large rocks. In front of Shambhala, there is a rather lascivious depression in the ground. I believe David had considered filling it in as it might pose a hazard, but it I think he felt it was too astounding to cover over and that filling it with ferns from the forest would be best. (And no, that is not “code for something.”)
The exquisite ceiling of Shambhala is made of cedar – simple and gorgeous. At the peak of the round roof there is a 30″ wide round frame to which the converging beams are attached, the center of which is open to the sky. JC and David worked on threading a heavy-duty cable through the eaves to tie the structure together and allow for the interior roof support to be removed. Even though David and JC originally disagreed about the buttressing strategy, they were both confident that it would hold. I wasn’t so sure. Once they had secured the beams at the eaves, David arranged a party to celebrate the removal of the support. He was very excited to see the Shambhala structure finished and this was the crowning moment. Some of David’s friends, a pair of Air BnB guests, and current artist-in-residence, Lily Erb, assembled just before sunset, glasses of wine in hand, to witness the event.
Down the hill from Shambhala, Lily, had been busy transforming the large, assymetrical barn into a gallery space. She had pressure washed the entire upper floor and we helped her arrange flats that would serve as temporary walls on which to hang art. Once the stairs are made a bit more safe, the hay loft in the barn will be a terrific place for art shows. When she wasn’t working on the barn, Lily was busy welding sculptural works for the grounds. On the hill that faces the barn, in a fairly large field ringed with trees, resides Lily’s first Yellow Bird sculpture; a series of yellow, metal arches of irregular shapes that one can walk through, almost like a tunnel. From various vantage points, one can glimpse arrays of mountain tops, the flexi sculpture mimicking the play of depth one experiences when traveling towards a range. One night, while she was arc welding, she gave me a little welding lesson. What a thrill! I am sure there is more welding in my future.
It rained for a couple of days and we spent some nice rainy afternoons writing and staring out over steaming cups of tea at the wet, splattered windows. Truly, it was all quite romantic but I felt… adrift. My gardening duties cut shorter than I had expected, I was assigned to helping JC move giant rocks onto the Shambhala “patio”. It was not quick work. These were giant stones and we mined them from the hillside above, using gravity and levers to unearth them and then roll them slowly into place. Consequently, I spent a lot of time watching JC arrange the lever and yelling at Boomer to leave the family of giant goatherds alone. (There are three Great Pyrenees coupled to a herd of wild goats on the farm and Boomer was entranced. Unfortunately for Boomer, while the Pyrenees are sweet with people, they aren’t fond of dogs.)
Thusly, I found myself with a lot of time to think. Most of that time was spent trying to figure out why I was unhappy or restless or whatever – I had no idea want to call it. I tried sitting with the feelings, to acquaint myself with them, engage them. Maybe I was having trouble with our impending time in LA? Having gone all the way to Maine, we were headed back towards the familiar, our time on the road quickly dwindling. It’s one thing to be traveling and quite another to be homeless. Or maybe I was just impatient? We were living in a gorgeous home, working on a verdant property building someone else’s retreat center. The more I worked on others’ dreams, the deeper my desire for a place of our own dug in. Or maybe, I’m just spoiled – a privileged workaholic who can’t feel comfortable simply being, living and learning? In the end, I reverted to old tactics and busied myself as much as possible – cooking, cleaning, writing, looking after the dogs. I took to my walks up the hill with intensity, hoping to burn as many calories as possible. Most of all, I tried to connect with gratitude for all of the many blessings in my life. But nothing really worked. I just couldn’t shake the unease of drift.
We did however make it through 10 whole days without eating any meat, which felt like something. We also enjoyed a few lively discussions with David about vegetarianism even though we ran through the standard meat-eater vs. vegetarian canon. David argued that there is no reason for humans to eat meat; that we can get all of the nutrients we need from plants. I pointed out there are certain fatty acids one can only get from meat and that while JC and I are trying to conceive, we need to consume them. David suggested that given our intelligence and technology, there was no need to kill animals for food. We argued that yes, Americans eat way too much meat and factory ranches are terrible, disease-ridden bastions of horror, but that we had seen operations where the animals were treated fairly and given a high quality of life – evolution on that front is possible. And then David, the philosophy professor, dropped the bomb. “What if”, he posited, “there is an alien race with consciousness, intelligence and technology far beyond our wildest imagining. And these aliens just happen to like eating human meat. So, they land on Earth and they take control. They are very nice to us, treating us well, giving us everything that we need. But every once in a while they would take your sister or your mother or your young child because, of course, children are so tender…What then?”
I would like to make an elegant argument here, one that offers a profound and affirmative wisdom. But ultimately, I can’t help but see the simple cycles. We are born, we live and we die. In the process, we eat other beings – those with feet and fins, and those with roots and leaves. And other beings eat us – microbes, bugs, scavengers. Our existence and survival is intricately related to the existence and survival of countless numbers of other beings. The food web is a part of life. Some would say it is the definition of life. As for the alien ranchers, it just doesn’t distrub me that much. Yes, I would be very sad to lose a loved one to their butcher, but I would be just as sad, perhaps even more so, to lose someone I love to a sudden disease or a random act of violence. But these things happen. If you are going to live in the world, you must accept that some level of risk is always present. I keep coming back to the same simple fact: Dying is a part of life. Whether it happens today, tomorrow or next decade, we are all headed to the same place. Life is a journey, not a destination.
Which begs yet another question: What is the journey about? Is it just about survival or is there something else? For me, food is a wonderful facet of my journey that gives me great joy on a daily basis. Could I eat vegetarian all the time and find a similar sense of joy? Possibly, but I would rather have the world of food I have now. Morally, I feel that factory ranches are abhorrent, their disrespect for life is an abomination. So, I do my best to be a responsible meat eater by supporting humane systems of producing meat, milk and eggs. And I feel ok with my efforts. Could I do more? Yes, of course. I am keenly aware that my position is simplistic and selfish. I wish that I had a more satisfying answer than “I choose this because I like it and I try to balance out any moral issues without depriving myself of the things I want.” Which is really the crux of it, right? All of this talk about eating meat and not eating meat, or milk or cheese is only possible because we are privileged.
Perhaps if I lived in Syria or Iraq or Rwanda, I would feel differently about the alien ranchers and the imminent threat of being eaten. I’m quite sure that the effects of daily hunger or the stress of not knowing where the next mortar round will land would give me a completely different perspective on everything, the food web, organic food and vegetarianism included. I am not familiar with struggling to meet the basic needs for survival – housing, security, food, water – although far too many people are. I can’t be in their shoes. I can only do what I can do, in this moment with the resources I have. One can’t stop entire societies from eating meat, but it is possible to reduce factory ranches and the disrespect and insensitivity that drive them. Perhaps if we shift the meat production system in a more humane direction, we can improve the lives of billions of animals the world over. So that they too can enjoy the journey.
Now that we’ve found a way to improve the lives of some animals, how about we address war, hunger, poverty, homelessness, lack of clean drinking water for the millions who don’t have the resources to solve these issues for themselves? And when we finish those, jump on over and fix the environment, human trafficking, child abuse, political corruption and dozens of other issues. There are so many terrible things happening in the world everyday, when JC says he wants to save the world, I can only think about saving us. One thing I heard from our farm hosts over and over was that making change happen on a large scale is a path into an early grave. Their answer to solving the bigger questions is to bring the focus back into their own life and to do what they can do about the things that matter. They have faith that people in their orbit with will see what is possible, learn and become inspired to make positive changes in their own lives. In other words, live well, in sync with your values and hopefully you will help a few others do the same. Which is, of course, exactly what the Good Foot Project is all about.
Sometimes it takes me a long time to get to the point.