I'm Kyla, visiting Sandhill for a few weeks to get a (farmer's) tan and some buff muscles. I mean, to learn about raising animals and vegetables. After growing up around these parts, I migrated to the comparatively huge metropolis of Minneapolis, MN, where I've survived four winters...and the rest of the seasons...living in community and doing organizing work. Now I'm back for a summer of family time and respite from the overwhelmingly eventful city. And from the Internet, which tends to suck me in further with each click, like an unrelenting black hole. I've been looking forward for a chance to unplug and pare down to a healthier rhythm.
So Sandhill has kindly been putting me up, and providing a four-star, offline plot.
It started with a bang. Several bangs. Thunder and lightning, Batman! On Monday night when I arrived, storms rolled in along with the rumblings of potential tornadoes. I had already set up my tent next to the driveway, so when the sky stopped dumping buckets, I wisely decided to sleep under a sky so full of lightning it flickered constantly like a dying fluorescent bulb. Fireflies flashed at the same speed, a second layer of frenetic lightning. No problem, I told myself. If it gets too windy, I'll go inside. Eventually, the downpour began again, but the tent held fast and dry, so I rolled in and out of sleep in my waterproof cocoon. Until the silence. I woke up to stillness, the sky finished with its rock and roll performance. Slowly, I realized I was soaking up water. Obliging the elements their victory, I bundled up my sleeping bag and climbed out of the tent, stepping into four inches of water.
No one remembered to tell me that the front yard floods.
In the darkness gleamed a newly formed lake, fit for the finest five Sandhill ducks. My tent was positioned exactly in the center, like a tiny boat. If only it had been built to float. I sloshed through the lake into the house, where I joined Micah, Rosa, and Emma on the living room floor, waiting for tornadoes to kick up the dust of their dreams.
After that dramatic opening scene, the plot of the rest of my first week at Sandhill didn't lose any flair. On Wednesday, I emerged from my tent to see a flock of escaped male rabbits looking like they had just gleefully discovered Watership Down. Further up the hill, a passel of equally escaped goats was on the lam. One of the goat kids had climbed into the feed bucket and was helping himself to breakfast. Inside their pen, a plywood wall had been completely busted through. It seems true that idle horns are the devil's plaything! (I think that's how the saying goes.) What followed was a new kind of cowboy movie, with Rosa and Micah leading the roundup, me and Polly the Farm Dog close behind. Ever try to lasso a rabbit? They're slippery as Jenn's homemade soap. And goats just gloat in the face of imprisonment, losing their chains like Assata every two hours.
On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I weeded like an archaeologist, uncovering miraculously hearty rows of chard, lettuce, potatoes, and cabbage from an overgrown section of the garden. Micah pulled out sprawling sweet pea and lambs quarter plants his own height to reveal a neat patch of onions. After building a skyscraper of weeds, we offered them to the semi-imprisoned goats.
We probably also should know what goes into factory farming and meat processing. Anyone who's heard of PETA knows that factory farms are bad for animals, but what about people? Meatpacking is extremely low-paid, dangerous work. Without labor protections, workers face both physical injury and PTSD. Many are immigrants, invisibilized and at risk because of their legal status and rural location. Remember Postville, the biggest immigration raid in US history? In 2008, nearly 400 beef and poultry workers were rounded up from a meatpacking plant in Iowa and held like cattle on the local fair grounds, where they were "processed" shackled together in groups. The documentary AbUSed:the Postville Raid, available at many libraries, is a good way to learn more about the hidden exploitation in our food system.
I guess it's this kind of disparity that's the most disorienting thing about farm life for me. While I'm immersed in the routine of garden and goats, tromping through oceans of tall grass, clearing despair out of my brain and blood - the world keeps churning out injustice. The first day I reentered the internet and looked through the news, I was struck by a video taken recently in a Grand Rapids park: three 12- and 13-year-old boys who have been playfighting are ordered to lie on the ground, while a police officer trains his Taser on them for several minutes. Bystanders from the Black community warn the boys not to speak. Some tell the officers, “They're just babies.”
It's a variation on the theme we've finally seen brought to the media for almost a year since Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson: our fear of Black bodies played out by police. Watching it happen just miles away, I am filled with rage and grief. And it's hard to know what to do with those feelings. While the internet is exploding with rainbows to celebrate some rudimentary legal rights for LGBTQ people, the perceived worth of Black lives hasn't really budged. And this is just as much an issue for my community, the queer community, while we can now legally marry but transgender women of color continue to be killed. In the city, I'd be channeling my grief and anger into Doing: attending actions, going to meetings, talking to people in my community. But here, I am faced with the prospect of just holding it. Sitting with grief.
And I think that's for the best. Sometimes the most necessary “work” is to sit deeply with grief and let it work on us. Grief asks us to dig our hands into it and get them dirty. Grief builds soul-soil, in which we can cultivate hope. Sturdy hope: not based on our ability to Do or to Fix. That kind of hope withers easily when the ground dries up: when friends aren't there to help, when things don't seem to change, when farming doesn't pay the bills, when we are burned out by the enormity of injustice. Sturdy hope, the kind cultivated by grieving, is rooted in the practice of staying present. The practice of Being With. This practice calls us to grieve deeply, to stay with the reality of how bad things are, to come together with others to mourn. And it calls us simultaneously to notice the resilience of plants, the sly humor of goats, the gentleness of ocean-grass. To look deep into the Wicked Witch eyes of Fox the cat and wonder just what kind of magic exists beneath the world's gritty surface. To reach out to the people around us and call upon their strengths. To widen ourselves to hold both Grief and Light, and to care for both, letting them prepare us for the many seasons of work ahead.