These days, after hours of manual labor book-ended by online work demands, I sleep hard. So deeply embedded am I into the subconscious and my usual rabid, epic dreaming, that when I finally wake to the tune of rumbling tractors, I must remind myself who I am, where I live and what I’m supposed to be doing.
“Oh, yeah. I’m a single woman, in the year 2012, living in a North Dakota camper, trying to learn what I can about organic farming and the realities of Big Ag. I remember now.”
It’s like ’50 First Dates’ with myself every dadgum morning.
Like many people these days, I have deep concerns about our nation’s food supply. Unlike many people these days, I have direct access to farmland and the world of agriculture. My mother’s family homesteaded 560 acres in North Dakota, which is far – we’re talking farther-than-Fargo far. Let’s put it this way, from our land, I can jog to Canada and I’m no athlete. Why my Scottish great-grandfather, Adam Paton, did not homestead in Santa Barbara, California in the late 1800s just to make my 2012 life more convenient, I have no idea.
The decision to uproot my comfortable urban life, set in a cozy cohousing community in Denver, and try my hand at homesteading on the family land, was not an impulse. In fact, I had been daring myself to do exactly this for a solid 15+ years, but fear always held me back. In my head, it sounded something like this:
“SHUT UP. You can’t do that. You’re from LA, for god’s sake, you can’t farm! Hell, you’ve only been gardening for six years, which doesn’t really count. Your ability to absorb entertainment trivia will not help you in the fields. Crush this fantasy now before you make a fool of yourself while going bankrupt.”
But the vision would stubbornly resurface like vainly trying to submerge a bar of soap and I’d be back at the beginning. So here I am, at age 46, growing my own food, fetching my own water, gathering my own firewood, and getting online through my iPhone, just like Laura Ingalls. While I don’t expect my organic crops from my 35’x75’ plot to change the world, I do expect it to change my world, and that’s a start.
I’m not really out to prove anything to anyone but myself but I am a woman driven by an insatiable curiosity. And I now have a life in which, I learn something new every day, which makes me feel vital, alive and fresh, like a student. My brain even feels kinda spongy again; must be all that fresh air.
Just a week ago, I harvested a field of barley with a giant combine, under the gentle guidance of a local farmer – not an experience I would have had otherwise. And I’m learning more about food production by physically doing than a hundred articles could ever teach me.
So, in early June of this year, I took the leap, bought a camper and made the move northward, myriad fears be damned. A very good friend and I planted my entire organic garden in a single day and the humbling lessons began. Without sprays, machines, mules or ongoing help. I had put a stake in the ground of my good intentions, several in fact. For my new experiment, I kept my expectations low (“I’ll be happy if I can just feed myself”) and prepared to fail spectacularly, if need be.
From there, it’s been sheer hard work – physically exhausting, emotionally draining, spiritually deepening – like I had never experienced. Growing up in suburban LA in a loving, middle-class home, the hardest physical experience of my youth was cheer practice. As an adult, I’d tracked gorillas in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for three days, my toughest physical task to date. Until now.
One night, in my camper, trying to stay awake long enough to cook dinner, I had a moment of clarity: ‘Hey! I think I may have kicked my own butt. I’m here! I had done what I said I would do! Look at that! Whether or not my crops succeed (fingers crossed) or fail, I have most definitely won, hands down. Oh yeah! My fears could fly right on off, I tell you what.’ I laughed maniacally for a long time that night.
And, though I sit here now, typing this while simultaneously praying for rain, I realize that this feeling is really what I was after. Sure, it’s about investigation of food and agriculture, and maybe about a bucket list and avoiding old-age regrets, but it mainly, it was about listening to that inner voice, that naggy one that is seemingly always right, which is why it never shuts up.
Of course, I now have other fears:
When is it going to rain?
Am I going to become another failed farm statistic?
Where do I sell all this food?
How can I have a normal relationship in this life?
Where would I even find a partner?
How can I have animals if I’m not living here in the winter?
How the hell do you write a book anyway?
But, still freshly inspired by own sheer nerve, I will wrestle those bastards to the ground too. Because some clichés are just true – the only true fail is not trying at all.
Are you afraid to risk changing your life to pursue your dreams? What lessons have you learned and how has your life been better when you've taken a chance?
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Heather Clisby is a blogger, farmer and fundraiser, with a big toe in corporate communications for global tech firms. You can read more about her strange life at Second Chance Ranch and sometimes, ClizBiz.