March 5, 2012 § 7 Comments

Down in M’s barn last night, we stood only a few feet from the hind end of one of his cows as it dripped afterbirth into the gutter. He’d gotten a heifer out of her, and this seemed to put him in a good mood; when I’d seen him earlier in the day, he’d told me he was expecting a bull calf. “She’s 11 days late,” he said, rather irritably. “Probably another bull.” According to M, late calves are most often bulls. I have no idea if there’s any scientific basis for this, but the guy’s been farming for something like six decades, so who am I to argue?

Anyway, we were talking about the state of things today. This being a frequent topic of conversation for us. Specifically, we were talking about what seems to be an epidemic of depression and general dissatisfaction with life in twenty-first century American society, how people are unable to extract themselves from the ruts in which they increasingly seem to find themselves entrenched. M told me how, shortly before he was born, his mother had given birth to a baby girl. The girl (he didn’t tell me her name) died four months later, of pneumonia. “My father told my mother she had two months to grieve, and then it was time to get back to it,” M said. “So that’s what she did.”

I was a bit taken aback: Two months? To grieve your dead baby daughter? But of course the times were different; they demanded able hands, a strong back, and the presence of mind to make use of both. M’s parents owned a dairy farm. It was the early 40’s, or thereabouts. There would be no long, drawn out period of depression or grieving, because there could be no long, drawn-out period of depression or grieving.

I thought about this in the context of my own life, how every so often I’ll wake up in a foul mood, or feeling unmoored for reasons that elude me. And how it is that my morning rounds to the animals never – and I mean never – ¬†fail to bring me around. Sometimes I don’t even realize it until later; I’ll carry my pissy mood through chores, and perhaps even into breakfast, wishing like all get out that I didn’t have to do chores on just this one day. But of course, that’s not an option and inevitably, at some point shortly thereafter, something shifts, and I find myself whistling, or singing under my breath, or simply feeling lighter. Maybe it’s the physicality of our choretime ritual: Throwing hay, hauling water, shoveling snow. A little sweat on the brow, the stretching and flexing of muscles in ways so familiar they have become nothing short of ritual. Or maybe it’s the animals themselves: How can you be in a bad mood when you have so many loyal friends depending on you for their survival? Probably, it’s some of both, coupled with the humbling recognition that I am incredibly privileged to begin my days in such a manner.

I’m pretty sure I’ve never been truly depressed the way some people get depressed, so it’d be presumptuous of me to suggest that chores are an antidote to the epidemic of emotional malaise M and I were talking about. Yet I can’t help but wonder: If we still inhabited a society where people had something real to grab hold of each and every day, something that needed them to be there without fail, even in moments of frailty and sadness, if everyone could just begin their day by cutting the twine on a bale of hay and breathing the scent of summer, would we not be better off?

Yeah, I know, I’m biased. But I’m putting all my chips on my faith that we sure as hell would.


§ 7 Responses to Biased

  • rhonda says:

    You bet we would, thus our impending move from the eastern end of Long Island to Vermont (fingers crossed – all the hoops and hurdles)!!! By the way, I might be biased too, but, oh well!

  • Theresa says:

    I am intimately familiar with the overall disillusionment you’re describing. In the last two years, I’ve made some major changes to mine and my family lifestyle. Quitting my bustling day job to stay home with my kids, changing our eating habits, spending as much time as possible working with animals (ours and others), harvesting/processing our own foods, schooling said children in the afternoons, doing without whenever possible. All has led me to be completely content and cozy, making it far easier for little things to create actual excitement. Now, I have to say, there is a difference between clinical depression and the disheartened/disconnected plague that’s come over most of America. However, Coming from “that place,” medicated and all, I no longer seem to need it. What changed? I no longer have the luxury of time to wallow, and I am now closer to the land and creatures, and I am more connected to the present. Allowing me to enjoy every moment with my kids, every dance with the animals, and every spoon I put to my lips.
    So there you have it, yes, I’m better off for sure.

  • Jocelyn says:

    Theresa’s hit the notes for me, down to the depression. I am also from “that place”, and I feel that the work and the interaction with the animals is really what pulls me through–and I can feel it in a day that I had to spend inside vs. a day I could spend outside. When I can be outside, doing more than just the necessary chores, and really interact with the animals and the land and the trees and the air, I feel better. More alive. It’s a notable difference and indesputable.

    I enjoyed your post. Thanks!

  • E. Baron says:

    I’ve been mulling over a few thoughts on this post all week.

    One is that I don’t see grief as being at all the same thing as depression. Pausing for a period of time to simply experience the loss of a child seems absolutely appropriate, but I think that the real grieving of that loss continues way after getting back to normal routines. And, yes, those routines are good for the soul.

    The other thought is that I take your point about chores and broaden it to be meaningful work in general. When we can’t greet each day feeling like we truly have something to contribute, then our whole sense of our place on earth falls apart. In my mind, that work can and should be lots of things.

    True depression–whether it comes from lack of meaning in life or some other more obscure place–doesn’t care if the daily chores need to be done. In fact, a person suffering with depression may work through those chores feeling no healing effect at all, at least not right away.

    We each have to seek out the activities that have meaning for us and lift us up, and appreciate that gift when it happens. It’s all about living consciously, I think.


  • Ben Hewitt says:

    Thanks for the comments. Good points, Eleanor. I still wonder if there’s a sort of cultural malaise that arises from not having meaningful connections, and which might, in some cases, result in true depression.

    I really have no idea, and am admittedly not terribly qualified to comment on it.

  • E. Baron says:

    I think there is a cultural malaise, and it would be interesting to brainstorm all the factors. Connectedness (or lack thereof) is surely an important one. I’d add things like nutrient-deficient foods, toxins (food and environmental), lack of oxygen-giving exercise…the list goes on and on. Of course you’re qualified to comment! We all are. You got me thinking….thanks for that!

  • Aspendance says:

    Even having a small flock of chickens can bring great joy. Last year was my first flock, and whenever I felt too stressed or too busy or too sad, a trip outside to sit with the flock did the trick.

    Whenever I felt annoyed or even angry, shoveling manure always helped.

    There is definitely something to the physicality of it, and also to the presence of animals.

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