We have been quarantined on the farm, minus a few trips into town for groceries or animal feed, for about a month now. The first report of COVID-19 in the US was in our state in January and we have been watching the numbers grow and spread across the country since then. By staying home we are helping to slow the spread of this novel virus and, at least according to the data in Washington State, social distancing seems to be working.
To be honest, our life is normally like this in the spring. We cancel appointments, we hunker down and wait for lambs to arrive. Ewes go into labor at any, always unpredictable, time of the day or night. We are here on stand-by. Once we start milking our sheep we are locked into a regimented, daily, dairy schedule. We make seasonal, farmstead cheese with the milk and grow an array of culinary herbs for local restaurants and families.
I like being home. I shift between being an introvert and an extrovert and so staying at home, with a good dose of social media connection, is okay with me for now. Recently there was a series of haiku prompts about quarantine life, including “Write a haiku about your ideal day post-quarantine.” Here is what I wrote:
My life is at home
I would like to go swimming
Otherwise I’m good
Before owning a farm, I interned on several small farms where I would work six days a week with (maybe) a day off to run errands and spend some time in town. I have been thinking about those past internships lately and I am feeling strangely prepared for this pandemic moment. Yet, with the push over the last few years to build out the farm facilities and sheep creamery and raise two toddlers, while also maintaining some off-farm work, my husband and I have felt chronically behind. In some ways this forced slow–down has been helpful for catching our breath.
However, the last few weeks have also been hard. We now run a preschool as well as a farm and even though I am grateful for more kid-time (especially since our oldest starts Kindergarten in the fall….cue the mom sobs!) it is often overwhelming to be a full-time business owner, mom, daughter from afar, and responsible citizen all at the same time. We tried to have a lot of structure for our two daughters at first, but now we are more relaxed about our days.
And there is magic in the unstructured time–playing in the farm truck, jumping in puddles. These two always show me new angles on the farm and I am also seeing a lot of my younger self in them as well. I am trying to relax a bit more into the present moment and to my surprise it is welcoming me in. Knowing that we have to limit our trips off the farm to essential business brings our priorities into clearer view. I’ve been winnowing my real work from distraction. And there are so many distractions.
We’ve been on the farm for almost ten years—a decade of learning how to run a small business and also a steeper learning curve of how to stay put and live simply. Prior to being here, I moved around frequently, either taking on short-term jobs or living a nomadic, academic life as a student researcher. Overall I lived in fifteen different dwellings, from a renovated water tower, to a cob house, to a barn loft, in my twenty and early thirties. I was on the hunt for something elusive, perhaps a sense of belonging or a direct connection with land that I didn’t have in my privileged, suburban upbringing.
Wendell Berry, the prophetic farmer-poet, is a staunch advocate for staying. He says, “the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.” This was one of the first quotes that brought me into his work. I was intrigued by how to feel sustained in one place, one community over time. I had always felt an impulse to move on and travel as a way of making change and growth happen internally and in my life. I loved the excitement of moving into a new house, but often grew tired of organizing and doing the necessary upkeep. Routine equated stagnation in my young mind.
Pema Chodron writes “So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior.” I don’t consider myself a warrior, but I have come to a more settled place in my life which I guess makes this quarantine a bit easier to weather. The inner search ignited years ago by staying in one place and diving into the depths of all my motivation and fears has been more profound than the actual search for land that brought me this farm in the first place.
Being in quarantine reminds me of my one and only experience at a silent meditation retreat. I landed at this retreat because I was grappling with the strange blend of excitement and terror that are unique to risk. I had been at the farm for just over a year and was about to turn thirty-three.
The retreat was hosted by a local Buddhist meditation group and we were housed in a Mormon summer camp on Samish Island (a former Northwest Coast Salish longhouse site) that was adorned with crosses, Jesus portraits and peace signs. The group hung prayer flags from the Madrona trees along the coastline and brought their singing bowls to shift the mood of the practice from west to east. I didn’t mind the inter-faith décor. My spirituality has always been confusing to me anyway, so the visuals seemed like a mirror to my inner life.
Ideas were starting to take root. The soil in the big pasture had been tilled. Even though the farm had been a long-time dream, I still struggled with questions.
Everyone was a stranger. Seated side-by-side, sleeping in adjoining cabins, sharing showers and suppers. We shared a meal and conversation on the first night before the silence rule began. It was flipped on like a light switch. Seated on my cushion on the first morning, I scanned the room looking for the people I met at my table. Familiar faces. There was the older widow, with his thick, grey beard and slender, sullen frame. The short, twenty-something with a pixie cut, in-between jobs, wearing an oversized fisherman’s sweater. Next to me, a mother with young children at home. She could only stay three days and her socks don’t match.
Our only language was silence. This gymnasium turned dharma hall was quiet with a high ceiling and small, rectangular windows that let in just enough light. For the first few days I squirmed and tapped my knees with my fingertips. I wanted to go home, I wanted to get stuff done. I heard the voice. The list-maker, the planner, the worrier. I saw my thoughts. I saw darkness and strange orbs of light. Yet, my heart felt surprisingly light, unburdened by daily obligations.
The farm was my leap of faith. Years of feeling confused and lost about my purpose, uncomfortable in my own skin led me there. Farm work was wholesome. I figured that out the first week I stepped onto an organic herb farm as a curious and naive intern. The physical act of farming coupled with the personal satisfaction of a freshly weeded row made me feel connected and needed.
By halfway in the retreat, I lost my anxiousness. I exchanged unspoken kindnesses with these now companions. Eyes never seemed so expressive to me. We were all there for our own reasons and we couldn’t rely on our own tired stories. To my surprise, the freedom from conversation was rejuvenating.
“Ways of life change only in living,” writes Wendell Berry in his pivotal book The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, which methodically and artfully argues that a disconnection from land and the dismantling of small farm economies by agribusiness in this country is the root cause of our environmental degradation, food insecurity, and loss of community and personal spiritual fulfillment. Thirty years after first publication, this book changed my life and made me want to know as much about farming as I could. As a biology student and eventually a graduate student in agriculture I was taught to value exposure and acclaim, yet I craved practical, routine, quiet work. I wanted to get my hands dirty and, after moving onto the farm, I realized I was desperate for an inner quelling as well.
I guess that is how I ended up at that meditation retreat. I was trying to tame my monster monkey mind which had somehow overgrown my out-of-shape, not quite middle-aged body. The process of meditation, as I realized by the end of the retreat after the constant commentary subsided, reoriented me to my animal self that knows and sees and is a part of the landscape too. I was resettling my own mind.
My Grandma died six months before I moved to the farm. In the years before she passed and during her nine-month truce with cancer, I would visit her at her home in Wisconsin. I watched my Grandma love her home and family and wondered if I would ever find the same comfort in my life. She loved and accepted the life she had, even though most of it was a tapestry of someone else’s choices. She was expected to get married, support her new husband in the Navy, and then produce many children together after the war, however she never seemed resentful. She embraced her life, her church, her part-time job as a librarian. Grandma mastered her kitchen and still had time to care for her own dying mother and keep up correspondences with all of her first and second cousins.
I thought about my Grandma’s decision to live alone after her husband, my Papa, passed away. Initially, we were not sure she would want to after all those memories with Papa and many children and grandchildren. My mother’s siblings had also migrated to western reaches of the country and were all secretly hoping she might come out this way, too. But Grandma was not going anywhere. After the grief lessened, I think she learned to love the space and her own quiet company.
When I visited, I observed her routines. She would wake up in the morning, watch the birds, do Tai-Chi exercises and her crossword puzzle, and the day would begin. Grandma had a resident opossum that lived under the back deck. For years, the furry creature made a routine of coming up to the back door in evening sunset light, standing on his hind legs, and peering in through the glass. She never offered him food, but was he checking on her anyway? They had some sort of bond none of us could really understand. In some ways, the family was grateful someone else was there to check on her.
In the evenings, summer or winter, we would walk down her hill, past the pond edged in red sumac. Her neighbors, almost like family after all of these years, would wave as we passed. Grandma was somewhat of a celebrity on her street, known for her tasty baked goods, generous spirit, and good humor. Some days the mosquitoes would be unbearable and we would turn back. But if we timed it right, we could miss their swarms coming off the water.
In winter, when the trees were bare, we could see Lake Winnebago and the sunset reflecting off the shimmering water. In the summer, the wild Echinacea and Rudbeckia species would bloom along the restored native meadow at the park and my Grandma and I would stroll along the pink and yellow blooms. I spent most of my life coming to this house and the sameness of it was important to me.
I named our farm Harmony Fields and I fully admit that this is an aspirational moniker versus our habitual state of being. Our days are often rushed and chaotic versus calm and serene and balanced. Thich Naha Hahn writes, “Mindfulness is the continuous practice of touching deeply every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly present with your body and your mind, to bring harmony to your intentions and actions, and to be in harmony with those around you.” Farms are designated as essential businesses during this unprecedented time, so for the most part we are carrying on as normal. Lambing, milking, tilling, planting. People have to eat. However, social distancing and all the interconnected uncertainty somehow removes the urgency to push forward and allows for space to observe daily routines and patterns with a kind of ease.
While I hope for positive and swift public health and economic outcomes for this global pandemic, I also don’t want to take this time for granted. Beyond accepting that an outbreak of this magnitude is out of our control, there is opportunity for personal growth and, possibly, a new beginning—for us and for the Earth. Many have reclaimed their gardens or connected with a local farm during this crisis. Others have had a chance to catch up with old friends and family. Yes, there is unbelievable suffering and sorrow and sacrifice, but if we focus on that alone we will never survive.
I feel called out during this pandemic. Integrity, according to Brene Brown, is “choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” I’m realizing now that even in our well-rounded farm life, I slipped into old patterns of seeking and consumption. Of looking for a sense of satisfaction outside of myself. The new shirt or class or thingy wrapped in plastic. The extra drink at dinner that maybe didn’t need to happen. The half-day of errands (and driving) that could have been consolidated into one, weekly trip. Busyness usurping a chance to be.
Now, during this in–between time of how things were and what comes next, we all have a chance to see and experience our lives more fully. To be imperfect and perfect at the same time. I am reminded of a famous Annie Dillard quote: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I need to hear this again and again. In quarantine I’m realigning with my calling to tend land and grow good food. To cultivate harmony in my life and beyond. To write, daily. To be aware of my own footprint.
Our days are long and shapeless. Our days are full and hard. Our lives are ripe for renewal and reclamation. Humans need their flock and soon we will be able to gather together again as families and coworkers and friends. In the meantime, what can staying teach us?
I am ready to learn.
Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, teacher, and musician. She has a small farm in Bow, WA called Harmony Fields that makes artisan sheep cheese and grows organic herbs. Jessica has lived in the Skagit Valley for over fifteen years and is deeply connected to the artistic and agricultural communities that coexist in this region. Her first book of poems, Flood Patterns, was published by Antrim House Books in 2015 and her second book, Feeding Hour, is forthcoming from Wandering Aengus Press (Fall 2020). Her writing appears in several publications such as Orion, Taproot, Gastronomica, The Hopper, Mothers Always Write, and Poetry Northwest.