Some Things Are Impossible: How A Rural Queer Lives With Depression

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I do not remember who first said it to me, if anyone did:
Not everything is possible
Some things are impossible
and took my hand, kindly,
and led me back
from wherever I was.

“A Poem for the Blue Heron” by the queer rural poet Mary Oliver flew all summer round my head — both a prayer and an admonishment — as I spent the summer tending to thousands of growing lives, participating in the most miraculous living system I know in the most beautiful pastoral scene imaginable, all the while lost in a fog of depression from which I couldn’t escape.

I want to write about farming and depression, mostly because my healthy self would have argued these two things were mutually exclusive. The bootstraps ethic I touted before this most recent episode had lots of clever things to say about the increase of modern depression right alongside the industrial revolution and worker alienation and people eating pizza pockets. This was a comforting notion for someone as terrified by the world as myself: it meant the locus of control was entirely within my grasp. I could escape the inherited shame, the internalized homophobia, the disappointment of finding the world a colder and harder place than I expected, if only I stuck to my land based routine: the twice-daily chores, the systematic weed cultivation, the chemical-free meals, the joy of creation.

There is a culture of independence in rural living that appealed to me as a queer woman who felt she had something to prove. To farm today is to make oneself a rebel in action: we’re opting out of the industrial food system, we’re telling the patriarchal systems to get lost; we don’t need your fossil fuels or the government’s involvement, we just need to be left alone, thank you.

So it was unpleasant this summer to find myself shedding tears in different spots along the rows of our beautiful annual crops the fourth morning that week, as though I was irrigating sea salt fertilizer: a few tears for the cabbage, there you go; now a bit for the tomatoes, very nice; and let’s save a real meltdown for the rutabaga, they’re looking parched today.

Through farming I learned to mold my own badass identity from out of the grip of pubescent shame. I learned to fall in love with myself through my own capability. To fall asleep and mentally recall the fence you repaired, the broccoli you transplanted, the pigs you tended, all in a day, is to feel grounded in your sense of self. So drunk was I on my own ability, that when depression descended — when getting out of bed required half an hour of mental brokering and the walk up to the field felt downright Herculean — I was entirely lost. Some things are impossible. Some things are impossible.

Once depression hit, it was hard to remember what appealed to me about this lifestyle at all. Farm work was everything my depressive body was screaming against: sunlight, physical activity, and tiny symbols of the fragility of life all around that I couldn’t remember how to value.

The daily field tasks felt like an unimaginable feat. Each row of vegetable transplants, with the attentive care they required, seemed to me unending drudgery. But still I moved through the rows, some days so slowly it must have appeared to the world like a still life painting: My hunched body alongside the overcrowded carrots, each of us bent in a prayer for the certainty of change.

Farming is based on the belief that every tiny creature — the pathetic seeds that have been bagged and handled and ripped apart and shipped across country, the weeds that must be systemically disrupted lest they over take, the calf that comes out looking like a sack of poorly organized bones — is doing everything they possibly can to stay alive. Every action we take is structured around a faith that these beings will do whatever it takes to survive. Which, for a depressive, isn’t actually the most comforting notion. It sort of makes you feel like there is something seriously wrong with you, as you’re surrounded by a thousand tiny testaments, all enraptured by the thrilling business of life. And still you feel nothing.

I spent days wondering whether I, for whom the summoned will to live felt like an uncrackable theorem, or the tiny seedlings, whose desperate will to live I could crush with the tiniest pinch, were the weaker entity.

Then fall came and something took my hand and led me back; I can’t say how. Those determined seedlings became tough, weathered carrots and parsnips. The leaves began their celebratory and gorgeous death. Maybe I could just relate to the scenery better. Andrew Solomon, in his excellent book on depression, The Noonday Demon, noted that Greenland has one of the highest rates of suicide, but not in the 24 dark hours of winter, rather the rate of suicide is highest in May, once light and signs of life abound. I think it is human to desire recognition of spirit in the world around us.

With fall, the celebration of life looked different. The forest our field crops overlook transformed from a sea of green into an intricate and varied ensemble of both color and absence. It was comforting to feel cold on my skin. It was a thrill to see my breath in the air walking back to my cabin at night.

In the next stanza of Mary Oliver’s “A Poem for the Blue Heron,” it is autumn,

Toward evening
the heron lifts his long wings
leisurely and rows forward

into flight. He
has made his decision: the south
is swirling with clouds, but somewhere,
fibrous with leaves and swamplands,
is a cave he can hide in
and live.

I no longer believe that people can shake themselves out of depression with merely a determined fist. I think that’s bullshit. To be alive in this world at all: indeed to be queer, a person of color, a person with a disability, trans, a woman or poor, is to have self-hatred non-consensually woven into your education in personhood before you’re even aware the air you are breathing. I believe sometimes depression is the natural effect of attempting to cough some of the toxic waste of self-hatred out of one’s lungs that can’t be out run.

Our fall harvest days on the farm are spent collecting root crops from the field, shaking the dirt off, and placing them in sacks in the root cellar from which they will feed us all winter. Root crops may be stored because they’re biennials, meaning they reproduce every two years. As long as you trick them into thinking they’re still in the ground, they’ll maintain their crunch and color all through the winter, because it is in their nature to produce seed their second spring alive.

Farming is a manic will to live, but it’s also this: a steady stationary non-lucrative fight, a dark and determined outlasting.

And if there is a lesson in strength to be learned from vegetables, I think it’s that being alive in this world necessitates duality: both the green seedlings rapt in thirsty desire, and the weathered, scarred carrot holding tight to her properties in the bottom of a dark bag through winter, unsure of what’s to come.

Mary Oliver finishes her poem for the heron this way,

Now the woods are empty,
the ponds shine like blind eyes,
the wind is shouldering against
the black, wet
bones of the trees.

In a house down the road,
as though I had never seen these things —
leaves, the loose tons of water,
a bird with an eye like a full moon
deciding not to die, after all —
I sit out the long afternoons
drinking and talking;
I gather wood, kindling, paper; I make fire
after fire after fire.


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Lila is a freelance writer and radio producer in Minneapolis.

Lila has written 3 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. I am so, so happy that this article exists! I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety and I’m involved in the student farming organization at my college — all this to say that over time I’ve come to identify with plants more and more (which my non-agriculture-inclined friends probably think is strange). I find a lot of solace in thinking of myself as a cactus, living in an environment that is not always ideal and finding ways to grow, bloom, and protect myself even so. I’m not being the most articulate, but anyway, thank you so much for sharing this, Lila. <3

  2. I read “A poem for the Blue Heron” immediately after finishing your essay. It is a beautiful poem, but I was even more moved by your writing. As a depressed queer woman, I cannot thank you enough for this incredible piece.

  3. This was lovely to read. Thanks for putting in words why I feel out of place in the garden when I’m depressed. I sometimes found myself getting irritated that certain plants were flourishing or were able to bounce back so quickly after a drought, like, “Why can they recover so quickly when I can’t?”

  4. Holy. Fuck.
    “To be alive in this world at all: … is to have self-hatred non-consensually woven into your education in personhood before you’re even aware the air you are breathing.”
    Simply amazing.

  5. Mary Oliver has a special place in my heart; my college application essay was actually based on one of her poems.

    This essay is so beautiful and relatable. And I loved the line about being “surrounded by a thousand tiny testaments, all enraptured by the thrilling business of life.” The outdoors is so beautiful and comforting to me, and everything is just fighting to survive.

    Just beautiful. It’s so uplifting to hear about your journey (and tenacious survival) through the fog of depression.

  6. I grew up in the country farming and tending to small fragile lives. I relate to all that depression. I have been depressed as long as I can remember. Then it got a little better as I left home.

    I’ve moved to a large city recently and my depression has flaired up again. It’s such a contrast. But reading this has brought me some peace and relaxation.

    This piece is beautiful. Thank you.

  7. I grew up out in the country (at least when I was with my dad during his visitation time) and while we didn’t live on a farm, it was an old farm property so a lot of this really hits home for me. There were always all these chores that had to be completed daily. We had a lot of pets and my dad always had huge gardens that spanned the property that my brother and I had to help take care of. Even before I realized I was queer, I knew I didn’t fit this lifestyle and my depression really began to grab hold when I was around 13 or 14.

    Your story in some ways feels so similar to mine and rings so true, but at the same time is different enough that I keep comparing and contrasting it to my own life. While there were certain aspects about being at my dads that I loved, such as always having the company of pets and when it was time to harvest all the vegetables, I really began to despise it after my depression got bad. The magic from when I was a child was gone and it’s never come back even though my depression has gotten better with the help of medication, some counselling, and time.

  8. I can’t begin to explain the extent to which this resonates with my experience. I really needed to read this. My family recently showed up at a farm I was working at and literally dragged me to therapy. This 2 years after I earned my BA in anthropology and lived in 2 different countries in latin america, working on permaculture farms, teaching children, volunteering at health clinics and doing research in medical anthropology. I’ve felt frozen ever since, like I can’t get out of bed unless someone’s there with me…and since going through a breakup and still not quite through it–the manual labor/farm work really helped. Now I’m back to square 1, and every day is a struggle now that I’m basically land-locked at 24 in the throes of suburbia, back with the homophobic gaze of my anxious mother that I left at 16 to live my life. I’m on the verge of making deliberate changes, and reading this helped tremendously. Thank you.

  9. “…sometimes depression is the natural effect of attempting to cough some of the toxic waste of self-hatred out of one’s lungs that can’t be out run.”

    Wow.

    This article is at once poetic and relentless.

    Like life.

  10. Holy crap. Wow. So many things I love about this piece. For the last four months I’ve been living on farms and moving around. I love it. I love being in a rural area, I love working outside, I love doing hard work and feeling the soil and eating the food I grow. But there are some days that are just really hard and lately there have been a lot. Thank you for writing this. It meant the world to me.

  11. Lila-

    Guess I’m a little late to the party, but this is the first article that’s ever pulled me out of lurking on the sidelines to comment. Goes to show what happens when you search by keyword, “rural.” I work in a seed warehouse in a small town, and am finishing up agronomy classes at the nearby land grant school. I’ve made a full time job of smothering my demons through hard work–I can stack 2 tons of grain, but don’t have the strength to come out to my coworkers. There’s no amount of setting fence, building projects, shifting irrigation, or driving tractor–no amount of capability–that trumps all of the nagging spectres of self-loathing and depression. This was a real pleasure to read, and I hope you’ll continue to add.

  12. I learned a lot reading this stunning piece of writing, I’m keeping many quotes fresh in my mind! “Farm work was everything my depressive body was screaming against: sunlight, physical activity, and tiny symbols of the fragility of life all around that I couldn’t remember how to value.” Lila, your writing is both heavenly, and grounding.

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