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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,
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
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.