I've dreamt about farming all my life. You wouldn't know it by the way I live, but it's true. Somehow over all these years, my dreams and my realities have been separate by an inexplicable chasm.
I think for most people it is the same, or at least similar in essence. We dream or plan or talk more than we do. We blame our unrealized dreams on circumstance, other people, lack of support, money. Sometimes we call it luck -- good or bad. And I think some of you already know that I think luck (however we define that) is a bigger factor than most of us care to admit.
But the other day I met a woman who really did it -- who turned a whimsical idea into a reality in a big way and it made me start to wonder a bit about what really kept me from doing what she did. It wasn't for lack of capacity or cognitive muscle. I could "visualize" as well as anyone. So, what was it?
I met her via the Internet. We just moved into a rural area and we were looking for someone local to supply grass-fed beef. We found a few local people, but were most attracted to a small place called Brykill Farm. After a few rounds of phone tag, I finally got to talk to the owner and manager of the farm, Susan. "Come on down," she said as if she were inviting us for a picnic.
We turned onto her road, a winding dirt and gravel mix that crossed over a small river and led us through a dark thicket of oak, maple and birch after which it burst open onto pastures as broad and green as Ireland itself, each hill studded with what had to be the happiest cows on the planet. In a whispering huddle to the side were three or four iconic stone buildings from the 1700s.
We wandered around with a cattle dog trailing behind us for a few minutes, unsure which door to knock on when a woman came out, barefoot, smiling, a youngster trailing behind her. She looked to be in her 40s, but her manner was youthful and energetic.
We were escorted inside to a kitchen that was clearly the heart of the house, filled with books, cups and flowers. We chit-chatted a bit until I couldn't resist and asked her, "Who started this?"
She said, as matter of fact as telling me the time, "I did."
I looked at her. Her hands were of average size, her face still unlined, her posture relaxed but straight. A cattle farmer? I had to know more. She was living the life I had told myself I always wanted to live, but this, that and the other thing had stopped me somehow.
She was born in Connecticut and in her 20s, around the time that my friends and I were consumed with going out dancing, she invested in land. It was her idea. She was not married. She had no backers. She had no training.
Then she bought a couple of cows. Her friends thought it was "cool" and she eventually slaughtered those cows and bought more. Then she got a bull and the farm began in earnest.
How did that happen? How did she do what seemed so insurmountable to me?
It wasn't some outrageous fortune, no Mega-Lotto win. I don't believe it had anything to do with any universal "secrets."
It wasn't the forceful hand of fate... she hadn't inherited a farm she didn't want or become indentured through familial obligation.
It seemed to be as simple as a decision. To be more accurate, a series of small, but decisive ones.
The power of thought or the punch of will?
In recent years, Descartes' axiom -- I think therefore I am -- has been transposed, sharpened to an unprecedented perversion: I think therefore I have. Or the newest interpretation of the American Gospel: I think therefore I deserve to have. Our lives can be perfect, abundant, sublime... if only we think it so.
Was this what had taken place for Susan? Was it only a matter of thought? Was her belief what propelled her?
There was no denying that some of her thinking predisposed her to the choices she made, but as she described it to me, this was a case of will leading the way. How else does a divorcee from Chicago wind up running a 300-year-old restoration and beef farm?
It started with one book that resonated with her, "Chicken Tractor" by Joel Saladin, in which she was exposed to the idea of homesteading. (As I see it, this is the first piece of evidence that will is at work: unexpected and unconscious resonance.) As the ideas fomented in her, she stumbled onto the Brykill estate, which also appealed to her. What was it, I asked, that was so appealing?
"It was going to take a tremendous amount of work to rehabilitate it and I would be able to just plunge into a project."
Again -- this simple statement takes us way beyond mere thought to the potent underworld of Will and character. For most people work is the big turn-off, rather than the turn-on.
Initially, she lived there alone with her two labs.
There was maybe one working bathroom and ceilings came down in some rooms, but the more time I spent out here, the more interested I became in the farm's history. While my father was incredibly handy and loved puttering in the garden no one in my family since the Eltings have been farmers. My dad was an engineer and my mother was a homemaker. It was Miracle Grow all the way...
While a few "bravos" could be heard from friends, "Most folks," she recalls, "thought I was nuts."
There was this wonderful local man named Pat Kelly, who is sadly no longer with us, who really egged me on. He would stop by a lot and give me advice here and there. He sold me my first bull and a cow and her calf -- truly the most pathetic looking cow you can possibly imagine. I'm sure he got a good chuckle out of all of it. He sold me my tractor too. It was sort of a Martha Stewart moment when I would bring a few packages of ground beef from our "herd," but while my friends couldn't understand why I wasn't doing Horses, they all asked if next time they could get more.
"Because the process was totally grueling, I had no background, had to learn everything from books or the internet, the learning curve was brutal. Yet it seemed like something I really needed to see through. I would get such wonderful help from our neighbors the Watchtower guys and from our local vet Lyle Goodnow who just tirelessly helped me deal with some of the realities that comes with raising live animals. Those people just seemed to enter my life to make sure I didn't abandon the project.
In listening to her talk about sustainability, humane treatment of animals, living in a beautiful environment, I asked myself, "Hadn't I had the same thoughts? Hadn't I believed the same things?" As far as I could tell, I had. What stopped me? What swept her up?
I believe it is something that few people talk about today because it has become so awfully unfashionable. I believe it was two things, actually: will and character.
Will may arguably be a function of thought, but I believe it is much more than that. Will starts before the thought itself and extends far beyond it, long after the thought has made an appearance and taken its bow. Will is the motor -- the very engine that expresses spirit.
Thoughts are extensions of that. We think "I like this" or "I hate that" or "I shall do this tomorrow" or "that dress is so lovely," but all those thoughts are expressions of will, which may also be seen as a reservoir of our deepest longings. So we may find ourselves thinking thoughts of delight ("how wonderful my friends are") when we are given what our wills crave (attention, respect, tenderness -- all according to the individual constitution) or thoughts of terror or rage ("I wish they'd disappear" or "I'm going to die") when our wills are frustrated or threatened.
Character is the drive shaft of the will and similar to thoughts expresses the will in ways that are more directly palpable to others. A person with a strong will to live or to love may show tremendous fortitude and patience where others who have a strong will to possess material goods may demonstrate a gross lack of tolerance.
What I lacked in my 20s was more than luck. I have survived those years, so in my eyes, I had more luck than many of my peers did. What was missing was both will and character.
What I truly longed for -- more than the simplicity and solidity of a farm life -- was the activity and attention that the lifestyle I was living brought me. I was more beguiled by "cool" than by cows, no matter how much I thought I wanted them, no matter how I "dreamed" or visualized.
I could have said a thousand aphorisms a day, but they would not have changed an iota of my Will. And they would have done even less about my character, which was, to be polite, "budding" in those days.
My life was a continual manifestation of what I wanted at that time -- and it wasn't Green Acres.
In our discussion, Susan called it "good fortune" to have found an incredibly capable farm manager (Carlos) and an animal whisperer (Peggy) who eventually helped her develop the land and tend the animals properly so that it became a true working farm. I was not convinced, and left wondering whether it was fortune or fortitude.
To answer that, I started where she did: It was not the book or the farm or the friends or the thinking. It was the resonance of all those things with her Will. Any of us could have read the same book, driven by the same rolling hills and looping river and said, "How nice," but never been moved to act. She was touched the way a single note vibrates crystal.
The magic, the surprise is in discovering precisely how that crystal sings in response. It's often not what we "think" but better yet.
"I guess I had this vision of myself in the beginning as being Audra from the Big Valley," Susan recalled. "Do you remember that show? I thought it was going to be all me with great hair coming out with lemonade on a tray for all the cowboys. It wasn't until one afternoon of sorting cattle in the rain and yelling at every body and coming inside to write checks and balance books that I realized, 'Oh, God, I'm Barbara Stanwick!'"
What Susan made clear to me was not just the "power of thought" but the manifestation of Will and the necessity of choice, of making the right turns in the road, of taking hold of the wheel and steering.
On very rare occasions I have seen good fortune just "drop" into someone's lap. I can count those instances on one hand. On every other occasion, I have seen goodness, purposefulness, and the sorts of green pastures I saw at Brykill Farm seeded and grown by deliberation over years of sweat, sacrifice and a steady hand.
We are all tossed and tumbled by circumstance, by forces we don't understand. But there is one force we do understand and it is the one that pulls the sails taut and turns the ship into the wind. That one is up to us.
In closing, Susan told me, "I think being a little bit of a control freak is part of it. I want to control what I am eating and serving to my family, even if it's a teeny tiny particle of a powerful food system. I'm also just sort of oblivious sometimes to why I can't do something. My current headaches with trying to start a restaurant in Gardiner are more proof of that. I just think, 'how hard could it be?'"