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The First Silence

A few weeks ago we took a family vacation. When I got home I noticed the silence.

Silence is a funny thing to notice because it isn't actually a sound. It's the lack of a sound.

At first I thought I noticed it because our vacation was spent on the shore of lake Superior and we had been subjected to the constant thunder of rolling waves on the rocks. After some time you stop noticing the sound of the waves of course, but when the sounds is eliminated, the silence is just as loud as the waves were.

But that wasn't actually all that was going on to make me notice the quiet at the farm. Because it actually wasn't silent. There are a lot of people here on the farm--you can usually hear a few people somewhere. And on top of that, August is a time when the grasshoppers begin their very loud chorus. That song was fully alive when we got home.

True, the sound of grasshoppers or crickets is for most people associated with silence but there was something else going on. Two things actually (as I have now come to realize). One inside my head, and one outside my head.

We'll start outside of my head.

I recently learned from a naturalist that early August IS in fact a very quiet time when it comes to bird songs. We are pretty far north here and so the song birds leave this area pretty early. Many of them have already begun drifting south. The silence I couldn't put my finger on was the absence of bird songs.

We host a lot of song birds in our woods and around the farm. Their song permeates the farm from before we wake in the morning till late evening for months on end. Furthermore, our windows hardly close during most of the season. Their songs are so pervasive, that it makes an impression when they cease. (Especially if you happen to go away during the decline, making the transition abrupt).

So the naturalist confirmed what I (didn't) hear and couldn't articulate.

But there was more going on. My perception was changed as well. There was space for new noticings.

Our vacation was the first time we have left the farm for more then a few days (during the summer) in all the years we've been farming. We just never felt like we could stay away that long. This year we were able to confidently step away for a full week. And when I returned I was a little sick which meant I stayed out of the loop of farm work for a few more days.

In short, for the first time in many years I was out of the loop long enough to actually fall out of the loop mentally. I was out of touch (relatively) with the day to day. I could look out the window or walk around the yard without cycling on the work and loose ends. I could see and hear what was there instead of skipping and jumping from to-do lists to worries to next year and back to what we learned from last week... All that mental cycling, like the ceaseless songs of a million birds was quiet.


As I lay in my bed resting and noticing the silence, I thought of two things.

One was winter. Typically winter is the time when silence rules the farm. It is also a time when activity diminishes.

The myth of winter on the farm is that it is restful and calm. It should be.

But for me it rarely is. In fact, in many ways it is a time for me when the work moves even more so into my head. Planning and number crunching and scheduling and reviewing notes and looking at the long-term trajectory... truth be told I have often struggled to sleep in the winter because my mind is racing and my body isn't tired.

The second thing I thought of was the time during our first year farming in MN when my body just shut down from the pressure and work. My body just gave out and I was forced to lay in bed for many days and give up my efforts. It wasn't good.


People often assume that the sweaty field work is the hard part of farming. On a very large scale farm where the work is huge compared to the human body that may be the case. In that case the body is overwhelmed by the enormity of its task.

But on a small diversified farm it usually tips in the other direction--The magnitude of details and interweaving dynamic systems to keep track of can overwhelm and crush the mind and emotions of the farmer. Especially when margins are thin and there is little room for error.

This year we've but very strict limits on our work hours to check the physical exhaustion. But controlling the onslaught of mental pressures is a difficult trick to achieve.

If you've got any good strategies I'm all ears...

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What a beautiful essay; thank you! (Was this Joel or Megan?) Part of patronizing a CSA, for me, has to do with at least a slight personal knowledge of the people who grow the food I eat, so I really enjoy these notes, even when I don't say anything in reply.

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