I love my friend Minca. Now that we’re no longer college classmates, we cherish the rare opportunities to spend time with one another. A little over a year ago she happened to be in New Jersey and I insisted that she and I visit one of my favorite farms of all time, Fields Without Fences (FwF). The farm was started by Lindsay and Johann Rinkens in 2012 with the intention to develop an ecologically appropriate land management strategy for growing certified organic food and medicine. The farm’s story is much more involved, but that day I learned about a new development: 2014 would be the first year with paid apprentices. That’s all I needed to know. I was in.
My body, mind, and emotions were tested this summer in ways that I didn’t originally anticipate. My body is no worse for wear, but a summer of farm work, along with hiking, biking, and swimming around the Delaware river, has definitely tuned me up (thanks to stretching and chiropractors for mechanical help). There’s something I love about the feeling at the end of a productive day outdoors. My body loves to do what it evolved to: walk, bend, pick, pull, plant, scrape, shape, peel, pluck, dig, rake, make, and mark. This is the third full summer I’ve spent working on a farm and, though at times I’d like to deny it, it makes me really happy. Working in and with the elements undeniably agrees with my heart and bones. And farm work, strenuous and stressful as it may sometimes be, connects me with my ancestors—to my great grandparents who immigrated with family from Austria to farm in Minnesota and Nebraska five generations ago. Working on the farm is my heritage. And I’m glad I inherited their work ethic.
Lindsay and Johann have tremendous work ethics, and I appreciate how they turn tedious labor into strength-training exercises. Their attention to detail and proper technique made repetitive tasks multi-functional—weeding, seeding, transplanting and harvesting with good posture, sensitivity and body-awareness also increased our efficiency, making work as effortless as possible while building balanced body strength. That’s permaculture! I mean, it’s one thing to say all that, and another to actually do it. Especially on a farm where dozens of different species of herbs are sharing bed-space with fruiting ground-covers, berry bushes, fruit and nut tree saplings…not to mention the volunteers. Physically performing at a high level at a farm like theirs requires an equally high level of mental effort.
The mental edge I gained working for Lindsay and Johann is a reflection of the mental level at which they work, as well as the complexity of the polyculture systems that they’re establishing. As a farm that seeks to mimic the ecological architecture of regional native plant communities, they’re ahead of the curve. Being ahead of the curve also means not relying upon experts to tell you what to do, and relying heavily upon your own observations to make adjustments as the systems grow. As the season progressed Johann and Lindsay challenged us to start thinking and acting more like managers. They challenged us to take responsibility for our learning curves and move beyond the introductory hand-holding. It wasn’t until they brought this up that I realized how much easier it was to just follow instructions and do what I was told. They challenged us to increase our productivity and make more of the “little” decisions for ourselves. Up to this point I had thought I was working hard. I thought I was slowly starting to get a feel for the systems dynamics. But midway through the season it was clear that I wasn’t challenging myself enough. That was a spicy pill to swallow; it’s always more fun to get a pat on the back than a kick in the ass. That’s when I learned what Field’s Without Fences is really about: The fields are our minds, and the fences are all the self-imposed limitations we put on what we believe is possible and what we think we’re capable of. The fences are all the excuses we make up to hide our true genius. We fence-in our creativity, and fence-out our power of will. I guess I thought I was just keeping the deer from eating my vegetables. But I had to face the reality of the situation. I needed to take the challenge personally and accept responsibility for my full capacities. That’s the mental edge that Lindsay and Johann put to work. I’m still working on it.
Now that the 2014 season has come and gone I can say, without a doubt, that living and working at FwF has permanently altered my outlook and ambitions. I like to rationalize my work as a farmer and analyze it’s impact on civilization and the biosphere. But I’ve come to learn that my propensity for abstraction is not as meaningful to me as what I actually do. As much as I love the mental stimulation of ecological and philosophical concepts, this season on the farm has strengthened my emotional bond with the ecosystems that I am a part of. Living and working at FwF helped me see the necessity of being in relationship with the ecosystems on and beyond the farm. And that requires commitment (gasp). My life is moved by thoughts and emotions, and my inner landscape is mostly comprised of feelings. Lately I’ve been asking myself, “How do I want my life to feel?” A big part of the feeling that I want in my life comes from being in relationship with the biosphere and it’s ecosystems. As a producer, I am reliant upon the web of relationships that make plants and animals healthy. So I must be in tune with the reality of life on the ground, which is work. Committing to working with the land in some way, shape, or form requires me to exercise will-power to do something….And stick with it! There’s no way out of it. Accepting that challenge makes me a field with fewer fences. I want my life to feel un-fenced . As I commit to farming, I commit to being un-fenced.