Four pigs—much larger than we had anticipated—bought on a whim from the heart of Amish country. My husband picked them up, passing buggies and horses along the way, carefully loading up the piglets, standing the appropriate distance away from the husband-and-wife team who had bred them, and leaving his money in an envelope for them to pick up later.
After the pigs came the steers—who, I admit, made a picturesque scene grazing in the pasture—and then eight new baby chicks for egg laying, followed by 30 chicks raised for the freezer. Our land, an hour outside of Detroit, was getting crowded.
As our little farm grew, so did my husband’s dreams: There was talk of additional fencing, more raised beds, new gardening methods, new animals (Fun fact: Meat chicks take only 53 days to grow to full size), even building a full-size greenhouse. As a large part of the country seemed to cope by stocking their shelves with rolls of toilet paper, my husband has seemed to cope by stocking up on plants and livestock.
At first, I admit, I teased him. The sight of him proudly standing watch over his four cattle as the sun set behind him was just way too Pa Ingalls for me to resist. But as time has gone on, I’ve come around to our little house on the prairie. When I read about an executive order to force meat plants to stay open to stave off potential shortages and panic, I felt grateful to know our meat source is now grazing in our backyard. As stay-at-home protesters flooded our state’s capitol, I felt relieved that I didn't have to venture into the grocery store to get eggs for our breakfast. And during a time when so much frustration and fear has stemmed from lost jobs, I have found a newfound appreciation for the type of dirty work that can feed a family.
This pandemic has brought out so many different layers of feelings—we’re lucky, and there’s a harsh and growing need to check our many privileges. There’s a sense of guilt that our family has been able to enjoy being together more when so many others are suffering, and confusion over what lies ahead when all of this is over.
But underneath it all is a sense of clarity. For a girl who is admittedly happiest tucked away in a café with a laptop, coffee in hand, it’s been an eye-opening realization to find layers of myself that I didn't know existed. I have a new, much deeper appreciation for the journey it takes food to reach our plates, for the hard work and dedication of the people who raise animals and plant tiny seeds, and for the hope that drives the belief that each new form of new life will ultimately sprout.
I won’t go so far as to say we’ll be anywhere near being self-reliant homesteaders when we emerge on the other side—after all, I just poured my morning coffee thanks to a Keurig—but it’s been an empowering experience to broaden my idea of what a life I love might look like. Turns out, I am someone who can plod through a field of cow poop to move cattle to greener pastures (I mean, the symbolism in that) and enjoy it. I am someone who can raise a baby chicken to a hen to collect my morning breakfast from my backyard. I am someone who, after years of jokingly killing off scores of house plants, is getting serious about the baby spinach sprouting in my basement because it’s one less thing I will have to buy from a store.
There is a strange sort of contentment that has settled down into my bones at this new way of life. Unlike the constant go-go-go pace of the life we led before this, the inbox that I never really stopped checking, the work as a freelancer that never really ends, and that constant, looming anxiety over where my next check would come from, this work on our land feels refreshingly straightforward. Animals need to be fed, manure needs to be hauled, weeds need to be cleared. As a farmer—even the pretend variety, as I imagine our four steers make us seem to real farmers—you go back to the basics: food, water, sunlight, fresh air.
I feel a deep sense of frustration? grief? that it has taken a global pandemic to strip down the busyness of the outside world and narrow our family’s focus down to working together. But because that’s the reality we are living in right now, I’m trying to see it as an opportunity to learn together. I’m hoping the lessons about caring for animals will translate into bigger lessons for my children. Already they have picked up on some life skills, like driving (#tractorlessons) and the fact that there’s no such thing as “male” or “female” work—my daughters are pitching poop out of stalls every week, right alongside their brother, and thanks to all of that poop, my seven-year-old son is doing laundry every day. Apparently pig poop is the great equalizer we’ve all been looking for—who knew?
Farm life is easy to romanticize—all Instagram-worthy images of children playing under clear blue skies and humble, homegrown food dotting your table—but I’ve also learned that there’s a deeper, sometimes darker, symbiotic nature to working with animals and plants. Even as you learn how to respect and work with nature, you also have to learn how to thwart it. Like the tarp we used to coax the weeds in the garden to sprout early, the better to kill them off later, or the strategic chicken tractor my husband built to drag through the pasture, allowing the chickens to eat the fly larvae from the manure before they get a chance to hatch. Because nature can be beautiful, but it can also be terrifying. (And yes, I’m looking at you, murder hornets.)
Regardless of what happens in the future, and if or when we go back to our “normal” way of doing things, I feel like this time together has bonded us in a way that can never be lost. Whether it’s memories of Monday Funday when their dad made them clean out the stalls, days spent playing in the dirt, or the Garden Journal my 12-year-old started, I hope that this time together has planted a foundation my children will grow from.
I’m learning right alongside them, soaking up the bright spots in our new way of life. After all, I did always think Pa Ingalls was kind of hot.
Chaunie Brusie is a writer in Michigan covering parenting, health, and finances. Follow her @chauniebrusie.
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