The Peace of Wild Things

When Meg Wheatley came to stay, we had a long, lively conversation over dinner with friends about how we bring our leadership into service to work on the most important challenges we face - and how we sustain ourselves and each other through these tough times.   She read us this lovely poem from Wendell Berry, reminding us that we have all we need around us to help us persevere.  There are many special places on Llananant Farm to find the peace of wild things.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry, "The Peace of Wild Things" from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998. Published and reprinted by arrangement with Counterpoint Press.

Why I do it...

I wrote this post in early 2014,  when things were a little different.  But the underpinning sentiments still stand...

So I was having one of those conversations that I both value and dread (Thanks, Alan Barnard, at BBM, for lunch and the deep probing questions).  Alan asked: “So why do you do it…?”  I chose to hear this as genuine curiosity and not to hear the silent “…For God’s sake, why…?!”  

The ‘it’ in question is living on and running a small permaculture, organic farm. If you follow my tweets, you may have noticed that there is, possibly, a disproportionate number on lambing, with – some might say (Alan) – too many references to the earthy stuff like poo and wee, life and death… The midnight barn checks, the 5am feeds, the emergency trips to vets… He may have been noticing the inevitable effects of this – the dark shadows under my eyes, hands like a hod carrier, slightly unkempt hair and the faint odour of ‘eau-de-farm’ that wafts behind me like Pig-Pen’s cloud… 

So why do I do it…?  It’s true I live what some might call a portfolio life. The ‘day job’, and the thing that pays my way in life, is about consulting, researching, writing and coaching in leadership and change for more sustainable futures. I’m a visiting academic with various other affiliations and connections besides. Most of my time is spent working with clients and organisations on interesting but the more expected stuff – strategy, governance, culture, learning, projects leadership.  You know the kind of thing…

I also run a farm. We arrived here in 2001, wanting a place with a couple of acres that would be a home for us, my parents and my children.  We found Llananant Farm, a 52 acre holding that, in spite of its small size, encompasses a wonderful variety of habitat, from old species-rich meadows, ancient coppiced woodland, ponds, streams and hedgerows. The 'us' isn't the same as it was then, and two of my three children have already grown up and are making their own way in life, with No 3 not far behind.  We’ve all had to make some tough choices in the last few years (see blogs passim) and we’ve chosen to stay here.  We keep sheep, cows, horses, pigs, goats and poultry and grow produce in the kitchen garden and orchard. I’m developing a centre here, for growing skills for sustainable futures. So as well as growing the farm business, I take schools visits and work with young people who can’t or won’t stay in mainstream school, supporting their personal development through acquiring practical land based skills.  I host wwoofers and host training – this year on permaculture,  horse-logging (with Bobby the Bolshie Shetland) orchard maintenance and coppicing.  

So that’s what 'it' is.  But Alan was asking why… That’s so much harder to answer…  And to answer honestly and authentically reaches deep.

I do it, of course, because it’s where I live and it’s our home. Because as tough as it is, it is easier to stay than to leave. Because the farm nestles in its landscape and living here feels like being cradled by the hills.  Because as the years pass, I learn so much more about its secrets, discovering places I’ve never seen before.  Because I’m watching projects take shape off the page and come to life, experiments come to fruition – hedgerows we planted springing up, new woodland seeding and establishing, new species appearing in the meadows, the stream carving out a new course for itself…  Because when I walk through the old woods, it’s like a layer of skin or two is peeled away and I can feel its story in my bones…  

Here, I understand and live with how ‘complex systems’ work, in ways that I can’t replicate elsewhere.  Instead of only an intellectual appreciation of working with complexity, ‘whole systems’ and change (which I value too, by the way) I get a visceral glimpse into what interconnection and relationship, adaption and emergence really mean.  I understand more about patience, resilience, persistence, purpose and connection through watching the flock at lambing time. I understand more about what it means to respect and value the really fundamental things – like food, energy, water – when I take my steers to the abattoir after a well lived life; when I lose my crop in the rain; when I collect wood for the fire and when the spring water pump shorts out and the shower stops!  

I don’t deny that at times it’s hard. Managing on five hours of sleep a night (max!) for a month is a big ask at my age… Euthanasing a cow who’s just calved because she’s broken her pelvis is hard.  Juggling the many pressures for attention when money is tight and you have to come up with ‘creative’ solutions is hard.  Making a good choice, when there’s no easy or obvious option is hard.  Doing nothing – because sometimes that’s the right thing to do – is hard.  We work as a team here.  We’re interdependent, each of us contributing whatever we can, so as to take the next available step – and sometimes that’s as simple as cake, tea and laughter.

It is a gift to be here and a privilege to be able to share it.  I am learning so much from conversations with the young men who come here and who might be called – in other settings – disconnected from society.  I see what I take for granted through fresh eyes. Watching them learn to look after and work with the ponies, I see the most uplifting shifts taking place. From the first anxious, tentative moves, through to real attention, awareness and connection. Watching the horses adjust to the situation and to offer what is needed of them.  Reciprocity in action, with no need for words.  And finding ways to talk about the toughest things, just through watching ewes and their lambs – rejection, fostering, sharing care, taking up the slack… what it really means to be a sheep… and perhaps what it really means to be human…

So ultimately what I’m learning most about is what it means to be a fully invested part of a deeply interconnected and interdependent system; in short, what it means to love and to be loved…  Is there anything more important…?

And that, Alan Barnard, is why I do it…