During the summers when I was in college, I earned money by working on a farm.
For the sake of clarity, I should tell you that this farm was not a “working farm.” This is not to say that there wasn’t much work to do—quite the contrary in fact, the old adage held strong—only that the object of the work was not to make the farm work, per se, but to make it appear as though it worked to our paying visitors, people who couldn’t tell (or didn’t care about) the difference. Absurd as it may seem, the distinction is far from academic and one I worked strenuously to uphold in conversation with friends and others, lest they get the wrong impression of what I did to earn my bread (or beer, as it were, in those days).
A working farm is, of course, more than a farm that works (and I mean “works” in the fullest sense, as both a site where work is conducted and a farm where the measure of success might be said to exceed that of failure). A working farm is a farm where the work of farming might be said to be the overarching work with which the farm is concerned. A farm where fence post holes are dug past mud and granite boulders, shit is shoveled from the pens of pigs and horses, crowds of mewling goats suckled till their knees buckle, sheep inoculated by mouth with pink liquid from toothless syringes and sorted summarily into the proper yard, grass felled into hay underneath crescent blades by the light of the setting sun—all in the noble name of feeding sedentary man.
Despite sharing many of the appearances of a working farm, the farm where I worked was not such a farm, for if the farm where I worked could be said to have had an overarching work with which it was concerned, that work would be the appearance of work rather than work itself.
Again, this is not to say that I did little work there. In fact, appearing to work is as much work as working, if not more. After all, anyone who has been in a play can attest to the fact that it takes considerably greater effort to act normally than it does to simply be yourself. Carrying around a hundred pounds of feed sack, trying to catch escaped geese with a bug net, shepherding the recalcitrant mare with a rake—I did so much work in fact that I would frequently tire myself, a robust young man, to the point where I would find it necessary to nap in the hayloft, sometimes for the better part of an hour. Though I sneaked my naps in the hayloft, free from the prying eyes of man and beast alike, I suspect that I was suspected of napping due to the length of time I often spent up there. Eventually, I began to suspect my napping was tolerated in spite of the fact that it meant I was not visibly working, precisely because the suggestion that an employee might be napping suggested how hard employees worked better than any of our blatant displays could possibly achieve. At the same time, however, we could not simply sleep our problems away—and while we may not have been farmers, we still had a farm to run.
I maintain that what we had there in Dublin, New Hampshire, was indeed a farm, though some have uncharitably suggested the title of “petting zoo” and perhaps I have occasionally sided with them for the sake of convenience, trying to explain over beers what I did in the summers, or more likely deep into beers in those days. For one thing, it was farm animals that we took care of and perhaps that is the essential thing. Cows and horses, pigs and ducks, sheep and goats—God help us, the chickens. Some animals were guests, visiting for the season from one small holding pen or another—free room and board while we got to charge admission to see them—and some were even bound for the slaughter. The purpose of the farm was recreational, for families and little campers to come and pet the critters, yes, but that didn’t change the fact that we worked and the animals didn’t—that they lived there and we went home in cars. I suppose the animals wouldn’t have made the distinction between a working farm and a farm with workers, so yes, it is I who is hung up about the difference. Did I work on a farm in the summer? Well, you see, that depends…
I have few answers from my days in farming, but lingering questions. I often heard one story concerning turkeys. Apparently when it rained—a lovely and terrible time for the farm, for it meant a break from the torment of unresolved heat and humidity, followed by mud and shit slicks, leaks and mending—the turkeys, silly things, would look up into the water, beaks open to receive the drink. The problem was, they wouldn’t stop, and forgetting themselves, they would drown standing. I never saw it myself, but the story was popular and got repeated often. Apparently it meant that the birds were stupid, but I always suspected they were just thirsty.
Seth Blake is a writer from New Hampshire.