Belonging is a State of Mind

Monday, November 8, 2010

The other day I walked into our local feed store needing to buy chick starter for our new batch of meat birds. As I strolled the isles looking over new arrivals and favorite old items I overheard a woman at the register asking Gary about raising chickens. They were the typical questions all new chicken raisers ask.

But this time was different. In the isle that stocks the horseshoeing supplies two men scoffed at the innocence of her questions. You know the tone. The one reserved for newbie livestock owners or out-of-towners who buy a few acres with the idea of growing their own food. I’m sure they meant nothing by it. When your family has raised cattle here for a hundred years and you spent your life on the back of a horse you might find it humorous not knowing how to raise a chicken, or any small livestock for that matter, but it struck a cord with me.

Once upon a time…a long time ago I too was that lady asking those very same questions. I smiled as I walked by them, but it has taken me a while to get to this point. For new farmers it can feel downright unsettling; thinking you’re the butt of all jokes or a worn out stereotype at the local café where the “ole timers” hang out.

It seems to be the old long-time local vs. the new beginner divide that makes so many new farmers or homesteaders feel out of place. Think about it…if you’re fresh out the back of beyond with city lights and pubs that stay open till dawn…you have good reason to feel separated from the locals. It took me years to crack the surface and even more before I felt like “one of them”. But I can tell you this with certainty – Don’t let it affect you. Do not let who you are now stop you from becoming who you want to be. Embrace the difference and let it be part of where you are heading.

When I arrived at college I was nothing more than a novelty, a Valley Girl from a place where few in the Ag department had ever been. It bothered me – a lot. After all I had been in 4-H for 10 years, attended Junior College as an Animal Science major, judged livestock, showed for the school and had a personal flock of 45 ewes. I was just like them. Or so I thought. These were the kids of farmers – real farmers. Their dads were the Wrangler wearing, boot scrapping, chisel-faced men we see in movies or read about in books. These guys were real farmers. The ones who run a thousand head of cattle or farm 30,000 acres of almonds. I was just a suburban kid who raised a few dozen ewes on property rented from a wealthy horse farm owner. Those early months were tough. I felt like an extra in an episode of “Wannabe Farmgirl”. It wasn’t like this stuff was foreign to me. I understood the lingo, the equipment, the feed, the routines. It was like they were speaking my language. I knew what I was doing. But that didn’t matter.

I knew I had a decision to make. I could either push my way through the crowd shouting at the top of my lungs, “I know what the hell I’m doing”, or I could take the lower road, sidle up next to them and let them be my guides. So there it was. I turned from a self-assured sheep breeder to an inquisitive sponge; listening more than speaking, asking questions more than answering them, asking for advice more than giving it. I thought if I smiled more and was polite things would change. And they did. I learned about folklore legends, ole time remedies, family histories, and modern advances. I made close friends with kids from some of the states largest farms and spent hours learning about homemaking from their mothers and grandmothers on weekend visits. And in the end I was something of marvel; proof that not all city dwelling people are ignorant about where their food comes from and how it gets to their plate each day. In some strange way I gave them hope, hope that their beloved way of life and livelihood would last another season.

Deciding to live a simpler more sustainable life is not a shift in one’s identity, but a change in one’s lifestyle. You’re still who you are regardless of where you plunge your spade. You can come to it and worry that the locals don’t “get” you, fretting that you’re the “new guy” and everyone knows it. But, you would be over estimating their notice. For sure you’ll be “the new guy” for awhile, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a chance to start clean, a chance to start every conversation with a smile. And, unless the people around you stepped off the Nina, the Pinta or the Santa Maria, they were once “new” too.

If you want to be considered a local here’s how. Step outside. Walk your town. Stop by the shops. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Ask questions at the hardware store, feed store or local watering hole. It’s that easy. If people give you a hard time and purposefully exclude, or ignore you based solely on the fact you are new: then so be it. It’s more a reflection of their own unhappiness or self-doubt than your character.

Belonging is a state of mind. Being part of something outside yourself can only start if you decide to make it part of what’s inside you. It doesn’t matter if it’s your quilting class or the committee that puts on Founder’s Day: community is community. Not until lil ole you accept the fact that you’re part of it will you relax into being a local. Then everyone will believe it too. Trust me on this one.

As for me, I still listen to Bach while cleaning the barn. You can’t begin to understand serenity until your banty’s nestle up next to the CD player while “Sheep May Safely Graze” floats over the air. And I say that as a diehard local. If that makes you raise an eyebrow, come on over and we’ll work through it together.

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