When it comes to children and farming, the summer is a dichotomous time. Our 7-year-old twin daughters finished their first grade year, and they are busy enjoying their summer vacation. They play for hours with their toy ponies, they gallivant around our farm with their younger brother Eli in tow (with whom, I’m grateful to report, they have become as thick as thieves), and they go on various adventures with my wife Cyndi, who is earning sainthood by staying at home with them
At the same time, the growing season is now in full swing, and what is a time largely of leisure for them is a time of sometimes frantic overwork for me. Much of the time I spend with our children consists of them accompanying me on whatever task I happen to be doing: bringing in firewood that has been seasoning in the woodlot, weeding, harvesting, tending the chickens, and spreading mulch on the gardens, orchards, and berry plots. Of course four-year-old Eli is simply good company (and an enthusiastic tractor driver) but the girls have reached the “age of helpfulness,” or at least the age of potential helpfulness, where they have enough maturity and dexterity to really contribute to the work of our farm.
This has raised a very important question for me in regard to how they should be included in the responsibilities of the farm and our household economy in general. Since we had children, our hope has been that they will grow up understanding, through their own direct involvement, what it means to try to support a family on a farm. This means learning the rural home economic arts – knowledge and skills which are mostly a foreign language in today’s cultural argot. We want them to learn real responsibility through their various chores and to realize what a challenge it is to provide for themselves the sorts of things that most of us simply pay others to supply. On the other hand, however, we don’t want this experience to be a grim, back-breaking undertaking that sours them on the rural life and makes it feel like drudgery. We want the yoke to be easy and the burden light; we want them to have the leisure, ease, and playfulness of childhood, which is so precious and so brief.
I feel this tension almost every time we work together. For better and worse, I am a driven, Type-A workhorse: point me at a task, and I will stay at it doggedly until it is done. Our twins, however, are more like butterflies, flitting about between work and play, spending most of their time at the latter.
The one exception to this in recent memory was when we mulched one of our garden plots. We were using 1500-pound round bales of old, spoiled hay. Even once the strings are cut on these bales, the hay is still wrapped so tightly that it’s no easy matter to get it off the bale. For them, this was a job made in heaven. I would stand the bale up on its end with the tractor loader, and their job was to peel swathes of hay off of it so that I could fork the loosened hay onto the garden plots. They discovered that they could claw off some hay, scrabble up the sides of the bale (loosening more hay in the process), then jump off the top of the bale into the pile they had created at its base.
This was one of those rare, wonderful moments when work and play merged. They were having a whale of a good time, and in the process, they were making my job easier by providing loose hay for my pitchfork. We all kept at it for hours, they delighting in their game, and I delighting in their delight – and their help.
Obviously, it’s a grown-up world, with a lot of serious work to do and deathly serious problems to which we must attend for the well-being of our planet and our species. Our daughters will learn that soon enough – too soon, I fear. But I don’t think earnest, disciplined stoics will ever win many converts. Hard work and discipline have their place – Lord knows they’ve taken pride of place in my own life – but perhaps we’ve entered an age of such serious challenge that the only way we can engage it meaningfully is to marinate our work in laughter and play: finding a way to make even hard work fun, through creative imagination, song, story-telling, and spiritual inspiration. If the playful Sufi poet Hafiz could hear God laughing (probably at all of our foolish human antics), perhaps we can, too.