July 26, 2013
Five Things I Learned Growing Up on a Farm
This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistia team member's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Elise Ramsay is community manager at Wistia.
When I meet you, I'll probably tell you I'm from New York. That's not entirely true, though. Before I lived in the concrete jungle, I cut my teeth in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon, to be exact.
That's just my fancy New Yorker way of saying I was kind of a hick. Until age 12, I lived on a farm with donkeys, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, and a single goldfish. As an only child, these were my siblings. My childhood chores included cleaning the chicken coop, harvesting zucchini before they became boat-sized, and replenishing the stables with hay.
I didn't think much of it at the time, but I've begun to appreciate this rural experience in new ways lately. Although I made some sacrifices (I am often oblivious to 90s pop culture references), I learned many valuable lessons in exchange. Here are a few that I find relevant to my current work and life:
Working with your hands is important.
I grew up doing a lot of—well—manual labor! I maintained gardens, cleaned hooves, and shoveled a lot of unsavory debris. While I didn't romanticize my chores at the time, later on, years of city life made me miss working with my hands.
The act of physically creating, building, or shaping something fulfills me in a unique way. It's easy to become addicted to my laptop or phone, but if I don't make time for manual projects, I'm less effective and, frankly, not great to be around. I no longer till soil or haul around hay bales, but I try to make time for handmade hobbies like drawing, ill-advised craft projects, or cooking. It just makes me feel whole.
Know when to relinquish control.
No matter how much you plan, some things will not go as expected. This couldn't be more true of gardening, especially on a large scale. You can buy the right soil, plant the seeds at the correct moment, and water them on schedule, but it doesn’t guarantee a successful crop. Lack of control can be petrifying, but it can also lead to delicious accidents (like striped tomatoes, or white pumpkins). Finding the right balance of preparation, hard work, and acceptance is an ongoing challenge!
Be aware of your impact on others.
Farm life is fun and exciting, but nature can be pretty cruel. Our first attempt at raising chickens quickly went south after we lowered a heating lamp too close to the baby chicks overnight. Those innocent fluffy chicks, gone mad by the heat, cannibalized each other in a scene straight from a low budget horror film. That wasn't even the end of the nightmare: once grown, the female chickens ostracized the lone rooster, leaving him to freeze to death outside in the winter (I'm starting to think these hens might have fared well in New York, actually).
This experience taught me that even small actions can greatly affect another project, person, or system. As a result, I try to be aware of how my work and life are interconnected with that of others.
Nothing great happens quickly.
Watermelon and corn always seemed to take forever to grow; this was probably in part because they were my favorite summer foods. I'd run out to the garden each morning and check on the melons, only to detect imperceptible growth. The beets, potatoes, and onions all grew in secret underground, and I had nothing but my parents' word to assure me they were there at all.
Dandelions, on the other hand, couldn't grow fast enough. They threatened the corn plot with their hunger for world domination. I tried eating a dandelion once, and quickly realized it wasn't worth the convenience. Did watermelons take forever to grow because they tasted so good, or did they taste so good because of the months of anticipation?
Regardless, the message was clear: the best fruit requires patience and time. I try to remember not to settle for weeds when the best harvest warrants the extra effort.
Lead with compassion.
You have a lot of unusual arguments when you grow up with dogs and donkeys for siblings. Let me deter you right now from ever reasoning with a donkey: you will fail. In my experience, animals understand fear and love better than any other emotions. I witnessed the power of fear whenever a thunderstorm passed or a coyote got through the fence; I never wanted to cause that kind of reaction in any animal.
I also saw that when treated with love, the animals returned it with fierce loyalty. When I was very young, the dogs and donkeys shifted in formation to protect me from visitors or even male neighbors. Fear produced a fleeting reaction, whereas compassion inspired behavior (without provocation) long after the initial investment.
It's really hard to look into an animal's eyes every day without developing a strong sense of empathy. Leading with compassion can make you vulnerable when someone hasn’t chosen to do the same, but I've seen empathy untangle more situations and open more doors than anger or fear.
I've only recently realized how much these lessons have influenced my current approach to problems and projects. Growing up on a farm taught me from an early age that each of us is a small player in the grand scheme of things (if you need a dose of perspective, I recommend wandering through the forest or having a staring contest with the ocean.) I've found that idea, along with the lessons above, to be a great reminder in my urban life.
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