You never know what you don’t know. Before this week I didn’t know that chickpeas grow in pods, just like snap peas. I didn’t know that rich indigo blue can be extracted from various plants growing across the Scottish countryside. I didn't know the sound that train tracks make as they creak throughout the shifting heat of the day. I didn't know the feeling of a sheep sniffing at my fingertips in the hope of corn flakes.
I've taken this experience of lockdown and gone to volunteer on a farm in the Highlands. It’s been just over a week so far, and it’s gone by quickly. I already feel quite at home here, settling into new routines and having new experiences. I’m learning amazing things about sheep and wool and food and nature and a whole new lifestyle which is so different from my life back in Thornliebank.
Being at the farm has helped me experience the simple pleasures. Being surrounded by nature (and not surrounded by so many of the distractions of what’s become everyday life) has really put things in perspective.
There’s no schedule here. You wake up when the light is bright enough and the roosters are loud enough. We do some work. We pause mid-morning for a cup of fresh coffee and a slice of homemade bread. We work until it feels like time for lunch, when Liz picks a salad from the garden, or cooks a mixture of the different fermentations lining the shelves. There’s more work in the afternoon, and maybe a stroll through the hills or a drive through the countryside, on ancient tracks that have supported the farmers of this community for generations.
When we sit around the kitchen table for a cup of evening tea and another game of backgammon, I think back over what was accomplished that day. I’m used to time being broken up into hour-long meetings and checking things off lists. Here I look back and think about whether my day was meaningful. Did I try something new? Did I enjoy my time? Did I think in a different way? I’m so used to justifying my days by how much I can accomplish before I go to sleep, but here I’m learning new ways of defining my value.
Being at the farm has taught me to pay attention to the details. Liz often points out the different ferns and lichens that can be fermented and used as natural dyes for her wools. Many of them have Gaelic names that I don’t remember. She asks me if certain ferns are also native to Canada. I don’t know, I never paid enough attention to the leaf shapes, textures, and smells of Canada. I wish I did.
On the kitchen table are recycled cans full of utensils. Each one seems to have its own story. There’s the elaborately detailed silver spoon which is one of Graham’s family heirlooms. Then there’s the crooked fork which he found abandoned in a parking lot and brought home to rescue. That’s my favourite fork to use, with its flattened curve and crooked tines. It reminds me of the stories we carry with us, and how you never know what lies just beyond the surface.
Being at the farm has also taught me that Scotland is complicated. I’ve spent most of my time in Scotland working deeply with the Jewish community. And while the Jewish community is warm and lovely and has a history all of its own, the Jewish community of Scotland is made almost entirely of immigrants, who’ve settled in Scotland within the past 150 years. The stories I encounter here are rooted in the land and traditions and a lifestyle far different than I’ve encountered in Glasgow.
Up the forestry track behind the station lies the Duncan Bann Monument. Liz explained to me that he was a Scottish poet and revolutionary, well known for being anti-sheep. “Anti-sheep?” I repeated. She told me all about the history of the Highland clearances - how families were moved off their traditional lands to make room for sheep, which were seen as more valuable than tennants. I’ve always looked at sheep as something so integral to the Scottish landscape, but I've started to learn the tragic history that lies beyond.
90% of Scotland’s energy comes from renewable sources. This seems great. Yet 24 hours a day, water is pumped up from Loch Awe into the heart of Ben Cruachan, where it’s cascaded down through the dam and brought back up again. The energy this process creates is drawn out to the rest of Scotland through thick wires, supported by looming electrical pylons visible from everywhere in the village. The forests around Dalmally are cleared to make way for new ones. But it’s more complicated than being good or bad, it requires more than simple judgements.
Meat is complicated. As a 10-year vegetarian, I don’t often think about meat anymore. Yet Farmer Graham goes to feed little Larry Lamb twice a day every day. He gives him penicillin to kill the worms in his stomach, and rubs the thorns out of his feet. He cares for Larry with tenderness, and when the time comes, Farmer Graham will eat little Larry for lunch, knowing he loved him and took care of him. But it’s not good or bad. It’s just the way it is.
One of my favourite things about being at the farm is the view as I step out of my caravan. I can see over the rooftops of the single street in the village out to the rolling Highland hills beyond. Sometimes they’re a rich, bold green. Sometimes they’re shrouded in mist, and you can only make out the outlined shades of grey amidst the fog. When the sky clears, the light bounces off the slopes, drawing beautiful shades across the sky. They’re always there, in the morning and the evening, when I sleep, and for the past thousands of years.
It’s magical being here. I feel a nostalgia for a place and time that was never mine. I feel so immersed in a different lifestyle and environment, in different ways of being. And I feel very grateful for this opportunity that I have to grow and explore.