One of our motivations for seeking land beyond the city was the hope that it would support our children to develop a deep connection with a particular patch of ground. Of course, in imagination, it’s all pretty easy: self-directed kids building cubbies in the golden light of late afternoon, climbing trees and constructing dams. In truth, it sometimes feels like masochism.
There are so many things we could have done (and are now trying to do), that would have made the first years of working with Yarnauwi easier. Our restorative ambitions meant that we chose a piece of land that, while superbly located, is highly exposed and has been much abused over the last almost-two centuries. It brings with it endless challenge, and the need for constant monitoring and intervention. The weather sometimes feels defined by the kind of driving winds that take water tanks for excursions around the farm. There’s always work to be done, and sometimes it feels like you’re working without progress, in an environment that can be hostile to weather-beaten, outdoorsy adults, let alone toddlers.
For four years we’ve tolerated living unnecessarily far away from the farm, which means that every visit is bookended by long drives. We’ve been without secure shelter, so when the weather hits, there’s nowhere to hide, and nowhere to store tools on-site. Every visit requires the careful packing in shelter, kid paraphernalia, and all the tools you think you might need. Woe betide us if a trough has sprung a leak, and we’ve not packed plumber’s tape or a particular fitting. While our car is reliable, powerful, and reasonably efficient, without four-wheel-drive, it means we can’t drive onto the property for a quarter of every year without pirouetting in the mud and having to haul ourselves back to the road with the tractor.
In hindsight, there’s plenty we could have done differently, and there’s challenge enough in running a property without adding further complexity. While these things may not be directly related to child-rearing, they have all had an impact on our children’s experience, and our own capacity to provide farm experiences that support our misty-eyed visions of grounded, capable, free-range kids.
While they were young and relatively light, we carried our children on our backs. I’m full of admiration for Sophie’s ability to labour with an additional 15 kg on her back. Initially for Asher, the wide open spaces were overwhelming, so we set up a tent and one of us would keep him company out of the elements. As he became more mobile, he took to playing in the car. It was a good way of avoiding the weather, but also tended to result in every lunch bag or toolbox being unpacked and every lever and knob on the dashboard being twiddled, resulting in an extra wave of frustration before we could head home again.
For a year or so Asher insisted that he hated the place, but managed to find fun things to do with every visit. His confidence in heading out on his own has grown. From two years old he began to mimic the kangaroo’s method for navigating fences, and a few moments unobserved would see him disappearing into the rushes of a neighbouring swamp. As he’s grown and become more independent in his play Asher now looks forward to his visits. This has been supported by having older friends who model new ideas for play: cubby building under the big trees and building nests in the long grass or mallow thickets. For Annika, a different personality, a different child, at age one she’s already setting out on her own, supervised by big brother Asher.
There are always jobs that are simply too hazardous to involve children. The squeals and sharp movements of kids can send the sheep into a panicked frenzy when yarded up, resulting in much fence hurdling. We all still experience bouts of frustration. As two adults accustomed to feeling reasonably capable and independent, perhaps we’ve never fully made peace with the slowing effect of attempting to supervise children and engage in challenging, sometimes strenuous labour. But in this there’s an indication of a way through. Throughout we’ve tried to remind ourselves of and remain engaged with our core purpose for farming.
Our primary intent in starting a farming enterprise was not to add days of drudgery, frustration and rage to every week. Although such experiences happen from time to time, our intent was to build a life for ourselves and our family connected to a specific landscape, to regenerate a neglected patch of ground, and to experiment with a land-based enterprise that nourishes community and environment. To ensure this, early on, we saw we needed to schedule in pleasure. There will always be work and a list of jobs, yet we try to ensure we regularly do things that remind us of our purpose: a day hiking or picnicking, gentle, exploratory walks around the neighbourhood, noodling in rockpools, tree-climbing. As the kids have become more capable and independent, from time-to-time there’s a place where the work and play meet: Asher’s construction and planting of a waterhole is a valued regenerative activity, but also provides opportunity for splashing in gumboots, sliding down wet grass on his belly, and dreaming of future frogs.
While we imagined one thing for our children, some of the benefits are not always predictable. Asher shows a confidence in the landscape that we couldn’t have imagined, and an independence in his play that fills us with delight. For a highly social child, it’s heartening to see how he can contentedly spend entire days in his own worlds beneath an old red gum. He can spot and identify birds from a distance, and watches the skies for wedge-tailed eagles and their entourage of harassing magpies. He confidently explains the goings-on of the farm to visitors. He has a calm and frank relationship with the idea of death, and sees how quickly the resources of something recently alive are returned to the ecosystem. He often asks where the food we’re eating has come from, whose farm. When friends come to visit, he is proud of his place, and plays obsessively from dawn to dusk. He looks forward to catching yabbies, or taking a boat on the dam, relishes the abundance of mud. He speaks without skepticism of when the farm will be a forest, and watches as trees his age triple his height. He looks for bird nests, and plucks spider webs. He stalks cuckoo-shrikes on the fence, diving for cover behind bushes that weren’t there a year or two ago. He experiments with the sensation of kangaroo thorn on his fingers, discovers a way to hold the prickles without hurting, and remarks on how small birds will hide deep inside there, one day. He devours soursobs and chases sheep and kangaroos from new plantings. He uses real tools, and understands that useful things can be designed and made, problems can be solved, broken things repaired. At one, Annika already totters with confidence across open paddocks. She listens for and mimics kookaburras, and intently watches the drama of cockatoos announcing a prowling fox. She displays muddy hands gleefully, spots kangaroos and tracks them with her finger, inspects tree guards for new growth, and walks with her brother beneath a big sky.
We are all constantly learning. In retrospect, there is much we’ve tolerated when we didn’t have to, but that’s all part of the process too. On balance, of course the whole debacle is positive. We keep trying, adapting, working to make things better, and most of all working to keep our eyes and hands on the things that matter.
We acknowledge our community of friends and neighbours who have shared tools, offered shelter and accommodation, and appeared at just the right time to support us over the last four years. Thank you!