As I write, I am crying a little, because today my only waterbottle got shat on by a cow.
If you have never worked with cow poo—which, by the way, means you’ve never worked with cows—let me explain to you why getting shat on by a cow can be aptly summarized as “the end of innocence,” “the end of life as we know it,” or “the end of all things blessed and holy.”
There is actually no such thing as cow poo. In its original form, it is cow diarrhea. Sometimes I’m out weeding and I hear, very faintly, the sound of a vomit bucket getting emptied on tile floor. This is a cow shitting in the paddock on the other side of the gully.
The paddock on the other side of the gully is, oh, a good MILE away.
Meanwhile, the cow continues its usual routine, undisturbed. It is still either grazing, preparing to graze, taking a break from grazing, or surveying the paddock for more areas of better grazing.
Now, as I mentioned, the diarrhea is only an incipient form. After a couple hours in the sun, the lump of gunk hardens into a dirt-mound-looking patty. It has the texture of a crispy golden marshmallow. I know because I once spent sixty seconds dashing through a meadow, poking holes in turd patties with a tree branch whilst laughing maniacally like the smart, professional, employable member of society University of Chicago has trained me to be.
Anyhow, my waterbottle has yet to spend these couple hours in the sun. This is why I weep.
I also weep because, for lunch, I’ve prepared tomato soup with lactose-free cottage cheese, Moroccan couscous with lactose-free cottage cheese, and crackers with tuna . . . and LACTOSE-FREE COTTAGE CHEESE. Kim is my host mother. Yesterday, she bought me a jar of lactose-free cottage cheese. Kim is an angel with one wing made of lactose and the other made of free.
Me, eating cottage cheese, armed with the knowledge that my stomach won’t be cramping to hell and back tomorrow:
By the way, I am in Australia.
I’m here as a WWOOFer (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), which means I’m trading 4-6 hours of farm labor each day for food and accommodation. TLDR: farmstay. I’m spending 2.5 months here, solo-backpacking about 2,000 miles from Melbourne to Brisbane.
My first stop is the Woodman-Gheno farm: a black Angus cattle farm set on 120 acres of sweeping hills and deep-cut gullies. The distant horizon goes fluorescent every sunrise and sunset—pink, orange, purple. In the east, flatter pastures roll undeterred to mountains so far they appear blue and three inches tall.
We’re about an hour and a half north of Melbourne—far enough from light pollution that, at night, the sky’s so clear I can see the Milky Way. The stars are steel- and diamond-cut, even through the window screens.
I know this because I’ve gotten into the habit of lying awake in bed in order to silently scream to myself, “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH MY THESIS, MY THESIS IS NOT WORKING, MY THESIS WILL NEVER WORK, HOW DID I GET INTO UNI, WHY DID I BECOME A CREATIVE WRITING MAJOR, MAYBE I WILL JUST GET UP AND WALK TO THE FOREST SO I CAN LIE DOWN AND WAIT TO BE SLOWLY EATEN AND DIGESTED BY THE MUTANT KANGAROO WE SAW THE OTHER DAY.”
It wasn’t a mutant kangaroo; just a male one. A massive, glittery-eyed nightmare hunched over four stumpy legs, kind of like the way serial killers squat in closets with axes propped on shoulders. I bet if this kangaroo had an axe it would be in my closet already. Anyway, we made a noise with our engine, startling it, and our friendly neighborhood Stephen-King-Jack-London lovechild took off. It bounced away like a sumo wrestler on a pogo stick.
We also saw, in addition to at least three dozen regular kangaroos, a mother with her joey in her pocket. I have one thing to say about this:
I apologize in advance to my future children and husband, because I am telling you now that you will never be as cute, beloved, or beautiful to me as Joey in Mama Joey’s pocket.
So, yes, plenty of kangaroos on and around the property.
Here are some other things I’ve been up to.
It rains less here, so trees grow slower. As a result, the bark is denser—and harder to split. Also, the splitter itself is 5-7 pounds.
A splitter is essentially a wedge axe, which is smaller and fatter than an axe-axe. Sharper blades are hard to remove post-whack. You’ll be wrestling the axe-axe post-whack until your back cracks in the act.
I’m sorry I did that.
I just read it again.
I’m really, really sorry.
As with almost every other discipline in life, the key to splitting firewood is technique, not brute strength. As evidenced by the accompanying photograph, me splitting wood is approximately equivalent to a bunch of twigs threatening a bigger bunch of twigs. Yet: technique. I learned how to incorporate my entire body’s movement into my swing, and now I can (more or less) get (small) logs to (more or less) split.
MEASURING ELECTRIC CURRENTS
In high school, I took a design/tech class that involved circuit boards and computers and eventually robots that were supposed to be “intelligent” but ended up getting sabotaged for their organs between classes. (I.e., someone kept losing parts to their own robot and stealing them back from other people’s.) Host Gabe is a math/electronics teacher. He said, “This is a device you use to test the current along the electric fence, and this is what you press to get the voltage, and if there’s a fault in this direction, turn off the connection in that direction, and then check this third direction, and then turn the other knob, and then check the current again, but do it over here, and then use your logical reasoning to conclude exactly where the problem is so you can go fix it with your nonconducting pliers! Understand?”
“I, uh,” I said lamely, “took a design/tech class in high school.”
Then he gave me the device, and I bumbled around the property for the next six hours, hiking up and down gullies, measuring currents, fixing the fence where necessary, and once stepping on an Eastern brown snake, which leapt high into the air, causing us both to shriek and flee in opposite directions.
One day, I spent five hours yanking nodules off sick trees.
Nodules are defense mechanisms: Dr-Seuss-looking tumors trees produce when they detect bugs in their leaves or branches. Said bugs are tiny, milky-white, gnat-looking Satan incarnates that coat the tree like glue. The nodules form around the bugs, trapping them. But the nodules are a huge energy suck, and as a result, the tree stops growing. Often, it withers. Eventually, it dies.
It is really satisfying to yank nodules and pelt them onto the driveway and, if you’re the going-above-and-beyond type, stomp on them and take them home to violently mash apart with a pickaxe whilst thinking about, I don’t know, politics or ex-boyfriends or, I don’t know, the thesis you’re supposed to be writing but aren’t because the CREATIVE GODS, HELLO, ARE YOU THERE, forsook you in a pile of feebly squirming tree nodules.
Speaking of pickaxes…
Australians call them “mattocks.” Most days I leave the house with one. I use them primarily to dig/whack/hack out hardy weeds like rose and thistle bushes. Often I also dig/whack/hack my shins/knees/general lower leg region. Surprisingly: no bruises!
Then I walked into a forklift.
Despite their whalish proportions, cows are extremely skittish and prone to herding. You stand behind them and wave your arms in slo-mo and, as a flock, they moo angstily and begin to mosey forward. Slo-mo is important. If you upset a cow, his/her whalish proportions can kill you. Probably I would die if a cow even sat on me. Gently.
The Woodman-Gheno cows are something special. Gabe and Kim visit and feed them frequently, offering aged bread with their bare hands. (If you wear gloves, the cows will surely eat them, and also maybe you.) The cows—Stella, Ruby, Lynn, Hanna, Hae-Jin, Rose, Mai, and more—gather round cautiously and watch. An intense stare-down ensues: the cow bucks its head, indicating for Gabe to toss the bread on the ground. Gabe shouts, “Come here, little girl!” The cow looks offended and gestures again. “No,” continues Gabe, “come HERE!” And so, reluctantly, patronizingly, the cow will saunter up, yank the bread away, and demolish it with one gargantuan CRUNCH.
The general attitude of all existing cattle is Fed Up With Your Shit.
Sometimes, Gabe and I would visit the cows in further paddocks on his motorbike. They’d come scampering up beside us, tossing their heads and galloping full-speed. I had the bizarre yet accurate feeling that I was watching a stampede of puppies wearing cow suits.
FIXING SOLAR PANELS
All the water in the Woodman-Gheno household is rain, and all the hot water is solar-heated. There’s a wide black panel on the roof that warms the water from the tanks. One weekend, we climbed a ladder to fix the insulation on the tubing that runs the water to the house. First we straightened the TV and Internet antennas on the southern end. Then Gabe disappeared. Several minutes later, I heard his voice, tiny in the howling wind—HOWLING—DID YOU GET THAT? HOWLING! WIND!—from the northern end.
He said, “Come over here!”
I thought, “I am going to die!”
These winds were Chicagoan in proportion. All I could hear was rushing as I got low in order to climb up, then back down, the deeply slanted metal roof. The rushing of wind. The rushing of my own blood, which translated loosely into, We are going to die! I had to step exactly on the nails that held the metal sheets together; otherwise, I’d either plummet into the living room or flip over the edge. My rushing blood went, Go back to America, bitch!
I made it to the north end by moving on hands and feet. I should’ve made some tapes for the next Paranormal Activity audition.
We flattened ourselves on the roof, digging our heels into the nails so keep from getting blown off into the abyss. Using zip ties and pliers, we painstakingly sealed the cracks in the insulation around the tubes, often slipping downward as we went. We’d have to squirm up, find a new nail to step on, and start fresh.
Well, you know the end to this story. I am not dead. And I did not go back to America. (Yet.)
Pictured above are me and a Lanber-97 shotgun.
The kick was big. I am small. If you watch the video on mute, it appears that I am suddenly compelled by invisible forces to execute a warped and demonic sideways pirouette.
My parents are Buddhist and many of their beliefs leach into me; for instance, the aversion to taking any life, no matter how small.
You cannot be a Buddhist and a farmer.
On Day One, Gabe took me and Hayato, another WWOOFer, out to see a young, dying eucalyptus tree. We shaded our eyes and looked up to see a grotesque, squirming hunk of rubbery black caterpillars, which I imagine looked like if someone did LSD and stared at a corncob for fifteen seconds without blinking. It was a trypophobe’s worst nightmare.
We uprooted a metal rod from beside the tree and engaged in dutiful teamwork to smack down and destroy every single one. I poked them off; Gabe and Hayato squished them with their boot heels. The caterpillars were so squishy, in fact, that the heels would bounce off, so they’d have to mash them several times—occasionally with a pickaxe—to truly do the deed. Don’t forget to think about politics and ex-boyfriends.
You cannot be a Buddhist and a farmer. It’s either the caterpillars or the eucalypts. You choose.
Also, you cannot be a Buddhist and a farmer: either kill the rabbits, or risk your cows stepping in burrows, breaking their legs, and having to get mercy-killed with the same shotgun you were supposed to kill the rabbits with.
I vehemently denied a part in the rabbit shootings. I was vehemently forced into assisting the caterpillar massacres.
I will not speak of this when I go home.
I did kill a lot of earwigs of my own volition, but I make an exception for them, because they eat good plants and good humans, and also they are the harbingers of the apocalypse. I kill mosquitoes too. I killed about 5,000 mosquitoes when I was in Senegal. But that is all.
GETTING WRECKED BY LAWNMOWERS
“Gas-powered rotary lawnmower.”
It takes three words for my face to blanch as I flash back to the day(s) I lost my dignity to the pull-string engine starter of a gas-powered rotary lawnmower. I also nearly lost my shoulder. My entire right shoulder.
I… don’t want to talk about it anymore.
There was a sheep cage that I later took to sitting in when I got bored. It felt nice and safe inside. And I could still admire the landscape. I got to thinking, maybe I’ll just live in a cage with some plastic wrap when I’m older; it’ll be really convenient and probably won’t have a mortgage.
The wire edges of the cage were peeling away, so we used a blowtorch to melt the metal back into place. We wore helmets that looked like dystopia. The visor knocked out all daylight, but once Gabe started welding, I had to squint, the sparks were so bright. They were blue and orange and magical. My nose filled with argon, the gas that protects the flame. Eventually, my brain did too.
After the metal cooled, we scrubbed out the burn marks with a steel-bristle brush, then sprayed with zinc to keep from rusting. This time the primary color was silver. It was the kind of silver that sparkles without sparkling, and immediately I wondered what would happen if I sprayed some in the air and danced in it, and then ate it.
SETTING FIRES (ON PURPOSE)
When it got cold, we used the fireplace. Sometimes I’d sit right up against it and roast until my flesh went pink and smelled like turkey.
Starting the fireplace is an intricate dance with the devils of fate, chance, evil, and desperation:
- Layer the ashes with used tissues and newspaper balls.
- Add some cardboard. It burns slower.
- Include an armload of small sticks and twigs.
- Turn on the fan and gas, light the paper, and shut the fireplace door so your concoction can, God willing, catch.
- If your concoction catches, you must go outside and fetch larger logs to keep feeding the fire during the day. Otherwise, it will wither away and die. Often it withers and dies as you are racing to fetch a larger log after forgetting to do so only moments ago. Your heart will wither and die with it.
- If your concoction does not catch, accept that you are a failure. Climb into the fireplace in order to manifest your shame. Yell for assistance. Do not sneeze. If you sneeze once, you will sneeze forever. Your eyeballs will bleed ash.
Also, be careful when you open the door. It you open too quickly, all the smoke will swirl out, engulf you, and threaten to engage the alarm system, which would really suck because bushfires are actually terrifying, prominent, lethal natural disasters in Victoria. Every sane household has a fire plan: Escape, or Fight & Defend. Most I’ve encountered are Fight & Defend.
One afternoon, Gabe sat down with me, Hayato, and Miki (another WWOOFer), and together we watched this year’s Stihl Timbersports Series final-round competition. It was essentially a relay that began with chainsawing and moved on to a variety of axing and splitting. The contestants made it all look easy. I did not let myself get fooled; I had chopped relentlessly at a small log the day before and made approximately nine dents before falling to the ground in a fit of exhaustion. Since I wasn’t fooled, I figured that chainsaws must be more difficult to use than it looks.
It was true. Chainsawing is an art: of angles, of pressure, of speed and of strategy. I’d also forgotten that it wasn’t just about pressing down—I had to lift up, too. And chainsaws are damn heavy.
Every time I set to a new log I would yell in my head, “TEXAS CHAINSAW MAAAAASSACRE!”
I don’t know either.
Gabe and Kim were kind enough to take me out to shows in Lancefield and Whittlesea, under the guise that I was twelve and thus qualified exactly for discounted children’s tickets. All I had to do was hunch in the backseat, appear grumpy, and poke aggressively at my phone. I am only somewhat ashamed. You gotta do what you gotta do.
The shows included a variety of food (jelly donuts, international food trucks, hot dogs and burgers, coffee, gelato, etc) and events (sheep herding, tractor racing, log splitting, cheese making, cow butchering, etc). It was a grand old time. I got to hold a chicken. I almost petted a koala but was overtaken by a swarm of hysterical children.
I went to Melbourne, attached myself to a harness, and walked down the side of a seven-story building, face-first.
I have been skydiving. Skydiving was not scary. Rap jumping, however, I could feel every ridge of my intestines. This was on account of the fact that they were all trying to climb out of their respective home intestines and into my ears to shriek, “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU!”
The walk itself is only mildly terrifying. The hand-sweating, mind-numbing, nerve-shaking moment is when you stand on the ledge and peer down at the cars in the lot below. They look like toy cars. You are so high up, they look like toy cars. And then you’re expected to lean over the edge of the building at a 45-degree angle… and walk.
Psychologically, there’s nothing you can do to stay calm. Your body’s instincts are all conspiring against you, against each other, and against the wall especially.
ALSO, LOTS AND LOTS AND LOTS AND LOTS AND LOTS AND LOTS OF WEEDING
Advice for posterity: if someone asks you to weed a thistle or rose bush, the only sane, acceptable response is to run away, run away fast, and run away forever.
For the Last Supper with Gabe and Kim, Kim surprised me with a warm, healthy, delicious, ceremonial KFC takeout meal, on account of the fact that I often rave for minutes on end about KFC for no conceivable reason, kind of like how normal people sometimes sneeze many times in a row or have the hiccups. Despite the fact that it gave me raging stomach pains for the next twelve hours, this KFC meal touched me deeply.
As I conclude this blog post, I’m on an eight-hour Greyhound from Melbourne to Canberra. Twenty minutes outside the capital city is my next stop: Amberly, a free-range egg farm with a thousand chickens, an unspecified large number of ducklings, seven excitable dogs, and a dairy cow named Tilly. Will I milk her? Will I step on another poisonous snake? Will I find out I’m allergic to ducks, slowly asphyxiate, and die in my sleep?
Takin’ it back off-the-grid. ‘Til next time, folks.
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