Down to earth: how escaping to the country isn’t always what it seems
Winter has hung around this year as though even the seasons are waiting for government permission to unlock. Despite spring’s late arrival on the smallholding, Amber has gone into labour early. It’s just me and her in the kidding pen; me muttering soft, nonsensical words of encouragement, her bleating through contractions and resting against my hand. She pushes again but nothing happens. The hooves of the emerging kid have been static for too long and the out-of-hours emergency vet is on the way. I give into a two-minute power cry because I don’t know if this day will end with life or death, and then the vet arrives and I snap out of it. “I’ll give her an epidural first,” he says, getting to work matter-of-factly. A goat epidural – of course.
Five years ago I lived in town, had just two cats and barely knew the difference between hay and straw. Now, somehow, I’m a person with an overdue account at the agricultural merchants and I know how to organise a spinal block for a goat.
The journey from then to now started in the summer when I was 34. My husband, Jared, and I decided to leave town and move with our two children to a patch of Kent’s finest mud. We planned to grow some of our own food, raise animals for eggs and milk, and try to tread more lightly on the planet. Our dream of a simpler, more self-sufficient life took hold on a working holiday to rural Wales. We didn’t miss the hectic juggle, laughed more often and felt connected to each other.
Late-night fireside chats evolved into a vision and plan. We wanted to capture the positive changes of the trip by striking out towards a new life in the countryside and, less acknowledged but just as insistent, was a desire to move away from what felt like danger.
This was 2016: the summer of the Brexit vote and the Trump presidential campaign when, belatedly, climate change had transitioned in my mind from abstract worry to active threat. The world outside felt suddenly unfamiliar, threatening and the world inside my head felt stressful and volatile, too, though I wouldn’t have admitted it, even to myself.
By January 2017 we had found the only property with a little land that was within our budget, and had started installing ourselves, spotting places for compost heaps and thinking that all would now be well.
Five seasons in and I know how naive we were that spring, even though so many of our wishes have gradually been granted. Tending to the animals and vegetable garden does mean that the whole family has to spend time outdoors every day and, thanks to this imperative, we notice the micro changes of the seasons and feel grounded by them.
The children have learned skills in step with us and have gained independence in the process. Our seven-year-old son can expertly harvest and save calendula seeds or sow up a tray of gherkins (his favourite) without help. Our daughter, now 11, can milk a goat with ease and spot when newly hatched chicks are too hot or cold. There are fewer battles about screens but many more arguments about whose turn it is to let out the geese. There is much here to feel enmeshed in and grateful for, but also a realisation that nothing has worked out exactly as planned.
I have found many good things in the good life, but it has uncovered some very bad things, too. I had left town in hopes of escaping difficulties, but I had turned out to be the biggest difficulty of all. However deep you move into the countryside, if the swirling chaos that pushed you towards utopia turns out to live in your own head, you won’t escape it. It took a long time for me to realise this, but very little time at all for the huge volume of extra work to begin to dent the dream, and reveal a more complex reality.
The first inkling that this was going to be harder than we’d thought came just hours after the moving van left. Consumed by the romantic idea of making our first dinner from produce sown by the previous owner, I’d tried my hand at harvesting from the veg plot for the first time. The poignancy of the moment soon dissolved in the sweat dripping off my red, grunting face.
Yet there were many days over the next few months when the idyll seemed real. The sun shone, the children collected kindling and Jared and I worked together to plant new trees or mend fences. But internally I found myself increasingly the opposite of calm and connected, waking with a feeling of panic and adrenaline I didn’t understand.
With work projects stretching me in all directions I should have stepped back, but instead I threw myself at the vision, as if trying hard enough could make it come true. I ran around the field as if chased by a mad dog, sketched elaborate planting plans in coloured pencils and brought home three ducklings who panicked every time they saw us and refused to go under the heat lamp. It was gorgeous in moments but terrifying in others – and everything was wound up far too tightly for me to notice the danger signs.
My chest hurt, I was irritable, talking too fast, unable to sit still and I could not make decisions without deep angst. I no longer felt happiness and didn’t notice the swallows leaving in the autumn or care that the plums were ripe. Everything in life took something else from me and I had almost nothing left.
For a year I put on quite the show for myself and the world. All that was visible was the excited smile of an ambitious woman, but underneath I was disintegrating. There were two seemingly opposite versions of smallholding Rebecca and I didn’t know which was the real one. I didn’t know how to be both.
A friend eventually forced me to face up to the obvious truth that I was unwell. I ended up with a diagnosis of depression and anxiety that, for the next 18 months, I tried to tackle with therapy, changing my work life to take the pressure off, attempting to be less ambitious on the plot and focusing on recovery. My work on the land – digging, growing, pushing barrows – acted as therapy in little slices, but somehow, overall, I kept feeling worse and worse. Our smallholding seemed to be both the problem and the solution, and I couldn’t compute that. Finally, one June day in 2019 I could no longer cope with these oppositional feelings and thoughts.
I had already shrunk my existence; avoiding friends, giving up driving and saying no to almost everything. One day I found myself curled up on the floor, crying and asking to be taken to hospital. It felt like implosion, a crushing that happens from the outside in.
Two years on from this breakdown I am finally feeling a little better and I’ve learned more about letting my smallholding help me rather than just load me down. Of late friends and strangers have been asking questions about our life here: would I recommend it, am I happy? The answer is both yes and no; a more complicated answer than anyone wants. Everyone – including me – wants neat and happy endings to stories of chasing a dream. Society encourages us to believe that we are one thing or the other: happy or sad, good or bad, right or wrong; that we must pick an angle, that we have to hold on or strike out.
With rural property sales booming, striking out for the simple life seems to be a popular reaction to the period we’ve been living through. This time has not been a comfortable place in which to stand still and with the next phase of unlocking just ahead there is a pervasive feeling of “what now?” in the spring air. Friends tell me they feel it on city pavements, in suburban gardens and I feel it here on the plot, too. It’s all blossom and tulips, more birds than ever before – a consequence of decreased human activity, perhaps – exhaustion mixed with restless hope.
I am trying to make the answer to my “what now?” question a mixture of holding on and striking out – learning about myself, learning how to be both. My original dream was of growing carrots, but the real quest ended up as a search to understand the inside of my own head. In February 2020, after a fight for help, I walked out of a psychiatrist’s office with a diagnosis. The depression, anxiety and collapse were secondary to something else: a lifetime of using every scrap of myself to conceal that I was different. In my bag was a letter confirming that I had ADHD and a prescription to calm my inner chaos.
This knowledge, the medication and specialist therapy are helping, along with my smallholding. Sowing peas for us and ox-eye daisies for the pollinators, I’m forced to focus on the present moment. The animals calm my electric nervous system, the repeated physical actions of gardening discharge my hyperactive energy and soothe my thoughts. There are worlds to discover here; tiny patches of the ground damp or windswept, a dove’s nest in a hollow tree and the oldest oak tree, dating back 335 years. My smallholding broke me, and it fixed me, too. It is still breaking me; it is still fixing me – even today.
Outside this afternoon, the billy kid that the vet wrestled free is happily running around. The vet couldn’t save his twin. Amber bleated for her dead kid for days while I Googled how to dispose of livestock on a bank holiday weekend. I’d been expecting either/or again – life or death – and, of course, it was neither, it was both.
There’s a long list of things to learn but I can harvest a leek now and take more from the soil than dinner. I have become familiar with the plants; held their seeds, thinned them and watched as they grew. Knowing a little of what they are doing under the soil’s surface means I know to rotate not pull, and knowledge is part of what’s helping me emerge from a longer, self-enforced lockdown.
Five seasons on from our move and I have new lines, grey hairs and red-rimmed eyes that are more alive every day to how beautiful the pattern of holes is in the dahlia’s petals – even though it was made by slugs on their way to ruin my strawberries. Bettering, worsening, perfecting, destroying: it all depends on the way you squint at it, doesn’t it? Slimy, sluggy little bastards and their consequence of holes: small spaces that open up to be filled with love, with sweat and all the other things that brush against my skin here on this plot.
Earthed by Rebecca Schiller is out now (GBP14.99, Elliott & Thompson). Buy it for GBP13.04 at guardianbookshop.com