05 July 2009

dispatches from the farm

Ross-shire, Scotland – In my first 72 hours as a WWOOFer I have harvested potatoes, built trellises for peas, picked strawberries, collected and packed eggs, fed hogs, pulled weeds, and witnessed the beheading of two hens. I am here for a little over a week on a family farm in a moderately isolated patch of the Scottish highlands with Morven, my super-energetic hostess, her builder partner Uwe, their two adorable children, a fellow WWOOFer from Germany named Katrin, and a massive complement of four-legged and winged friends. Somewhere in my head a treatise tying my observations here with the history of the Scottish highlands is simmering—would you expect anything different from me?—but for now, here are a few tidbits from my first days of WWOOFing.

Childhood flashbacks. My mom has a stash of anecdotes from my childhood that she brings out whenever she needs to embarrass me in front of somebody (new girlfriends, etc.), and one of her favorites is the Children’s Barn at Endicott Park. I can’t say this of all of her stories, but I actually remember and can attest to the truth of this one. Anytime my parents would take me there as a wee lad, the smell of the animals would overwhelm me and I would commence gagging. Memories of the Children’s Barn came roaring back on my first morning as Katrin and I stepped into one of the henhouses, feed bags in hand, and the fetid smell of birds and their shit filled my nostrils. As an adult, fortunately, I have the self-control needed to preserve my dignity in the presence of animal smells. Nonetheless, I was grateful when the feed was distributed and we could move on to the less stinky task of collecting, inspecting, brushing off, packing, and labeling the hundreds of eggs that those odiferous birds put out each day.

Paydirt. I know that I’m not working with a statistically significant sample here, having never WWOOFed anywhere else, but I really feel like I have hit paydirt with this farm. We WWOOFers get to share dinner and occasionally bedtime stories with the family, and the kids (ages 6 and 4) are awesome, even when they’re climbing on my back while I’m trying to weed. Morven has only been running this farm for a year and change, but she’s very good at integrating WWOOFers into the rhythms of the farm, finding useful and varied tasks for us to do. Thanks to Katrin, I don’t have to sort hundreds of eggs or face the hungry hogs alone. The farm offers great views of mountains, the nearby loch (lake) and distant firth (fjord). Daylight lingers well past 11 pm, as expected in a place on roughly the same latitude as Juneau. Slowly but surely, I can feel contentment settling in.

How I spent my Fourth. On Saturday night the WWOOFers got to tag along to the local ceilidh (KAY-lee), a traditional Scottish dance held in a community hall a few miles from the farm. Tickets went for £8 apiece, but Morven bartered for our entry with the strawberries we had picked earlier in the day. I’m actually quite experienced at this kind of dance, thanks to contradancing at Williams, but it was challenging without a caller to yell out the next steps. It was the Fourth of July, but the only way I could find to honor my homeland was consuming Budweiser in its trademark red, white, and blue cans, which Uwe generously kept coming throughout the evening.

Mooching x 4. To get up here I flew from London to Inverness, the “Capital of the Highlands,” and before catching my train out of town I stopped for lunch at a Spanish restaurant, drawn in by its Cruzcampo sign. (You may recall my preoccupation with Cruzcampo beer during that weekend in Seville.) There I happened to meet Richard and Frances, a recently retired Scottish couple who took a keen interest in what I’m doing here and who live in a tiny hamlet about twenty minutes north of the farm. They gave me their phone number and offered to show me around if I had any free time—which it turns out I did, earlier today. They treated me to a driving tour of the area and brought me along to a barbecue at Frances’ sister’s house. Thank goodness Sarah Barracuda is back in the news, because it allowed my new friends to bring in the “guess what—Shawn has lobbied Sarah Palin!” factoid, and I was able to regale the crowd with Alaska-talk. (As an aside, if she does stay on the national scene for a while, the silver lining for me is that I’ll be able to get that much more mileage from my “Don’t look at the governor’s legs!” story.) In a surreal turn, my hosts’ son-in-law was born in the Philippines, and I heard a brief snatch of Tagalog at the dinner table between him and his Italian mother. At some point it occurred to me that I was engaging in fourth-degree mooching. I got to the UK in the first place by mooching off Bill Gates’ money; I’m in Scotland mooching off Morven et al (though this is the least moochy step given that I’m working for them); my afternoon out was a mooch off Richard and Frances; and the barbecue was a fourth degree of mooching off their extended family. It’s pretty much as far off the tourist grid and into “real life” as you can get, and the experience made me grateful that I answered the siren call of Cruzcampo back in Inverness.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

mooching -- you'll make a fine grad student yet!