The Benefits of Boredom

Since Spring of this year, I have spent most of my Wednesdays sweating and getting dirty on the farm. Being on the farm one day a week keeps my weeks grounded as I plough through GIS maps, charts of per-acre milk production, and try to contemplate the concept of cash-flow analysis. Put plainly, working here among the vegetables keeps me aware of the much harder work that is still ahead of me, as well as its benefits.

Last Wednesday, Brandon, Natalie, John, Jordan, Jen, and I spent the morning in healthy competition picking blueberries. Paige divided us into two teams. The goal was for each team to pick at least 40 pounds of berries. Awesomely, the two teams gathered a total of 96 pounds of fruit! Now, one blueberry typically weighs under an eighth of an ounce, so for each pound, a body has to pass its hands across some 200 individual berries. So for a total of 96 pounds, we collected a whopping 19,200 blueberries; that's around 3,200 berries per picker. The point of these calculations is not so much to illustrate the volume of fruit collected, but moreover, to draw attention the the intensely simple and repetitive nature of the work. The first farm I ever did any kind of work on was on a high school field trip to Nicholas Donk's farm in Athens. I remember feeling so excited that I was going to get to work on a real organic farm for a day! This was at the beginning of the renewed interest in organic farming. The first Whole Foods had just come to Atlanta and Carlo Petrini's name was for the first time on the lips of more than a small handful of Americans. Beautiful changes in agriculture were afoot in the world! I recall, however, my disappointment when all we did was pull up the remnant stalks of Jerusalem Artichokes and dig around for any leftover tubers. I had expected so much more. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it was certainly more than dead stalks and a handful of dirty roots from a plant I had never even heard of, much less eaten. It was boring. I wanted something sexier, I had this feeling that farming was somehow much, much more interesting than this. The truth, though, is that is isn't. Sure, there are great wonders in the biology of the formation of a tomato, huge challenges to growing the perfect carrot, and a vast, dynamic, and wonderful world that unfolds on a farm. But the day-to-day is simple, quiet, and just plain boring. You're planing seeds, one row after the other, the same motion, the same intention; you're weeding, grabbing, tugging, removing roots from the ground; you're harvesting blueberries, looking for the ripest, pulling apart branches, and plucking every, single, berry, 3,200 times.

But, there are benefits to this boredom. When we were picking last week, occasionally (or sometimes more than that) we would sample the product as we went. As I repetitively picked, a berry would call out to me, asking to be eaten then and there. Each of these sampled berries possessed its own unique qualities of flavour and texture. Some were just plain soft and sweet, others firm and tart, still others were shriveled and had a slightly fermented taste, but every now and again I'd hit the perfect one: soft, with the skin taut from the juice within, deep blue, and with the perfect taste of blueberry. This was no ordinary blueberry, this was the idea of blueberry. It is the flavour those folks at Jelly Belly aim to capture in their blue bean. It's sweet, but also more; like when you bite into a cardamon pod and you get this overwhelming, heady experience of flavours that are all floral and sweet: nectar and burnt sugar, jasmine, with the slightest hint of fresh, wet soil; at once earthy, but somehow heavenly. Ah! I wax poetic. It is this moment, the opportunity to experience such a blueberry, when farming transcends the boredom. There is space to meditate in the boredom; after an hour, I could close my eyes and the image etched in my mind was the berry. While working, there was nothing I was responsible for but blueberries, and surrendering to that one thing silenced my mind, allowing me to pay attention to what is wonderful and romantic and sexy about picking blueberries and giving me space to know the perfect one when it crossed my path and to know why we bother to pick at all. The repetition and boredom opened space to play and imagine for us. One of my co-pickers told me that he could see himself in the old days, as a migrant worker picking for pay, and for a time, could nestle into what such a life was. I imagined myself as a bird, flitting about the bushes, hunting greedily for the best, fattest fruits efficiently, but also peacefully, as if this is the only thing there is in the world to do; a practice that is becoming as elusive as that perfect, ripe berry.

I was reading an article in the New York Times last week that helped toconfirm my theory that this kind of work is not only good for the mind but may also be good for the body beyondthe benefits of exercise. Theauthor, a cancer survivor,describes the odd feeling he had when he would feel better and return to normal life after treatments. He calls itthe "post-treatment letdown." He describes chemotherapy as"the professional yet intimate laying on of hands each day" and writes that during hislengthyresting periods between treatments he"reveled in the most minute of details: the black pads of my dog’s feet as smooth as a baseball glove, the wet-cellar smell of a vintage science fiction paperback, fireflies winking and waning at dusk… I wasmuch more interested in discerning the small miracles embedded in each moment than I was in catching the 9:03 Midtown Direct to Penn Station. And there was a part of me that was disappointed when the time came to once again catch that city-bound train." As I read this article, Irealizedthat I wasexperiencingthe same kinds of momentspicking blueberries, planting melons, or weedingonlyI wasn't sick, I was working. The author lamentslosing the stillness his treatmentallowedhim. "Don’t get me wrong," he continues, "I was glad I felt well enough to return to work, glad that I felt strong enough to navigate the hurly-burly of New York City. But in returning to work, I was also trading in a certain depth of perception. Cancer and surgery had slowed me down, made me look and listen, smell and touch with the eagerness of an explorer entering uncharted territory. Midtown Manhattan doesn’t quite encourage that kind of dawdling." Most of us have lives that don't allow much dawdling; theonly time we are allowed to stop being busy andreflect for a moment is when we are sick. The sick are allowed to slow down becausehealing requires it. We feel betterwhen we rest, not onlybecauseit allows our bodies to heal, butit allows our minds to shift away from immediate and pressing needs andgive pauseto gainthe "certain depth of perception" that perhaps also works to heal.

As an aspiring farmer who knows how overwhelmingly busy this work can make a person, I am learning through my work at Serenbe Farms how to use theboredominherent in farming to my benefit. Because of my Wednesdays on the Farm,when I think of my own farm and imagine themonotonyof milking 300 ewes, the tedium of watching for flocculation and coagulation of milk, the repetition of carefully turing 400 wheels of cheese by hand, every day, I am neither discouraged nor intimidated. I know that there are benefits in thatboredomthat few other vocations can provide.