Welcome back, dear readers, to another month of taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into everyday life.
Last month’s article, “Metta Goes Free Range,” described keeping my peace amid unexpected drama while volunteering at a small organic farm that was so picturesque that it doubled as a film location. My next placement at a large free-range farm open to the public is proving just as dramatic, but for very different reasons.
Supersizing from being the only volunteer on a family smallholding to joining an army of helpers at a “free-range experience” initially came as a relief. However, supersizing the number and variety of livestock and constantly being on show was not unlike swapping the cinema for live theater.
My first day shadowing the livestock team started with making liters of formula to bottle-feed lambs. I learned that ewes only have enough teats and milk to raise two lambs at a time, so any surplus are reallocated at birth if it’s possible to convince another ewe that it’s her lamb. This is done by dabbing a scent like vanilla essence on the newborn’s nose and behind, and then some on the ewe’s nose. If that doesn’t work, the lamb is bottle-fed alongside any orphans to give them a fighting chance. It has been hard to reconcile reports of formula shortages while making some four liters every couple of hours for weeks.
We then moved out to the pasture, where our supervisor explained the basics of rotational grazing. The fields had been sown with a herbal mixture—grasses and herbs to help reduce the need for medical intervention—and split into six sections with electric wire fencing. Every three to four days, we would be herding them onto the next section for fresh grass to give the plants a chance to regrow. Rotating between the type of grazers—sheep, cattle, goats, and horses—also means different plants are eaten and fertilized with each new set of visitors. It has been hard to reconcile reports of fertilizer shortages with all my clothes and footwear covered in every shade of brown imaginable.
Our first attempt to coax a flock of 80 or so sheep onto pastures new was pure comedy. It felt beyond surreal to be reading about “sheeple”—anyone not questioning the mainstream media right now—and then standing in a field waving my arms while attempting to make feed-in-bucket noises as we humans were either ignored or baa’ed at. It proved even more difficult to convince cattle that the grass was greener elsewhere, especially new mothers with their calves.
Next came chickens.
This farm raises both “broilers”—for meat—and “layers”—for eggs—and has six sheds to house the different generations by function. For example, the chick shed houses hundreds of balls of yellow fluff with heat lamps and crumb feed, while the older broilers sheds have protein-rich feed to encourage building bulk. The sheds for the older layers have mineral-rich feed to encourage strong shells. Arriving from a small-holding with 17 layers and one cockerel, the jump from double to quadruple-digits felt like the ultimate supersizing.
Due to a recent avian flu scare here in the UK, the older chickens had had to go into lockdown, which meant that their sheds had not been mucked out in two months—straw covering the floors is normally replaced weekly. It has been hard to reconcile the reported dangers of avian flu with removing sodden straw as heavy as wet cement and smelling like nothing on this earth . . . my nose is still recovering!
Although farm animals are referred to as livestock, a higher headcount also means a higher death toll. I admit that being shown how to log bodies for the “dead freezer” on my first day was a culture shock, but soon became a normal daily task. That is until one of the youngest lambs we were bottle-feeding broke her leg when a hurdle—metal fencing for penning the animals—fell on her. It was a genuine accident, but one that couldn’t be fixed. All the humans who had helped birth and feed her came to say their tearful goodbyes before putting her down—by gunshot to the brain. Her twin brother pined for days until sadly dying from a bacterial infection himself a few days later.
It struck me that, despite the “free range” ethos here, paradoxically the only way that any of the team members survived long-term was through mental compartmentalization. The level of grief allowed was equal to the amount of time and attention invested.
Another increase I noticed on this particular farm was the amount of disharmony among us humans. After the strange tensions at my last placement, I (wrongly) assumed that a bigger crowd and constantly being in front of the public would lessen rather than increase tensions.
An advantage of being a newcomer is that there’s no need to take a tense atmosphere personally. As I sat with all the spoken and unspoken resentments I was observing around me about living and working conditions, pay disputes, miscommunications between nationalities and generations, and not everyone pulling their weight at work or keeping communal areas tidy, it occurred to me to look for what we all had in common and what I could bring to the table.
The answer was simple and the reason why, ultimately, we were all here: food.
Alongside selling organic meat and eggs, this farm also runs an onsite farm shop, café, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box scheme, which delivers organic produce weekly to nearby subscribers. Growing at that scale often leads to gluts when more than enough of a particular crop is suddenly ready to harvest. The surplus, still good enough to eat, is donated to the communal kitchen, and the rest is fed to the pigs or composted. Yet again, it was beyond surreal to be listening to reports of food shortages in the world when suddenly faced with half a fridge full of mangetout or a box of brown bananas or whole trays of eggs.
And so metta rolled up my sleeves and got me busy making soups and baking in an experiment to put any surplus produce to good use and to hopefully create a greater sense of community support.
It took a few days to coax everyone out of their compartmentalized eating habits, such as names on everything, squirreling food away in bedrooms, accusing one another of theft, and the volunteer organizers puzzling over my requests for catering-sized ingredients for the whole group, like flour and nuts, and so on.
I mucked out the communal kitchen as best I could, and spread word that any soup left simmering in the hotpot or baked goods left on the table were there for everyone to enjoy. Not unlike fooling sheep for their own good with arm-waving and food-in-bucket noises and vanilla essence, people slowly began treating the communal kitchen as just that, rather than as a dumping ground or somewhere to freeload or scurry in and out of as fast as possible.
Soon afterward, a fellow night-owl volunteer started baking bread, telling everyone that the more they enjoyed it the sooner he could bake more. A couple living onsite in their motorhome then suggested potluck Wednesday night onsite suppers open to everyone. Word got out to the café and their unsold fruit found its way back to the budding bakers. Conversations subtly shifted from gossip and complaining to swapping recipes and favorite comfort foods and dietary needs.
Two local cats even found their way there to hang out and protect us from rodents. Although, hilariously, they still can’t stand each other so they only visit the kitchen one at a time. One was left behind by previous staff and the other belongs to a neighbor who recently adopted a dog. When I told someone of my plan to encourage a truce by sowing catnip for both cats to share, the next day he’d already organized donations of cat food from the staff and was considering sowing a kitchen herb garden.
Is it now “happily families” after three weeks? Not in the least. Is it more fun, constructive, and delicious? Definitely.
And so, dear readers, while I don’t pretend to have solutions for the crises facing the world, please continue to trust that every creative risk taken to supersize metta—however small, medium, large, or extra-large—will nourish and extend all of our inner and outer free ranges.
Or, to metta-morphose the lyrics to “Sunshine Cake” from the 1950 film Riding High:
Start with a tablespoon of trouble
Then add a smile and let it bubble up
We ought to bake a metta cake
It isn’t really so hard to make
Fresh tears, a pound or two of pleasure
Kind words you needn’t use a measure cup
It’s not from a recipe book
You don’t have to be a good cook
Or run to the oven and look
It’s got vitamins A, vitamins B
If you’re fat, it’s for that
If you’re thin, stuff it in
What’s wrong if you get a double grin
We ought to bake a metta cake
Related features from BDG
The Soul of Soil: A Portrait of Frith Farm
Cultivating Wild: The Miracle of Dharma’s Garden!
Buddhism, Circa 2030
Right Mindfulness and Vegetable Gardens
Grow Your Garden: A Simple Practice in Reflection, Part One
For the Earth: Buddhist Environmental Thought and Activism
Planting the Seeds of Enlightenment