Re-humanizing ourselves through land work

My official title is Herdess for Holistic Ag. When people ask what I do, I usually say something like “I work with a herd of holistically managed cattle on a nature preserve, and various other agroecological pursuits on the side.” It’s a lot to take in—holistically managed? Cattle on a preserve? Agro-what? You?

One day I'll find a better way to convey what I'm doing to the uninitiated. But for now, leaving out any part of that feels like an injustice. We (Holistic Ag) are not exactly ranchers, and we’re not a herd-for-hire. We are motivated by ecological restoration and right livelihood, intentionally situated at the edge of food production and ecology--the ecotone, the edge where two unique environs meet.

Edges are funnily hard to define. Schematics and instruction manuals use edges to delineate between one item or object and another; we make lines to show where one discrete thing ends and another begins—but how can we show it when the edge is a world unto itself? This takes a more granular view, a zoomed-in perspective. That’s a lot to impart to a culture that views complexity with suspicion: complex things are resistant to commodification. In a world motivated by scarcity, this is frustrating.

One day, I want to be able to say my job is “herdess” and see the glint of understanding in the eye of those with whom I’m speaking (beyond my agrarian cohort). Herding, shepherding, is one of the world’s oldest professions, after all—when did we forget what it meant to spend one’s days working with animals? Unlike many more modern agricultural undertakings that involve the application of significant force to yield consumable goods at the cost of ecosystems, I help the cows lilt across the landscape, leaving boosted biomass and biodiversity in their wake. The beef is the byproduct.

I have been doing "farm stuff" since I was 16, before I knew sustainable agriculture was a thing, and was steeped in a rural context prior to that. The more of American culture that I encounter, the more disappointed I am to find that many people stigmatize, fetishize, or ignore land-based work. There are many forms of violence, and I posit that cultural violence—that which cleaves us from our historical selves and induces a tragic amnesia—may be the most insidious of all. It means landscapes go untended, people go unfed... and souls are sold to companies at market rate.

A common sight in today’s workforce is that of millions of smart minds situated atop ossifying spines slowly bending to the shape of office chairs. We sacrifice sunrises at the altar of a dehumanizing morning commute. We depend on stimulants (and depressants) to shake our weekend minds out of their workweek-induced stupors. And, “work/life balance” is characterized by the steel and foam of office gyms we hope will stave off the damages of using our minds at the expense of our bodies. We have been told that jobs with three weeks vacation are attractive, and assured that all of our other interests can surely be attended to on nights and weekends.

We pride ourselves on being employed full-time by our jobs. This makes us seem and feel very involved, very committed, to being a generative person; whereas “part time” conjures notions of retail jobs peddling goods at the mall. Yet so many of us report hating the very jobs we take pride in having, yet see no viable alternatives. “Who else would hire me?”

It makes you wonder, who designed this system, anyway? Are these norms serving us?

Office jobs are considered a higher leverage point than land work. And it’s hard to argue that someone pulling invisible strings from their position within their company, managing money or personnel (often to very good ends) is not exerting more force in the world than an alternative self trimming apple trees all day. But this is only true when the two activities are allowed to become mutually exclusive.

Every year I am hired by a handful of landowners to prune fruit trees on their property. For me, pruning is one of the most psychologically and physically enlivening activities I can do, so getting paid to do it is a real win. Every season I wonder when the landowners will catch on that they are paying me to do what is not a chore but an act of revival that would probably benefit their office-addled minds more than it would serve my wallet. Just as we partake in sleep even though it means hours away from work, engaging features of our landscape attends to physical and psychological needs that are inescapable because they are encoded in our DNA.

Building on this, when did working with land mean subjugating it instead of stimulating it? When did we allow our narrative about land-based work to be co-opted by suburban landscapers or exhausted Depression-era farmers?

We are so forgetful. There is a brilliant constellation of land-based work available to anyone who wants to take it on that sculpts the body, enlivens the mind, revives the ecology, and often pays for itself. Why do we look upon those activities as lowly, as unimpactful? We've gone crazy, friends.

I wonder if part of our viewing land work in an unfavorable light has to do with the difficulty of controlling or quantifying the results of dabbling in natural systems. You can observe and measure what a land manager has done, but it’s difficult to intelligently tell them what to do.

Here, I’m not alluding to some kind of inborn stubbornness inherent to farmers or land managers so much as noting that good decisions are highly context-dependent. Only those working on the very same land in a very similar capacity will have witnessed enough variables to be able to instruct another to sound ends. And, even then, a shift of temperature or precipitation changes the equation entirely. Land work is dealing in complexity and, as I said, complexity can be deeply inconvenient.

So, land managers are tough to control or predict. They are an x factor. In our attempts to wrap our heads around an increasingly oversized and unwieldy world, we tend to pay selective attention to that which can be controlled and measured. Land managers and the results of their decisions are thus often discarded as outliers.

To speak carefully:  I am not critical of the value of quantifiable data. On the contrary, I see my role as herdess as being a liaison between the researchers and the researched. That which is obvious to the eye of the human manager should be translated into terms the broader world can understand, because we only preserve and provide for that which we take into account.

But those of us dealing in, for example, grassland management and restoration with livestock are situated at a critical interstice—a temporal ecotone, if you will—between the relatively unstudied decisions made by ranchers on their own sites and prescriptive management plans that seek to govern land henceforth. How do we make our work available to the process of science to inform better land management without eradicating the essential role of the land manager?

We must re-value the minds of the sensitive, autonomous, and well-informed land manager. We must view their deep affection for their home ecologies as a vital asset. And more of us must consider the vocation for our own lives--even, and perhaps especially, if only for part of our lives.

I am a young person, so my specific interest is in seeing that my gig is as viable as possible not only for myself but for the myriad other youngsters like me. Because there have to be more ways to do agriculture than the owner-operator model. Being a land-based person must be sound across triple-bottom-line dimensions within one’s personal- and community-level economy. This is of particular relevance in the Bay Area, where land is expensive and increasingly put to absurd uses by hapless new landowners with more money than agroecological awareness. 

How can we show the rest of the world that land work complements high-leverage office work—that hours spent, say, pruning fruit trees fosters growth and refinement in one’s own thoughts as much as in the tree itself? How can we demonstrate that the hours we choose to invest in “mind work” would be more productive and wizened when buffered by the high-quality thinking that working with nature is proven to facilitate?

I’ll not try to convince anyone beholden to the nine-to-five to exchange part of their workweeks and paychecks for the unknown quantities of land work. I’ll certainly not pretend doing so would be an easy or obvious transition, especially for those with families. (It’s easy to herald existential benefits of land work when I’m not providing for the livelihoods of other humans—expansive thinking does not directly generate diapers or pay hospital bills).

Rather, the burden of proof is on people like me—people striving to live diversely, situated across several vocations and with relevance in more than one domain. My aim is to be a land-based person with as few dealings in value-compromising work as possible. My goal is to spend part of my time abstract endeavors—writing, consulting on projects within my wheelhouse, connecting people; and the rest in literal dealings: pruning, foraging and hunting for sustenance, herd work.

The idea is to span distinct but complementary substrates, following paths that lead from the tangible terrain of cows and trees into intangible landscapes of ideas and possibilities. I aim to live publicly, that I may be held accountable to this experiment in lifestyle design, and to steward a reunion of the land and the mind—a re-humanizing of ourselves as a species.