Published Christmas 2022
When my wife and I were completing marriage prep, there was only one area in which we had a major disagreement: she loved animals and I did not. My reasons were rooted in my childhood, when a neighbor’s dog in Baltimore bit me and I never got over it. So were hers, since she grew up on a farm in Illinois. The brilliant and blunt (and holy) priest preparing us for marriage asked how we would reconcile our difference in opinion. Six years later, we’re raising our own children with a dog, two cats, four pigs, five ducks, six goats, two dozen sheep, and a couple dozen rabbits. Oh, and my wife just got me a cow for my birthday.
Our homesteading experience began when we had two hours to kill between the nuptial Mass of two friends and their wedding reception. We headed to Home Depot, and loaded the car up with four hundred feet of fencing and T-posts. The next day this became our first one hundred foot by one hundred foot goat pen, and a few weeks later we brought home several goats inside my Honda Element. About a month after that, my father-in-law transformed an old firewood shed into a chicken coop. Meanwhile, I lay in bed recovering from an infection that didn’t respond to normal antibiotics. It was my first lesson in my own inadequacies as a homesteader. When I recovered, we moved the chicks from our basement to what is more rightly called a chicken mansion. (This was pre-plague, when lumber was cheap. Now we mill our own wood.)
Our children know quite a bit about the miracle of life, actually. They’ve witnessed goat labor, and it looks exactly as you might expect. They were in the pasture with my wife and me as one mama goat gave birth to three kids, one of which came out with the sac fully intact, spraying amniotic fluid and breaking only upon hitting the ground. They know the entity growing in a womb is a baby: a baby goat when in a goat womb, a baby human when in a human womb. They both kissed their mother’s belly once it started showing that their baby brother was inside. They also know that not all newborns make it. One of our lambs was born with the sheep equivalent of cleft palate, making him unable to nurse at his mother’s teat. We hadn’t built our barn yet, so we brought him into the house to bottle-feed. Shortly before dinnertime, he died on the dining room floor. We didn’t talk too much about it, but also didn’t downplay it. We hoped the experience would convey something of the goodness and the fragility of life. The children knew that we had done what we could to help that lamb, but also that there are limits to what any of us can do. Many people fear and deny death (and, in a different way, birth), but for now our kids seem unfazed by both. They have seen more birth and death than I did in my first few decades.
They also have seen both birth and death within a natural order. For example, mama and dada pig are named Bella and Gordo, but their children are named Scrapple and Ginger Bacon (the latter being a redhead, or red-belly). Our kids look forward to one day eating the scrapple and bacon produced by their namesakes. This isn’t weird to them. They know that food doesn’t come from the store, it comes from the field. When they get older, I’ll share Roger Scruton’s essays on that subject, but for now they don’t need philosophy to understand it. When we slaughtered our lambs the first year, our son and daughter gave them hugs and kisses goodbye, thanked them for being their friends, and then, in a matter-of-fact way, our son said, “I can’t wait to eat you.” They aren’t weirded out by death, or blood, or guts, as the rest of my family from Baltimore is. In fact, they are fearless, sometimes in frightening ways. We’ve seen adults shriek and run from our livestock, but our two-year-old daughter charges in with hugs and kisses, even as she knows to beware “the mean ram” that once headbutted her big brother and the cow that stomped at her mother and (slightly) gored her with a horn. And both of the older children love helping their mother gut and field dress the deer that she bags. They take real pride in her handiwork: “Mama shot the deer!”
Everything on the farm contributes to its order in some way. The rabbits and pigs are for meat. The sheep are for meat, wool, and milk. The ducks and chickens are for eggs and eat insects in the gardens. The goats and cow are for milk, and to keep them lactating we breed them. (We sell off the baby goats and eventually eat the baby cows.) The cats eat the mice. The guineas eat ticks. Meanwhile, everything produces poop, which nourishes the soil. (Spreading manure is oddly satisfying.) We’ve had to explain to our son that we don’t eat horses (the neighbor’s horses, more specifically), that they contribute in a different way to the life of a farm. Likewise, we don’t eat ewes (they have the babies after all), and only keep one ram (he can do the deed, and we can eat the ram lambs). We have to keep the males and females separated during certain months and bring them together during others. Unto everything there is a season and a role. Moms and dads differ, sex reproduces, death is natural. And the other animals naturally differ from people. We treat farm animals with dignity and give them a humane death, but their purpose is to nourish our bodies, or be our companions, or help us in our work—setting them dramatically apart from siblings and neighbors and guests and grandparents. Every person has something to contribute too, but not according to a utilitarian calculus. The gift of presence is a contribution.
The cultivation of this way of life takes time. It is the work of generations. My grandparents grew up in Sicily, so naturally they had a fig tree in the backyard of their Baltimore rowhouse. When they died, my father took a cutting from their tree and planted it in his front yard. Some twenty years later, he took cuttings from his fig tree and, with the help of me and his grandson, planted them in our orchard. The fig trees didn’t make it through the first winter here—we must not have wrapped them properly—but the roots stayed alive and re-sprouted an entire branch system from the ground up. Still, even though they took the most work, the fig trees haven’t produced any fruit. Nor have our apple trees or pear trees. Our blueberry bushes have produced a small handful of berries. Meanwhile, we have more wild berries growing on the edges of where pasture turns to woods than we know what to do with. These are palpably unmerited gifts, reminding us about the true status of all creation. Then there is God’s mercy, reviving our failing tomato vines after we forget to water them, and the superabundance of His grace in the “volunteer” plants that sprout from the seeds of half-eaten fruit left on the ground by our children. The volunteer tomato plants always make me chuckle, as our intended tomato plants take a lot of work: to start the seeds, prep the garden, transfer the seedlings, water and mulch, weed and prune, wait, and then harvest. But at a certain point other things require more time, and the tomatoes are forgotten. Until July, when suddenly there is a marvelous explosion of plants to reap, even where we did not sow.
That said, human effort makes a difference—if not to the outcome, then to our reception of it. When our four-year-old son went on a breakfast strike, spurning the eggs we’d prepare every morning, my wife started taking him to the coop. He’d go see the eggs laid overnight, pick out the color egg he wanted to eat, go inside, wash it, and then crack it on the counter, and together they’d put it right into the pan—and he ate with gusto. The value of co-creation is a deep truth about the human condition. If creation is beautiful, co-creation appropriates and deepens the beauty. Food is meant not just to sustain the body but also to nourish the soul—through the preparation and sharing of a meal with friends and family, and the tasting and seeing of its beauty. The crops have a natural beauty; and so do the harvest, meal, and fellowship.
That fellowship has a different flavor in a log house in rural Virginia than it did at our alley house in Washington, D.C. We had wanted our move to the country to expand our opportunities to provide hospitality, and the pandemic helped, as people sought respite from city life. What we hadn’t expected was the character of the sacrifice needed. We love stewarding the land and preserving the food with canning and jarring and freezing. We love having friends over for a real farm-to-table meal. But as my wife once put it to me, growing and harvesting all of this food is “a shit ton of work.” It can be more sacrificial than I would have expected to spend the time and work growing something, to then take the choicest potatoes out of the few we managed to grow, or the rosiest tomatoes, or the fattest rabbit, knowing how much time and work went into producing that thing, and cook it up for friends—or the friends of friends we barely know. But it’s a healthy reminder that none of this is truly ours, that it’s unmerited gift from God, and that tithing isn’t just about your I.R.S.-documented income. One way to give back is to present the tithe to someone as a form of hospitality.
Why do any of this? When we first moved out here, we didn’t have this all in mind—or I didn’t. I can never quite get a straight answer from my wife on exactly how much of this she envisioned. But we got started little by little—putting up fencing, building a chicken coop, creating a Victory Garden, installing waterers, getting new species and breeds of animals, building a barn—and just kept going. While this certainly isn’t for everyone (I’m not even sure it’s for me), we do think it’s one way of responding to the unique challenges of raising children in twenty-first-century America. We want our kids to have not just an intellectual understanding of the goodness, givenness, and meaning of creation—the natural teleology of created order—but a feel for it in their bones. Not just head knowledge, but gut instincts and emotions and passions and natural intuitive reactions that align with reality. We think the farm can help with this. We don’t plant our crops in fall, and we don’t harvest in winter. There’s a season for sowing seed, a season for weeding and watering, a season for harvesting and canning. Internalizing these natural rhythms, and the meaning of the rhythms, we hope will translate to dealing with other cultural challenges later on. Cultures cultivate, and that’s true of horticulture and agriculture just as much as it is of human culture. Good cultures cultivate natural capacities to their proper ends.
And what I said about not planting in fall or harvesting in winter isn’t quite true. Last year we planted a winter garden, creating more or less rows of little greenhouses using clear plastic tarps. Which is just to say that there’s a way to co-operate with nature, to harness nature—to cultivate creation, to co-create—that enhances rather than distorts. We use technology—a well pump, a hose, a sprinkler, a tractor—to make fruits spring from the earth more abundantly. For the same reason, we pull weeds, we cut back and trim and prune our roses and grape vines and berry bushes. Creation is good but needs tending, even more so in our postlapsarian condition. How we ourselves on the farm navigate the use of technology and the proper cultivation of mother nature we hope will shape our kids’ attitudes toward technology and the proper cultivation of human nature—neither luddite nor transhumanist—as they grow. Given the areas my professional work has taken me, it’s understandable why we wouldn’t want to run this race only to have our children fail to win the prize.
You could say that my wife won the debate over animals, but that’s not the whole story. I haven’t become affectionate to animals, but I have grown to love raising my kids around them. Especially now, a time generally marked by unreality, farm life provides seemingly endless opportunities for children to grow up grounded in reality: of male and female forms, of birth and death, or breeding and slaughtering, of life cycles, seasons, planting, and harvesting. We also hope they learn something from watching their mother and father work together to cultivate a farm, as Adam and Eve did to cultivate Eden. We don’t quite fit all the various stereotypes—my wife is the hunter, and she slaughters and butchers the rabbits—but there are complementary roles. For most of human history, households were about production, not just consumption. We want to foster a home where we do more than just sleep under the same roof. We want common activities to do together. Right now, having our kids help with the various farm work normally slows us down. But efficiency was never the reason to do it together anyhow.
Cultivation of a family culture is a long-term process. It’s cyclical, generational, and hopefully generative. Each season can bring new forms of common action, enlisting children and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the activities of family life. We’ve made, and are making, our fair share of mistakes. Some things are beyond our control—droughts, disease, cleft palates. Some are a matter of a learning curve. (It’s been two years since my last chainsaw-related ER visit!) Some just take time before we’ll even know if we did it right or wrong—which can be unnerving, putting in continued care without knowing the outcome. A bit like raising kids. Who knows if any of this will pay off for them—like our crops and livestock, children are recalcitrant to some forms of control, but unlike them they’re endowed with free will. Like all of creation, our children and their choices and characters are all themselves gifts from God, and so we do what we can, hope and pray, and ultimately let go. And, as my wife reminds me, “mistakes make good compost.”
Ryan T. Anderson is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.