Michael and Jo’s farm was situated in a valley amongst mountains, just inland from the coast, about an hour north of Wellington. Nine people lived on the farm – three couples, two children, and one single older woman – in houses they had built themselves. My quarters were an old caravan near Michael and Jo’s house. It had a potbelly stove that didn’t light and a double bed from which, when you lay down at night, you could look up at the stars through the curved glass of the window and on which, on my first night, I cried because I was so goddamn lonely.
I had been drawn to the farm as a way to cure my post-university ennui. After graduating following my honours year I felt completely rudderless, which terrified me. I started to think a lot about how I wanted to exist in the world. I looked for examples of people who had it all worked out. A small, dedicated, alternative-farm-community in rural New Zealand seemed to fit the bill and, guided by the dangerous presumption that enforced loneliness produces clarity, I sent them an email.
Michael, the founder of the community, and his incredibly resilient partner Jo spent their days maintaining the farm: planting and harvesting vegetables, feeding the chickens and ducks, pruning trees, building sheds, herding cattle. They had several small projects on the go at any one time. Virtually everything on the farm had been built by those living there, including a fire-heated hot tub, and a water pipe that ran uphill from the stream to the houses, designed without pumps and finessed over several months of trial-and-error. Everywhere I looked there was evidence of practical ingenuity, strength and determination.
Before I’d arrived they had built, with another boarder, an enormous chicken coop that opened up onto a fenced-in vegetable patch so the chooks could roam at their leisure. Other boarders had built long stretches of fencing, and one had even logged a vast section of pines from the side of a mountain, a task inconceivable to me in its magnitude. I felt the weight of expectation from the contributions of the boarders past, all of whom sounded remarkably enthusiastic and who seemed to possess boundless strength and energy. I felt like none of those things. I felt like a fraud. I was ashamed of the combination of fear and boredom that some of these laboring tasks evoked in me, but was determined to not let it show, and to prove my worth.
On my second day, while weeding on the side of a mountain, I twisted awkwardly and badly injured my back. I interpreted this event as further evidence of my own weaknesses, physical and psychological. I wondered whether I might have subconsciously willed it to happen, to provide an externalised excuse as to why I couldn’t help, rather than having to admit that I was scared or embarrassed or simply didn’t give a shit. Instead of being relieved to have a reason to lie around and re-read The Catcher in the Rye, I felt absolutely rotten. I felt useless and lazy, like I had imposed myself on my hosts and then had disappointed them with my inability.
Regular and intense lower back muscle spasms put me in a huge amount of pain. Michael and Jo felt sorry for me, but I brushed it off as something that just happens occasionally, and that in a couple of days I’d be fine, knowing full well that in the past I’d been put out for up to a week. They told me to rest for as long as I needed to.
Not wanting to be a burden, I claimed to feel better when I didn’t, and went back to work before I should have. My back was still very fragile: after a few minutes of bending over vegetable patches or honeysuckle-infested undergrowth, my muscles would seize up and lock me into an L-shape, a wrong-looking right angle, a perpetual subservient bow. I tried my best to mask my injury, holding my lower back as I hobbled around, nervy pain persistently shooting down my legs. Jo and Michael would ask with concern if I was alright, and I would force a smile and insist that I was fine and that I felt a lot better.
There was no phone reception on the farm so my only contact with the outside world was via Michael’s computer. Michael had said that while I was welcome to send emails, he would prefer I keep my computer use to a minimum as he thought people my age used technology in an antisocial way. Couldn’t agree more, I said, and then spent my free time over the following two weeks in the living room reading or writing or playing guitar while Michael surfed the net, not talking to me.
When I worked, it was mostly weeding. Michael had planted a honeysuckle when he first bought the land not knowing it would eventually be classified as a noxious weed. In the 20 or so years between buying the land and establishing it as a community, the vines had spread across the property, suffocating the existing plants and making it virtually impossible to cultivate anything new. It seemed poetic to me that something Michael had planted for its beauty had grown into something so pervasively destructive, creeping its way into all corners of his space. Jo told me that at the height of the honeysuckle eradication effort she would stand at the kitchen sink, looking out at the vines consuming the farm, and feel so overwhelmed and depressed by the task that she was immobilised, and wished she’d never agreed to live there.
Michael had convinced Jo to move out to the farm with her two young sons. Jo had separated from her husband a few years prior, and had met Michael through a spiritual practice called Dances for Universal Peace. They entered into a relationship on the terms that Michael could continue seeing another woman, with whom he’d had a complicated and emotionally manipulative open relationship for a number of years. Jo’s discomfort and insecurity over Michael’s other lover grew as the years went on. She communicated it to Michael several times, who retorted by reminding Jo of the terms of their arrangement.
Jo’s anxiety grew. Her sons were miserable on the farm, and one tried to run away. She developed breast cancer. She lost one breast, but beat the cancer. Michael told me that for a long time he was angry with Jo for renegging on their agreement. He thought her pleas constituted a betrayal. He said that it took him years to realise how much his other relationship was hurting her. Michael had a heart attack. He reassessed his life. He left the other woman to commit himself to a life of monogamy with Jo. Men and women are different, he concluded. Men are able to be in love with several people, whereas women are predisposed towards jealousy. That’s bullshit, I thought. You fucking asshole, can’t you see what this woman has sacrificed for you? You selfish fucking piece of shit. I was trapped in an inexpressible alienation, between yearning for a human connection and an inability to articulate my thoughts or feelings. I had stepped into another world and was witness to these peoples’ lives, while feeling that my presence was of no consequence to them despite their openness with me about their past and their relationships.
I thought that this self-imposed period of loneliness would be spiritually and creatively productive for me. I thought I was at my most prolific working within the context of absence, where the sense of lacking created the psychological space to explore freely. I believed these circumstances allowed me to access deeper parts of myself that I found mystifying and enormously creatively gratifying. I thought, therefore, that the routine and solitariness of farm work would help me re-centre, and to better understand where I was in my life.
Instead, after only a few days on the farm, I disturbingly felt as though I had lost sight of myself. I felt I had forgotten what and who I was outside of this new world. I lost confidence in my ability to interact and communicate with people, and felt as though all my words were coming out wrong. I was constantly fighting the urge to cry. ‘I’ve been uncharacteristically putting sugar in my tea,’ I noted in my journal.
On day 8, after another nervous lunch with Michael and Jo, I took my phone and climbed a mountain at the back of the property. I walked through the bush upwards, upwards, staring at my phone’s reception bars. I was short of breath, panting, sweating. One bar! Holy shit, I thought. I dialed my mum’s mobile number and held the phone to my ear. It started to ring. I couldn’t believe it.
‘Mum, it’s me!’
‘There’s no reception on the farm. I just walked up a mountain.’
I have called my mum at many points of personal crisis, but at the time this seemed to me to be one of the most desperate.
‘Hold on a minute,’ she said.
She was distracted. I could hear it in her voice.
‘Where are you?’ I asked.
‘Just at the supermarket – hold up,’ she said.
We spoke for maybe one or two minutes about nothing, and I hung up feeling worse. I put my phone in my pocket and started my descent of the mountain.
On my way down I saw a few honeysuckle creepers. I remembered Jo telling me that it had taken a year of slow, daily weeding to finally feel as though they had begun to control the wild mass of vines consuming the farm, and to quell her anxiety.
I pulled one up from the dirt, tracing its growth along the ground. The vines themselves were so fine, and held so tenuously to the earth. For something that so darkly occupied the minds of those on the property, dismantling them was not a violent task; it was delicate, like untangling string.