agriculture

What Is Work, Anyway?

Songwriting (or creating art of any kind) is an existential morass, especially if you’re a self-employed workaholic who really likes checking things off their To Do List.

It’s excruciatingly hard to sit still for an indeterminate amount of time trying to mine your brain for random musical ideas that will hopefully be halfway decent. The ticker tape running in the background goes something like this: “How long will this take/will this even work/shouldn’t I be updating the website/booking gigs/buying groceries/paying bills/doing laundry/working on music for other projects/spending time with friends and family/is this just a waste of time anyway…” On and on and on, in the sort of piercing tones akin to a red squirrel sitting in a tree hollering at the cat that just walked by. (If you’ve never heard a red squirrel, that incessant chattering could cut glass.) To sit still and devote time to a pursuit that may actually yield nothing of immediate use is almost a form of torture.

Being raised on a farm, I grew up equating work with tangible results. Put in X amount of hours = produce X amount of product. That product usually pays the bills, or is very tasty, or both. The only things that could get in the way were acts of nature or breakdowns. You certainly didn’t “work” by sitting very still and staring into space for long periods of time. Work was a form of self worth. There’s no higher compliment than “They’re a good worker.” Work can also be a form of expression or communication (as in working hard for someone is a way to show how much you care, even if you’re not good at using your words for that purpose).

Given that a lot of my creative brain involves wrestling with self doubt, it’s extra difficult for me at least to see what I’m doing as “work” (which of course it is) without any immediate gratification. If I’m not producing something tangible, am I really working? And by that definition of work = self worth, am I even doing something worthwhile? Or am I just a lazy, day-dreaming slacker? And once those questions start rolling, it’s down the squirrel hole I go, as the actual songwriting itself poses a whole new set of terribly unhelpful philosophical questions: Is this melody good? Am I committed to these chords? Are these REALLY the lyrics I want? Am I saying what I mean to say? What do I mean to say anyway? Is what I mean to say even worth saying? I mean, is anything worth saying? Is anything worth anything? What IS anything, anyway?

You’d think at this point I wouldn’t be surprised to remember that songwriting is, hard. Hard work. But either I forget or I’m a very slow learner. Or maybe I can’t retain that knowledge and confidence in the “process” over the insane high pitched scrabblings of the deranged squirrels doing laps around my brain.

“If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.” Um, yeah, not so much. (Doesn’t mean we don’t love what we do! Just means the fella that came up with that pithy saying must not have been in the arts. Or agriculture.)

Ok, enough said. BACK TO WORK!

Farming Made Me a Feminist

How Farming Made Me a Feminist

I grew up on one of the last remaining vestiges of "traditional" family life here in the Good Ole US of A- the family farm. Mom and Dad worked together, that was for sure, but it was a lifestyle that would have been instantly familiar to the "Archie Bunkers" of the 50s, the America that some want to go "back to" so desperately, although I'm fairly certain it never existed for them in the first place. And yet- it made me a feminist. (Well, that and some critical thinking, the examples of incredibly strong women who surrounded me, empathy, a good education, and the opportunity to travel and think quite a bit.)

Mom and Dad met at Ag school- in an animal husbandry class, I believe, the first generation of each of their families to go to college. They're also first generation farmers- neither of them inherited the farm we still work today, although they both grew up around farming (as a teenager Dad worked at the dairy farm down the road, and Mom spent a lot of time on the horse farms around her part of southern Vermont). After college Dad worked as a diesel mechanic and Mom as a veterinary technician until they purchased the farm that's now ours. I don't know if they ever wished for a firstborn son to help with the work; by the time I came along they had probably given up wishing for anything. But there I was- (surprise!) the eldest daughter, followed 9 years later by my brother, who now works the farm with Dad full time (in addition to being a talented diesel mechanic in his own right).

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time outdoors growing up. And because it was a farm, there was no shortage of work to be done. And work we all did, from mucking the animals to mowing the grass at the age of 9 (I graduated to bigger tractors a year or two later.) We had occasional hired help as well, a position filled equally by women and men over the years.

Yes, Dad and his generation were "old school": I remember being sent back to the house at the age of 16 because the "guys" were putting hay up in the mow that night and would be using language unsuitable for a "young lady." Given that I had already been playing fiddle in Irish bars for the past year, it was pretty much a given that my vocabulary of obscenities far surpassed anything the local township might have come up with (I could draw from a vast well of multicultural references, after all!). I dragged my arse back to the house, not sure whether to be indignant at being kicked out of the barn over an obvious double standard or relieved to have been let off of a hot, exhausting job thanks to outdated cultural paradigms.

But the guys also had a deep respect for any woman laborer sharing the job with them. Mom was at home for much of my childhood, but she also worked as a veterinary technician, a school lunch lady, and simultaneously logged more hours on the farm with Dad than any of the hired help ever did.  She took no guff from anyone; man, woman, or child. Especially man. The only time you could use the word "settle" was with the word "up". There was no settling "for" or "down". And blue language issues aside, Dad was always and often the first to note that his most reliable workers were women. Women were consistently careful, efficient, and less likely to complain. Turns out the masculine urge that leads guys to show off to one another also led to a high rate of equipment breakage and crop losses...

Social roles might have been gendered, but labor sure wasn't. If a box trailer showed up that needed to be loaded with 600 bales of hay (each weighing between 35-45 lbs), then whoever was available was loading that box trailer, and differences in anatomy never mattered much. (The only time that mattered was if your knees were sticking out of shorts when you were loading hay. No one ever loaded hay in shorts more than once. Do NOT load hay in shorts.)

So farming gave me a great deal of self confidence, of common sense, of a love of the natural world, and so many other things. I hope every child can get some sense of that growing up- it's among the most valuable life experiences I can possibly imagine. And it made me a feminist.

It was my first experience of that conflict, that dichotomy of being treated differently when it came to the social aspects of work life while still fulfilling all the expectations of the actual work itself. It led me to think long and hard about my options for making my way in life as I came of age. When I went out into the world as a professional musician the differences only got more dramatic. The options presented weren't that plentiful, in terms of social currency. Traditional female roles were pretty limited: Good Girls or Bad Girls. Good Girls were the "girls next door", "damsels in distress", or "cute ingenues." Bad Girls were "wild", "man-eaters", "sluts". None of those options seemed all that great, to be honest, being as they all depended on another person's reaction for happiness and success. There was one other path that presented itself: the one all the guys were on. Since guys seemed to have all the power and options, that seemed to be the way to go. So many of us went out onto the guys' playing field. We worked longer, we lifted heavier stuff, we played faster, we drank harder, we cussed bluer. Because if you were accepted as "one of the guys", maybe you had a chance at the opportunities they all took for granted. And then one day you didn't, because someone noticed you weren't one of the guys after all. And then you had to figure it out all over again, and then you realized there still aren't that many options.

And compared to all of that, loading 600 bales of hay into a box trailer on a 90 degree day seems pretty easy.

 

Cows Don't Float. Neither Do People.

"Houston: We Feel Your Pain. Aug 29, 2011." Those were the words on the lighted sign outside the Rotterdam Junction, NY fire department as I drove from my family's farm in the Mohawk Valley back to my home in the Hudson Valley. From one valley to another. 6 years ago a friend of the family, a fellow farmer, the patriarch of a farm family in the Schoharie and Mohawk Valleys, lost his life driving through standing water to inspect his fields flooded by Hurricane Irene. 6 years ago my brother came home with a look on his face I'll never forget. He spent the day pulling dead cows out of flooded barns. Irene wasn't even a hurricane by the time it got around to knocking on the Northeast's door. That wording didn't matter to the folks in upstate NY, in VT, NH... We were devastated. Six years later you can still see the scars, if you know where to look. And now, the scale of what's happening down south is almost unfathomable, even for those of us who've seen a bit of it before.

This week we announced that Rootstock 2017 will take place on October 1st, right down by the river in Beacon. I've never been prouder of the lineup: this time around, Daisycutter will be joined by The Gibson Brothers, Sloan Wainwright, and The Shockenaw Mountain Boys. I'm honored and humbled to be sharing the stage with such company. The money that we raise will go towards establishing an emergency relief fund for local farmers, to help them keep going in the immediate wake of natural disasters. However, farmers are one big community, joined by our commitment to the land, to growing and feeding our neighbors, and by the soil in our veins. The Northeast farming community knows firsthand the pain and suffering our sisters and brothers in Texas are going through, and our hearts are breaking with them. So in support and solidarity with our fellow farmers in Texas, we're donating at least 10% of this year's net proceeds from the Rootstock festival to flood relief and recovery efforts for Texas farmers. You can get the full details over at www.rootstockfest.org

You can download the song I wrote post-Irene, West of Eden, for free here at Bandcamp. We're also donating all our proceeds from album downloads to Red Cross relief efforts in Texas.


Hang in there, Houston. We know how you feel- and we know how tough farmers (and Texans) are. We're with you, and sending you all our love and support.

West of Eden
- Sara Milonovich c. 2012 (ASCAP)

Driving, dodging the deer and the drunks
Past foundations left in the floodplain so long
Still there waiting where the water put them down
It is just flotsam? Or one more farm gone?

Who do you blame? The corps of engineers?
Or the wind and the rain, the way that they came out of nowhere?
Quench the thirsty downtown- we’ll never know the reason
They left us here West of Eden waiting to drown

Remember the fields in afternoons of amber
Now they’re buried in brown, and I feel like a foreignlander
Not anymore use– just a helpless bystander
Got to stand up for something, better be your neighbor

Neon eye’s focused on wildfires now
Long since forgotten the lead lining inside the clouds
Nothing left to do but wear it with pride as a shroud
It's a bitter drink, just swallow it down

Chorus

The grass has grown up to hide the worst of the scars
The money’s dried up with the mud in the yard
We sang “goodnight” but we’re still waiting for the stars
Could have cut out and run, but we just give up too hard

Chorus
We’re still here West of Eden, waiting to drown.