I obsessed over pasture, raising righteous cattle, and the microbes that live in the rumen and the soil. But I couldn’t see the ways my work came at a personal cost.
Some years back, I moved to California, far from my North Carolina origins. I moved for a relationship and a new job—pretty standard stuff for someone in their early 20s. But both had dissolved after about six months. So all of a sudden, with no one but myself to worry about, I decided to pursue what I really wanted to be doing: grazing cattle.
The Counter is expanding its commentary section. We’re looking for personal, highly specific essays that are grounded in the realities of food production, exploring how large-scale forces impact eating at the human level.
This may seem like a niche interest, but for me it made sense. As a kid, I grew up a little feral with horses and free rein in the country, and I’d long craved the expansiveness of grassland. By the time I was 24, I’d been growing vegetables on small farms for seven years. I was desperate for a more unbounded agriculture—one that could coexist with wild species in ways beyond the scope of the average vegetable garden.
Fast forward a few months, and I was neck-deep in what would prove to be a two-and-a-half-year gig grazing cattle on a nature preserve. I lived onsite in a run-down camper—my first time living alone—and experienced a profoundly formative solitude. I spent just about all day out there on the rolling hills with those cows, building electric fence paddocks, installing and moving thousands of feet of plastic pipe to bring water to the herd, zipping around on a four-wheeler.
In the evenings I would huddle in a cold barn office and stare at Google Earth maps to figure out how I’d build the next few paddocks and how I’d lead the cattle to their next grazing cell, meticulously calculating area down to the tenth of an acre.
All of this was in the interest of making sure cattle were sufficiently fed, while simultaneously impacting the landscape in the way I wanted: effectively grazed or trampled. That’s why the herd was there, after all—prairie environments co-evolved with disturbance. Absent the regular fires and streaming herds of migratory animals, the preserve needed thoughtfully managed livestock as a stand-in to sustain the health and diversity of its grasslands.
That job was full of incredible highs and lows, and I learned to conjure an inner resourcefulness that I rely on today. At one point, I remember explaining to my Mom over the phone how many hours I’d been working each day, totally and blissfully in over my head. “If I died tomorrow, I would be happy,” I told her. “I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing!”
I felt like an ecological activist, but in hindsight I think I was a bit of a zealot. And while I was completely devoted to the pursuit of raising righteous beef while healing the land, what I called “land-based activism,” I was neglecting myself in the process.
That neglect is starkly visible to me now as someone who now enjoys a relatively stable existence. I still live in a camper half the year—as nomadic ranchers, we move around depending on the season to serve our goals of making a decent living while caring for cattle and rangeland. I’m far from rich, but I can go to the dentist or chiropractor if I really need to. I have just about all of the resources I need to do my work, and, best of all, a committed relationship with a fantastic human. But, back then, I was so invested in the land that I couldn’t see the ways my work sometimes came at a personal cost. Alone much of the time, I neglected the basics—things like making enough money to buy work clothes, maintaining my vehicle, and eating enough.
Food in particular was a challenge. I’ve never thought of myself as having an “eating disorder.” The term seems like such a cursed, cumbersome thing. But recently I heard the phrase “disordered eating.” This grammatical re-arrange made something click in my mind, and I began to interrogate all the days I left the cow camp to go work in the hills without bringing enough food along, relying on pure passion for fuel. The days when I’d make popcorn instead of investing the time in a real meal to compensate for the many calories I’d spent in service to that land.
There was something plaguing me besides the usual cocktail of female insecurity, and I think it was rooted in my environmentalism.
I’d spent so much time thinking about feeding cattle, grass, and the microbes that live in the rumen and the soil. Why wasn’t I feeding myself?
For me, the answer might be two-fold. Part of it is a simple aversion to taking up space—a woefully common complex shared by many women in the Western world that impairs our ability to recognize our bodies and our selves as worthy of time, energy, resources. Due mostly to genetics, I’ve always been a skinny woman, without a lot of caloric buffer. But even though plenty of people have called me “tiny” with a shade of incredulity and concern, I’m also nearly six feet tall, and have spent a lot of my life feeling oversized.
Still, there was something else plaguing me besides the usual cocktail of female insecurity, and I think it was rooted in my environmentalism.
Being a food producer, especially one who raises livestock with minimal outside supplement, is a gift and a curse. The work immerses you in natural systems and substrates unlike anything else. Yes, you watch the weather and depend on the mercurial forces of heat, wind, rain. But on a more fundamental level, you spend a lot of your life physically immersed in organic materials. You wade through tall grasses (in a good year), you climb hills, you search for cattle in forests and arroyos. Animals are born or die in your arms or by your hand and they kick, cut, bite, feed, love, or tolerate you in return.
Food production brings you to your knees, down onto the soil to which we are truly beholden. Working in agriculture doesn’t give you a reverence for nature—reverence is for people who live removed from nature and go and visit it on weekends. Rather, working in agriculture brings you into the fold of family, where you may curse it, and it may kill you, but you never for a second doubt if it’s where you belong.
After a while, living and working with the land can cause your sense of self to expand beyond your body and begin to encompass dozens, hundreds, thousands of acres around you. Droughts don’t hurt just the pocketbook—you feel it in your whole body, on the surfaces of your skin and even in your teeth and bones.
Once your sense of self extends across so much space, to produce food differently and better then becomes more than an act of stewardship. At times, it’s a desperate act of self-preservation.
And I think this was my trouble. Working in agriculture with all of my high-minded ideals of restoration, of healing the land, called into question the merits of every product I might eat, wear, slather on my body, or otherwise consume. The land I graze makes me wonder about every other acre that yields nutrition and calories.
I know I try to treat animals well, but what about the ones I’m not raising? I know I try to take care of the soil, but what about the soil that produced these bagged salad greens I’m buying? Did the corn kernels I like to pop in the evening and drizzle with salt and butter only worsen the problems of topsoil erosion in the Midwest, and dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico? We try to fairly pay anyone we hire, but what about the folks who picked the bag of oranges we bought from a guy selling them out of his pickup in town?
Back in my California days, I remember wandering the aisles of the grocery store, a few hundred dollars in my bank account on a good day, trying to determine how the hell I could buy the food I needed without feeling miserable about the land and animals impacted by my need to consume just to stay alive. This predicament often meant I walked away with too few, too-expensive items that I would ration over the next couple weeks.
I began to interrogate all the days I left to go work in the hills without bringing enough food along, relying on pure passion for fuel.
It seemed like I was stuck with two options: betray myself by not procuring the resources I needed to thrive, or betray other land, animals, and people. But feeling so connected to nature meant that either option felt like a personal transgression. There just seemed to be no good choice.
I wonder, now, why I didn’t decide my ecological activism in the field was enough. Why didn’t I cut myself some slack, and go buy some cheap food so that I could at least make sure I was getting the calories I needed? Or why didn’t I sign up for food stamps like a lot of my food-and-farming-activist peers? (Ironically, farm workers of all stripes and political persuasions in the U.S.—the people who produce our food—are often on food stamps). If I didn’t have access to a freezer full of nutritious frozen beef, I hate to think of what the state of my health would have been.
We often talk about a strong connection to nature as something to be admired. Yet we don’t say this about connections we form with other humans. We have all kinds of adjectives to describe the vast, varied constellation of relationships amongst people: toxic, antagonistic, selfless, devoted, maternal. Yet when we speak about nature, we typically just use vague, wholesome-sounding words like “belonging” and “connectedness.” It’s almost as if we’ve never considered that one’s relationship to nature might be complex, or something other than restorative and benign.
When I consider the particular form of connection I had with nature back then, and perhaps still do today, the best I can describe is some sort of one-way psychic enmeshment. I identified with the land on a fundamental level. But what good is it to feel one’s identity bound up in some vaguely defined expanse, if that expanse can’t really feed me, not completely?
Maybe my investment and devotion to land is itself natural, the result of my brain duly reorganizing itself after so much time amidst the stimuli of soil, sun, rain. But if these feelings I’m prone to are healthy, they may also be tragically outdated: adapted to lifeways that have mostly been extinguished in civilization’s march towards modernity. Perhaps this strong identification with the health of land would have been an asset if I had lived in a culture truly organized around both the use and stewardship of natural resources, one that valued site-specific expertise as much as the efficient extraction of commodities.
Besides, in our context, it can feel futile to manage land for things like water quality and wildlife forage: the water is often polluted by the time it flows onto our ranch lease, and the elk always seem to belong to someone else. And so this connection, a passionate vocation in theory, can feel like a burdensome fixation in practice—one that’s partially at odds with the roles and responsibilities inherent to a ranching and land management today. Viewed from afar, it may seem noble and rare to some (and maybe a little precious to others). But a second glance shows my affinity to be debilitating.
This is the part where I’m supposed to offer some clarified and healthy understanding of how to relate to land. A way to expand my connection to nature without compromising myself. Maybe the answer could be easy or simple, found in aphorisms throughout the ages, phrases like “don’t put the cart before the horse,” or “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” The self-care movement has made it clear that we can’t care for others if we’re not taking care of ourselves. And it has plenty of products for sale to help us do so.
But that’s the trouble. When your sense of self encompasses so much land and so many beings, seen or unseen, where do you draw the line between your self and the world beyond?
The question seems to hinge on how we define selfhood. And as dysfunctional as my own approach has been, I don’t think the Western legacy of commercialization and disconnection offers many good alternatives. Yet neither does pretending that all our feelings towards nature—as long as they aren’t overtly destructive—are somehow simple, healthy, and good.
How do we feed ourselves in the world we have now?
I’ll leave off not with my own answers or wisdom to offer, but hopefully some good questions that may start us down the path. How do we function and thrive now, despite the tension between economy and ecology? This tension seems so at odds with the kind of ecological restoration work our species will require in order to continue to exist on this planet. How do we meet our basic needs as individuals? This isn’t simple, especially when we know we contain and depend on multitudes, down to the billions of microbes in our own guts that mediate our health and personality.
How do we feed ourselves in the world we have now? How do we sustain ourselves, when the human body’s needs can hamstring the broader earth-body on which we depend? And how might we nurture that necessary future world where our appetites are no longer at odds with our continued existence? I don’t know, and writing this is simply my best attempt at sidling up to the question.