by Joy Thierry Llewellyn
“Which Do You Like Better, Up or Down?” Light Footprint Work Holidays on Organic Farms
*Finalist in EVENT Magazine’s Creative Non-Fiction Contest
How a question posed by Zen Master Paul Reps on a B.C. Gulf Island finds an answer
14 years later on an isolated goat farm in the Pyrenees of Southern France.
The four of us politely look out the window toward the valley below and the desert beyond, following Christian’s pointing arm. Christian is tall and lanky, his shaggy hair making him look older than his mid-40 age. His clothes are torn and dirty, and he needs a shave, but he’s got a slow, direct smile. I bet he’s got lots of women friends I think when we shake hands, his eye contact almost intimate.
Over breakfast, Christian has been telling Evan, the kids, and me that the severe weather in the Pyrenees in this part of Southern France comes from the plains below or via the mountains beyond. He says this valley seems to have more good weather than the rest of Europe though we soon learn that a farmer’s version of “good weather” is relative. The winds that blow in from the sea in the South are called Sirocco, flowing from desert regions between Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, while the winds from the North are named Tramontane. Sirocco. Tramontane. The words echo as Christian points toward the mountains visible outside the large kitchen window of his handmade, beehive-shaped, family home.
“The rain here is sometimes yellow and even red if it comes from the direction of the Sahara,” he says. The four of us, newcomers to this wild land, look out the window again, this time imagining yellow and red rain.
The farmyard view at the end of the twisted and rutted dirt road is breathtaking. The front yard is on a rocky, steep mountainside, with 270-degree vistas of the valley and surrounding mountains. When Hedda first steps out of the beehive house, she looks so serious and brooding that her non-verbal nod of welcome makes us nervous, but I quickly learn it is just her appearance, not her intention. She tells us they built this house to imitate the teepee they used to live in, with an open ground floor holding kitchen and living room space and three bedrooms built onto the sides for their now-grown children. In-between the kitchen and main living area there is one wood stove. Just like Trudy and Dario’s olive farm in Tuscany, Italy, our last organic farm workplace, the stove is the sole heating source for the farmhouse. The wood box beside the stove is almost empty. Nine-year-old Alyd and I make eye contact, and he sighs. He can already guess what one of his chores is going to be.
WWOOFing across Europe
After travelling for almost six months through Thailand, Indonesia, and India, we still have six months to go on our family’s year-long, round-the-world backpacking trip. We are finding it hard to acclimatise to Europe. Since we left Southeast Asia, we have been making our way through France and Italy as WWOOFers (“World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms”) where we volunteer in exchange for room and board, helping both our pocketbook and our state of mind. We easily find farms willing to accept our family of four. Evan and I take on the harder farm labour while 18-year-old Emily often ends up working in the kitchen and nine-year-old Alyd runs errands and feeds animals. Or fills wood boxes. In our WWOOFing experiences so far, we have pruned olive groves, weeded organic vineyards and gardens, and made Miso in the kitchen of a farm in Tuscany, Italy.
On this bio-dynamic, macrobiotic goat farm high in the Pyrenees, we have arrived smack in the middle of goat birthing time, with 73 nanny goats either recent mothers or ready to give birth at any moment. By our fourth day, 31 kids have been born.
Dreaming of Frozen Fleas
In this harsh landscape, there are even hardier creatures. Within an hour of arriving at the farm, while we are in the process of unpacking our backpacks in the small caravans we’ll be living in for the next two weeks, Evan and I hear Emily and Alyd calling out in distress. We find them a wriggling, incoherent pair as they try to point at the nearest bed and furiously scratch their bodies at the same time. I lift their shirts and discover their backs are covered in what I initially think is a red rash, but when I look at the beds, I see fleas, hundreds of fleas, jumping in and under and out and on top of the sheets and pillows.
Fleas become central characters in the stories we tell about those weeks on that farm, playing as significant a role as the goats we grew to love, the ruggedness of our surroundings, and the few locals living in this isolated area who dropped by to check us out. We ended up having two distinct sets of clothes. After dinner, we would strip off our all of our daytime attire and put everything we wore during the day, right down to socks and underwear, in plastic bags. After a fast shower in the freezing, unheated bathroom in the basement of the main house, we quickly pulled on nightclothes of Indian cotton pants and T-shirt. The plastic bags filled with daytime clothes were put into the freezer overnight so that by morning we could retrieve our chilly clothing and shake the frozen fleas onto the ground. Every morning we reversed the process and put our nightwear into plastic bags, stuck the bags in the freezer, and by nighttime, each plastic bag contained a dark little puddle of dead blood-sucking parasites. This was a regime we did every day of our stay. And although the itching lessened, it was because we became acclimatised, not because the number of fleas decreased.
Christian and his wife Hedda were endlessly patient with our questions and didn’t laugh at our mistakes, but we did discover that Hedda, who radiates health and vigor—her cheeks a perpetual rosy flush from all the hours she spends in the wind and sun—had a sharp tongue that comes from some inner turmoil. It looks like we had unintentionally stepped into relationship undercurrents between her and Christian.
After a quick and basic breakfast of tea with Hedda’s homemade bread, jam, and goat cheese, it was time to go to work. Hedda leaves for the bergerie, the goat barn. Evan and Christian head up the mountain to check out a large compost pile. Emily and I quickly clean up the kitchen, then I get Alyd organised with his grade four schoolwork which he will do for about two hours at the kitchen table before he comes to join us.
Emily and I head off to help Hedda with the goats. We trudge up the mountainside, the first of many climbs every day toward the biggest flea area of the farm, the bergerie. We again learn that on this farm at least, goats and fleas are synonymous.
Emily and I quickly become life-long fans of goats. They are loving, curious, clan-focused animals. And it is a female world in that barn.
Goats are the oldest domesticated animal, and mountainous landscapes like the Pyrenees are the perfect environments for them with lots of free space to climb up and down plus they need the stony ground to smooth down their hard hooves. This is Hedda’s world. She makes organic goat cheese from the lactating nanny goats, which Christian sells, along with her organic vegetables and hearty homemade bread, in markets throughout the valley below us.
When Emily and I enter the large bergerie, a double-storied barn, Hedda is already at work separating nanny goats into two fenced-in pens. She separates 12 goats at a time, prodding them up onto the feeding stall located on an elevated platform. The goats are well trained and immediately stick their heads through bars to reach the feeding trough. Hedda quickly pulls a long neck yoke into place, effectively and painlessly trapping them while they eat. At that point, Hedda, and later Emily, begins the repetitious, calming chore of milking 73 nanny goats.
Emily and I walk into the herd of goats, all of them either pregnant or having just given birth and must pick our way through the daily increasing number of young kids. We are gently butted and sniffed by every goat we pass. The kids come bouncing, running, and hopping up to us, keen to inspect this new activity in their world. When I stand still to make the first morning count of the kids, I often feel pressure against my leg and look down to find the closest nanny goat has shifted her stance and is now leaning against me. Working with those goats turn out to be some of the most spiritual moments of our trip, contemplative times when I scratch the back of a nanny or sit on a pile of urine-soaked straw with four or five kids crawling all over me: Bernstein nibbling my cap, Happy asleep in my lap, Melanie scratching her head against my boots.
Once the goats are milked and fed, I open the gate, and they are free to forage their way up—or down—the mountain. The lead female has a large, tone-pure bell around her neck and often throughout the day I can hear a faint tinkling, telling me exactly where the animals are.
The rugged beauty of the Pyrenees is unlike anything I have ever seen. When I am higher up working in a mountain field, I can look down on our tiny isolated group of buildings, a hodge-podge collection of hand-built houses, barns, work sheds, chicken coops, and pig pens. The five resident families are connected in this intentional community by their shared desire to live away from any town and yet still to be part of a fellowship.
Once the goats are taken care of, I put on every item of extra clothing I possess then hike up—or down—the mountain to whatever field Christian and Evan are working in. This is part two of my day: working with compost. There are huge piles of fermenting two- and three-year-old goat compost scattered around the farm. Christian wants the compost spread on specific fields to prepare the ground for the spring hay. By the time I arrive, Evan has already been working for several hours, throwing endless shovel-loads of compost from the pile of the day into the open back of a slowly filling trailer box. Being the smallest adult, I am volunteered to climb up in the trailer and spread the compost. This distributes the weight evenly so that the trailer box will not tip over. Evan and I discovered early on that compost piles are another flea haven. Once the trailer is filled, Christian attaches an exhaust-spewing tracker to it and drives the trailer to the field he wants to be fertilised. While he is driving slowly down the single-track, winding dirt mountain roads—or up as the case may be—Evan and I hike down—or up—to the farmhouse to replenish the water bottles, collect our children, and then the four of us head off to the field-of-the-day.
By the time we all arrive Christian is disappearing down the track, and a huge, steaming pile of compost awaits us. We share the jobs to give variety and rotate which muscles are in use. Emily and I fill wheelbarrows with the compost then push the wheelbarrows to a far corner of the 45-degree mountain field, dump the load, and head back for more while Evan starts spreading it out with a rake. Or Evan fills the wheelbarrow and Emily and I rake the compost out over the rock-strewn land. Alyd’s job is to follow behind the raker and pick out any rock he finds, throwing it over the edge of the mountain. He likes this job a lot and turns it into pitching practice for baseball.
In the first week, I often have to pause and rest while hiking up and down the mountainside on my way to a field or to check on Alyd back in the farmhouse. It takes a few days to develop my mountain legs, but each morning my thigh muscles feel stronger. All signs of my three bouts of dengue fever in India are gone, and I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been in my life, a feeling echoed by Alyd, Emily, and Evan.
Telling Our Stories the Way Women Do
Hedda reminds me of my mother and prairie aunts, all capable, energetic women with a sense of humour and inner strength that reflects confidence about their place in the world. As Hedda and I get to know each other, working together in the barn, making meals, or digging in her large organic vegetable garden, long hours of companionable conversation lead from one story to the next; family and personal histories are exchanged in bits and pieces. There are moments of soft silence. We tell our stories the way women often do, talking first about our children and childbirth, then our husbands and other family members, and finally sharing our dreams.
She laughs when I tell her that even though I’m 46 and genuinely happy in my life, my theme song continues to be U2’s, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” She is content in these mountains with her goats, but I learn Christian isn’t and that’s the problem between them. She loves the Pyrenees. She and Christian have been married for 25 years, including their first eight years living in a teepee on a nearby mountainside until they built the beehive farmhouse and set up this goat farm 12 years ago. All three of their children were born and raised in that teepee, each child riding bareback with Christian on their one horse down the mountain to catch the school bus when they were old enough. They were the consummate hippies, and Hedda never wants to return to those primitive days, though her grown children and husband remember the time through a haze of fond memories.
I love hearing her stories about those teepee years living in such an isolated state with three young children. She is reticent at first, not entirely trusting my curiosity. But one day, with both of us working in her terraced garden, me squatting as I weed a row of radishes, Hedda using a small shovel to dig up leeks and potatoes for soup that night, something opens. She begins to tell me about times she does not recall with any rose-coloured hues. What she remembers about living in the teepee are long, cold, and lonely winter days. Times of struggle. Of living in poverty. Of surviving on milk and cheese from her small herd of goats and food from her vegetable garden tended on small patches of rocky mountain soil. Christian wants to leave the mountains and become a massage therapist. The two of them are at a standstill, neither making the final decision.
All around us nanny goats continue to give birth. The first morning, when Alyd had finished his schoolwork and begun hiking up the mountain to join us at a compost pile, we heard him call out excitedly, “Mom, dad, this goat’s having a baby!” A goat was lying on her side grunting like any woman in labour.
“Go get Christian,” I told him, and he set off at a run, soon reappearing followed by our host farmer. The kid had been born by this time, and the mother was already licking it clean. Christian gently picked up the newborn, and with the mother following, her afterbirth dragging in the dirt, took them both back into the barn for a day of safety and quiet. The hens appeared instantly, pecking at the dangling afterbirth. Nothing is wasted on a farm. By the fifth day, seeing a goat give birth was no longer anything out of the ordinary and Alyd would keep walking, only taking time to call out, “Goat giving birth behind the shed!” or “Goat givin’ birth near the chicken coop!”
One day blends into another: bergerie in the morning, garden or field work in the afternoon, bergerie again at the end of the day, dinner, and going to sleep happily exhausted.
Helping Nails Rise to the Surface
After lunch one day, when the men were both having an afternoon nap, and Emily and Alyd were reading French graphic novels in front of the warm wood stove, I decided to climb up the mountain to a stone outcrop I had noticed that morning from the lower field. I came upon Hedda squatting in the middle of a pile of bonfire ash left over from an old lumber pile that Christian had burned earlier in the month. She was sorting through pieces of glass and metal and picking out all the nails left behind. I asked if she wanted some help, but she just shook her head, saying it was quiet, the sun was shining, and the work was outside so whenever she had a spare hour, she liked to sit here and do this. She gave me a quick smile and went back to sorting through the ash near her small pile of nails.
I left her, making my way up to the outcrop where I sat for 30 minutes, any heat from the intense sun whipped away by the strong mountain winds. I was glad to huddle into my borrowed coat, my head wrapped up in the sarong I had bought in Ubud, Indonesia, several months earlier, as I looked down and across the valley at the 1,800 meter (5,900 feet) village of Baillestavy, population 50, the orange–tiled roofs and stone walls clustered together like a bunch of children’s blocks. My North Vancouver home felt very far away.
I spend the afternoon once again in the garden, squatting and removing weeds from around organic vegetables that provide us with our daily fresh food. I paused to dig up several dozen leeks, which I will later clean and prepare for market. It was a lovely afternoon as I worked with my hands in the dirt, accompanied by the outdoor music of singing birds and the distant goat bells.
Around 5 pm, Christian and his dog stood still together in the yard, listening for the sound of the matriarch goat’s bell, and then the two of them headed up the mountainside. Christian called a series of repetitious words as he hiked up and soon ambling nanny goats appeared, munching on mountain grass as they made their way toward him. Christian and the dog walked the goats back to the farmyard where Hedda waited patiently after Emily and I had driven them into the barn.
Which Do You Like Better, Up or Down?
Working in companionable ease in the barn, Hedda and I talked about important moments in our lives. I told her about Paul Reps, a Zen Master who had spent a year at The Haven on Gabriola Island, a personal growth centre on one of the B.C. Gulf Islands where Emily and I had also lived. The first time I introduced Emily to Reps, she was four years old, and he was in his early 90s. He looked at her, her curly red hair shining, both knees covered in bandages—as usual—and her gypsy outfit, as I liked to call her fashion style of flowered skirt layered over shorts, in slight disarray.
“Which do you like better, up or down?” he had asked her. She looked at him, then at me, not sure if this new adult was making a joke. But he continued to look at her calmly and with interest so she sat down beside him and they proceeded to have an in-depth conversation about the merits and shortcomings of up and down.
Hedda shook her head. “I don’t understand such questions, and would say, why do you ask such a silly thing?”
She was milking a goat but looked up when we became aware of an animal ramming her horns against the boards and hitting other goats in the process. Whatever the cause, it sorted itself out quickly, and things were suddenly back to the familiar soft murmur of goat sounds. Hedda affectionately slapped the rump of the nanny she finished milking and moved on to the next patiently waiting animal.
“What about your nail sorting exercise,” I asked. “That’s pretty Zen.”
“I always pick up the nails near the surface of the ash. But I know there are more buried below. So each time I go there, I wonder if I should dig deeper this time. Will the wind blow the ash away? Or maybe I’ll just let the earth absorb the nails.”
“What do you do?” I asked.
She slipped the milk pail under yet another pair of heavy udders. “Each time there are always more nails near the surface, so I don’t have to decide yet,” she says.
“You have a storyteller’s soul,” I say, laughing.
That made her angry. “I can’t tell things with a beginning, middle and end! I don’t understand stories with circles!”
“Reps would probably agree,” I replied. “He liked to speak in Koans, like parables that left you thinking for the rest of the day. There is a story in a book called Living in Balance. Reps travelled to Japan in the early 1950’s. He wanted to go to Korea to visit a Zen master, but when he went to get a visa, his request was denied because of the North and South Korean conflict. He sat down and poured a cup of tea from his thermos. When he’d finished his tea, he brought out a brush and paper and wrote a picture poem. When the clerk read the poem, he bowed, and stamped Reps’ passport for passage to Korea. The poem read: ‘Drinking a bowl of green tea I stop the war.’”
Hedda just shook her head impatiently and put her attention back on the goat in front of her.
We were finished by 6:30. Everyone took turns having a quick shower in the cold bathroom before dinner. After dinner, as we sweep, wash dishes, and hammer open fresh walnuts from an overflowing bowl, all our actions were accompanied by loud jazz or the Armenian oboe.
The Sound of Bees
“Listen to this,” Christian said excitedly, his love of music evident as he began to play a sound tape of bees in a hive in Africa. Later he put on U2 and the farmhouse filled with Bono singing, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Hedda and I immediately looked over at each other. We both laugh, and I am as happy as I’ve ever been as I raise the hammer to smash open another walnut.
We end each evening with a tisane, a flower and herb infusion or tea. They are popular after meals in France, though before this trip the only time I had even seen the word was in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, where Poirot was always drinking them to aid his “little grey cells” in their detecting work. Lime tisane has become my favourite; it’s good for digestion and sleep. Chamomile stimulates the kidneys, and lemon verbena soothes the liver. Each day I learn something new from Hedda and Christian.
The undercurrents barely ripple at the end of this day. Now was not the time to re-open old wounds. It is a tranquil scene, no echoes of the intense emotions behind Christian’s comment to me earlier as he prepared to hike up the mountain after the goats, something he does seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.
“I hate goats,” Christian said, his body slumped against the battered old farm car. Then he had straightened up, whistled to the dog, and the two of them started up the mountain following the sound of the goat bells, Christian knowing he would have to come down again to reach home.