As a girl I resented my family’s outdoorsyness. Even before Mum’s fascination with farming took full hold, weekends were filled with gardening, bonfires and dog walks. And as our backyard menagerie spilled from a shared field into a seven acre smallholding, we began to haunt markets and auctions, journeying miles to look at trailers, goats and geese.
I didn’t want to be at the field, or the farm. I wanted to stay at home and watch Laurel and Hardy films, reruns of the Addams family, eat jacket potatoes cooked in the microwave and piled with butter. I wanted to listen to the Jungle Book and the Rescuers on LP in my bedroom, read Little Plum and The Family of Long End Street, to continue to fail to teach myself to touch type on my forest green typewriter whose black and red ribbon was always getting tangled.
We traded in the smart bronze Rover in which me and mum had sung along to Dr Hook, shimmying our shoulders like we were on Top of the Pops, “when you’re in love with a beautiful womannnn, you gotta watch your friends, watch your friends…”, for a retired Southern Electricity Board longwheel base Land Rover. Bright orange. With a royal blue soft top. I begged Mum not to park too close if she collected us from school and hid from my friends being collected in shiny saloons. Later, when Mum developed a commercial dairy goat herd, there was a white Honda Acty van, bought from a gigging ventriloquist to transport his dummy. The door slid with a metallic grind, and I always imagined the dummy’s rictus grin in the van’s slim recess. We trundled up the A3 to London, to deliver frozen pouches of goats milk, a novelty in the 80s, to Harrods Food Hall and to the scattering of health food shops springing up around Surrey.
Home was a Victorian semi on a steep road leading up to the downs and golf club in Merrow, a quiet suburb of Guildford. When my parents bought the farm, a smallholding with a caravan and chalet up the A246 in East Horsley, I gladly stayed at home to walk dogs, make breakfasts, dinners and sandwiches for the others, who rose early and stayed out late to tend livestock between school and jobs. At weekends I stayed by the green trim phone in the lounge, earning 50p a day, answering “Guildford 305369, Ysella speaking”, and relaying messages to my stepfather, Colin, a helicopter sales manager, up at the farm.
Colin’s job meant occasional helicopter rides and getting the autographs of Frankie goes to Hollywood. Mum’s job as a supply teacher at the local Catholic comprehensive meant plotting ways to take revenge on the pupils who regularly sent her home in tears. Physics teacher and retired boxer, Mr Powell, a thick set Welshman with a waxy, pockmarked face and a squashed nose, took her under his wing. He showed her how to twist boys’ sideburns to lift them up onto their toes. “Makes their eyes water, see? Looks to their mates like they’re crying, see? That’ll do it.”
Gertie the goat was black with a white panel on her long face and green eyes like king marbles. Born with a bent leg, she came home to live with us in the Victorian semi where we walked her on a lead on the golf course amongst the Surrey labradors and bemused golfers. She careered up and down the stairs, scattering little black pellets, until Colin threatened to shoot her. She knew her power, and singled me out as a soft target, using her long curved horns to pin me to walls and gates until Mum rescued me. My brothers joined the Young Farmers and hatched ducks in the dining room so that mealtimes were accompanied by the smell of wet bedding, duck shit and trodden in mash.
I was a soft target for my brothers, too. One day Theo handed me a roll of electric fencing. “Hold this for a second, Nels,” he said. “You won’t connect it, will you?” I ask. “Nah, course not,” he says, turning away and bending to attach the clips to the battery, doubling up with laughter as the shock threw me to the ground. The boys loved everything about the farm, driving the tractors, riding their motorbikes around the woods with their mates, galloping the fields on their horses. I mostly just wanted to be at home, or catching the bus in my new River Island yellow lycra pencil skirt to meet my best friend Caroline in town.
But there were bonuses to farm life. I liked the nests of farm cat kittens that turned up in the barn amongst the hay bales, the way they came running to me with sleepy eyes when I put down saucers of milk made up from tins of sweet-and-sour smelling yellow powder in the icy dairy. I carried a kitten home in my coat in the car one night, managing to keep him quiet until we reached my room. And I liked my rabbits sharing a large enclosure in the woods with the ducks and chickens. But I hated the cold and the wet and the boredom of it. The undoneness of it.
And yet here I am today, keeping chickens of my own. And I love walking the dog. And bonfires. And gardening.
Our hens have settled, running towards me now instead of away, and have begun to lay small pale eggs. In the mornings I go up to the orchard, smiling when they reply to my, “Morning girls!” with a clucky murmur. It’s a welcome relief during a work day, too, to go up to feed them or to rake up the grass they’ve loosened, to don gloves and muck out their coop. I love to watch them ferret about in the grass finding grubs and seeds, pecking woodlice from the ivy cladding the trees. They turn over the earth, squawking as they chance upon a worm, streaking, suddenly agile, like Roadrunner, across the orchard, dangling it from their beak like a piece of spaghetti. Intent on one patch they will suddenly turn their head as if remembering some forgotten task and flit towards another.
Thinking of our goats’ eyes, how their horizontal irises evolved as protection from predators and enhanced their night vision, I grow curious about the chickens’ vision; the way they rotate their heads to look at things I can’t see. I learn that they are tetrachromatic, meaning that they can see red, blue, green and ultraviolet light so see many more colours and shades than us, that they can see tiny light fluctuations imperceptible to us. I imagine their world as a disco ball of refracted, shimmering light. Apparently they can use each eye independently on different tasks. I learn that by turning themselves in the egg so that the right eye is exposed to light and the left is directed toward the body, the left eye is farsighted, the right nearsighted. Extraordinary (no pun intended!)
I resisted the idea of keeping hens for a long time because I thought only about the cost and not the benefit. “Just buy some eggs”, people told us, and we told ourselves. But it’s becoming like a micro-experience of farming, making me think even more about our relationship with the land and with animals. About how much we ask of each and of how much we expect in return; the way that we think about food production and animal husbandry in terms of inputs and outputs.
When I think of how much they have already given me, in terms of pleasure, relief and a sense of contentment, I realise that this already outweighs any material value. Sure, you can’t eat contentment, but I’m reminded again that the invisible things in life, the unquantifiable, are often the most ‘valuable’.