Wake up and smell the sheep shit. Seriously. This book is so full of the smells of childhood I’m twelve years old again and on a farm holiday, awake before dawn in a drafty room excited about bottle feeding the lambs.
It’s different, of course, because this isn’t a holiday for Saunders and his family but their full-time lived experience; five generations on this land that they tend with deep affection and with a longevity that gives perspective to the everyday problems of farmers. There’s time. The budget can wait until after lambing. The planting will wait till the rain clears. The price for wool wont pay for the shearing this year and the crop prices are falling — these are long term problems they’ve faced before and they’re still here. They’ll sort it.
In This Farming Life we walk through a year with Saunders and his family on the farm. Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring. Out in the paddocks, at the table with roast lamb or stuffed mushrooms, shearing, planting, possums and dogs, driving tractors and docking lambs and mud and shit everywhere. It’s marvellous.
The book is short but the story long: deep roots and a far horizon a reminder of the time scale here, and the repetition of farming life. Whatever changes scratch the surface, the frame of the story remains the same through the centuries: the sun rises and sets, the wind blows and rain comes or doesn’t, the seasons cycle and the mountains sit on the horizon. You can imagine a few generations forward the story will be much the same; different people, different crops perhaps. Maybe one of today’s tractors will make a cameo in the future in the same way as the 1945 Farmall M returns today. There’s time.
I loved the flashbacks to childhood, memories of a friend and adventures triggered by the repeat of a flooded river or a birthing animal. Just kids, hooning around on their bikes, figuring things out, learning how a farm works, how life works. These are little flash-fictions with all the wonder and joy of a young boy. We get a good feeling for Saunders’ dad, too, now in his 80s but in the flashbacks he’s a young farmer, telling his son about the history of the place, teaching him to drive a tractor in straight lines through the field. “Pick something and drive towards it,” he tells young Tim, who picks a sheep wandering across the neighbouring paddock.
We get the origin story of how the family came to own the farm, and they weren’t landed gentry. The land was bought with money from the West Coast goldmines, but there’s a twist in that tale. I’m hoping it’s true but even if polished up over the years it’s a great story.
This is a farmer talking and the topics all farm, but the farmer is a poet, which is kind of unsettling. In a good way. Not all farmers have a stick of straw between their teeth. There are plenty of descriptive passages about weather and clouds and the odd piece of gorgeousness like this, when Saunders goes out in the morning to find a tree has fallen across the front paddock:
“The air had sagged with the sadness of magpies when the old man pine came down.”
I enjoyed hanging out on the Saunders’ farm for a year. The story feels like the real deal, the shit has a good smell of authenticity.
As Saunders says: “Everything was where it belonged. Cycles turned. Seasons changed. Life went about its business, I felt my place in its belly.”