Earlier this year I introduced myself to my classmates in a university tutorial by telling them I wanted to be a farmer.
Looking back, people probably thought I was trying to be quaint, quirky, or charming. Those kinds of getting-to-know-you speeches at uni can be really competitive by your final year. It’s not enough to just say “um hi, I’m so-and-so… I’m doing Arts and Education… I’ve got a dog,” and then giggle self-consciously like we all did in first year. You’ve really got to bring it these days. Justify why you’re still at university in your mid-twenties. Compose a funny and insightful verbal self-portrait in twenty-five words or less.
But actually I think wanting to be a farmer sums me up quite well. It’s one of the only economically viable ways to be a recluse these days. If you’re a twenty-four-year-old student who chooses not to participate in social media or club-going or meeting friends for coffee every Sunday, you’re probably a bit weird or a bit pretentious. If you’re a farmer who chooses not to do these things, you’re just being practical. I want to be a practical recluse.
I’ve been living alone for three months now. To give a clear idea of what this means in real terms: I’m far enough down the path of isolation-induced insanity to be sitting at my kitchen table wearing nothing but a Santa hat and listening to Phil Collins, but not so far down it that I don’t have a logical reason for doing both.
It was a long series of circumstances involving the expatriation of siblings, interstate relocation of housemates and my parents returning to the motherland (Western Australia) that led to my living alone. It was a shockingly abrupt period of mass-abandonment that I had to try very hard to not take personally. Since then I’ve gone through several distinct stages of mental deterioration. I discovered that I have no self-discipline whatsoever. I always kind of knew this about myself, but living alone has thrown it into even sharper relief. I drink constantly. I eat constantly. I sleep until 2pm. I answer the door to Jehovah’s Witnesses completely naked. When I drop something on the floor, I only pick it up if I was in the middle of eating it.
It was after about six weeks that I really started to lose touch with reality. I was having extremely long and detailed conversations with myself. I went to bed exhausted; dry-mouthed after talking my own ear off for hours every night. More recently I’ve been driving my car to football fields across town and sleeping there for a few hours before waking up in the early hours of the morning and driving home again. When you live by yourself, there’s a danger that you’ll start over thinking everything. Instead of just doing the things you need to do each day, you start thinking things like “what if everything I have ever done has just been part of society’s hegemonic plan? What if the true meaning of life lies in something I would never even think to try?” and that’s when you start doing handstands against your living room wall.
If I were a farmer I could get away with the same level of eccentricity in my search for meaning without also leading a completely pointless existence. Right now my survival depends on my ability to go grocery shopping, show up at my job in childcare three times a week and move the money they give me for doing so into various other accounts to pay my bills and rent. None of this requires a huge amount of personal motivation. If my survival depended on tending to land, livestock and machinery on a daily basis, I could do as many handstands as I liked and still be considered a productive human being. I wouldn’t have to pretend to like coffee or understand sports or watch My Kitchen Rules because there would be no propagators of small-talk in my life to quiz me on these things. The prospect of what I’m going to say to my boss every time I arrive at work and she asks how my weekend was fills me with dread. I don’t understand what the protocol is in this situation. I probably spent my weekend doing things she wouldn’t approve of. Am I supposed to make up something wholesome to have done on the weekend and tell her I did that? Do I just tell the truth and watch the disappointment flicker across her face? I always suspected you were not cut out for childcare Rhiannon, and here is the proof.
A farmer does not have these kinds of problems. A farmer has always done something wholesome, even if he or she has also been involved in unseemly sexual acts or neo-Pagan rituals. When your physical subsistence depends on real, tangible work, you get a free pass in terms of fulfilling society’s other expectations. “I ear-tagged eighty head of cattle, killed two kilometres of lantana and fixed a barbed-wire fence today. Leave me to drink my illegal moonshine and talk to myself in peace.”