By Laura Day, Communications and Common Room Intern at the Office of the Pro-Vice-Chancellor, English PhD Candidate and Young Members’ Representative in the Senior Common Room at St John’s College.
Lockdown has led each of us a different way. It’s hard to judge what is right or wrong, what is OK and what is not OK, and what plans we should be making and for when. Will we be back to normal by Christmas 2020? Or will we still be in a socially distant state of limbo until Christmas 2021? We cannot control it. We simply do not know. This is unchartered territory for most – if not all – and there needs to be a moment amongst it when we discover how to cope. I have realised that, at times, I do not cope well. But I also realise that everyone has moments like I do. There are often times a sense of fear, uncertainty, panic, grief over the time we have lost with friends or at University and worry for family and friends as the virus grips the country tightly. But amongst the “unprecedented times” (phrasing, I suggest, has been used in far too many emails in recent months), life does go on. And so, we must begin a process of situating ourselves in a world we perhaps struggle to understand at the moment. As overwhelming a task as this may first appear, it becomes easier when we look at the parts of life that remain mostly untouched. To find this, we must look at nature and the land.
Whilst I spend the majority of my time in Durham, living the life of both postgraduate researcher and University staff member, I chose to travel home for the lockdown period. ‘Home’ is in Cumbria, on the very edges of the Howgill Fells. I live on a farm – the steading teeters undecidedly between the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks, unsure of which it wants to belong. We, therefore, are a happy mixture of both parks. When I open the curtains every morning, I am greeted by the gently rolling contours of the Dales; there are no sharp crags or dramatic bodies of water. Instead, there are fields of green grass, dry-stone walls, local becks making their way to bigger rivers, and secluded clusters of trees clinging to the dale slopes. Yet, when I walk onto the farm, there are Herdwick sheep around every corner, alongside North of England Mules – two breeds of sheep native to the north, with the Herdwick sheep being a familiar figure of the Lake District in particular. We have cattle too, but they take a back seat to the sheep between March-May, as we make way for lambing time. As a ‘key worker’, my father’s daily life as a hill shepherd has continued much the same as usual, as has my mother’s – she works in the NHS.
Being the daughter of a hill shepherd is simultaneously enjoyable, yet restrictive. I appreciate that my mother always had a difficult task booking the family holiday every year. We have never been away over Christmas because we have an early lambing flock in January; we’ve never been away in mid-late July (when schools close for summer) because it is both sheep-shearing and silage (grass-cutting) time on the farm; the October half term always coincided with auction mart season (the time of the year when farmers tend to buy in most of their stock); and large swathes of the summer holidays were occupied with weaning of lambs, second cut of silage, dosing sheep, and preparing for the autumn sales. It was, in hindsight, a virtually impossible task. Easter was never an option, either; because Easter is synonymous, for most people in agriculture, with lambing time. We welcome, on our farm, around 3000 lambs each year over a 6-week period. It is a busy and intense time.
In the weeks preceding lambing, the farm is only just emerging from the depths of winter. Living in Cumbria, winter is unrelenting; we are often bombarded with day after day of driving rain, coupled with snow, sleet, and high winds. We have had lambing time with snow on the ground, but we have also had lambing time in t-shirts and shorts. Whilst the weather might not be predictable, lambing time always is. And this year, whilst we were focused on the changeable weather, we were preparing for lambing amidst a global pandemic. Despite this, lambing barely changed pace or plan. It was quite sobering, at times, to spend ten minutes watching the morning headlines noting the number of deaths nationally and globally and contemplating an economic downturn, to then walk outside to new life in every shed and every field, happening as if the world were just as it was. The pandemic has left nature untouched. In some cases, it has been a benefit; carbon emissions continuously lower, and wild animals track back into deserted high streets to have a look around.
The steadfast continuity of nature is settling. It has helped me to cope with the anxieties we are all understandably feeling. Whilst the human world struggles to see hope, the natural world is full of it. I appreciate, more now than ever, how blessed I am to have access to such a world as the farm. I have developed a routine of sorts, which includes watering the plants in the morning, chopping sticks from pieces of wood for the kitchen and living room fires at lunchtime, and then walking or jogging with mum through the farm fields in the evening. It is a peaceful way to spend an uncertain time. One would almost be forgiven for forgetting the outside world; when you occupy 1100 acres of land with just your family, sheepdogs, cattle, and sheep, the outside world seems very far away. As I sit at the kitchen table in the evening, and the sun sets on another day in lockdown, I listen to my dad worry about the lack of rain in the last week, and how it will affect the grass growth in the fields. I listen to him plan the three mornings of compulsory TB testing of the cattle, which must take place despite lockdown. I listen to him organise the sale of our beef and lamb to Morrison’s and Tesco, because our local farm shop has closed down. And I listen as he figures out which drystone walls need rebuilding first, as he moves sheep and cattle around the meadows for the summer months.
Life on the land goes on. And soon, society will too.
Photographs by Laura Day
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