When I was in my 20s I spent a season on a small cattle farm in southern Virginia.
I perhaps learned more in this one summer than I have in the rest of my life combined. I learned to “get up hay,” “tend garden,” and fix things that were broken. I also learned a fair bit about life.
My days were spent working construction on nearby homes, and my mornings, afternoons and weekends helping out around the farm.
They guys on my construction crew were of a vastly different class and life experience than I had known.
I was raised a suburban kid – going to the mall, smoking weed, listening to Led Zep, riding my stingray and later driving mom’s car around the neighborhood – desperately seeking relief from boredom.
By the time I found myself on the farm I’d worked a few retail jobs and gone to a couple years of college studying philosophy and religion. At this point in my life I yearned for the working-man authenticity of Kerouac and listened to “Working Man’s Dead” somewhat too much.
The farm woke me up a bit. It made me see that the idealized world I had dreamt of in my philosophy was mostly a load of horse shit.
Life on the farm and on the work crew was hard. It smelled terrible often, was sweaty and monotonous and full of death. Yes death.
I was on this farm because it was where I’d just gotten married (for the first time). It was owned by my in-laws. The previous winter they had lost their youngest son in a car accident. And during this summer there were other deaths – one of a toddler (who belonged to a friend of a guy on my work crew) and another local teenager in another car accident.
This was a hard summer for me. I was coming of age – still very young but also very serious and, I thought, older than my years – I turned 22 that August and thought myself a man. During this summer I learned just how hard and short life could be.
The core crew I worked on was made up of two guys named Charlie and me.
The Charlies were raised in trailers – one was a new dad, lean, ambitious, smart and a talented mechanic. The other was overweight and lazy – and also a weed dealer who always had at least $1000 in cash in his wallet.
We built stone walls together. Mixing mortar in a small batch cement mixer (we called it mud) and quarrying stone from a local mountain using a Bobcat and a dump truck off-road. The fastest I ever saw Charlie 2 move was when the dump truck’s parking brake gave out and he ran and jumped in the cab and pulled the brake. It was impressive and pretty dangerous act that probably saved the truck – and our jobs.
This life was close to nature – but not yoga-retreat nature, hard nature. We were stoned a lot, smoked a lot, jumped in lakes when we got too hot, watched thunderheads roll in during the late afternoon – wishing and waiting and hoping that a thunderstorm would hit and pull the humidity out of the air. We listened to a pop radio station incessantly and talked about sex and drugs and mud and more.
In the evenings I’d go home to my in-laws. They had a huge garden and a big house on 200 acres or so. They were rich by local standards. My father in law was a gentleman farmer of sorts. He’d been raised in a somewhat upper class family had become a civil engineer and then opted, deliberately, for the country life. He worked a job during the day and the farm in the mornings and evenings.
At dinner we’d all sit around the big kitchen table and eat vegetables from the garden. I arrived at the farm a vegetarian but one day at dinner there was beef being served. The beef came from a cow named Harold and half of him was in the freezer (the other half was in a freezer of the dairy farm next door and bought my in-laws the permission to go refill glass bottles with warm, raw milk anytime they wanted).
That evening I looked out the window at the farm where Harold had spent his life, smelled the delicious dish – and dug in. The next day pushing wheelbarrows full of mud and rock and brick I felt extra strong. I’ve not been a vegetarian (for long) since.
Here is why I’m telling you all this.
If you spend much time in a place like this you’ll hear the phrase “burning daylight” often – at least I did 30 years ago. It’s usually used in a sentence that’s urging people to hurry like “Come on boys we’re burning daylight!”
There are certain things you can only do when the sun is up. Summer on a farm (and construction site) is a time to be productive. They days are long and the mornings are cool so first-light is extra valuable.
As I sit down now each morning this summer to write – either in my office or on my laptop on the roof deck – I think about this phrase a lot.
I’ll be turning 54 in a couple weeks and that farm and that summer seem to be a few lifetimes ago. I’ve done a lot in my life – but damn there is so much more I want to do. I feel like I’m just getting started in many ways.
Each morning is precious. Each moment can be spent goofing off or getting better at what I do – writing and working with leadership teams – all in the hope that my life will mean something, contribute to something better when I’m gone. One of the benefits of age is that you can (as Wendell Berry said in his poem “Requiem”) see the world with yourself no longer in it.
If I’m honest though it is a scary thing to sit down and not know what to write or to stand at the front of a room and know that they have issues and are looking for me to help.
Life is an improvisation for us all – and I’m fortunate to have a life and a career that is more improvisational than most and more abundant than many.
But still every day there is only so much daylight to burn – to enjoy. Each year this daylight seems to burn off faster than last.
Now let’s get back to work boys. We’re burning daylight.