by Gwen Sanderson
On the 6th November I plan to leave Lancaster with Rob and spend some time on farms and in communities working out whether this dream of owning land, building on it and earning a small living is realistic for me and us. Whether realistically it is something I can do and want to do. I’ve passed the fluffy mental state. Fluffy, white clouds of dreams have abated and a harder reality faces me. Do I really want to experience the harshness of the winter, can my sedentary mid 40s body hack it? Does the need for a safe roof, a debt free life and a space for self employment really warrant letting go of the comforts of wall to wall carpet, central heating and the perception that I can have as much hot water and electricity as I want, a microwave, a freezer and plenty of space for stuff? Yes I know it is an unsustainable life but hey it’s the one I know!
Well so far, I’m going with the idea that the grass is very much greener on the other side. To retire as a teacher after a further 20 years of service doesn’t seem feasible. Not in good health anyway. If the exhaustion didn’t get to me the spiritual neglect of handling that daily grind would. Besides, there is another driver. Is the word ethical overused? I want to stop being as complicit as I have been in contributing to the end of the human species. I want to live with less!
A few acres, a bit of woodland, a poly tunnel or two, an orchard and a little house with a workshop – not much to ask for is it?
It’s a common dream. I spent a day as a supply English teacher last week- all KS4 classes so three lessons of Steinbeck’s, ‘Of Mice and Men’. It has been a standard GCSE text for a long time. I am reminded for another year that I’m not the only one ruminating about possibilities of a small stake in land.
For those who have forgotten or those that don’t know, Lennie (the big simple one) and George (the small clever one) are migrant farm workers.
Lennie’s favourite thing is for George to describe their dream to, “live off the fatta the lan…[and to]…have rabbits…”
“Well it’s ten acres,” said George. “Got a little win’mill. Got a little shack on it, an’ a chicken run. Got a kitchen, orchard, cherries, apples, peaches, ‘cots, nuts, got a few berries. They’s a place for alfalfa and plenty water to flood it. They’s a pig –….
The cream is so damn thick you got to cut it with a knife…
We’d just live there. We’d belong there…
We’d have a little house an’ a room to ourself. Little fat iron stove, an’ in the winter we’d keep a fire goin’ in it. It ain’t enough land so we’d have to work too hard. Maybe six, seven hours a day. We wouldn’t have to buck no barley eleven hours a day. An’ when we put in a crop, why we’d be there to take the crop up. We’d know what come of our planting.”
Reading out loud to a class of attentive students is one of the greatest pleasures an English teacher can have. Reading out loud, a text that is personally moving is pure privilege. I’ve read out that section year in and year out and never been personally moved by it until last year. In front of a small group of students I was moved by my empathy of a shared dream, anticipation and excitement by a group of characters who were looking for a way out. A route I identified with. ‘Empathy?’ you ask. I wasn’t a migrant farm labourer of the 1930s, victim of the great depression and a part of the landscape of industrial agriculture in the great spaces of the USA. Far from it! Educated, British, even middle class as I would be described now, an urban life and friends, comfortably cohabiting in a cosy home… so where’s the empathy with George and Lennie?
I identify with a vision that doesn’t involve overwork in a system I can’t make sense of. I empathise with a need to have choice and control in the what, the how and the outcome of my work. Don’t we all look to settle, to rest, to find our place, to belong?
Steinbeck portrays a world of loneliness and the disconnections not only between people but also the fragmentation that comes from mass industrial farming. And the hope that comes from those who dare to think that collecting together to share a ‘stake’ may be the answer to their loneliness and their oppression. That world feels very familiar to me.
But what can we learn from Steinbeck’s ending? The imbalance of Lennie’s physical strength and mental weakness leads to tragic consequences. Literally, it is ultimately fear that prevents the dream from manifesting into anything real. It’s the greatest disabling emotion, surely… I get that …totally!
There are distinct similarities with that time and this. The extent to which we are essentially defined by our social, economic and political environment is embedded in this story. It was a time of a dysfunctional economy coupled with a wholly inadequate societal support system at a historical moment of great desperation. News from Greece and Spain is prominent and I feel it’s an experience creeping ever near. As a global citizen there are real parallels.
There are differences. We are in an economic recession at a time when projections for our future have never been bleaker in terms of resource depletion and the potential havoc that climate change and peak oil will wreak. Our state is entirely at the beck and call of global trends that far outreach the controls of national governments. Our culture leaves many of us weary, overworked, caught up in the banal lives of consumerism. For every atom of reason that we should dream of land, there is every reason why our plan should fail. Not least, we are fickle. I am fickle – the 21st century mind is fickle. Will I still want this next year? More than that George and Lennie’s dream was shared – it was a collective one … We are increasingly socialised by individualism – one person’s crash left the others hopeless. Can we, me and Rob move forward with others, all together?
Steinbeck’s narrative leaves me thinking about the strength that comes from not only the balance between my own body and mind but the balance of connections with like minded others and the natural world. For this plan to manifest from a dream to reality depends on factors much greater than me. Shifting from that very personal dream state, however, to one that is wholly hands and wellies on has to be our next step. Being itinerant is our choice, but only for a while I hope.
Wish us luck!