July 24th, 2009

Visiting the Ocean Beaches

Rebecca and I went to Moclips on the Pacific Ocean side of the Olympic Peninsula last weekend. I enjoy the ocean beaches but my parents and grandparents, who lived on the same farm we do, never showed any interest in the ocean. Bellingham Bay and Georgia Straits were enough for them. FoggyBeach

They may have been too busy. City dwellers may fantasize that farming is a relaxed, low-pressure life, but that is not the way I saw it. On a small farm, especially a dairy farm, it’s up at dawn and work until after dark, seven days a week, three hundred sixty five days a year. And the work fills every available minute. When my father took a day off, he had to choose which jobs that had to be done would go undone and he had to cope with the risk that something serious would go wrong in his absence. He often envied neighbors who he saw leaving for work in town when he was shoveling manure after morning milking. And we would see those same neighbors coming home while he was getting ready for evening milking.

A psychiatrist once told me that in Whatcom County, his most severely depressed patients were dairy farmers and he considered dairy farming, especially small family operations, to be a psychologically dangerous, even life-threatening, occupation. The rate of accidental death among owner-operator farmers is high, and from talking with his patients, he wondered how many of those accidents were actually suicides.

That view seems extreme to me but there is an element of truth. A farmer is at the mercy of the commodities markets, the banks, the weather, the health of his herd, and a thousand other things over which he has only minimal control. The work itself is often mind-numbingly boring and physically taxing. Every dairy farmer lives with the look, smell and even taste of bovine feces. By 50 all farmers have some form of arthritis and carpal tunnel is rampant. Most are injured often enough and severely enough to have missing or non-functioning body parts. Among my father’s farming friends, I remember three suicides, and that seems like a lot to me, because I can’t think of a single suicide among my friends.Pig barn
On the other hand, given all the drawbacks, there are some who like it. I think my Dad genuinely enjoyed working with the cows, and sometimes, even I have to agree with him: shoveling manure is unpleasant in a way that is preferable to the tone of some corporate meetings, and a mouthful of a manure dipped cow tail tastes better than what left in the pit of your stomach when you lay off a good employee because corporate mandated a ten per cent reduction in force. There is good and bad in everything.

I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time after I had seen the Atlantic. Only after I had gone to college on the shore of Lake Michigan and seen the Atlantic from New York and Boston, and only at Rebecca’s urging, did I ever go to see the Pacific. Since then, I still wait for my fill of the wide Pacific Ocean beaches of the Washington and Oregon coasts. My ancestors carefully kept woodlots and windbreaks all around the farm yard, so I have always lived in a clearing in the woods. A hundred yards in any direction and its a wall of trees. The ocean is a new world to me. Bursting out from the firs and cedars of the coastal forests, I see those wide wide breakers rolling that wash away my sopping cow tails and corporate meetings, and I could stay there forever, out of places and times and watching the waves.

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