I considered driving past the exit to Lima, Ohio on many of my morning commutes. Lima is where I worked as a high school science teacher, managing ornery teenagers and multiple-choice tests. If only that highway exit had been a multiple-choice exit, maybe I would have looked forward to my morning drive. Perhaps the options could have been: Exit A- Lima, Ohio; Exit B- Lima, Peru; Exit C- Lima Bean Farm. Most mornings, I would have opted for pulling weeds.
One week after my second year of teaching ended, I drove past the exit altogether. In pursuit of happiness, I put Ohio in my rearview mirror, the state that claims to be “the heart of it all.” I felt like that motto no longer spoke to me.
I drove to a five-acre farm in the green mountains of Vermont, where I planned to volunteer as a farmhand. My only gardening experience up to that point was sitting on my Grandpa’s porch shelling peas, plus my annual saunter in his pumpkin patch to pick a Halloween pumpkin.
When I very first heard about WWOOFing, an acronym that stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, I knew I had found an open door into the country life. I was ready to step onto the sun-warmed soil and learn the most basic art of survival: farming.
I entered the farm life with a romantic vision, one dominated by rolling hills, red barns, and peaceful days spent scattering seeds and watering plants. Part of my vision remained intact in Vermont. I awoke each morning to fog-shrouded mountains and rows of salad greens emerging from the rich black soil.
I visited a neighboring dairy farm to fill up glass jars with fresh raw milk, heavy with cream. I snatched my morning eggs directly from the hens outside the kitchen door. I felt connected with the land.
However, part of my romantic vision had to be adjusted. My first day on the job, I received instructions to make a slurry of chicken manure and compost and pack it around the base of each pepper we transplanted. The pepper, eggplant, and melon transplanting went on from sunrise to sunset for six consecutive days.
Interspersed with transplanting, I killed cucumber beetles by knocking them into a bucket of water and smashing them under my boot. In the shower my second night, I discovered a tick trying to burrow head first into the moist skin behind my knee.
The beautiful thing about WWOOFing is that there is no contract. When I realized that my Vermont host, Hector, planned on working me close to 60 hours/week, I said thanks and goodbye. The ideal WWOOF arrangement is one where the volunteer gets good organic food and lodging in exchange for a half day of labor. Hector delivered on the wonderful food and accommodation, but as for the labor, I felt used. From that point onward, I stayed on farms for one month increments, not counting the four-day stretch in southern California where my host woke me up to the sound of his WWII bugle and served a dinner consisting of leftover cafeteria food.
After Hector’s farm, I drove to Maine where I cared for a flock of Icelandic sheep, bottle-fed a pair of lambs and learned how to spin wool into yarn and knit. I also learned how to milk a goat and turn milk into cheese. The Icelandic sheep farm marked the beginning of a more humane and relaxed WWOOFing experience.
My host, Joan, only required three hours of work/day, giving me time to hike the Appalachian trail, kayak, and pick blueberries for spending money.
From Joan’s Icelandic sheep farm, I followed a southern route, WWOOFing on a permaculture farm in Massachusetts, and then to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where I lived in a tepee, turned freshly-killed deer into hamburger, chopped firewood, and learned how to make sauerkraut, applesauce, and granola.
Clear Creek Homestead of North Carolina marked the beginning of my sustainable living education. Most of my food came directly from the land: fried duck eggs, venison burgers, blueberry, strawberry, and blackberry jam, plus fermented, fresh and canned vegetables.
Wood provided all our heating and cooking needs. My lovely hosts, George and Whitney, treated me like family, inviting me up to their roundhouse every evening for a home-cooked meal. At night, I lay in my tepee and listened to the soft thud of deer hooves as the local herds ate apples and leaves from the nearby trees. My month on Clear Creek Homestead was an idyllic one, accompanied by a brilliant display of autumn leaves.
After I hugged George and Whitney goodbye, I continued on to Salamander Springs in Georgia where I got a taste of living completely off-the-grid. I cooked all my meals directly over an open fire like a primitive human, fetched my water from a natural ground spring in the forest, and worked with a motley crew of international WWOOFers to convert a one-acre piece of forestland into a garden. Our tool of choice was a sharpened pick-axe. I felt like I had travelled back in time to the land of pioneers.
For seven months following Salamander Springs, I experienced an amazing array of sceneries. I worked on an avocado and tropical fruit farm south of Miami, several homesteads in California, a chestnut farm, and a family-farm in Oregon that sold raw milk, eggs, and produce.
I ended my year of WWOOFing with a sense of satisfaction. I ate the freshest most delicious and wholesome food of my life. I stood on mountain peaks, under the canopy of redwoods, and hovered over coral reef. I witnessed the spring wildflowers of California and the glaciers of Mt. Rainier. I experienced the beauty and bounty of America’s countryside.
In addition to the outdoor splendor, I found great treasures within. During my WWOOF stay in Massachusetts, I attended a silent meditation retreat. For ten days of Vipassana meditation, I went on an inner journey and emerged with a life-long tool for putting my mind at ease.
The whole point of leaving my teaching career was to pursue greater happiness, and at the time I thought this could be attained by going someplace new. To a degree, that turned out to be true. I found a much-needed dose of peace and quiet in the farm life.
However, the meditation helped me realize that most, if not all of my happiness begins from within. It’s a truth that I’ve heard many times throughout my life, but it wasn’t until I sat down, closed my eyes, and observed myself on a physical level that I experienced the source of my happiness and suffering.
Nowadays, when I hear the Ohio motto, “the heart of it all,” I like to think of it as a personal motto. No matter where I go and who I am with, I am the one who generates my own happiness. Like you, I am the heart of it all.
Brian’s recently published book, Farming Around the Country: An Organic Odyssey chronicles his year of WWOOFing, couchsurfing, and Vipassana meditation. He currently lives and works in Eugene, Oregon.