In 1804 colonial England christened their coal-mining port in Australia with a strikingly original name – Newcastle. On the big island down under, Newcastle was where the very worst-behaved convicts were sent to dig up coals as punishment for the most severe crimes. It also happened to be my last stop on the sullied streets of civilisation before I was due to arrive at my soul-sculpting, organic, free-range destination. I was on my way to volunteer on an organic farm. I was taking a train from Newcastle to meet the real organic me.
By the time I arrived at the station, my backpack was heavy with pastoral imaginings that my head couldn’t alone contain. I flipped mental polaroids while I waited to be collected. Me in pink polka-dot wellington boots, prancing around the carrot patches. Me in a cowboy hat, tilted over matted blonde ringlets. Me and my morning skin, me and my celery-juiced eyes, me and the freckles I don’t have. I turned the lens to my soon-to-be farming family. They were giggling, slapping their farm-fed bellies as they snap, snap, snapped me falling into the ol’ wheelbarrow of hay. A fall cushioned in sweet and dreamy exhaustion.
So in reality when my hostess showed me into a timber cabin looking over green pastures, from a room packed with hand-crafted bunk beds draped in the sleet of white mosquito netting, my mind’s album of expectations seemed to be turning true to form. My hostess cracked open the door. There in the parched back yard stood a comic-looking tepee. ‘That,’ she said, ‘is where you’ll be sleeping.’ Green pastures dwindled. The cold-morning distance streamed in. And with a vicious smile, my hostess added, ‘And watch out for snakes missy!’
This was my first time volunteering on an organic farm. Was this normal? According to the organisation I’d signed up with, I would exchange light assistance for food, accommodation and lessons in an organic lifestyle.
My host showed me to a boudoir between the snakes, she pointed out a scattering of tomato vines and revealed that they were less of an organic farm and more of a guest lodge. Guests would arrive and I was to clean after them.
Organic lifestyle? I thought. A rather malleable term isn’t it?
Where I had been looking for a chance to dig my hands in the soil, this ‘organic farm’ was in the market for a free maid. Oh if trickery could be snapshot - mug shot. I thought to myself that the blood of convicts in these parts must run deep.
The farm was not only non-existent, but the house was a sty and as the morning crept towards a sweaty midday, I was given my list of chores. And to make matters worse, they begun with fitted sheets.
I was splayed across the top of a triple bunk-bed trying to stretch the puny sheet over each corner. My red hands strained as I stretched them taut, pulling, seizing, fighting the final corner of a bed that refused to be covered. I stretched, I strained, I cried. I tried to self-sooth. ‘That which does not kill us,’ ‘This too shall pass,’ ‘Breathe through the pain.’ Yoga mantras.
‘Oi!’ – from the room next door, the hairier of my hosts called out - ‘Cuhm’een ’ere wi’ you.’
I cowered in. He gestured towards the dirty laundry scattered across the room. He was wearing one of those ‘wife-beater’ vests and as he looked me up and down I suspected he was the type of guy who took the name to heart. He either had a hammer in his hand, or my imagination wove that detail into the picture.
I took out their dirty laundry and as I was scrubbing it, I spotted some similarly soiled truths about myself. ‘Organic’ refers to that which is constitutional in the structure of something, the integral, the fundamental. Something untainted by artifice; unfettered by the fake. And there I was volunteering on a fake organic farm, a princess in the tepee. As it turned out being organic wasn’t really organically me.