My office has no walls. This is a great design feature because we have amazing views. I see the snow showers sweep down the valley and the sun rise and fall. Red squirrels, badgers, foxes and deer take a shortcut through my office, and in summer the swallows swoop around me as I work. I feel the wind through my hair and the rain on my cheeks and, yes, on good days it makes me “feel alive”.
My office is the valley of Matterdale in the Lake District, or more accurately the fields of our 185-acre farm on the south-facing side of the valley.
I am a farmer. Having no walls to your office is a less great design feature when it is lashing sleet sideways down the valley. There is no roof to my office either, except sometimes clouds, and that’s a mixed blessing too. I just got frozen planting trees with my friend Danny and am thawing out as I write this.
When you work outside, life is very seasonal and weather matters in a visceral way. My hands swell like an old man’s in winter from the constant cold and wet. But there is an upside, of course.
A few times a year, when the sun is shining and the ground is dry, I lie down and just stare up at the sky, at the passing clouds or the swifts screaming as they chase each other over the fellsides, or at a peregrine falcon or buzzard swirling around on the thermals, high, high above in the patches of blue.
I worked in a proper office once. It was the most miserable time of my life. I’d peer out of the window longingly, feeling sick, and I filled my time by working as hard as I could to take my mind off it, or flirting with Gemma who sat at the reception desk, or swapping notes on music with Mike at the water cooler. I have never been so tired and jaded in my life as doing 10-plus hours a day in an air-conditioned glass box, bookended by sweaty commutes.
Working in that office years ago made me bitter. I started resenting my wife because she seemed to love being at home with our young children, and I felt like I was being sent to a life of dullness to pay the bills, instead of doing the stuff I dreamt of doing (try telling your mortgage adviser you want to be a writer if you want to see eyes roll). I couldn’t wait to get back to where I felt I belonged (and where my mood improved). Somehow, eventually, I did, but it took years.
These days I work from home, something that means lockdown hasn’t really affected what I do. There was no exhausting commute in the first place: I pull on my boots, exit the front door and I’m at work.
Work on the farm often changes by the hour because the weather and seasons are always changing. Maybe that’s the nicest thing about traditional outside work: you feel part of a flow of human effort that dwarfs you.
The other great thing about working here is that we are surrounded by beauty and nature; this valley never looks the same twice. The light shifts, or a skein of geese passes over, or the wind lifts the beech leaves and scatters them like giant copper sequins around me. There wasn’t much beauty when I worked in a real office: my desk faced a wall, and the only window I could see faced the air-conditioning units on the building opposite.
Often working outside is lonelier than working in an office, but even in our remote valley there is a kind of fellowship of the fields. We have a water-cooler equivalent in our roadside chats — it is not unusual for our road to be jammed with Land Rovers or pick-ups as we farmers swap grumbles on the weather or the price of sheep or gossip about who is sleeping with who in the local village.
Some things are similar: it takes a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy to run a modern farm business. And yes, this is really boring — all jobs have their dull bits. But the best bit, and it has always been the best bit for me, is that I am my own boss.
My working life can be painted as mindless rural drudgery or as romantic idyll in a pastoral landscape, but the truth is it is a whole range of good, bad and mediocre experiences, just like yours.
My experiences in 2020 have taught me to see the upside of my office, but also how precarious it is because we are connected to the rest of Britain, to how people shop, cook, eat and, yes, vote — we live or die depending on whether society values what we do. Now I must get back to my office because the cows need some hay.
James Rebanks is the author of the bestselling memoir ‘English Pastoral’
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