The summer is here, the days are hot and I am out putting up sheep wire on our hill farm with my father. Fencing, that ancient act, is nothing new to us, but in the time of the coronavirus it has become a strange and novel thing. As we work, we must keep our distance from one another like strangers.
The erection of this fence has come to symbolise our new life.
Our latex gloves are tight and firm as we affix the wire to the fencing posts. Our 100 sheep have been brazen in their attacks on the sweet grass of the front fields of late and have broken through the old wire. The sheep wire will put manners on them, we joke.
It has been eight weeks since the country started to close down and, though much in the world has changed, the age-old practice of farming continues. We the people of the land have found ourselves challenged and championed.
My world, the world of Birchview farm in rural Co Longford, is a new land. Our lives have been reduced but also expanded. In this new slow lane, we now see the place for what it always was: our natural bounty.
We listen to the tractor radio as we work the wire; there have been more deaths today. Though each one is a blow, we must continue on. The work of the farm does not stop, even in the shadow of death. The birds sing now in louder voices, or maybe it is that we have new-found ears for the sounds of nature. Gone is the cacophony of cars and lorries, of tractors and motorbikes. In their place, we have found the bee-loud nature of the world once again.
We stretch the sheep wire with the tractor and listen for the tension in the metal as it becomes taut and strong. I work one end and my father the other as we nail our staples into the fencing posts. The echoes of our beats ring out through the land.
"This will hold the bastards," my father shouts.
The briars are thick and strong in some places and I take to them with the hedge knife. They will not hold back our progress today, and soon the wire wall is taking shape.
My mind has calmed now in the work and I think that it could be a few years, if our job goes well, until we are in this spot again. What changes will have been wrought then, what deaths or tragedies, what gains and joys? They say a river is never the same each time you return to it; so too it is with a field.
In this the time of great sickness, we do not know what the land has in store for us. But we are ready.
At lunchtime, as we wilt under the sun, we break and eat our lunch. In this too we are separate. He eats pork and I beef; we have packed different lunches at different houses. We cannot even share a bottle of water as we would done in the days before the outbreak.
We do not curse life's lot, for it could be worse. We could be stuck in an apartment with no outdoor space. That, I know, would be a death of a new kind to my father.
The coronavirus has become a teacher, albeit a cruel one - one that has shown us that everything was always here, everything we needed to live was in this land.
The land I live upon is known as the midlands. Here in the centre of Ireland, we are like the navel of this ancient place. Beneath my feet are layer upon layer of limestone laid down in the carboniferous period, millions of years ago. It is said to be the remains of ancient life. Limestone is known for its permeability: water flows through it, creating strange shapes as it does.
Sometimes when I am standing upon this land of ours I think that the water pouring through the stone has not just shaped the rock but us. That in this midland, this middle place, we are meeting both life and death, heaven and hell, nature and destruction, and that the permeation has made us the people we are.
I have had time to ponder all this in the last few weeks, we all have. Unable to travel, we have all come to be experts in our native lands. Like the urban dwellers who have come to know the idiosyncrasies of their gardens, I too have come to know the bends and folds of fields the way the people of old did.
Covid-19 has altered our daily lives as farmers. As the son of farming parents, it has meant a change in how we operate our farm. We do not work together save in rare instances. The chores have been divided. I now look after the sheep while my father tends to the cows.
My mother, the heart of our farm, has had to close her Montessori school and has returned to farming full-time. She has bought suck calves to rear, some rare-breed cattle, and she is bottle-feeding two sickly lambs that would have died in the fields had she not intervened.
On a visit to the farm while keeping our distances one evening, she remarked to me that this new world was like the one she had grown up in. People never moved far, your life centred on your farm and a trip to town happened only once a month. In so many ways we have returned to the sean nós-ness of this life.
I live upon the hill country of Longford in the shadow of Cairn Hill, the highest point in the midlands. My wife, Vivian, who lived in Dublin part of the week, now works from home conducting her advertising job through her computer and Zoom meetings.
While the coronavirus has taken much from so many, it has given us something we have not had in over a year: a life together. There is no need to be in Dublin any more. Coming to learn that her work life could be conducted from our kitchen dining table, she has come to love our life in the countryside. In the evenings after work, I drive her to see the sheep. Vivian, who was raised a city girl in Sydney, has come to know the life of farming. She points out lambs that are thriving, others that need help, and remarks when the grass is growing and if we need to think about moving the stock.
Gone for now are the big social days of trips to the mart or, with the coming of summer, the celebrations of agricultural shows. With the temporary closure of many of the fast-food chains and the decline in exports, the demand for Irish beef fell, and with it the price of a beast.
We sold the last of our yearling cattle just before the market dipped. My father remarked to me that we were lucky to be rid of the animals and have the money in our account.
For me, that trip was a completion of a journey of sorts. The calves of my own cows Granta and Houghton - the names of the publishers of The Cow Book - were sold. With the money, I hope to buy another cow, but that is no easy thing any more. I look through the pages of Done Deal in the evenings after work to see if there is a cow nearby and if the farmer would deliver her. Even in the movement of animals, we must be wary of the virus. Animals are still traded, yes, but it is a much more careful affair.
The sheep who are my charge are a different matter. Lamb is trading well at the moment. We are lucky that every year Muslim friends arrive at the time of Ramadan to buy lambs for the less well-off in their community. It is a central tenet of Islam to help the less fortunate. This week our friends arrived again looking for fit lambs to be brought under the halal butcher's knife.
We had just three lambs fit for sale but we were glad to be able to supply them to our brothers.
Our neighbours, our great friends in farming, have become cyphers to us. We do not know what occurs in their worlds or on their lands.
The spirit of meitheal has had to change. Favours can be done but they must be done in different ways: an animal dropped at a house, a friendly chat over the phone, but we must keep apart. In doing that, we miss the old ways of doing things.
When the height of summer arrives and the hay and silage are to be made, we do not know what help we will have. My young cousin Jack, now a strong young man in his teens, has helped us the past few years with the haymaking but if the restrictions are not lifted we shall not have his hands nor his strong back.
With the formation of a new government on the horizon, farmers are worried that there will be a reduction in the size of the national herd. My father, who has always been far-seeing in his work, had expected this.
"They will pay us to farm the way our fathers did," he says. "Less will be more." The rushes, the ditches, the curlew: they will be our new crops, they will change how we think of our world. Cattle will be bought and sold, yes; lambs will go to the butcher, but the quality of their lives will be better, and hopefully their prices will be higher.
The pandemic has taught us many things, that life was moving too quickly, that our endless cavalcade of incessant growth was pushing the world too far. To me, the outbreak was a breakdown, but this breakdown can become a breakthrough.
Farming can change, we can adapt, we can focus on our land and our animals and find a new way of being. We must still stand up to the meat factories and the grocery giants, but this shift has already begun; already people are growing their own food, killing an animal for the freezer, thinking in rhythm with the seasons again.
The breakthrough is the awakening of a people to an unstoppable idea; a new way of living. There are many things from the old world that we can do without. That world does not exist any more. That is the road that brought us to this place, this stoppage.
Covid-19 is a teacher, a heartless one, but if we listen it will teach us how to appreciate life again in the wake of all that once was. The power is in our hands again to change the system for perhaps the first time in a generation.
Let us not go back to the way it was, let us remove the endless hours of commuting, the pollution from needless industry, the throw-away culture.
Let us find new lives in the time of the great sickness and on this build our foundation of a new world.
John Connell is author of 'The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Family Farm'