Cutting to the Cottagecore
A Q&A about my life beyond the popular hashtag.
Last month, Savannah College of Art and Design journalism student Anastasia Carrow reached out to me asking to include my perspective in an article she was writing about the realities behind the popular cottagecore trend. I was, of course, all too happy to help. She sent a list of incredibly thoughtful questions that touch upon many of the queries I get on a regular basis, and while a few of my answers appeared in her wonderful piece, I thought the full Q&A should have a home somewhere. With Anastasia’s permission, I’ve included it below.
Firstly, what inspired you to make this lifestyle change? I know on your website you say that you moved from NYC to a 30-acre farm, so what sparked such a drastic change in environment? Was it a jarring adjustment, or did it feel right?
In 2016 I started suffering from depression (I realize now I've always suffered from anxiety and depression, but this is when it got particularly bad and I started educating myself more and seeking help). By 2017 I was also dealing with suicidal ideation and struggling with what to do. I'd begun curating my social media feeds to be filled with relaxing, beautiful things—country landscapes and flowers and farms and historic cottages. I was a nature-loving kid and I found myself gravitating back to that mindset...my life in Brooklyn was so far from the way I'd grown up. Every night before bed I'd scroll the feeds like a vision board.
One day in November 2017, while I was on an Amtrak en route back to Brooklyn from a visit to a childhood friend in our hometown (I grew up outside Albany, NY), I was scrolling Instagram and paused on a post from a small Catskills farm I followed. It was a photo of two sheep eating and the caption asked if anyone would like to watch their animals over the Thanksgiving holiday. I have very little family and had no holiday plans, so I didn't even think, I just DMed. A couple of text convos and one phone call later and I was meeting a total stranger on the Upper West Side so he could drive me two and a half hours north to his farm. I stayed alone in the family's massive 1830s farmhouse and took care of their sheep, chickens, guinea hens, turkeys, cats, and dog. I had zero experience and was terrified the whole time, but I also felt more alive than I had in forever. It worked out great and they ended up recommending me to friends in the area who have an alpaca farm (they've also intermittently owned donkeys and cows). I ended up watching their farm in spring 2018, and then went again to the first farm that next Thanksgiving.
Each time I returned to Brooklyn from the Catskills, I became more and more depressed. I realized my time away in nature and with animals had really benefitted my mental health, as had challenging myself with these new responsibilities. I made plans to "eventually" move away sometime in the future, but after returning from my fifth farmsitting stint in May of 2019, I realized it was a matter of life and death...so I looked on Zillow right away and found the rented cottage I'm living in. I knew nothing about this area of New Jersey when I moved out here—my search parameters had simply been somewhere rural within a few hours' drive of New York City (I wasn't ready to cut the cord completely, personally or professionally). I drained my meager savings to buy a very (very, very, very) used car and fund my move, and then I just started exploring. I also learned to get on the level of everything else out here, get quiet. Everything opened up after that.
If you'd told me a year before I moved that I would've been thrilled to do it, I wouldn't have believed you. I thought I was a Brooklyn lifer, a city girl through and through, and defined myself as such. But I'd gotten into a code red situation, mentally, and my back was against the wall. It was only when I moved that I realized how much I needed it...there was no way to understand it until I was looking at it from the other side. So for me, I think my body was telling me I'd gotten way off course from my authenticity. I still struggle with depression and anxiety, but it's much more manageable out here and I feel like I'm more in tune with the creative life I want to be living and the proximity to the natural world that I grew up loving. It's exactly what I need right now and may always be, but I've learned that absolutes are tricky—I'm just trying to stay tuned in to my body and interests and follow that lead.
How important is self-sustainability to you? Do you grow your own food, bake your own bread, sew your own clothes, etc.? If so, why is it worth it? (I'd really love to be more self-sustainable myself, but since so many of us no longer grow up learning these practical skills, teaching ourselves all at once can feel overwhelming.)
This is the aspect of cottagecore that I'm least drawn to—I'm not a baker and don't particularly like cooking, and while I love the idea of making my own clothes it's just not something I'm enthusiastic enough about to learn. I think it's wonderful when people can do this, and I'm always in awe of it. But, for now, it's not something I'm called to do. I'm just trying to keep my sourdough starter Lorna alive, over here!
Sustainability-wise, though, I love the larger message about staying close to nature and patronizing small farms, independent makers, and mom-and-pop shops. That's something I've had much more access to out here in the country, and it's also something I always keep in mind when shopping online. I'm pretty obsessed with finding and highlighting small makers—that's another thing I do a lot in my Instagram stories. When I take on projects involving food or making things, it's usually as a fun creative endeavor. I've made lilac honey with the flowers from a bush on our property, and dandelion fritters and violet lemonade from blooms in our lawn. I have a ton of other examples of things like this in my Instagram reels—I tend to be drawn more towards foraging and the excitement of learning how to incorporate things from the natural world into nourishment or art. It all ties into that sense of curiosity and discovery that I try to lean into every day.
Could you give me a quick rundown of your day-to-day schedule? What is living on a farm really like?
I have different answers to this, based on various situations. I only help out at smaller farms, so I can't speak to larger agricultural operations.
When at home...
I rent my cottage on my landlords' farm, next to their house (my cottage is the home's old summer kitchen), so the farm isn't mine and I don't run it on a daily basis. It's also what you'd call a "gentleman's farm" or a "farmette"—it's only 30 acres and isn't used for the production of commercial goods. We have a flock of (currently) nine sheep that help maintain the pastures, and I take care of them when my landlords are away at their other home in Florida. In the summer that means scrubbing out their water trough every few weeks and refilling their water daily, mucking their barn every few weeks, and closing them into the barn at sunset/letting them out after sunrise (this is to protect them from coyotes as we don't have livestock guardian dogs).
In the winter it's all those same things plus breaking ice on the trough every day, and feeding the sheep hay and grain once a day since they can't pasture graze. When lambs are born they must be separated with their mothers in a spot in the barn with fresh bedding and the mother needs to be fed and watered separately from the flock every day. If it's winter, you need to set up heat lamps and maintain extra bedding for warmth. If the mother rejects the babies, you need to bottle feed them for a period of months until they're weaned (the feeding schedule is brutal for the first few weeks)—if it's winter they can come down with hypothermia, which means bringing them inside and trying to get them warm and feeding them colostrum and electrolytes hourly.
It really depends on the farmer's setup, what kind of livestock they have, and what time of year it is (and where you are in the world of course). For me here in NJ/NY, in the summer/fall you don't have to deal with cold-related chores (breaking ice on water troughs, putting animals in the barns so they don't freeze at night). And if you try to sleep in, the animals will wake you up (chickens/turkeys/guinea hens love to screech for their breakfast!) If a farmer's animals are on a strict schedule, I adhere to it—otherwise, I get outside as early as possible to give everyone water and feed. If they've got chickens/chicks, you need to let them out and in at sunrise/sunset. And then you have to keep an eye on everyone—animals love to escape, so that's where helpful farm dogs and a bucket of feed come in.
Sometimes animals will go down, and you'll need to work with a neighbor or a vet to help manage it (I just taught myself how to give an alpaca a shot during my most recent farmsitting stint this past April!) I've had to walk outside in the middle of a below-zero night to pull roosting chickens off a fence and throw them at their barn because otherwise, they'd freeze to death. I've had to troubleshoot broken heat lamps in baby duck pens. I've had to corral 15 alpacas back into their enclosure. There is literally always a crisis happening, but you get better at managing them with more practice. It's also dirty and disgusting—there's mud, excrement, and farm ephemera everywhere. It's near impossible to keep yourself or your surroundings clean—the animals will make sure of it.
I think the general sentiment is: farming is a lot more work than most people realize, and if you don't love it or have a very vested financial interest in it, you will quit it very, very quickly. I don't know many people who farm and don't love it...those things really can't be mutually exclusive.
How much of your hard work do you present publicly? We're always told that social media isn't the full picture, so how much of your presence is?
I always endeavor to be as transparent as possible about what's involved in working on a farm. In my Instagram stories and posts I show less-than-glamorous animal chores like mucking barns, breaking ice on water troughs in the winter (and scouring those troughs in the summer), carrying water buckets, and hauling hay. I also don't shy away from the animal death and disease that comes with farm life—coyotes killing sheep, chickens freezing to death in low temperatures, lambs dying from hypothermia and colic. This past February I was very vocal on Instagram about how I lost a lamb to hypothermia and saved two others from near-death. You can check that out in the Big + Tiny story, this reel, and this Substack post.
I'm sometimes not as forthcoming with the lower points involving livestock as I'm always aware of how it reflects on the farmers who own them—since I'm just tending to these animals temporarily, I don't necessarily want to put the farmers in an uncomfortable situation where they'd be judged by people who don't understand what the lifestyle is like. I always want to remain respectful of their privacy and the fact that they may not choose for their lives and work to be as public as mine. So I do filter some of that a bit more than I do my own mental health struggles and other personal issues.
Mental health awareness and advocacy is something I'm very passionate about. I talk often about my ongoing struggles with depression and suicidal ideation in my Instagram stories and posts. I recently wrote about it in this prompt for Suleika Jaouad's Isolation Journals, which I also shared on Instagram. I also talk about how the act of being creative and sharing it can sometimes turn into a slog, and how that means it's time to take a break and/or switch gears. That's something I wrote about here, and was interviewed about in this Health magazine article. I talk about how hard it's been to write and find representation for my first book, and the nitty-gritty of trying to be traditionally published. I always work to discuss and underscore that my move to the country was about my mental health, and my creative work on Instagram is an ongoing mental health exercise—to get myself outside to explore and find beautiful things every day and share them, to stay curious and show people how curiosity can lead them to wonderful discoveries, to be an explorer in my own backyard and underscore that you don't need a bunch of money to travel somewhere picturesque with a trunk full of expensive flowy cottagecore dresses to have a meaningful and magical experience. Most people wouldn't expect New Jersey to be as gorgeous as I've found it to be, right? You can find beautiful things literally anywhere!
I spoke a bit about my mental health/transparency in "representing" cottagecore when interviewed for this Washington Post article. I understand why I'm lumped into the trend, aesthetically, but the commercialized and commodified aspect of it definitely bothers me—there was a time when I thought I had to buy a bunch of stuff to fit the aesthetic, and now I really rail against that and try to be very aware of not promoting that mindset, even inadvertently. Anyone can be cottagecore—just step outside. I often reuse clothing or wear vintage finds for my self-portraits (which are more about capturing a mood or a moment that I want to personally memorialize), and I post stories before I go out to shoot to show people how I protect myself from ticks when out in the fields (truly, twirling bare-legged in a pretty dress in tall grass is something anyone who lives in the country would shiver at).
I've also posted about voting, I've posted about black lives matter, I share resources about donation and advocacy (the abortion rights protests being the most recent). That said, I know my feed is pretty and can appear idealized, no matter how much I try to keep things real. And frankly, I curate it to be visually pleasing because it's part of that mental health work that I mentioned—the action of creatively building and tending to something beautiful. My feed makes me feel happy and peaceful and aligned towards the beauty in this world, and that's what I want for myself, and what I wish for anyone looking at it.
Why do you think people are drawn to the cottagecore fantasy?
I think, especially since the pandemic, people have been leaning into slower living, with time in nature being more accessible and necessary than ever. And coupled with that, there's been this push to make the space you're stuck in cozier and happier so you can endure being closed off. So cottagecore really fulfills both of those needs—it's like armchair travel, in a way. You view these beautiful, idyllic images that romanticize the everyday and then you find a way to incorporate that into your own life. And on a deeper level, I think cottagecore reminds a lot of people of the comfort of their grandmothers or of "old world" traditions, and leaning into that makes them feel a bit more connected to their past and to their roots, to the simpler way that people used to live. Our world is very fraught right now, and cottagecore can be a welcome respite.
The darker side of this is, of course, that as it's become more popular it's become commodified, as I mentioned above. People feel like they need "things" to live or enjoy a slice of this lifestyle, when in reality the lifestyle is all about simplifying and paring down and being grateful for what you have and seeing the beauty in things that are already around you. There are several influencers I followed in my early days who I've had to unfollow as they've leaned harder into shilling $500 dresses and expensive art prints and photo presets. I understand that people need to make a living, but that side of the cottagecore coin is just not for me—I'm much more interested in people who are interacting with the natural world in interesting ways or sharing their non-commercial creative pursuits.
Something that unsettles me is when people DM me asking how they can live my life, or "get" my life, or where I live so they can move here. I think this sentiment and vulnerability is what a lot of the folks making money off the trend are taking advantage of. I often don't geotag places because of privacy issues, for this reason. My path is no one else's path but mine—I'm sharing the views on the walk because others have inspired me by doing the same thing, and because the act of sharing is part of the therapeutic way that I live. But I always tell people that the best way to live a beautiful life is to get quiet and figure out what feels right, get close to that child within and understand what they truly love and what makes them happy, and pursue it. Stay curious, explore, and let the discoveries that make them happy lead them to a new place. I'm trying to lead this by example, to stay accountable to myself through it as well. Selling or telling someone a prescription for how to live my life is not going to make them happy because our lives are not one-size-fits-all—and that's the lie a lot of cottagecore commodities wield.
And finally, do you romanticize your own life? (As a fellow writer, I know that it's almost impossible not to see the story in everything!) If you do romanticize aspects of your life, why do you think that mindset might be important?
Absolutely! I have since I was a little kid—I was (and still am) obsessed with L.M. Montgomery books, whose heroines romanticized everything. I was always out in the backyard exploring the woods with a notebook and pen in hand. I started writing stories when I was five (I once held up a family trip to grandma's for an hour because I had to put the finishing touches on my latest fairytale). I've always been filled with a sense of wonder about nature and history, a deep impulse to explore, and an insatiable curiosity about the world around me. I've discovered and learned so much because of it, and made so many unexpected friends. I'm very independent and generally prefer my own company, which leads to a lot of daydreaming. No matter how old I get I feel perpetually eight inside. As I've gotten older, I've learned to wield my earnesty with more confidence. I've also accepted that I'm a creative person who needs an outlet for that creativity and that the outlet is fluid. The closer you can get—and stay—to your young self, the closer you'll be to your authentic self. The things you loved and were drawn to when you were young are the things that call to you in the purest sense. Plus, you're the main character in your life—why not lean into it? The world would be a better place if we were all more aligned towards wonder.