“Sure ya won’t stay for tea?” the old man offers one more time, a twinkle in his eye, as I start packing up my gear. I know he means “tea” the old-fashioned Aussie way, not “tea” meaning the warming caffeinated beverage but “tea” meaning the third and final of the three traditional meals of the day, what I’d call “dinner”.
“No, but thank you again,” I smile, returning his ocular twinkle with my own.
It’s been a long day, and hot. Early summer in this part of Australia, and especially nowadays, is a harsh sudden snap of dryness and heat, and the gently curving pastures of Tim “Timbo” King’s stud farm (“The Kingdom”, he calls it) already shimmer with hot air, like the atmosphere itself is sweating. Being a city girl myself, I’m not used to the long distances required of country travel, and I’m aching to get back to my comfortable air-conditioned apartment in the hustle and bustle – but of course, that’s not really the main reason I refuse Timbo’s offer of dinner.
Mr King has been a pleasure to interview: he’s got that special kind of old-country tale-telling easiness about him, he’s able to spin a yarn without any kind of nervousness or self-consciousness or showiness, like we’re old mates just sitting a spell (even though, in reality, we’re honestly completely different people, him a leathery red-cheeked old farmhand, and me a soft-skinned city-slicker journo roughly thirty years his junior). I was instantly comfortable around this twinkling-eyed old man, in a way I’m rarely comfortable around anyone, especially older men: there’s just something… kind about him. Although his hide may be leathery and his white-bristled face is pocked with the places where modern medicinal science has plucked out small lesions from too many days in the sun, there is nothing about Old Timbo that is harsh or hard: even his voice, a sound like creaky door, carries with it a certain softness or familiarity, like it’s a creaky door to a larder full of your favourite childhood sweets. It’s a warm sound, a smooth wooden sound. I think he’s just a really decent guy, who is genuinely trying to do what he thinks is the right thing.
Before we sit down in his modest white-walled living room to conduct the interview, Timbo walks me around the paddocks – quiet, soft-hilled, lush – and shows me the horse shed, where his twelve stallions sleep, eat, and shelter from the harsh summer rays. I’m not a horse-lady by any means, but even I can tell, with my untrained urban sensibilities, that these are horses that are content, flourishing even, and that they are well-loved, even if their owner is, amongst his human contemporaries, a figure of at best amused derision, and at worst complete disgusted ostracisation.
We chat. He lays it all out in the open for me, with a candour that is refreshingly unselfconscious: I don’t feel like he’s hiding anything from me, or attempting to manipulate his own history, or colour his life’s events any way. When Old Timbo tells me his unusual tale, it feels like he’s just explaining how he went from where he was then to where he is now, without any motive other than clarity. It’s easy to listen, and time passes remarkably quickly.
As I leave Timbo’s squat red-brick farmhouse (cooled only by a few half-opened white-wooden windows and a reluctant meandering breeze), I feel exceedingly strange. Partly, of course, it’s the strangeness of his story, and the strangeness with which we “normal people” view his current lifestyle, but it’s also that I know, as I jump into my car and begin the long journey home, that I’ll likely never see this man again: a journalist and her subject are only ever brought together for that one story, and, now that that one story is recorded, it’s all over. We’re back to being strangers, and I’m somehow already nostalgic for the brief time when we weren’t. He seems like a better person, deep down, than most of us ever dare to be.
The drive is long, and there are so many thoughts and feelings stumbling over themselves inside my head as I drive. When I get home, I feel like I’ve been away for a month or more, rather than the single day it’s really been. And even now, although it’s been weeks since I spoke to the grizzled twinkly-eyed old man on his country estate, every time I sit down for a meal, I get a flash of his kind, weathered face, and I have to push the image away before I can eat.
Like I said: exceedingly strange.
Here’s the unedited transcript of my interview with Tim “Timbo” King.
TIMBO: So, what’s that, a little tape recorder?
ME: That? No, that’s just my phone.
TIMBO: [chuckles] Nifty little gadgets, eh? My eldest gave me one of those a couple of years ago, tried to teach me how to use it, never quite got the hang of the bloomin’ thing. Not much need for it at my age, you follow? I just use the, what do they call it these days? The “land line”. I just call it the “telephone”, ha. Not that… well, not that anyone calls Old Timbo on the phone much these days. Lucky Old Timbo likes his own company, ha!
ME: So you live here alone?
TIMBO: Oh yes. Oh yes. Very much so, I’m afraid. Wasn’t always the way, but… well, life goes on, you know how things go.
ME: You don’t need-
TIMBO: Course, I’m not really alone, am I! Old Timbo’s got plenty of company, out there in the paddocks. Darn sight better conversations with those old fellas than with most folk, present company excluded. [chuckles] Old Timbo says to me horsey mates “is there any trouble and strife for Old Timbo today fellas?” and the old fellas out there in the paddock, they say to me, “nay!” [chuckles] Sorry, I did cut you off there, terribly impolite of me. Forgive an old fella, won’t you?
ME: Forgiven. No, no, I was just saying, you don’t feel the need for company? Human company?
TIMBO: Well, truth be told, now and then of course Old Timbo will pine for maybe a spot of whist or a couple of hands of euchre… but, no, no, on the whole, humans are a bit complicated. Bit complicated and… well, not saying they’re hypocritical, but most folk are too scared of appearing a certain way, you follow? Most folk are frightened of standing out. Most folk are scared of doing what they really believe, in their heart of hearts, out of fear of being frowned upon, looked upon poorly by their peers. Sticking to your guns… sticking to your guns can drive people away. [sighs] House wasn’t always empty.
ME: So, when you stick to your guns… what are Tim King’s guns? What drives-
TIMBO: Please, call me Timbo. That’s what everyone used to call me. And then, once I crossed a certain line in the age department, they called me “Old Timbo”. That’s what I call meself now, seeing as I’m the only one who talks to me any more – “Old Timbo”. “Tim King” is a man from long ago, it’s been many moons ago that fella was around, I can assure you. Just “Old Timbo” now.
ME: So, what drives Old Timbo?
TIMBO: Well… well, I just don’t want to make a mess of it. Of being alive. I just want to… I don’t want to bring any more suffering into this tired old cryin’ world. Everywhere ya look, pain and suffering. I don’t want to add to it. You mind if I tell you a little story?
ME: No, please! That’s exactly what I want you to tell me.
TIMBO: You’re a darling. Well, see, Old Timbo was once a young man – devilishly handsome, quite the raconteur, I don’t mind telling ya – who didn’t give a howling hoot about anyone but himself. Couldn’t care less, this young man, about anyone or anything but himself. Took what he wanted, whichever way it came to him, he wasn’t fussed, you follow? Charming bloke, real flash, but not a nice fella, not in the least. But had it all. Lovely wife, bonny children, a nice little house on a nice little acreage… King by name, king by nature! Had a very profitable little farm chugging away, cows, sheep, the works. But then one day… I dunno, there was just something nigglin’. Nigglin’, chewing away, on the back of my mind. I think it started with the cries… I just don’t know, hard to pinpoint it precisely, but when I think back on it to best of my ability, I think it began with those cries. The cries of the cows when we took away their children. Just wee little tackers, they were! The cries of those mums – and of course the cries of the calves when we took them away. You know what sadness sounds like. You know what sufferin’ sounds like. But you have to get real creative to make it sound like something else. It’s amazing what the brain can come up with, you follow? To pretend it’s not real sufferin’. But that niggle, well, it just got bigger, and all those clever tricks I’d been usin’ to turn that cryin’ into something else, well, they all stopped working, didn’t they. I just couldn’t do it any more.
ME: Is that when you started to-
TIMBO: Hold your horses, darl, I’m getting there. Old Timbo sometimes takes the scenic route, you follow?
ME: Sorry, sorry. Please. Carry on.
TIMBO: No, no, you’re all right love, you’re all good. Just workin’ my way there. I don’t talk to people much these days. Humans, I mean. Human people. Forgive me, love.
ME: Its fine, really, it’s fine.
TIMBO: And so yeah, the King was on his throne. The King was still on his throne in his Kingdom, but he wasn’t a happy chappie any more. I ignored it, of course, as well as I could – heaven forbid! – of course I did, I hid those voices away, and acted like nothin’ was happening. But it was. I was changing, inside. And, like a dam under a hundred-weight of water, well, even the strongest walls fall under enough pressure, don’t they. And I had what they call nowadays a “breakdown” – although it was never called anything in my day. [sighs, arms raised in a resigned-type of shrug] We just shut up and kept on going, didn’t we, my lot. But inside, I tell you no lies, I was dying inside. You know what got to me the hardest? It was just so, well, it just seemed so ruddy unfair. That’s what it was. Just ruddy unfair. Just out of bad luck, nothing else, just blind dumb luck, these little unlucky blighters were going to be ruddy tormented – real torment, mind you, just as real as yours or mine – these little poor bastards scuse my French, they were going to be mistreated and slaughtered, all because of me. Yours truly. Hundreds, thousands, countless numbers of poor ruddy souls, they were given Hell, all under my watch. Couldn’t take it any more, I couldn’t. And I shut the whole Kingdom down. Just like that. Closed for business. And my we had rows we did, massive blues we had, the missus and me, and the kids, they got on board too, thought their old man had gone round the bend! But truth be told, I had actually finally seen reality, like the old man behind the Wizard of Oz, you know the picture, with the munchkins and the flying monkeys? It was like I was seeing behind the curtain, you follow? And everything I’d believed in was a lie, and now I had a chance to fix it, and I don’t know, for some reason I just couldn’t ignore it any more. It was the unfairness, love.
ME: So you became a vegan first, is that right?
TIMBO: No, no, not straight away. And I haven’t been a ruddy vegan for many moons now, I can tell you. Not since I heard that thing on the radio about the plants talking to each other. No, not for many years.
TIMBO: No, this is what happened. First of all, I just broke down entirely, completely, didn’t know what to do, or where to turn, or how to make it right. Complete and utter collapse on all fronts, you follow? I think that’s an important part to write down, because it’s easy to tell the tale of “Timbo the farmer comes good” or what have you, but it’s important to know just how low I got first. Weeks of this, like the floodgates were opened in my heart, opened up wide, and ruddy if I didn’t almost get swept out to sea myself when those rivers of grief started flowing. I don’t mind telling ya, Old Timbo was a complete mess. So there was that stage. But then I thought to meself, I thought, well, I’ll make a rule, and that’s when I invented the idea of being a Wrestlerian. [name clarified in written communications with Mr King post-interview] Because at that stage I still didn’t honestly know what I was going to do, so I was open to try anything, anything that I thought would help make it all right. The idea of being a Wrestlerian was a simple one: the rule was, you can eat anything that you can defeat in a fair fight.
ME: What’s a “fair fight”?
TIMBO: Well, I guess I was trying to make it “natural” or something, wasn’t I. So the basic premise was, in “nature” creatures eat creatures all the time, but they don’t round them up with fences or use guns or trucks or cattle-prods or artificial insemination, do they. No bloody way, they just use what the good Lord gave ‘em, and just try to survive. “If you can beat ‘em, you can eat ‘em.” That was actually going to be the motto of the movement – I had visions of it becoming a movement, back then, and any good movement needs a few good mottos, right? Hahaha – Old Timbo was always thinking big, love. “If you can beat ‘em, you can eat ‘em.”
ME: “If you can beat ‘em, you can eat ‘em.” So we’re talking poultry, lambs, rabbits, things like that?
TIMBO: Ever tried to catch a rabbit with your bare hands love? No rabbits on the Wrestlerian menu, I can tell you that much for free! Flighty little beggars, fast! My word, they go like the clappers. But you’re on the right track love. Trying to make it more natural, fit into the natural order of things. Cows, well, they’re obviously out. Sheep? If you can catch ‘em, it depended on the sheep. Just beast versus beast, you follow? Old Timbo the organism, brute animal force versus brute animal force – or cunning, speed, whatever qualities the particular beast was blessed with, in each specific case. I’d get naked and race at ‘em, and pin the bastards down scuse my French and go for the jugular, or try to break ‘em on a rock or what have you. I can tell ya now, it’s a ruddy hard-earned dinner when you’re a Wrestlerian.
ME: How long did that last for?
TIMBO: I can’t give you the specifics with any great deal of accuracy love, I’m sorry to say. I know it was around when Joan left me though, so that’d be the late 90s. Last century! Ha! Well, and who can blame her, eh? They, none of ‘em really understood what was happening to Old Timbo, and fair enough. Thought I was kooky as a crackerjack, they did. So did I sometimes, to be fair and honest. But really, I was just finding a place where it didn’t hurt to be alive, truth be told. Finding a place where I didn’t hate meself. So. I thought the answer was in being “natural”, in being a “proper animal”, but to be completely honest with ya love, I hated every minute of it. Some of the victories felt good, on a primal or visceral level, you follow, Old Timbo felt like a great warrior! And not only a great warrior, but like I was doing something good, something right. But that feeling of triumph was short-lived and always – always – mixed with a feeling of just deep-down badness and sadness and just, I don’t know, just more trauma. It was unfair still. I was still causing harm. And the harm was honestly worse harm than the harm I’d been causing before! A ruddy bolt through the brain would’ve been a ruddy God-send compared to some of the bastards I wrestled to death, compared to how they ruddy died, I kid you not. I just gave it up after one particular sheep – thought killing a sheep might last longer in the pantry, a big animal, you follow, more meals in it, which would mean less gory brawls overall – well, this one sheep just wouldn’t die. We were both covered in blood, just covered, and I was bashing and bashing this poor bastard’s head into a rock, and his ruddy eye popped out and he still wouldn’t die and Old Timbo’s crying and crying and the ruddy old sheep’s crying and crying, and we’re both slick and slippery from the blood and-
ME: [nothing, just looks of shock, I guess.]
TIMBO: Well, never did it again after that day. Knew there had to be another way.
TIMBO: And the ruddy thought came to me, “Timbo, you’re still causing harm.” At the end of the day, I was still causing suffering – and that’s when I realised that it wasn’t about being natural, it wasn’t about how I was doing it, it was about what I was doing. So that’s when I became vegan.
ME: And that lasted for some years.
TIMBO: Oh yes, oh my word. Some years indeed, and they were good years too. In fact, I’d still be doing that now, if it wasn’t for that blasted show I heard on the wireless. Ruddy scientists – I used to curse them I did, oh you wouldn’t believe the words that came out of Old Timbo’s mouth! Went and ruined everything.
ME: What was that radio report?
TIMBO: That ruddy plants – plants! – they said that plants have feelings. The report I heard, it was all about how plants know what is happening to them, they’re conscious. I mean, that’s what consciousness is, right: knowing what is going on around you. If you know what’s going on around you, you’re ruddy conscious – never mind how you know, or what you can do about it, you’re ruddy conscious. And so this show on the radio went on, it said, it said plants know when they’re being eaten and so on, and they actually try to stop it happening. Scientists went and tested this cress or what have you, and played it the sounds it would make if a caterpillar was eating them – the vibrations or some such because they figured plants work through sensing vibrations, you follow? Well, this cress or what have you was played the sound of being eaten by a caterpillar, and it straight away sent this mustard oil to its leaves, so it would taste bad. This ruddy plant was trying to protect itself! It didn’t like being eaten! It didn’t like it!
TIMBO: Plants don’t like being eaten! That was a ruddy bitter pill to swallow, I can tell you that much for free. So then poor Old Timbo was back to the old drawing board, wasn’t he. Did a whole lot of research: here, I brought some out, have a listen.
[picks up sheaf of papers, puts on a pair of reading glasses, starts reading – the stumbling over words and/or repetitions have been edited out for ease of understanding]
This is from the New Yorker, fella called Michael Pollan:
“It is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success.” And “Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or a root “knows” when it encounters a solid object); and another experiment found that plant roots would seek out a buried pipe through which water was flowing even if the exterior of the pipe was dry, which suggested that plants somehow “hear” the sound of flowing water.” You follow?
ME: Yes… yes, I do. But there’s nothing there that suggests they feel pain, is there. There’s no suffering.
TIMBO: Oh ho! You’re a bright young lady, aren’t ya! Clear why you’re in the journalism game. Point is, love, that they sense things, they do. They’re just not that different to us – “just very slow animals” one scientist was saying – with all the ruddy senses we’ve got. And let Old Timbo ask you: what’s the point of senses, eh? What are senses for?
ME: To… to sense things?
TIMBO: [chuckles heartily at this one] Maybe not so bright after all. [twinkling eyes] No, now now, just pulling your leg love, never mind Old Timbo, just having a lend. Yes, but what is sensing? Sensing is knowing, being conscious, you follow? No point with all that sensing if you’re just throwing all that input away, now, is there? No, sensing only happens if there’s something… in there. To be conscious of the sensing. I’ll read you a little more, love, if that’s permissible:
[shuffles papers, clears throat – again, any repetitions and/or mispronunciations have been edited out, but the words are verbatim]
“Unable to run away, plants deploy a complex molecular vocabulary to signal distress, deter or poison enemies, and recruit animals to perform various services for them.” Hear that? “Distress”.
“Since the early nineteen-eighties, it has been known that when a plant’s leaves are infected or chewed by insects they emit volatile chemicals that signal other leaves to mount a defence.” Why would they do that, eh? Unless it was… unpleasant in some way? You follow, love? These things aren’t just random, love, it’s not all for fun and games. A plant doesn’t try to stop a caterpillar chomping on its leaves for fun, any more than a cow cries for its babies for fun. It’s not just chemical, is it. Well, I mean, they say our brains are all just chemical too, don’t they, but it definitely feels like something.
ME: You’re convinced plants suffer.
TIMBO: “Convinced”. Ha! I’m convinced you’re here, now, chatting to Old Timbo, getting it all recorded in your little telephone there, sitting in this little house, on one and a quarter thousand acres of prime stud farm. Neither thing is less true than the other just because I’m “convinced” of it.
TIMBO: Course they suffer! Pain and pleasure, they’re the building blocks of experience, love. Course they suffer. And here was I, munching down on the poor little blighters like nobody’s business! It ruddy changed everything. I felt crook, I felt crook to my stomach.
ME: You’d been trying so hard to cause no harm, and here you were.
TIMBO: Here I was! Tryin’ to avoid suffering, and still causing so much suffering! [waves sheaf of papers – it really is quite a thick collection] I can read ya more from the articles, if you’d like, there’s an Aussie girl called Monica Gagliano who’s done amazing research on plant memory and learning-
ME: It’s okay, I’ve probably got enough for the article-
TIMBO: Well, it’s all real, is the point. [puts down sheaf, peers over reading glasses] There’s so much out there, all by ruddy proper scientists and the like, about how plants feel pain – although a lot of the scientists are scared to use those specific words, you follow, but they use a bunch of other terms which are skirting around the bleedin’ obvious, which is that plants do like some things and don’t like others. Nature works through pain and pleasure, doesn’t it, they’re like the two basic forces of organic behaviour, aren’t they.
ME: Well, I’m no scientist-
TIMBO: Doesn’t take a ruddy university degree to tell that organisms feel pain, love. Just takes a little empathy and a bit of imagination. I’m not saying plants have a sense of humour, or prefer classical music to head banging heavy metal music, love. I’m just saying that if it quacks like a duck, well, you’d be a ruddy fool not to draw a certain conclusion.
ME: And so that’s when you… shifted to your current lifestyle?
TIMBO: No need to beat around the bush, love. There’s no shame in it! “Current lifestyle”, ha! But yes, yes, that’s when it happened. I just ruddy blew me top, love, I just ruddy thought “well, if plants are feeling pain, then I can’t ruddy well keep on being a vegan, can I?” It just didn’t sit right. So then I did me research, and tried to work out what the bloomin’ heck I was going to do with meself, and pondered, and wondered, and pondered again. And I thought “well, what about plants that do want to be eaten?” What about fruits, you follow? By eating fruits, we can help disperse the seeds and whatnot, it’s in the plant’s best interests, thought Old Timbo. But then I thought again: well, no, not really, that fleshy energy-packed fruit is for the seeds, really, isn’t it, it’s energy for the seeds, not for some plundering oaf of a human being. You follow? Good God how I researched! My mind got racing, it did, and I thought up ideas pretty much every ruddy way I could. And there was always that niggle – “but how can you be sure, Old Timbo, how can you be sure you’re bringing pleasure and not pain?” So in the end, I just went with the obvious. What I knew caused pleasure, in meself, what I knew caused pleasure undeniably, you follow, rather than just making any more assumptions or bold statements or grand declarations or so on based on wishy washy theories and so forth. I went with what I knew. And now, well, now I’m bloody confident. I’m confident that now, finally, I cause no suffering, and bring about much measurable pleasure. I’m bloody confident I’ve got it right now. For the last few years, my diet has caused no pain at all, and much, much pleasure.
ME: And so… for sustenance… you…
TIMBO: Go on, love. You can say it. Spit it out, as they say. [chuckles, eyes twinkling]
ME: You… fellate horses.
TIMBO: [chuckles] Well, that’s what it’s called in polite company, isn’t it. Yes, I subsist on a diet derived primarily from ingesting the semen of our equine friends. Straight from the old fellas themselves. There’s no shame in it, love. No shame at all! I’ll tell you, there are a ruddy good lot of folks who should be ashamed about the harm their diets cause, but not Old Timbo! No shame whatsoever!
ME: Do you… enjoy it?
TIMBO: You mean “is Old Timbo a sicko”, don’t you. Cheeky! Well, I’m not doing it sexually, you follow? I’m not doing it for purposes which are for want of a better word “kinky” or “perverted”. No stirrings in the old loins, I’ll have you know. It’s just the, what was the phrase I read, the “transference of energy”, isn’t it. I’m just getting energy to survive another day. It’s no more strange or unusual than cutting off someone’s reproductive organs and popping them in a vase, just because they look pretty, is it? [shakes his head, legitimately perplexed] I mean, it’s just a matter of perspective, isn’t it. Is it more peculiar to suck the milk from a lady cow’s bosom than drink the semen from a gentleman horse’s member? I mean, peculiar is just what you’re used to, isn’t it. It’s just, what’s the phrase, “cultural norms”, isn’t it. Do I enjoy it? I enjoy it a ruddy sight more than being sprayed with viscera, red matter, beating a sheep’s head to pulp against a rock. I enjoy it a ruddy sight more than lining up a bunch of teenagers onto a truck where I know they’re getting a bolt in the head at the end of their terrified journey. I enjoy it a ruddy sight more than many many things I’ve done in this long life of mine, I can tell you that much.
ME: So… how do you do it?
TIMBO: Well, the normal way. You’re a modern girl, you know how it’s done I’ll wager. [chuckles] No disrespect intended, of course. Takes both hands, though – these old fellas aren’t lightly-packed in the trousers department, if you catch my drift, eh?
ME: So you just… you just…
TIMBO: [eyes twinkle] You can stay for tea and I’ll show you, if you like. You could even join in, there’s plenty to spare!
ME: Actually, well, it’s probably time I packed up and head back to Melbourne. [full disclosure: I just kind of panicked here. I was blindly (and completely non-journalistically) terrified of seeing it in the flesh… and even more terrified that he’d somehow persuade me to do it too. He had that kind of charisma.]
TIMBO: Suit yourself, love. I can assure you, once you’re used to it, it’s not so bad. I mean, the first time I did it, it felt a little odd, I won’t say it didn’t. But now, well, it’s no stranger than milking a cow once was, or pulling an egg from under a chicken used to be. It’s only me knees that cause me any trouble nowadays. You sure you won’t stay for tea? It’s warm, and fresh, and very healthy-
ME: Thanks so much for your time, Mr King. I mean, Timbo.
TIMBO: Oh, the pleasure has been all mine. [chuckles] Nothing but pleasure from now on.