Archive for the ‘work’ Tag
It happens often. A large job waits for me, and for a moment it seems almost impossible. Or, if not impossible, at least quite daunting and far more than I want to tackle. It might be planning and planting the garden, or clearing a fence line overgrown with blackberry, or simply completing some new task I’m unfamiliar with. In that moment, the doubts creep in. It feels like too much. It feels too hard. It’s overwhelming. I’m not of the personality that tends to thrive on these challenges; faced with such tasks, I often want to go sit on a sunny patio with a good beer or curl up inside with a good book. I am a creature of comfort. I can’t deny this.
Sometimes I do this. I ignore the job in front of me, the unwanted but necessary work. When I do this, I’m almost always poorer for it. The temporary comfort of ignoring the necessity gives way eventually to the consequences of an important job undone. Turning your back on reality does not make it go away. It only adds to the ferocity of its eventual return.
How many ways this is applicable. I have two jobs—not at all hard—that I’ve been avoiding today. One is the writing of a post for this blog. The other is going over to my previous place of residence and dealing with the piles of recyclables that I need to sort and take to the local recycling center. Neither of these tasks has yet to be completed. Outside, it has been raining throughout the day, often heavy. And so I’ve found myself inside, drinking coffee, reading a report on the shale bubble, reading a post on The Automatic Earth about building out renewables, conversing with my roommates, avoiding the nagging reminder in the back of my mind that there are jobs to be done. This is not a good response to my reality, to my present, to my future. It’s a small failure—not helpful, but not disastrous, either.
Yet there’s no reason not to tackle the jobs. The blog post can be written—it’s just that no idea is grabbing me by the throat, demanding my attention. I have plenty of ideas, though, that have been waiting for months to be written. Nothing is stopping me but my own small avoidance. And the recycling, as well, is not such a big deal, but it does need to be done. Others are waiting for me to complete this task. It’s another small failure, this time at a community level. It doesn’t help.
— ∞ —
Last night, John Michael Greer argued that the shale bubble is on the verge of popping, and that it could mean another round of harsh economic realities for us in the near future. He wrote of a bubble-and-bust economic trend to be carried out over the foreseeable future and all the complications of dealing with our current and future circumstances that will entail. We face a troubled present, and more troubled future, consisting of constricting energy resources, a dysfunctional economy, and the hard realities of contraction. There are a number of responses we could take—none of which would solve the problem, granted, but could help soften the predicament—but due to our inability, as a culture and society, to face up to the truth of what’s taking place, we will not be able to marshal the action and resources to carry out those responses. As such, our likely response as a society to the future is one in which we “evolve through crisis, not through proactive change,” as Dennis Meadows noted in an interview in Der Spiegel. We are not planning a sane response to our future; we can’t even agree on the foundations of a sane response. Counting on centralized action at this point would be disastrous.
Luckily, we’re not at the mercy of centralized action. Every one of us holds the ability to change our lives. This ability is not complete or unencumbered, granted, but we can challenge societal norms, opt out from excess modes of living, and begin the hard and necessary work of scaling back our lives to a level more appropriate for a contracting economy and deindustrializing world. We can engage the household economy. We can learn to garden, to raise and care for livestock, to cook from scratch. We can take up coppicing, experiment with biochar, build rocket stoves, teach ourselves the ecological principles that more and more will assert themselves in the day-to-day reality of our lives. We can expose ourselves to the outside climate, scale back our need for climate control, learn to live with heat and cold in ways that don’t involve a thermostat and piped in fuel. We can remember what it is to be human, to live in communities, to build democracies, and we can get down to the hard work of implementing again those realities and complex human interactions. We can insulate our homes, put on sweaters, sit in the shade of a tree on a hot summer day. We can bike to work, walk to the store, take the train rather than the plane, ride the bus, either across town or across the state, or just stay home. We can begin to cut out our wasteful habits and tendencies—unnecessary entertainments and distractions, that cable bill, that Netflix account, high speed internet, video games, Blu-Rays. We can turn off the television. We can replace vacuous pop culture with meaningful work, useful hobbies, sustaining activities. We can, in other words, get out of the game.
That’s a small list of the things we can do, today or tomorrow or early next week—but soon, damn it. It’s not time to just think about these changes, philosophize about them, talk in abstract ways about them. It’s time to do them. Every day is important. Every day puts us closer to the next crisis and a form of evolution that is chaotic and messy and painful. Every day spent changing our lives in response to the crisis before it happens is another step toward a more humane response to the challenges of the future, hopefully a bit less chaotic and messy and painful. And every action we take to help soften our own personal blow, we put ourselves in a better position to help our community—which in a lovely feedback loop, may very well help to further soften the personal blow of the hard times here now, and the worse ones coming.
— ∞ —
But this means work. It’s inevitable. It’s unavoidable, no matter how good we are at avoiding it. Thinking about the popping of the shale gas bubble, perhaps another recession like in 2008, or perhaps something worse, can be frightening and paralyzing. It seems so big—it is big. It’s challenging. It’s overwhelming. And the more dependent we are on the overarching system, the more vulnerable we are, the more challenging and hopeless it might seem. But allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by that challenge, that sense of hopelessness, that fear—it’s pointless. It doesn’t help us. Avoiding it does not eliminate the predicament. Busying ourselves with other, unproductive tasks does not better our future.
It’s a cliche, but it’s the getting to work that usually is the hardest. It’s that initial engagement that can so easily stop us. But once we begin the process, it can snowball from there. Not always, of course—sometimes there are challenges, missteps, moments of depression and despair that temporarily halt our progress. But again, we have to press forward and continue on, to not allow ourselves to lose out to that sense of impossibility.
The antidote to fear is good work. Never forget that. It’s one of the most important truths we have right now.
— ∞ —
When you get into the thick of the work, when it begins to click, the world starts to fall into place. Everything hums. It’s exhilarating. The progress begins to build upon itself, each step forward suddenly seeming a bit longer and a bit more sure, a bit more emphatic. The final accomplishment begins to come into view, and in view of that accomplishment, many more seem possible. This is another positive feedback loop, and it’s one of the most important ones for the troubled times ahead.
Today I can grow a garden, raise livestock, make bread and butter and yogurt and homemade sodas, cook from scratch, suffer the cold, weather the heat, and thrive on physical work. Not too many years ago, I either couldn’t or cared not to do all those things. But those skills and that knowledge did not come at once. It was a long procession—a procession that continues to this day. It was filled with leaps forward and fallings back. It was filled with triumph, with exhilaration, and with uncountable moments in which it all felt impossible, in which I questioned every decision I had made. It involved depression and doubt. And it involved resolve and certainty.
But all my successes ultimately came about through work. It came about through engagement, through tentative first steps, through a process of discovery. And all of it involved initial doubts and fears, often times overwhelming. As I said, I am a creature of comfort. Some people thrive off new challenges and the opportunity to master unknown skills. I don’t, at least not instinctively. That’s not my psychology. I hate to appear incompetent. I hate to admit I don’t know what I’m doing. I like comfort and routine and ease. But despite all these traits, I’ve managed to dramatically change my life and learn an array of new skills over the preceding five years—and every year, I learn a vast amount more. Granted, there’s still a vast amount I don’t know—I’m still incredibly ignorant about so much—but I’m in a far more resilient place than I was just a few years ago.
I worry about what might happen with the shale gas bubble, or with some other sort of dramatic economic trouble. I suspect another shock to the system is coming soon, perhaps later this year or next. It seems a bit too quiet and our economic foundation is far too rickety and rotten. My worry, though, is more about my family and friends, and my community, than myself. I think I’m a bit insulated. I know I can live on a small amount of money—relatively speaking—and could cut back even more if necessary. I suspect my work is mostly safe from economic shocks, at least up to a point. (I could be wrong about that, of course. The economy is a tricky, complex, interrelated system.) I have skills. I have potential fall back plans. Nothing is guaranteed, but I don’t expect the next economic shocks to wipe me out.
That small sense of security is, again, the result of the work I’ve done over recent years. It’s a result not of centralized action, but of personal action. It’s a result of the ways in which I’ve changed my life, changed my expectations, built my skills, built my resiliency, and engaged my community. It’s about me getting down to the business of saving my own ass—with an irreplaceable number of assists from my local community, of course!—and accepting the trade offs that that entails. I don’t mean this to sound self-congratulatory; my sense of security could be a complete illusion, or the next troubles could be far worse than I expect. I only mean to advocate for a course of action that I suspect could benefit every person who reads this.
— ∞ —
The future is one of crises. I write that with complete confidence. Our ways of living, in the developed world, are brittle at best. They are temporary. They are perched upon the ricketiest of foundations, and they are going to come down bit by bit, in a slow overall crumble punctuated by the occasional dramatic collapse.
But our lives are not entirely at the mercy of the broader societal crises that are an inevitable piece of our future. We can take action now to insulate ourselves a bit against those crises. We can choose to evolve proactively at the individual and community level. In doing so, we can make the future a tiny bit better. We can have our own small impact.
It’s not a panacea. It’s not a grand fix. It’s just our small piece, our little bit of action. It’s those first steps in the face of an intractable and overwhelming predicament. But it’s necessary, because there’s nothing else to do, unless we’re content to lay down and die. We could turn our back on the future and pretend its challenges aren’t real, but that would be a terrible mistake. It already promises a great enough ferocity; let us please not make it worse. Begin the work today. Start tackling those problems. If you haven’t taken the first steps, take them today. If you have, but you’ve faltered, get back to work. And if you’re cruising right along, continue that hard and necessary process.
I expect no centralized solutions. But every day, even in the midst of the crises, the individual solutions and responses are there for the taking, in every person’s own life. That’s the hope. That’s the antidote.
— ∞ —
And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.
God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” So God made a farmer.
“I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife’s done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon—and mean it.” So God made a farmer.
— ∞ —
In 1978, Paul Harvey delivered a speech at the Future Farmers of America Convention entitled, “So God Made a Farmer.” It’s a beautiful speech, filled with stirring imagery and capturing a romantic view of the hard working American farmer. Harvey delivers it impeccably, in his distinctive voice and often falling into a poetic torrent of description. I like the speech; even in its romanticization, it speaks to the agrarian I am at heart, and speaks to a number of truths about farmers of all stripes—not just in this country, but across the world.
Yet, Harvey gave that speech one year after Wendell Berry published The Unsettling of America, a collection of essays bemoaning the destruction of rural and farming communities throughout America. Already, the process of centralization, corporatization, destructive industrialism, and overproduction was ripping through America’s farmlands, picking off farms and farmers, literally killing many of those who worked the land. From 1940 to 1970, the farm population in America dropped from an estimated 30.8 million people to 9.7 million. At the same time, the general population of the country increased by 70 million. Farmers made up 18% of the working population in 1940. By 1970, that was down to 4.6%. Two years after Harvey’s speech, in 1980, there were just 3.7 million farmers, and they made up only 3.4% of the work force. The day Harvey gave his speech, most of the American farm community had already been destroyed.
In 2013, just this last Sunday, Chrysler unveiled a television advertisement featuring portions of Harvey’s speech. Chrysler overlaid his eloquent words with gorgeous portraits of farmers and ranchers. For two minutes during America’s annual celebration of consumption and vacuity—now one of its greatest cultural touchstones—Chrysler’s ad stirred the hearts and minds of a nation of people, seducing them with a romanticized picture of American farming and evoking this country’s rich agricultural heritage. At the end of those two minutes, no doubt, the vast majority of those who had felt so stirred by the words and images set forth before them went back to their Doritos and Pepsi, Budweiser and industrially-produced meat, their various repackagings of oil-soaked corn and soy, and they watched the next commercial pimping an unnecessary industrial product rooted in the destruction of the very same land that so many past Americans loved and worked. In other words, they went back to the sort of lives that have destroyed and debased American farmers—not to mention farmers across the world, creatures across the world, the very land and ecosystems that all of us here on Earth consider home.
— ∞ —
God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain’n from ‘tractor back,’ put in another seventy-two hours.” So God made a farmer.
God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So God made a farmer.
— ∞ —
Chrysler’s commercial—the first, last, and only purpose of which is to sell trucks and boost their brand, let’s keep in mind—doesn’t present an accurate view of the American food system. The current system is one rooted largely in industrial processes, massive corporate agriculture outfits, degradation of the land, overproduction, commoditization, exploitation of migrant laborers, and the enslavement of farmers via perpetual debt cycles. Farm workers in this country are not primarily white, as the commercial might lead you to believe. They’re primarily brown; a majority of agricultural workers in this country are Hispanic, most of them foreign-born. The majority of children raised on farms don’t “want to do what Dad does.” They leave the farm. They move to urban areas, get “good” jobs, join the industrial economy and never look back.
The hard truth is that most of this country has little interest in getting out there and putting their hands in the dirt and doing the hard work of growing and raising food. We think we’re beyond that. We think we’re too “advanced.” We think that’s something best left to less civilized people. Within the context of the myth of progress—one of the ruling ideas of our time—an agrarian society and economy is seen as less civilized and inherently worse than an industrial society and economy. It’s something best left for the less developed countries. First we stopped dirtying our hands with the growing of food, then we stopped dirtying our hands with the making of actual things, and now—surprise!—we have a dysfunctional economy that no longer even provides the opportunity to keep our hands clean in the magical “information economy” that was supposed to elevate us above all the messy, nasty physical realities of our past lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t have taken such a dim view of the dirt on our hands.
Chrysler and Harvey suggest to us that God makes farmers. I would submit that that’s the wrong message for our time. Harvey’s speech actually reveals the message we most need to hear: that work makes farmers.
— ∞ —
God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark. It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.
— ∞ —
The recurrent theme in Harvey’s speech is the hard work involved in farming. While Harvey’s math may occasionally be questionable (how does one complete a 40 hour work week in 36 hours, for instance?) the basic message is correct. Farming is hard work, and it involves quite a bit of busting of one’s own ass. Unfortunately, we live in a society that has so been cushioned by the ghost work force of fossil fuel slaves, that we’ve forgotten the hard work that’s necessary for living well in this world. It’s only been in the last few centuries, with the discovery of massive stores of fossil fuel energy, that we’ve been able to live the myth that we can survive without having to engage in hard, physical, yet rewarding labor, without having to know and intimately understand the land upon which we live, without having to have a distinct and instinctual understanding of our local ecosystems and what keeps them functioning. It’s only through the brute force of massive amounts of applied energy that we’ve been able to escape lives rooted in the earth and our fellow multitudes of creatures. And this has made us soft. The vast majority of us no longer understand the hard work that it normally takes to live in this world. We will know again, as we continue the long and ragged process of running out of fossil fuels over the next couple centuries, but for now we are a population divorced from the hard realities of surviving on this planet.
This is my frustration with Chrysler’s ad. It feeds American myths that died when everyone decided it was too much work to live the lives they exalt. It feeds our national complacence by telling us that this reality still exists—even when it largely doesn’t—and provides us a comfort that requires no work, requires no change in our lives, requires no alteration of our behaviors or decisions. By weaving these quiet and comforting tales, by obsessively romanticizing lives that most people no longer bother to live, it insulates us from the hard and necessary work of actually living those lives.
And so I argue instead that we be honest about the American food system and pay attention to the real message of Harvey’s speech. Don’t romanticize the American food system—change it by getting involved in it. Plant a garden, grow some herbs, ditch the pre-processed and pre-packaged crap and buy whole foods, learn to cook, get a CSA, go to the farmer’s market, barter with your neighbors, bake your own bread, make your own yogurt and butter, buy as much of your food as you can from local farmers who do things right. Build your own household economy and then build your local economy. Feed yourself, feed your family, feed your neighbors and help them feed you. Join your local grange. Teach your children what real food is and how to grow it. Learn to live small and within your means, with room to spare.
The food system we have now exists because of our decisions, because of the power we grant to corporations and individuals who have happily corrupted farming for their own gain, destroying farmers, rural communities, and rural economies in the process. Change your actions and decisions. Strip their power. Build a new food system. The government isn’t going to do it, the corporate agricultural outfits aren’t going to do it, even the farmers and farm workers aren’t going to do it if we don’t, through our actions, grant them the power and flexibility to change the way things are done.
It’s up to us, to each of us changing the ways we live. It ain’t gonna get done any other way.
— ∞ —
“Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life ‘doing what dad does.’” So God made a farmer.
— Paul Harvey, 1978
— ∞ —
We’re going to have to question honestly the lives we lead today, and answer honestly about the changes we need to make. A good many of us are going to have to decide to stay put, to not leave for the city, so to speak, to not dive into the temporary luxuries of an industrial economy divorced from good and honest work, to do what dad does, what mom does, what—mostly, today—the migrant workers do. We’re going to have to return to the land, to our connection with it, and to the hard and good work of living right upon it. The fossil fuel slaves and ghost acreage aren’t going to last forever. The longer we ignore that fact, the worse off we’ll all be.
You got a farmer in you, like the ad says? Honor it. Don’t buy a fucking truck—that doesn’t make you a farmer. Work the land. Grow food. Engage the household economy. Learn to live with less, build your community, turn you back on global and corporate systems that destroy the land, destroy local communities, and make us all dependent on a rickety system with an ever-approaching expiration date. Come home and begin the long and hard work of staying in place, of strengthening the land on which you live, rather than tearing it apart for temporary luxuries.
Work makes a farmer. Inspired by farmers? Well, then, get to work.
I love snow. It’s something we don’t get very often here in the Northwest. When we do get it, it tends to be of the hit-the-ground-and-melt variety. An inch or two is significant for us—this isn’t the Midwest we’re talking about here. So it’s a special day when we get any sort of decent accumulation.
The last two days have seen some very decent accumulation, at least here on the farm. On Sunday, I awoke to two inches of snow blanketing the farm, bringing abundant joy upon its initial reveal. A bit more fell during the day, alternating between showers of snow and graupel, creating a picture-perfect view as I sat in the main house drinking coffee, reading, and attempting to write a blog post. Yesterday, I awoke to yet more snow, with a full five inches then covering the land. The trees drooped under the weight of all this snow, their branches low and burdened. The few hooped, plastic row covers had collapsed, crush beneath the deceptively heavy, fluffy whiteness. Everywhere, the snow lay mounded and heap, the farm’s various edges and angles softened, blunted, smoothed out. As I walked from my yurt to the main house, I glanced over at Onion Peak, beautiful and glorious, its craggy rise mottled white and gray—snow and stone—and a strip of snowy evergreens midway up the peak glowing golden in a brief reveal of morning sunlight. I stood a moment, and stared, and marveled at this beauty and the good fortune of my presence in it.
In the house, I made coffee and checked the radar. A band of snow was moving toward us. Not long after that it began to fall, light at first but growing heavier. Determined to take a walk in the snow, I put on a few layers, made a fresh cup of coffee, slipped on my boots and headed out into the storm.
It took me only a moment to realize where I should go. The farm is situated on a north-facing hillside and the land extends up onto a tall, forested ridge that stretches back from Brian’s house, running above the small creek that provides our water. An overgrown path leads up and along this ridge, eventually arriving at a high vantage point with the creek below on the south side and the farm’s main house and growing fields on the north side. This is where I went. Brian had shown me the path a few weeks before and I already had hiked up to this spot once for a short bit of meditation. Being up there while the snow fell heavy around me sounded transcendent.
I climbed the path slowly, keeping my coffee cup steady so as not to spill its contents, my head down and hood up to protect from falling clumps of snow. I pushed through the reaching branches of shrubs and scotch broom, brushed past sword ferns bowed with snow—spread wide and pushed low to the ground—and knocked the snow from low-hanging tree branches as I pushed through their barrier. The depth of the snow on the ground varied from a light dusting beneath thick sections of the forest canopy to multiple inches where the canopy cleared, or where the trees were deciduous and bare rather than needled evergreens. Where the snow clung thin and light, dark green moss more often than not showed through, its color yet more vibrant in the otherwise muted landscape.
The creek, unseen, flowed to my right, providing sound in what would otherwise have been a land silenced by the snow. The trees around me towered far into the sky. Many there are old growth, a mixture of fir, hemlock, cedar and other species. They are a marvel, not least of which because there is so little old growth left around here. Most of it has long since been cut, transported, milled and shipped. Now even the lower-quality trees are being cut and pulped or shipped to Asia as cheap building material. These here, though, stood tall and steady and powerful, providing a windbreak for the farm that protects us during brutal coastal storms and presiding over the land with a majesty that can’t be overstated.
Being on that ridge, amongst those towering old-growth trees and with the snow all around me—an inch or two on the ground and an inconceivable amount in the air—I couldn’t help but feel a deep joy at the beauty of that place. I stood on the ridge and looked out toward the creek, still sight unseen below me but clearly heard. Across the way was another hill and more forest—state land as-yet uncut. Large snowflakes whirled through the air and those trees served as a backdrop nearly whited out due to the abundance of flakes. The scene was so picturesque—a variety of trees everywhere, rising so high into the air, the sound of the creek below and the snow devouring it all, the branches of the evergreens mounded down, all of it so intensely pretty—and my place in it so small and so overcome with awe that I felt close to tears, heartened and humbled. In that moment the words came to me: There is a grace in this life.
I breathed deep. Turning, I walked to the other side of the ridge, stepping carefully on the cluttered forest floor. The heavy snow began to transition to something smaller and more icy, though just as abundant. These icier flakes hit my rain coat with quiet tinks, their small sound merging with the creek’s. I stood at the opposite edge of the ridge and looked out toward the farm, into the white air, the far tree line, the simple muteness of it all and—
There is a grace in this life.
The words repeated in my head, again and again as I stood on that ridge, drifting back and forth and looking out at the snow, at the distant trees, up at the near trees, the way they stretched forever above me, and down at the forest floor, at the jumbled mess of twigs and pine needles, fallen branches and moldering leaves and mossy coverings, downed logs and mounds of duff, all of it coated lightly in snow. Across the way, on the hillside above the creek, a winter-bare ash kept losing chunks of snow off its branches, the powdery ice drifting toward the ground in a disintegrating descent. I watched this happen over and over and—
There is a grace in this life.
In that grace, in that moment, I understood something more about work. Yes, it’s habit. But it’s also responsibility. My life is immensely blessed. To be able to stand on that ridge yesterday, in the transcendence of a snow storm, in one of the most beautiful places on this planet, is a matter of grace and blessing and good fortune that is nearly incomprehensible. And, really, I have done little to deserve or earn it. I have worked far less hard than most throughout the world. I have at times been selfish and ignorant and uncaring and oblivious to the harm that I and my lifestyle does. I don’t mean this as a condemnation of myself as I do think I’m a good person, but it is a reality. It is a simple truth I think it important to acknowledge. I live a life of grace and it has not been fully earned. It’s been earned only partly—and a very small part, at that.
To not do the best work I can do at this point would be an abdication of responsibility. I find myself here, the recipient of some incredible amount of good luck, immersed in a life that, while at times challenging, is good. It’s blessed. It’s more than I ever should have hoped for, and yet it somehow is my life. At the very least, I have to show appreciation for what I have through the doing of work as good as I am capable of doing it. To not, at this point, do the work that I believe is necessary and good and will prove a benefit to myself and my community would be not just an abdication of my responsibility to this world that provides me so much, but immoral. How could I experience such joy and beauty and not feel an absolute responsibility to protect, perpetuate and bring as many people as possible into equivalent joy and beauty? How could I take my day in the snow and not feel a debt to the world—a debt that only can be repaid through good, restorative work?
I spent a day in the snow, amongst the trees, immersed in joy, and it indebted me. This too, then, is my work. I must pay back this debt, and so many others that have yet to be paid. Paying it back will take habit, yes, to engage in the necessary work, but it will also take the sense of responsibility I felt so clearly up on that ridge. This is my work for a purpose, and that purpose yesterday lived up in the trees, lingered on the ridge, and fell in the snow. It graced me, and I will repay it.
I am very good at avoiding work.
I think many of us are. I don’t say that to absolve myself, because this is one of my key challenges and I don’t intend to avoid the responsibility of it. Further, I know people who are very good at diving into work and busting their ass. I currently live with just such a person and she impresses the hell out of me. Yet, many of us—even those who do insane amounts of work—are also quite good at avoiding work. For me, it’s very tempting to fire up the laptop and get on the internet rather than study something challenging. It’s easy to settle into a good book when I should be accomplishing some other task, working my body in some way.
It’s also easy for me to not write. I’ve loved to write since the third grade, when my fantastic teacher, Mrs. Edwards, implemented a mandatory half hour of daily writing after completing a workshop on building students’ writing skills. We could write whatever we wanted and, during those sessions, I quickly fell in love with the art of storytelling, beginning a long story about the luckiest kid in the world. It wasn’t a brilliant story, but it helped me figure out the art of narrative and started me on the path of a life of sporadic writing.
Up to that point, I had imagined being a veterinarian when I grew up. Over the next couple years, that dream morphed into becoming a published writer. As I became enamored with the young adult horror genre (and obsessed with Christopher Pike) I started to write similar stories. I wrote a short novel in sixth grade titled Revenge and soon after that began my next project, Nightmares. I convinced myself I would become a bestselling author, and suspected it would happen before I was done with high school. It was an ambitious plan and became derailed by only one small oversight: I largely stopped writing.
Granted, even if I had continued to write, I imagine I wouldn’t have become a bestselling young adult horror writer by the age of, say, seventeen. However, I didn’t even give myself the chance. I never finished Nightmares and after that, I would often think of ideas for new stories and novels but rarely actually write them, and generally only when a deadline for school prompted my necessary completion of the story. What I discovered during that period of my life was that, as much as I loved to write, it was work. Sometimes it flowed effortlessly, but even more often it would be a struggle to get going. Often, the words came out wrong or I didn’t know where to take a story next. Sometimes I would write something that seemed brilliant; more often I would write something mundane and disjointed. It became easier to watch TV or read a book than write—and so that was what I did.
Of course, the more I failed to write, the harder it became. The longer I waited, the more the urgency of whatever idea I had come up with faded and the more challenging it became to string together effective sentences. As work, writing requires practice, and I had stopped practicing. That made it harder, creating a negative feedback loop that reduced the frequency of my writing to the point that, eventually, I started to mirthlessly refer to myself as a writer who didn’t write. Ever that was a lie, of course. I wasn’t a writer at all.
This process has played itself out in my life multiple times, though the details vary. As I said at the beginning, I’m good at avoiding work. It’s a terrible skill to have, especially in a world full of tempting distractions. I’ve come to believe that the many distractions our society and culture provides—the internet, television, movies, reality shows, celebrity culture, sports, gambling, so much more (and understand, I’m not saying all of these things are devoid of usefulness, though some of them arguably are)—serve at least partly the function of distracting us from the murderous outcomes of the way we live our lives. Our levels of affluence and consumption are devastating the world we live in, enslaving other humans and non-human creatures, ripping apart ecosystems, destroying traditional cultures and risking the future of all living beings (except probably rats and cockroaches.) To go on with this way of life, which is simultaneously stripped of much of its meaning and fulfillment, is to be necessarily distracted from its realities and consequences. In turn, we then are distracted from good work and shielded from the idea of what good work even is. This means that we often fail to do such work and instead spend our time engulfed in meaningless distraction.
For the last few days, I’ve felt this intensely. I’ve been trying to write a new blog post since Friday, to an obvious lack of success. I have instead spent a good chunk of the last few days poking around on the internet—wasting, for many intents and purposes, my very life. I’ve not been doing what I idealistically want to do. I’ve wasted hours absorbing largely useless information and distraction when I could have been writing, studying or doing. I’m good at this wasting of time. I wish I wasn’t.
The future we face is one in which we are going to have to ruthlessly cut out such distractions so that we get done the work that desperately needs doing. Hell, it’s the present we face, as well. Enumerating and breaking down that work is part of this blog’s point. But so is going over the process of getting there, which is a process I’m very much in. I think there are many people out there who, like me, are good at avoiding work. Hopefully, they are less good at it, but I imagine the skill is there, for it’s one of the more common skills in our current society. Yet it’s one that we need to abandon and we need to do it as fast as possible. There is too much good work that needs doing—that desperately needs doing. I can’t emphasize this enough. We would be very smart to avoid the consequences of not getting that work done, no matter how much the dominant culture provides us with easily-accessible distractions (and more importantly, no matter how easy it is for us to allow ourselves those distractions.)
The blog post I’ve been attempting to write for the last two days is, theoretically, about working with animals. I have some thoughts on that, based both in recent and years past experiences. I think they’re good thoughts to share. But I’ve failed in writing that post and, in fact, never even started it. Last night, long after the sunlight had faded, as I grew too tired to even fool myself into thinking I might yet write the long-delayed post, I felt a certain disgust at what I had done. I had spent hours on the internet, reading some good things but basically avoiding the work I needed to do. I had lost another day and I very much felt the reality that it was gone forever—that I was poorer now for having lost that time. I had impoverished myself, and not in the smart and effective way that I will be advocating on this blog over the course of this year. I had impoverished myself spiritually and mentally, and I had impoverished myself in habit. I had, over the previous day, avoided the work I knew I needed to do and, in so doing, had made it harder to get back to that necessary work.
For work, ultimately, is about habit. Good work can be a real joy to do. It can also be a great challenge. But it’s very satisfying and I never regret doing it. My avoidance of good work is not about avoiding pain, misery or drudgery so much as it is a weakness of habit. I fall easily into distraction and its instant pleasures. However, I gain far more from good work than I do from those instant pleasures. The tendency toward the easy escape, I think, is as much in the habit as anything else. It all in that initial moment of deciding what I’m going to do next. It’s very easy, in that moment, to start engaging in distraction. It’s much harder to start engaging in good work. But once good work has been engaged, it’s far more satisfying.
A focus of mine this year, then, is to work on building the habit of engaging in good work rather than distraction. These habits, after all, or going to have to be my own doing. If I want to have an excellent garden this year, which is most surely the plan, then I’m going to have to get myself started on the work of gardening. If I want to regularize a series of homesteading activities, which is also the plan, then I have to do that via my own motivation. The same for regularly writing this blog, doing non-blog writing, studying, meditating and building my salvage skills. All of these are goals I’ve set for myself this year, and all of these will happen only if I motivate myself to do it. They aren’t paid work, I don’t have a boss, and there’s no one who’s going to scold or fire me if I don’t follow through (aside from, I might hope, the readers of this blog.) It’s up to me to build my own habits of work, upon which I’ll better be able to build the life I want.
This post right here, then, is one of the small successes of that habit, though it’s a qualified one. I eventually set aside the post I planned to write on working with animals and instead started the introductory post to my How To Be Poor series. I worked on that for much of today, alternating between it and occasionally the internet—a small failure, each time, of habit. But then I realized at a certain point that that post wasn’t coming together, either, so I decided it made sense to start again on something new, something that felt like maybe it would come together. And that is this post, which is today’s small success.
The last two days I largely wasted. Today was a partial success. Tomorrow will be better. This is the task at hand: a slow building of the habit of good work. It’s just as important as understanding the work that needs to be done. Later tonight or tomorrow I’ll return to the post I began today but did not finish and I’ll finish it. Beyond that, I’ll perhaps write some more, and I’ll continue to read Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts and planning my garden. There will be more good work, as well, and minimal instant pleasures. That’s the goal, and the more I tend to that goal, the more I’ll habituate myself to good work and the easier it will be to accomplish the tasks at hand. For there are many tasks at hand and each one avoided is another bit of impoverishment I can no longer afford.
Something that, over the last few years, I’ve seen as odd in our society is how common it is to interchange the idea of a job and the idea of making a living. Life in our industrial, capitalist economy has more and more removed us from the idea of making a living–or having a particular skill or trade–and instead moved us toward the idea of getting a job. We need money to pay rent or a mortgage and to buy food at the supermarket and to pay for our heating and electricity, to buy clothes and toiletries and of course to distract ourselves with the internet and television, Netflix and books (or the Kindle, perhaps) and music and DVDs (or Blu-Rays now, I suppose) and video games and a million other bits of stimulation. We need money simply to continue to exist on this planet, even if we pare back our lives considerably and remove most of the distractions. And the way most people get money is to get a job. However, jobs are ever more being removed from any particular, personal skill and more turning into slots to be filled by willing and able workers, until that slot is no longer necessary for the functioning of the corporation that holds it or until that worker is no longer willing or able.
I’ve played this game. I worked in the electronics department at Fred Meyer, a general retailer here in the Northwest, doing a variety of jobs over the course of six years. I made an hourly wage and received benefits and this job allowed me to continue to legally live on this planet, in this society, and gave me the means to distract myself from the various ways in which my life failed to satisfy me. The job was a slot and I filled it. It didn’t particularly make me happy and it certainly didn’t provide me with fulfilling work. It was a means to an end–it was a job to be worked, not a living to be made.
I think of making a living as something different. In my mind, there’s more meaning to it. These days, I don’t want a job. I want to make a living. And there is a certain literality in that term. In making a living, I want to be making something and I want to be making my life. This is why, in the last few years, I’ve turned to farming. With farming, I’m helping to make food while simultaneously crafting a new sort of existence for myself. I am making meaning within my life and creating happiness and joy and a connection to the land upon and community within which I live. In as much as this is the case, I then gain satisfaction from my work.
The fact that it’s not, in general, assumed that one should and will gain satisfaction from one’s work is not only some kind of special insanity, but it speaks very deeply, I believe, to the ennui that is so widespread in our society. We have transitioned to an economic and social structure that proclaims most jobs to be the province of nothing more than interchangeable drones. One is not expected to do good work–one is expected to do her job. That is all.
I want to do good work. I want to derive meaning and satisfaction from the work I do. Helping to grow healthy food for people in my community provides this meaning and satisfaction. Working for people whom are not just employers, but are neighbors and living mates and friends and damn near family–this provides me meaning and satisfaction and even joy. This also places my work in the context of something real. I’m helping to sustain my local community, not just selling shit to people who live in the same geographic area but with whom I have no connection. I’m feeding friends and neighbors, not enriching absent, unknown corporate executives and shareholders. I’m improving and connecting to the land I live on, not raping and pillaging it in a race to see how quickly it can be turned into money for people who already have too much of it.
Earlier this year, when I was working on the farm I currently live on for nothing more than room and board, a family member of mine would joke that I didn’t have a job because I didn’t get paid. And she was right–I didn’t have a job. I had good work instead.
Thank God for it.
I think the process of applying for a job speaks to how inhumane many jobs are. You first find an open position that seems as though it might not be entirely soul-destroying, then put together a resume and write a cover letter for that job–which is, essentially, an act of advertising oneself, often in a whorish manner. Then you wait too long for a response that may or may not come and hope for an interview, which–should it even occur–will often lurch its way through awkward questions and suffer from anxiety and terrifying optimism, quiet desperation and need, and will almost certainly bear no resemblance to normal human interaction. After this interview and perhaps multiple follow up interviews, you finally are told whether or not you got the job. Or not told. Sometimes, you simply don’t hear back, are forced to call and inquire as to your status, and then are told almost in an offhand manner–oh, did I forget to tell you?–that no, someone else was hired.
This is a horrid way to find work. Granted, I realize there are plenty of people out there who experience the above process in a more positive manner and there also are those who feed off the challenge of it. Even so, what is particularly human or humane about this process? There is rarely any sense of honesty or care to it, and it most often serves as a winnowing–a battle, a competition.
In contrast, I currently work for a neighboring farm and I found that work by simply asking if they needed help one evening while I was visiting to watch a basketball game. The two interns who had been living on the farm were both on the verge of leaving. As we talked about their impending exit, I casually mentioned to the farm’s owners–my neighbors–that I’d be happy to do some work for them if they needed it. They said that could work out great and everything fell into place from there. I started by mowing the fields, began to sell at the farmer’s market, and have branched out into other necessary tasks on the farm from there. The process was natural, it was human, and it literally began from a conversation, not a cover letter. I never had to sell myself to them. I simply had to offer to work, then show up, do it, and prove my worth. Everything else sorted itself out.
I’m not saying this is the only legitimate way to find work, but it is a particularly human way to find work. And I think it stands out in stark contrast to the way of finding work with a corporation or large organization that involves resumes and cover letters and nonsensical, anxiety-inducing interviews.
Many people see jobs as a ticket to security. And they’re not necessarily wrong in that assessment, though I think most of us now realize how tenuous such security is. Jobs provide a steady paycheck which can in turn provide a steady roof over your head, food on your table, and the resources to cover all those other odds and ends of living within our complex society. Jobs also can provide retirement plans and health benefits, though many jobs these days, of course, provide neither of these amenities. And if you have a career, well . . . that’s like a super job, certain to have those aforementioned amenities and perhaps more, along with a theoretical path to more money and more amenities and–again, theoretically–greater security. Perhaps a career even provides you with work that you really do find meaningful, but that’s in no way guaranteed. It may just be what you fell into, because it was a particularly nice looking slot that you were able to snag.
It’s been interesting to me, these last few years, to see the reactions of some people to my choice of work. Some think that it is a particularly shortsighted way to conduct my life–that I should be looking for a steady paycheck with a business, building a retirement fund, paying into social security, getting my damn teeth cleaned. And while I do indeed have a particular desire to be able to go get my teeth cleaned without it breaking my bank account, I have little desire to slot myself back into the system that will provide me with a retirement account and dental benefits.
In fact, I have little faith that a traditional job would provide me the sort of security that others think it would. I see us moving toward a future in which we will have dramatically less access to wealth and energy. In such a future, most of today’s retirement schemes will have ceased to exist but the sort of retirement scheme that has existed throughout most of human history–a base of knowledge and skills through which to prove and provide your worth–will be particularly relevant. So rather than build a 401k, I am learning how to grow food and raise animals, how to work the land, how to live with little money and energy, how to enjoy physical labor, how to be okay with extra blankets and less heat, how to entertain myself without benefit of TV or video games (cats work wonderfully in this regard, as do various kinds of poultry, as does observing and interacting with the land) and how to set up and piece together alternative energy systems. I am also learning to figure it out as I go, and I think that’s a skill that will be overwhelmingly useful in the near future.
It’s entirely possible I’m wrong about the future, though I feel relatively secure in my outlook. But even if I am, I still would choose the life I’m living now. What I’ve found with farming is that I’m building skills, I’m integrating into my community, I’m getting by, and I’m enjoying my life. I’m not making tons of money, I’m not in a perfectly secure financial situation, but I’m lucky enough to feel stable and not at any risk of being homeless or hungry. I’m making a living, in other words–very literally. And you know what? I really, really like it. It’s real, and humane, and satisfying, and it provides the deep connection and authenticity that I missed when I just had a job–and the absence of which was slowly killing me.
In making a living, I have a life. In working a job, I had no future. I don’t know everything this path will bring me, but I know that it will at least continue to bring me joy and new skills. I’ll trust that to secure my future more than I will a retirement account of any size.
Today, I worked at many jobs. I woke early in the morning, in a freezing cold yurt under a pile of bedding, and allowed the alarm clock on my cell phone to ring multiple times. Eventually–knowing I needed breakfast, and knowing I needed to conduct the day’s business–I eased my way out of the warmth of my bed and into the extreme chill of the morning air, pulling on yesterday’s Carhartts (belt still threaded through its loops) and a fleece and an extra pair of thick socks, then walking–cold, stiff–to the main house both for breakfast and its small, lingering warmth from the previous night’s fire.
I ate a pair of duck eggs from the farm, bacon and toast not from the farm. I made coffee and filled my thermos with it. I attempted to wake up. Before leaving the house, as the sky finally began to lighten, I opened the duck and chicken houses, welcoming them to the cold world. The birds seemed largely unperturbed by the chilly weather: the chickens cautiously wandered outside in typical fashion and the ducks went straight for their
pond plastic kiddy pool, though the coating of ice delayed their entry into its waters. Meanwhile, I drove to the farm down the road. There, the farm’s owners and I loaded six lambs into the back of their canopied truck and, shortly thereafter, I drove off with them–and with one of the farm’s owners, Brian, riding shotgun.
We were driving about two hours to a small butcher. Today was to be those lambs’ final day. As it turned out, it could easily have been Brian’s and my final day, as well. About half an hour into our drive, at perhaps 60 mph or a bit less, I lost control of the truck on a patch of ice on Highway 26, the main route between the Oregon coast and Portland. We spun 180 degrees and I have little idea of what I did during that spin. It was fast and slow–a bizarre meditation. I know I hit the brakes at one point and I think I let off them not long after, some small voice in my head telling me I shouldn’t hit the brakes. I don’t know which way I turned the wheel, if any. If I had moved quicker, with more certainty, with greater skill, perhaps I could have avoided the full spin and danger of that moment. But what little I did or did not do ended up not mattering. We simply spun around in a half circle, the tires squealing, the truck out of control and sliding out of our lane, into the lane of oncoming traffic, toward a hill side. I remember thinking, don’t flip over.
We didn’t flip over. No oncoming traffic hit us, either, as we had the good fortune of there being no oncoming traffic. We came to a stop in the left lane of the opposite direction of traffic. Having completed a bit over a half circle, we faced approximately in the right direction. I noted no traffic coming in either direction and I tried to start the car, which had died. It was still in drive and thus didn’t start, though I hadn’t yet recovered my wits enough to realize that. I knew we needed to get out of the road, to make sure we hadn’t lived through this spin only to get plastered seconds later by traffic coming around the bend a short way behind us. I let my foot off the brake and we coasted forward, which happened to be down the hill, and I guided the truck over to the side of the road.
Brian and I caught our breaths. We tried to calm our adrenaline and talked a moment about what had happened. At most, a minute had passed.
On the shoulder of the road, facing the wrong direction, I put the truck in park, engaged the parking brake and then checked on the lambs. They seemed fine–all upright and oddly calm. I can’t imagine they had enjoyed the ride, but who’s to say? I know not the mind of a sheep. Returning to the cab of the truck, Brian and I decompressed a bit more and then I awaited a full clearing of traffic to maneuver my way back out onto the highway. We had survived. We still had work to do. So back on the road we went–this time at a slower speed and with the four wheel drive engaged.
We made it to the butcher almost two hours later, due in part to my slower, steadier pace. There, we unloaded the lambs, picked up some stored cuts of beef, hit a nearby farm supply store to buy poultry feed and then headed into Portland. We met up with a chef and sold him twenty pounds of beef brisket. We ate at Burgerville–a local fast food chain that prides itself on using many local and seasonal ingredients and engaging in sustainability initiatives (see my previous post for related thoughts)–gassed up the truck and headed home.
After the trip back, I used the remaining hour of daylight to feed the awfully hungry ducks and chickens back on my home farm and then went down to the lower field, where I inspected some damage to the hoop house from a previous storm and replaced the blown-off row covering on our overwintering beets and carrots. I returned up top to the main property, closed up the ducks and chickens in the waning daylight, then brought firewood into the main house, fired up the stove, sat down with a beer, and promptly became distracted by the writing of this blog post.
Which brings me to now. So why did I just regal you with tales of my day? First, I wanted to write about the more exciting moment of spinning out of control on the highway. Second, I wanted to note a thought I had earlier this evening, when I was walking down to the lower field, which was that if I had died in the Great December Spin-out, and the six lambs in the back had happened to not only survive the wreck but break free of the back of the truck and escape into the woods, I would like to think that–should I have some form of post-life consciousness enough to note this exciting development–I would be supremely pleased, despite my own death. For all the misery we’ve heaped on the animal world as humans, why shouldn’t they get the last laugh now and again?
Finally, though, I couldn’t help but place my day today in the context of something I read last night. I’m currently reading The Ecotechnic Future by John Michael Greer, a masterful peak oil writer and Druid. In this book, he writes about the future he foresees for industrial civilization, which is one of contraction and collapse. He believes, as I do, that we are running out of fossil fuels and that, in the last three hundred years or so, we have built an industrial economy that now guides the world but can’t run on anything other than fossil fuels–which means that we’re in for some rough times ahead. There is far more detail to this story and I would recommend the book for anyone interested, even if you’re familiar with peak oil theories and have read other books about the subject. Greer takes an approach that I find unique and only 78 pages into The Ecotechnic Future, I find myself fascinated and extremely engaged by all the possibilities and theories he throws out in the text–many of which I likely will write more about on this blog in the future.
Anyway, Greer believes that in the not-too-distant future, we will all find ourselves living with much less (energy, stuff and stimulation) and scrambling to make our way in a new world. He writes, at the end of one chapter, that “Most of us will learn what it means to go hungry, to work at many jobs, to watch paper wealth become worthless and to see established institutions go to pieces around us.” Today seemed to me to be a small glimpse of that future reality. While I certainly did not go hungry (I ate as a glutton, though not in any way other than normal in this country) and my money still means something, I worked many jobs. I worked here at the farm I live on, I worked at the farm down the road, and all that work was varied and piecemeal–a lamb driven to the butcher here, some frozen meat sold there, a duck fed here, a row of beets covered there. I also simply lived meaningfully–bringing in firewood to provide heat and cooking, burrowing deep under my covers on a very cold morning. I also had small moments of joyful clarity–not just the very long seconds of spinning out of control and wondering if I was about to die, but also the moment when multiple small icicles slipped out of the hose along with icy cold water while I refilled the duck’s water jug. True, I drove far more than will be feasible in the future and ate fast food and drank both homemade and purchased coffee–also unlikely future activities–but I lived today a life that seems to hold something of a framework that will be quite relevant in the future. There will be exposure to the actual local climate, not just controlled environments. There will be close interactions with a variety of animals–many of which will be feeding us in some way. There will be both mundane and enlivening chores. There will be direct engagement in the production of heat, not just the turning of a switch. There will be moments when you will suddenly realize you might die, much sooner than you think, which Greer also notes in the sentence right before the one I quoted. There will be moments of wonder at the world around you and its beauty, both despite and because of its challenges. There will not be air conditioned or over-heated offices, nor will there be many highly-specialized careers. Most of us will again become generalists, and our work will be about providing basic needs.
I feel like I glimpsed all that today, and I must say that I enjoyed it. Of course, the future will be harder, but there is an undeniable joy in the immediacy of such a life–and that joyful immediacy will be more common even as the discomfort and challenge is more present. I enjoyed the variety of my day, the direct engagement of it, and the sense at the end that I had lived honestly, had even almost died, but had not just trudged and–other than at a certain literal moment–had not just drifted.
Today I worked at many jobs. Today I lived a future life.