Hands in the garden

Hands in the garden

Hand quilting

Hand quilting

“If there is any one thing that’s unhealthy in America, it’s that it is a whole civilization trying to get out of work — the young, especially, get caught in that.  There is triple alienation when you try to avoid work:  first, you’re trying to get outside energy sources/resources to do it for you; second, you no longer know what your own body can do, where your food or water comes from; third, you lose the capacity to discover the unity of mind and body via your work.”
—  Gary Snyder, from The Gary Snyder Reader:  Prose, Poetry and Translations

I am of two minds about people (affluent people) who hire housecleaners to clean up their messes at home or laborers to mow their lawns and pull weeds.  On one hand, I think people should clean up after themselves.  And I hate the sense of my time being more valuable than yours, so you do the dirty work.  On the other hand, if you can afford it, why not hire people so that your time is freed up to focus on the things that are most important to you.  And hiring people creates jobs and extra income for entrepreneurs.

What do you think?

” . . . work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.”
— Stanley Kunitz, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden

Tractors in the fields, Skagit Valley

Today’s quote is food for thought on this Labor Day holiday — work as a manifestation of gratitude.  I do believe that some of the most fortunate people are those who have found work that offers meaning and pleasure.  The kind of work that you never want to retire from.

Parenting is that kind of work.  As is farming and gardening, teaching and construction.  Nurturing life.  Creating beauty and usefulness.  How lucky are those who have found work that feeds the soul.

Harvesting lavender, Lavender Wind Farm

At work in the flower fields, Jello Mold Farm



“Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.”
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

My brother's cords of wood, stockpiled for winter

Shadowplay on a fallen tree

I don’t chop wood, but I’ve looked with pride and affection at jars of blackberry jam that I made from foraged wild blackberries.  Or bags of frozen apples from windfalls that I picked and sliced for future pies.  There is something immensely satisfying about a well-provisioned pantry, especially when it is the work of your own hands.

Thoreau found this kind of satisfaction in gazing at his woodpile, which he loved to have outside of his window to remind him of his “pleasing work.”  As winter approached, he said, “I withdrew yet farther into my shell, and endeavored to keep a bright fire both within my house and within my breast.”  The fire in his fireplace was a great comfort to him — he enjoyed its flickering shadows, which he described as “more agreeable to the fancy and imagination than fresco paintings or the most expensive furniture.”

I love how Thoreau so appreciated the life-giving warmth from his wood fire — something we take so much for granted because heat, for us, is a simple as turning up the thermostat.  He marveled at how, with his fire, he was able to “maintain a kind of summer in the midst of winter, and by means of windows even admit the light, and with a lamp lengthen the day.”  He appreciated cooking so much more for having to forage for his fuel, collecting dead wood from the forest:  “How much more interesting an event is that man’s supper who has just been forth in the snow to hunt, nay, you might say, steal, the fuel to cook with!  His bread and meat are sweet.”

Thoreau acknowledges that something vital is lost when things come too easily and we no longer labor with our own hands for our food and shelter.  Some of the poetry of life goes missing.  Here is what he says about the second winter at Walden’s Pond, when he used a small cooking stove instead of the open fireplace:  “Cooking was then, for the most part, no longer a poetic, but merely a chemic process. . . . it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion.  You can always see a face in the fire.  The laborer, looking into it at evening, purifies his thoughts of the dross and earthiness which they have accumulated during the day.”

I am warmed this dark December by the spirit of Thoreau’s words.  I’ll try to recall them as I flip the light switches on and turn the thermostat up when I return home from work.


Celebrating Labor Day

September 6, 2010

The Labor Day holiday has special significance this year coming on the heels of my furlough week.  I am more appreciative than ever to be employed and have the opportunity to work in a library, the perfect environment for a bookworm like me.  In this troubled economy, you cannot take your job for granted.  I wish everyone happiness in their work.
by Henry van Dyke
Let me but do my work from day to day,
     In field or forest, at the desk or loom,
     In roaring market-place or tranquil room;
Let me but find it in my heart to say,
When vagrant wishes beckon me astray,
     “This is my work; my blessing, not my doom;
     Of all who live, I am the one by whom
This work can best be done in the right way.”
Then shall I see it not too great, nor small,
     To suit my spirit and to prove my powers;
     Then shall I greet the laboring hours,
And cheerful turn, when the long shadows fall
At eventide, to play and love and rest,
Because I know for me my work is best.

Tractor repair (photo August 2008)

Field work: baling hay (photo August 2008)

Handwork -- knitting to pass the time on the ferry

Hands at Rest

August 9, 2010

Dad's hands at rest

“Rest is the sweet sauce of labor.”
     — Plutarch

Hands are so expressive.  My dad’s hands are a map of his life as a farmer and laboring man.  No stranger to hammers, grease guns, handles of pails, butchering knives, seeds and dirt.  They hold the wisdom of years.

I love looking at my father’s hands.  I captured them at a well-earned moment of rest.  

“And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches
of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.” 
     — from “Shadows” by D. H. Lawrence

Honor in Work

September 7, 2009

Old farmer at a farm auction

Old farmer at a farm auction

Here is a poem in honor of Labor Day.

To Be of Use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.