Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Hard Labor and Deep Peace

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

Have you ever read the novel Cold Mountain? The female protagonist is a young woman with a good education suddenly cast adrift in a mountainous southern town when her father dies. She has land, but no money and not one skill that will help her manage it. She was, she knew, not brought up to learn anything useful. And with the Civil War on, labor is in short supply. Then Ruby shows up, who is everything Ada is not. Ruby knows all manner of hard work, but she has no land. She takes Ada under her wing, but doesn't cotton to a master-servant relationship, and she assumes her labor will be recompensed with co-ownership of the land. Ada learns to cook, sharpen a scythe, pluck a chicken, work the fields, and everything else that needs doing, alongside her new friend and mentor. The workload, obviously, is intense, and it's a big adjustment for Ada to make. The line that stood out as so memorable from that book was a moment of dialogue between Ruby and Ada. (I'm paraphrasing from memory, but...) "You need to work as hard as you can work and still get up and do it again the next day."

I suppose it stood out for me because in the US, so few of us work that hard, at least physically. The idea of working precisely that hard is as novel to us as it was to fictional Ada. And there's a certain wisdom summed up neatly there: exert yourself to your fullest, but not at the expense of your health or your ability to sustain such work. You are the capital; don't deplete it, but do your utmost each day. Over time of course, the amount of daily work that is sustainable grows as we do.

I won't claim that I am working every bit as hard as I could be right now. But spring is a demanding season for a gardener. The last few days have been major outdoor work days, and that line from Cold Mountain has haunted my thoughts. We've gotten a lot done, and there is satisfaction in that, but so much yet remains. I must do much, but not so much that I lose a day to illness or physical collapse. I enjoy the feeling of physical fatigue at the end of the day. It is far preferable to mental or emotional fatigue. Gently aching muscles feel almost good. I don't need a pill, thanks. Because I know that after a shower and a meal, I can lay myself down for a good night's sleep. It feels well earned, and I am ready for it following a day of labor.

This work and the feeling it leaves me with at the end of the day are vastly different from the exhaustion I've felt in the past, while working a full-time job and living in the city. I think it boils down to a lack of stress. My schedule now is largely dictated by nature, not by a boss. Nature's schedule may be very strict, but at least it intrinsically makes sense. The tasks on my bottomless list are not arbitrary, but serve our own long-term goals. There is always something new to discover, or observe, or learn, even on our modest residential lot. So my mind is engaged too, though the work is heavily physical. Nature is not always kind to my garden or my dreams, but I'll take that risk over having to face the certain daily irritation of working with an unpleasant co-worker after fighting traffic for half an hour. What benefit I produce by the labor of my own hands is largely ours to keep or bestow on others. We'll eat the fruits, vegetables, and herbs, admire the flowers, and the health of this soil will be improved when we're no longer here.

I know I'm not the first to observe or write about these things. But they're wonders to me nonetheless. It's a comfort to find that this peace that others before me have described is still available in the world. I like the calluses on my hands. As Gillian Welch sings: "Never minded workin' hard; it's who I'm workin' for."