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Thoughts on work, labor, scything weeds, and the meaning of life  RSS feed

 
Dan Boone
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I must confess I've found myself reading John Michael Greer's The Archdruid Report with some avidity of late. I think he's often wrong, and perhaps even wrong-headed; but he makes thoughtful arguments that aren't easy to dismiss, and if there is in fact to be a fall in our future, I judge he's got useful things to say about how we can learn to fall with style.

But this post is about something one of his commenters said about this post:

Take a very time-consuming technology: cutting weeds with a scythe. An objector would say to this, "You must have a lot of leisure time to be able to train yourself in using a scythe. Why aren't you at work?"

The deep underlying assumption is this: true "work" is not an activity that benefits you directly, but is something you do in order to get yourself some money, which can then be used to buy things you need/want. The end goal of your spent time is acquisition.

But the fellow buying the scythe needs to have a completely different view of things: time is not money, because time is life itself; and labor is not a means to acquire money but is itself a way for you to live. Training yourself in an outdated technology can be both work and pleasure.


I have a life-long aversion to physical labor, that stems from a lot of forced-march child labor demanded of her children by my mother when she was in her 1970s homesteading phase. That's why I was deep into my forties (and my mother two decades in the ground) before I ever planted so much as one tomato in a bucket.

I do not own a scythe, but the quoted comment resonates nonetheless. Because the deeper I get into growing stuff, the more I find myself struggling to categorize the physical labor involved. In one sense it's drudgery just as I've always hated, and I'd much rather be sitting here in front of my computer screen slinging airy pixels, as it has long been my pleasure and livelihood to do. But in another sense the labor is, if not precisely pleasurable, at least a part of activities that are ends in themselves. I plant tomatoes because I love to eat tomatoes. I could sling more pixels, maybe, and make money with which to buy tomatoes; but I planted my first tomato precisely because I knew (thanks Mom) there was no way in my area to buy such a nice tomato no matter how much money I make. If I wanted some (and I did/do) I had to grow them. Thus does the pleasure of eating a sun-ripened fresh tomato become somehow of a piece with the drudge labor of planting and growing the thing.

I think the commenter I quoted is on to something. When I work in the money economy (which I have always done with my mind and my fingers and my computer, never as an adult with my back and my sweat) I am working to get money to get stuff that I want. It's light "work" and pleasant enough, but it's not very satisfying. But when I work with my hands to make (grow) something directly for me to consume myself, I'm not "working" in the economic sense at all. I'm just living.

And living is better than working.

Which somehow, in an odd way, makes physical labor way less unpleasant. Because it's living, not working.

Traditionally I have said I hate physical labor, and I always did. But in part that's because all of my experience of laboring was doing it for someone else. My mother's garden was living for her, but not for me when I was eleven. Likewise my father's gold mining claims, or the neighbor's gravel I shoveled for cash in high school. And my biggest objection to physical labor was always the boredom: the shovel in my hand kept me from my interesting books, or later, from my computer screen.

Whereas labor done for my own living is never boring. If I'm inspired enough to do it voluntarily, I'm inspired enough to find it interesting and to be thinking about it as I do it. This has come as a great surprise to me.

However I am still not so sure about the scythe. That looks like serious labor.
 
Mike Cantrell
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Wonderful post, Dan! Thank you!

Is "meaningless drivel" really the proudest home we can find for good stuff like this? I guess maybe it's alright since you got an apple for it. But that's not what I signed in to say.

Dan Boone wrote:However I am still not so sure about the scythe. That looks like serious labor.


I signed in to say, don't knock it till ya tried it. I'm not crazy about physical work, either, but mowing with a scythe is FUN. I'm serious. It feels fantastic. Give it a shot if there's any possible way to get your hands on one.

Two years ago when I got mine, I went around "exerscything" every time I could spare ten minutes. Just because it was so dang cool.

(Possibly, also because I spent a whole summer operating a big string trimmer with those plastic blades you can swap in, working harder, and getting MUCH dirtier, and burning up a whole lot of Mr. Porter's gasoline, and not doing my hearing any favors... when the right tool for the job, if only I or he had known it at the time, was a scythe.)
 
John Wolfram
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Dan Boone wrote:I do not own a scythe, but the quoted comment resonates nonetheless. Because the deeper I get into growing stuff, the more I find myself struggling to categorize the physical labor involved. In one sense it's drudgery just as I've always hated, and I'd much rather be sitting here in front of my computer screen slinging airy pixels, as it has long been my pleasure and livelihood to do. But in another sense the labor is, if not precisely pleasurable, at least a part of activities that are ends in themselves.

For me, it's all about balance. To me, monotonous physical labor is not better or worse than sedentary office work, it's just different and both are needed. As an office worker Monday through Friday, hard manual labor on the weekends is refreshing in its own way. And, if done right, the office work provides a needed respite from the weekend. More times than I count have I come in Monday morning utterly thankful for a desk job that will give my aching shoulders/legs a break. I'm sure if I had a job as a hod carrier, or some other manual job, my weekends would be far more sedentary to balance out the week.
 
Bill Erickson
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We are of the same mind, Mr. Boone. "Ich arbeite um zu leben, nicht lebe um zu arbeiten." - I work to live, not live to work. I also view the scythe with a jaundiced eye, something suspicious in that pile, although Mike does make a fair point.
 
David Livingston
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I must admit to finding sything hypnotic ,medative and not work at all.

David
 
Charles Tarnard
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For me, it's not just the scythe, but almost any properly sharpened blade. It's satisfying to watch blades, leaves, or whatever else fall silently to the ground. After so many years busting out heavy motorized tools that needed all kinds work and maintenance to keep them going for 5 to 7 years before they were more cost effective to replace than repair - a simple, easy to maintain machine that lasts and lasts is a thing of joy.
 
Dan Boone
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I still have a lot of trouble getting into the mindset where the laboring time is pleasant time. A string of short projects is easy, but anything where the task breaks down into "and now we spend an hour sweating" without anything more interesting to say is still a problem for me.

What struck me as the profound part of the quote that I opened the thread with was the critique of the notion of being "at work" to earn money to buy the things you need because you have to spend all your time "at work" and therefore can't accomplish your actual goals without an expensive labor-saving device. That's not an easy hampster-wheel to get out of.

I am attracted to the attitude that "This is not work and I am not at work. I am living my life -- the which I would not be if I was "at work" for money today pursuing projects that only matter to someone else -- and today my life includes some labor, which however unpleasant is still better than being at work." I think there's a philosophical distinction lurking in there somewhere between work as we understand it in 21st century hypercapitalism and labor that isn't work-as-we-understand-it because it's for ourselves. If I could cultivate and internalize that notion, I think I would be more productive with my growing projects, which are far more interesting to me than anything I do that people will pay me for.
 
Mike Cantrell
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For me, it arose out of a cognitive dissonance that got too strong to ignore.

See, I have a deeply-entrenched bad habit of dissatisfaction. Sometimes, it's a positive in my life, because it drives me to improve things, but it's still a bad habit. I'm always wishing things were better than they are and scheming how to change them. That means at my day job, I think dozens of times a day, "ugh, if only I were working on my masonry heater instead," or, "ugh, if only I were picking apples instead."

So what gradually happened to me was, I caught myself thinking, "ugh, if only I were..." even when I was doing the things I had been wishing for! Because it's just a habit, and if you think something twenty times a day on Friday, you're going to think it twenty times on Saturday. So I noticed there was no good end to, "ugh, if only I were..." I couldn't finish the thought. Where would I rather be? Writing reports? Driving all day? No! If I were there, then I'd be wishing to be here! Here with my hands hurting and getting a sunburn!
I THINK of myself as a guy who accomplishes things, builds things, is self-reliant. So when it's time to to do something self-reliant, I reel my mind back in from that wandering. This sore back is what I want out of life; why am I trying to escape it?
When I look directly at that cognitive dissonance, it evaporates.
 
Jay Grace
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I'll scythe all day before I ever use a weedeater again.

Remember people pay monthly (gym membership) for a chance to get a full body workout and sweat an hour a day.

The video is of a yearly scythe vs weedeater competition in somerset, U.K.




 
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