When Peter wrote last week about the “strange impulse” that wells up from within to impel him to grow things, it led me to once again contemplate my own engagement with the farm. I’ve previously acknowledged just how much I’ve learned seemingly through some unconscious osmosis, living with and observing Peter over the years. He taught me in this indirect way about a natural world from which I was alienated at an early age, sensitizing me to the needs of other living beings, both plant and animal. I watched him transform our bare New York rooftop into a lush, planted Eden, our plain Sag Harbor lawn into a Victorian Italianate garden, and, over the last 16 years, a swampy stretch of scrub sumac east of our farmhouse into lush perennial borders and shrubberies. At the same time, he took a derelict farm and element by element transformed it into an operating one. By doing so, he instilled in me a heightened appreciation for the beauty of a well-designed landscape and farmscape. I have come to recognize how much the environment in which we live, which I had always previously taken as a given, is in fact a human idea realized in the material world. The farm, as I’ve noted before, is a lot like a work of art or theater.
While I can observe and admire the fruits of Peter’s efforts, I have not inherited these same gifts. My thumb has never approached a green state; on the color chart of plant nurturing, my thumb oscillates naturally between pale gray-green and black. Nor do I have the vision to look at land or a building and imagine how it might look different. I think I have something of a gift for analyzing systems and organizational structures, and an understanding of abstract numerical concepts, skills which have served me well, for example, in predicting how changes to the rules of health insurance would affect the insurance markets. But while that may qualify me to work on insurance legislation (distinctly not part of Peter’s skill set), I don’t have the creative vision that is required for design, or for fiction.
So if the farm is like a work of art or a play production, what is it that keeps me, a decidedly uncreative type, engaged? Surely it can’t be simply that I like it because Peter does; a derivative interest could not sustain a now sixteen year project that I hope to continue in perpetuity. Nor can it simply be how much I like to eat what we produce, though that’s surely a piece of the puzzle. (“A big piece,” Peter says.) But thinking about it Sunday and Monday, when the project at hand was the mundane act of clearing snow, I realized that there is something about the sheer simple mechanical drudgery of so much of farm labor that engages me intensely. Tasks like shoveling snow, digging trenches, filling feed troughs and waterers, weeding the garden and pruning trees seem to fill both a physical and psychological need in me.
I recognize that the world doesn’t value such work very highly, but if I could live by doing it I’d undoubtedly opt for this kind of work as avidly as almost any other. Peter doubts that I would crave it so much if it were my full time work rather than a contrasting break from my sedentary City life stuck staring at my laptop and talking on my phone, but I think I could in fact be happy in such an existence full time.
My snow shoveling of this past weekend illustrates where my satisfaction lies. We have a snow blower and a lawn tractor with a snow plow attachment. But unless there’s more than a foot of the stuff, in which case the practical need to get the job done almost forces their use, I hate to use the things. I object to the noise and the vibration, to the consumption of fuel and creation of fumes. The delicious soreness of my muscles after a few hours of shoveling tells me that I’ve burned off some fat and improved my body tone — the good type of energy consumption — rather than wastefully consumed fossil fuels.
But my taste for this kind of activity is not just an expression of my Luddite tendencies, and it goes well beyond liking the health and ecological consequences. Shoveling several hundred feet of a path or driveway appeals to me because it is all consuming yet ultimately mindless. I can see my progress precisely at any given moment, and there’s not much debate about whether I’ve done a good job.
It may not seem like notable work, just keeping the background infrastructure of the farm going. It’s in some sense like I’m the techie, working on the mechanicals, while Peter is the director and the visionary. But that’s not to say it’s unimportant or unsatisfying. The work imposes order on a chaotic world. Almost every other aspect of my life, from running a business to prosecuting a legal case, involves managing numerous moving parts and weighing complex options, all while juggling the demands of other competing tasks. Interim successes do not necessarily predict final resolutions. And sometimes there are no final resolutions, just ongoing balancing acts. The anxieties that keep me up nights can undoubtedly be traced to the uncertainties and complexity of the dilemmas I face daily. The simple relationship between input and output in the manual tasks of farm labor stand in stark contrast, giving me a sense of accomplishment that is immediate and direct.
Perhaps most important, tasks like shoveling snow, trenching a planting row for leeks, and weeding are quiet, solitary tasks. They take place in the outdoors without the constant interruptions of phone and email. The combination of quiet, solitude and immersion in mechanical bodily motion seems to open a door in my brain, leading me into a contemplative zone, a zone I otherwise rarely have the opportunity to enter. Sometimes I think such work serves a similar function to sleep. Science tells us that sleep is when your mind digests what you’ve observed and helps you to learn and organize your knowledge and sometimes come to epiphanies of understanding.
I’ve had few epiphanies, but the steady use of my muscles is a form of sensual pleasure, and the contemplative process unleashed in my brain shrinks the problems that prey on me, making the world’s woes seem manageable. Farm work is my yoga, my meditation, my gym, and my shrink. And at the end of the day, it feeds the body along with the soul.
Perhaps the love of manual labor is what Peter would call “a strange impulse,” but I believe it is the impulse that will keep me farming as long as the body will sustain it.
2 Possum plows her own path (pic by Kyle Griffin)