The Joy of Physical Labor

Reader Contribution by Betty Taylor
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The spade bites into the earth and I turn over a shovelful of garden soil. It’s a windy March day, but the sun is warm on bare arms blanched from a winter of layered clothing. A male cardinal sings out his cheery presence, and in the distance, crows scold some unseen interloper.

I am reworking my garden beds, turning up earthworms and little clumps of grass and weeds as I go. At the end of the row, I lay down the shovel and kneel in the path along the newly forming row to break up the clumps with my hands, shaking loose the toupees of grass and throwing them upside-down into the path to compost.

The earth crumbles between my fingers and smells clean.

I work my way back down the row on my knees, then stand, retrieve the shovel, and begin turning over another row. I continue until the bed is 4 feet wide and 50 feet long then make another path on the other side, about 2 feet wide, throwing the topsoil from the path back up on this bed that I am creating. I cover both row and path with old straw mucked from the goats’ shed.

Behind me are four completed rows neatly tucked into their straw blankets, snoozing out the last weeks of cold weather. The first bed already has onions peeking out of the straw, and further down the row, potatoes will soon make their appearance. Working a little each day, I hope to complete one or two more rows before it’s time to plant the warm-season vegetables.

My brother has offered me the use of this tiller, but I’ve declined. He thinks I’m crazy for doing all this hand digging. How do I explain to him that I actually enjoy the quiet, solitary labor, and that the roar of a tiller’s motor and the jarring way it lurches through the soil would ruin it for me? Why do some of us love the work of a homestead and others look at it and think drudgery!

Humans are designed to perform and enjoy work and to reap benefit from it. Along with physical exercise, the benefits include the satisfaction of producing something useful or beautiful with our own labor, the sheer joy of using mind and body, the expression of creative and aesthetic impulses, and the creation of a soul-satisfying life.

Good work is one simple secret to a fulfilled life. We’ve been taught that work is drudgery to be avoided or hurried through just to get it over with, to seek out labor-saving devices to eliminate it, and to delegate it to others or pay them to do it for us. Of course, this may be true of work that is directed by someone else and that must be performed in a prescribed way without our own creative input. Yes that is drudgery!

But the work performed by entrepreneurs, artists, writers, musicians, hobbyists, and yes homesteaders can offer fulfillment. Homesteading offers freedom and variety in our activities, provides an outlet for creativity, and brings joy. Those of us who love this homesteading become engrossed in the life we are creating, lose track of time, and enter that flow state that makes the work so enjoyable. It is that place that makes the work itself, and not the finished product, the whole point of our effort.

Rethinking Physical Labor

To find this place, to enjoy where we are and what we are doing right now, we have to unlearn some old habits and rethink some things we may have learned about work:

Physical labor is beneath us. Our bodies actually crave physical labor! That’s why so many people run, go to gyms, play sports, take up physically challenging hobbies – they see the benefits of and enjoy the way their bodies feel with physical activity. The physicality of homesteading chores can condition us, body and mind, at the same time we are producing something of value. Even seemingly monotonous chores such as hoeing a long garden row can become a meditation for the mind while using the body. I cannot count the number of times I have started a task that at first looked daunting and soon become lost in the work and my own reverie. The next thing I know an hour has passed and I actually have something to show for it! The reward for a day spent outdoors using large muscles is a healthy body and a good night’s rest.

Work is something to be endured and hurried through to get to the finished product. On the contrary, work is it’s own reward! Physical labor can be a feast to the senses–especially when performed outdoors. The sights, sounds, and smells of nature are all around us. We can feel the way our bodies move and become part of the landscape. While carrying hay and water to the goats, a month-old kid gambols up, full of curiosity. Before he knows what’s happened, I’ve reached down and scooped him up, holding him against my face to breathe in his sweet smell. His belly is full of his mother’s milk and his eyes are bright and clear. Little nubs of horns appear through the tufts of fur on his head. He wriggles against me until I set him down again. He runs off to check in with his mother as if to undo the indignity I’ve foisted upon him.

Most of our work is, by necessity, about eating, either directly or indirectly. We work in the garden or with animals to produce our food, or we work for money to buy our food. Is it any wonder then that along with being labor-intensive, food preparation can entail the most sensuous and pleasurable of activities? From the field to the fork, we use all of ourselves and all of our senses to produce what we eat. From the outdoor work of gardening; to the color, aroma, and sizzle of cooking; to the pleasure of eating, this work is to be savored.

Work is something we need to let others do for us. We miss more than we gain by delegating away all of our physical labor. Being engaged in physically producing something ourselves develops resourcefulness and creativity as well as a sense of pride and accomplishment in a finished product. Tell me, which potato tastes better–the one you pick off the grocer’s shelf or the one you dig from the earth with your own hands, slice thin into a skillet along with your own homegrown onions, and sauté in a little olive oil until the potatoes are golden brown and the onions caramelized?

As I finish my work on this March day, I look again at those little green spires in the onion bed and check the straw over the potato bed. I can already taste their promise.

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