Work Song: An Ode to Land-Based Manual Labor

Reader Contribution by Jonny Malks
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The history of manual labor is fraught with inequities, none more glaring than the United States’s imposition of over 150 years of chattel slavery on a proud African people who were stolen from their homeland by the millions and forced to build a white anglo-saxon version of the “new world.” I recognize my privilege in writing this post as someone who has never been coerced into manual labor by force or out of an immediate economic necessity. I’ve also never been told that I cannot aspire to anything beyond manual labor based on my skin color, ethnicity, or degree of physical ability. With my country’s painful history and my own privileged identity in mind, here’s my ode to work and workers:

I am pouring concrete. Two days ago, I made the 7-hour drive from my hometown of Arlington, Virginia, to Shutesbury, Massachusetts. I’m starting my 6-week stay with friend and mentor Russell Wallack, ecological designer and founder of Breadtree Farms. I came up here to plant chestnut seedlings, but now I’m pouring concrete. Russell and his partner, Kate, recently bought a home, and between some serious DIY renovations on the house’s sill plate, orchard planning, and preparation for the newest member of their family set to arrive in early December, their hands are perpetually full. 

So, I’m helping with the renovation, pouring concrete, participating in an elaborate construction project that I would have very little interest in if it weren’t being done by people who I adore. And, yet, I’m loving it. I love manual labor. I loved it on the farm over the summer and I love it now. I know that next to no one looks forward to digging holes, moving rocks, and weeding rows of vegetables by hand out in the sun all day, but hear me out for a moment. The more I look around I realize that my love of work is not unique. Humans were born to work.

Weeding can be a chore. 

And not only born to work, but born to work while free, with hands and feet, the hands and feet our mothers gave us. Merriam-Webster defines “labor” as the “expenditure of physical or mental effort especially when difficult,” and there is something ingrained in the human experience that causes people to manufacture labor for themselves, especially when it’s not a part of their daily job. What is this free-time labor creation called in our modern vernacular? Exercise. 

Exercise, a form of self-induced “labor” that has long eclipsed job-based “expenditures of…effort” in the middle-to-upper-class western world since the second half of the twentieth century, is one of the most important elements of holistic health and development. According to the United Kingdom National Health Service, it’s medically proven that people who do regular physical activity have: up to a 35% lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, up to a 50% lower risk of colon cancer, up to a 30% lower risk of depression, and up to a 30% lower risk of dementia. These statistics make it clear that the human body and mind thrive on the right amount of labor, but our modern concept of “exercise” – and the way that it’s so closely tied to society’s damaging beauty standards – have turned what should be an everyday joy into a stressful act of identity-building that causes people to lose hope. As a result, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, less than 5% of adults participate in the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Consequently, many Americans have all but lost touch with one of the most basic elements of human life. 

Because we were born to move. We were meant for hard work and dancing. The tangible wonder that we crave in life is created with labor and love, and the community farm is the ultimate nucleus of these values. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that our respective connections to labor and local agriculture have diminished simultaneously over the past century. We’ve come to associate the word “work” with sitting at a desk all day and staring at a screen. And, so, “work” is something that many people loathe. We’ve come to know food as something that we buy at the supermarket, rather than something that is grown on community land and in our own backyards. Something we work for. And, so, a rise in chronic diseases has coincided with a prevailing view of agriculture as a profession to be looked down upon. Luckily, most small-scale growers don’t care. They’re not discouraged. They’re moving their bodies everyday. They get to feel the morning dew upon their feet and baptize their knees in soil each and every day. They are some of the only ones who can still drink the autumn rain with unadulterated joy. Our farmers are laboring, they’re dancing on the earth and paying gratitude and painting it with hands and feet to grow and harvest crops. 

And I’m pouring concrete. Russell’s dad, Dan, has done renovations like these all his life. He smooths the dull grey mixture to create a raised platform on which he plans to replace some rotting sill. He talks about the nearby Quabbin Reservoir.

“You know, it’s the water source for all of Boston,” he says. “Built way back in the 1930s. They even drowned a couple towns when that dam was put up.” My high school history comes in handy. I mention how the process sounds similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority and other New Deal Projects. We get around to the Civilian Conservation Corps, and Dan’s face changes. A new sadness comes into it. 

“They used to take people in who had nothing, those CCC camps. They’d shelter them and give them food and work and a little sense of dignity.” He looks up at me from his work, his semi-square eyeglasses have slipped down to the bridge of his nose, making his eyes seem far away. “Where’s that gone today?” I said I didn’t know. 

I think we lost it the moment we lost sight of the value of manual labor in our lives. We lost it when we traded dancing for video games and a little conversation for hours lost in the glow of a computer screen. The good news is that it’s still so close. Our dignity and humanity, our healthy affinity for movement, is one seed, one step, one song away. Let’s join the farmers; let’s move! 

I wrote a little poem to go along with this piece. Here’s Work Song:

Nobody wants to do it
Until the doing starts to course
Through bodies that
Haven’t felt
The contraction of a muscle
Since last weekend’s back spasm,
Or Tuesday’s class,
Or yesterday’s conniption. 

But it feels good;
The doing moves
Like we do,
It makes people who love
Love harder.
It helps lonely people see
Who they were meant to see
Through the branches of persimmon,
Standing tall and still. 

I think today marks out a week since they,
Put their knees in the mud
To dig the hole where it could root
In the vibrating earth
With their now ever-active hands. 

Jonny Malksis a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Connect with him onFacebookand read all of Jonny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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