Hard Work

A couple of days ago a media figure caused a bit of a stir by suggesting that the use of the term “hard work” was insensitive because it did not reflect the reality from another era. It was based on a comment that the new Speaker of the House was known as a “hard worker” and I am inclined to agree with her assessment. What she said, exactly, was this:

“But I want to be super careful when we use the language hard worker because I actually keep an image of folks working in cotton fields on my office wall, because it is a reminder about what hard work looks like.”

Ten years ago I would have started in on her abuse of grammar and the fact that someone who earns their living with words ought to have at least some respect for their arrangement, especially when they pull in more per week than I do all year, but I’m not that guy anymore. I’m also not about to defend a politician in Washington D.C. against any criticism, from anyone, at any time. Frankly they’ve earned it. The woman who made that statement is likely unaware of the irony in her comment. Having an image on a wall is not the same thing as doing the work yourself and judging by her well manicured fingertips she is not the best candidate for assessing the hard work of others. Something about people in glass houses and all that. I am, however, deeply grateful that a media personality from one of the major urban centers on Earth acknowledges the toil associated with agrarian lifestyles even if she had to go back past the sesquicentennial mark to find an example. I have never grown cotton myself, but I have definitely worked in fields harvesting and it is indeed hard work, albeit brief and seasonal. That’s another misconception in the age of modernity, that people picked cotton, or harvested corn or cut hay 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, as if fields were an outdoor version of a factory and crops were widgets. Sure, it’s easy to make that mistake if you’ve never even grown a tomato, but the truth is that the sheer variety of tasks associated with an agricultural lifestyle is mind boggling, even if you aren’t hunched over in the Mississippi Delta with a sack full of bolls, but it isn’t singular.

Last week I did the chores 14 times, once in the morning and once in the evening, every day, weather be damned. I tend to beef cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens and turkeys, working dogs and barn cats. At this time of the year it become a little more labor intensive because the grass is in dormancy and the animals must be moved from paddock to paddock, or woodlot to woodlot each day. To supplement their forage I must collect enough additional feed to meet the needs of their caloric intake which is increasing as the temperatures drop. To feed 20 hogs I must glean at least 6 five gallon buckets of apples every day, two for the turkeys and if I’m feeling especially generous, four for the cows — although I can browse them through the orchard if I have the time. The hogs go through four gallons of water each, every day and I bring that to them in three different locations because the boar must be separated from the farrowing sows who must be kept apart from the weaners. Each five gallon pail weighs around 45 pounds and you have to carry two to balance it out. Do the math. I have to grain the chickens and make sure they have water as well, a hundred layers go through 20 pounds of grain per day and at this time of the year 20 gallons of water. Luckily I only have to go to the back of the main house to get to the hens, but for the hogs it’s a quarter of a mile, each way. They forage for nuts and roots for the biggest part of the day, acorns are plentiful this time of year, but I also supplement their diet with spent grain from the local brewery. This I pick up twice a week in square totes that weigh about 140 pounds a piece. On a good day there are eight of them. I have to carry each one to the truck and load by hand from the back of the building where I pick it up and it gets harder with each one, like those strong man competitions where they have to lift increasingly larger stone balls and fit them on ever higher pedestals with each round. Then they have to be unloaded. The cattle are much easier. I bring them round bales with the tractor, but I do have to unwrap them, move the feeder each time and break down and move the 14 panels to recreate a new paddock each day as I move them around the pasture. Each panel weighs only 45 pounds, but they are 12 foot in length and five foot in height and the fields — at least on our farm — are not exactly level. I should mention that the entire time I do this I must negotiate a path between 20 curious cows and calves who find my work at turns fascinating and annoying depending on the weather and their mood. When each panel is put in place I have to fit a steel pin between a set of four steel loops to join the panels, easy on flat ground, trickier when it’s not and it’s not. On a good day, without being soaked by freezing rain my fingers comply with my intentions and I can reassemble the paddock in twenty minutes. And then there’s the water, 200 gallons per day. The sheep are easier and drink less so that they are almost an afterthought. They are far less bothersome at feeding time than the hogs who will frequently try and knock me over if I can’t get the slops to them fast enough. I almost forgot slops. I pick up about forty, five gallon buckets of discarded preps from two restaurants — and one resort in the Summer that produces 20, 60 gallon totes each week for three months. These can weigh anywhere from forty to 160 pounds each and are a pleasure to hump up into the back of the truck and out again. When I am done with them I wash and sanitize each container no matter what the temperature is. It’s not my favorite chore when it’s seventy five degrees, but it is my least favorite when it’s -20. Then, if nothing comes up, it’s time for breakfast.

The rest of my day is spent on maintaining the buildings, gardens, fields, equipment, fences and enclosures on the farm in a seasonal rotation. Flexibility is the key because a day promised to cleaning the sugar house and bottling syrup can morph into a week of rebuilding a blown engine on the wood chipper or helping a neighbor hunt down a herd of Angus that have broken out of the back end of a two hundred acre farm sometime the night before. There are roofs and siding to be repaired or painted, windows glazed, fence posts shattered by falling tree limbs that must be re-dug and installed in rocky soil, tools oiled, hoses coiled, trees felled and wood split, manure composted and later spread, rocks collected and stone walls built, seeds planted, fruits picked and vegetables harvested, animals delivered and later slaughtered, carcasses butchered, sausage ground and hams smoked. There are the customers who drive up for a dozen eggs which must be collected daily and put in cartons, visitors who bring a car full of kids with them from Boston who just want a tour that takes at least an hour and which I have never refused only to leave without buying so much as a bottle of syrup. There are nesting boxes and birdhouse and farrowing crates and brooding hutches to build, weeds to whip, hay to mow and rake and bale and store. Seeds to dry and save, predators to trap or shoot, wire to pull, lawns to cut, driveways and paths to plow when it snows no matter what time of day or night, brush piles to build and then burn, ash to spread. The police department always calls me first when there are animals loose in the town and I have rustled and wrestled with goats and hogs that did not belong to me and walked them back along the road to our farm on a leash to feed and water until their owners discover them missing. Last week this happened and as I led a 150 pound gilt along the edge of the road a shiny SUV with out of state tags pulled over to take a video of us, yelling out the window, “I’ve never seen someone walking a pig before!” Somewhere on Facebook I am getting likes.

I don’t count anything I do in my home as work. My wife takes care of 90% of that and if I can help, I do, but she doesn’t expect it and I am grateful for her efforts which I wouldn’t even begin to enumerate here. Suffice it to say that she keeps our children fed and clothed, happy and healthy, well mannered and respectful and ready for each day and safe and tired for bed each night and she makes it look easy. While we may have disagreements or outbursts like any other normal family, overall our home is a contented and clean sanctuary where everyone is well nourished with delicious meals and kept in a perpetual state of chattering, reading and playful comfort. Every time I step through the door of the mudroom I am welcomed as if I have just come back from a tour of duty and it never fails to make it all worthwhile no matter what the day has brought.

I don’t know if the new Speaker of the House is really a “hard worker” or if the media star with the image of folks working in the cotton fields has calluses on her hands from whatever it is that journalist wonks do all day. Everyone has there own row to hoe, even if it is metaphorical. I do know that when I lay down in my bed at night, right before I close my eyes and think of what I accomplished that day and what I have on my plate when I wake up, God willing, in the morning, I don’t think about it as work at all. This is more than what I do, this is what I am. People are meant to work, not for money or for the recognition or fame or acclaim or approval of others, but for their own self-worth. It reminds us that life, real human existence with purpose and meaning, is tied inextricably to toil and difficulty, hardship and resistance. The entirety of the world which we inhabit, of all physics and spirituality is the never ending struggle between creation and decay, of finding Ordo ab Chao and making our time worth the effort of our birth. And if that qualifies as hard work, I am honored to do it.

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