On Work


This morning I milked just as the sun was clearing the copse of tall spruce to the east, illuminating the turning leaves on the maples lining the shallow cleft of the mountain road. The colors are coming on fast now. It’s frosted hard twice.

I milk outdoors, kneeling on the ground, subject to the vagaries of weather. Halter, fencepost, cow, bucket. Sometimes I wish for more commodious infrastructure, but not as often as I’m glad to not have it, because if I had it I’d use it, probably even on mornings like this one, that slanting light, warm enough in shirt sleeves, the laying hens gathering around me as if this might finally be the morning I do something other than shoo them away. Forever hopeful, those hens. A guy could learn a thing or two.

I spent much of the weekend on the excavator, building a compost discharge filtering system at our friend Tom’s farm, just down the road. I love driving by the place, which is situated right where the road narrows to snake through a stand of old mother maples. Between the horse logging, and the composting operation, and their own big flock of hopeful layers pecking about, and Tom’s family, and haying, and passers by, there’s a lot going on there. Sometimes Tom’s younger daughter and her friend sell lemonade at the side of road, and I’ll stop and give them a dollar for a twenty-five cent cup because I’m a sucker for a lemonade stand run by a couple of eight-year-olds who wave their arms frantically and shout “Stop! Ben! Stop!” when I pass. Anyway. There’s almost always an excuse to crane my neck, and even better, it’s almost always something that reminds me there’s still plenty of good shit happening in this crazy old world.

I’m a bit loathe to admit it, but I sort of like working with machinery, and I really enjoyed passing some time on the excavator, which is a remarkable piece of equipment, capable of destruction and production in equal measure. And there was just enough physical labor involved – raking and shoveling and whatnot – to keep me sweating, and so I did not succumb to the strange, numbing fatigue of uninterrupted machine operation, which is the one aspect of working machinery that I don’t like. Well, that, and when things break. I don’t like that much, either.

I sometimes suffer from the sense that writing is not real work, I think in part because we inhabit of community of people who by-and-large make their living from the sweat off their back. I know it’s not really true – writing is hard, damn hard, or at least it can be, probably should be, at least at times – but I also know a bit about what it takes to support a family through farming, or logging, or building, or the myriad other ways rural folk make their way in the world, and I occasionally feel as if what I do to support my family doesn’t quite measure up. It’s my own insecurity talking, much as anything else, but still. That’s how I feel.

So it was real nice to make something tangible, and not just in service to myself and my family, but for someone else in our community. I left feeling pleased about the work I’d done, happy with the way the system had taken shape, graded out just so to shed rainwater and send the discharge in the proper direction, the smooth lines of the berm I’d formed with the excavator bucket.

I drove home real slow, the truck laboring to pull the digger, the leaves on the trees high on the side of the mountain well into their irreversible decline.



36 thoughts on “On Work”

  1. ‘I occaisionally feel as though what I do to support my family does not measure up’
    Are you kidding?
    If it’s any consolation I reckon we all feel that …my children went to ‘childcare’ from 6 months to 11 years as I had to work …now they’re older they’re ‘latch key’ kids ….have to let themselves in and wait till I get home ….I’ve felt overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and inadequacy from time to time …but we just have to do our best and get on with it.
    You sir …seem to be giving your wife and kids a wonderful life …yes I know there are problems and hurdles …there IS no ‘perfect’ idyll ….But I reckon you’re providing them with skills for the future ….and yes …as they get older they might seem to rebel and fly the nest …but maybe they won’t ….we are ALL going to have to live in a more sustainable way …a mix of looking back to simpler lifestyles but mixing in science and technology for the 21st century ….Oh …and as I’ve said before …you’re blog makes perfect Eve reading for a stressed out urbanite :D:D:D

  2. I swear Ben, if you’re looking for a dope-slap, I’m your man!
    We need your writing as much as the onions need drying.
    It’s about completion, and giving voice.
    A gift the crickets have too, so don’t get puffed up…

  3. Hi Ben. I often think about your writing on physical versus mental labour. I understand that physical labour is quantifiable so by its nature, easier to measure and therefore, valid? Question mark on purpose. However, what if one cannot labour physically but must labour mentally? Is it not equally valid? I guess by that, I mean don’t undervalue your writing. A rambling comment – I apologise but it is late…

    1. I don’t mean to dismiss/undervalue mental labor… it’s valid, for sure.
      I know my perspective is colored by living in a rural working-class community, and by the fact that so many of our close friends make their living on the land. And also by the pleasure I derive from physical work.

  4. I should probably add…it is late here in Scotland! I just noticed the time signature on my comment is mid-afternoon your time.

  5. I burned up a transmission pulling an excavator up a hill. Cost me $125 for (another) used transmission and I swapped it out alone, without a transmission jack. (a very bad idea.)
    Drive careful.

  6. OK I’ll give in and jump on the (friendly) chastising wagon. I get so weary of people not honoring their chosen work. Is it some kind of guilt currency that they pay so they can keep doing what they do? But then I remember I was exactly like this until I almost died and then second guessing myself became miniscule compared to mortality.

    The little kids I teach art to are always saying “I’m no good at this” or some version of that and I’m always trying to tell them don’t say that but if you have to then add the word “yet” to the end of the sentence.

    When people start out life feeling like they aren’t any good then eventually they become second guessers and think there’s always something more better that they can contribute.

    I fought this my whole life and I think I’m finally getting over it. Listen to your friends Ben. What you do is good. What you do is worthy and we know you know it. If I may be so bold I appreciate that you say what comes into your mind.

  7. I’m sure there are some diehard manly men who would agree with you about writing not being a real way to make a living (and I’d HATE to share a bathroom with those men). But they probably think alot of things. I’m a housewife that makes enough $ a year to pay my car insurance, and sometimes I feel inadequate around the people in my circle who are business owners, professors, or other professions that get paid large amounts of $. It seems like there’s a professional hierarchy that exists. When someone around here says, “I work for Cornell” (which I’m like ewwww, those GMO mosquito a-holes!) or “I’m a professor at Hobart College” people light up, smile, and say, “Ohhhhhhh!” Say no more! You’re good! These people get automatic value. I wish we lived in a world where people were just valued for being people, and each individual talent was respected, regardless of whether it’s something high up on the professional hierarchy ladder. Besides, you grow your own food and built your own dang house, it’s not like your hands are super soft ‘n clean with a weak grip. You get to dabble in academia and working with your hands, not everyone can do that eh? You can hold your own with the professors, and have a beer with the local farmer. Kickass I say!

  8. Wait. You have our own excavator? After reading your work for all these years, how did I miss that? Or am I reading that wrong? My boys would think you hung the moon, if they met you and found out you had an excavator. I agree with you that they are wonderful machines for their equal ability to construct as well as destruct. I would have grumbled too much about the destruction part in my younger years. But, my youngest son became enthralled with that machine when he was barely 2 years old. He called it an “ex-baby.” Have to admit I like them myself, now.
    No one should feel badly for something they have a passion for, particularly if they can do it with the skill you have for writing. I have always preferred to be physically tired to mentally tired (as I would be if attempting to write.) Easier to recover from and you understand the source of your weariness a bit better. Thanks again for the words! Peace!

    1. Can’t speak for Ben, but rental prices are super cheap for the work you can do. I got a weekend of work done for less than $400, but I pulled it myself. They will usually deliver, too.

    2. Well, strictly speaking, the bank owns it and we rent it from them.

      It’s handier than a box of opposable thumbs.

      I made that up. I think


  9. Please don’t think that your writing has less value than more physical forms of labor. So many people value your words so highly, more, certainly, than you will ever know. What you do is a gift.

  10. Joel Salatin writes of being snubbed because of being a farmer. The way he tells the story, it’s almost comical since Salatin is a genius among the farming community and as a writer. How fortunate to be in such good company, to be among other gifted writer’s living life on their own terms, and whose books line my shelves next to yours.

  11. Masterful work fishing for compliments, Ben. 🙂
    I just spotted your “The Town That Food Saved” on audio disks in the new ordered section at a local library here. Good to see.

  12. Such a treat to read this! I find my lazy old ass envious of a soul who gets his young energetic ass into serious gear and accomplishes tangible work for a friend.

  13. Why is it that academic-status work is amaaazing but being a SAHM or farmer is so undervalued? I just turned down two jobs ( Eng coordinator for private HS, another in editing). Ugh. They said “Aren’t you bored sitting home with kids all day?”

    We’ve forgotten how to live- the art of real living. I’d rather be poor with a solid family than a professor (turned that down last year) or whatever….But writing is honorable work. That’s how we pay the bills so I can lounge and homeschool….

  14. Hi Ben! Any chance you can delete a comment I made on your post Dec 29, 2014? I’ve been notified it increases my risk of id theft because I included my family’s name. I found it, thinking I could delete it myself. But I see that deleting it myself is not possible.
    I know you have 1,000 better things to do…but I appreciate any consideration you might give it.
    Always appreciate your posts!
    Kim 😊

    Sent from my iPhone

  15. Arrive at seven service three combines, cutting by nine. Pick up grain until the sun goes down and all the trucks are full. Get home drink a beer eat dinner and go to bed exhausted, thirty days in a row. “Exhausted” when all I did was about an hours worth of physical labor, the rest of the day I stared at a wheat field and wrote letters in my head and repeated the steady mantra, “please dont break down, please dont break down…”

    I get it, I’m glad I’m not the only one, I’m also glad I’m a farmer now and not a farm hand. What? The hours are better.

    1. OMG when we lived in Tracy at the acreage we had alfalfa fields all around us. Periodically we had tractors, cultivators, hay balers circling our little house. All Night Long. It was eerie with the tractor headlights coming in through the windows at 3 a.m. knowing some guy is out there in the dark. And I’m wondering what he’s on to be able to stay up all that time with nothing but the lights of the tractor on the field ahead of him. I hope he had music in the cab but geez how many tracks would you have to have to not get bored with even that.

      Don’t break down, don’t break down. That’s a mantra allrightey!

      Whatta life.

  16. Tom, being Tom G. of BD Farm? Even their website conveys there is a lot going on there. Wondered what he was doing after leaving High

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s