Thursday, October 18, 2007

Work, Work, Work

What will you do with your life? What work will you do? How will that work sustain you, your family, your community?

Do we ask any of these questions when, as teenagers or young adults, we plan our futures?

Most people seem to think of work as what they do to earn enough money to live where they live (or perhaps what will enable them to move somewhere more desirable—for whatever reason), buy food, clothing, pay rent, and support all of the other mundane realities of everyday life—both concrete and ephemeral. But the question of work keeps coming up in my reading, and keeps connecting with other concerns. And it's all related to Morris's basic question about how we live and how we might live.

Some folks, like Curtis White in the May/June issue of Orion Magazine (The Ecology of Work), and Wendell Berry, clearly think of work as something more, something with the potential to sustain a view of culture that extends beyond the everyday: something more permanent, like teaching and learning, making art, building, creating community, healing. I think agriculture fits into this general category, unless it’s seen simply as a business (an individual/family enterprise, instead of a corporate one). This second category of work also provides the means to satisfy basic needs, but adds the possibility of intellectual (or, for some, spiritual) satisfaction.

One of the first questions asked of a sentient child (one who has reached the age of actually having contemplated the answer to the question) is this: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answers we expect, such as “a fireman” or “an astronaut” or “a doctor,” often occasion a further question: “Why do you want to do that?”—and the answers are again fairly predictable: “Because they save people in fires” or “because I want to save us from aliens” or “I want to save people the way the doctor saved Grandpa.” Children’s answers often include rescuing others, which indicates somewhat altruistic tendencies—although the real reason may have to do with being seen as a hero. I’m certainly no psychologist, and have nothing but anecdotal evidence and experience to support my claims. But I do know that no six-year-old ever says “I want to be a philosopher” when asked about career choices. And few of them, these days, aspire to becoming farmers—unless they’ve already had experience on a farm, and then only if they haven’t had to watch Farmer John off the piggie that got made into the brats that went on the barbecue.

More and more and more we are insulated and removed from the work that actually sustains the first category I mentioned: food, clothing, shelter. We purchase all of the above from someone else, who has purchased it from a wholesaler, who has purchased it from (perhaps) the initial provider and has warehoused it to sell to the retailers. In the case of shelter, few of us build our own housing. Instead we pay someone rent to live in a dwelling he or she owns, or we “buy” a home through a bank, eventually paying a considerable amount more than the actual selling price in order to live in it while it’s being paid off. Somewhere down the line, someone whose work it is to build has contributed his or her labor to the construction of that dwelling. Sometimes we add our own labor by repairing or augmenting our homes, but more often than not this contribution requires few skills—scraping, re-glazing, and painting windows, for example. But the real repairs and the big jobs generally go to contractors or handy-folk who do the work for us. And then we grouse about how nobody seems to do a very good job at this sort of thing any more.

I am beginning to notice, however, that at least one aspect of “category one” seems increasingly to involve closer contact with actual work: food-gathering. Many of us grow at least a small portion of what we eat—summer tomatoes, a few herbs, occasional fruit and nuts. A growing number of us seek out local growers at farmers markets and even participate in co-ops that make the job of locating local food less onerous. And an even larger number buy from outfits like Whole Foods, Central Market, and Sprouts that feature foods from smaller (often local) farms, more humane dairies and ranches, and more access to organically-grown products. That this last phenomenon is a growing trend (and has caught the marketing department’s eye) can be seen in my local Tom Thumb (Safeway), which has recently undergone a radical makeover and been transformed into a Whole Foods/Central Market clone.

But that’s just it: it’s a trend. There’s not as much evidence of a philosophical sea-change—a realization that farm workers are exploited and underpaid, that people who work in agriculture, providing the rest of us with trendy foods, are generally paid much lower wages (and some are actually modern-day slaves) than people who sit in front of a computer all day—doing what? Crunching numbers? Designing ads to sell the latest food fad to the minions? Although we’re paying more attention to what’s in our food, the interest seems to be driven more by fear of cancer and heart disease (and the growing portion of our wages that go to health care insurance, if we’ve actually got it) than by any genuine, wide-spread concern about the people, animals, and environment that make the food possible in the first place. I may, of course be too harsh on my fellow beings, but the experience of seeing women decked out in full-length fur coats, buying organic wines at Whole Foods is pretty depressing. I can only hope that they go for the humanely-raised beef tenderloin while they’re at it.

After the success of this summer’s experiment with air conditioning (or the lack thereof), I’m primed for a new one: to see how much of my own food I can grow on my half-acre plot in historic McKinney, Texas (whose motto is “Unique By Nature”). Plans are afoot to re-design the back yard (leaving the Accidental Garden mostly to its own devices), laying out a veggie patch nearer the house, and to solve the perennial lawn problem by getting rid of most of it. The barren patch in the front yard will become home to herbs and edible flowers, as well as stuff birds and butterflies like, to replace the now-defunct herb garden that’s been shaded out of existence by volunteer trees. The front patch will get ample sunlight and confirm my neighbors’ conviction that I’m a communist—or at least an unrepentant tree-hugger. I plan to placate them by actually cultivating the space, and not just letting anarchy reign.

All this will, of course, require work: digging, actively composting (not just throwing rotting veg into the bin and praying for biological activity to occur), careful landscaping (this will be the hardest part; my tendency to let nature design itself, higgledy piggledy, would get in the way of food production), and actual attention. It may also mean fewer blogs, because one reason people don’t do the kind of work I’m talking about is that it takes “too much time” away from “more productive” activities—like sitting in front of a computer.

And now, if you don't mind, I must (before I head out to enlighten my students about the Classical tradition in Western art, and on what started this whole blog in the first place: William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement) go out and make my small daily dent in the bumper crop of pecans (from eight trees of at least three varieties) that are littering the entire property. The fuzz-tailed tree rats are not holding up their end of the bargain, so I am becoming--involuntarily--a nut farmer. Maybe I should change my name.

photo: Where the new food garden is going to go. This photo was taken two years ago, before the drought had ravaged the area.

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