The urge of the father to provide sustenance for his family is strong and instinctual, and although in practice the hours I spend with databases and spreadsheet are what put food on the table, one feels at times the urge to actually produce food. Thus it was that a couple weeks ago I resolved to cut down one of the trees in our back yard was wasn't growing well and put in a pair of apple trees as well. When visiting nurseries to look at apple trees, I came across the display of seeds and thought: I bet the kids would enjoy working on a vegetable garden too.
Now cutting down a 4" diameter tree and putting in a pair of eight-foot saplings is relatively easy, but digging out a 5'x25' area of Texas sod (ours is St. Augustine grass, which forms a thick and heavily interlaced mat) requires a mattock and a lot of hard work. Acquintances who had heard of my mad endeavor had recommended that I rent a gas-powered tiller, but given that I was working with such a small area, I was determined to do things manually.
It takes, I can now inform you, roughly six hours of labor to break and turn over 125 sq/ft of sod. This includes a few periods in which one stops and catches one's breath, but these can be minimized if you conform your mattock-swinging to the rhythm of a sea shanty or spiritual. Singing is a bit much, lest one run out of breath. But a sort of wordless rhythmic chant works well. My own preference is a sea shanty called "Haul away" (at least, that's the only title on it that appears on the mix CD someone gave me ages ago.) Our eldest daughter calls it my "piratey song".
Slogging away with a mattock, even to self-provided rhythmical accompaniment, leaves one's mind rather free and restless. I found myself thinking on how, in the history of the human species, this was a much more normal form of work that what I normally do "at work". Those of us who work behind desks and in other not-very-physically-demanding roles often take on hard labor of this sort from time to time as a sort of recreation. We feel there is a sort of basic dignity in producing something "by the sweat of our brow".
This respect for hard human work is perhaps exemplified best in American mythology by the story of John Henry and the steam hammer. The kids have a recording of Denzel Washington telling the story of John Henry which JulieD was kind enough to give to us -- a great piece off a series that NPR had going back in the day.
Our sympathies are naturally with John Henry and the steam drill seems like a dehumanizing force. There noble steel-driving men are about to find themselves displaced by a pile of steam driven metal designed by an over-paid engineer from back East. Spending a few hours swinging a mattock is enough to make you wonder how ennobling swinging a sledge hammer really was, however. Doing that kind of thing for an afternoon gives you a solid workout while efficiently removing all the skin from the your left thumb -- doing it for a living seems like a quick route to being broken and unemployed (or perhaps in John Henry's vein: dead) by forty or so.
We naturally respect hard work as honest work, and yet, if technology allows us to treat ourselves or others less like a draft animal, is that a loss?
The steam hammer that John Henry defeated put the remaining steel-driving men out of work. For men who didn't have another way to make a living other than swinging a hammer ten or twelve hours a day, being replaced by a machine meant a loss of the dignity of earning a living through work they had the strength and knowledge to do. And yet, did it, in the end, mark any loss of dignity for humanity no longer to have to consign people to living in work camps and driving steel spikes with sledge hammers?
Replacing the less skilled labor of many with the more skilled labor of a few invariably means taking away the living of people who at best will need time and help to find another way of providing for themselves. And yet -- "good old days" romanticism aside -- I can't help thinking that freeing people from the necessity of unskilled labor is, in the long run, a good and humanizing thing.