That tobacco cutting can be drudgery is obvious. If there is too much of it, if it goes on too long, if one has no interest in it, if one cannot reconcile oneself to the misery involved in it…
Wendell Berry is one of the folk heroes of modern sustainable agriculture. Like Wes Jackson and any of the ‘celebrity farmers’ whose books cover our kitchen table, his fame can overshadow his words. Someone mentions Berry and I think, ‘Oh yes, I know what you’re talking about. I know.” But the truth is, for all the Berry books I own, I rarely sit and read him. When I do, I am instantly rewarded. He is so insightful that to pick up one of his essays in the middle is to pick up a poem and be caught, mid-task; everything else forgotten. This happened this morning: I was making the bed, laying out the Maine quilt, enjoying the sunlight from our skylights and the golden sheen was reflected by the cover of Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace. I picked the book up and opened it to the end of his 1988 essay, “Economy and Pleasure.” I read the essay from the end to the beginning, moving paragraph by paragraph backwards.
The nearly intolerable irony in our dissatisfaction is that we have removed pleasure from our work in order to remove “drudgery” from our lives.
Justin calls it a ‘sale’s pitch’: “Somehow we’ve been sold that ‘less work’ is what we want.” In his essay, Berry talks about the intense pleasure that comes from moments of hard, often boring, work.
There is talk involved in the management of the work. There is incessant speculation about the weather. There is much laughter; because of the unrelenting difficulty of the work, everything funny or amusing is relished.
This is where we want to get to on the farm. To work so hard that we break out in giggles. Often it is not the physical labor that pulls us from pleasure but the indecision about tasks, the feeling of being powerless in the face of a long to-do list. The fight against inertia (exhaustion).
To combat indecision, I often find myself weighing ideas or tasks on a balance: a little more of this means a little less of that. We like to choose between ideas, preferably two. If you discredit one, you are left with the other. And yet all the observational data consistently tells us that there is no either/or in nature. There may not be any mutual exclusivity. Drudgery is both that experience that saps you and that experience that enlivens you. There’s no contradiction: it is both. This reminds me of the psychologists who study happiness and who have found that vulnerability is both the key to the most acute sadness and joy.
Today is sunny and bright with the morning’s rain. I will think about all the items that Justin and I went over at this morning’s farm meeting, I will worry that it is going to be too hot, I will fret about the slowness of the wholesale orders as they come in throughout the day… I will take pleasure from removing the row cover from a bed of mustard greens: perfect, straight rows, unblemished leaves, bright green. Or that’s what I was going to do. Now I’m going to find some drudgery (shouldn’t be difficult) and take pleasure from it.
Ultimately, in the argument about work and how it should be done, one has only one’s pleasure to offer.