My wife’s supercilious grandmother used to tell me I had peasant blood, which I took as a compliment. Better an honest, hardworking peasant than a soft-palmed scoundrel. Good, physical work, with something to show for it besides tight abdominals (a bountiful harvest, say) is an act of alignment and sometimes even exaltation. It ties us back to the order of the natural world. Work is what the wild things do—all day long, for food, shelter, survival, maybe even joy.
Growing food for others is a physical act. “Such hard work!” they say. Yes, but how fulfilling, how joyful. “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it,” said Ruskin.
We have become more capable, more patient, more resourceful, more humble. Work on the land develops deep connective tissue with simple purpose. Something we’re in great need of in an age of tweets and texts.
I bought a new/old tractor for the farm this year. It’s seen plenty of hard work, and it’s in its forties, so we’re peers. It’s throaty, cast iron rumble is reassuring. No squeaky plastic or pot metal here. No imported parts. It was built somewhere in the Midwest, back when industry had integrity, and work wasn’t just virtual bustle. It rambles across the property, making a clean cut in the orchard, indifferent to the carpet of twigs and small stumps.
A morning of virtual housekeeping, such as answering emails from clients, or prepping for a shoot, is usually balanced by an afternoon of real physical work, of which there’s always plenty. Without exertion of some kind, my time seems incomplete. I need feel used up at the end of the day.
We don’t move anything unless it weighs a thousand pounds, the New York Times quoted us saying more than ten years ago when they did a feature on our efforts to restore Stonegate (see House Proud). Clearly work was not an obstacle. After an urban upbringing, among worlds others had created, I needed to build. I needed to move mountains. I needed to see what I could become by it.
So with new coop now completed in the orchard, my sweet Copernican universe, with the farm at the center of all things and us in perpetual orbit around it, seems momentarily balanced. I can stand back from the work and feel its value and worth to the farm, despite the near heat stroke hours it took to build.
The laying hens have taken to their new digs without a lot of fuss and feather. Even the prodigal pullet rejoined the flock, although at the bottom of the pecking order. They’re now ranging happily in the orchard, tilling and fertilizing the soil, devouring pests, making their most magical eggs. Working hard, without a second thought. -MB
To learn more about Matthew Benson’s Stonegate Farm, visit stonegatefarmny.org.