Ruminations On Work

This post was made a while back. For those who wonder, it shocks me to think I began my book project that long ago. It has become something more than I thought it would, for the record – and it makes my original expectations about the difficulty of getting it right pale in comparison to what my more developed expectations are now. Much of the free time I envisioned did not completely pan out, either, as the need to make a living has often intruded into periods of intense and productive writing. At any rate, this post was written to honor work itself – it’s own sets of trials and successes. I still honor work and I shall always hope hard work is rewarded in kind.

There are also lessons in here for those who feel confused about career advancement in an era requiring so much more sheer adaptability. It’s astounding how few of us will end up in the direction we began. It once was that a farmer knew where he was going. For a few generations, factory personnel in company towns well knew what was in store in their golden years. They could accumulate toys and friends pointing to all that, should they survive their work. This no longer applies. That fact speaks loudly to our present modern circumstances. We will all become more creative and far, far less certain of our individual and collective futures. The world went and changed.

I’m making a prolonged stab at writing a book. I was approached to put something together for my old high school coach, Jack Hicks (who I featured right here in this Blog, click here for the link to it) and I may very well proceed with that, even congruently with the current project. I have a respect for Jack and for sports in general – and even for my sports-mad former hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky – which are somewhere outside the average envelope.

I have recently felt a bit of a ‘higher calling’ in a sense, in choosing to write on another subject – landscaping – about which I am so familiar. I will write to explain its ups and downs, ins and outs and to present the trade itself in as honest a picture as I can draw. I do it for a variety of reasons, among which are to present this interesting trade to young people who might consider it as a trade and career option. I hope it gets some attention because I do believe what I can offer is a sort of blueprint of expectations in as many ways as I am allowed to present.

Like anything, we gain most from the people we associate with. I believe it was Will Rogers who said “the best way to become smart is to hang out with smarter people.” This has been my way and I have to suspect it will never change. The one way in which I do feel quite intelligent is in dealing with the entire concept of “work”. In the end, development in any trade requires the application of energy and the absorption of the lessons from our everyday experiences. The slow curing of a landscaper encompasses so many various trades and weirdly-connected abilities, it’s nearly mind-boggling in its entirety. But, above all, hard work is what one takes from this field, no matter what level one eventually reaches.

So, in this particular edition of philosophizing, there’s really nothing fancy here. This is about work. It’s about our perceptions of work and how we value it. If I never contributed anything else in this life, my body of work and my relationship to it would stand as my most forceful feelings on our mutual human existence I could ever imagine. I feel that work is such an integral part of our existence that it becomes literally heroic and worthy of all the praise we can find to lavish upon it.

No one has ever asked me more than I have asked myself why I stuck with a trade which consists – even at the top – of such enormous quantities of hard physical labor. I have felt a failure so many times, at every turn in this working history of mine. Yet, when I look back at this life and times, I find moments of such exalted clarity of purpose and literal accomplishment, it humbles me.

Here then is a passage recently worked on towards that end:

The arrogance of writing…………presumes one has something to say which will be of interest or have meaning to others. Let’s face it, it’s either that or else it is pure speculation based on a egotistic, self-congratulatory technique of little originality and even less profundity. Vanity is a highly dangerous solipsism and it somehow seems an unfortunately perfect analogy in that case. It requires a strict judgement to discern the difference.A perspective which can make the mundane seem thrilling is the alchemy most writers seek. One accomplishes this by ingratiating oneself into the passions of others, then extrapolating a known reward for a perceived mutually-rewarding projection. Facts, in non fictional writing, become a currency of highest merit, made alive by good writing.
Actual history then follows as a means of illustrating a felt picture of events and premises which refer to the theme at hand.Presenting a life in a trade which is probably beset with a ratio of 70% hard labor to an audience wherein labor itself has become not just undervalued but literally pilloried as an unintelligent career option just seems wantonly self-destructive. Americans have a love/hate relationship with work at this sort of level. It is often humiliating owing to the values we have somehow become most familiar with. The constant refrain demeaning “ditch diggers” being somehow “less than” educated office personnel is a meme of decades-old consistency. It’s as if the truth of hard-working Americans being the the backbone of the world’s most productive economic engine is some form of myth. One has to wonder if this attitude indeed has led to our own self-destruction, implicitly disregarding hard work as somehow useless and defective, simply because of the effort required.We attend self-help seminars by the hundreds, where we are told of “attitudes” and perspectives which will make us more successful, as if some magical mental elixer allows us to bypass what has worked so well in he past. Suddenly, beset with Mental Coaches and Spiritual Advisors, we find ourselves “pumped up” with quasi-mystical solutions to what are actually the simplest problems we could possibly face.

A trade such as Landscaping can be an unappealing trade when one considers the sheer level of labor involved. And, make no mistake, there are days and even weeks in landscaping where it seems truly endless – the constancy of wheelbarrowing materials into back yards with tiny gates, really bad weather from too hot to too cold, rain, snow, wind. Any assessment of landscaping as a career option should include all this. There are minor and, unfortunately, sometimes major injuries. Backs need attention almost daily, simply as cautionary provisions regarding survival and long term health. We stretch, those of us who know, so that the effort required and our often-straining output keeps us strong and healthy.

Make no mistake: those who landscape can be the strongest and healthiest. Working outdoors, far from being a severe sentence for the mentally-deficient, offers a level of oxygen, ozone and pure heart-pounding pleasure that even those who relish so little of it in their explanations of the trade, continue to show up for work, to entertain one another and regale their peers and captains with the standard humors and bad witticisms which are the province of the completely wry. There is a quiet acceptance of an endorphin high one reaches 2-3 times a day which makes for a ‘drug experience’ of ineffable self-production. The same high runners experience – and athletes of all kinds – perform a like process in landscaping, offering surprising mutual experiences which are nearly embarrassing in their felt effects. It makes for a muted, odd and rewarding sensation not experienced by everyone and is humbling in gratitude. I have often thought Walt Whitman’s great and memorable poem –“I Sing The Body Electric” was written for us guys in “the trade”…..

I know a man, a common farmer—the father of five sons;  
And in them were the fathers of sons—and in them were the fathers of sons.  
This man was of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person;   35
The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, and the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes—the richness and breadth of his manners,  
These I used to go and visit him to see—he was wise also;  
He was six feet tall, he was over eighty years old—his sons were massive, clean, bearded, tan-faced, handsome;  
They and his daughters loved him—all who saw him loved him;  
They did not love him by allowance—they loved him with personal love;   40
He drank water only—the blood show’d like scarlet through the clear-brown skin of his face;  
He was a frequent gunner and fisher—he sail’d his boat himself—he had a fine one presented to him by a ship-joiner—he had fowling-pieces, presented to him by men that loved him;  
When he went with his five sons and many grand-sons to hunt or fish, you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang.  
You would wish long and long to be with him—you would wish to sit by him in the boat, that you and he might touch each other.


I really adore that passage of that brilliant celebration of Man and Woman Kind.  Whitman humbles us all in his frank appraisal that work is noble and healthy.The respect from earned accomplishment has no peer in my lexicon of achievements. I believe it can be the hallmark of character as well. The efforts and accomplishments form our legacies and they outlive us. The beauty of soil and its amazing and totally predictable products – of the art of design itself – and the work of amusement and labor are the game we play. It is as if being human sometimes seems unfair to our original assumptions, at times. Like a cosmic joke, our sufferings become something more, ennobled by caution and the conservatism of the March of Time and of Education.

2 thoughts on “Ruminations On Work

  1. Steve,
    Thanks for the wonderful ruminations on work. I can’t believe I was talking about exactly this aspect of landscaping with a friend yesterday. I was mentioning a Japanese landscape design I did with one helper (over two months while living on site). It featured a dry a river bed with real river rocks carried from 100 miles away, tons of boulders and lots of Acer Palmatum transplants. Talk about WORK… and indeed endorphins. But the heart of the matter for me was the altered state that was often achieved, especially at the end of the day. It came from being fully present, often exhausted and in pain just listening and communicating with the rocks, earth and plants. Words can’t describe this state, but it’s truly a unitive experience. It’s like being connected to the earth and listening to the rocks and plants and knowing exactly where they need to be placed. As I mentioned to my friend, I would love to still design landscapes, but at this point I couldn’t do the Work myself nor afford the help. Besides most clients these days don’t have huge budgets for little guys like us. The best compliment for that job, came from the clients mother in law who said (in a heavy New York accent), “How much did you pay him for this? It looks like nothing was done”

  2. Ha ha, Scott. I can see it now – “I mean, it looks natural! Who wants that?”

    It is true – it is slightly dangerous work. The repetition factors tend to cause occasional tendinitis and, naturally, accidents can be tough. Safety, in other words, is not an abstract concept. But it is live as hell, your heart works and tends to enjoy the labor. You pretty much gain in every way.

    Nice to see you, my friend. I met Scott in the Army in South Korea. He was one of our little clique who adored each other and had ridiculous amounts of fun. This is a good person.

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