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Archive for Sunday, December 3, 2000

Joys of common labor fade quickly

December 3, 2000

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Last October I planted grass a first for me. In my former existence as an employee I'd have paid someone else to do the work or simply let the crabgrass an unjustly despised ground cover flourish.

But retirement gave me no excuse and I approached the job with my new found zeal for mindless labor.

The patch to be planted was a recently excavated driveway culvert. The first step was to scarify the earth to give the seeds purchase and prevent them from washing away in the first rain.

As everyone knows, buying equipment is the fun part of any project. I found what I needed in the Cabela's catalog an ATV Harrow Drag. It was a serious apparatus, made of "high carbon steel to ensure long life even with hard use." I longed for that harrow drag. But how to justify the $300 price tag for a one-time job?

By luck I connected with a sage at a lawn and garden store, one of those can-do, know-how Kansans who grew up on a farm.

"We used to use an old bedspring," he said. Eureka! Not in a million years would I have thought of it. But how many have access to an old bedspring? Who would be foolish enough to dismantle his bed for the sake of a patch of grass?

Luck was with me again. I was perhaps uniquely positioned to seize upon the sage's advice. I possessed not one, but two old bedsprings. One had been incorporated into my barnyard fence, the other lay in a slough along with an assortment of old refrigerators, washing machines, hot water heaters and other rusted out appliances.

I hitched one of the bedsprings to my tractor. It worked perfectly, as if specifically designed for the purpose. After my seedbed was prepared, I pushed the little cart filled with K-31 fescue seeds up and down the hill a few times. I sowed the rest by hand.

A spell came over me as I sowed, for sowing is a profound, almost religious, act. "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." I understood that proverb for the first time. The image of yeomen with sacks of seed hanging from their shoulders came to mind. I mused upon the eternal cycle of sowing and gathering and how we take this miracle for granted. So little connection do we have with the harvest, so little wonder when we take a bite of Wonderbread.

Watering the seeds with a gentle spray from the garden hose, I had a vision of the men in the Kansas City neighborhood where I grew up, watering their yards in the days before lawn sprinklers: Mr. Johaningsmeyer, Mr. Lane, Mr. Kelly and my own father, noblemen of a lost age, relaxing after work by working, lost in reverie as the afternoon sun filled their wands of spray with rainbows.

It occurred to me that we have lost much in an obsession with labor-saving devices. Merchants of our decadent age are trying to sell us a water jet that takes the drudgery out of flossing, a machine to expedite the drying of nail polish, a one-second snowball maker that gives "an overwhelming advantage in a snowball fight." Even the whisk has been improved, "to save time and effort," as if scrambling eggs was an intolerable chore. Today's desk-bound hedonist who never sheds a drop of sweat must have a showerhead that "drenches you with 142 streams of water, washing away fatigue and the day's concerns."

It seemed to me as I watered that there was an agrarian virtue to working with one's hands. I resolved to change my life, to spurn my reliance on machines, to make a sacrament out of manual labor. Perhaps I would build a rustic cabin with a few simple tools: a saw, a hammer, an awl (Note: what exactly is an awl? Look it up.) I would avoid supermarkets, grow what I needed for sustenance and when the crops failed I would subsist on roots and bark. After a day of invigorating toil I would sleep the sleep of moral superiority.

An intoxicating succession of profound thoughts passed through my brain as I watered. I regret that I can bring none of them to mind. The spell was all too brief. After about 20 minutes of watering I became aware of a faint gnawing at the edges of my consciousness. The torrent of thoughts slowed to a trickle. I had important things to do, life was slipping away and I was squandering time.

It began to dawn on me that watering is not really all that interesting. It's certainly not a challenge. The longer I did it the more difficult it was to avoid the conclusion that watering is tedious, servile, loathsome work, more suitable to an idiot than an educated man. I was grateful that no one could see me in such a degrading posture. I hooked up the hose to the lawn sprinkler and breathed the heady ether of freedom.

A little later I was thumbing through a catalog when my eyes fell on an ad for "Spinney," a little four-legged toy with a hugh key on top. "Wind up your new, mechanical friend and let it go," read the advertisement. "Spinney will jump, jiggle, vibrate frenetically and wiggle until it needs to be wound up again. You will find the winding a small price to pay for a repeat performance."

I was at once possessed by a desire to acquire Spinney. At $10 it was a bargain. Spinney promised hours of diversion and I need friends. Even a mechanical one would do. But I balked at the warning that Spinney must be wound by hand. Was this really such a small price to pay? Why doesn't Spinney come with a motor powered by batteries? How about a little respect for the consumer? What do these people take me for some sort of common laborer?




George Gurley is a Lawrence resident who writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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