The Value of Work
Both of my maternal grandparents, Grandpa Bill and Grandma Tillie, grew up on farms in rural Arkansas, as did both of their parents. They didn't have indoor plumbing, they got their water from a well, and a wood-burning pot-bellied stove served as both kitchen appliance and heat source for the whole house.
Grandpa Bill knew how to hunt and clean game; build a house and furniture; mend a fence; run a trot line; hand-plow a field; bale hay; milk cows and slop hogs; make homebrew and wine; and a lot more. Grandma Tillie knew how to tend a garden, fruit trees, and berry bushes; could pickle, can, and/or preserve squash, green beans, tomatoes, beets, peppers, greens, blackberries, elderberries, apple sauce, jams, and jellies; sew clothes out of flour sacks; cook almost everything from scratch; wash laundry in a No. 2 washtub with lye soap and a metal washboard; and a lot more. Really, I should say that both of them knew how to do pretty much all of the things I just listed. My point is that my grandparents grew up with, and expressed, a different kind of appreciation for the land, and a deeper respect for commitment, hard work, and self-reliance. They did not look down on work or try to escape from it. They did what they needed to do to support themselves and their families, that meant doing their share of the labor. I grew up hearing all about this and was even taught how to do some of those things myself. When I was in elementary school, I was surprised when I found out other kids didn't know how to grow tomatoes from seed, how to cast out a fishing line, or to how bake bread from scratch. Imagine my dismay when I met people in high school that didn't know how to boil water on the stove, or take their own temperature with a thermometer. Then there was my complete shock my freshman year of college when I had to teach people how to do their laundry.
Looking back now, I'm not entirely surprised. Nowadays, there isn't much that you can't buy pre-made, pre-cooked, pre-built, pre-packaged, or pre-washed (yup, pre-washed clothing is a thing). We have vacuums that clean and move around by themselves; individual kitchen utensils specifically for cutting up apples, eggs, and bananas; filtered bottled water that has minerals and electrolytes added to it; machines that build the parts to go in other machines. Wendell Berry was right when he said
[T]he idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly hand work, [has caused us to develop an] overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence [we] have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased our products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them.
Fueled by the idea that time is money, our consumerist culture has taken the phrase "six degrees of separation" to a whole new level. We no longer really think about where our food, clothing, home decor, bath products, furniture, etc. comes from, or how it got to the stores we buy them from. Thoughts like, Can I find a handmade and/or local version of this product? Can I make this myself or buy it used? don't cross our minds as much as they should when we're out shopping. Our fruit is from South America, our clothing is from Southeast Asia, and our cars are from Europe. Wouldn't it be just a little bit nicer to buy something from a person with a name and a face and a life than from a huge, faceless company that's driven only by financial gain?
I am honored, privileged really, to have received just a fraction of the knowledge and skills that my grandparents and great grandparents had. I'm lucky to know what it's like to eat food that I planted from seed, cared for, grew, harvested, and cooked myself. I know the joy of turning old clothing and broken jewelry into braided rugs and crazy wall art. I love knowing that I can take care of myself and my family.
I know and respect the value of work, and for that I am forever grateful.