On hard work

I’ve not felt like writing much lately, in part because it feels like I’ve not been doing much lately.  No new projects; no big plans.  Rest – a lot of rest – as I did this time last year in the post-season burnout.  I’m not nearly so burned out this year as last, but taking a couple months off from teaching, food preservation, and whatnot has been very nice.

In addition, after several years of incremental improvements, our household infrastructure is pretty much where we want it.  We weathered three 24-hour power outages this year with hardly a ruffle.  We had a 10.5 tonne carbon year last year, right on target. New, non-drafty windows will be installed in two rooms next week. The root cellar is full and holding at around 43 degrees.   Only a handful of our groceries routinely come from more than about 100 miles away. I’d like to refine my gardening techniques for root vegetables and the greenhouse, but mostly gardening a known quantity. (That quantity would be 700+ pounds last year…not that we could have actually eaten 335 pounds of winter squash ourselves…)

So things are pretty quiet and settled.  I’m sure at some point, I’ll get bored, but the last month or so have just been…nice. Come home with enough energy to feel like cooking, make dinner with my sweetie, retreat into the new “library” where we’ve got the heat turned up, and read a book.  Relax. Relish. Repeat.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about work lately.  Gardening, running Preserving Traditions, and my job are all a lot of hard work.  It’s quite fun at times, but still…. I’m a big sustainability girl, and given how whupped I’ve been the last two Octobers as the high season winds down, it’s got me thinking about how I need my life to be sustainable – to sustain me.

Blah. This is starting to sound so highfalutin’.  If this is a profound thought, it’s a quiet one, too.  And I don’t quite have it sussed out yet.  Bear with me?

There’s work as an activity.  The stuff I do with my hands and with my mind, that produces something useful: a row of potatoes, a paycheck, a clean kitchen.  Then there’s work as an attitude.  Approaching a day with a workful attitude means pushing toward accomplishment, not stopping until the work is done, or, more likely, you’re too tired to do any more of it.  People with workful attitudes are often described as “driven.”  Most of you would probably describe me that way, I’m guessing.

That doesn’t sit well with me.  I resent feeling required to be in workful mode all the time.  It takes the shine off things I love, like gardening and teaching.  And it’s not sustainable.  “Easy” is sustainable.  Not the easy of fast food every night, but the ease of of canoeing downstream.  Dip the paddle, turn it like a rudder, avoid the snags and go mile after mile after mile.

I want more of that ease.  I’m used to alternating between on and off.  Go until I can’t go; stop until I can go again. At least I’ve gotten better about accepting the “off” times as part of my productivity cycle instead of thinking I should be able to run at 100% all the time.  But even that’s starting to feel like a lot of wear and tear. There are probably rapids along the stretch somewhere; better to save the heavy paddling for those.  Have you ever hung out with an old farmer?  Did the pace of conversation and work seem unbearably slow?  It sure did to me…but what I realized is the farmer would keep going from dawn ’til dusk, and I’d peter out after about 4 hours.

I’m not hiding from the idea that our economy and environment are in for some big changes in the upcoming years, or that there is much to be done to soften the landing.  In fact, realizing the magnitude of the upcoming challenges has, in some ways, made it easier for me to give myself permission to relax a bit.  I’m not going to save the world or civilization or the American Way of Life.  It can’t be done.  I can do my part, and I’m doing a pretty decent chunk, but I also know I’m worse than no good to others when I’m a wreck.

I think my question to explore for the next year might be “Where could there be more ease in this task?”  I’ve always felt like a pretty lazy gardener (I never dig or till and I scarcely weed), but I’m starting to think of laziness as an art form.  How much food can I get from a “hands-off” garden?  What foods require too much fuss to bother?  Is there a way to meet my goals of a very local diet that don’t involve me contemplating canning on a week night after work because there happen to be ripe tomatoes that need attention?  How can I make Preserving Traditions meet the needs of the community without wearing me out?

And what if my real job is not teaching people how to preserve  food, but rather teaching people how to preserve their energy and sanity? We (meaning the type of folks who are inclined to read blogs like this one) always have a dry laugh when we think about how miserable the Mall Crowd is going to be when they can’t get super-cute Chinese-made handbags for cheap, or when Domino’s stops delivering, or Pop Tarts give way to greens…but what about us?  Those of us who are doers, makers, fixers – what are we going to do when we realize that we’re killing ourselves tending gardens and planting orchards and learning new skills before we even get to the real whitewater?

Hah.  Hubris.  I sure haven’t got this figured out; I can’t presume to think I could teach it any time soon.  And I know there’s a lot of work to be done, and if We don’t do it, no one will.  But hey – you out there – my virtual tribe – eco-warriors and pantry-fillers and preparers and inventors and caretakers – have a care for yourselves, too, ok?  We all need you hale, and whole…and besides, rest and fun are kinda nice.  Don’t forget to have some.



  1. Robyn M. said,

    December 19, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    Might I humbly suggest you enlist in “The Anyway Project”:


    Sharon (my mostest favoritest blogiste evar) has created another one of her life-systems challenges, and has invited anyone who wants to to play along. I’ve been dodging it a bit lately, but I think I’m getting some wrinkles in my life ironed out, and might join in soon. Anyhow, it looked like it might be of some use to you as a methodology for finding the downhill path. =)

    And best of luck!

  2. December 20, 2010 at 6:41 am

    We all seem to be honing in on the same problem: getting ourselves situated for what’s coming is hard, hard work. Jennifer over at Milkweed and Teasel has mentioned the same problem. I’ve told myself for the last couple of years that it simply HAS to get easier. I do think that there is a learning curve for me, which means I’ll waste less energy making mistakes, eventually. And there’s a development curve for my homestead, which will mean less weed pressure and better soil in the garden, and fewer big things to plant, and fewer big projects to tackle – eventually. But that point might still be years off. I sure haven’t figured out the ease though, other than making the most of the volunteers we host through WWOOF. This helps, but I usually work harder than normal when the volunteers are here. It gets a lot done in a short time, so I can take it a little easier when they leave. I’m pretty much where you are with the on-off thing. I do give myself permission to be off though. Like I have any other real choice. Do let us know if you figure out any specific easement strategies.

  3. December 20, 2010 at 8:04 am

    Know exactly where you’re coming from, Emily… Keith is always telling me to “pace yourself!” Sometimes I even listen. 🙂 I don’t think there’s a formula or 10 easy steps to becoming more relaxed or finding that flow with the current, because just when you think you’ve got it, it changes on you. But I’m pretty sure that as you get into the habit of stopping more frequently and going with that flow, it gets easier.

    The best image that works for me is that life is a lot like dancing (and I LOVE dancing!). If you think about it too much and try to do too much with the steps, you stumble, lose track, and possibly fall. But if you let yourself flow with the music and the rhythm, if you accept that you are moving from one balance point to a new balance point all the time — and that you NEVER get to stay in the same balance point for very long — you can enjoy the grace and the joy of the dance. (And then you can go sit down and have a cookie or a big long gulp of water.)

    I suspect that advice is pointless here. You know what you need, and you know how to do it — it’s a question of shaking yourself out of the doing and enjoying the being, enjoying the dance. (Same here!) Just know you are definitely not alone in this and we are all learning from each other! 🙂

  4. EdgeWiseInAnnArbor said,

    December 20, 2010 at 9:44 am

    I like that: Sustainable transition to sustainability.

    I’m personally trying to pick some focus. For next year, I’m scaling back the garden, and focusing on cooking/preserving. There was too much food that I didn’t even have time to harvest and donate before it rotted. I nixed my winter garden (quick hoops) and bought a Brines farm winter share. We’ve got a new baby on the way, and my usual “do everything at once” and “if it’s not worth overdoing, it’s not worth doing” was too much last year, and would be worse this year. I couldn’t even properly learn from my garden experiments (potato buckets, etc.), because there was no time for analysis. We’re not at zero fossil fuels yet, so I might as well use the time to transition more gradually and sustainably.

    Good luck. Thanks for your blog and efforts.


  5. kate said,

    December 20, 2010 at 11:33 am

    “I sure haven’t got this figured out; I can’t presume to think I could teach it any time soon”

    One thing I’m coming to realize is that there’s a place in this world for teaching-as-you-learn. I once thought that I needed to KNOW, to be an EXPERT before I could teach. And that’s great, and there’s a place for it… it’s not the only thing we need.

    NOT that I’m saying you ought to be teaching more. But don’t forget that every time you blog about a project or a thought or a thought-experiment.. .you’re teaching. Maybe not in the “And then Step Two …” sense, but it’s all part of a really valuable conversation.. that’s teaching people. Including yourself. Which is something to consider.

  6. joni crocs said,

    December 27, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    just wanted to say I appreciate the effort. I’m hoping to read more of the subject matter in the future

  7. Lisa Bashert said,

    January 5, 2011 at 9:14 am

    Funny how these ideas spontaneously pop up in so many places. This is just exactly what my partner said to me the other day — which I think I mentioned in your more recent post. Just wanted to comment that I love your question, “Where could there be more ease in this task?” I have written several songs on this question of building in rejuvenation, ease and rest — embracing the fallow times as *necessary* not off time. This whole line of thought is why I’ve been embracing permaculture as a way of growing and producing “more bang for the buck.” Thanks for sharing these vital thoughts!

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