Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"We inherited from him early his abounding sense of the possibilities of the countryside."

In response to my post last week about the shared desire of Thomas Hardy and Wendell Berry to preserve rapidly disappearing rural ways of life, Frank Wilson of Books, Inq. commented,
The idealization of country life seems to be about as old as literature. But it is the work of writers, who have a tendency to airbrush out the grinding poverty and back-breaking labor that went with pastoral scenes. Which is not to say that I do not find myself susceptible to such idealization.
It's a sensible response to a post in which I confessed to finding Berry's and Hardy's visions of rural life seductive, but fairness to both authors dictates that I make clear that they actually spend a lot of time chronicling the hard work necessitated by such a life. In fact, they're two of the best writers about work, period, that I know.

At the same time, however, neither man denies the pleasure to be had in good company while you're working with your hands. It's a feeling I know from the work I did as a boy on farms, and as a young man in food service and the retail trade: when you're performing straightforward manual tasks, your mind--and your conversation--can roam free in a way that even the best office life can't replicate.

Tess offers some great examples of both aspects of manual labor. While Tess find little but happiness--despite the early hours and tiring work--at the dairy where she begins her working life, at the farm where she labors later she finds toil at its most draining. The following scene is a good example: Tess and her fellow laborers are working with the itinerant owner of a rudimentary steam-powered threshing machine hired by the farmer. Because the machine's time is precious, the farmer forces them to take advantage of the full moon and keep working through the night until the hayrick has been completely threshed. Night wears on:
By degrees the freshest among them began to grow cadaverous and saucer-eyed. Whenever Tess lifted her head she beheld always the great upgrown straw-stack, with the men in shirt-sleeves upon it, against the gray north sky; in front of it the long red elevator like a Jacob's ladder, on which a perpetual stream of threshed straw ascended, a yellow river running up-hill, and spouting out on the top of the rick.
The threshing concludes in a scene that can only be horrifying to our modern eyes, but was simply an accepted part of the job in nineteenth-century Dorset: the hubbub that ensues when the work reveals the layer of live rats at the bottom of the hayrick.
The time for the rat-catching arrived at last, and the hunt began. The creatures had crept downwards with the subsidence of the rick till they were all together at the bottom, and being now uncovered from their last refuge they ran across the open ground in all directions, a loud shriek from the by-this-time half-tipsy Marian informing her companions that one of the rats had invaded her person--a terror which the rest of the womeon had guarded against by various schemes of skirt-tucking and self-elevation. The rat was at last dislodged, and, amid the barking of dogs, masculine shouts, feminine screams, oaths, stampings, and confusion as of Pandemonium, Tess untied her last sheaf; the drum slowed, the whizzing ceased, and she stepped from the machine to the ground.
Writing about farm life as lived nearly a century later, Wendell Berry, too, conveys both its responsibilities and rewards. The former is summed up nicely in this paragraph from the funny and moving story "Never Send a Boy to Do a Man's Work":
Carter Keith was a good father. He kept Athey with him as much as his work and, later, Athey's schooling would alow. The Keith place was always asire with work in those days. Everybody on the place would be up and the men and boys at the barns while the stars still shone, and at work by first light. Carter Keith followed the rules that he handed on to his son: He made use of all the daylight he had and would ask no man to do anythign that he would not do himself. His tenants and hands knew this and so respected him, and they worked hard.
While these passages from "Where Did They Go?" offer a small glimpse of the pleasures of manual labor in a crew:
Though talking put Leaf to extreme effort, tightening the cords of his neck, when he sang his voice came sweet and free. To hear him stop talking, which he seldom did, and start to sing "The Wabash Cannonball or "Footprints in the Snow" always seemed a sort of miracle to me, as if a groundhog had suddenly soared into the air like a swallow. . . . It was pretty work when you had time to think about it, and weren't too tired to care. We drew the white-stemmed, green-leafed plants out of the moist ground of the beds, and laid them neatly in bushel baskets and old washtubs. R. T. hauled them to the patch where the setter crew spaced them out in the long rows. They would wilt in the heat that day, but by the next morning or the next, they would be stickign up again, pert and green and orderly, in the dew-darkened ground. Each night when we quit, Jake would say to me, fairly singing: "We're getting it done, Andy boy! We're leaving it behind!"
And that "leaving it behind," I can tell you from walking beans as a teenager, is one of the best feelings in the world.


  1. It is so refreshing to find someone who does not hate Thomas Hardy!

  2. Another excellent post.

    I love Berry. He's as good as they come. After reading that other Berry post, I pulled "What Are People For?" down from the shelf for the first time in a long while. Michael Pollan brought him up the other day in his very good NYTM article about our coming food crisis.