»  The Straggler, No. 57

August 13th, 2007

  Let's Get Physical


Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics.
                   — In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell

The best relief from thinking about politics, I have found, is to spend some time at the other end of the labor chain, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface. Brute physical labor may be unpleasant and ill paid, but it can be mighty therapeutic for those of us who read, write, and think for a living.

The actual matter that needs moving this day is my compost heap, a pile of rich earth and well-rotted vegetable matter shaped like one half of a paraboloid of revolution bisected along the axis by my back fence. The heap is five feet high and twelve across at the base. Some fast mental calculus gives a volume of 150 cubic feet. Soil goes about 50 lb per cubic foot, so I am looking at close to four tons of soil to be moved from here to here.

I have no real idea whether turning over one's compost heap is an important part of good gardening practice. To tell the truth, I know next to nothing about gardening. Like many other people with sedentary occupations, though, I set myself regular physical chores to remind my body what it's for. My father used to turn over his compost heap every year, so I follow his example without inquiring into the need. It gets me out of the house for a few hours, lets me work up a virtuous sweat, and offers at least the illusion of having done something useful. And yes, thanks very much, I am fully aware of the hazards of desk-bound middle-aged folk suddenly embarking on strenuous physical tasks. I pace myself carefully, lift with my quads not my back, and spend more time leaning on the shovel contemplating my efforts and sipping iced coffee than actually shoveling.

Shovel, or spade? There is some precise denominative distinction here, like the ones between wasp and hornet, ketch and sloop, or metonymy and synecdoche — one of those too-fine partitionings of reality that I can never hold in my mind for more than a few minutes. This particular implement has a shield-shaped blade affixed to a plain long wooden shaft. I think of it to myself as an American shovel, only because the shovels I grew up with in England all had the square blade and D-shaped "wishbone" handle. My first sighting of a plain-shafted shovel was in the foreground of a photograph, reproduced in some illustrated history of aviation my father owned, showing the Wright brothers' first powered flight. The plain-shafted variety thereupon became, and has remained, an American shovel in my personal lexicon, though I now know that it is common in Ireland and the West of England, too. Probably someone has gained a Ph.D. for research into the geographical distribution of shovel styles. How much there is to know about the world!

I am in fact not at ease with the plain shaft. The English style of shovel was the one handed to me on the first day of my first college vacation job, as a construction laborer. I was then pointed towards a small mountain of broken-up concrete, alongside which a dump truck was waiting expectantly. It was a hot July day. After an hour of shoveling, I was stripped to the waist and very thirsty. Sometime into the second hour, a kindly navvy came over with a water bottle and showed me the correct way to wield an English shovel. You grip the cross-piece of the handle with knuckles downward, rest a knee against the back of your hand, and use the weight of your body to push. This was one of the most useful pieces of knowledge I have ever had imparted to me. With its aid I was able to shovel steadily for a week, filling numberless editions of the dump truck, through a nasty case of sunburn (soothed by lunchtime dips in a nearby branch of the Grand Union Canal, cut 1813-15 by the engineer Benjamin Bevan of Leighton Buzzard and an army of shoveling "navigators") and some sensational palm blisters. At week's end the rubble mountain was at some other region of the earth's surface, and I had been imprinted for life with English shovel technique. The plain-shaft American shovel will never be my friend. Still, like a good immigrant, I persevere with it.

Toiling away now in my back yard, I watch with satisfaction as one pile shrinks and the other grows. There is some art, even in such a simple task. The bottom of the new pile is formed from the top of the old, onto which Mrs. Straggler has dumped some branches pruned from her fruit trees. Care must be taken that these branches don't form cavities at the base of the new pile. One year they did, and rats nested in there, delivering an unpleasant surprise at heap-turning time. Attention also needs to be paid to the shape of the new pile as it grows. One doesn't want an irregular compost heap. The triangular stack of old fence posts that keeps the compost from contact with the back fence needs adjusting and augmenting, too. We do nothing significant that requires no thought, no plan, no computation.

This was most men's work — aye, and many women's, too — all through human history. What are the Pyramids, after all, what is the Great Wall of China, but matter whose position at or near the earth's surface has been altered relatively to other such matter? This was my grandfather's work, hacking coal from seams a thousand feet underground and shoveling it into wagons. Would I do it all day, every day, for a living? Not bloody likely. Still, as a break from contemplating the follies at the other end of the labor chain, it is wonderfully refreshing.