Labor Day

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2000, Tom Bentley


What is that way up on the hill? Looks almost like colorful boxes, but they seem to be moving. Oh, that's it--it's the strawberry pickers, many of them bent at the waist, forming a living box over their labor. At this distance, it's only when they straighten and move on that I can see that those "boxes" are people hard at work.

Here in my home office, a box of another sort--a computer--defines my workspace. I bend over the keyboard, straightening when the consciousness of ergonomic violation rings in my brain--or in my back. For the past few months now, all through the strawberry-picking season, I've been looking out of my window at the pickers, and looking back into the window of my screen, and thinking about the nature of work.

I've been a knowledge worker for many years now, and I should be accustomed to the harvest of my vocation. But it still seems odd to me that this gossamer fruit--an electronic window painted with language--is what I exchange for my daily bread. It seems so removed from "real" work, work that results from your body's toil, or work that produces a tangible thing.

It's easy to scorn this slant, which has a seeming smack of the patronizing in it--sure, here's a guy who gets to sit at home all day, drumming up some artificial envy for work that is ill-paid--and that sometimes results in ill workers. But there's something about the substance of work done by the motion of the body that has a different kind of reward than that done by the motions of the mind. Admittedly, it's a luxury to be in the position to even ponder the differences.

One difference is labor loyalties--dot-com hopping is almost a sport. Quaint are the days of lifetime employment and pension plans. My father worked 40 years--40 years!--at Ford before he retired. It still shocks me to think about it.

My thoughts about physical labor aren't just a virgin's longings: years ago I spent my summers in apple orchards, and the work was long and hard. The afternoon heat often pulled at my picker's body, while the bulging apple bag around my neck pulled at my spine. Days were spent climbing up and down, up and down on tall ladders in the lushly laden trees. Much of the time, there was nothing idyllic about being constantly sticky with sweat, but oh, it made a simple shower at day's end a kind of epiphany. A shower after a day at the keyboard just doesn't touch your core self in the same way.

I have to caution myself not to forget the periods of black bitterness I sometimes felt doing a laborer's tasks: at one point I spent a couple of weeks digging out irrigation trenches in rocky soil, armed only with a pitiful shovel. The frequent rock strikes would send bone-jarring notes through my shoulders, my teeth clenching with curses. It seemed such fruitless work, coming again the next day to survey the pathetic progress of the past day.

But there was so much more: the easy camaraderie between the workers, the clean orchard air, the sweet green trees.... Having spent some later years in the corporate culture, my perception was that most of the time, office workers never seemed to really let their guard down; many seemed to be looking sharply over their shoulders at who might be getting a few more stock options than them.

I think my true worker's envy might be toward those people that can build things, and touch them after the building. That process seems a true creative connection, a thing conceived and then a thing concrete. It has to be a pleasure to be a carpenter who passes by houses or buildings he or she has worked on, and who can say, "I made that." I've always been amazed by people that can build, whether it's a cabin or cabinet.

I'll always be grateful to my mother, who taught me the love of reading, and my father, who taught me the love of athletics, and to the both of them for revealing that the world can provoke laughter. However, my upbringing didn't urge that craftsperson's understanding, where your fingers gain a native appreciation for building the objects of this world. I didn't pick up the building skills that many kids learned--and I didn't go out and learn them on my own. I'm much better with a dishtowel than a hammer. In work as in play, it does seem we're all jealous of the other person, but if it's any consolation, they're probably jealous of us.

On the semi-rural property (bordered on one side by those long strawberry fields) that I've recently bought with my girlfriend Alice, there are a number of fruit trees that have had some years of neglect. I've been learning to prune their twisted limbs from her father, a man who spent a good chunk of his working life among fruit and fields. It's agreeable to see and appreciate his sharp eye (and nice to borrow his sharp tools). I like the sense of old knowledge still being sifted and spread; there's so much new knowledge around that doesn't have the connective tissue of the old.

Ours is a rolling neighborhood of open spaces, but you can hear the sounds of people working in their yards in the distance. Some neighbors up the way have a couple of horses and some acreage. They just put up an open log fence that I can't help but admire for its simple, appealing construction. I haven't met them, so I wonder if they drive to offices every day, and whether while there if they long to be working with their hands on their property.

In the Internet age, there's been a lot of work homogenization, and cultural homogenization too. You only have to drive two freeway exits from us to see that even small-town Watsonville has its Starbucks. There seem to be more and more signs that we'll all move further and further from growing our own food, trimming our own trees, building our own fences.

However, I can't mope over every aspect of my own vocation. I hope it's not some lame wishful thinking to think of working with words as a kind of carpentry: stories are crafted of words, the hammers and nails that build a tale. Some stories have strong joints, some weak. All stories have foundations, good and bad. There's pleasure in seeing a story's sinews, running your mind's eye over its rough spots, calculating how much more cement is needed to settle a paragraph.

Here in the small hills, the strawberry season has come to a close; the last couple of days the tractors have been plowing under the depleted plants, settling the soil for another season to come. I wonder if the same workers will return, if they look forward to these pretty hills and ocean breezes. Or if it's just all backbreaking drudgery, surrounded by stories of Silicon Valley successes, which boggle the imaginations of people sweating to stay alive.

I hope not. I still remember the crisp explosion of flavor and the sharp gratification from those orchard apples at 6am on another work morning. It's hard to forget the flavor of homemade applesauce made for the first time, and the fine feeling I had picking the final apple of a harvest season. But I knew it was only another summer's labor, and that my future didn't lie in those trees. Other workers aren't so lucky. I hope the strawberry workers still feel some satisfaction in those long workdays, and that the strawberries still taste sweet.