I suppose it's customary on a work day that falls on Labor Day to reflect on the transformative power of using our bodies and minds to create, restore, sustain, build, and assist life on this planet. At least, in some small way, that's what we hope we are doing as we split and stack wood, weed, sweep, and plant. During our last work day in March, we took a moment to recognize the beginnings of a new and hopeful vision for work among the Rolling Ridge community, whose members are exploring ways to help one another live and work in relationship with the land and ecosystems that surround us. We realized that this vision went against the tide of conventional expectations about how to make a living, but we felt it was a good vision and one that felt right for our community and that we should try.
Since that time, Bob has brought to our attention another reflection on work, this one offered by farmer, poet, and philosopher Wendell Berry. I have heard Bob read this poem several times now in various gatherings and each time it captures me. It's called The Real Work and it goes like this:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have begun to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
There is lots in this deceptively simple poem, and many ways to think about it. This is one of them: with every good and right and worthwhile vision there is always push back.
Baffles and impediments come in many forms. We are struggling right now to come up with the right words to describe our hopes and vision for Rolling Ridge in a letter asking people to give money that would open up time for us to sink a solid foundation for this dream. It's been a long process, and it's not over yet. This winter was long, cold, and snowy. An idea to hold a winter permaculture class had to be abandoned. It was hard just to get through the winter, let alone gear up to teach a class, and no one had signed up anyway. Even in the ideal weather we've had this summer, the amount of physical labor and time required to maintain buildings, raise infants and children, plant and tend a garden, harvest and cut wood, and everything else, is huge. The lawnmower broke down. The tractor broke down, this time for good. The splitter almost broke down. Then, on Tuesday morning, Kate found the door of the Retreat House busted open and the place covered in white dust.
In his poem, Wendell Berry seems to be saying that the pursuit of every worthwhile vision will inevitably throw us back on ourselves, and at that moment the real work of deep listening and the real journey to the core of what's true in ourselves will have begun.
Yes, that may be so, but the question I come away with is: what about that last line, “the impeded stream is the one that sings”? what, actually, makes us sing?
The answer that comes is: here, here is what makes us sing--days like today, when friends gather to sweat together and help one another keep the vision alive. What makes us sing is the connections we make with each other and with the wild ones around us as we work…the oaks, tulip poplars, wood thrushes, mint plants, little, pearl-shelled snails... It's the stories of small triumphs over recalcitrant machinery, of discovering a tiny snake under a rock, of good-naturedly setting up coffee and snacks on the porch without access to the Retreat House (using coolers as our refrigerator), of noticing the delicate lavender striations in a piece of fresh cut poplar, and glancing up from the woodpile to see the tenacious, luminous web of the orb weaver suspended on the branches of the dogwood.