Hard Work

After the little trip we took to Minneapolis so we could see the MayDay Parade and I could write that last post here, we went back to The Draw to finish our month of figuring out whether it was the right place for us. I believe we’ve arrived at as much of an answer to that question as we’re capable of finding at this part of the trip. The answer: living there is a lot of really hard work, with no obvious way to make a lot of money, and so it absolutely is a place that we could put down roots and live our lives.

There was a journey involved in reaching that paradoxical-sounding conclusion. Where once I was interested in following the hippies’ path, these days I’m more interested in making sure I don’t. Because of the millions of kids who loaded up their microbuses, eyes shining with reflections of the new world, and filled the tanks with enthusiasm on their way to their back-to-the-land communities… how many are still living that way now? There’s Twin Oaks in Virginia, there’s The Farm in Tennessee, and scattered others around the country—a few thousand people still waiting for the critical mass of the other millions to get back on the path behind them.

Know what was the rock against which a lot of the hippies’ communes of the ’70s ran aground? It was hard work. Simple as that. I read a book a while ago called Back from the Land, a reminiscence from an ex-hippie-turned-English-professor. All through the book, the stories I found told of how she and her husband and all the other hippies they knew—who, she mentioned, are all now comfortably ensconced in white-collar jobs—went back to the land and discovered, before long, that going back to the land involves physical labor. Firewood doesn’t split itself, building a house will make you exhausted, and farm animals make a lot of poop that you have to move. And it seems that the vast majority of them faced this reality and said: “Well this sucks.”

I guess it makes sense that they all tossed aside their pitchforks. In the ’70s the journey was about finding Utopia. All around, everything was controlled by The Man. The U.S. had just killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people for no reason. So much hate and so much fighting. What we needed was a return to simpler times and a simpler life, when everyone just cared for their own farm and didn’t mind if people were Communists in Saigon. And then everything would be easier.

We’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the ga-a-a-aaaaaaa-arden

And when it wasn’t, well, what was the point then?

I’m coming to discover that in our day there’s a different breed of back-to-the-landers: less numerous, but also less vulnerable to having their ideals disproved right out from under them. They understand that going back to the land isn’t something you do for you, it’s something you do for the land. The crisis of our time isn’t, at base, war and ill will for our fellow humans. It’s the fact that the Earth is continually being abused, poisoned, and killed. The problems of humans are still problems, but they’re not the only problems. Focusing on the problems that are specific only to humans means we don’t properly understand the problems that surround those of our species in a series of concentric circles. You go out to the land to understand those wider circles and help them become whole again. Not to be able to smoke pot without hassles.

That understanding quickly banishes the expectation that moving back to the land is a life choice that will lavish upon you free time and enlightenment and a work week that consists of going out and harvesting a ripe tomato to put on the burger you picked from your tempeh-burger tree. If you’re going to feed yourself, you’re going to have to put in the time, because so do all the other animals in the world. You go back to the land to do hard work. The more work you do, the more good effects accrue to the nature around you.

When you accept that, a curious thing happens. In the manner of a Taoist parable, once you start putting in the hard work, you find that you believe deeply in the things you’re working on, so that you can no longer imagine why anyone wouldn’t work as hard as possible toward these goals, and you’re now happy to keep working. It stops feeling so much like work and starts feeling, at least on the days when you’re able to let the Tao do the directing, like something new and exciting each day, especially as your muscles get strong enough that the work is easier.

While Misty and I were at The Draw finishing the month we’d put aside for it, we reached something like that understanding. It’s not a vacation to live there. Life at The Draw is physical. You get up before 7:00 and move a few wheelbarrows from one place to another—full of cow shit, sheep shit, horse shit, at any rate something heavy and likely fresh from the less pleasant end of an herbivore. Then the day seems to pass by in a series of wheelbarrow loads and bucketsful of this and that, until you reach dinnertime, followed shortly by bedtime, which in summer is often before the sun even sets. Sometimes I felt like an indentured bit of muscle.

And yet the work, even hauling buckets of clay to fill up a muskrat hole, was, when I could get a clear enough metaphysical vista on it, suffused with a rightness, and with that in my heart I could, if I looked, see things that I would have missed if I weren’t helping the Earth. Like the joy of the red-winged blackbirds flitting around the cattail marsh and the alders. Or the good being done by the third straight day of rain.

Also, I should point out that it’s actually not all work. On nice days when there’s nothing urgent to do, whole afternoons are given over to bike rides to the Lake Superior beach or walks down to the river. On rainy days, the day’s work might consist largely of peeling garlic and chatting. I’m told that in the winter there’s a lot of time to sit and read. Lunch and dinner are slow and we spend a lot of time talking. (Amma and Ophelia, the farm’s seven- and five-year-olds, especially like the talking part. Though some would make the case that a more appropriate word would be “arguing” or “shrieking”.)

It took me some time working there on this trip to get to the point where I could see life’s deeper wholeness there more or less clearly, though I could perceive it dimly from when I first stepped onto the land. Now that I know what I’m looking at, though, living at The Draw seems like the single right choice we’ve discovered so far in an endless sea of wrong choices. Perhaps we’ll discover other places that seem as whole, or close, but for the time being we know we’ve found at least this one, and the idea of living there for a long time makes us feel very comfortable. There, broken loops are again closed, humans and the rest of nature can reconcile, and the energy we put into the place is written directly into the positive side of the Earth’s tally.

We can imagine living there for many years. We know, now, that at the end of our trip there is somewhere where we’re welcome and we can be happy. We’re still allowing for the distant possibility that some other even more amazing opportunity will present itself, but from where I sit it doesn’t seem very likely. The rest of the trip, we’re not going to really be looking for someplace to live, because we think we’ve found that; we’re going to be learning more about how to live off the land. There are a lot of ways to do it. We’d like to check out old, established communities, and places where they’re doing things that are different from The Draw’s mission; we’d just like to learn things we don’t know we’re going to learn.


I intended to write about our fast in Nigigoonsiminikaaning. I wrote until 4:30 in the morning a couple nights ago, in fact. And then my computer ran out of battery and turned off and I hadn’t saved and I was using a primitive program without auto-save and it’s all gone. It’s probably for the better. I realized that the fast we did is something so important and so real that I need to write it out on paper first, then transcribe it here. Expect a post on it, but I can’t say when, since I’m not near the internet very much on this trip.

I’m editing this and posting it from Grinnell College. Around me are a lot of people I apparently went to college with, but who I don’t know. I have found some of my old friends and had some good times reminiscing and catching up, though there are a lot of people I wish I could talk to who aren’t here.

It is very weird to be here, by the way. When we got in, I was struck with a sudden overpowering awareness of how everyone spends their time here in such a bizarre series of small boxes. Dorm rooms, classrooms, offices, dining hall. I was outside when that hit me, so I couldn’t even see any of the boxes from the inside, but I could still feel them. I’m glad I came back and was able to hang out with the people I’ve hung out with. But I’m glad today is the day to move on.

File under: Homestead Tour, The Draw


Sean

You continue to be an inspiration. Not only for the path you have chosen in life, but for your openesss and curiosity. Everyone blog of yours that I read makes me want to start making meaningful changes in my own life. Keep sharing your journey man. I’ll always be reading.

Sean

Chuck

Thank you—hearing that lets me know I’m at least somewhere close to on the right track. And the possibility that I’ll inspire someone to make meaningful changes is one of the reasons I keep writing.

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