Last week, we had seven cubic yards of 1-2” little stones delivered. Since then, I have been shoveling them by hand – with the help of three amazing folks here on Workaway - into trenches for our French drains. Shoveling stones is probably the lowliest of the lowest labors in the panoply of humble human tasks. Prison labor comes to mind. Why not rent a little tractor with a bucket to shove the rocks in?
Why would a person actively choose to shovel stones?
Weirdly, I kind of enjoy it. My field of vision narrows to the shovel meeting the pile, sliding in, stones rolling on it, and then the small arc of the shovel head to the wheelbarrow. It is best not to push it too hard, and to work in a slow, methodical pace.
I tried different shoveling methods.
I spoke to my friend Jac about it, and she instantly recognized what I was talking about. She has a very large garden that is full of stones, and she has moved many of them, as well as literally tons of other material (straw, dirt, plant debris, etcetera). She said, yes, you choose to start doing these menial tasks and you ask yourself “Why am I doing this? I don’t need to be doing this!” The question often arises out of frustration, but it can also be a merely curious query as you observe yourself at work. In the end though often, you find yourself enjoying the doing of it.
Jac also pointed out that doing this work was part of the bigger project of building our lovely new farmhouse, and there is satisfaction in that. Yes, I agreed, there is, but really, I believe I enjoy the task just for itself. The house provides the means to allow myself, or to get myself to do this task. I would not do this task if it were not for the house, but - maybe - at the deepest level of the soul, it’s the task that is the goal and satisfaction, not the house.
We often think that creative or intellectual work is more interesting or satisfying than simple physical tasks (although I might argue that a real expert shoveling technique is not that simple, hehe). I did intellectual work for over thirty years, and in the end, it got quite boring. Sure, there are moments of insight, innovation, or completion that are satisfying. And sometimes you get praise from people in high places, making you feel Important. But in between it’s mostly putting your nose to the grindstone and churning out the work. Which can feel good. I’m just proposing that it might not be that fundamentally different from shoveling stones with intermittent highlights as your technique improves.
Camus, in his philosophical novel “The Myth of Sysiphus” (where Sysiphus must push a rock up a hill every day only to have it roll down again for eternity) famously concludes that “The struggle itself ... is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”. Yes, maybe a bit like that. On the other hand, what did Camus know about physical labor? He probably wrote the book sipping espresso or Pernod in a café in Algiers.
Because after a while, shoveling stones did get tiring. By the time we were on our last day, my arms were getting worn out and it was time to be done. Maybe I'm not quite ready to be the happy Sysiphus. That said, it is hugely satisfying to walk by our filled-in trenches, knowing the rain water will collect in them and flow away from the house instead of pooling around our entry. It is all the more satisfying when recalling all the shovels, the wheelbarrows, and the philosophical musings that went into it. An interesting process.