Sensings, mountings from the hiding places,
Words entering almost the sense of touch
Ferreting themselves out of their dark hutch—
‘These things are not secrets but mysteries,’
Oisin Kelly told me years ago
In Belfast, hankering after stone
That connived with the chisel, as if the grain
Remembered what the mallet tapped to know.
Then I landed in the hedge-school of Glanmore
And from the backs of ditches hoped to raise
A voice caught back off slug-horn and slow chanter
That might continue, hold, dispel, appease:
Vowels ploughed into other, opened ground,
Each verse returning like the plough turned round.
— Seamus Heaney, “Glanmore Sonnets,” II
According to the Old Testament, Adam’s original sin of tasting the forbidden fruit of knowledge got him and Eve expelled from Eden. It also cursed all humanity to follow with the necessity of work by the sweat of their brow. (It must have been easy peasy for us til then, chillin’ with creation ‘n’ Creator in the Happy Glade.)
What followed was a hard lot. As the Bronze Age emerged from the Neolithic from which the Judaic creation myth came from, half of humanity was enslaved, building pyramids and whatever other monstrosities of glory the privileged so deigned.
The rites of Dionysos – from which viniculture and Greek theater are both derived — were said to have taken root among slaves in the silver mines of Thessaly. The fiery drink of the black mother loosened the chains of slavery, and the ecstasy of the god took sanity to its wildest extreme.
Even for freemen, survival was difficult and precarious. Tilling the land was brutal stuff and at the mercy of the gods of the elements. Anything and everything was called upon to appease them and get a fairer hand, sacrificing everything from the choicest cuts of the fatted calf to virgins and first sons. The Wheel of Fate creaked menacingly.
Eventually, though, humanity developed labor-saving devices — fire, flint tools, irrigation, the horse-drawn plow, the wheel, clocks, the steam engine, electric light, cars, computers, the internet. Slowly the sweat of our brow dried. These tools allowed us to distance from the field and enter the workforce of factories and offices.
But for most, one lean type of work was replaced by a more fattening other. I had blue-collar warehouse jobs in the ‘70s when I dropped out of college, eventually working for a newspaper’s white-collar world of purchasing agent, HR events organizer and then editor of company communications. (In 1982 I purchased the first desktop computers for the company, clunky Apple Lisas used by department secretaries for budgeting. Who knew what grand servitude would come of them?) I’ve had desk jobs now for forty years, quadrupling my salary and doubling my waist size as I marketed and edited and sold. My fingers have keyed untold millions of characters typing stories and memos and justifications and pitches. The hunched position of deskwork has taken its toll on my neck , wreaking excruciating migraines and shoulder pain.
I’m fortunate to have worked for long stretches in jobs, allowing me to save up considerably for retirement. I have two pensions and Social Security will be OK. All of this will allow me to retire just after I turn 65 (though I may choose to work on til I’m 70 to maximize Social Security). My life as a white-collar worker will formally end, allowing me, to take up free labors of my own choosing — probably writing full-time with some volunteer work added as well.
I see myself working until health and age forces me to stop: A normal course in modern life whose comforts and pleasures were doled out by the breadth and depth of labors. I’m fortunate to have worked in mostly pleasant conditions, but still I’ve been ruled by the necessity of devoting the majority of my conscious life to someone else’s wallet.
Off-clock, there are the chores of a marriage and life in suburbia – yardwork, grocery shopping, shared cooking and cleaning of the house. Poetry has been a lifelong avocation — at least for the past 30 years — which means getting up two hours early every day to read and write.
Not working is an almost foreign concept — meals, a little evening TV with the wife, six hours of sleep to the 4 AM alarm when the work starts up once again. The rarest pleasure of all is a one hour nap on a Saturday or Sunday with our calico Belle curled up with me.
That’s a typical course of work for the full-time worker-bee drone, but it’s certainly not the only one for the human main. Some folks work one, two or even three part-time jobs. Raising kids and caring for aging parents is work. Volunteer service is work, as is military service and school. Poetry is work, writing these challenges is work (as is reading them). Whatever endeavor humans undertake, it’s work. Work work work! Bang the drum on the slave-galley, march around the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle humming o-ree-o, oro-ho, get ‘er done before the end-time whistle of death.
There are few exceptions to work; the only ones who have it easier than our pets are the very rich. My wife and I toured Cumberland Island a few years ago and the ruins of 59-room Dungeness Mansion of the Carnegie family. Built as one summer home for the family in the 1880s, the lavish indolence of the super-rich is on display in vast ruins which are almost Roman in stature. (The place burned down around 1960). Andrew Carnegie built his Gilded Age fortune in steel — the blast-furnace toil of modernity; though he would give away almost all of his fortune as a philanthropist, his children grew up immune to the labors of everyday people. Nothing to do but play and play and play.
Today’s tech billionaires have translated extraordinary work for stratospheric privilege. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos now earns about $150,000 a minute. No one would say he hasn’t worked hard to get where he is now, but no one sees any economic necessity in billionaire wealth. Clearly, there is work for work’s sake, banishment from Eden or no.
Disuptive digital technology and labor-saving automation is now replacing a vast swath of the workforce. Newspapers are an example from my experience. When I left the Orlando daily newspaper in 1998 to take a writing/design job elsewhere, it took 1,700 employees to report, write, lay out, sell ads for, print and distribute The Orlando Sentinel. Digital classified enterprises like Craigslist first took a third of the company advertising revenue away. Free digital news then disrupted the costlier print subscription model. Starting around 2000, relentless cost-cutting and labor-reducing measures whittled away the workforce until in 2012 there were less than 200 employees working there. Printing the newspaper was outsourced to another production plant; the presses were sold, dismantled and shipped to South America; eventually there were less than 50 editorial employees in one room on the second floor of the vast three-story, two building newspaper complex downtown. They were evicted in October, eventually moving to a tiny office elsewhere downtown and now those building is completely empty but for dreams. (I have many of working there.) This is a miniature of the white-collar ghost belt where symbolic work is being taken over by machines.
“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)
Quality of work enters into considerations of craft, the ten thousand careful repetitions which creates work of an order close to perfection. The well-made thing is the grace of learned and patient craft. In the medieval era there were craft guilds, associations of artisans — weavers, dyers, bookmakers, leatherworkers, embroiderers, cobblers and candlemakers. You entered these guilds as apprentices, learned your stuff as an apprentice, eventually gaining master status; but the products were always of the guild not the individual, a collective stamp of quality.
To own one of these crafted products — a fine book, exquisite lace, shoes so good they were were re-cobbled many times, extending their life for a lifetime — was to come as close to perfection on earth as humanly possible. Labor can become redemption when its difficulty is its possibility.
As individuals emerged into the modern era as makers of personal destiny, the craft guilds slowly disintegrated and craft as a hallmark of work grew scarce. Manufactured goods were cheap and disposable, and we treated them as such. Craft became a hobby, an avocation for cooking or interior decorating.
Poetry has distanced a long ways from the old oral tradition when poets lay in dark singing-hut learning the entire canon for years before they were permitted to compose anything of their own. Writing cut short that process – why learn recite an odyssey from memory when you can check out the book from the library? — and the academy came to produce MFA degrees which minted the profession of teaching writing. But teach what? Academic poetry is narrowly defined and published in academic journals read mostly by teachers of writing; an expensive privilege considering the cost of higher education nowadays. Online forums like this are the most cheaply and widely available, and with it comes whatever the writer says is poetry.
Here at earthweal, the craft we specialize in is earth-poetry. If the earth is sacred, then our craft must reflect it; if the earth is damaged, our craft must also take that into account, like the flaw in the Navaho rug which allows the spirit a way out of the pattern.
If craft is the highest order of our work — a concentration of all the wisdom, experience, talent and energy we can muster — it somehow restores the balance of Eden, where animals, humans and the divine lived together. Earthweal craft then is yoga, a shamanic drum, a honeybee hive and whalesong, all rapt in song.
For this weekly challenge, write of EARTHCRAFT, that work of restoring earthly perfection through craft.
- What is the nature of work and its perfection in craft?
- How does a poetry of earth attempt that craft?
- How is work changing, and what tools are there for keeping balance?
- What can we learn from this work in nature, be it bee-craft or forest growth, whale song or wind-work?
- If there is an alchemy to earthcraft, what does its labors look like and what is the quinessence?
Consider those things when your write of EARTHCRAFT. Let’s see what we together can discover!
Speaking of work, I’ve been doing these weekly earthweal challenges for eighteen months now with occasional help from friends. It’s time to take a two-week summer break. Not that I’m headed for the pool or hammock; instead I plan to catch up on other work, like the collections of poetry I’m finally putting into book form. I’ll be back in time for midsummer celebrations.
ENRICHING THE EARTH
To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and of various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind’s service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.
— from Farming: A Handbook (1970)
You crossed a vast landscape of space and time with this essay Brendan, from the silvermines of Thessaly to the deskbound indentured labour of the modern day. If that hasn’t earned you a break I don’t know what has! I think the pool and the hammock would be a great idea. Thank you for giving us so much to think and write about this week.
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I’m so happy you are shaping a book of your own.
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Your prompts are always so fascinating and so broadly informed. Thank you.
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I am glad you are taking a well-earned break, Brendan. Do fit in some hammock time! I am thrilled to hear about your book!
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Hi Sherry, I am struggling to comment on your post today – my responses swallowed whole every time. But you piece is beautiful and sad and beautiful – an Earthsong sung true.
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So excited to hear of your collections moving in to book form – hope some reading at least can happen pool side. enjoy your break. And thank you.
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So sorry, Lindi. That happens to me too….sorry you had trouble.
Enjoy your break, Brendan and thanks for your excellent posts and challenges, one of the best poetry sites around. I haven’t been around earthweal as much as I would like, recently, (life has been getting in the way) but I hope to pick up the pace again. I have an idea for a challenge, so I will be in touch (see, now that I have said it, I’ll have to do it!)
All the best…JIM
So, wonderful that the journey has opened a door for you to craft a book. Thank you for all you do. I know a lot of work goes into your informative prompts.
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