Borsalino Test #24: Longing for water to carry

Longing for water to carry

Permaculture and the exoticism of work

Some of my hippier friends in Lisbon rave about permaculture. I find that area of interest genuinely fascinating. Permaculture is an approach to land management that adopts arrangements observed in flourishing natural ecosystems. Importantly, permaculture is a whole lot of work.

I experience a subtle intrigue that hooks me when listening to friends rambling about the wonders of regenerative design. It must lie partly in the fact that such confrontations with material reality have become exotically unfamiliar to me. Like me, many now do work that feels more surreal than real. 

Working in an office, writing emails and scheduling calendar meetings often feels ephemeral and intangible. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day? Where the chain of cause and effect is opaque and accountability spread thin, the experience of individual agency can be elusive. 

“Dilbert,” “The Office” and similar representations of cubicle life portray the cringe absurdism with which many have to coexist in the context of their white-collar occupation. 

Strong as an ox

As a teenager, I would work during the summer as a furniture packer and mover. Being the righteous child of blue-collar workers, my dad could not sustain the sight of my baby-soft hands resting inactive during school breaks. That was also the time in which most adults would cap their kids’ screen time. Digital was very much play. Work was analog. 

My dad connected me to his friend Felipe, who ran his own little furniture moving enterprise. Felipe was a bubbly Dominican man in his forties, with a warm smile though snarky enough to intimidate most. He was also tough as nails. I've seen him lifting a whole three-seater couch without even breaking a sweat. Damn, the guy was a literal ox!

I treasure meaningful memories of those times. At lunch, we would share a beer or two. We would work roughly for ten hours each shift. At the end of the day, I could feel a pervasive soreness that I’d gladly wear as a badge of honor. I never ceased to take pleasure at the moment when I would flip the light switch of a completely empty apartment unit at the end of the day. 

Work that feels real

The Calvinist morality embedded in our cultural norms idealizes manual work as the salt of the earth. It emphasizes the value of the sacrifice that work entails. But our praise for manual work hides more than we would like to confront.

When we applaud people who do straightforwardly useful work, celebrations often betray the assumption they had no other options. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Underneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.

Neither as workers nor as consumers we are much called upon to exercise manual competence. The craftsman is proud of what they have made, and cherishes it. The consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in the pursuit of the new. Craftsmanship might be defined as the desire to just do something well, for its own sake.

Alexandre Kojève writes: “The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it, he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself.”

The soul of manual work 

Manifesting yourself tangibly in the world is a balm for the spirit. Manual work is just another interpretation of our own self-worth we are offering to the world. Arguably, a clear, straightforward one. One can simply point: the building stands, the car runs, the lights are on. Craftsmanship silences the noise of interpretation with the Damoclean judgment of reality. 

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. Some kids are hustled off to college against other inclinations and natural bents. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant to them. The passions for learning will not then be engaged.

And there’s more under the hood of craftsmanship. Manual work is possessive, tied to the present moment. Being able to think materially about goods and apply critical judgment provides independence from manipulation. Knowledge of the production course neuters the social narrative of advertisement.  

Physical work requires cultivating intellectual habits. Habits of the mind with an often-overlooked ethical dimension. Good diagnosis of manual challenges requires attentiveness with the pieces involved, almost a conversation with them. Cognitive psychology labels this as “metacognition”, the art of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. This is the feeling of stopping for a hot second in the pursuit of a solution, and wondering whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. 

Potential instead of achievement

Manual trades are given little honor in schools. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. 

However, many college students don’t learn anything of particular application. College is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of advanced Western economies is to remain open to new things. We celebrate potential rather than achievement. 

In “The Mind at Work”, Mike Rose writes that “our testaments to physical work are so often focused on the values such work exhibits rather than on the thought it requires. It is a subtle but pervasive omission. It is as though in our cultural iconography we are given the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain.”

Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it because one wants to get it right. The currently preferred role model is the management consultant (your author has a guilty past here), who swoops in and out, and whose very pride lies in their lack of particular expertise. 

Middle managers pouring concrete

Most people take pride in being good at something specific. That happens through the accumulation of experience. Contrast the experience of a middle manager. The manager faces the possibility of disaster at any time, but in their case disasters feel arbitrary. They are typically a result of corporate restructurings, not of physics. 

Managers’ decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). What’s important is that these reversals do not look like defeats. In order to do that, they’d have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of them. 

Survival then depends on a crucial insight. You can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. 

For corporate management, nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete. Or lifting cupboards with Felipe, for that matter.