Monday, September 7, 2015

Enjoy the Gifts of Labor.

Yesterday's rain storms, in addition to knocking out power for several hours last night, delivered a gift this holiday morning. A little frog, clinging to the second floor sliding glass door, is probably the same one that was clinging to the picture during the height of last night's downpour. I don't often get to see nature this up close, personal, and upside down. This very different view of a frog from what I'm used to seeing served as a reminder.

Cope's gray treefrog, (Hyla chrysoscelis)
Photo by J. Harrington

Lewis Hyde has written a book, The Gift, that begins with this epigraph from Joseph Conrad:

The artist appeals to that part
of our being...which is a gift and not
an acquisition--and, therefore, more permanently enduring.

I've been reading Hyde's book, off and on, for several months now and I'm still struggling to fully understand Conrad's point. I probably complicated my efforts to understand Hyde when I wonder if he's talking about a version of another gift economy such as Robin Wall Kimmerer does in her wonderful book, Braiding Sweetgrass. A sample from her thinking can be found on page 132, where she has written "Respect one another, support one another, bring your gift to the world and receive the gifts of others, and there will be enough for all."

Two very different authors, writing about what appears to be very different topics, seem to me to very nicely complement the other's view of life. They each seem to be telling us that exploitation of the earth's riches, including our fellow human's labor and talents, is not the way to an enduring society nor to fulfillment as an individual. It isn't sustainable. In fact, it's just plain wrong because it isn't just. It lacks reciprocity. It turns us into commodities. Labor, if we value the quality of life, is more than a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. The human and environmental consequences of "earning a living" from any extractive industry make that clear. It seems to me that much of what Labor Day is about is trying to bring what's legal and what's moral into much better alignment. That would be a "gift" that works for me. (Speaking of gifts, my Better Half recently gave me the gift of a copy of Sandburg's Complete Poems for which I am extremely grateful. Here's an example of why.)

Work Gangs

Carl Sandburg1878 - 1967

Box cars run by a mile long.
And I wonder what they say to each other
When they stop a mile long on a sidetrack.
  Maybe their chatter goes:
I came from Fargo with a load of wheat up to the danger line.
I came from Omaha with a load of shorthorns and they
    splintered my boards.
I came from Detroit heavy with a load of flivvers.
I carried apples from the Hood river last year and this year
    bunches of bananas from Florida; they look for me with
    watermelons from Mississippi next year.

Hammers and shovels of work gangs sleep in shop corners
when the dark stars come on the sky and the night watchmen
    walk and look.

Then the hammer heads talk to the handles,
then the scoops of the shovels talk,
how the day’s work nicked and trimmed them,
how they swung and lifted all day,
how the hands of the work gangs smelled of hope.
In the night of the dark stars
when the curve of the sky is a work gang handle,
in the night on the mile long sidetracks,
in the night where the hammers and shovels sleep in corners,
the night watchmen stuff their pipes with dreams—
and sometimes they doze and don’t care for nothin’,
and sometimes they search their heads for meanings, stories,
    stars.
  The stuff of it runs like this:
A long way we come; a long way to go; long rests and long deep
    sniffs for our lungs on the way.
Sleep is a belonging of all; even if all songs are old songs and
    the singing heart is snuffed out like a switchman’s lantern
    with the oil gone, even if we forget our names and houses in
    the finish, the secret of sleep is left us, sleep belongs to all,
    sleep is the first and last and best of all.

People singing; people with song mouths connecting with song
    hearts; people who must sing or die; people whose song
    hearts break if there is no song mouth; these are my people.

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