Surprise, surprise. The work ethic, before which our culture bows down in adoration, can result in failure perhaps as often as it does success. I came to that conclusion after many years of trying to follow an ecologically-sustainable lifestyle out on the ramparts of society, and after reading hundreds of letters from others trying to do the same.
Real success in this endeavor (if not all endeavors) comes more often from a healthy dose of shrewd, laid-back laziness. We Americans are just too ambitious for our own good and in an effort to gain success (tranquility being the best measure of a successful life) we carry the habits of the commercial workplace into our private lives and over-extend ourselves with activities that are really unnecessary and even harmful. The only cure for it, at least in my case, was getting older and running out of all that eager energy I once possessed. Nowadays, my first order of business in all homestead endeavors is: “Do nothing you can put off until tomorrow. It might not need to be done at all.” In other words, there are times when “work ethic” is an oxymoron.
Eager beginners, seeking a more independent life style on a little farm or even a big backyard, have a tendency to bite off more than they can chaw. Instead of setting out ten tomato plants, they set out 50. Instead of half a dozen hens, they try 40. I can reel off a whole litany of painful examples of what happens next.
a.) A gardener became enamored with the “labor-saving” advantages of mulch gardening. In one exploding orgasm of sweat, (mostly his children’s) he covered nearly half an acre with about a foot of old hay before he had even the slightest experience with what he was doing. Sure enough, he licked the weed problem for awhile, but he never got even half of the area planted to anything except the weeds that grew up from the seeds in the hay. And ever afterwards, his children hated gardening.
b.) A wife, explaining to me the last straw that sent her into divorce proceedings: “He — meaning her husband (you know there is trouble on the way when someone starts referring to a spouse with a pronoun), — he planted an acre of sweet corn and then expected me to pick, shuck, and freeze it all while he was off at his day job in an air-conditioned office.”
c.) A shepherd bought eight sheep, mostly for the very smart purpose of taking the place of mowing brush land. The sheep prospered and resulted in lamb chops for several families. The shepherd could not resist more sheep. He turned his little lambing shed into a much bigger shelter that the sheep did not need since they could do just fine behind a windbreak of trees. Then he had to buy hay because the pasture was not enough. Soon the poor sheep became infested with worms from overcrowded pastures, the lambs grew only slowly if at all, and all the lazy-man’s efficiency of the small flock was lost. P.S. The shepherd suffered a hernia trying to drag a ewe out of a tangled, broken-down fence.
In so many cases including my own, the time and work of keeping a big garden would be better invested in a smaller one because even in the event that the bigger garden does produce more, much of it goes to waste. When she died, my grandmother left a cellar burgeoning with canned fruit and vegetables too old to eat. We have followed in her footsteps by way of the freezer and end up throwing old stuff out to make room for new. Jonathan Swift, among others, heaped praise upon those who could make two blades of corn or grass grow where only one had grown before. Often one is enough.
The glorification of neatness that grips so many of us is another result of the much abused work ethic. The last time I looked at the statistics, we were mowing 30 million acres of lawn, not counting the miles of mowed grass along highways and byways. To do that we burn eight hundred million gallons of fuel (see chapter 4 of my book, All Flesh Is Grass). That amount of mowing could easily be halved if we weren’t culturally addicted to lawns that resemble rugs.
The neatness addiction can lead to the hospital bed rather than the hammock. One hard-working neatnik I know mows several acres of steep hillside that he should let grow up in interesting weeds, bushes, wildlife cover and finally trees. Every year he risks death from overturning a tractor on that hillside.
The whole agricultural trend in America rests on the notion that hard work is virtuous and its reward prosperity. One of my most searing memories is of a farmer who told me many years ago, as he sold out, that “I worked so hard I didn’t take time to see if I was making any money.” This worship of the work ethic has led to a worldwide system of farming that is becoming ridiculous. We tear up millions of acres of soil every year with huge, fuel-gulping machines, opening the land to erosion and compaction. We plant annual grains with other huge machines, racing rainstorms in the spring to get all those acres planted. We apply fertilizers that are going sky high in price right now, and spray pesticides, also expensive, meanwhile praying that neither flood, drought, nor hail destroys the crops. Then we lumber through the fields on more huge machines, racing weather again to get the harvest in, truck the grains in semis to handling facilities where zillions of dollars worth of natural gas are used to dry the grains for safe storage. From storage, the grains are then shipped all over the world, mostly to feed animals in huge confinement factories. Then the meat, dairy products and eggs are shipped far and wide to the ultimate consumer.
There is a practical alternative, especially for brilliantly-lazy, small-scale farmers. Plant the fields to permanent and semi-permanent grasses and legumes, ending almost all annual cultivation and much of the horrendous cost involved. Allow animals to graze those pastures for their food, becoming both harvesting machine and fertilizer spreader in the process, leaving the farmer free to oversee the process by improving his pastures and resting under a shade tree much of the time. Then when this kind of lazy farming spreads all over the countryside, most of the meat, dairy products and eggs can be sold locally.
This is not a dream. Grass farmers are actually making it happen. Surely all farmers will some day shed their myopic admiration for the work ethic and do likewise. Buy stock in hammocks.