The Age of Artifice


By Heather McLeod

My partner Brock, a full-time vegetable farmer, spends his work day lifting heavy tubs of carrots, yanking out overgrown weeds and balancing precariously on ladders to build greenhouses.

I type.

Surprisingly, I was the one injured this summer.

After eight years of working full-time on a computer, my hands went on strike: I could no longer use a keyboard or hold a mouse without pain tearing my tendons from fingertip to elbow. Bilateral forearm extensor tendonitis. All thanks to a too-high desk and my determination to soldier on through the warning signs of pain. Unable to work (or even whine about it on Facebook), I spent three months on our couch under ice packs, slathered in ibuprofen cream, trying to cool the invisible burning in my arms, wrists and hands.

At my second appointment with Vince, my physiotherapist, I commented on the strangeness of being wounded by a desk job, while Brock manages to do physically challenging work all day long without being maimed. Vince said that, actually, it’s logical that my work would be more damaging. Human bodies are meant to perform a diversity of tasks all day, from hunting and gathering to farming and cooking. But then humans started doing jobs where they repeated the same motion over and over again. That guy on the assembly line who inserts bolts into pieces of metal might think he’s got a sweet job at $30 an hour with benefits, but forcing your body to do the same motion all day is unnatural. Typing is a perfect example.

When you think about it, many aspects of modern jobs aren’t natural. I spend my weekdays in an air-conditioned, fluorescent-lit, indoor environment. Even in the hottest summer months, me and my fellow office wonks wear the same dark sweaters and drink orange pekoe: the temperature is a steady 16 degrees to prevent us from dozing at our desks.

On the other hand, Farmer Brock checks the forecast constantly: if it’s going to rain, that changes his to-do list. He can lose thousands of dollars of income if he misreads the clouds blowing through our valley, so he’s honed his spidey-sense for impending frost, rain and snow.

My annual work cycle is unrelated to what’s happening outside the sealed windows: my only clue to the time of year is the month on my Dilbert desk calendar. I work set hours regardless of the season. In the winter I commute in the dark and spend my daylight hours in a cubicle.

But Brock’s schedule is inherently seasonal. He works thirteen-hour days seven days a week in the growing season, because weeds and crops don’t take weekends or evenings off. In the winter he’ll sleep until 9 a.m., spend a leisurely four or five hours planning the next farming season, then happily read or binge-watch Mad Men episodes on DVD with me. Brock’s work hours are dictated by the season and the amount of sunlight.

Our clothes may be the most obvious proof of how artificial urban work has become. At work, I wear skirts made of fabric that will inevitably wrinkle when I sit all day, even though sitting all day is inherent to my job. Many of my office-appropriate clothes require ironing or even dry cleaning – the two most time-consuming, impractical clothes-care activities.

At least I, unlike my male colleagues, don’t have to wear a tie. Neck ties serve no practical purpose whatsoever, and are often uncomfortably tight. How did they become an office staple? Men with office jobs aren’t only strangled by ties: they are also expected to shave daily. When we started our farm, the first sign of Brock deviating from his then-career path of a bureaucrat was that he stopped shaving.

In contrast, practicality, comfort and common sense are the defining characteristics of farm clothes. We perfected our farm “outfits” our first season, and have watched our apprentices and employees go through the same refining process themselves every year since. The principles:

  • A wide-brimmed hat to protect your eyes from sun glare. Sunglasses are useless because you can’t tell if a strawberry is ripe through shaded lenses.
  • A long shirt. Anyone who thinks they don’t need one when bending over all day will go home with a firey red burn across the small of their back.
  • Pockets, ideally in both your pants and shirt(s), to hold screws when building, bits of twine found in the field, and to-do lists.
  • Two kinds of footwear: gumboots for deep-tilled soil and wet weather, and crocs or other easily-removed shoes, so you can go into and out of the house without stopping to untie laces.
  • Finally, layers. If you have to go inside to change every time the temperature drops or climbs, you’ll never get anything done.

This dichotomy between the natural and the unnatural is not new. One of my English Lit professors taught us about the late-nineteenth-century writers who prized artifice over the Romantics’ view of “wild” nature. These “Decadents” thought the perfect garden was one in which nature was entirely controlled. For example: shrubbery was pruned into shapes. Symmetry prevailed. I considered the Decadents extreme, and ridiculous for thinking they could impose structure onto nature. But over the past five years I have been exposed daily to the glaring contrast between my nine-to-five world of desk work and our life on the farm. In urban North America, the Decadents have succeeded. We work in controlled environments, and are no longer subject to weather or the seasons.

And yet, for many of us this brave new world doesn’t feel quite right. As physio Vince pointed out, human biology has not evolved as quickly as our society. iPhones became a household staple after five years, but we’re still getting rid of our tailbones. Part of us longs for a simpler time.

Some of us react to this vague feeling of dissatisfaction by trying to recreate our great-grandparents’ world. One extreme example is the latest wave of the “back to the land” movement: Brock and I aren’t the only thirty-somethings to flee our condo and start a farm. Those who remain in their townhouses are picketing for the right to backyard chickens. Mainstream brands see this restlessness and start marketing their “natural” products, made from “real” ingredients. Authenticity is a trend.

Sales of canning supplies are rising, even though most city slickers buy their berries and pickling cukes rather than grow their own. Urban men stop shaving – then pay $60 to get their facial hair styled in retro barbershops. Some of us manage virtual farms on the Internet. We’ve settled for the meta-natural.

But this might not be enough.

After three months of physiotherapy and a month of limited computer use, my hands are starting to hurt again. I’m beginning to accept, reluctantly, that my tendonitis may be a chronic condition. My body now refuses to spend forty hours a week on a computer.

And I have to wonder: in this virtual world we’ve created, what else can I do?

What else can we do?

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Up on the Farm

Heather McLeod

Heather McLeod's fiction has appeared in The New Quarterly and The Winnipeg Review. She has a passion for learning practical skills, and shares her adventures on a blog here.