I have just come inside after two hours of raking leaves on a beautiful fall day (and I'm not done). Still, I am prompted once again to reflect on the transfer of worthy work from the historic use of our bodies -- using our own muscles and burning calories provided by food -- as opposed to the use of labor-saving devices that rely on energy stored over millennia in the form of fossil fuels and, sometimes, on the exertions of others (lawn care companies). How did we come to this? What's wrong with raking?
I suspect our muscles did not evolve to be used on Stairmasters and treadmills in chrome-and-mirror gyms. We homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers, then cultivators. Now we pay others to do physical labor for us -- to collect our leaves or plow our driveways -- while we decry the epidemic of obesity across the land.
Just yesterday I saw an advertisement for a popular wine bottle opener with a new electric model! Instead of using my own energy to open a wine bottle manually, I can use a small amount of the planet's finite supply of fossil fuels by deploying a rechargeable battery-operated corkscrew. Let's the review a list of labor-saving devices that probably use non-renewable energy (unless your electricity comes from nuclear, wind, hydro or solar) instead of using our own calories: electric toothbrush, can opener, leaf blower, hedge trimmer, lawn mower, mixer, carving knife, pencil sharpener, snow blower... you get the picture.
Growing up, I used to help my mother hang laundry on a clothesline in our backyard or help my father mow the lawn. We would wave and chat with people up and down the block doing the same. Now, we hire others to do perform these physical tasks so that we can spend time in front of computer screens, connected to the wider world yet not to our own neighbors.
I like raking because it gets me outside. I exercise my muscles. I marvel at tufts of rabbit parts half-hidden at the base of a bur oak. (Oooo, wild nature, right here in my yard! Was the rabbit preyed upon by a coyote, a fox, a hawk?) I see the late-blooming Illinois rose and, once or twice, hear the strange call of sandhill cranes flying high overhead, winging south for the winter.
These warm days filled with color and leaves remind me of one of my favorite poems.
Here Summer Ends
Mourn earth, for summer ends.
An incomparable ripeness now bends
Towards death: ultimate rose, russet leaves
Enter that final passion life lends
Uncertain breath and fragrant air betrays.
Your summer's rich decrees
Green as the encircled earth, bright as its trees
With our uncertain fate contend.
Mourn, earth! the last stroke of my conquered pen.
The slow leaf burning the scarlet air.
Drift, assailable season, remote from all pain
Of short, unselfconscious days, and of being human.
-- DACHINE RAINER
Let us then be our best human selves, a part of nature, not apart from nature. Hand me the rake. I'm going back outside.