Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Rocks in his Head? A Rock Hound Looks on the Bright Side of Brute Physical Labor.

In a New Yorker cartoon, chained galley slaves, bearded, gaunt, and half naked, pull on oars in the hold of an ancient warship under the cruel gaze of a whip-bearing guard.

The condemned all look like dead men, except for one. He is smiling happily as he says to the rower beside him, "I lost 10 pounds the first week and kept it off."
What he seems to be saying is, Look on the bright side. We're getting in shape!

Does he have a point? While I am not suggesting that physical labor is beneficial enough to get myself sentenced to life at hard labor, I regularly work like a galley slave. In the photo, I am hauling rocks for a wall.
I do it because I like to, because it makes me feel good, and I see important health benefits to it. I also doubt that we were built to sit at a desk and in front of a TV. Given human history and given what all the desk and couch sitting has done to obese and diabetes-riven Americans, it may just be that we are suffering from a lack of the hard physical labor we were designed for.
Could it be that brute physical labor is not only good for you but is something that our bodies actually crave? Do we baby ourselves physically when we should really be pushing the limits? And by pushing the limits, I mean long hours of lifting, pushing, hauling, bending, moving.

This is what I have been doing for most of this summer. I spread 10 yards of mulch at my place. I spread it by shovel and by wheelbarrow. After finishing that, a son asked us to babysit so he could spread mulch. We ended up babysitting and spreading mulch at the same time. We worked straight out for three hours. Another 10 yards of mulch bites the dust.

Our daughter asked us to spend a few days at her new home in Connecticut. It has a huge outside area with no landscaping at all -- and a mountain of 30 yards of mulch to be spread. Do you know how much 30 yards of mulch is? It's enough to make professional landscapers whistle out loud and wonder what kind of lunatic would even think of spreading that much mulch by hand.

The answer is someone like me. And my wife Barbara is just as bad because she worked right along side of me as we put in two 10-hour days spreading mulch, as well as planting shrubs. We spread probably half of the mulch and put in a slew of shrubs, enough to make the house look inhabited.

While I was resting, I also put in a drainage system to keep the outside from turning into a pond. This involved digging a trench, by hand, hauling and adding gravel, and burying pipe so water would flow from the house to the road.

I also put down large granite blocks along the driveway, which involved more digging, hauling, and, most of all, bending. Every block had to be muscled into place until it was straight and secure. And, of course, when my daughter inspected the job, I had to pull up half the blocks and make them straighter and tighter.

It was fine with me. She is the client, after all. And, as I said, I'm a glutton for this kind of brutal labor. I have been working on an ambitious landscaping project at our own house. Because the woods in back have been thinning out and because a neighbor has cut some trees and built a large above-ground pool, we can now see more than we would like.

We want to block out these unwanted views. At first, we were going to build a fence. But the more we thought about it, the more a fence didn't work. What we had before was natural. We wanted that again.
So I have been building up the back with fill and soil and then planting shrubs. When the shrubs fill out in a couple of years, our view out back will once again be green and natural.

Sounds easy. It isn't. It involves brutal physical labor. And since I'm too cheap to hire a landscaper, that means the slave -- me -- has to do it. Where did the fill come from? It so happens that a neighbor down the street put in a swimming pool and ended up with a huge pile of dirt he didn't need. I offered to take it off his hands and he took me up on it.

Did I hire someone to truck the dirt down? Of course not. Using a shovel and a large contractor's wheelbarrow, I probably made a 100 or maybe a 150 trips down the street. The distance was roughly a football field. I had to be quite a sight for the neighbors.

Did you ever try to lift a wheelbarrow filled to the top with dirt? It's heavy, man, probably as heavy as I am (172 pounds). Don't believe it is that heavy? Well, it was because on top of the dirt I piled heavy fieldstone rocks for building walls.

I'm a rock hound. I love rocks: round rocks, flat rocks, small rocks, odd-shaped rocks that have a character of their own. In my mind, there is no more natural or durable or beautiful building material than simple, old-fashioned fieldstone.

Something there is that loves a wall made out of fieldstone and nothing else. It is honest, pure, everlasting. Everywhere I have lived I have built fieldstone walls and every so often I go back to see how they are doing. They are always just as I left them.

No one wants to disturb a fieldstone wall. To do so is almost a sacrilege. Many of the walls built in America four and five hundred years ago still stand, while the human hands that guided them in place have long since become dust.

Naturally, my project involves building fieldstone walls. It takes a lot of rock to build a wall of any size and to build it properly. And a lot of lifting and bending. As I said, I got some rock from my neighbor. Most of it, however, I had to requisition. (Pssst. That means steal. Please keep that to yourself.)

Luckily, in my area, houses are going up on every available lot. Often the lots are literally carved out of hillsides. That's when lots of fieldstone is unearthed and is just sitting there on the ground for the taking. If I don't take the fieldstone, it's going to be buried, never to become a wall, never to have the opportunity to perform neverending service.

When I saw a hillside being carved into a house lot a couple of streets from me, I staked it out, waiting for the right time to pounce. On a driveby, I noticed something to make a rock hound's heart pound with excitement. A big, plywood sign said, "Free Rock. Bring trucks."

Whoa! Usually I have to case a rock source for days to decide the best time to swoop in and load-up, generally after hours. It's much the same process as robbing a bank. I'm not averse to stealing but I don't like feeling like a thief.

But here I was getting an invitation! Needless to say, I took advantage. When a rock source becomes available, you have to move even if you are not currently building a wall. In my case, I am always building a wall.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been making several trips a day, digging out rock, and loading up the back of my old 1994 Honda Civic Hatchback and then unloading at my house.

It's been hot. My shorts and tee-shirt become soaked with sweat and grime from lugging rocks against them. I go through two and three changes of clothing a day. It is back-breaking work. I love every minute of it.

With the rocks, I made the wall in the front of the house bigger, stronger, and more impressive. I used them to make a drainage system out back: water from the two main drain pipes now splash onto fieldstone and then flow under a new wall and under a garden walk, over a bed of small flat rocks, to be dispersed harmlessly into the woods. No more gulleys and soil and mulch run-off.

It is on-site engineering using one superior building material: fieldstone.

The drainage system works beautifully. In fact, we had very heavy rain today and I was just out back with an umbrella watching rainwater splash onto the fieldstone, gurgle under the wall, and flow down its preordained rocky path. Left to itself, water finds its own path; but in rock-only drainage system, there is only one path for the water to find.

How hard is this work? It is brutal. It is harder than it was doing road work on a Georgia chain gang. Few if any employers would dare ask an employee to work as hard as I have been working. The modern American laborer would laugh at the thought of working this hard.

Day after day of bending and heavy lifting and pushing wheelbarrows filled with dirt and rocks is just not done by human beings these days. It's not exactly desirable work and, anyway, we have machines to move dirt and rocks. This is perfectly understandable.

On the other hand, let me tell you what a summer of brute physical labor has done for me. I am physically stronger. When I first started pushing the wheelbarrow full of dirt and rocks, I struggled. I basically wobbled down the street and was always close to losing the load.

But with each passing day, it got a little easier. By the time I had hauled all the dirt and rocks I needed and finished my walls, I had become a working machine. I tooled that wheelbarrow down the street with verve and confidence.

I was also surprised at the size of the rocks I could lift without any trouble at all. A good wall needs large rocks as a base. As time went on, I was lifting bigger and bigger rocks for a long wall the length of the backyard.

Around the shoulders and chest, I am all firmed up. At age 68, I have gained muscle, if you can believe it. Too bad no one is interested in looking at a 68-year-old guy with his shirt off because I would publish a picture showing what I am talking about.

I have gained flexibility and am bending easier. I notice it when I bend down to tie my shoe laces. I used to sit down to tie my shoes; now I bend. I notice that ordinary physical tasks, such as lugging groceries and taking out the trash, are easier. I am leaner. I am standing straighter.

On the tennis court today, I felt physically multi-dimensional. No longer was I depending only on legs and cardio and respiratory systems; I now felt added substance and strength. My groundstrokes were more powerful. My volleys were crisper. I felt an all-around physical strength out there that was new.

Of course, this could all be my imagination, the influence of the well-documented placebo effect: If you do something that you believe will make you feel better, you may indeed actually feel better. All I can tell you is what my wife tells me: my upper body is hard.

We're talking one summer of back-breaking physical labor, unstructured and unplanned. I think the results are superior to any I could have gained by going to the gym every day. To me, nothing is more boring than lifting weights in a gym.

In the first place, a gym is inside. I have been working in the glorious outside where you can look up and see the clouds in the sky and feel the warmth of the sun and the freshness of a summer breeze. Notwithstanding our homes and office towers, we are creatures of the outside.

Our ancesters didn't need a gym. They didn't need to lift weights or run laps or do sit-ups and push-ups. They got plenty of exercise chasing down prey for a meal and just staying alive. When we sit at work all day and then sit some more in our cars during the long commute, we certainly need some kind of exercise.

Millions think a trip to the gym is the answer and it is certainly better than nothing. But I think what I did this summer is more fun and better for you. It reminded me of when I was in college and I worked as a furniture mover every summer.

I loved it. I ran boxes of books from the house to truck. With fellow riff-raff, usually a drunk or petty criminal or both, I spent work days picking up and carrying heavy dressers, refrigerators, stoves, desks, anything that had to be moved. I was "strong like ox" because I had to be.

I learned the proper way to lift, slowly, letting the legs bear most of the weight, keeping the arms close to the body. I never hurt my self and I never knew a mover who hurt himself on the job. They got hurt when they went out drinking at night and got into a fistfight.

I miss that job. Today, whenever someone I know moves, I'm right there to volunteer my services. One friend I have helped move five times. After all these years, there is nothing I cannot move out of a house and into a truck. I'm a natural-born beast of burden.

However, after my summer of brute labor, I have a problem. There is no more dirt for me to move and no more rocks to haul because I have built all the walls I can at our house.

What do I do now, fall apart? Let my new muscles turn to mush? I have become a physical machine, but do I now just revert to saggy old flesh?

No, no, and no, thanks to my daughter Misha coming to the rescue. She wants us to come to her new place in Connecticut and give her a hand with some landscaping.

She has 15 yards of mulch to be spread. She has a long front walk to be dug out, prepared, and paved. She wants a fieldstone patio out back and a long, long, stone wall behind her house.

I see months of brute physical labor, thank God.

So long and keep moving.

E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of the author being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about the author's postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story good enough to get him into an exclusive college -- on full scholarship; and "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every single day.