Hard physical work is still a requisite for a sound outlook on an ever more crazy world. I ride a bike; but such exercise is not quite the same, given that the achievement of doing 35 miles is therapeutic for the body and mind, but does not lead to a sense of accomplishment in the material sense — a 30-foot dead tree cut up, a shed rebuilt, a barn repainted. I never quite understood why all these joggers in Silicon Valley have immigrants from Latin America doing their landscaping. Would not seven hours a week spent raking and pruning be as healthy as jogging in spandex — aside from the idea of autonomy that one receives by taking care of one’s own spread?
On the topic of keeping attuned with the physical world: if it does not rain (and the “rainy” season is about half over with nothing yet to show for it), the Bay Area and Los Angeles will see some strange things that even Apple, Google, and the new transgendered rest room law cannot fix. We have had two-year droughts, but never in my lifetime three years of no rain or much snow — much less in a California now of 39 million people. I doubt we will hear much for a while about the past wisdom of emptying our reservoirs and letting the great rivers year-round flow to the Bay to restore mythical 19th-century salmon runs and to save the Delta three-inch bait fish. As long as it was a question of shutting down 250,000 irrigated acres in distant and dusty Mendota or Firebaugh, dumping fresh water in the sea was a good thing. When it now comes down to putting grey water or worse on the bougainvilleas in Menlo Park, or cutting back on that evening shower, I think even those of Silicon Valley will wonder, “What in the hell were we thinking?”
I do all the yard work on my three-acre home site and putter around the surrounding 40-acre vineyard. Mowing, chain-sawing, pruning, and hammering clear the head, and remind us that, even in the age of the knockout “game” and nightly TV ads for Trojan sex devices, we still live in a natural world. In the rural landscape, you are responsible for your own water. So you must know about what level resides the water table, and how deeply exactly your pump draws from, and the minutia of well depth, casing size, and type of pump. You know roughly how much sewage you’ve deposited in your cesspool and septic tank, and whether your propane tanks is half or a quarter full. There is no “they” who take care of such things, no department of this, or GS9 that to do it for you. Those who help you keep independent — the well drillers, pump mechanics, cesspool pumpers, asphalt layers, and assorted independent contractors — remind you that muscles and experience, not always degrees and techie know-how, are still important in extremis.
There are no neighbors across the backyard fence. At night there is no one out here, except the dogs that engage in howling wars with the coyotes. Nature abounds, both good and bad: squirrels that undermine the slab under your barn (I have shot them, gassed them, poisoned them for 40 years, and their burrows are larger than ever), and coyotes lingering out of range in the shadows by dusk. But also a red-tailed hawk in your redwood tree stands guard, and a great horned owl skimming across the vineyard that is strangely unafraid of humans. When I ride out in the Michigan countryside, I often stop and stare at octogenarians puttering around huge old clapboard farmhouses, determined in their final days to mow their lawns or paint their porches as if they were newlyweds — “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”