I've been noticing this trend bubbling up for a while as a kind of a hipster thing: cool chicks and bearded dudes who decide to make a living selling crafts, or making artisanal cheeses, or leaving NYC to grow organic vegetables. Now, within the past couple of days, there have been two related articles in the New York Times:
Many Summer Internships Are Going Organic
Erin Axelrod, who graduated from Barnard College last week with an urban studies degree, will not be fighting over the bathroom with her five roommates on the Upper West Side this summer. Instead she will be living in a tent, using an outdoor composting toilet and harvesting vegetables on an organic farm near Petaluma, Calif.
As the sole intern at a boutique dairy in upstate New York, Gina Runfola, an English and creative writing student, has traded poetry books for sheep.
The Case for Working With Your Hands
High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with, such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.
When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.
I understand the desire to do tangible, physical work. I've never been paid to make or grow anything, but even food service work and retail sales can offer the uncomplicated pleasure of carrying out a task efficiently and well. To work on an organic farm or sell your hand-made knit hats adds the attraction of nurturing something, or having some independence and creativity, which is important.
But of course there is a certain degree of romanticizing going in these articles. These people think it's cool and fun to repair obscure vintage European motorcycles, but they probably don't want to fix Hyundais. When they become bakers, it's to make fancy pastries or nostalgic, authentic pies, not open a Dunkin Donuts franchise. And as the farm intern article points out, Ivy Leaguers on their summer off aren't necessarily willing to live in the same conditions as your usual migrant fruit pickers. And in general a lot of people are willing to do something "interesting" for a little while, but once reality sets in, "boring" starts to look rather attractive.
And I can just imagine how the parents of most of these people feel: "I paid over $100,000 to send you to Barnard and you want to milk goats?!?!?!?"
But, HELLO, there are a lot of people out there who work on farms and fix things and make things who aren't so self-conscious about what it means for global warming, or whether people think they're cool. They just want to make a decent living, and have some degree of satisfaction and status from it, even if the work isn't always fun. We seem to have trouble keeping some of those jobs on our soil. But as the writer of the "Working with Your Hands" article points out, there are some good jobs that can't be exported, and you don't necessarily need a college degree to get them. If more people are willing to consider such jobs, rather than shunning them as somehow beneath their dignity, that's a good thing.
People who provide a valuable service or product deserve respect, whether or not they are highly educated or have clean fingernails all day. Plumbers don't universally have lower IQs than lawyers. Not everyone who works in a cubicle is a miserable drone, and not every organic farmer is a saint. Not every CEO "deserves" a higher salary than a doctor or a teacher or a garbage collector. And ultimately, people should find their own right balance between happiness and material success or social status. If you can happily support yourself knitting beanies or typing emails or churning butter, organic or not-- I say go for it!