Lately, I’ve been doing some maintenance around here, building some things and doing a little reroofing. Nothing big but at day’s end I find myself beat and physically sore with aches and pains in most areas of my body. I write it off to advancing age and a bit of relative inactivity in recent years. I whine about it and limp around until I begin to think myself a big crybaby. At that point I begin to think about people from the past and all they faced physically and how my little aches would make them laugh.
I think about old Mike whose place, the Mule Farm, I wrote about a couple of years back and remains firmly entrenched in my memory. Mike had been a lumberman and a railroad worker in his life. He told me about going out into the woods when he was seventeen, armed only with an axe and a crosscut saw. He cut and split over two hundred cords of wood that year. He said that the labor had made him appreciate a sharp saw and axe blade. He also talked about shoveling railroad ballast onto trackbeds for months at a time. Mike knew how to work and when we worked with him cutting logs with his buzzsaw, even when he was in his late 70’s, he could easily outwork any one of us much younger men and boys.
Then I think of my great-grandfather who I have also written about here. He also headed into the north woods as a young man and had his own crew at age 17, acquiring his first big lumber contract at age 18 in the early years of the Adirondack lumber business. He worked his entire life as a lumberman until he was 80 years old, always in a career that required immense physicality, especially at that time before the time of the chainsaw and the tractor. He would surely have shown disdain for my crybabying.
Or I think of those people through history who made tremendous migrations by foot, often pulling their belongings behind them on a cart. One example of these are the Mormon handcart expeditions of the 1850’s that covered about 1300 miles. Families would put as much of their worldly possession as would fit on a 60-pound wooden handcart that was then pulled and pushed across the central part of the country from Illinois to Utah. Mind you, this was a land devoid of graded roads. They would slog through mud, up steeps slopes and through all sorts of bad weather. I try to imagine pulling my garden cart to town going through fields and crossing creeks and my aches only intensify. Many of these people did not finish the journey, dying from exhaustion along the way.
So, now humbled, I stop whining about a sore back or aching knees. While being thankful for living in a land where we do not have to endure such straining lives simply to survive, I can’t help but think that the labor that these people lived through gave them an attitude that believed that anything was possible, that any obstacle could be overcome. No project seemed too daunting, from clearing tracts of land for farming to taking on the great public works projects that built this country. I’m not sure that we have that same gritty will in us anymore.
But I won’t whine about that or my aches anymore. Today.