The Value of Work
October 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
When I was fourteen my mom made me get a job. She was really hell bent on this, as soon as you can start working legally, you start working. I don’t mean to make her sound mean—this was perfectly normal. I imagine someone had made her start working the literal second it was legal as well. On the east coast, at least 20 years ago, there wasn’t an underclass of immigrants doing all the gigs that teenagers could do. You’re fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, you get a job. I wish it were like that out here; you’d see more fourteen year old girls working retail.
Anyway, she made me get a job. And again, not to be mean, and not to make me give her the money or pay rent to live in my own childhood home or any shit like that– I got to keep the money. But just to teach me some lesson about the value of work. Or some other, more jaded lesson. Something about how all work sucks and is useless and horrible and the value that you actually get out of your labor isn’t shit compared to what some rich property owning guy makes, some guy who ninety nine times out of one hundred inherited some position in society where it would be easy to have these things. To own a McDonald’s franchise or whatever.
So my first gig was working on a cranberry farm. Not a bad gig at all, considering, it was for some family friends who were perfectly nice. I was working with the farmer’s daughter and the other girl who carpooled with us to school, in these cranberry bogs. For those of you who don’t know how the cranberry comes to your table or juice pak or whatever—it’s a swamp-dwelling fruit, a crawling vine that grows in cold, moist sand. It’s emblematic of southeastern Massachusetts, I think, because it’s a scrubby, twisty little vine that scratches out a bare existence in the miserly, unyielding, cold sand. Sand lashed by salt water, peppered with rocks. It crouches in frigid swamps, and yields a berry so hard and bitter that if you actually ate it it would hurt you. It would damage your digestive tract. And this is the only fruit that grows in any numbers in the area. In order to make it palatable you have to pump it with sugar, which of course, Puritan settlers did not have. They sweetened their food with pine cones or something. Sugar would probably have been viewed as satanic somehow. But anyway, this was the fruit they had, and they must have seen it as fitting. Eating this fruit is a punishment.
My job was to walk around in these giant man-made swamps and pull out rock maple saplings. Little eight inch high trees with a tap root that went all the way to the fucking Earth’s core, and if you didn’t extract every inch of tap root, the tree would immediately string back stronger than before. It’s weird, to be—to be killing trees, for one thing, when every public service announcement, every park ranger on a field trip, is telling you trees are a precious fragile resource and hey little boys and girls, we must be stewards of the forest and etc., and then your first job is getting paid four dollars an hour to walk around ripping up trees. And it’s weird to be, like—you leave one millimeter of tap root in the ground, and this fucking tree will be back in full form tomorrow. I am fucking impressed by that. I feel bad killing this organism that is so fucking resilient and badass.
But the thing that JUST occurred to me is that this swamp maple that I was going around killing is the same fucking tree that produces maple syrup. The only non-bee-infested source of sugar in the American northeast. If people, starting with colonials, had simply left the fucking swamp alone, they could have had huge stands of natural, impossible to fuck up trees that required NO EFFORT to grow and produced sweet delicious sugar. Instead, there are hundreds of years of backbreaking labor going into coddling a hard, bitter, inedible fruit. This is the true value of work– generally, if you just leave things alone, things will end up pretty much OK and nature will take care of it. But if you throw in hundreds of years of human ingenuity, effort, and exploitation of one’s fellow man, you can get it so that you have something that is much worse than before.