Sisyphean Labors - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
July 2, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — What's wrong with Sisyphus, anyway? Whenever we refer to someone working endlessly to no apparent purpose — in an office cube, a fast food restaurant, writing a blog — we invoke Sisyphus. I don't get it. Futility was only one facet of his professional life. He worked hard, he was in great shape, got plenty of exercise and sunshine. Any painting you can find of Sisyphus depicts a guy about whom today we'd be moved to say, "He must live in the gym!" And for all we know he enjoyed a beer or two at the end of a day of rock rolling. Sixteen ounce steaks — he'd burn 'em off before they ever hit the plumbing. Unlimited carbs with impunity. Not a bad life, all in all.

Of course, Sisyphus was a rascal. Hence the life sentence. He was a king who abused his power and killed some people Zeus happened to like. To the mountain, sir! Still, I have an affection for him, and not out of empathy. He's my model, you see, as a gardener.

I've suspected for a long time that my interest in maintaining an edible garden rather transcended concerns about mere yield.

The prospect of spending a 10-hour Saturday doing the heavy lifting, earth moving, and junk clearing of the April or May garden tends to delight me more than a trip to the North Shore. The scruples of limiting inputs to practically nothing — homemade compost, seeds only, shlepping rainwater first, city water as a last resort — are self-imposed little tortures require exponentially more time and effort. There's nothing efficient in the enterprise at all. My conceded motto: "I don't work smart, but I work hard."

Why? The results don't speak persuasively for themselves. The garden's never finished, it's never pretty, it's always ragged around the edges. When other gardens are already bursting with the greens of carrots and peppers and broccoli, neck deep in sweet dark nutritous topsoil, my starts are barely distinguishable from the weeds. And since I throw every available organic molecule into the compost pile, weeds are a robust by-product. Truth is, by almost every standard, I'm a terrible gardener.

Yet, I stumble on, because it is apparently all about the labor, the never, never-ending labor.

In the midst of those long days with no real end in sight, our old friend Sisyphus comes back into view. In the humble posture of weeding and dressing young plants with stuff you hope has a little nitrogen in it, you take stock of things: dirty, sweating, completely abased, unpresentable to polite society. At that interesting point, an unusual aesthetic is born.

For one thing, there's an authenticity born of commitment. I imagine it's of the same species as an athlete in training or an artist focused on a knotty problem of expression. Once I might have thought of these models as superior — and still do, though neither are as naturally available to me as my arena of dirt. But they all share the virtue of providing glimpses of freedom: from decorum, from the rational evaluation of things, from feeling like a nervous, pointilist denizen of a Robert Mankoff cartoon.

In this state one can see one's own hand for the marvelous engine it is — not a common revelation. One can listen to a Schubert string quartet or look at a Jasper Johns target without having to don an "aesthetic attitude" first. They are what they are, and completely available to our own curious, unique, instinctive pokings, valid tactics of investigation. I do believe some of the most nimble conceptual leaps and connections are achieved and forged out of dirt and sweat.

On a practical level, there's the enjoyment born of extreme effort. I've always been amused at sophisticated cooks and self-described foodies deride the food-as-fuel set. They're welcome to their own well-earned aesthetic glories combining this taste with that to bring the human palate closer to heaven. But I wonder if they've ever experienced a state in which the body has pushed itself way beyond hunger to the abslute NEED for calories. At that point, calories in any form — a plate of beans and rice, pasta topped with anything, a can of sardines — amount to an ecstasy. Even Sisyphus, the body functioning perfectly well, would have had his fleeting satisfactions.

And from time to time, another thought justifies, even buoys the absurd labors. If you're interested in non-industrial food and all that implies, someone, somewhere is laboring like this to provide it, though much more effectively. She might be the farmer you know up in Osceola. They might be a family of campesinos in Guatemala trying not only to feed themselves but also to preserve their traditional agriculture against economic forces they can't control. To labor, perhaps, is simply to remember. For them, it's not an aesthetic or a sport. Our ease and our convenience depend on them to a great degree. To the extent that we forget this we construct a myth as illusory as Sisyphus himself.

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