Working with our hands

Looking over yesterday’s post, I thought a little about the type of work being done.  Real physical labor.  After a full day of threshing, you know you’ve been working.  Both your body and your mind are telling you so.

As for me, well, I teach and I write.  I don’t belong to a threshing ring, or really do any regular manual labor.  I don’t think operating a keyboard counts as “working with my hands”.

Is this a bad thing?

It certainly affects lifestyle.  To get the exercise my forefathers got on the job, I run.  My burning of calories doesn’t create anything tangible.  What it does is clear my head, refresh my body, and sometimes bring me new ideas.  It also makes me physically tired enough to sleep well at night.

I explain how this works to my Amish friends.  They get it, though I wonder if they ever smile inside at the thought of it.  Running in circles to make yourself tired…(though some Amish would join me, I’m sure).

I’ve quite enjoyed the times I’ve done field work with Amish.  You are using senses and muscles you normally don’t.  These jobs make you aware how tender bits of your body become (palms, shoulders) when you’re not working with them regularly.  You’re sore and scratched up afterwards, but in a good way.  You got something done.

After this kind of toil, I usually feel great.  This is one plus of much physical work.  Fresh air and healthy exercise.  Little worry about carpal tunnel syndrome and weight gain.  I also think we have an innate need to create, and manual jobs fulfill that need well.  At the end of the day you see a finished field or a new foundation.  A full day of paperwork doesn’t quite bring the same satisfaction.

On the other hand, some manual jobs lead to injuries.  Some are repetitive and boring, unhealthy or downright dangerous.

HammerWe don’t really have as many manual jobs in today’s America, it seems, jobs where you dig or move or make things.  The trend is in the opposite direction.  Some buck the trend.  I do know a bank employee who switched to home remodeling because he preferred the work.  I think that type of example is not so common though.

The long-term decline of the family farm has wiped out a lot of that manual work.  Automation and cheap imports (why repair, just buy a new one) have reduced the need for craftsmen.  “Craftsmanship”, for that matter, is maybe not quite the same as manual labor, but in a similar category.  I’d consider both of them some form of “working with your hands”, though.

How many people will be working with their hands a generation or two from now?  Amish are one population still having a high percentage of manual workers and craftspeople.  The popularity of things like Amish furniture and quilts may offer one clue to the future.  More people wanting handmade quality.

As for me, I would appreciate a little better quality in general.  In just the past week, I’ve had a brand-new water heater, a Kindle, and a nearly-new vacuum all break.  Maybe I’m on a particularly bad run of luck, or maybe things just aren’t made that well anymore.

Of course quality costs more, but if society continues to become better off (if), demand for the work of such people may grow.  I think a similar trend may affect farmers who grow specialty produce, including organics.

What about you–does your job qualify as “working with your hands”?  Do you craft something, fix something, build something–or know someone who does?

And for that matter, what do we count as working with your hands?  What about a chef, an animal trainer, or a fireman?  It seems like you could make a case for and against a number of jobs.

Hammer photo: Falon Yates/flickr

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    1. Moira

      Great article

      As someone who has spent the majority of her working life sitting at a desk, tapping on a keyboard I can relate to what you are saying here. I worked in a hospital for years and it was the most mind and soul numbing job, it was really bad for me – physically, mentally, emotionally and yes, spiritually as well. I think the human body needs to move (we weren’t made to sit for 8 hours or more a day). Seeing numbers on a page at the end of the day is not the same as physically accomplishing something with your hands. When I have done physical work there is a real feeling of accomplishment – no matter how tired and sore my muscles are. I think that’s what is wrong with a lot of English people today. Our sedentary lives are numbing us to what it means to be truly alive.

      1. tiffany rangier
      2. Great thoughts Moira. Nothing beats that pleasant kind of soreness. Have been hearing about “standing desks” lately. I do find it helpful to stand and move the laptop up higher and work on my feet for awhile.

        1. Galen

          Erik, maybe put your desk up in a hot hayloft and sit on a few bales. You’ll get an itchy bottom.

    2. Brenda Henry

      All In A Days Work

      Wonderful article!

      In a short while I will be getting in my air conditioned car and driving about 8 miles to an Amish farm to get several bushel of peaches for a few of my Amish neighbors. Knowing how their day will be spent makes me cringe. The women will be canning peaches on their oil or wood cook stove. They have probably accomplished more work in the past couple hours of the morning, than I will physically do all day! They have made breakfast for the kids and husband, done chores, maybe even mowed the lawn with the push mower before the summer temperature rises to 100+ today. Looking outside, I can see my neighbor already has her clotheslines filled with the weekly laundry. It is a lifestyle they love and I adore.
      Brenda ~ in West Tennessee

    3. Galen

      Working with our hands

      Great post Erik.

      I’m a physical therapist but wouldn’t necessarily call that “working with my hands” in comparison to the Amish.

      As a teenager, I worked on a dairy farm and remember the 90lb bales of hay that had to be thrown around. (I’m not Amish). I do remember how hard that work was yet how rewarding it felt when the day was done. Like you mentioned, the feeling one gets when they complete a run or a two hour workout at the gym is similar, but still not quite the same.

      When I was down in Lancaster weeks back I watched a boy (if he was a teenager he was only about 13) haying the field behind the restaurant where I was eating. It was almost dark, and close to 100 degrees, yet he continued into the night. I was enjoying by beef over buttered noodles (and an Amish beer)in air conditioning and that poor boy’s day wasn’t even over yet. The other thing that went through my mind was that when he was done, he didn’t have the luxury of going into the house, taking a cool shower and relaxing in the comforts of A/C in the home.

      I envy their work ethic but also feel if some of us “English” were thrown into that type of environment, our bodies would not be able to handle it because we are not conditioned that way. My uncle just turned 80 and he is a retired farmer. He probably could return to farming with less injuries than I would incur.

      1. Interesting story Galen. I am something of a French poodle when it comes to showers. Hate climbing into the sheets without taking one. But like you say that is my city upbringing. And just curious, an Amish beer is the root variety? 🙂

        1. Galen

          ha ha, no….made by Lancaster Brewing Co. The server said they had two “Amish” beers and I wanted the lighter of the two. I know the Amish are known to make their own Spirits, but I’m not sure of their beer making (besides that of the Root).

          1. Galen

            P.s. I believe the label said “Amish” but don’t recall the picture……maybe an upside down buggy or something? :o)

    4. I do about 50-50. About half of my work is with a computer doing editorial and writing projects. The other half is mechanical work and odd-job carpentry. I appreciate the variety.
      I have thought of how odd our society has become. We sit all day at office jobs trying to design labor-saving devices, then at the end of the day we head for the Rec Center to get some exercise … you know, sitting around all day isnt healthy!
      I really wonder how people in past ages would look at us today? Those who went into the woods and swamps of our land with ax and shovel and spent all day clearing land so as to be able to grow some food. My family was one of the casualties in the late 70s and early 80s of the demise of the family farm. Dad gave up farming during that time, about the time I got big enough to really pitch in and help. But I am thankful that I had the opportunity to experience what I did. One of my first paying jobs was picking up rocks out of the field for a neighboring farmer. That is certainly a better thing for a 15-year-old than sitting around playing video games! Mike

      1. Mike I think your mix is something close to ideal. Right now I am 75-25 sitting-physical activity in my day. 50-50 would be great.

    5. Paul Long

      Dump the computer and I'm Beachy ?

      OK, so I haven’t shaved since 1980, and never had a cell phone…… I take after my grandfather that was born in 1899. He did everything from sheetmetal, plumbing, tiling to building and was a fireman firing stationary steam boilers. He never drove a car, but was always busy doing things for people in a small railroad town. In high school I knew I wanted to be a mechanic and completed 4 years of auto mechanics, then furthered my education with 2 years of airframe and powerplant to become an aircraft Mechanic. I couldn’t stand a commute to a city airport, and went back to cars at a local VW-Audi dealership. Years later I started my own RV business, not selling, only servicing them, and that later expanded into a propane business. Again not selling fuel, only installation, and repair of propane equipment. All hands on stuff. My hobby was always trains, so when I could, I volunteered at Steamtown in Scranton PA and when a position opened was hired as a locomotive mechanic. While running the business and rebuilding locomotives, I somehow built my own home / mini farm, and after retirement at 50, I stay active rebuilding hydrostatic lubricators (steam engine oilers), a collection of antique farming equipment I use in the garden, and collecting and reconditioning wood stoves. That has grown into the largest collection of Fisher Stoves known. We heat, cook and heat water with an Amish built Kitchen Queen cookstove that is the only heat source in the house. So firewood cutting, splitting and stacking is what we do with any spare time. Since I retired 4 years ago, we have bought a couple rental properties for cash flow and maintain those smaller homes as well.
      I’ve never taken a vacation (manual wood heat all winter, chickens, animals and garden all summer makes us almost self sufficient) and find it difficult to get away for the Thresherman’s reunion and other events that are all work related. Sunday is watering the garden, church and taking care of animals that needs to be done.
      Taking time to answer stove related questions and document stove company history is the only “down” time I get. Here’s the extent of my writing when I sit still; (along with pics of my Amish looking beard 🙂
      OH, I’m the Fisher Forum Moderator there too.

    6. Alice Mary

      No longer can do "handwork"

      Most of my working career has involved typing, from using an ancient, manual Underwood (Chicago Public Library in the early ’70’s) typewriter, then Royal (electric) & IBM, then (still) computer keyboards. My hobbies used to include sewing for myself, the house, the kids (clothes, curtains, toys), and I dabbled in knitting, furniture finshing—hands-on hobbies to “counteract” the monotomy of typing.

      Then (since 1999), I had multiple surgeries for herniated & ruptured disks in my cervical spine (neck) which has left me with a palsied left hand—I can still type, but with only the index finger on that hand. It also has put an end to “handwork”, even AT work, where I had the additional task of doing bulletin board displays, coming up with crafts for kids, etc. Knitting is impossible, and sewing (by hand or machine) is a challenge. Maybe that’s why I appreciate Amish handmade items so much—furniture, rugs, toys.

      I found your info. about Fisher Stoves interesting, Paul. I checked out the blog and smiled at the names of the stoves—Mama Bear, Papa Bear, etc.

      Kids don’t get much hands-on training (making things with their hands) anymore. Some schools still have a shop class where the kids make something themselves—my daughter sewed an apron and made a wooden cd “shelf” back when she was in middle school (she’s turning 30). I don’t know if kids even do that much anymore, with so many school budget cuts, and with both parents working full time, who’s left to teach them? We (at the library) see for ourselves that kids haven’t even mastered the “art” of using scissors! I can’t tell you how many times we’ve practically had to make the kids crafts FOR them—they can’t cut, sew a stitch, some even have trouble stringing beads and tying knots (these are 3rd – 5th graders)!

      Alice Mary

      1. Alice Mary, you do pretty well getting these posts up with just the one left hand finger working. Glad you do. And hate to hear you miss out on some things that it sounds were pretty important to you.

    7. LeeAnn

      Alice Mary, that is why 4-H is still around. Teaches the kids important things. Sewing, cooking, the boys learn to care for and raise animals and work on cars, etc. The schools don’t offer these things much anymore, but the kids can do it through 4-H.

      I was in 4-H as a kid and enjoyed it. Without this program, I never would have learned to cook or sew. My nephew is a city boy, but raises lambs and sells them at the 4-H auction.

      I have arthritis, but I still work on my quilts. I find that its very rewarding to see the finished project. Yes, I hurt from sitting so much, but the joy of seeing the hand stitches and all the work together is worth it.

      I used to do all the yard work, plus my quilting and cooking, so I do understand manual labor. Grew up on a farm as well and had to get up at the crack of dawn to help out with weeding, harvesting, etc. I still go home to my parents farm and run right out to pick fruit and vegetables and help can them.

      Still enjoy canning and making jam, but now it goes in the freezer. Don’t have a cellar here in AZ, but I have found a cool space under the stairs, so might start doing more canning. Its something to enjoy in the winter and spring months.

      Kids will learn to do some of the things necessary in life as they get older. My daughter never woud come help cook in the kitchen, but once she was on her own, she had to learn to cook or starve. She is finally asking to learn to sew, so they do learn things after a time.

      Used to work in the hospital setting as well, so understand others feelings about how it makes you numb. I now care for an ailing husband full time, but take the time to go out walking and work on my quilts.

      Erik, your work is exercise of the mind. You have to prepare lesson’s and prepare your writing and re-write things before you can publish. Although you are not physically working, your running does help some. Try moving the furniture around the house for cleaning and see how much you use muscles and such. That is what homemakers go through!

      1. Alice Mary

        4-H is great, but...

        LeeAnn,, I agree 4-H is great! A former co-worker’s daughter (city/suburban girl, not rural whatsoever) belonged to 4-H in middle school—won some ribbons at our county fair for flower growing/arranging, art). I love to see what the kids accomplish via 4-H, but the farms in the area (many, many more when we moved here 23 years ago) have dwindled, and 4-H doesn’t have a big presence in this area anymore—there are so many other things competing with it, too—many, many sports teams (soccer, baseball, LaCrosse, football) as well as martial arts, dance, gymnastics—all of these organizations compete for kids’ (and parents) $$ and time, and are right here in town—you rarely see 4-H mentioned other than in the remaining rural/farm areas in the county. They (4-H) used to put up displays at our library—haven’t been approached by them in at least a few years. (I used to volunteer to man the “library” booth at the county fair, and looked forward to visiting the 4-H area. No more library booth–budget cuts!)

        But, like you, I do what I can by myself (put up my first ever grape jam using a friend’s grapes from her garden last year—lots of work, but as you say, well worth it in satisfaction!)

        Hopefully, our kids/grandkids/neighbor kids will see us and be inspired to continue our “handiwork”, huh? 🙂

        Alice Mary

    8. LeeAnn

      Agree with you Alice Mary on the jam and quilts with hope the kids and grandkids carry it on.

      I live in the city in Phx, and 4-H is big here as well as all over AZ. Lots of people have small acreage and raise farm animals here in the city. They get the kids going with raising cattle, etc. Many of those with the small farms, most likely grew up on farms themselves and want to keep that part of life alive.

      My kids didn’t have the farm animals, but would go over to friends who raised pigs and horses. They had a ball learning about the animals and riding the pigs!

      My daughter has helped me to cut up levi’s for quilt squares. Alot of time and work in this and I break alot of needles doing it, but it is a nice way to recycle used levi’s. The kids grow up and out of them, wear them out in the knee’s and I just cut them up and make into quilts. Perfect for picnic’s and camping.

      Lots of girls in the more rural areas of the state have learned quilting and submit the quilts in the 4-H displays at the state fair. I have seen many teenagers sign up for the quilt classes at JoAnn fabrics. So there is still interest out there for handmade stuff.Even in the City! Many here grow small gardens and harvest things.

    9. Anne

      Great post Erik! I was stirred by the title and your comments, remembering that Ed has commented to us the admonition to “work with your hands” as something of a Biblical mandate. It is one of the reasons he became Amish, so it’s not small stuff to him. He appreciates feeling a link between physical labor and physical comforts (planting a garden; eating it’s bounty). He thinks the modern world is missing out on this most important connection with the created order. Maybe he’s right.

      I DO know one thing: craftsmanship is largely being lost these days. I’m a realtor, and have the pleasure of seeing a huge variety of homes. Those built in the early 1900’s have so much more craftsmanship, detail and beauty. And the slide continues, so that the ’60’s brick ranchers, while rather plain by comparison, are sturdy little homes with solid brick walls, floors (usually hardwood)and cozy floorplans. The homes being built today are often called “plastic boxes” by those of us in the business. It’s not that they are poorly built, but that the materials themselves are – well – mostly plastic! So just studying the history of home building in the past century shows the decline in craftsmanship we’ve experienced. If someone now wants a special front door or uniquely laid brick, it can be hard to find a craftsman who knows how to do it. Very sad, and a great loss to our culture.

      1. Interesting to hear from your point of view as a realtor Anne. Polish homes are built pretty sturdy–thick walls and heavy roofs (the roofs are made from thick tile and look disproportionately large, sort of dominating the home in a lot of cases). As a result typical Polish-style homes are pretty ugly on the whole, but I think tougher than the average American “plastic box”.

    10. Kentucky Lady 717

      I think I know about hand work also….used to do all kind of things growing up….I’d say for the past 35 yrs. did phone work….talk,talk and more talk 🙂 but enjoyed talking to customers…and raising 2 kids without their dad, kept me plenty busy……and I’m still doing housework my own … wouldn’t know Erik, but a woman’s work is never done 🙂 maybe you do know, perhaps your mom has told you that…..taking care of kids, keeping a house clean, etc. is the hardest work a woman can do and the most enjoyable……we usually don’t see it till later…..

      1. I don’t know it, but I can believe it KY Lady 🙂 Pretty important work.

    11. Wm Justice

      A most excellent article Erik, one of the best ever I must say, and one which offers a lot of food for thought.

      My day job as a business administrator leaves me little time during the week to do the things I love. But that’s what weekends are for I suppose. I relish my free time which allows me to do any sort of physical labor/activity I can come up with. Laying brick walks, caning chair bottoms, making simple furniture for my friends, church and family, repairing furniture, splitting firewood (but only in cool weather) and even mowing the mountain side we call a front lawn. BTW, nothing gives greater and more instant gratification than pushing a lawnmower, gas powered mind you, and seeing immediate results just below your feet. Same with splitting firewood, the axe falls and there you have it, right before your very eyes. The only thing that comes close to that sort of gratification at the office is reconciling the business bank accounts. Grueling at times but no physical exertion whatsoever.

      And Brenda in West Tennessee, I am in North Mississippi so I know the value of air conditioning in a vehicle although I only turn it on in my truck when my wife is a passenger. As she would tell you, she never sweats but rather “glistens” and she prefers not to glisten. Anyway, do yourself a favor when traveling to Amish Land in warm weather, turn off the AC. Makes those shopping sprees and visits a lot more tolerable.

      1. Wm I remember your previous anecdote about lawnmowers (gas v. the reel kind)…I know from reading some of your weekend accounts of Amish visits that those bring a lot of joy…thanks for the comments and glad you enjoyed this little rumination.

    12. Leo

      Having live on a farm when I was young I found it to be hard work but quite satisfying. I lived in a home built in the 1700s with only electric and telephone. We had no air condition nor running water (Use to go to the well house to get it) and heated by wood/coal, so I can in someways understand the houses the Amish live in. I went on the be an electrician and continued to work with my hands. I did move and now have running water and AC and gas heat. I don’t know if I could have sat at a desk and worked all day. I find it fascinating that now days we have a lot of automation and a large population (hence the large unemployment). Where in days gone by the population was small and had no automation (sounds like it should have been reversed), thus the need for friends and neighbors. Also working with your hands gave you extreme satisfaction when the work was done. People took a lot of pride in their work back then, as usually the buyer knew who made it, and the builder wanted it right. Now days with nearly everything being made by machines and the focus on making profit, quality went by the way of quanity. I believe that is what draws people to Amish goods, as they are mostly made by hand (not counting the air nailers). I am sadden by the lack of quality and pride in many thing that are made today (although there are some good things out there). I try to buy from places like Lehman’s were I can count on quality being there in most cases, you have to be careful and check. So here is to the old days when people took quality over quanity, and a person took pride in his/her work.

      1. Leo I think your point about the buyer knowing the seller/craftsman is an overlooked and important one. I think those days are mostly long gone, but you still see those relationships in specialty shops. Knowing a good service person is equally if not more valuable. I’ve just been through a couple of experiences lately where I regret I didn’t.

    13. Paul A. B.

      I sympathize with all who have lamented the move away from (loss of?) craftsmanship. I can see how the race to the bottom line affects quality of mass produced products. Also, if fewer people know how to design and produce things, these skillsets slowly disappear from the culture. Same with the professional world: more outsourcing, less apprenticeship across the board. And that’s for quite some time now. Perhaps it’s just a fad, and at some point history will move back towards local design and production of goods. Goodness knows, there are a lot of us who love to support family businesses and locally produced goods.

      1. Assuming their growing scarcity as you describe Paul, it seems at some point a good living can be made by those having these skills. Not for everyone, though.

    14. Lin

      Yes, I know men who work in construction, and men that do yard work or lawn maintenance. They earn a living by the “sweat of their face.” I admire the endurance some workers have, even in hot or cold temperatures. “If any would not work, neither should he eat,” 2 Thess. 3:10, probably refers to able-bodied people.

      My concern is about the younger generation. I can understand a contractor’s desire for the safety of children, but what is a reasonable age for a son to go with his father to a job site? If you wait until age 18, I’m afraid that child will have developed other interests. If we want carpenters and drywallers in tomorrow’s generation, it seems they could be learning much by working alongside their fathers from age 14 on, and staying out of mischief. One advantage of a home-based business like making storage barns is for the children to be learning a trade. A farm is a good place to learn many skills. Some vocational/technical schools train students for skilled labor.

      If a woman holds a needle and quilts, she is making a craft. If a person holds a pen and writes, is he working with his hands? When a person has grease or dirt or flour on their hands, you know they are working with their hands. A few tense or stressful moments of office work can produce body odor that rivals outdoor sweat.

      Students who had physical education (phys ed) in school may easier see the value of physical therapy in later years, than the generation who received their exercise by daily manual labor or daily housework. At least with sports, the children are moving instead of sitting.

      Erik, if you are ever bored, maybe you could be a fix-it man.

      Excuse me, I should go get my hands wet and wash some dishes now.

    15. threshing

      just a little question of interest:
      How do they thresh?