Friday, July 23, 2010

a little sweat

Strange to think that when Cyrus McCormick completed work on the reaper/combine that would form a basis for the International Harvester Company, it was with the help of a slave, Jo Anderson -- a man who, according to his station, might have done the work that the combine did so much more efficiently -- picking crops in the early part of the 19th century.

At its inception, the reaper/combine was seen as a boon to feeding a hungry and growing nation. Its efficiency in gathering wheat among other crops meant that fewer workers needed to be employed and it sent those workers to seek employment in cities. Ergo, perhaps, the rabbit-warren cubicles of office life.

And yet as I watched a TV show about harvesting on TV last night, there was something saddening about the occasional pictures of men an women trimming lettuce, gathering oranges, away from the cotton fields, and having far less contact with the sugar beets that produce 50% of the sugar in this country.

The show even touched on the tension that existed between those who worked and the machines that replaced them. On the one hand efficiency. On the other, loss of gainful employment.

But more than a paycheck, it seemed to me, there was a loss of dignity as mechanical improvements took hold. There is something to be said for the dirt beneath our feet and fingernails, the sweat that soaks our shirts, and the relaxing sigh that comes unbidden when day is done and the sun goes down. I don't want to make a Walden-esque fetish out of it (let's all sit around preening in our simplicities), but there is some satisfaction in perspiration -- a satisfaction that underarm deodorant can never provide. I think it is good, whatever the chosen profession, to know how to sweat.

But that could just be the old fogy in me.

PS. Forgot to add that the TV program also gave some possible explanations (between the lines) for why it is that store-bought tomatoes suck. After the combine was developed, someone made life easier by creating a tomato with a thicker skin -- something that would withstand the bruising the combine might otherwise deliver. Great for productivity and shelf-life, but if you're anything like me, there is nothing like a real tomato... the kind that invariably dribbles down your chin.

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