Working on a farm lets me experience and consequently makes me think a lot about manual work. I once was sort of a manual worker, although you might not call it that way, and that was when I was in a training program to become a dancer. I spent some years of my childhood and youth exercising madly, training every day, dreaming big about perfect body control, about dancing center stage, about beautiful choreographies, and standing ovations. My bun was as tight as my abs. I wanted to become a dancer and I worked as hard as any young person with a big dream would. Pain, especially in my knees, became an everyday companion. When I was sixteen I got into a prestigious program at the Musikhochschule of Cologne, half classical dance (ballet), half modern dance. It might seem strange to compare this intense period of body work to working on a farm, but I often find myself thinking about my brief dancing career these days. Farm work is just as much about finding a balance of using, not abusing, your body.
After years of mostly sitting while working it feels again new and unfamiliar to use my hole body as a working tool. My body used to ache and suffer from working at a desk all day. The monotony gave me headaches, back pain and several typewriter’s cramps over the years. While sitting still and getting stiff, I often looked around, wondering if neither of my colleagues felt the same inner urge to move, to lie on the floor for some time, stretch out all the muscles, jump around, go for a walk, close their eyes for a few minutes, bend forward and so on. What would office life had looked like if we all could allow ourselves to move more freely? Of course, I am just assuming that other people might have had the same needs. Sometimes I would steal myself away to the toilet to do some stretches. It did not feel natural to stretch in a toilet box and I always feared that someone would come in.
New-found muscles in my thumbs
The contrast to farm work could not be bigger. I constantly need different muscles for different tasks. A lot of those tasks require a hole bunch of muscles that I rarely use. Like when I use a sharp hook to collect hay in the stable. I need to do a kind of lunge with my legs, then use the upper hand to press the hook down and into the hay and the other hand to pull it out. To collect the hay I bend my knees and take all the hay into my arms that I can carry. Wood logging is another complex manual work, just as much as kneading dough, shoveling snow, sprinkle sand on icy ways, work with horses and so on.
I did not know that I had specific muscles in my thumbs. But while milking the goats I noticed that I was in desperate need for some abandoned thumb muscle to grow, and grow fast. Why did I never need this group/type of muscles?
My hands have begun sort of a metamorphosis. They are transforming from two little typing machines, that I occasionally beautified with rings or nail polish, into rough, teared and scratched paws. The skin is cracking from the cold and too much water from all the rinsing and cleaning. There is always dirt under my nails and I am too tired to dig it out. It took me one week to get out a nasty splinter that got infected and would make my index finger look like it had swallowed an olive. Repairing hand cream (the one and only “Norwegian formula“) is a lost cause. Damn those fishermen from the TV ad. In real life, they probably use fish oil on their weather-teared hands. The cream dissolves into my skin in an instant and leaves it ever hungry for more. After the first optimistic days I now use protective gloves for almost every task.
Since I suffered from a lumbago after my first week of working I am more cautious with my lower back, always taking care to bend the knees and engage the abdominals while lifting things or bending. I do some yoga in the morning and I am trying to pay attention to the way I move. When I am aware of a certain movement I try to do it another way, with less effort. I am trying to ask myself often: Do I need all these muscles engaged? Can I do it with less vigor? With more swing? Using my left hand and arm more often is another attempt to even things out a little. My right side is way stronger than the left one, and this has been a source of shoulder pain in the past.
Chopping wood, much like dancing
Other than the lumbago and a few sore muscles I can feel my body very much enjoying all sorts of variations in my everyday movements. All the muscles get to work, they get to stretch and, eventually, relax. My face is glowing from being outdoors a lot. Body, have I been good to you? I ask in the evening when sinking into bed, feeling half-dead but also a strong sense of satisfaction. I sleep soundly and without any recollection of my dreams.
Nothing so far has given me a bigger feeling of accomplishment than chopping wood. The mixture of control, force, concentration and momentum is immensely satisfying. So is the handling of a perfectly sharpe axe. So yeah, I get it. All the ads with those hobby lumberjack guys, chopping wood while selling deodorant, cars, insurances, you name it. Working outside in the sun and snow today, side by side with my host Gaby, I was in some kind of wonderful zone. It was just me, my axe and the piece of wood in front of me. It is in a way a choreography, the swinging arms, my breath, the controlled forceful hit, the cracking wood, the rhythm of it all. A little like dancing. I could do it for some time, tuning out everything else. At lunch, I was sweaty, starving and my left arm wouldn’t stop shaking. But I felt immensely alive and well in my own skin.
I used to always struggle finding extra time for workouts back in my city life. Now I can feel my body growing stronger just by living this new everyday life.