Mulching & Other Manual Labors

It’s true that a garden is never finished, but, sometime in May, there’s a short moment when it can look deceptively in order.

Of course, this moment lasts less than a day or two and may be just a hallucination induced by the exhaustive labor of mulching.

I’m speaking from experience. Last week, my husband, kids, and I spent 9 hours spreading 9,000 lbs. of mulch. We had planned to chip away at this project over several days, but ended up having to do it in one. When the delivery truck arrived, it turned out the load didn’t fit on our driveway…which meant the ginormous pile of mulch had to go on the street…and so was required to be off the street by the next morning, when the street sweeper was due to pass by. So there was nothing to do but toil.

And toil…and hydrate…and carb load…and toil some more.

Outdoor manual labor forces you to be in the moment and in your body in a particular way. You become really aware of what your body is capable of (as the ginormous mulch pile slowly shrinks), and feel which muscles are firing (as both strength and soreness set it). Water is not something you drink for its general health benefits, but something you feel the need for immediately and continuously, as you sweat (and sweat and sweat). You eat pizza (and don’t bother counting the slices) during a break because your body craves carbs and salt and fat to keep going.

As the hours pass, you see the comings and goings of animals, and you feel a different kind of kinship with them; not the imaginative kind you usually feel, but a physical kind. When the breeze blows, you all pause to lean in to it and cool off together.

I spend a fair amount of time outdoors, but not usually in the middle of the street outside my house. Mulching, I got to see the feeding and perching of birds that like our front yard better (robins and doves especially, and their slightly disheveled fledglings). I saw rabbits and chipmunks dashing across the street, and squirrels making tail signals to each other in some of the big oak trees. I saw red tailed hawks soaring.

There were more people, too. Neighbors driving to and from work, and school drop-offs and pick-ups, and appointments; police patrols; delivery people; landscapers (who all stopped and had nice words of encouragement); dog walkers (my favorite!)… Whereas the back garden always feels like a sanctuary to me, the front of the house is busy and social.

My husband and I finished just before the sun set (our kids having gone inside a few hours prior, to ward off accusations of child labor). Everything looked good, briefly, finally, during the golden hour.

Mulching and gardening/landscaping (or really manual labor in general) doesn’t get much appreciation in society. It’s not intellectual work, it doesn’t pay well (if at all), it’s messy… But I think to engage in outdoor labor, regularly or time to time, is important. It gives you an appreciation for your body and respect for the land; it requires presence.

And it’s satisfying. When you are sore and exhausted the next day, it’s not just an amorphous daily tedium that’s responsible; with gardening, you have something- something blooming and beautiful- to show for it.

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