Outdoor School – things I learned outside

When I was a teenager I got a summer job hoeing weeds in my neighbor (who was also our friends’ dad) John Hintze’s farm fields. It was a full time job and required riding my bike early every morning to his farm maybe 5 miles away and sharpening my hoe (I can still hear the screech and smell the scorch of burning metal) before tossing our hoes and the shirts or zip-up hoodies we would wear around our waists in case of inclement weather (it was Oregon, after all) and our lunches in the back of one of his farm trucks and make our way to whatever field we’d be working in that day. There were lots of good things about working that job, not necessarily tied to being outside, but outside was where it happened, so here’s my list.

I learned to be on time. It’s not like you would think that was optional or special, back in the day. But if you weren’t there the crew left without you, so there you go.

I learned there is intrinsic value in work but also that you can put fun and meaning in whatever it is you do. Hoeing weeds in the elements–whatever they be–for 8 hours a day is not easy work, nor is it particularly engaging. But we learned to build relationships and enjoy one another’s company (we where in a crew of four, generally) and to engage ourselves in being present. Feeling the sun on our backs. Sweat across our brows. The steady steps forward in the fertile Willamette valley soil accompanied by the thud, thud, thud of hoes hitting the earth. Sometimes instead of sweat we were wiping the steady mist or light rain from our brows so we could see. In any case, we worked hard. Hoeing is one of those jobs where doing a good job now pays off the next time you visit the field.

I learned efficiency is born of a balance of effort and care. A hoe can as easily cut down an intentional plant stalk as well as the unwelcome stalk of a weed. Somewhere you learn to strike a balance between getting down on your hands and knees and meticulously pulling every tiny weed by hand and throwing down your hoe so hard and wide you take out the crop as well. With practice, you can angle the edge of the hoe carefully against a weed-crowded plant stalk and twist the blade just so in order to snag the weed and save the plant. I’m sure there is a metaphor or other life lesson in this.

I learned I’m a morning person and to hit things hard at the beginning of the day and that, at least for me, pacing myself means knocking out the biggest chunk or hard part first. Breaks and lunch were required and I learned right off the bat that the day goes by more quickly if we took our first break later in the day (not just after two hours) and divided up the last half of the day in smaller chunks. Yes, it was all in our heads, but you’d be surprised how much of life is all in our heads. I’m not good at taking breaks at my current job, but I do try to pace the day so I get the biggest chunk out of the way when I’m feeling fresh.

I learned to love the sky. Our lunch break was 30 minutes and we didn’t have anywhere else to go, so the fields held us captive for long after our lunches were eaten. Unless it was raining, we’d lay our dusty bodies down on the warm earth of the 3-foot expanse between rows of whatever and stare up at the sky, sometimes discovering cloud formations or whatever else our imaginations sent our way. To this day I love a wide expanse of open sky. All the varying shades of light and color–from bright, intense blue, to dark, foreboding greys.

I learned the power of imagination, meditation, and relaxation. Long before there were apps for that, I used to lead our crew in a relaxation session made up in my own head. I talked them through the details of laying on a big comfortable puffy cloud which, by some miracle, was light and yet strong enough that gravity wouldn’t have its way with you. I started at the feet, and described relaxing your toes and letting your ankles settle in comfortably, supported by the cloud, then worked my way up to calve muscles, knees, quads, hips, and so on until we were all a puddle of looseness snuggled deep into the cloud, breathing deeply. Remarkably comfortable considering the reality of lying on the ground. There were days when the temperature was just right–just warm enough–the exercise would bring us to the brink of sleep just in time for that 30-minute mark to pull us up and send us reaching for our hoes to resume the swinging arcs of our hoes.

[Day 137 of Ann Dee Ellis’ 8-Minute Memoir.]