During three of the four seasons of the year, I teach at a small college in southern Wisconsin. But when summer arrives, I put on a different hat. I work on a lawn crew. I ride a lawnmower, cutting grass on athletic fields, lawns, and fields. I also trim trees, cut down weeds, and put mulch down. It’s hard work, and at the end of the day, I’m filthy. But I love it.
Something deep down inside me loves working outside, sweating all day in the sunshine. And I feel just as good at end of the day having worked with my hands as I do having finished a stack of papers. As I’ve worked this summer job, I have a renewed appreciation for the value of summer work.
First, summer work can remind us that the physical world matters.
As an academic for much of the year, I tend to focus on the life of the mind. But my summer job reminds me that the physical world is good. Too many people in our society tend to see manual labor as an inferior activity while valuing the kind of disembodied work that sits you in front of a computer screen all day. But work such as gardening, forestry, and farming is work that connects you with your body and the physical reality around you, opening your mind to seeing the goodness of the world. As Wendell Berry put it,
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
The fields, farms, and other physical places that we work in are sacred, and as we connect with them through our work, there is something that resonates in our souls. This is good work.
And secondly, summer work is an opportunity for gratitude for others.
As I work with my hands in the summer, I’m thankful for those who do it year round. I have a renewed respect for plumbers and contractors, custodians and carpenters. These craftsmen and tradesmen have the meaningful calling to maintain, repair, and mend—they keep the world going and they keep it ordered and beautiful. I’m thankful for their important place in the web of society, a place that rarely gets acknowledged as it ought to. I’m also thankful that society is not designed as a place for lone individuals, but as a place where we must depend on each other. Our jobs are a great way to show our care for our neighbors. As we all fulfill our part in a community, it flourishes.
As I said, I love my summer job. Although it’s not glamorous, it’s a meaningful, fulfilling way to spend the summer.
Nathan Huffstutler teaches college literature and writing in southern Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and their three daughters. He has published essays, book reviews, and poetry, and he loves bookstores, nature, and wonder.