Note: This essay first appeared in the June 2013 issue of Men’s Health South Africa. We liked it, and we hope you like it too. It’s reproduced here as part of our #MHReads series.
By Ian McNaught-Davis
Photograph Great Stock/GettyImages
The climbing sun is pulling the shadows towards the Helderberg Mountain as the dew evaporates off the vine leaves that cover bunches of Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Squatting on my haunches, I squeeze the blades of my sticky secateurs around a stalk that joins a bulbous bunch to a vine. I slice through it, catch the bunch in my hand and drop it in the thick plastic crate. I angle the secateurs towards the neck of the next bunch. Cut. Catch. Drop. Repeat. For the rest of the day, a band of farm labourers and I will lug our crates along the rows of these gnarled vines that grow on the farm that I grew up on. When they’re full we’ll heave them to the tractor and add our shares to the sticky pile of glistening green grapes bulging with juice. And then we’ll pick up a new crate and start again.
For these grapes to exist they’re at the mercy of chemistry and coincidence. They need uncompromising balances of sunlight, shade, dryness and water. Vines feed on a precarious chemical composition of the dark soil beneath them, while their caretakers live with a blind faith that mildew never comes. And when it does, they hope for a steady southeaster to blow it away.
The rising heap of grapes on the tractor will be crushed, punched, pressed and fermented. Then they’ll mingle with the wooden interior of a barrel and once they’re bottled, they’ll join close to 900 million litres of wine from the Cape that will fatten the clot that is the global wine surplus. Adding to the dubious econo-mics are the cost demands on unsubsidised farmers, followed by the wine-producing province’s plan not to sell the stuff on Sundays. It’s a hazardous journey from bud to berry to bottle – that’s why famers don’t hope for miracles, they rely on them.
So why am I here? Ultimately, my contribution of a few days of annual work leave is a drop in a vast, overflowing and under-siphoned barrel. Aside from the hours in the sun and the unrecycled air or because three generations of farming is in my blood, I’m here because I’ve found that manual labour satisfies needs that my job doesn’t.
The windows in my office look towards Table Mountain. It’s an almost bizarre scene – a huge chunk of stone fringed by rocky slopes that fend off a creeping city. And when I stare at this piece of open space wedged amongst the urban clutter, I find myself daydreaming of the open spaces that surrounded me three years ago.
In 2010 I worked as a cattle drIver in the Australian Outback. In the mornings I would saddle up with a ragtag band of Australia’s finest working class and muster cattle across a vast ranch on our horses (I had two: Happy and Two Socks Jones.) A helicopter would fly ahead and chase the stubborn bulls and couching heifers from the thick bush into the plains where we would surround them and herd them along the banks of a slow, serpentine river towards the cattle yards. Here, they’d be branded, castrated, dehorned and drafted into pens and then herded back into their pastures.
Two years prior to this I worked as a copy editor where I Googled my way through a covering letter, name-dropped my way through the interview and Wikipedia’d my way through the job. Here, on this ranch in the heights of the Great Dividing Range, my tasks were decidedly un-Google-able. An arts degree does very little in preparing you for most things – least of all, castration. The birdwatching badge you earned as a Cub Scout doesn’t help you hightail over the steel rails of a cattle pen when frothing bulls high on testosterone decide to charge.
I work as a writer now (without the help of Wikipedia, I might add) and although my accumulation of cowboy life skills – like fishing for mudprawns, rounding up feral horses and chasing cattle – are no longer in my job description, I sometimes miss the straightforward act of working with my hands.
I miss knowing when a job is done. A cow is either in the cattle pen or it’s on the flat (Australian English – or “’strayan” – for veld.) You would never end a day with a half-done job. Your horse is never “awaiting approval from client”. That fugitive steer charging away from the herd isn’t going to “revert to you soonest”. With manual labour, your to-do list is the unpicked rows of grapes in front of you or the tractor that’s sinking in the mud. Your performance review is a tractor burdened with grapes.
I miss dealing with the unpredictable. After leaving Australia, I travelled through Borneo where I worked in exchange for food and accommodation building a wooden longhouse on a goat farm. It was in the midst of a smothering jungle and a few days after arriving, the owner’s dog got attacked and crushed by a giant reticulated python. The owner was convinced that the snake had been eating his goats. He was also certain that it was a case of python-by-day, evil-spirit-by-night, so a witch doctor was summoned the next day to exorcise the demon. At a bend of a river, a wary-eyed shaman lit candles and made offerings before darting into the thick jungle, chanting and wailing. “This beats the biannual fire drill at my old job,” I thought.
The plagues of deadline chaos in offices are often arranged around procrastination schedules. Working on farms taught me that pandemonium isn’t always cyclical; in fact, it’s usually in full bloom all year round. The sugar levels of the grapes can shoot up over night and will need to be harvested immediately. Fences will get smashed. Pipes burst. Engines seize. So best you finish as much you can before everything goes “arse over tit”, to quote the Aussie vernacular. Incidentally, there were no more goat or dog fatalities after the witch doctor’s visit.
I miss getting better at things. I knew slightly more about horseriding than castration before I left for Australia, and I knew nothing about carpentry until it became my meal ticket in Borneo. In order to canter across the flat or turn a pile of planks into a bed, there were hours of error-ridden trials that taught me to ride with the reins loose but with enough pressure to stay in command. I learned to plane wood with the grain, and to light a fire before working and heap wet leaves on it so the smoke chased the mosquitoes away. To get here I spent a lot of time falling off horses (partly because when I started I was given a deaf, senile old stallion as a practical joke) and the only thing that sucked more than my initial carpentry skills were the countless mosquitoes feasting on me.
I miss work breaks. When the ruthless Australian sun was at its highest, we’d tie our horses to a tree and make a fire and boil a billycan to make tea. After eating a thick sandwich, the two-step midday ritual of the working class would commence: 1) Find a tree. 2) Go to sleep underneath it.
In the Outback, napping hard is a sign of working hard – the body is doing what it was built for, and not because your caffeine levels are flagging.
I miss the honesty. The flat, nasal Aussie drawl is most effective when deliberating in clear-cut, colourful language what you are doing wrong and how this makes you an idiot. There’s not enough of this in the white-collar working world. Having not done national service, I hadn’t had the opportunity to be barked at and likened to genitalia before. I quickly realised that the most efficient way of getting things done was to do them out of fear of the wrath of a mentally unhinged, rum-swilling cattle drover who thought nothing of wrangling a mad bull to the ground or scalping a dingo as if he was opening a beer (which, disappointingly, he didn’t do with an eye socket). Being shouted at and sworn at ensures that fences stay cattle-proof, riders stay on horses and drill bits don’t get mutilated. Want to boost productivity amongst your subordinates? Put the fear of God in them with your potty-mouth.
Consider this lasting first impression I got from Roddy the mechanic, cousin of a certain Wallaby flyhalf:
“Have you got a nickname?” he asked
“Uhm… no,” I replied.
“I’ve got one for you: C*nt.”
Luckily, it didn’t stick.
I miss the face value of manual labour. Completing a task with your hands is to be part of a streaming flow of perspective. Once you break through the inertia of starting a project, you know exactly where you stand; you know how far till you finish, how to improve, if you’re rushing it or if you’re too slow. Building something is one of the few true-to-life metaphors: there might be couple of high points but most of the time it’s long bits of putting your head down in between. For all the times that my horse and I sliced through the cool dusk air against a burning backdrop of an Outback sunset, there were hours of monotonous digging, chopping, sterilising, welding, chasing, herding, driving, lifting and pulling.
It’s easy to romanticise “yakka” (’strayan for “hard work”) when it’s in the mysteriously aloof Outback, the clambering rainforest or the picturesque Cape Wine-lands. But aside from the scenery, this may be because man is innately drawn to taming the earth.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” said Henry David Thoreau, a city-slicker-turned-man-about-forest who left Massachusetts’s 1845 version of a rat race to build himself a home in a forest near a lake where he could concentrate on writing.
Thoreau couldn’t get enough of the self-sufficient agrarian lifestyle – where he used his hands to dig, whittle, build, fish and harvest – and his experience in a humble, musty log cabin sprouted so much inspiration that it changed the landscape of American literature.
Hindsight helps to sentimentalise back-straining, sweat-drenched labour. But what’s the alternative? It seems more natural than staring out of a window, reminiscing about the time the printer worked. Or when it was your boss’s birthday and there was cake and it was delightful.
After a day in the saddle, Ray – a lean 70-something who would camp in the bush, bathe in the cattle troughs and make a living from fixing fences and hunting dingoes (There was a $20 bounty on dingo carcasses, redeemable at the local municipality) – would be quick to grumble into his beer about the glory days of cattle mustering on the ancient plains. “Now that was real mustering,” he would drawl. “None of this f*@karsing with helicopters.”
I’m like Ray sometimes. I don’t take baths in slimy cattle troughs and I didn’t order a wife from the Philippines via a mail order catalogue, but I do have a selective take on the past – and it’s often more fun than the present. I have to dig further back in my mind to remember the endless trenches I dug, or the nights in the jungle when rats would wake me up by running over me, or the never-ending rows of vines I hunched over in the Boland heat.
Some days I’ll sit at my desk staring at the mountain and remember the sunset gallops instead of the digging. “Now that was real work,” I’ll think. Usually when I’m replying to emails that have words like “synergy” in them.
I’m aware that the existence of an office worker with a hospital plan, unlimited access to coffee and corporate branded clothing is an enviable life to the wiry farm labourers that I pick grapes with. I realise that fresh air and sun-sponsored vitamin D doesn’t put fuel in the jet skis at Ballito. Even the eloquent anarchist Thoreau had to eat his last turnip and leave the long cabin he made so he could publish his book. But there’s an undeniable charm – especially to desk jockeys like me – to put our muscles, bones and sinew into getting a job finished. There’s a physical version of exhaustion that we’re equipped for that our body craves, and we chase this with gym contracts, running routes, surf trips and cycle tracks.
For most people, the road to self-actualisation isn’t marked with callused hands, splintered feet and sun-bleached hair. But there’s a sense of simplicity in converting potential energy to physical energy where the series of your small efforts matter. And it’s this simplicity that’s undeniably appealing. Naturally, this is even more appealing when our spines are slowly being moulded to the curvature of office chairs and we endure comic sans in presentations and are asked to “think outside the box”.
Today as I filled my crates with grapes, the sun interrogated the hardy earth of the Outback, while somewhere in a sprawling jungle in Borneo, the Rayu River rose with the ocean’s tide, lifting shoals of fish in a stream weaving past a longhouse. When my leave expires, I’ll leave the farm for the air-conditioned side of a window that frames a view of Table Mountain. So why am I there? I’m there to work for a salary, for some sort of recognition. There might be a promotion in a few years. If it happens, I hope I’ll have the same view. So I can look up and daydream every now and then.