On my first day we found poison ivy in a flower bed I’d already finished weeding. On the second, my left wrist swelled up and I had trouble exerting force upward. On my third day I whacked my ankle against a car door frame, and on my fourth I jammed a walk-behind mower into my hip. Both incidents resulted in smallish bruises that accompanied the thin welts that rose on my arms from working in the tall grasses on my fifth day.
I started work at Eagle Creek Nursery last week as a maintenance crew member. This isn’t my first experience with this kind of work: I worked on a grounds maintenance crew for two summers for the Duneland School Corporation when I was in college. Most Mother’s Days have found me laboring in my childhood home's garden as mom’s indentured mulch-schlepper.
After four years of teaching, however, my body has gone soft. I have to regain the calluses under my ring fingers and muscles in my forearms, shoulders, and back.
But those are just the physical adjustments. There’s a different language here, different names, and a different rhythm to everything. Almost everyone has a one-syllable name: Kim, Ron, Rob, Dave, Kate, Tom, etc. There’s one guy we called “The Dude.” I have to ask them constantly who they’re talking about and, because Eagle Creek is a family-owned business, who is related to whom.
The rhythm is my favorite part of the transition. Left to my own devices, I go 100% on whatever it is I’m doing until I drop from exhaustion. In graduate school Saturdays were 14-hour marathons of writing and reading and crossing items off lists. On my teaching evaluations the most common remark is a variation of “Ms. Schnabel has lots of energy.” I spent my entire month of unemployment nagging myself endlessly to figure something--anything--out.
Landscaping rhythm is more measured, mature and staid. Sometimes it takes us an hour before we leave the property on our first job. We have to load the truck and make sure we all have water to last till lunch. And most importantly, we have to touch base with one another. “What are you up to today?” “Heading over to that mulch job?” “Have you heard Donna is out again today?” Stories are shared, repeated, reported. Ron tells jokes that end in puns. Denny slaps people on the back as he walks by.
I’m still learning the rhythm and the language just like my body is relearning how to do work. It turns out I didn’t touch the poison ivy and with the help of ice, my wrist is back to normal. The bruises will fade like the welts from the grasses. Eventually my muscles will come back.
This process reminds me of a moment on “Safe,” an episode of Joss Whedon’s tragically short TV show Firefly. In this particular episode the crew of a spaceship has just transported a herd of cattle from one planet to another. River Song, a passenger on the ship who often has an infirm grip on reality, leans over to pet one of the cows and says, “Little soul, big world. Eat, sleep, and eat. Many souls.”
The captain, Malcolm Reynolds (played to perfection by Nathan Fillion) remarks to another crew-member, “ Cattle on the ship three weeks and she don’t go near ‘em. Suddenly we’re on Jianying [a planet] and she’s got a driving need to commune with the beasts?
“They weren’t cows inside,” River explains. “They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see sky, and they remember what they are.”
The captain blinks and wonders, “Is it bad that what she just said made perfect sense to me?”
It makes sense to me too. I love this landscaping job. The cool breeze of the morning and the sun shining like a challenge, asking if I can bear up under its heat. The plop of water as it bubbles up in the pots of plants I water. The warm smell of mulch.
Sometimes when I see the sky I remember what I am: a little soul in a big world.