Column: The Chores Are Never Done — Fortunately


A spring morning pulls me outdoors with bold sunlight and the singing of birds, and everywhere I look I see things I need to do. Under the apple trees where birdfeeders hung all winter there are sunflower husks I should rake into piles and cart away. There’s a snow shovel on the porch that I need to put away, and on the ground as far as I can see, the litter of branches scattered by winter storms.

These are cheerful tasks to complete in a single morning, but with each step I take I see more — the papery surfaces of the flowerbeds to open and turn for the rain and the vegetable garden on the hilltop with clods to break and till. There’s alpaca manure to spread, a pile I shoveled from my truck in September; and it’s never too early to plant the peas. Beyond the garden, I see the trees I cut in November lying on the edge of our highest field; and I know they should be sawn and split for firewood before the weather turns hot. And yes, the beech trees, too, a quarter mile down the road, lying in the woods and waiting for me. Now that the snow is gone, I see them clearly when I drive to the post office to pick up the mail.

It’s always been like this for me, this habit of lists — and maybe more pronounced now that I’m retired and no longer have an excuse. I know it’s a blessing to have work to do, even when my imagination continues churning after my body is tired. I remember the buckthorn and autumn olive I should cut before they leaf out, and maybe this is the year to dig the boulder from the corner of the garden before I plant the peppers. We need a new picnic table, and I have been studying designs; but shouldn’t I level the ground first and lay some patio stones?

For me, the way through the maze is to prioritize and to remember I’m no Sisyphus. I have chosen my fate and know that the pleasure is more in the doing than in the being done. But prioritizing can be complicated. Whenever I make a manageable list, bigger tasks rise into my semi-consciousness — the book of stories I have yet to publish, the letters to write to nearly everyone I know, the trails I want to cut through our woods for cross country skiing, and the trips I want to take to the Alaskan wilderness or to the Black Hills where I was born. These are things I have put off for years and now seem as remote as dreams. I used to believe I would run a marathon in Antarctica one day and read all the Russian novels. There is a bookmark in my copy of The Tale of Gengi where I stopped 30 years ago. My father gave it to me when I finished graduate school and started teaching. He’s gone now, but there it sits on my list of things to do.

It must be a sign of wisdom to realize without despair that it’s impossible in a lifetime to get to everything. But early morning makes me hopeful, and I see a model in nature’s patient approach to spring. Four wild turkeys perch in the limbs of an ash tree. They are hens, and below a tom puffs and fans in a mating dance that will go on for days. The buds on the trees began swelling in February, months before the green explosion we expect in May. When I listen, I hear the steady pulse of nearby brooks still swollen by snowmelt and know it will be a few more weeks before I can drive my truck into the woods. I am almost done removing the pine that came down in a December snowstorm. When it snapped, I stared at it for days, grateful that it missed the family cars that arrived for Christmas, but overwhelmed by the work that lay ahead for me. Then in a January thaw I started my chainsaw and began with the branches, sawing them into lengths I could toss into my pick-up when the snow was gone. Then I sliced the trunk into sections 2 feet across and 8 inches high and stacked them like giant checkers in five, cantilevered towers that stood like totem poles for the rest of the winter. More snow came, and when we looked out the window, we saw order in the disorder. Months later when the ground dried, I started trucking the slash to my burn pile in countless trips, and before long I’ll drive the big pieces to the deep woods to slowly rot and nourish the next generation of trees.

When my mind is right, I enjoy this slow progress. By June, only a trace of sawdust will remain where the pine tree once lay, and up on the hilltop, my garden will be on its way. In the heat of the summer I’ll get to the firewood and vow once more to do better next year. By then I’ll be making new lists with so much to do before fall, and I’ll dream a little, too.

When my mind is right, I’ll remember that the real value is in the doing, and, perhaps, at the end of a long and satisfying day, I’ll take from the bookshelf my copy of The Tale of Gengi and open it to where I have marked my place.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.