Mules are interesting– born of a burro and a horse, they’re sterile, a mutation of strength, intelligence and will. Singular creatures.

This is the team of machos that plowed our land, and yes, the white one is Pancho’s mule.
Each year we make a small step toward better husbandry; this year no tractor will enter our land. Last year we ran out of time and money (it’s more expensive to hire the mule team) and were forced to use the zero till plow.
The mule driver agreed to trade one pig for planting our large field and 500 pesos for the small one. Still we are the last to plant. His services are much in demand. Unfortunately, it is not because farmers are returning to less invasive ways. The mules are able to plow small, inhospitable places and in the last two years farmers have cut down the hedgerows, areas considered not worth planting in the past. They are ‘planting fencerow to fencrow ’.* Progress.
The mule driver guides the mules and the plow and his two sons, 17 and 8 years old, walk behind planting. For the sorghum they wear a branch tied to their hips that drags behind covering the seeds. I felt bad when I saw a child come to labor in our fields. The last time we used mules Felipe and I did the planting– wore the branch. But Felipe tells me, “My sister says they are the only kids that always have money.” I took solace in the knowledge their father shares the profits.
The eldest boy is one of the few who have gone on to high school in the next town, La Tigra’s schools end at the 10th grade. He rode the red mule– 8 miles there, 8 miles home. I hate to think of the teasing he must have taken from the ‘city’ kids.

As usual, we’re taking a ribbing for being backward. “Why don’t we do it the modern way, you have flat fields, mules are only for bad land” the neighbors chide.
Felipe tirelessly explains, “It’s better for the land, the sprouting ratio is higher, less seeds are lost…” But it’s a fundamental choice really, and this is not the only instance the idea applies.

“Skill is the connection between life and tools, or life and machines. Once skill was defined ultimately in qualitative terms. How well did a person work; how good, durable and pleasing were his products? But as machines have grown larger and more complex, we have tended more and more to define skill quantatively: how speedily and cheaply can a person work. [ ] As machines replace skill they disconnect us from life; they come between us and life.” Wendall Barry*

And certainly they come between us and nature: Your car and your foot, a television screen and the sky, iPods—birdsong.

When the tractor comes it is loud and fast. The operator usually fits us in at the end of the day because it only takes 2 hours to plant all our land. He speeds over our fields, anxious to get home. We don’t watch, we try not to think about the compaction. I hide inside from the noise.

When the mules come, they come with three humans. They arrive early and work all day. I prepare breakfast for everyone. We share a meal. There is a shoosh and a clank, the driver calls, “horo, horo, whoa” at the turns. When the mules are far enough ahead you can hear the tapping of the planter’s feet securing the seeds in the soil.

Progress is word we hear often as an ‘ideal’ used to sell ideas and products. It’s taken for granted what we believe progress is; newer, better cars, telephones with More! apps, TVs as large as movie screens, dishwashers that sterilize, faster computers and vaster internet. All represent valuable changes, but progress is a complex concept and it is not without folly if we allow our habit of comfort, and corporations to decide for us our meaning, our understanding and purposes for progress.

For the last several weeks I have been without sufficient electricity to run my refrigerator and washing machine. I tell you from experience these are the two most important machines in your household in terms of saving time. I greatly value their benefits, but when I have to live without I’m reminded of an important understanding: These machines do not impart meaning.

When I wash my clothes by hand they’re cleaner because I pay attention, I scrub out the spots and the collar and cuffs; I rinse until the water runs clear. It’s good exercise and I enjoy satisfaction knowing I’m capable and adaptable. It feels good to work hard and do a good job; there is meaning in these acts.

I also appreciate putting clothes in the washer and sitting down to read or write, there’s great worth in these activities, but the value of those actions does not replace the meaning of the washing. Leisure comes at the expense of the value of work when manual labor is forsaken. This is a crucial distinction and with it I’m careful not to be ‘new and improved’ into becoming a “consumptive machine”.

Modern appliances have played a large role in emancipating women and I respect that. Still, we all benefit from the discernment that relinquishing the work of daily existence distances us from the heart of physical reality.

When we sacrifice meaning in the name of progress, and honor contrivance more than connection; with every task that is performed for us, every entertainment that distracts and panders, we are separated from the labor that is life, and the singular experience its fruits provide.

What labors do you maintain to keep yourself grounded?

* The dubious advice given to American farmers by Secretary of Agriculture Butz in 1975, encouraging production over sound practices.
*All of the quotes in this post are from, The Unsettling of America by Wendall Barry.

© 2013 Abby Smith, Writer

7 thoughts on “Progress

  1. Salud!

    As always, your writing, your voice, your perception, your everything, is perfecto.

    Muchas, muchas, gracias quierda.


  2. Thank you, Abby–both for writing this article and for living your life in a way that you CAN write this article! This is an issue I’ve been struggling with, and one of the bigger lessons that Mexico has taught me. Thanks for putting it into words.

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