Los Ojos, 24 September 2018
When people ask me how we’re doing, I usually say something along the lines of “Great – we’re more or less staying busy. You know how it is – more projects than time.” It’s not an idle greeting, either, but a fact – a quick glance over at our brainstorming board as I write this reveals the following partial list (in no particular order)…
Hoop house (ends/sides)
Freezer site prep
The list changes frequently (at least weekly) – it’s an idea generation tool, not yet prioritized or organized, so it includes all manner of things: big jobs, small chores, some high priority tasks and others that are fairly unimportant. The time constraint varies too – some items pressing, others just stuff I’d like to get done sometime. There are things on the list that I’m pretty sure will never get done (the blog post, for instance, and the light I promised Alexis that I’d install in the closet – in March, if I remember right), and others that I’ll finish this week. I’m good at coming up with things that need doing – but figuring out which ones are important … well, that’s the hard part. In fact, I’d say that the most difficult thing I have to do most days is set priorities of effort.
Sometimes it’s easy – many things come with their own built-in hard deadline (if the freezer is coming Friday, probably should have the site work done by the time it gets here, for instance), and others crop up as urgent matters that just have to be handled no matter what else is going on (stuff that affects the welfare of the animals, for instance). If you just run around putting out fires, though, you never make any real progress, so priorities are important.
And there’s always plenty of stuff that needs doing “ right now”. All things tend toward decay, and we’re in the privileged position of seeing that fact on a daily basis. I spend my hours, my days, working to shore up a human order that is daily eroded by the action of sun, wind, weather, and the unthinking persistence of animals.
Fence wires stretch and rust, timbers rot. Modern fabrics bleach and split under the continual pressures of sun and wind. Ditches fill with weeds. Fields go to thistle and sedge grass. Mechanical parts seize into useless lumps of metal. Think of a vacant homestead, how quickly weeds reclaim the garden, doors come off hinges, the roof buckles. Within the span of a single human memory it can be reduced to nothing but a shallow hole, a few foundation stones. A chimney standing to mark where people once lived. We work to make a world we can thrive in, but unless you resist it, the jungle always grows back.
But decay is where the life is, too: microbes recycling the energy of dead and dying things to make it available for new life. Even within our own lives – think how much of the savor of our most beloved foods is in fact the taste of decomposition. Cheese, the lactic bite of fermented pickles, the sweetness of the starches in an apple becoming sugars as the fruit begins to die. That’s how ageing makes meat better, too – not only does evaporation of water concentrate the flavors, but enzymatic action breaks larger proteins into amino acids that your palate reads as savory, deeply attractive flavors. We’re omnivores, carrion eaters, with a deeply programmed response to the flavors associated with decay.
The jungle grows back. For me, that’s a central fact. Nothing lasts without care; nothing stays fixed. The jungle grows back – but that’s what makes the whole thing worthwhile, what makes the whole thing rewarding.
And that central organizing principle lets me prioritize from my list of too many projects. I’ve generally been of the opinion that if you just jump in and start working, the next thing that needs to be done will become obvious. That remains true, but the approach has its limits. It would be too easy just to spend all day chasing around fixing all the things that are broken or disorganized – get lost in the endless pursuit of making improvements for the sake of improvement. I take a lot of satisfaction in that type of work, and besides, because this place isn’t ours, I feel a certain obligation to show improvement, make it look like a tidy, well-put-together operation. That work is endless, though, and ultimately a luxury rather than a necessity.
So I do my best to spend my time on what’s important, not just what’s urgent. I don’t always succeed, but I try always to balance the “fixing jobs” (maintenance and the daily routine tasks: feeding, mixing feed, building fence, etc.) with what I think of as working into the future: real, substantive improvements – things that will save time or make processes better, things that work directly to advance our larger vision (a feeder, a water system, a better chicken run, a better mobile shelter). The balance is what matters – nothing can be neglected forever – but as for the other jobs…
I’ll get to them. When I have time.