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Working with your hands (Even if you’re not very good at it)

Doing physical labour on a farm in France
Misty sunrise and time for work.
Fields in France, October 2016.

“… he’s not drearily whacking at the metal like a miner with a pickaxe: Every hit, though forceful, is carefully controlled. He peers intently at the metal, through thin-framed intellectual glasses (which seem out of place perched above his heavy beard and broad shoulders), turning it just so for each impact.”

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work describing the blacksmith Ric Furrer of Door County Forgeworks

Whenever I read about someone doing physical labour with a sense of love I’m reminded of my time on the farm in France. Whilst on the farm in France isn’t the only occasion when I’ve worked the land, it was the most prolonged period I’ve done so, and the most rewarding.

I’d be up early, to share breakfast with the children before Grandmére walked them to school. Fresh French bread and homemade jam. Then, whilst Grandpère was checking his email, I’d head over to the polytunnel to water all the vegetables growing there.

Anything ripe and ready for eating I’d take to the kitchen

Plus, any eggs I’d wrestled from the want-to-be mothers in the hen coop. After this, I’d collect grain from the barn and drive out to the sheep. They would come running at me, the largest, a sheep I nicknamed ‘bully’ at their lead. It would take creativity not to end up rolling down the hillside.

Then I’d go and join Grandpère

By this time, he would have settled on a plan for the day, and would be, you could be sure, wielding some sharp implement. His favourite was the chainsaw. We chopped down trees, chopped up trees and built wood piles great enough to heat the uninhabited chateau if necessary.

I learnt to love stacking logs

There is a rhythm to it: You’re working alongside one another in almost silence. Nothing is happening fast, but you’ve engaged mind and body, and you think, one more trailer full and we’ll finish-up, just a little bit more. You ache, but you’ve got the rhythm working for you and the ache is part of the harmony.

After working all morning, I’d take a solid siesta

I would be exhausted. Not just physically, but mentally too. I was learning something new every day, like sharpening chainsaws and driving diggers.

Under scrupulous supervision, I learnt to prune fruit trees

Including, the apples in a neat espalier style. I’d cut a few branches, with great care, and then Grandmére would appear and point out what I’d missed. I’d trim a bit more, then she’d suggest another branch, explaining each step of the process as we went along.

I fell in love with it.

And whilst I am very wary here of romanticising manual labour, for me, it was a magical experience. A feeling that never came to me when I was working in an office.

Although of course, many people don’t work the land out of choice

I will never need to exhaust myself with full days of physical labour. For me, it’s a choice and came with a guarantee of a good hearty meal. Grandmére being an excellent cook. You can’t go and work on a farm for a couple of months and understand what it’s like to make your livelihood out of manual labour. You don’t have a clue.

When the time came, I could take a flight to my next destination and go try something else.

But there is something about seeing a patch of land you’ve dug or a tree you’ve felled, and saying, that’s what I did today. I did learn something.

Ric Furrer, the blacksmith described at the top of the page, chooses to make swords

Each one is a piece of art, crafted with care. When he thrusts the hot metal into a pipe of oil to cool it, he doesn’t know if it is going to crack, which does happen sometimes with the dramatic change of heat. The oil catches fire and momentarily wraps the sword in flames.

Part of the reward is the process. It’s making something happen with your own hands. It’s having something you can look at when the sun begins to set and say, with pride, that’s what I did today.

From the archives there’s also this post about a day on the farm. You know, should you be looking for even more.

The subjective nature of ‘pretty’.

Pretty pink tiles, France, 2016.

Which took a turn for the surreal when I found myself standing beside a huge stack of old roof tiles with three French men who were discussing which ones they loved the most.

Unsurprisingly, Grandperé owns a surplus of tiles, to go with his surplus of roofs.

Every now and again, a Frenchman would declare ‘C’est tres joli’ (in English: oh my, isn’t this tile so delightfully pretty). I never discovered the ideal shape and so ignored this factor. I simply stacked the non-broken tiles, and threw the cracked ones in the bucket of the digger. They made a satisfactory noise as they shattered.

The other component of ‘prettiness’ was the colour of the tiles. Here there was rather a lot of disagreement. One man liked the ones with more yellow, another preferred the ones with more pink. Nobody was a huge fan of the very orange tiles. They looked much too modern – although being modern they had fine shape because they probably weren’t made on some Frenchman’s thigh.

Yes, roof tiles are thigh imprints. Who’d have guessed that.

Once we’d put 500 tiles in the van, we went in for dinner. The visitors felt 500 was enough. They would come back for the rest later. Grandperé had a surplus of roof tiles.

As she was stirring the soup, I explained to Grandmeré what had been happening outside. She smiled when I told her about my struggle to translate such an outpouring of affection for a roof tile. Her opinion was that what a man looks for in a tile is very subjective. There’s no point worrying about it.

Grandmeré has a surplus of wise advice.

It’s the sheep’s fault – accidentally working on my day off.


The wood was in the wrong place. Not that we urgently need it, but should the heating system fail again, we’ll want it. Someone therefore had to fill up the empty wood shelter close by the wood burner.

I worked two hours on Tuesday and three hours on Wednesday moving wood from one pile to the other pile with the help of the digger and my little electric car. No surprise my arms and back ached afterwards. Logs are heavy. However, there’s something intrinsically rewarding about building a log pile. You start with a few logs on the ground, and slowly it takes form until you end up with a neatly stacked pile. It’s taller than me.

As Grand-mère and Grand-père were very grateful for all my hard work, today was pronounced as a day off (with the sole exception of feeding the animals, a task which Grand-père offered to help out with).

Because everything I own is already covered in sawdust, I was wearing a skirt and leggings.

It was raining. And due to a mixture of laziness and stupidity, half the sheep escaped into the neighbouring field. Whilst counting the sheep that remained, Grand-père realised that he was standing over one young boy and I was standing over the other. This was a great opportunity to separate the young boys from the herd. Five minutes later I’m hauling a wet, heavy lamb across the field by its forelegs.

The escapee herd wandered of their own accord through the gate of the next field which is prepared for sheep. So we followed with the two young boys in the trailer, Grand-père in the tractor and me riding cross-legged perched on the tractor wheel as if going side-saddle with my foot out of the door. We pulled close the gate.

Life here never fails to entertain.

Harvesting potatoes

potato harvest

Grandpère worries about me. He worried about me damaging my clothes, or my shoes, or that I’d get dirt under my nails. I try to explain that my clothes are not so precious, especially those already with holes in. I tell him that I’ve had the same shoes for years, and I’d much prefer to be wearing something I’m comfortable in. And as for the nails, I just looked at him in despair.

Often it’s my hair he worries about, as if washing out the twigs, dirt and dust is somehow a challenge for me. He’s particularly concerned about me getting dust in my hair. Maybe he doesn’t realize that having my hair in a chaotic and dusty state gives me an extra excuse for standing in the hot shower. It’s a gift to my aching muscles.

The concern bemuses me. Perhaps he thinks that I take ages to shove my hair in a bun, pony-tail or loosely plait it. I won’t deny that there’s a lot of hair to manage. I’m blessed with a surplus of long thick hair. But I’m not the sort of person to spend hours in front of the mirror.

His delusion reminds me of the Japanese lady I met outside Tutmosis III’s tomb in the valley of the kings, who was horrified when, after plucking up the courage to ask how I managed to make my hair look like a rose, I yanked out my bobble to demonstrate.

It’s genetics not skill.

For unknown reason, the potato harvest caused a sudden worry about the dirt and my nails. There’s dirt involved whatever you’re doing on a farm, not just the potato harvest. Oil and dirt covered my hands when I was cleaning the plough. We pulled out the twigs, grass and wire that the mechanism had caught, using knives from the 1800s because apparently such knives are better. When watering the poly-tunnel I pick up the yellow pollen which makes everything you touch yellow, which to me is much worse than simple dirt.

Anyway, to the important activity of harvesting potatoes. It’s quite a self-explanatory activity.  Potatoes live in the ground and you have to dig through the earth until you find them all. We used a digger to break up the earth. Then we picked up the potatoes with our hands getting dirt under our nails.

Potatoes are special though. You can’t just chuck them in a basket though. Before storing the potatoes, you have to lay them in the dirt for a few hours so that any insects go down into the earth rather than finding a home in the potato store. With three of us working together the harvest didn’t take too long. It wasn’t a big harvest, but it was sufficient to please Grandmère. The local potato harvest hasn’t been great and she knows people who haven’t got any potatoes this year.

When we were done, I magically (with the aid of a nail brush) managed to remove the dirt from my face and hands. Grand-père inspected my clean nails and seemed pleased no damage was done.

On a night so clear you could see the milky way


It was a clear night. The dusty track of the milky way swept across the sky, making me grateful for the quiet that comes from living deep in a national park. The stars never fail to make me believe in magic. They glittered, entrancing me to such a degree that I didn’t care that I was sitting on the cold stone slabs that pave the path by the vegetable garden. My camera taunted me. Could I remember how to take pictures in the dark?

Eventually I walked back to my bedroom, climbed between the sheets and fell asleep.

In the morning, after a breakfast of coffee and toast, I asked Grand-père for the morning’s agenda. He wanted to work a little on his cello, and so suggested, to my joy, that I could tend to the animals. It delights me every morning when I take the little electric car out, load it with the animals’ breakfast and drive out through the fields to have them gallop towards me with an enthusiasm that’s rarely matched in human kind.

Yet, not all rural farm life is so idyllic. Grand-père didn’t look up at me when he mentioned we’d also need to collect her body. He knew I was apprehensive.

He said, if I wanted, he would do that, because he knew I didn’t want to.

“I’ll go,” I said, not knowing where the sudden determination to be the one to bring her home to be buried came from.

He repeated that I didn’t have to. I said nothing.

Sheep, are fragile creatures; lambs especially so. We’d moved her two days before to a quiet, sheltered spot to die when Grand-père had said the end was inevitable.

I didn’t go to her straight away. Instead, first I filled my buckets and ventured out to the herd. The sheep were their usual crazy selves, focused only on the grain, seemingly oblivious of our loss. As usual, I shouted and pushed in order not to have my toes crushed by their stiletto like hooves. The smaller sheep scattered over the trough, whilst fearless others launched themselves at my knees. The donkeys watched on wearily as they always do. The goats had wandered off and I had to search through the woodland and grassland and rocky caves. I found them ravaging a sapling.

Then I drove the little electric car back up the driveway, and across into the field beyond.

“Fear of death is fear of what we might experience. Nothing at all, or something quite new.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Translated by Gregory Hays)

She lay on her side with the eye that faced up to me half open. I wanted to close it, but I didn’t want to touch her face. I took my time, first to gaze upon her, second to touch my hand to her curly wool and feel the residual warmth within her, and then to wrap my hands around her legs, rigid and cold, and haul her up into the air.

She was much heavier than I’d expected, and her head hit against the car as I struggled to lift her inside.

A countryside breakfast: Mon petit déjeuner avec du lait

Milk from French dairy cows

I drank coffee with milk at breakfast.

Perhaps, this seems like a small and unimportant fact to you. But for me it was a big deal.

I’m lactose intolerant. This isn’t a disaster, but means that if I want to drink coffee with milk I need to first take a lactase tablet. Lactase is the enzyme which my body no longer naturally produces. On a typical morning, I drink my coffee black and eat my toast without butter. I save my lactase tablets for occasionally eating bread and cheese, which, as this is France, accompanies both lunch and supper, or for eating any other food involving milk, such as a creamy coffee éclair from the bakery. For me, drinking coffee with milk for breakfast is a special treat.

Just before dinner, the night before, we went to the dairy farm. I said ‘hello’ to the cows and ‘bonjour’ to the dairy farmer, a friendly young man with a dark green apron. It was milking hour so the farmer was already quite busy. He took our milk pails and tapped off the fresh milk which was coming straight from the cows.

I was as excited as the three year old grandson who saw a red tractor. He really likes tractors.

When we arrived home, Grand-mère poured the milk into a huge saucepan and slowly heated it to the point where it expands to fill the pan. Very nervously, I watched over it. My instruction to shout when something happened. Just as it hit boiling, Grand-mère switched off the heat, put on the lid, and left it overnight to cool – this was my brief lesson in pasteurisation. By morning, the cream had risen to the top, ready to be scooped off into a separate jug.

And so I chose to drink milk with my coffee for breakfast, and it was heavenly.