Busquemos la gran alegría del haber hecho (Let us seek the great happiness of having done) – from Juan Ramon Jimenez’s Maximus
Recently, I read an excellent essay in Garden & Gun magazine on the celebration of John Graves’ birthday. In it, the author talks about Graves’ stoneworks at his ranch and his need to create things physically, to “seek the great happiness of having done.” He specifically talks about the need to perform physical tasks while you are able because eventually, that ability will be gone, leaving each of us. I found it interesting to think about physical tasks like fence building or roofing in the context of today’s world that is largely mental in nature, at least at the most successful levels of society. We have become a sedentary mental population, one that actively avoids physical pursuits and will often pay other people to perform the tasks we might once have taken on.
This winter we decided to put in some sort of brick/stone border around several of the flower beds we created in our backyard. When we first moved into the house, gardening was an experimental task, the genesis of which was often a few too many margaritas on Friday night while perusing garden plan books. The main bed in our backyard is a large figure eight laid out in the southeastern portion of our yard. The border is a recycled rubber material, made from tires, found at Home Depot. For several years, it has served its purpose well, keeping the bermuda grass out quite successfully. However, there are a few places where it is installed poorly, below grade, and I fight a constant battle to keep the grass out of the bed. Also, it’s not particularly pleasing to look at, lacking a certain professional appeal found in other beds we’ve seen.
So it was decided that we’d have a stone border put in. We discussed getting estimates from a local nursery but as with many of the projects, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it. There is certainly an appeal to writing someone a check and showing up to find something solved around the house. I’ve done that several times with fencing in particular, both because I have zero experience and because it’s hard to build a fence by yourself. But most other garden projects can be done successfully alone, a physical solitary pursuit towards an accomplishment that can be enjoyed for years. Once I read the article on Graves’, with its romanticizing of the physicality of the stone work, the slow shaping of rock into a form that is both pragmatic and beautiful, I was convinced to do the border myself.
Mind you, I’m no stoneworker and everything was bought from a local big box home improvement store. There will be no mortar involved, not selecting of stones to fit together precisely, no crafting of the design into something beautiful. These are precut bricks, made for novice construction workers like myself. But still, there is the element of extreme physicality juxtaposed with the intervals of mental planning and thought. The work is difficult, digging a trench for the first course of stones in the thick, North Texas clay testing the work of the construction worker before even a tenth of the project is done. As with most of my projects, there is a large element of experimentation, thinking through possibilities and then partially implementing what seems to be the best one as a test.
It is this constant interplay between the physical and the mental that I find so rewarding, I expect not unlike a painter working with the canvas on an experimental idea. This molding and creating with my hands is something I miss in my day-to-day work. Even on the days when I actually create things, they are almost completely mental with no real tactile interaction with the digital world I’m manipulating. I enjoy seeing something take shape, begin to evolve from the mental pictures I have dreamed up into something physical in the real world performing a function as well as improving the look of a project.
This creation, this “having done”, is something missing from our day to day lives, most of us. Certainly the concept of our agrarian past is largely romanticized now, leaving aside the raw brutality and difficulty of that life. But there is a satisfaction in managing a brutal, physical task when the result is some tangible thing sprung from our labor. “Having done” is an important happiness, one that many of us have lost in the mental world we currently inhabit.
And yet, mental creation is not unimportant. Books and symphonies and essays all bring a richness to our lives, one that deepens and broadens our understanding and appreciation of the world we live in. I constantly struggle between the need to create things physically and mentally. I admit a certain bias to physical creations, fences, stone walls, arbors, gardens. They seem more tangible, more worthy of recognition. This struggle is especially difficult coming from a person who largely makes a living from mental creations.
In the end, I find it necessary to oscillate between times of physical and mental creation, using each one as a stepping off point for the next cycle in the process. This alternation serves to enrich both portions of my creativity.