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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.

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.

The morning dawns in rural France

A four-month old lamb in rural France
A four-month old lamb.
France, September 2016.

We start with a bowl of coffee. Mine’s black. The children, even the littlest, have milk with just a splash of coffee, it’s off-white but sweet. The grand-parents* drink theirs with milk and sugar.  I spread the jam on my bread with a teaspoon and balance it precariously on my saucer. This is apparently how things happen here. Grand-mère dips her toast in her coffee, I don’t.

Once breakfast is cleared up, I let the chickens out the hen coop and check for eggs

Only one today. Grand-père checks his emails and then we start on clearing up the land after last night’s terrific storm. I drag the leaves from the swimming pool and we stash the ping pong table in one of the barns before going to tend to the vegetables. The tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and courgettes need watering and those that are ripe need picking. I conduct a taste test as I go along.

We drive out to go check on the sheep

Giving them a couple of buckets of grain and moving branches that have fallen in the storm on the way. In the field, one sheep stands separate from the herd, and in the charge for dinner, she falls down. Grand-père is quick to pounce and pull her aside. He’s worried.

I drive back in the little electric vehicle we use for getting around the estate, Grand-père sits beside me clutching the sheep. I try and fail to avoid the worst of the bumps in the ever so bumpy road.

Back near the house, I take hold of the sheep whilst Grand-père prepares some antibiotics

She’s only four months old. I hold her upright whilst he injects her with the medicine, hoping we’ve been quick enough. Her head lolls against my knee. Sheep, Grand-père says, die easily. He’s known them to catch fevers, to drown, and almost impossibly, to hang themselves by getting one of the pieces of string that tie up the hay bales stuck around their throat and then jumping off a rock.

We take her down to the woodland, where the male sheep are living, and guide her into an enclosure beside the boys. We want her to be safe from them, but not alone. She needs keeping close to the house so that we can keep an eye on her, but she still needs the company of other sheep. Loneliness and depression kill.

Back at the barn, we collect more grain and a bucket of water to take to the lamb

This done we go in search of a suitable shelter in case there’s rain, finding, at last, a plastic wendy-house that the children have deserted. It’s the perfect size and fits on the back of the little electric car. I shove hay inside to make the lamb a cosy bed.

And then we pick figs for dinner before taking another drive to go check on the donkeys and the goats. Perhaps goats aren’t fussy eaters, but these goats have no chance at getting the stale bread. Watching the donkeys chasing away the goats I realise I have significantly underestimated their ferocity.

And only then is it lunchtime.

*Not mine.

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