The wisdom of work

Work (noun): activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result.

“For human beings, a life of such simplicity would be possible if one worked to produce directly his daily necessities. In such a life, work is not work as people generally think of it, but simply doing what needs to be done.” ― Masanobu Fukuoka,  The One Straw Revolution

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Today it is the Fiesta Nacional de España, a national public holiday which for most people means a day off work or school to spend relaxing with their families. We have planned the treat of a two-course meal  for ourselves this evening – crab salad followed by mackerel barbecued over branches of bay –  to celebrate not only the delights of local fresh seafood and beautiful weather but a week of ‘getting things done.’

We have made huge strides forward on the house renovation front this week. I hardly dare believe it, but after two and a half years, the end is in sight; true, it might be the faintest tantalising glimpse in the distance, but it’s there nonetheless. The roof windows are finally being fitted upstairs and the house is now flooded with brilliant natural light; the bathroom is almost finished, just the beautiful Moroccan-style floor tiles to go down; plans have been drawn up and materials bought for the entrance porch makeover. We are in danger of having a proper house at last!

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The buzz of activity has found me thinking about the nature of work and how it relates to the way of life we have chosen to adopt. I tried to come up with my own definition and was pleased that it almost matched the dictionary one above. The important point for me is that there is no mention of money, status, pressure or stress – words which seem to have become synonymous with the idea of working in modern society. I love the idea of effort, though; human bodies are designed to move, human minds are made to be stretched and the feeling of achievement from those activities should be one that makes us glow with happiness and pride. A job well done indeed! I haven’t worked professionally since April 2016 and much as I loved the satisfaction and pleasure of time spent in the classroom with children and being part of a great team of colleagues, I haven’t missed it one jot. I’ve just been too busy to even think about it. The point I’m trying to make is this: people can (and do!) look at our lifestyle and feel that we spend our lives on permanent holiday and don’t work but it’s the very fact that we are both prepared to work – and work very hard – that allows us to live like this in the first place.

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We simply made the decision (brave, foolish, reckless or otherwise) to free ourselves from paid employment in order to spend our time working for ourselves and that has brought an astonishing sense of liberty to our lives. Any targets or deadlines we have are our own. Team meetings and performance management discussions take place in leisurely fashion over a mug of coffee or glass of wine. There is no need for blue sky thinking when we spend so much of our time outdoors beneath it. There is no need for alarm clocks or ironed shirts or a car each when our place of work is right here on our patch of mountainside. Our days of effort don’t put a penny in the bank but they do allow us to spend time together in the evening preparing a meal cooked on wood we have hauled, chopped and stacked ourselves; made from ingredients we have grown and harvested from a garden we created from scratch, and orchards and woodland we manage; prepared in a kitchen we have transformed slowly from an almost inhabitable hovel to a bright, warm, practical and comfortable space. It keeps us busy: we often have long and very tiring days . . . but it’s a wonderfully satisfying and fulfilling way to live. Most importantly, we are very happy!

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Having spent most of the week with either a paintbrush or garden fork in my hand, it’s been good to grab a few moments for woolly things and here, too, I’ve been mulling over the nature of work and creativity. I have always loved what we tend to call ‘handicrafts’, people using their hands and minds to create objects from raw materials (William Morris had a famous line, I know, but I think handmade things are both useful and beautiful at the same time). I’d take a live demonstration of anything from weaving to wood-turning, pottery to patchwork over television or a shopping mall any day. What better form of work could there be than spending time and skill making something in that way? So when it comes to art, I’ve always much preferred things that are simple and folksy – especially when applied to handicrafts and practical objects –  rather than fine art for art’s sake. This is possibly also a reflection of my own prejudice based on the fact that I am hopeless at drawing and painting pictures. Give me pencil and paper and I can spend a long time creating something nobody would ever recognise. It’s no surprise that our machine-savvy grandsons have never asked me to draw them another combine harvester; it would just be too painful for all of us. I’m far happier with something more tactile in my hands: fleece, yarn, textiles, furniture paints, food, plants . . . now there are possibilities! I’ve had a lot of fun making birthday cards for our little grandchildren this year, and although they are simple and somewhat naïve in style, I do hope they can at least tell what the picture is (although I haven’t been brave enough to attempt a tractor yet).

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This sort of practical simplicity is exactly the style I’ve been thinking about whilst planning the embroidery for my mittens. I’ve had a fascinating time researching embroidery, it’s such a huge and varied subject. A friend has loaned me a wonderful book about Asturian history and I was thrilled to find a photo of a traditional headscarf embroidered with a spray of wild flowers . . . so there will be a little touch of Asturias in my mittens, too!

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I’ve discovered all sorts of techniques and materials (waste canvas, soluble interfacing . . .) that I didn’t even know existed. Much as these things would make for a more professional finish, however, I have no intention of using them. For a start, it would be a bit ironic setting out to make something new from recycled wool which has cost me nothing and then spending a small fortune on extras! More than that, though, I want to maintain the integrity of an old handicraft which has been practised for centuries without the benefit of modern materials; yes, the outcome might be a bit wobbly and less than perfect but that for me is the whole point. So, armed with a few coloured pencils and my bag of yarny rune pegs I headed outside to draw (!) up a plan.

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My initial idea was to do something along the lines of Adrienne’s wedding invitation and the Asturian headscarf – a spray of flowers with solid petals worked in satin stitch – but that somehow looked too cramped in the space and shape I had to play with. Next, I tried scattered flowers with separate stems but there was something about its exploded bouquet nature I wasn’t happy with. Time to chew my pencil . . . start doodling . . . play with my pegs. Put the kettle on? Actually, time to go and have a wander round the garden while my ideas sorted themselves out and (as so often happens) nature provided the answer. Looking at the little pops and splashes of colour spread around the garden, I was struck by how many are currently unplanned partnerships of things I’ve planted and things that have planted themselves, creating bright little embroideries of their own.

Verbena bonariensis that has popped up amongst the dahlias.

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A palette of pansies jostled by cheeky self-set calendula.

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The deep purple of clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ (still blooming!) against a fiery carpet of nasturtiums.

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I smiled at the way the morning glory which I sowed along the fence is weaving itself through a forest of self-sown borage . . . and all of a sudden, I could see my embroidery design clearly in my mind’s eye.

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Forget stems and sprays: I liked the idea of a single twisting vine, twining itself around a scattering of simple flowers like the five-petalled borage stars. A tickle in my hind brain told me I’d made woolly lazy daisies relatively recently but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where or why. Thank goodness for blogging! A quick glance back through old posts on my original blog and there they were: the bower bird mobiles I made last year as baby welcome gifts. Just the simple sort of embroidery I’m looking for.

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So design sorted, it was just a case of colour choices and this is where those woolly pegs are such a great tool. I could tell straight away that the darker yellow looked better than the light one against the purple mitt and that the softer bluey-greens were more appropriate than the brighter yellowy ones. Incredible, too, how some of the colours I’d rather fancied for flowers (like turquoise) looked completely wrong.

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Inspired by the borage, I opted for five different shades of blue for my lazy daisies, moving from darkest to lightest up the mitten. The embroidery was such a lovely thing to do, it was incredible watching the dense purple knitted fabric gradually becoming something altogether different and stitching away in the softness of a warm afternoon with a mug of my favourite Assam was soooooo therapeutic. One mitten finished and seamed, now for the second one . . .

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I’ve also found a little bit of time for knitting this week; with my list of birthday socks done and dusted, I started on a new pair for myself. This is Drops Fabel yarn in ‘Guacamole’ – wow, I love those zingy colours!

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Unlike birthday gift socks which require much love and attention, I am able to knit socks like these for myself on autopilot, so it doesn’t take long for my thoughts to wander. I found myself wondering what our newly-renovated home must have been like when originally built in the 1800s. A squat rectangular stone dwelling raised over a barn and under a tiled roof. No electricity. No running water. No bathroom. An open hearth and bread oven. I wouldn’t dream of romanticising it, life must have been pretty tough; how blessed we are that we can be a part of Casa Victorio’s history in a more comfortable style. Still, surely there were womenfolk who spent spare moments with fingers flying over needles to knit the lambswool socks worn inside madreñas, traditional Asturian wooden clogs? (Our neighbours today simply slide carpet slippers into their clogs but we have a friend who wears his with old-style thick woolly socks). For those ladies, such activity was probably considered work whereas for me it’s really a hobby, something I choose to do for pleasure; nonetheless, I love that idea of an old handicraft being passed down and practised like a golden thread of tradition woven through the tapestry of years. Will socks be knitted here a couple of centuries into the future, I wonder? Of course, I’ll never know . . . but it would be lovely to think so, wouldn’t it? 🙂

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4 thoughts on “The wisdom of work

    1. Yes, I think those socks will be firm favourites! You’re right about lifestyle, Ali, and I think it’s what accounts for the astounding longevity in this area. People have spent their lives in the fresh air producing food and fuel – hard physical work, but always with time to relax and have a coffee and chat. We’ve been told there are people who have never left the valley because they have all that they want and need here . . . I might be a dreamer but I can’t help thinking the world would be a happier place if more people were so content with such a simple life! 🙂

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  1. It’s so interesting to read about your life in Spain, Lis and to see what you do with all your vibrantly coloured wools. Nice to get a glimpse of the inside of your house and get an idea of all the work you’ve done on it. It looks very comfortable as well as being welcoming with your rugs and cushions. And is that a photo of your horrero, if that’s the spelling? I can’t find the post where you mentioned it before, so I had to guess! It looks like a fabulously useful and fascinating building.

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    1. Yes, that is the horreo! It’s desperately in need of some care and attention, the former owner had an obsession with the fear of birds stealing his walnuts so it’s been wrapped in many layers of wire mesh and netting which we need to remove, plus fix some of the wooden fixtures. They are incredible buildings, really beautiful in their own right – many people convert them into living accommodation although planning permission is very strict so we will keep ours as a vegetable store (the only resident is a bat!). We’re almost there with the house, it seems like a bit of a marathon but it certainly feels like a home now, too! 🙂

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