There is a certain zen that can be experienced in doing outdoor work. For me years ago it was fencing, cleaning horse or sheep stalls and corrals, digging in the garden, or, especially, splitting wood. This past week it was doing rock work. Specifically, laying and setting stone for a flagstone patio…. a big one.
It reminded me of the years when science bench work imparted a zen of its own. Bench work was methodical and precise, sometimes tedious and time-consuming, required expensive equipment, entailed data gathering, interpretation and progress reporting, writing and submitting manuscripts, grants and proposals for peer review, developing budgets and defending ideas until the next theory pushed it all out. Or until the grant process consumed all energy and time. But there was a fulfillment in it at the end. A discovery, a new theory, a story to tell and share.
On the other hand, rock work, like fencing, splitting wood, and cleaning stalls are outdoor activities. They require much more physical work, usually dirty, sweaty, grimy, and gritty. But they are more simple and forgiving. In rock work there’s no data gathering and equipment is cheaper. The only peer reviews are flooding water, animal tracks and human footfall. There is no impact factor except for the occasional dropping of chairs and coolers. Instead of non-stop chattering from lab personnel and the carefully placed diplomacy of departmental and administrative negotiation, the outdoor silence is broken only by the calls of birds and their chirping young, bright yellow singing flies, the wind blowing through the ocotillo canes, and the high-pitched chime of a rock chisel. Low-cost tools, such as shovels, rock hammers, chisels, and buckets replace the high-dollar, high-electronic hungry machines and sometimes dangerous, exorbitant reagents. Rather than demanding publication and unreasonable experiment timelines, the day can be paced evenly, or even broken by a 2-3 hour siesta to beat the heat. There is no stressful commuter traffic, other than the quail and dove demanding their seed handouts.
And while one set of experimental data is crunched and analyzed, when one theory is pushed out by the next experiment from another lab suffering the same conditions, after all the grant money is squeezed and stretched to the point that the lab monkeys are washing and autoclaving the same pipet tips for reuse, this stone patio will last for more than 50 years with a simple statement: it was laid with care in a simple geometry that you can walk on, tell stories over, sit and watch the stars, and laugh with friends, neighbors and family. It was composed of materials made and offered by the earth over millions of years, gathered locally, and put together with loving care.
It is filled with zen.