Body Puzzles

Olivier hoists his left leg in the air and rotates his hip to plant his booted foot on top of the 10.5” x 17” hemlock board that he’s positioned on top of another, much longer plank. This plank, also hemlock, extends across three sawhorses set up in the driveway of Maggie’s Farm, where half of the new LTF class has gathered for a carpentry primer. Strewn along the length of the plank, some practice plunge cuts and shaving off uneven edges while others measure and mark boards for the benches we aim to produce.

To cut a bench leg to match the pattern, I need to make a narrow notch out of two corners of my board. The board is now too small to be held down by its own weight—the reason for Olivier’s yogic leg-lift demonstration.

Through the plastic lenses of his protective glasses, he makes eye contact. “You must make every move a stretch, or the work will wreck your body.” He rocks back and forth on the ball of his grounded foot, deepening the extension of his hip. “This way is best, too, because you don’t need someone else to hold for you.”

He brings the skilsaw dangling from his right hand level with the smaller board. I slip my protective earmuffs back on and inhale the fresh scent of the plume of blonde shavings thrown up by his whirling blade.

This work could wreck your body. The implements have heft. The wood provides resistance. The movements are either repetitive or, when not that, awkward and odd-angled. While no one of these elements necessarily spells disaster, the cumulative effect is wearing, and wear over many years easily turns into wreckage.

As a power tool newbie, it’s difficult for me to siphon off any of my attention toward things like body alignment and muscle integration when my brain is going line up the blade now back it up ok now forward watch the notch straight straight straight straight level I’M HOLDING A SPINNING KNIFE keep straight straight now switch and watch the blade WHAT IF ?? (NO, FOCUS!) almost there ok ok ok turn it off.

Practice will help (right?). Once I can cut straight without consciously micromanaging the task, I’ll be able to to turn that conscious thought toward don’t clench, integrate your shoulders, straighten your back, distribute the weight between your feet…

But practice won’t make my my hands broader—a fact gleaned while watching my male classmates easily hook the safety of the skilsaw with a thumb and then grasp its handle with the remaining fingers of the same hand in order to make a one-handed narrow cut along the edge of the board. To achieve the same effect, I must extend my hand as wide as I can just to snag the very edge of the protective sheath, and then put the whole weight of my body into the saw to keep it level while I make the cut, worrying the entire time that the safety will slip my grasp, forcing me to start over. (Luckily, this scenario poses greater risk to the board than to me, as the safety would be slipping back into place, rather than out of it.)

These things aren’t built for me. Not the power saws. Not the 50lb sacks of feed. Not the pin to the hitch that must be wrestled in and out of place with each use. And certainly not the tractors—a concept which Shane, the tractor guru called in to brief us on tractor functioning and safety, makes sure to emphasize. He calls this phenomenon—or rather, the emotional response to this phenomenon—“single woman farmer syndrome”: the feeling of failure that comes from holding yourself to physical standards of achievement that are disproportionate to your body size and configuration in the context of a system designed for stereotypical male bodies.

While his word choice is unfortunate (and, I’d argue, inaccurate), his point hits home: Agriculture is (infra)structurally sexist. If you are a woman, the system is rigged against you. So if you want to succeed, at least until enough women (and hey—why not everyone?) get vocal and active about transforming the structures that constrain us, your game is going to have to be smarter, both physically and psychologically.

I’m not actually sure this is such a disadvantage to women, because I’m not actually sure that these physical challenges that threaten the bodily sustainability of women in agriculture don’t also threaten the sustainability of all bodies in agriculture. If size or testosterone enables you to complete a task through brute force, are you actually better off in the long run? Can you still do that task in forty years? Or are you just cheating yourself down the line, because you never learn how to solve the physiological puzzle of working intelligently with your body?

Brute force is never going to get me very far, so to get anything done at all, I have to solve the puzzle right now.

Olivier passes me the skilsaw. I hoist my left leg in the air and rotate my hip to plant my booted foot on top of the board. I shift my weight to stabilize my grounded foot and lean in to deepen the stretch in my hip. I integrate my shoulders, straighten my back, and lift the blade to meet the wood.

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