Monday, May 5, 2014

Working Hands

Have you noticed when you shake hands with someone that you can tell whether they work with their hands? Working hands are calloused, obviously, but there's also a certain strength and hardness to working hands. My own hands, I think, have this quality.  The backs of my hands are weather-beaten - they're starting to look old, in my opinion.  Nicks and scars show where I've injured them in the past; cuts and scratches reveal more recent injuries.  My palms have the normal callouses of someone who works with wood-handled tools - along with more unusual callouses that come from building miles of portable electric fencing over the last 10+ years.  While my hands are smaller than my Dad's, I seem to have inherited his sausage-shaped fingers - something my wife and daughters take great delight in teasing me about!  My youngest daughter, Emma, loves for me to rub her back with my rough hands - they're "scratchy," she says.

Much of my work as a shepherd is hand work.  I've mentioned the callouses I've developed from building fence.  In the winter and late spring - if the weather is wet - my hands are chapped and cracked from handling newborn lambs.  I don't wear gloves for this work - I find that I need the dexterity of un-gloved hands to tag ears and dock tails.  On occasion, I'll need to help a ewe deliver a lamb - sometimes even reaching inside of her to untangle legs or re-position a head.  While my small hands can make certain jobs more difficult, I'm sure the ewes are glad that I have small hands!  As spring progresses, we move to handling sheep and shearing.  If the sheep have been grazing in stickers (like filaree or yellow starthistle) I often get small stickers in my hands.  My palms are generally hard enough to withstand these little injuries, but the sides of my fingers are more susceptible to slivers.  In the summer, my hands are often wet from moving irrigation pipe.  Empty aluminum pipe that has been in the afternoon sun can be extremely hot to the touch - hard on the hands!  In August, I rely on my hands to help determine the body condition - the amount of external fat - on the sheep as we prepare them for breeding.  Wool is deceptive, so I have feel every ewe over her loin, ribs and shoulders to determine whether she needs to put on weight prior to breeding.  After breeding season is over, we trim the sheep's feet.  Since I only use the hoof trimmers once or twice a year for an extended time period, my hands often develop new blisters (and ultimately, new callouses) during this procedure.

The website ranks jobs in terms of their desirability.  Based on what I can tell from the ranking system, a job with a relatively high income, a positive work environment, low stress and a positive outlook for future hiring ranks highly.  In 2014, only one of the top 10 jobs on the CareerCast website involves using one's hands - dental hygienist.  Surprisingly, I couldn't find "shepherd" on the list at all!  In all seriousness, though, the list says a great deal about the value our society places on work that must be done by hand.  Without people willing to work with their hands, we wouldn't be fed, clothed or housed.  I can't think of work that's any more valuable.

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