By Pema l’Anson, AP’19

I’ll be honest – during the whole application process, planning my trip, and even after getting here, labour hasn’t been the part of Arete that most excited me. Our labour sessions are divided into maintenance, garden, and kitchen work, and I’ve had my fair share of each. After breakfast, we divide ourselves into work crews according to different projects, needs, and interests. I enjoy the cooperation, the learning of new skills, the variety, but at eight a.m. every morning I wake up and think that if we didn’t have labour, I might feel a bit more rested.

All this changed when one day, I was assigned to the step work crew.

I’d seen other people engaging with the step. The back steps, not much used, going from the deck of Elizabeth towards the outdoor freezer, had an awkward jump to and from the last one, not wooden like the others but concrete. Previous maintenance work crews had been adjusting this step, pushing it into the others to reduce the jump, raising it with stones and gravel. When I joined, I didn’t much fancy my chances of enjoying this project. It was only two of us – Jenny and I – and I’d seen other crews with three, four people working on the step together. I’m not particularly strong, and it didn’t seem like an exciting project, not like going to the dump with the recycling or building the new chicken coop.

However: it turned out the big old concrete step had been satisfactorily moved, and a wooden frame for a new step below it had been built. Jenny and I spent the first morning adjusting the wooden frame, first digging it out of the gravel that had been put around and inside it (the problem with none of us being skilled labourers is that we often spend hours undoing mistakes!) and then removing some of the larger stones; we took parts off the frame and put them back on; we dug under the frame and created space around it so we could drill. All of this was to adjust it so the step we would make within the frame was perfectly to the measurements of the steps above. We wanted to make climbing this staircase an enjoyable experience, and the best way to do that is by evening out the distances between steps, standardising step widths and heights, and solidifying the foundations. At the end of that first morning of labour, we had wrangled the frame to the exact place we wanted it, and the satisfaction that came with that moment was enormous. Looking at the level we placed on top, the bubble perfectly balanced in its glorious middle (signifying the step being flat), the tape measure reporting the exact measurements we wanted every single time we checked – I can’t explain how good that felt.

The next day, Jenny and I, invigorated with power, returned to our project, this time voluntarily signing ourselves up for the step crew. That morning, we solidified the position of the frame, making sure it wouldn’t wobble, added a few extra pieces so the concrete wouldn’t bulge when we put it in, and secured the rebar (those thin metal sticks that go inside concrete to make it strong). Returning to a project, being able to continue work I’d begun, something I was finding satisfying and educational, was amazing.

Yesterday was the penultimate day of the step project. Tal (the labour coordinator) brought in a concrete mixing tray, and we spent the morning mixing gravel, sand, concrete mix, and water to make concrete. We used a lot of baking comparisons that day; the bright orange sand as turmeric, etc. It felt weird, but to actually begin making the step we’d been preparing for all this time was great – the baking tin of the wooden frame was being filled in. Thankfully we had extra help on concrete day, because though Jenny and I are pretty capable, concrete is really heavy and rough, and this meant we could alternate jobs with Ele and Tal. By lunchtime, we all felt so invested in this step, all the hours of sweat and laughter and work, that we continued past 12 so we could finish. Levelling off the final layer, making it as smooth as possible and carving our initials in, I finally understood why people willingly do labour. At home, my parents have a smallholding (a few fields, some chickens and sheep) and there have always been opportunities for me to pitch in with the garden and maintenance work there. But I’ve avoided it, partly because I know my dad is capable on his own, and partly because I don’t feel the attraction or enjoyment. Building this step opened my eyes to what it means to undertake work, push yourself, learn new skills, and come out with a final result that you’re really happy with. The smoothness of that step is testament to the work we put in. No longer will people trip on their way to the freezer, no longer will those with limited leg mobility have to walk further, no longer will those steps be avoided. We’ve done something, contributed to the AMS campus and left a permanent mark on this place. A proof that we were here. A proof that we worked, and we did it well. A proof that we learned something. A proof that labour is, after all, valuable.

Tomorrow, we’re going to take the wooden frame off, and the step will (hopefully) be dry and functional. I can’t wait for that first moment, where I put my weight on it, and know that I made this. I worked, with my friends and teachers, to create something useful, something longer-lasting than the kale we picked for lunch.

In the future: please call Jenny and I for all your step-building needs.