Thursday, March 14, 2013

My Tao of Tools

We found each other on Craigslist and met for the first time in a Hannaford parking lot. He showed up in another guy's truck, made lots of noise and drank gas—first pull. I was impressed, and let him climb into the back of my truck. He was mine now. His good looks had me fooled.

As soon as we got home, things started to go downhill. He's had wheels fall off, belts break, shoots come undone, axles come out of line and chains run off their gears. He's reliable when it comes to two things, making noise and drinking gas—first pull, every damn time.

We typically hangout on cold, dark snowy nights after I come home tired, having spent time out with other more dependable machines. Maybe he's jealous. Maybe he's trying to get revenge.

I can force him to run. I throw him on his back, expose his guts, poke, prod, tighten a belt, reset a chain. He'll work... for a random amount of time between belly rubs. He'll throw powder far enough for the wind to boomerang it back into my face and chuck rocks hard enough that I leave the dog in the house.  Least endearing of all,  when it comes to wet snow, he gobbles it up and spews it back onto himself, dribbling it down his side and back into the driveway. He's an unreliable drunk that should have come with a shovel and ibuprofen.

A few storms ago I put him away for the winter. Stuck him under the chicken coop. We're taking a break. This summer, when its warm and easier to work on our relationship outdoors, we'll go through some rehab. Together. I'll listen to what he has to say, and we'll decide if we want to continue or if its time to move on. I may go back to the shovel. A nice, quiet, dependable shovel. 

He just might be my first and last snowblower.

Sure I could fork over the cash for a machine with more shine, an engine with more horses and tires with bigger knobs. I'd like to think with a little time, some attention when it isn't dark and snowy, I'm could get the guy I currently have running perfectly well to do the job. But is either option worth it? Could a shovel actually be better?

An article I recently read in Orion has led to me pondering this question a little more deeply. The author, Paul Kingsworth, applies much of his attention to the brushcutter vs. the scythe, but you could apply his words to most any complex machine vs. its simple predecessor. A wood splitter vs. a maul, a lawnmower vs. a manual push reel mower, a chainsaw vs. an axe and so on.

A brushcutter is essentially a mechanical scythe. It is a great heavy piece of machinery that needs to be operated with both hands and requires its user to dress up like Darth Vader in order to swing it through the grass. It roars like a motorbike, belches out fumes, and requires a regular diet of fossil fuels. It hacks through the grass instead of slicing it cleanly like a scythe blade. It is more cumbersome, more dangerous, no faster, and far less pleasant to use than the tool it replaced. And yet you see it used everywhere: on motorway verges, in parks, even, for heaven’s sake, in nature reserves. It’s a horrible, clumsy, ugly, noisy, inefficient thing. So why do people use it, and why do they still laugh at the scythe?
To ask that question in those terms is to misunderstand what is going on. Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better; they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes toward technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point: the religion of complexity. The myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up.
I'll admit to enjoy certain levels of motorized technology. While I'd be perfectly willing to fell all my firewood trees by axe, I'm not yet willing to give up my chainsaw when its comes to cutting all my pieces to 16" lengths. In my defense, I plan on being 70 and still splitting all my logs with a maul, hopefully even the same one, albeit with handle that's been replaced from time to time.

Back to the snowblower vs. the shovel, as soon as I put the noisemaker to bed, and grabbed my steel grain shovel from the chicken coop, I felt life simplify. What a peaceful way to enjoy a snowy night. I carved perfect edges along both sides of my driveway Shoveled the snowbanks at both entrances, taking pride in the towering mounds my hard work produced. Since I started splitting firewood by hand, I thought nothing would compare to the zen-like relaxation I found with a maul in my hands. Shoveling my driveway on a snowy night came close.

My penchant for simplification will continually be tested and my motivations will vary. Sometimes a lack of resources will be a factor, but just as important will be my happiness. Why break the silence of newly fallen snow? A big test will be coming soon; an entryway addition is being planned on Dundee and digging the foundation is one of the first steps. Do I hire it out, rent a machine or dig it by hand. I'm favoring the latter. 

All of this goes hand-in-hand with one of my more important goals for this year, improving the craft of  my tool care. I hung a new handle on my splitting maul last month and such a simple task was surprisingly rewarding, as I breathed new life into such an important yet simple tool. That hardened piece of steel and straight strong hickory handle keeps my home warm. Likewise, sharpening chisels and saw chains, honing a plane, tool storage and organization, buying the right tools, ignoring the luxurious ones I don't need, and last but not least, taking care of the most important tool I have, my own self, will all be important if this place I call home is going to grow in the ways I dream.  


  1. Nice piece. If you want to take a stab at the summer scythe, just give me a ring. We have a few extra in Sandwich, just 'cross them Mountains from your place. Hope to see you sometime soon! Hope you're well.

  2. You're commented posted as "Unknown" but I would love to know who this is... Send me an e-mail if you'd like... Thanks for the comment!

  3. This is the next best thing to a honda snow blower. Much healthier than shoveling.