Of Tools and the Incarnate Condition


Mower 2

(Craftsman Reel Mower Among the Impatienses Photo by The Bar Jester)

Rock Island, IL

The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance, but the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the boghoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field.

–Henry David Thoreau

It may be true, as the Hebrew scriptures teach, that children are an inheritance from the Lord, and blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them, but it is also true that tools are an inheritance from our fathers, and blessed is the man whose crib or machine shed is full of them.

There’s a theology to this, and an ontology too, and I’ll get ’round at least to the former, but let it be established at the start that the inheritance of tools—not so much of machines, though there’s a theology there as well, but of tools—is one of life’s great boons.

I acknowledge that there’s a distaff side to all this. My espoused saint has many heirlooms and keepsakes that have descended to her from her mother, her grandmothers, and more recently from her late sister, and I acknowledge the value of these keepsakes. I honor their place in our domicile. But what interests me here has aught to do with doilies and vases, rings and necklaces and armoires.

What interests me is the fluting tool that once belonged to Dietrich Peters, a taciturn first-generation German farmer, about whom I would not be writing had his forebears remained in the Ukraine to starve in Stalin’s artificial famine that claimed, by some estimates, ten million people in one year. I have never shaved so much as a single curl of hard fragrant cherry with this fluting tool, and perhaps I never will, but I often take it down from its shelf above my workbench to handle it, feel the heft of it, admire its design, and clean it. A stranger once offered me a lot of money for it. Money! Hah!

I also own a pine tool box this same grandfather made. There’s a hinged lid on top restricted by two small chains on either side, and beneath them are two drawers. I keep it beside my reading chair, near the fireplace, and use it as a little table to rest my tumbler on. I remember once my uncle was visiting us—my grandfather’s youngest son—and he eyed the tool box. This is the uncle who still lives on the ancestral farm and tends to the second of two tractors my grandfather owned. He must have been wondering how his overeducated no-account nephew came into possession of so prized a vestige. I could have shown him the farmer’s cap—the old green cap—that also belonged to Grandpa Peters, or the bibs, or the barn jacket, or the fluting tool, or the sockets and ratchet, but I didn’t. What if the farm itself, its tractor and fields and river and buildings, were an insufficient birthright?

My maternal grandfather, the hardware man, left to me two drawer sets from the original Briggs True Value hardware store—the sort of drawers you find in the nuts and bolts aisle. Need a 3/16 flat washer? I have the drawer. He also left me a barn jacket, a “battry” tester, as the box says, marked in his hand and phonetically faithful to his pronunciation of the word, and a wood planer still in very good shape, which I keep near the assorted c-clamps that were also his. My drywall hammer—his, and one of my jack knives too.

Interestingly enough there is not a power tool to be found among the things left to me from my grandfathers. Perhaps it is a cultural marker that I do own a power mower my father bought, a front-wheel-drive Toro that must be close to thirty years old now. I’ve replaced the drive wheels, drive belt, and drive cable and, with the help of my octogenarian neighbor, Tony, ground the valves. I keep the air filter and the oil clean and the blade sharp. When my elder son was about four he was tugging at the rip cord. He could barely pull it out of the recoil wheel, but damn me if the thing didn’t start on him once. Scared the shit out of both of us. The mower still runs very well, though on diminished compression, and I will use it a couple times a year if I want to catch some grass clippings and add them to the compost pile.

But these little gas engines are pretty dirty. You have to drive a new car a long way (over 300 miles, I hear tell) to equal the amount of pollution one of these old Briggs and Strattons (no relation) will put out on a single job, so some time ago I took to cutting my grass with a reel mower. Another octogenarian neighbor had one hanging in her garage and, seeing that I fancied it, was glad to let me take it off her hands. It was an old Toro, by my guess about forty years old, and still in pretty good shape. I adjusted the bed knife tension so that the blades on the reel would hit it just so—it’s a job you do not by sight but by sound—and used the mower for several years.

Then I began buying reel mowers whenever I found them at garage sales. I’d gentile the seller down to about five bucks, take the mower home, get it into working order, and give it to someone I knew would use it. My buddy Scott has the best one I ever came across and a boy old enough to push it now. The boy’s my godson, so by God he’d better use it.

What I like about these mowers, aside from the fact that they do a great job on grass, is that you can use them on wet turf at five o’clock in the morning. The mower doesn’t care whether the grass is wet or dry, and the neighbors have no idea you’re mowing your lawn. They don’t hear a thing.

Once I was cutting my front yard, and two old women came walking by. “You’re getting your exercise and saving the environment!” one of them exclaimed, thus perpetuating two misconceptions at once. A reel mower isn’t any more difficult to push than a heavier gas-engine mower, and I’m not really “saving” the “environment.” It is true that I’m doing less damage to the air and therefore to myself by using this mower, and it is also true that I’m reaping a small benefit I wouldn’t be reaping were I to use my self-propelled Toro, but what I’m really doing is enjoying the use of a tool as opposed to a machine. There’s none of the brute unitelligence of a gas mower here. This reel mower—this old Craftsman that I’m using now—is almost like a musical instrument. I’d sooner have my kids play the Craftsman than the clarinet.

In the garage attic I have another reel mower, an older one in even better shape than this one. The bed knife is true and the reel stock plentiful. It will sing for me as soon as I can find the time to fabricate a back roller for it.

I have seen the new reel mowers for sale here and there and even tried a few of them out. Near as I can tell, they’re all junk. My advise is, find an old one at a garage sale—find a mower older than yourself—learn to adjust it, and then take a walk early some Saturday morning. Light a cigar to mark the occasion.

My children will each inherit a reel mower, and unless I turn out to be a complete jerk of a father, they will probably cherish the inheritance as I cherish the “battry” tester and the fluting tool.

And why is that?

Because the fullness of man is the incarnate condition. The fullness of man is life in this world, life lived among things. We crave presence. We crave not just memories of things but things once owned by those we love, things to which the memories attach. We kiss pictures and fold old quilts gently, put them away with a twinge of pain that is also an exquisite kind of joy. The Bodiless Powers envy us that joy, that incarnate joy.

Memory is good, and we must cultivate it, but it doesn’t thrive in the airy regions of thought and spirit alone. It thrives in the world of things. It thrives by touch and by smell especially and by the grace of objects—objects that convey the personhood of the absent benefactor. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are mere spirit. Half truths are also half lies. They do a lot of damage, cause a lot of mischief, and cut us off from those who would be remembered in things once touched and at last relinquished.

  • Share: