Of Tools and the Incarnate Condition

by Jason Peters on August 19, 2009 · 10 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Region & Place

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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar cecelia August 19, 2009 at 12:40 am

Jason Peters – that was one exquistie essay. Thank you for the pleasure it gave me to read it. I say this as the current owner of three generations of dollies, vases and old quilts as well as a much used 27 year old craftsmen reel mower – younger than me – but still a great tool.

avatar Bob Cheeks August 19, 2009 at 5:33 am

You are the Dude! The T.S. Eliot of the FPR. You, sir, turn a phrase and make-a da story…and it’s the story that provides the spice to existential tension.
The reel mower pic made me reel…The Story:
I was born and raised along the northern edges of the Irishtown neighborhood of East Liverpool, Ohio because my old man couldn’t get my mother outta there. We rented an old two story wood frame designed specifically to allow the winter winds to blow through the house in interesting and intricate patterns. However, it was how the house was picturesquely situated on one end of a rather large, hillside, lot that never failed to impress the careful observer. That is, the house was built on the only flat land available while the ‘yard’ was all hillside.
My task, assigned by the old man who was a no nonsense Union dozer operator and a hard core veteran of the “Bulge” was to cut that damned hill with a reel mower that had been stored for a hundred and thirty years in the dirt-floored cellar.
It was there, on that hillside, wrapped around that ancient reeled scythe that I learned of hard work, sweat, and prohibited language. As the years went by and I got larger, the cutting job was less difficult, but it was always, to some degree, a hard job.
In 1959 the gummint did what my old man couldn’t. They got my mother outta Irishtown when they came with shovels, Euks, and dozers and tore down my heritage and put in a ‘bypass’ that bypassed East Liverpool and created, with the mind-numbing foresight of the state economic planning commission, a southeastern Ohio ghost town.
In the course of things I’ve always thought of the roar of a Briggs and Stratton as musical but there’s something deep within that looks back to those days and in a quiet voice asks if I’d do it again, already knowing the answer.
Sometime, dude, I’ll tell you about my concupiscence desire for Spring when flowers blossomed, the air warmed, and beets come in. And when Stella Skaleski Smith, the progeny of Ukrainian immigrants fleeing Stalin, would set the whole neighborhood to smelling of a mouth watering, homemade, BORSCHT.

avatar Alethea August 19, 2009 at 8:15 am

I appreciate your article. Mama tends to de-junk whenever possible, and Daddy is a packrat (inherited from his parents, who gave us a bus stop sign that they used to wait by)–there is a balance between keeping and letting go, but we ought not to let go and send away merely because of tight quarters. I own my great-grandmother’s hope chest, have inheritance dibs on various of my grandmothers’ pretty things, and hope to pass them on to my children.

Thank you for offering the theology of preserving one’s inheritance!

avatar Weasly Pilgrim August 19, 2009 at 9:02 am

My grandfather was north-eastern Ohio Amish, but left the church when he was 17. He held a succession of different jobs as he made his way in the world, all of them requiring tools of one sort or another. He was a coal miner for a while; I inherited his carbide lamp. He was a steeplejack; I don’t have any of those tools. He worked for a short time as a machinist; I have a pair of inside and outside calipers from that period. He installed and serviced furnaces; I have a pair of large mercury thermometers and a sling psychometer he used.

My grandfather was diabetic, and by the time I came along, he was already going blind and starting to have difficulty walking. I never knew him as the amazingly strong and vigorous man he had once been. But I have a few of his tools, as do my uncles and cousins, and we each treasure them for what memories of Pop and Grandpa they evoke. I have little use for the miner’s lamp. but I still take it down from the shelf where it sits to handle it and remember the man who spent entire days underground in the dark, lying on his side in a narrow seam as often as not, swinging a pick and working a shovel to extract black diamonds from the earth. I’ve even burned it a couple times, though the flame is yellow now instead of brilliant white, dimming perhaps in tribute to his legacy.

He was proud of his children and grandchildren. He wanted them to have his things. We do, and in having them, we somehow have him. He died in 1994, but we can remember him as we never knew him, through these things that he handled and used and cared for.

Thank you for this essay. Exquisite certainly fits. Sublime, maybe? That last paragraph brings to mind my very favorite C. S. Lewis essay, The Weight Of Glory. Yours might be a counterpoint to his: “Don’t let anyone tell you that you are mere spirit” versus “Don’t let anyone tell you that you are mere body.”

avatar Mike at The Big Stick August 19, 2009 at 9:36 am

Great post! I also inherited a lot of tools from my forebearers. One thing I have learned about using my father’s tools (he passed when I was 21 and left me a treasure-trove of tools) is that they help center me when i’m working. I always start a project by asking myself, “How would Dad have done this?” and things tend to turn out better.

I rarely ever visit my father’s grave…but I connect with him whenever I use his tools, or wear his old field jacket, or fire his shotgun. I suspect it’s been this way since the first hunter passed a few spear points on to his son.

avatar Jason Peters August 19, 2009 at 9:48 am

I might have mentioned—perhaps should have mentioned—that I had Scott Russell Sanders’ essay, “The Inheritance of Tools” (from The Paradise of Bombs), very much on my mind when I wrote this. Sanders is better with a pen than all of us, and maybe better with a short cut saw as well, and his essay is great pleasure to read—especially if you love the heft of an ancestral hammer or the worn feel of an old awl.

avatar D.W. Sabin August 19, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Your Faith gets me every time because it is ornery and orneryness is next to ..well…orneryness I suppose.
I think Bros. Abbey rubbed off on you to good advantage. We won’t tell him though. He might get ornery.
I have grandpappy’s Locomotive Wrenches sitting in the homemade box in my noisome basement and even though the Buicks were the only cars with an open engine compartment big enough to use them, I had to stop because I dropped one on the fender and even 55 Buick Steel aint thick enough to withstand these monsters.

There really is nothing quite so full of sensuous pleasures as cutting the grass with an old Craftsman…the smell of the grass, the pleasant scraping noise of the blades and the jangling bobble of the bearings. If the American Lawn were sized only to that area possible to complete a mowing with push mower…and the rest turned over to more productive use…..just think.

“Bodiless Powers envying us” our “incarnate joy” . Isn’t humble affirmation grand?

“complete jerk of a father”………somehow I doubt it.

avatar Thomas G. August 20, 2009 at 2:42 am


This paragraph:

“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.”

May just be the best damn thing I have read all year. Well done.

Reading your essay made me want to pour myself a bourbon, and pull out Ted Kooser’s “Delights and Shadows”. His poem “A Jar of Buttons” perfectly captures the essence of what you were getting at in this essay.

A Jar of Buttons – by Ted Kooser

This is a core sample
from the floor of the Sea of Mending,

a cylinder packed with shells
that over many years

sank through fathoms of shirts -
pearl buttons, blue buttons -

and settled together
beneath waves of perseverance,

an ocean upon which
generations of women set forth,

under the sails of gingham curtains,
and, seated side by side

on decks sometimes salted by tears,
made small but important repairs.

from Delights and Shadows, 2004
Copper Canyon Press
go buy it if you don’t already own it

avatar Scott August 20, 2009 at 1:00 pm

If only my step-dad had used a reel mower instead of his riding mower when I was in a teenaged coma at 11am on a Saturday morning. I’m sure if all we had was a reel mower, mowing the 3/4 acre yard would’ve been my job instead of his. He tried to teach me on the riding mower at one point, but when I almost took his foot off, he decided it might be better if he continued mowing the lawn.

avatar Hans Noeldner September 3, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Hi Jason:

What an eloquent posting! I too have come to love reel lawnmowers and have acquired quite a few, via eBay (at prices considerably higher than $5, alas!) As best I can tell, the best ones made were all manufactured by Yard Man and marketed under a number of brands including Sears and Scotts. Then Agri-Fab bought the design and tooling, but the quality and finish were not as good. After Agri-Fab discontinued production, the tooling was purchased by an Amish guy (the Amish don’t want no junk!). You can buy them at Amishlawnmower.com

Backlapping is really a pleasure, I’m surprised you didn’t mention it. In fact sharpening in general is a valuable historical skill well worth resuscitating.

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