At age 12, our daughter discovered that our front yard could be more than a place to turn cartwheels. It was also an evergreen source of income. I’d gladly pay her to mow it, which freed me up to tend the garden, pick berries, or fish the river. It’s time, not money, that’s the true currency of a fleeting Michigan summer.  

There was just one problem: she couldn’t the start mower without me. It was a second-hand push model that took three or four Dad-sized yanks before the engine would smoke and sputter to life. 

“Dad,” she’d say, with a bright, pony-tailed sincerity that would soon break hearts other than my own. “What’s up with this thing?”

I suppose it could’ve been a rusty spark plug, clogged fuel filter, or fractured electron transducer shield for all I know. But there’s another answer that I didn’t want to burden her with just yet. The mower wouldn’t start because it’s a household machine – a soulless, unreliable, maddening, and time-consuming piece of mechanical enslavement. 

Own a house, especially in the country, and you’ll feel socially compelled to own plenty of such machines. Chainsaws, snow blowers, rototillers, weed trimmers and leaf blowers are the usual suspects. All ideally useful in their own right, yet all encumbered with hidden costs of maintenance, storage, and repair. The more you own, the more you’ll play wrench jockey to a garage full of expensive, internal combustion ingrates. And the more they’ll burden your spirit like the chains and strong boxes that brought eternal torment to Scrooge’s business partner, Marley.

I’d much rather use hand tools. They’re a better fit for anyone with a gadget and noise-averse personality. More on that shortly. But first, let me present a litany of grievances against the big four gizmos that rural Americans assume they can’t do without:

The Chainsaw: This one tops the list, because it’s the symbol of rural independence and flannel-shirted manhood. After 10 years in the country, I still didn’t have one so my wife decided to intervene. For Christmas, she bought me a small, cute, harmless model that I believe is called a Woodchuck. However, the one thing this Woodchuck wouldn’t do is chuck wood. I simply could not make it start and run any longer than 30 seconds. There was a finicky balance to the choke and throttle settings that forever eluded me. Not so for my big brother, who speaks fluent chainsaw. In his expert hands, the Woodchuck would bark obediently to life.

“Well,” he’d say, “I don’t see anything wrong … with the chainsaw.”

When I finally took the $250 saw into the shop (even my brother couldn’t keep it running for longer than a few minutes) I was told there was indeed a problem. To fix it would cost $150 and even then, there’d be no guarantees.

“Yessir, that’s the trouble with this model,” said the mechanic, with a wistful shake of his head. “They don’t start good, they don’t run good, and they’re not really made to be repaired.”

You don’t say. The saw’s 27-page, five-language owner’s manual had somehow failed to mention that.

Fortunately, if all you need each year is a cord of wood to burn in a fireplace or backyard fire pit, then you don’t need to own or operate a chainsaw. Just find someone who does and help them out. There’s enough Paul/Pauline Bunyans around who love to cut wood, but don’t like to lug, split and stack it. In other words, the unglamorous work that’s well-suited for un-mechanical types. Since unpaid grunt labor is hard to come by, you can negotiate an ample amount of wood in trade for your services.

The snow blower: According to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, the biggest years for snow blower sales come after a severe winter. Yet at least in southwest Michigan, severe winters rarely come back to back. Especially with the onset of climate change, which in the Midwest will bring about warmer winters with more rain than snow in the decades ahead.

For those one or two hard snows a year, I can spend $25 to hire a neighborhood guy with a truck and plow to clear the driveway. For anything less than eight inches, there’s a heaven-sent solution: the Yooper Scooper. It’s named for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where winter snowfall totals can reach 29 feet – explaining why some houses in Houghton-Hancock have doors on the second story.

The Yooper Scooper looks like something my Uncle Mill – he with a flat-top haircut and green Dickies work uniform – would’ve designed on his lunch break at the metal fab shop. It’s a sheet metal scoop connected to an upright handle, like the one on a push lawn mower. You push the snow where you want it, yank back on the scoop, and the load whooshes out clean and easy. No stooping, no heavy exertion, no clutching your chest while someone calls 9-1-1. All for $60, and one good Yooper Scooper can last a lifetime.

The Rototiller: We’ve not bought one of these because the big, hydraulic, rear-tine model that I prefer costs $5,000. Every year I rent one for a half-day ($40) to till my garden — and about every other year, it breaks. Usually, the pull cord snaps off. This requires a 40-minute round trip to the equipment rental store, where I’ll be humiliated by a teenage mechanic in a greasy t-shirt who can fix it in 15 seconds. All that aggravation for one day. Imagine the maintenance headaches a rototiller would require if I owned one for the other 364?

The Leaf Blower: I’ve never owned a leaf blower, but God does so we use his. We live on a corner lot, with a half-mile of open field to the southwest – from whence comes the prevailing wind. On the appointed afternoon in late October, a lusty gale will blow in from the Great Plains. It’s fueled by pure oxygen and bronze-hued sunshine. It must’ve been a divine wind like this that cast Pharaoh’s horses and chariots into the Red Sea. For us, it sweeps clean the yard and deposits 75 percent of our leaves into the vacant field next door. The rest we can clean up with a broom rake and plastic tarp. Which saves me from one of the most pathetic spectacles of 21st century home ownership: that of a harried, middle-aged man chasing four fugitive leaves around the yard with a screaming meemie of a leaf blower strapped to his back.

*****

Now granted, anyone who plows snow, trims trees, or landscapes lawns for a living needs The Big Four power tools and then some. As do farmers, loggers, and ranchers. Yet for those of us with manageable yards or minor acreage, at least some measure of people-powered sanity can prevail. We can “afford” to hand-split the cord of firewood we burn each year. Or use a wheelbarrow – instead of a motorized ATV – to move household quantities of mulch, brush, soil, and stone. Splitting mauls, rakes, hoes, shovels, pitch forks, sledge hammers and pruning saws can do far more than our atrophied notions of labor think they can.

I believe we should redeem hand tools from the marketing-driven notion that they’re obsolete and inferior to “real” tools – the kind with fuel-injected veins and crank-case hearts. Hand tools are not only cheaper, but in terms of our physical and spiritual well-being, far superior to their fossil-fueled brethren. They combine good work with good exercise, and in the words of Wendell Berry, “Run on what you ate for breakfast.” While mastering hand tools does require some measure of patience and practice, so does yoga, fly-fishing, kayaking, surfing, making bread — even making love, for that matter. And I can’t say that I’d prefer a power-tooled substitute for any of the above.

In our chronically sedentary Western world, the physical benefits of working with hand tools can enliven us in ways that drugs for hypertension, anxiety, and depression cannot. There are millions of American workers like me who spend hours on their rear ends in front of a computers – interrupted only by meetings where they sit on their rear ends and talk. There are also a host of recent studies to show that people who sit for hours suffer the highest mortality from heart disease and cancer. Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider “sitting the new smoking,” what we need are more household tools to encourage healthy labor, rather than more machines to “save” us from it.

Beyond that, there’s a spiritual benefit to quiet work done in a natural setting that hand tools help amplify. A hand tool, especially one with a wooden handle, directly transmits to our muscles and sinews the holy heft and grit of creation. You feel the twang of rake tines as they comb through leaves, grass, and gravel. The clean rasp of a spade as it cuts through sod and bites into the subsoil. The scuffle of a hoe as it loosens clods and culls weeds from a garden. Even the gentle snick of loppers as they prune an apple tree adds sensory pleasure to the task at hand.

With their low-decibel modesty, hand tools keep us grounded in the humane limits of our strength. A hand tool stops working when you do; no kill switch necessary, no hearing protection needed to protect us from the latent animus of a machine. When I swing a hand scythe around my bee hives, I can still hear the scree of a hawk overhead (around 40 decibels) or the slither of a garter snake in the tall grass. Who could detect such subtleties above the banshee wail of a 110-decibel leaf blower?

In C.S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters, an old devil, Screwtape, gives instruction to a young devil, Wormwood, on how to subvert the Creator’s plan for love and harmony. Among his strategies, he suggests that Wormwood incite in humans a lust for constant noise as a means to distract them from things above.

“We will the make the whole universe a noise in the end … we have already made great strides in this direction with regards to the earth,” Screwtape says. “The melodies and silences of heaven will be shouted down. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.”

Keep in mind that Lewis wrote this before television, let alone computers and smart phones. I believe it’s a fiction of our age to think that we can effectively multitask, especially with matters of the spirit. Either we create room for silence and wisdom – which rarely yells and usually whispers – or we don’t. As Screwtape explains, “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds; in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”

Of course, how you pass this knowledge on to your kids without sounding like a mothballed-scented crank is another matter. Young people naturally love new things, because they’re less invested than adults in what came before. Even so, I’d assumed that my bookish daughter would share my aversion toward steely beings with a crank-case heart. I begged her to try my beloved hand clippers – the ones that make a musical snip-snip when I trim grass around a tree. She just asked why we don’t own a weed-whacker.

Then, when I returned from a business trip, she dropped this bomb: “Dad, guess what? I started the mower without you!” 

Like last year’s cell phone, my services had been rendered obsolete. Which, I suppose, is the whole point of parenthood. Give kids the tools and let them make of the world what they will. I don’t suppose they’ll do any worse than we did.

Nonetheless, for every generation I hope there will be room for outdoor work that’s quiet and careful. The kind done as much for enjoyment as for the tally of leaves raked or weeds hoed. The kind done with simple, honest tools that are content to make human hands their master.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture

9 COMMENTS

  1. Leaf blowers — ugh!!!!! A few years back I came very close to asking a relative, “Why the hell do you need one of those godawful things when you have three teenage sons?”

  2. Thank you! I am a lifelong disciple of hand tools. Power tools have a place, but that place is almost never in the hands of someone working on their own home. Quiet is so rare these days; why destroy it to mow a few square yards of suburbia or blow leaves about six feet from where they’re lying?

    My mother gave us a leaf blower for Christmas three years ago. As far as she knows, we use it often, when in fact we sent it to Goodwill in its unopened box. I work in an office, with a window, which means that at least once a week I have to endure the infernal noise of the ground crew blowing what few leaves fall from the five or six trees that separate the building from the parking lot. They blow the leaves from the lawn into the parking lot, where the wind then takes them and blows them back. Rakes and bags would be more efficient, less polluting and noisy, and provide useful compost, but apparently the landscapers find such things insufficiently manly. Apparently the Y chromosome in some people requires loud noise and gasoline-stink to function.

    • Yes, Karen, I would agree that in many cases lawn equipment can be a problem in search of a solution. I can totally picture a mini-cyclone of leaves whirling from a parking lot back into the yard. Which — conveniently — necessitates more leaf-blowing from the hired landscape crew the following week. And you may be onto something about the Y-chromosomal motivations for owning more equipment. Once a guy lines his garage wall with peg board, it’s all over — he’s duly compelled to fill up the blank spaces with evermore gizmos. Home Depot here we come!

  3. Up here in northeastern Vermont we need that chain saw and truck plow. Leaf blower and snow blower? not so much. but I enjoyed Tom’s article and argument. I wouldn’t let my daughter go out on dates until she could change a truck tire. I am reminded of Andrew Nelson Lytle’s earnest injunction (in I’ll Take My Stand, 1930) : “Throw down the radio, and take the fiddle from the wall.”

  4. Thanks, John. My big brother lives about 150 yards away, so I can rely on him for chainsaw projects, which I guess makes me a fossil-fuel co-dependent. But I write slow enough as it is, and really need my two hands and 10 fingers to function at full capacity. I don’t have a truck, but I did teach my two girls to start a campfire with minimal kindling and a match or two — which usually impresses boys and girls alike who think you need a quart of lighter fluid.

  5. Thanks, Nick. Now I know what to get my chicken-raising brother for Christmas (rotting flesh, for sure). I also think that a roll-on deodorant scented with WD-40 or fresh asphalt (I worked on an asphalt during crew a glorious, beer-sodden summer after high school and hot asphalt fumes make me rhapsodic) would be ideal for occasions that call for a certain petroleum-fueled revelry.

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