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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Suitable tools

[an edited re-post]

My father's "tiller" was a big machine like the front end of an Allis-Chalmers tractor; it had water-filled tractor-tread wheels that were as tall as I was, and with it he pulled a small but quite real single-moldboard plow. It lasted for two decades.

Our first tiller, bought from a hardware store in 1977, lasted just two years shy of two decades. We practically farmed with this machine, as we never seemed to know when we had "enough" ground in cultivation.

A more recent tiller, however, we used for about twenty hours a few years ago, and then it died of a heart attack.


I know the sound of a piston rod giving up the ghost, but I'm old enough to remember that I should be hearing that sound after three or four hundred hours or more, not twenty.

Our old chain saw, a 1979 Husky, will still cut wood if we get around to putting a new sprocket on it; it fought the Memorial Day fire in Sweet Home, in '82, I think.

A more recent saw, one of those black-and-green things you can buy in a box at discount stores, lasted two weeks.

We think we see a pattern here, and it's one that encourages us to rethink our original reaction to Wendell Berry's advocacy of horse-drawn equipment and scythes. I thought then that he was a bit of a romantic, too much of a purist, a professor playing at farming with a professor's income to fall back on, but I think now that his views will eventually make the most economic sense.

Not to a salesman, to be sure, but to someone who wants to live in the country, not go there every night to sleep and back into town every morning, mind you, but to live in the country. There comes a time when plunking down good money for gadgets that look like labor-savers but ain't -- because they are going to refuse to do the labor -- begins to look like money spent foolishly.

Pick up a garden magazine and the bright ads rave at you about the labor you will save with this machine or that machine, but in the end, Thoreau was right.

He said: "...I start now on foot, and get there before night....You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there sometime tomorrow...if you are lucky enough to get a job in season."

If you have to work for two days, or, ten, or twenty, to earn a tool and it lasts you two, ten, or twenty days under normal conditions, well, you really ought to have investigated the corresponding hand tool and saved half your time!

Yes, Farm Girl's new tiller broke and she took to philosophizing as she turned over the garden with a hay fork and blistered her soft hands: sour grapes we used to call it, per Aesop and his fox.

But blisters heal, hands toughen, the body begins to slim down a bit, and if there's any sunshine to be had, some vitamin D into the bargain. One begins to move like one who one understands work. And anyone who might smirk at the ineptitude with which she yanks, over and over again, at the starter cord of an intractable machine may admire instead, if she reaches into the toolshed for a good fork or spade.

Meanwhile we see articles hither and yon about the disproportionate share that tillers, lawnmowers, chainsaws, edgers, and the like have in the despoiling of the air we breathe. Perhaps -- just perhaps -- we're onto something.

We live where hand-inverted sods resprout at the first hint of rain, which comes almost daily in our spring. So for years we spread black plastic to kill sods. It's very effective, if kept on for five weeks or more.

Technology shouldn't be regarded as either our savior or our nemesis; the key is to use as much of it as necessary to get done what needs to be done, and no more. Now would be the time to rant about ski-mobiles and power boating, but I'm going to presume that the gentle reader would regard this as preaching to the converted -- take it as a compliment to your good sense.

As our power tools fail us one by one, we become more appreciative of hand tools, and abuse them less and less. We have several hammers, a straight 22 oz., a curved 16 oz., a tack hammer, a ball peen, a masonry hammer, and a couple of sledge/maul monsters. And we've become aware that these are not all interchangeable, and discovering why a tool is shaped a particular way pleases us greatly.

We have a brace-and-bit, plane, bench vise and bench grinder all over fifty years old and going strong. The grinder is electric, but it's an old electric, sealed, never needs oiling, perfectly balanced. It can heat up an edged tool very quickly, and we've learned to keep a can full of water handy to sizzle things in, so they won't turn into butter.

As time passes, we're using the grinder less frequently, instead locking tools into the vise and leaning over them with a sharp bastard file, knocking the file against the bench from time to time to shed filings. A file takes a little longer, but it won't destroy temper and you can keep a clean eye on the angle of the cut.

We have five shovels. There's a round-pointed long-handled shovel for digging and ditching, a square-point for scooping up loose material from a flat hard surface, a d-ring-handled tree planting shovel with plates welded to the step for booted work, a more delicate d-ring shovel with an eighteen inch blade, suitable for bulb work, and a British-spade type thing -- a cheap imitation -- but useful for light sod cutting and for mixing things in the wheelbarrow.

One finds, after time, the point of balance with which a shovel can be wielded all day without undue fatigue. After more time, one becomes aware of the subtleties, such as when it's time to file the blade, or how one can put more pressure on a handle that has been linseed-oiled in the last year than can be put on one that hasn't. One begins to take the trouble to carry a shovel to the shade when not in use, to protect the wooden shank from the sun.

Different people have different tool preferences for different techniques.

Beloved carries around a feed sack with a pillow in it, upon which she kneels to work in the garden with her ever-present trowel. I use a kneeling bench and a right-angled trowel.

I get a lot of use out of a pair of pruning shears, thirty years old -- a cheap brand, too -- and a heavy duty pair of limb loppers that have outlasted their wooden handles. I drove the tangs into two three-foot-long three-quarter-inch galvanized pipes, and on these iron legs they have walked with me over the land many times.

To draw out the rolls of stock fencing that have languished for fifty years in the blackberry patch,we use a pair of double block pulleys a hundred years old, with a two-hundred foot length of rope looped back and forth from block to block, giving us our own strength four times over across a distance of fifty feet. This thing beats a modern "come-along" for speed and distance, if power is not all that's wanted. The rope is new, but that other rope lasted us decades; a mysterious thing of true hemp, soaked in creosote by hands long vanished from the earth. We hated to give it up.

There is a footbridge on the place, as a seasonal creek divides it right down the middle, end to end. Across this we go, summer and winter, with the wheelbarrows. A wheelbarrow is an amazing device that can hardly be improved upon. It will negotiate tiny gaps while carrying hundreds of pounds with ease. We bring straw to the barn a bale at a time from the driveway, feeling our way with our feet, unable to see round the bulky loads.

A wheelbarrow imposes a stately gait that adds dignity to any laborer's demeanor.

We bought a five-cubic-foot model at the same time as our old tiller, in 1977, for forty dollars. It has done far more hours of work than the tiller did, and looks fair to outlast us.

Another one, a more recent purchase, shows signs of inferior manufacture, so it does lighter duty. But it's not as apt to give up the ghost, suddenly, as a power tool.

Put the load over the wheel, near the front, to relieve strain on your arms. I have seen student workers at the university, including young men who looked as if they knew these things, simply pretzel themselves round hand trucks and wheelbarrows, which they found as alien as the controls on a spaceship. Maybe more alien. I was reminded of the old Southern joke, "Liza Jane, you get 'way from that wheel barrer, you know you don't know nothin' 'bout machinery."

Every family should have at least two wheelbarrows. We pass, sometimes, Beloved and Farm Girl, like ships in the night, laden with our separate but equal treasures.


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