I have really come a long way from the days when I edited the print journal, Caelum et Terra, the remote predecessor to this blog. Back then, and even for most of the blog’s history, I wrote with a fountain pen in a spiral notebook and sent the pages to Maclin and Karen Horton, who typed them into the computer that they used to produce the magazine, or entered it onto the blog. I did not get onto a computer until 2002, when I did some genealogical research at the library. Eventually Maclin stopped posting here and I had to learn how to work a blog. Not too hard, even for a technological moron like me. And fortunately, I knew how to type, as a friend and I at around fourteen years of age realized that by taking a typing class we would be surrounded by girls.
In the days of the print journal I was something of a luddite. We ran articles espousing farming with horses and organic agriculture and pieces critical of the automobile, and I wrote articles against the use of technology in worship- microphones, electric light, polyester vestments, etc – and published the musings of a young Catholic man who was living primitively on the outskirts of a very strict Old Order Mennonite community.
The reason I favored limited technology was simple: I had in the past lived very close to the natural world, had done hard work with hand tools, drawn water from a well, lived without electricity, pooped in an outhouse.
And it was beautiful, profoundly satisfying.
This was particularly true when it came to manual labor. There is a direct relationship between how simple the tool is and how pleasurable the work is. And understand that by ‘pleasurable’ I mean a particular sort of pleasure, one that is not incompatible with sore limbs.
I have put up hay using a horse drawn wagon, forming haystacks with pitchforks, which is something of an art.
First the sweet-smelling hay is raked into rows, and the horses and men walk along, loading as much hay onto the fork as they can, then swinging the heavy forkful over their heads in a circular motion into the wagon. Then it is unloaded, the growing stack being thatched in such a way that when it is finished it will shed water, so the hay will not rot. It is quiet and clean labor, and the motion graceful, the whole thing an act of good work.
And I have put up hay using a tractor and a baling machine. It is loud and the cut hay from the machine is scratchy. The air smells like tractor fuel fumes and the movement of lifting the heavy bales and tossing them into the wagon, while not without its satisfactions, hardly rivals the graceful arc of the forkful of hay, a movement accompanied by the sound of horses and pitchforks digging into grass.
I could cite other instances: trimming bushes with long-bladed clippers vs using electric trimmers, driving nails with a hammer into two by fours vs using a nail gun, splitting wood with an ax vs using a splitting machine.
Hand work with simple tools is contemplative and graceful. There is a deep satisfaction in simple things well done. Loud machines spewing noxious odors militate against mindfulness.
They are also, alas, very often so much more efficient and less time consuming that it is hard to argue against the technological ‘improvement’. Cutting wood with a bow saw may be a sweeter experience than using a chain saw, but the time and effort saved are certainly hard to argue with.
I may concede, even if I mourn the passing of beauty.
But not always.
I can think of no stupider tool than the leaf blower.
It is loud. It is stinky. It consumes finite resources. It is not one whit faster than using a rake. The person wielding the blower does not get much in the way of exercise at all, and this in an age of concern over obesity .
And what is lost: the graceful sweep of the rake, the lovely sound of the leaves, like the sound of waves, the health benefits of the dance of raking, the conversation and camaraderie .
Sometimes technology makes sense, at least in terms of time and effort saved.
And sometimes it is just stupid. .
Painting by Ohio artist Megan Lightell.