John Henry (21st Century Version)

One recent morning, our new neighbor discovered a fallen tree across her driveway. Blocked in; husband out of town; couldn’t get their chainsaw started; did we know any tree guys? Well, yeah, but not cheap, and not likely to be quick about it. 

I went out to take a look. The sweet smell of red oak, freshly broken open; about 16 inches in diameter where it crossed the driveway. Hmm. I bet we can handle this. 

I have three large log-cutting saws mounted on the wall of our living room. Two are ancient—six-foot two-person cross cut saws, one from each of my grandfathers. The paternal one is covered with enough rust scale to render it useless as a tool, but the maternal one is in good shape except for the dry-rotted handles. It has been used in this century; that’s when one weakened handle broke. Someday, I will make new ones. 

The third saw I bought new, 40-some years ago. It’s about three feet long, variously called a one-person cross-cut or a bucking saw. Straight from the factory, it was a disaster—teeth filed to random lengths and with no “set.” I had to re-file all the teeth and, lacking a saw set for such large teeth, set them with a small hammer. It took me years of off-and-on effort to get it working reasonably well. That’s the tool I took off the wall. 

The saw did me proud. In fact, I cannot remember a time that it cut better. We moved the secondary handle into two-person mode, and with the neighbor on one end and me on the other, we made short work of that oak.

The Saw and the Tree

Later that same morning, Nancy and I were removing leaves from our cul de sac. Nancy, with “her” leaf blower, would push them up into a dense pile. Then I would use a leaf rake to move the pile to the curb. Nancy was amused that I preferred the leaf rake, and mentioned Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel (old vs. new technology). I countered with John Henry against the steam drill (man vs. machine). 

It’s not nearly the same, of course. Mike Mulligan and John Henry, and the Luddites before them, were concerned about job security. While I have sometimes jumped onto a self-righteous soapbox, in truth my issues are merely personal preference. 

I don’t object to modern power tools. I have written before about our electrically-powered “Goat.” Additionally, we own two leaf blowers, a string trimmer, and a lawn mower—all cordless electrics with 21st-century battery and control technology. But there are times when a simpler tool works better for me. Take the task of moving leaves. 

I like my blower. (We have “his” and “hers;” hers is a later purchase, more powerful and quieter than mine.) They are great for moving a light density of leaves into piles or windrows. But when the pile gets large, a stream of air seems an inefficient way to make progress. That’s when I prefer a leaf rake and a tarp.

Nancy keeps reminding me how her physiology is different than mine—the mechanics of using the leaf rake don’t come easily to her. (This from the woman who can sit or crouch for hours at a time pounding paver bricks level with a rubber mallet. For me, ten minutes of that would have my back in torment. Different physiology.) If I had been elsewhere that morning, she would have finished the job just fine with her blower. She might have needed to draw on her backup battery, but that’s what it’s for.

What I most object to in fall leaf cleanup is the second hand noise of others doing the job with an ear-splitting gasoline-powered blower. I recently saw a cartoon in which a group of lab-coated types were staring at a whiteboard covered with formulas and diagrams. At the top of the board was the project goal: Design a quiet leaf blower. And one scientist was saying to the rest that they should give up and move on to something feasible, such as putting man on Mars. As I said earlier, we own two quiet blowers, so I know it is possible to move air with force and little noise—IF you are not wedded to gasoline engines. 

We have discussed getting a chain saw. Maybe one is in our future, but so far, I have resisted. Partly, I am not convinced that our need is great enough to justify the expense because most of what I cut can be easily done with a pruning saw. Then there is the safely angle.  A chainsaw is a dangerous tool at best. On our steep terrain, with me at an age when balance begins to decline, is it worth the risk? If I ever succumb to the lure of a chainsaw, it will almost certainly be a cordless electric. Noise is only part of my aversion to gasoline engines; their care and feeding is at least as big a drawback. My electric tools always start and never leave oily smells on my skin and clothing.

I recently encountered a website devoted to use of the scythe for haying and maintaining farm pastures. I once owned a scythe, sold it, regretted that decision, bought another. For some uses, I have not found a better tool. The website reinforced for me how little I know about using and, most especially, sharpening a scythe. I had never heard of peening one. I am not even sure that my cheap blade, stamped, not forged, is capable of being peened. I have had my scythe out a few times since we moved here, unsuccessfully tackling the mess in my meadow. Now I am inspired to keep trying. One thing’s for certain—I am not buying a gasoline-powered mowing monster for that meadow. We will find another way.

I have three antique wooden bodied woodworking planes, also displayed in our living room with the saws. One is missing its handle; one is structurally compromised; all are fussy to use, lacking the adjusting screws and levers of your basic metal-bodied Stanley from 150 years ago. I am not masochist enough to try to use them for real work, yet proud to say I have been able to coax a few good shavings from each. And, yes, there are web pages devoted to using wood-bodied planes, or even making your own. Maybe, someday.

Two closing thoughts: First, the author of the scything website mentioned that, for him, swinging a scythe across his meadow was a form of meditation. I get that. I have come as close to a meditative state while using hand tools as I ever did while practicing centering prayer. (Aside: This week’s Economist has an obituary on Fr. Thomas Keating, the father of centering prayer.) 

Second, to repeat, I maintain and use hand tools because I enjoy them. There is a special pleasure in felling a dead tree with my grandfather’s crosscut saw, or filing and setting the teeth on my bucking saw. Some fish. Some travel. Some read or knit or train bonsai. A former work colleague studied string theory for fun. No John Henry am I, no Paul Bunyan. Just a dilettante having fun.

2 thoughts on “John Henry (21st Century Version)”

  1. In a student program in Olympic National Park I was one of a duo on a buck saw competing against a chain saw. We won. We built a cabin from the local materials in the park.

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