A gardener or farmer’s relationship with a tool goes well beyond practical utility. If a tool lasts long enough and has accompanied you through enough laborious jobs, trust and adoration begins. Perhaps it is because there are so many poorly made tools out there. One certainly comes to expect short-term relationships; in the world of horticulture, the peaceful stepping stone paths are paved with broken and shattered handles.
My first love affair was with a Razorback trenching shovel. The v-shaped spade was red, with a 5” wide blade that cut the soil with truth and beauty. The pointed tip expertly slashed through hard ground, tough tree roots, and bound sod. The wooden handle could withstand amazing amounts of torque and offered me all the leverage I could ask for. This shovel spoke to me so much so that I etched “trust me” at the base of the wooden shaft. My love for Old Trusty grew as my use of him diversified. I began using him for jobs normally undertaken by rakes, pitchforks, and pick axes. He was never far from reach. I took him camping, not for practicality, but because he loved the mountain air.
His simple assurance of “trust me” never failed in the 5 years that he was with me. As I ended my time at the university I worked at, I was faced with a brutal decision. Technically Old Trusty was not my property. I contemplated smuggling him out, with visions of the two of us striking out across the country, on the lam and in love. But I detest thievery, and I knew I could not implicate him in my crime. Then I thought that as a final act, we would dig a trench and I would lay him in and gently push the soil over him. The calluses he tenderly gave me would be the last to touch his well-worn handle. I didn’t do this. It seemed too extreme, even for true love, and I realized the selfishness of taking his love of hard work away. Instead I said an emotional goodbye, placed him in his proper place in the shed and walked away, never to look back.
I now have another Razorback 5” v-shaped red spaded trenching shovel, but I don’t feel the spark. This one doesn’t speak to me. It is practical and useful and a good shovel, but the emotional connection isn’t there, partly because I could never make a cuckold out of Old Trusty.
If Old Trusty was my first love, my Felco #2 hand bypass pruners are the love of my life, my soul mate. They are the tool I want to grow old with. They’ve been with me for almost nine years. Like most relationships, at first I took them for granted and thought them little more than a well-made tool. As the years passed, the slow burn of respectful love grew. They hang at my right side, ready for action as I pull them from their leather holster. They selflessly perform any task I require, many times outside of their job description. They are simply and elegantly designed. Their craftsmanship and strength is unmatched.
One of the simple pleasures in my life is to completely dissemble, meticulously clean, grease, sharpen, and reassemble my snips. I did not realize how deeply intimate this act was to me until I demonstrated this ceremony in front of my Farmscape colleagues. My voice quavered with nervous emotion as I described the process for the first time. I said I liked to put some music on, maybe have a nice glass of beer, and really spend some time on them. A chuckle arose; they thought I was joking. I was not.
My snips still have the original blade, and it has been whittled down a 1/8” slimmer than when new. A new blade sits waiting in my desk drawer, but I have not been able to part with the original yet. I know my snips so intimately that I make minor alignment adjustments to the cutting and anvil blades by putting them up to my ear and listening to the sound. They speak to me, and I try my best to listen.
We all experience intimacy with objects that help us perform good work. Like a author’s fondness for their typewriter, a baseball player’s care for their glove, or a seamstress’ adoration of a timeless sewing machine, so goes our love for any lasting tool that performs gracefully.
It is becoming harder and harder however to form these relationships; so many things are built without longevity in mind. I am grateful for my MacBook and the convenience it provides, but I can’t imagine loving it. Too often it betrays me with erratic behavior, and I know as it continues to slow and pinwheels itself through simple tasks that its days are numbered.
In the end, it might be craftsmanship that I admire. Well made items that last afford the time that one needs to fall in love. As I show my appreciation through proper care and respect, in return I am given the selfless and elegant execution of the tasks I request. If you are fortunate enough to come across a tool that selflessly gives you unquestionable performance, be grateful, pay attention and listen as they sing their song of love.