Now that things are settling in after the holidays, coming back to the routine of daily activities and work, we thought it might be interesting to reflect further on what it means to work with one’s hands. For example, what it means to work with one’s hands, rather than working on a screen.
The screen, of course, is an incredibly powerful tool. We have in the last number of years experienced an information revolution, and the computer has, in a crucially important way, opened the doors to new productivities and creativities.
The distance we are today from the idea of the routine production of items by hand was in significant part a result of the Industrial Revolution. One impact of the Industrial Revolution was the machine’s displacement of the hand workers of the cottage industry to a significant degree. The introduction of the machine meant that a greater number of items could be produced and more cheaply than had been traditionally the case by hand. The machine, in essence, displaced the hand from the production of many, many items. The information revolution we are experiencing presently has allowed for still other displacements.
What we are reflecting upon here is how far the average person is today from the idea of hand crafting a product for sale, or performing a service, for even her or his own use or pleasure. The Canadian landscape has changed so drastically in the space of even a few generations. Think of all the tasks that used to be done by hand. Land, for example, used to be cleared by hand and axe. It was then plowed by hand with the aid of oxen or horses. Wheat used to be planted, weeded, cut by hand. Then, sheaves of wheat were placed into stooks by hand. The stooks were then collected by hand and taken to a threshing machine, somewhat similar to the stooks of hay pictured here.
The house, even a house in the city, used to be heated by wood or coal. Wood was chopped and stored by hand. Both wood and coal were delivered by hand, and the fire built and maintained by hand. In those days, before central heating and computerized climate control systems, a hot coal might be placed under the sheets a little before bedtime to warm up the bed, since the bedroom would not benefit enough to be comfortable from the heat of the coal burning stove, which radiated out from the centrally placed kitchen. In the morning, you awoke to the cold that had settled in overnight, before the fire was started once more.
Still, there was a decided pleasure in the simplicity of life. Having to do things by hand meant inevitably that life had to slow down.
Still, there was a decided pleasure in the simplicity of life. Having to do things by hand meant inevitably that life had to slow down. Despite how counter-intuitive this might seem, there was a pleasure to be found there, should one only try to look for it.
We can experience this simplicity even still. Perhaps it is easiest to imagine the experience of a simple, rustic cottage. You awake in the early morning to the sound of loons. You get up in the otherwise absolute silence, and watch the mist rising from the lake. It is a magical moment. The silence, the mist, the chill in the air. And then there is the trip to a local hand pumped well to collect a bucket of water. This too gives an idea of how life was lived not all that long ago. The task forces you to slow down and offers a view of a simplicity of living which presents its own challenges, but also conveys its own rewards.
We forget at our own peril the simplicity and necessity of these tasks performed by hand. We stand on the threshold of forgetting them.
The Information and Industrial Revolutions, among other revolutions (the Green Revolution, for example), have taken us what seems a million miles away from those days, to the point that it is extremely hard to identify with them. Yet, we could argue that all of those tasks done by hand lay at the heart of what built this country. They also seem to lie at the essence of our very humanity. We forget at our own peril the simplicity and necessity of these tasks performed by hand. We stand on the threshold of forgetting them.
We often find ourselves growing impatient when things, things even done by a computer, seem to take too long. When the computer and internet deliver up information measured in hundredths of seconds, it would seem easy to fall into a general pattern of living impatiently.
There is in essence, a soulfulness about working with your hands.
Still, there is another aspect to consider. There is in essence, a soulfulness about working with your hands. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of feeling connected to what your hands are working with. Perhaps it is when gardening and your hands are in the earth and they feel connected to nature and to the world. You feel connected even to the trees swaying overhead.
Or perhaps it is when you pile wood on the wood pile. And you feel the roughness of the proportioned wood. And the sunlight illuminates the pile while cool air surrounds you and offers you a whiff of the smell of freshly hewn wood.
Or maybe its inside, when you are kneading flour to make bread, and your hands are totally submerged in the cool dampness of the dough. And you think of what the dough will become, and of the smiles on the faces of your family when it becomes what it is to become.
There is a decided pleasure to working with one’s hands. We need remember that pleasure and the exceptional art and products that are hand crafted still. Consider the craftmanship, for example, of Lou and Doris Bozzelli, makers-by-hand of the fine leather furniture offered by Red Scarf Equestrian. Each piece of furniture that they craft is a product of a soulful process, one which demands a perfection of artistry. It also demands that they remain true to the task at hand. It is a process, as in the cases above of the earth and dough, as much of the mind, as of the hand. A process well worth remembering.