It all began with the Tour de Donut. (What a name!) This last time I only did ten miles of it. I was out of shape, every hill was a challenge. One of them started me thinking: when on a bicycle, every hill is a negation. It is a deal brokered between biker, bike and hill. If any of the three are not in agreement, the deal is off and the hill is not surmounted. I wondered how a horse would fare on this hill – I was in Amish country after all. I wondered how often a person would be willing to climb this hill if all they had was foot, hoof or bike tire.
And then it hit me. Not literally, thankfully, but how malevolently useful is a car. Cars make hills flat. Sure, a terribly long or steep hill still might tax a car, but seriously, hills are no challenge for an automobile. Cars make going to the store trivial. Cars make going to the store many times a day trivial.
And therein lies the problem. Well, one problem. Cars create within us a certain type of forgetting. We forget the idea of distance, we forget concepts like topography, and we forget the cost involved in travelling like this. If we were on foot or using a bike we would notice every hill – preparing for the climbs and maybe rejoicing for the descents. Not so with a car. The car’s travel is measured in time, not miles. If we are late, we just accelerate. Hills are of no consequence. We dominate our surroundings, oblivious to its challenges and its benefits. We pay more attention to the pavement than to the world around us. The scenery is something to be overcome or consumed, not appreciated. That is the tax for the benefit of the automobile: a world reduced to a box within a moving scene.
I thought further. I am an amateur woodworker. Thanks to the likes of Nick Offerman and Paul Sellers, I am becoming more interested in hand tools than power tools. With power tools you can assert your will on just about any type of wood in any type of condition. A circular saw, a table saw, a planer, a jointer, a router – all of these useful tools cut through wood like a hot knife through butter. Who cares about grain? Who cares about hardness? All succumb to the power of circular motion, created by a motor, and passed on to a blade or cutting bit of some kind. You can make that birdhouse in no time. But it comes at a cost.
With a handsaw you have to know more. You need to know the difference between cutting with the grain and across the grain. You need to use a type of saw that will make the edges of your dovetail joints sharp, and you need the skill to keep it in the correct plane as you cut. And speaking of planes, you need to know if the wood is hard or soft, you need to know which direction the grain is running, you need to account for moisture content and knots and all other sorts of information that the wood has to offer before work is finished, and sometimes even before work is started.
The hand tool user has to know more, so the work, again, is more a negotiation than an imposition. You have to come to an agreement between craftswoman, tool, and wood. The wood-worker knows more about the wood and therefore is likely to build an even more amazing birdhouse – a birdhouse that is the result of a harmonious relationship between the person and the material.
A final realization of a list that is by no means exhausted is that the medium you through which you are reading this message also comes at a cost. Messages are sent and immediately received. Texts are responded to at break-neck speeds sometimes without the care needed to assure clear and successful communication. Messages become throwaways, consumed, and inconsequential.
My great aunts and my mother wrote to each other every week. Every Friday or Saturday we would receive a letter from them. My mother would keep the envelope from the letter that had come the previous week and would use it to take little notes of the events of the days following. Then on Sunday night she would compose a letter of her own, written by her own hand, that would tell of the week’s events and maybe answer some things that came in the letter from Friday or Saturday. And while these letters took time to send and to receive, they reflected a care and even a love that is just not obvious in a text or an email that is sent within a minute of the receipt of the most recent message. These letters were not just communiques, but they even had a certain aesthetic to them, the elegant beauty of someone’s handwriting, the choice of stationery and the like. If you messed up, you had to start over if you wanted it to be neat, so you took extra care in crafting a letter. Thoughtfulness, planning, and care were all part of a well written letter.
The immediate response lacks care, and sometimes it lacks the restraint necessary to respond to a letter or message that was not so diplomatic. The speed is nice, but something gets lost in the transaction.
Of course, we could talk about the cow that went into your burger, or the chicken, or even the Maryland blue crab. Each of these consumables involves a significant commitment that involves an ultimate cost. This, however, is a conversation for another day.
All of these things are representative of an increasing loss of the relationship between person and object (subject?). The person becomes the sole agent, and everything around them becomes a consumable. There is no conversation, no negotiation, no appreciation of beauty as a participant in that beauty, but rather as a spectator of said beauty, if there is any beauty at all. It all comes at a cost –our willingness to integrate with the world around us, the care and concern for things of beauty in our surroundings, even our very humanity.