In his wonderful book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford — who earned his phD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago but ended up trading in his lucrative position at a Washington think tank for his own business repairing motorcycles — reports that his wife could sniff him at the end of the day and tell what sorts of solvents he’d used that day in his repairs. This anecdote has always struck me, in part because it seems so unattractive and repulsive, and it part because it seems so attractive and desirable. Like many, I am at once drawn to and repelled by the sort of work Crawford describes, and it’s a tension worth considering.
There is a side to Old Tioga Farm which guests at the restaurant never see: the equipment which makes the “farm” part of our business possible. Because our farming is currently limited to growing vegetables for a small number of clients, our equipment is quite modest compared to most farms: hand tools, a few mowers, a weed-whacker, and a two-wheeled walk-behind tractor. The latter is our pride and joy: a Grillo 107d. This lovely machine is Italian-made, and its neon tiller box always make me smile. Unfortunately, I’m not good with machines. I was raised in a city, never learned to hammer a nail properly, and am deficient in mechanical intuition. Yesterday I changed the oil, about a year overdue — no way to treat a beloved, expensive, and essential machine — negligence due mostly to avoiding getting all greasy and dirty.
Still, once one takes the plunge, it’s easy to get into it. Getting some oil or diesel on your hands makes you feel like you’re doing real work, like you know how to really do something. To understand the machine, to work with it and repair it, is the most empowering of work. My ignorance and unfamiliarity with the machine makes me ashamed, and makes me want to learn how to take the engine apart or take a job in small engine repair. In that moment of clarity, mechanical knowledge seems essential and much to be desired.
Yet, it’s easy in our other life to forget all about that feeling, to revel in the cleanliness and order of a well-kept city environment, keeping the aromas of both manure and diesel fuel far away and paying others to get their hands dirty by handling and caring for our machines.
As Crawford emphasizes in his book, however, the effects of being disconnected from our “stuff” has far reaching consequences. The loss of “agency” in our own lives ultimately deprives us of independence and power. With the loss of knowledge comes a loss of choice. Our building contractor once wryly pointed out that rural properties become dilapidated because people no longer know how to repair their own homes and can’t afford to pay someone else to do it. This is the consequence of giving up knowledge and power over our “stuff” and material world.
Will I ever know how to rebuild the Grillo’s engine? Perhaps not. But it is a goal worth striving and living for.