The Mystique of Tools 2

What is a tool but a thingamabob, something used with the hands and mostly used to make or fix a doohickey, right?

Eons ago, tools launched mankind into richer possibility and complexity. Elemental materials such as stone or wood made possible fire, food and shelter. Tools were dang important.

The tools of today’s average Joe are incredibly different. Our survival needs are pretty much met, so what do we use most nowadays? We cry, “I couldn’t live without my phone!” That’s such a far cry from the archetypal tools of even a decade ago. Remember Gerbers or the Leatherman? Every manly guy had one. After all, there’s something so satisfying about owning a tool that someone needs to borrow. More so if it’s a quality tool—well made, an implement that has lasted forever.

Is tool idealism still around? Pondering my guy friends, extraordinary men with sharp minds and well-honed purpose, I grew curious. In this cushy era of ease, what Man Tools do they value most?

My buddy Bill Kight has written a newspaper column for years; that’s how we met. Over a beer, I recently snagged a pen from his chest pocket to illustrate a thought. Usually a gentleman, Bill snatched it right back with no compunction whatsoever. I threw out a surprised “Whoa!” He just smiled and said, “This is more than just a fountain pen. It’s the tool I write with, it’s an extension of who I am.”

As a public figure, Bill’s known for his poetry, and he sometimes shares it through his trademark “Poetry Postcards”. At death, those cards will be the required ticket to Bill’s memorial celebration. As he explains, “You’ll have to pick the one that means the most to you and read it aloud.”  I’ve received two so far, gifts written in an organic, living line, words solely for me. Bill’s pen has a delicate, flexible nib. “It’s been broken into my writing, and mine only,” he says. No wonder it’s so special to him.

If letters and language have elevated human from beast, numbers have been a game changer too. They free us from the tangible, enabling us to leave earth and touch space or to dive inward, infinitely, encountering Source in both, perhaps.

My landlord Jim values his calculators: an HP41, c. 1985, and his HP48, c. 1993. As a scientist, he has developed and stored significant programs in them. “The older one, I actually cloned it, just in case it broke,” he said. “It was so important to me in doing certain kinds of calculations.” With a humble smile, he adds, “One of the things we designed was the infrared sensor on the Rosetta spacecraft—for its spectrometer—which is still orbiting the Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.”

Former Patagonia CEO Casey Sheahan is an avid angler who still gallivants about the business world. Amidst the hurly burly of innovation, profits and global citizenry, what keeps Casey on track?

A ribbon of water and a gifted reel.

The fly fishing reel that Casey received from Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is his go-to. “It’s a tool bringing lessons from a Zen master, driving away the distractions of ego and obligation so I can focus on what really matters… It will always remind me of Yvon and of my time learning from one of the great environmentalists and savvy businessmen of our time.” And that’s just Casey, keepin’ it “reel” in corporate America.

David Powell studied blacksmithing with the late, great Francis Whittaker, a master noted globally for reviving the dying 3,000-year old art form and locally for founding a blacksmithing program at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. From geomancy to Burning Man, engineering to Buddhism, the worlds David holds within are impressive. Yet what he holds dearest is seemingly ordinary: a hand-wrought hammer.

He made it with Whitaker during their six years together. The hammer wields both of their marks.

“Iron has strength no other material has,” Whitaker once said, “and yet it has the capacity for being light, graceful and beautiful. It has this capacity—but no desire. It will do nothing by itself except resist you.” Not only was Whitaker a master blacksmith, but also to David, a humbling and inspiring teacher. As for the hammer, one of the thousands of tools David owns, he says, “Whenever I pick it up, I am flooded with memories of our time together.”

When asked about his most sacred tools, my caustic but idealistic bro-friend Shakra Vendatta shared quite a tale. “I made both of these during separate, very sad, extremely stressful periods of my life. I had no money and I was facing a task that seemed overwhelming.” Un-name-able, clearly jerry-rigged but solidly built, these tools are raw and hefty. They’d make for really cool paperweights. “I took an old clutch plate and cut it into pieces; took this splined collar, and welded it into a socket to get the transmission apart and then to put it back together.” On devising the larger of the two, he explained, “My father had just died. I had no one to help me with either one of these jobs. I was completely alone and exposed.” Each was used but once, and never to be used again. Shakra’s chunks of scrap metal are a reminder of the alchemical power of grit on angst.

Let’s admit that modern tools quickly become scrap. Generations ago, tools were forged, tempered, built to last. As a landscape designer and woman of the dirt, I know at a glance or touch the quality of a tool. I earned my Tool Ph.D. (piled higher, deeper) living and working with men such as Dr. George Wallace.

George and Nancy, his wife of 50 years, created Soldias Farm. It’s George’s life’s work. In the field, George often shared his views about many things. Views ranging from fencing pliers—“Every aspect of these pliers has a job!”—to his favorite conservation reads, such as “The Meadow,” by James Gavin.

In that book, Gavin tells the story of Lyle, a pioneer living near Red Feather, Colorado a generation or two before George. George had always felt he’d been born in the wrong generation, and Soldias Farm was his way of addressing that. Despite the age gap, George and Lyle had been close friends. “When Lyle was dying, he asked me what tools I wanted,” recalls George.

All he wanted was Lyle’s irrigating shovel. “It’s called the Pony, which is a medium-sized shovel that has a straight handle and blade.” It was a sacred shovel. Like Bill, George had actually removed this tool from my hands after he discovered me using it. To me, it was a no-brainer; you choose the good shovel.  But I knew not to use it after that. To George, the Pony was a connection to an era he felt he’d missed. “I would remember Lyle, his life, and the place each time I used it.”

A pen, calculators. A fly reel and a hammer. Welded scrap metal and a shovel. What a random collection of things, each so vital to the owner.

Thingamabobs and doohickeys.

But they connect us to greatness, creation, possibility. Held in the hand, they are an extension of the heart.