When I got married at 35 and bought a farmhouse in the country, I knew that I’d have to play less and work more. Which was fine by me. I’d long been a wanderer, fisherman, and backpacker, as carefree and self-absorbed as only a single man in a shoe box apartment can be. Yet my days afield had begun to feel unfulfilled, like the bored preoccupations of the idle rich. I had too much recreation and not enough creation.
But now, as in the book of Ecclesiastes, it was a time to build: a marriage, a family, an old home in dire need of repair. It was also a time to plant: flower and vegetable gardens; native prairie plants and grasses to rejuvenate a depleted farm field; a grove of trees to provide food and shelter through life’s storms and seasons. For once, my outdoor self would produce something more enduring than a stringer full of fish.
While there was plenty of exterior work to do, I eventually found that what really needed renovation was something more personal: i.e., my inner self. I know this sounds like fortune-cookie wisdom from a bad Kung Fu movie, yet time and again it proved true. It wasn’t just the tools, skills or knowledge at my disposal that made good work possible. It was whether or not I had a peaceful interior disposition that made the work satisfying and worthwhile.
When we struggle with work, perhaps it’s because part of us yearns for what once was. In the book of Genesis, we read that before humanity fell from grace, our work felt a lot less work-like. We had the perfect boss and the perfect job. God created the earth, invited the first humans to name its creatures, and then gave us dominion over them. The earth was ours, and the Lord would walk through it in the cool of the day so that we could enjoy it together (genesis 3:8).
After the fall of Adam and Eve, our natural kinship and collaboration with God and creation was shattered. In harsh detail, Genesis 3:17–19 describes the adversarial relationship that resulted: “Cursed is the ground because of you, through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you . . . . By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground . . . for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
My early outdoor grunt work at our new home often felt like that—but not because I lacked strength or capability. I’d mastered the ways of shovels, picks, sledgehammers and post hole diggers during hot Midwest summers as a landscaper and construction crew laborer. But I was in a fretful hurry now, on my own clock and payroll. On something as benign as an old lilac stump, I’d flail and bludgeon away with anger and spite. I flew into a rage one day when I couldn’t properly tighten a new section of fence for a dog pen. (As if the dog or anyone else cared.) In my control freak quest to beautify four acres, I could become the worse boss I ever had.
The one place where I finally learned to slow down was in the wild blackberry patch behind the barn. There’s no garden here—it’s more a place of purgatorial suffering. The blackberries berries ripen just as the summer trifecta of heat, humidity and biting insects reaches peak aggravation. They grow on wiry, brutish canes like the devil’s own buggy whip, five or six feet long and armed with sadistic thorns.
I was too lazy to change clothes the first time I waded into the patch. I showed up cavalierly attired in shorts, t-shirt, and sandals—and the patch was not amused. The canes whipsawed my arms and legs bloody, and in my haste to flee I spilled half the berry bucket.
The next day, scabbed and duly chastened, I came to pick dressed like a sensible grown-up in jeans, leather boots and long-sleeved shirt. This time, before barging into the thicket like a clumsy moose, I studied it long enough to find little alleys where I could stand and not get snagged. I also noticed that the canes (how had I missed this?) mainly grew in one direction. Pick alongside them, instead of reaching across, and they’d inflict minimal damage.
Once I found a comfortable stance, the motion felt a little like a tai chi routine: reach, stretch, turn, and mindfully look 360 degrees for hidden fruit that my fitful, half-dressed self had missed. I had replaced the berry bucket with an old baby-wipes box, which I tied to my waist so that I could pick with both hands. It was still hot and buggy, but the less frantic, more purposeful pace yielded two quarts. What had been toil (drudgery that fatigues body, mind and spirit) had transitioned into good work (labor done patiently and well for a fruitful end: the purple-pink ambrosia of my Nancy’s blackberry jam). My jeans and blue chambray shirt were soaked with sweat by the time I finished. Yet, I was pacified in mind, body, and spirit. This was the exactly the good work done by hand that I’d come to find.
And the operative words here are “by hand.” We’ve been duped to believe that hand tools are obsolete, and inferior to the “real” tools that run on fossil fuel. When we buy a house there’s a social expectation that we cram our garage (and life) with leaf blowers, snow blowers, string trimmers, power washers, chain saws, and zero-turn riding mowers painted up like turf-eating tigers, for heaven’s sake. Apart from their purchase price, all these labor-saving devices come encumbered with pesky and expensive maintenance requirements. Soon enough, you can find yourself as nursemaid to a fleet of fuel-hungry, internal combustion ingrates.
Granted, if you cut wood, plow snow or mow grass for a living, power tools are essential. But for those with manageable lawns and minor acreage, they may not be. It depends on your budget and physical ability—and whether you prefer tools that require gasoline, or the kind that, as Wendell Berry says, “Run on what you ate for breakfast.”
For me it’s definitely the latter. In my day job, I sit on my rear end in front of a computer, interrupted only by meetings where I sit on my rear end and talk. A host of recent studies show that people who sit for hours suffer the highest mortality from heart disease and cancer. In terms of risk factors, sitting has been called the new smoking. Which means that millions of Americans like me need tools that encourage healthy labor, rather than machines to “sav” us from it.
Beyond that, there’s a spiritual benefit to quiet work done in a natural setting that hand tools tend to amplify. A hand tool, especially one with a wooden handle, directly transmits to our muscles and sinews the holy heft and grit of creation. You feel the twang of rake tines as they comb through leaves, grass, and gravel; the clean rasp of a spade as it cuts through sod and bites into the subsoil; the dry scuffle of a hoe as it loosens clods and culls weeds from a garden. With low-decibel modesty, hand tools keep us grounded in the reasonable, humane limits of our own strength. While we work, they allow us to hear the scree of a hawk overhead or the slither of a snake through tall grass. Who could ever hear such subtleties above the banshee wail of a leaf blower?
In C. S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters, an old devil, Screwtape, gives instruction to a young devil, Wormwood, on how to subvert God’s goodness and plan for salvation. Among his strategies, he suggests that Wormwood incite in humans a lust for constant noise as a means to distract them from things divine.
“We will the make the whole universe a noise in the end . . . we have already made great strides in this direction with regards the earth,” Screwtape says. “The melodies and silences of heaven will be shouted down. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.”
Keep in mind that Lewis wrote this before televisions appeared in every household, let alone computers and smart phones.
I believe it’s a fiction of our age to think that we can effectively “multitask,” especially with matters of the spirit. We either use our senses to draw closer to God, or we blunt them in ways that deafen us to his call. We either create room for silence to hear the Holy Spirit—who rarely yells and usually whispers—or we drown him out. As Screwtape explains, “It is funny how mortals always picture us (demons) as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”
Behind our blackberry thicket, a trail winds past a double windbreak of 250 trees that I’ve planted to encompass our four acres. It’s where I walk the dogs, study stars, watch our bees forage, and generally unfurl my spirit after a long day spent inside. I know each tree by name (forty-five species) and history (how they endured the antler scrapes of rutting bucks, how I lugged water in droughty summers to keep them alive).
Yet the trees aren’t the half of it. The bluebird nests, the creepy-wondrous praying mantis, the flattened grass where the deer have bedded, the coyote scat on the trail make it complete. In 22 years, all this abundance has sprung from what was once was a mono-crop soybean field. What a blessing that my two hands, a shovel, and a five-gallon bucket could help make it so.
Throughout the New and Old Testaments, we see exultant, prophetic language that depicts a world where trees and people thrive in unity. Psalm 1 speaks of our human yearning to be “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not whither . . . whatever they do prospers” (v. 3). In Revelation 22:2, John tops that with his vision of transfigured trees that adorn the streets of heavenly Jerusalem. “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Oh, to do the holy work of a tree keeper in such a place! Can you imagine the beauty, the intensity of color, the magnificent taste and smell of such trees? Especially when savored with the perfected senses that our glorified bodies will provide?
For now, I’ll take great comfort in a book whose title, for a guy like me, would make an honorable epitaph: The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Paul Giono. The little story rings so true that many readers still can’t believe it’s fiction. It tells of a solitary French shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, who devotes his life to low-tech forestry and the boundless goodness of trees.
Bouffier withdrew to the wilds after the death of his wife and child. He tended sheep in a desolate region of Provence, where harsh winds scour a wasteland of denuded hills and abandoned villages. A young hiker, whom the book never names, has walked all day in search of water when me meets Elzéard. The old shepherd shares his water flask and invites the hiker into his home, a rebuilt stone cabin with a tight tile roof where the wind keens with the “sound of the sea crashing on the beach.”
The little house, as with Elzéard’s life, exudes handcrafted generosity and grace.
His household was in order, his floor swept, his rifle greased; his soup boiled over the fire; I noticed then that he was freshly shaven, that all his buttons were solidly sewn, and that his clothes were mended with such care as to make the patches invisible.
That evening after supper, the shepherd reveals his true purpose. While the two sit amiably yet silently, Elzéard opens a burlap sack of acorns. He sorts out the cracked and shrunken nuts and the best he saves into groups of ten. Once he’s selected one hundred good ones, he stops for the night.
The next day, Elzéard showed what one man with a single-minded passion to heal his corner of the world can do. With the four-foot iron rod that he carried as a staff, he’d make a shallow hole in the ground and drop into each an acorn. In three years, the hiker learned that Elzéard had planted 100,000 trees this way. Of these, he estimated that 10,000 would spring up where before there was nothing.
The hiker left to fight in World War I, and after his discharge, hiked again through the same landscape. This time it had been transformed. A stretch of countryside six miles long and two miles wide was forested with trees, some ten feet tall. The trees’ roots and shade had so conserved moisture that the dried-up springs and creek beds again flowed with water. Young families had returned to rebuild the villages, which hummed with gardens, children, and life. All this because one man supplanted his grief with a great, selfless love for the trees of the Lord. It may be a story, yet the particulars of what the quiet, holy work of our hands can do ring no less true.
“On the last day of the world,” wrote poet W. S. Merwin, “I would like to plant a tree.” As would I. And through all my days in the next, I hope to plant many more.
To read more about God’s Creation visit https://discoveryseries/courses/get-outside/