Material Goods and Good Material


It’s been snowy and awfully cold here these past few days (-7 f) and the wood burning stove has been busy in the shop, as have I.  But one thing on my mind has been in these holiday  times: materialism.  Of course, it is with us in the west most everyday, but during Christmas it seems, well…so over bearing.

However, recently I was reminded that there is a difference between material goods and good material.  We do live in a material world, but we need to remember that we live in a material world; a world of things and stuff.  These things need to be treasured and looked upon as the good that they are.  I was reminded of this yesterday while trying to decide what to do with the two massive cherry slabs I recently acquired.

These slabs remind me of the importance of putting importance on material things.  There is a cost to all the things that we buy, from iPhones to cherry slabs but it is not only the monetary costs, it is the real, the material costs that we need to always remember.

Looking out over my acreage, it is covered in forest, I am reminded of how much lesser the land would be without its beauty; I am reminded that this beauty is not wasted, but is wonderful; it is not resources, but reality.  The difference between material goods and good material is the real cost of taking these things from the world that we live in and the world we want to live in.





When did the word “industrial” become synonymous with heinous attributes of our society?  To be industrial has not always meant “continued or increased military spending by the national government.” a term first used by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Farewell Address on January 17, 1961.  Nor has it always been “characterized by a low fallow ratio and higher use of inputs such as capital and labor per unit land area”, in contrast to traditional agriculture in which the inputs per unit land are lower.  Nor has industry been a “transition to new manufacturing processes…”  To be industrial traditionally refers to the efficient effort put forth by individuals, and not to the methodological destruction of other countries through warfare, or the planned and procedural devastation of the environment.  Nor has industry always denigrated human beings to just another “cog in the machine”.

Industrial military complexes, industrial agriculture systems, or industrial revolutions really do not refer to industry at all, but to consumption, profit motivation, and product movement.  I would like to take back the word “industrial” to mean something effective but positive; a compliment if possible.  I would like to see the industrialization of our communities by seeing lawns disappear, being replaced by gardens, and useless fences replaced by useful fencing in of a few small livestock.  I would like us to be an industrial culture once again, but in the true sense of the word.

If we are to become industrial, we must come to understand the system in which we work.  We must understand that industrialization does not mean continued or increased inputs measured in units and efficient processes that lead to positive profits.  I would like to be industrial because that is what human beings’ purpose is: to work.  But we are also moral beings, and so I would like us to be morally industrial.  If we are to work, then we ought to work towards something good, something positive, something sustainable, something worth being.

The good, the positive, is seldom complex and even more seldom reliant upon units, inputs, measured efficiencies or manipulated markets, goods and services.  It is almost as if we have let our language fall prey to the lowest common denominators of those in our society that would have us believe that progress is measured in goods and services created by our industries rather than our industry.  I would like us to be industrious without relying upon industry.  We can, if we only realize that we must.  We must, and so I can only hope we will.

Obsolete Aptitudes

wooden plane


Just recently I was given three wooden hand planes ranging in size from a 9”-app. 16”. Since then I have been learning to use these “obsolete” tools in the shop. I have rubbed and polished the irons and waxed the soles. I’ve spent time practicing setting up the irons for just the right whoosh sound when I run the planes over the edges of the wood. In the process, I’ve learned to “read” the direction of wood grain and to feel if the irons are sharp and in place. I have learned to recognize characteristics of both the tools I am using and the wood that I am working. My education continues.


I’ve gotten better in the past weeks and it has cost me a lot of wood shavings and rough edges. But, progress is being made. I am told and hear that such things are obsolete, but I disagree. In fact, I would argue that such aptitudes are necessary to understanding not only woodworking, but also what it is that makes us human. The answers that I find in these old “outdated” wooden wood planes do not come easily, but every one of them are applicable. The questions answered by such tools are far beyond a push of a button or trigger on one of my electric tools and at the same time apply equally to both the old wooden planes and the electric planers and table saws that I use daily.


I watch my hands as I place them gingerly on the well-worn wood of the planes and feel the weight and the balance of the tool. I listen to the sounds the irons make as I hope for a smooth glide but often get the chatter of a miss-set or unsharpened blade. Where I learn to listen to one tool, I learn to coax the other. Sometimes I remind myself that I can easily joint an edge with a machine, but then I make obsolete something too important to forget.


Such experiences make for a lonely life sometimes, surrounded by modern humans and our mechanical aptitudes, but I’m not sure that convenience and modern “necessities” are worth the cost of losing ancient knowledge and know-how. Anyway, as I begin to look around, I’m not so sure how alone I am in my obsolescence.


It is hard to describe and perhaps even harder to understand, but watching the shavings pour out of the top of the planer when I do get it right is a memory that is seldom made when working with modern tools. I am asked, “Why bother!?” and to that question I must answer, “To ask that is to not understand the answer.” The experience is not mystical, but is necessary. It is not obsolete, but essential.


a Dead Leaf

a dead leaf

Fall is often looked upon as the end of summer. In fact, as I ride around the area where I live, I see everyone sweeping up the remains of the summer: the leaves on the ground, now brown, yellow, and red. They bag these remnants up and leave them on the curb to be picked up. The trees stand lifeless and the mess which is nature is uncovered for all to see. It is as if we hide behind the fullness of life until our secrets are revealed with the death of a leaf. However, a dead leaf is much more than the end; it is in fact, the future.

I cannot stand the sight of leaves being crushed in the middle of streets under the tires of cars. This unconscious act seems to denigrate the value of death because it is often seen as the end. The leaves have done their job and are discarded, unimportant and we busy ourselves “cleaning up” the mess left behind without thinking of the cost. The trees sometimes seem disgraced in their gnarly nakedness; nothing left to the imagination. However, it is the fallen leaves that hold the future and our lack of imagination the dooms us to repeat the mistakes that we seem to believe justified.

Gardens in the fall do not help. Our gardens have produced and are now left flat and unappealing; the dirt mocking the very labor that we have spent the summer on. The end is all around us and we sweep it into bags and under the eaves of the house. We prune the leftovers almost wishing that no one will notice the seeming ugliness that we uncover.

The fall is not the end, but the beginning. A dead leaf is much more than the end, or even a representation of the end, it is the beginning. In fact, the deadness of the leaf is only an illusion because it is the life that it holds that counts. The dead leaf holds the key to the future. It is such a simple concept; an endless cycle of birth and rebirth, Buddhist in its nature. I picked up a leaf before throwing it into the shredder and looked upon its brown acquiescence. I thought as I threw it into the machine that it was at my mercy. But I was wrong: it is the other way around.

We are at the mercy of the fall and what it promises us. The fall is in fact the beginning of what will be. The labor of the summer is a direct consequence of our understanding that it is we that are at the mercy of the leaves in the fall. It is they that hold the answers and them that hold our future. Within the thin, crackly membrane of a dead leaf is the necessities of life. If we do not understand this, we are in fact, doomed.

So, grab those black bags that hold so much; rip them open and spill their precious contents over your garden, over your lawn, over your land. Remember, the land will only give back as much as we let it. The dead leaf that you crumple in your hand is a deciding factor not only for your garden, but for our lives. A society that does not value the importance of a dead leaf, is a society that is unable to value the importance of a sustainable life.

Look Up

tomato sky

Gardeners tend to spend a lot of time with a shovel in the ground digging and covering up. Making sure seeds are laid comfortably to rest bends the neck forward and the care that we give to the earth tends to take its toll on the broad perspectives that often help us understand why we do what we do. Shoulders bent to the ground, we look at the holes we dig, lay the seed gently in the ground, and cover them back up. To grow your own food is a revolutionary act, but to understand why we must revolt, why it is imperative to grow our own food, takes the willingness to look up at the sun that makes what we do possible and why we must do it.

One of the most freeing things I’ve ever read was that gardening is a revolutionary act. But like all meaningful endeavors, it comes at a cost. Sometimes, to remind myself of this, I go out in the garden late at night and look up. I always think about when the stars were considered “holes” in the cloak of the sky-ceiling; the light coming down from heaven. Sometimes I felt like the small seeds that I covered diligently with soil only to get excited when they reappeared as a one small and ever so slight leaf on a shivering stem.

How is it that revolutions start? With one, small act while all the time remembering what that act stands for and why we do it. As David Blume stated in the Los Angeles Times, “By being an organic farmer, you fly in the face of every part of the power structure,” Blume said. “Refusing to use chemicals, refusing to use genetically modified seeds–it’s a real act of defiance.” And what better reason to garden?

Give it to “the Man”; plant a tomato! Screw the corporations that siphon our freedoms, and buy a chipper/shredder! Save and trade seeds, and save human history from the Monsanto’s of the world! Do all of these things and do them proudly, but always remember why you do them: look up and be awed by nature in order to understand why revolting against almost everything we’ve been taught is so important. The corporations are the result of people forgetting to look up every once in a while.

Albert Camus once wrote that nothing will matter in a million years, and that is probably true, but revolutions do not think about futures; they act in the present. What better thing can we do than to do what we know is right, and know why we do what we do. There is nothing more gratifying than doing the right thing except for knowing why it is right.

So, look up every once in a while, while kneeling at the alter of the earth. Plant those seeds that you’ve saved and then lay in the grass dreaming of a day when we are all revolutionaries.


perma mess

This year I tried a permaculture approach to the garden. I have hops, viola, and tomatillos vying for space in a single bed while across the boardwalk, there’s squash and red cabbage throwing around with tomatoes and potatoes. Walk a way down and I find asparagus poking through the long tendrils of the leek bedded down for winter. I look over the garden from the asparagus and notice the peppers peering around the eggplants and what’s left of the cauliflower. One bed has a few kale plants readying themselves for winter; the rest of the bed being laid fallow, compost and manure being soaked in by the soil and the worms wiggling around in it.

The garden is unorganized, unplanned and well, messy looking. But a walk through it and I find that the plants are thriving, healthy, and somewhat natural looking in their environment. However, this is not the English garden that so many have in mind. Recently, I’ve been reading about permaculture and the idea that we should learn from nature. I’ve found much of permaculture is permeated with types of new age thinking, but this is not the permaculture that I recognize.

There is nothing new about permaculture. In fact, it is as old as the earth itself. Permanent agriculture, the full name, refers to a train of thought that is Zen like in its simplicity, but takes the patience of a saint and the wherewithal to understand that such agriculture is not measured by profit or product, but by quality and produce. It may be that this way of thinking is not profitable. But, it is sustainable, which in this day and age we are finding to be more and more necessary.

One thing that I must come to be accustomed to is the aesthetic of permanent agriculture. First, I learn that I must relinquish control. Secondly, I must learn that such agriculture is time-intensive and in a time when attention spams are measured in minutes, permaculture can seem very unappealing. Lastly, I am learning to take chances and to trust what I have put into motion. Put in and step back is my new motto.

The consequences are messy and disorganized. However, at this late date in the season I’ve found a certain beauty and even pride in the necessity of stepping over vines and cabbage leaves to get to the tomatoes buried among the basil and asparagus. Time, I think, is something that we have available to us, but to take the time often messes up our lives. We have come to like efficiency and modern cleanliness. Permaculture is not that efficient and is certainly not appealing to the hard line English gardener. However, the permanence of permaculture is an acquired taste; a taste that given our environmental problems and looming changes is necessary.

So, give up the ghost to a natural and often fun way of gardening: permaculture. I think you’ll find that permanence is a lot more fleeting than you may think!



I recently completed a one thousand mile motorcycle ride (in one sitting) to visit my family. Nineteen hours later (fuel stops included) I was standing (not sitting) at their kitchen counter drinking a beer. I was thinking about limits. The ride had reminded me how important it is to know your own limits, and while riding through the Missouri hills I thought about how important limits are to all of us.

Right now most of us are not aware of limits, but a motorcycle (in my case) is a very bad place to first learn of them. I think I was at mine when I was singing loudly into my helmet a version of “Spiderman” that I called “Bobblehead”. Any athlete will know their limits, how to stretch them and when it is a good idea not to. Not to know your limits will sometimes cost you your life and other times just make things a bit uncomfortable; in the former you met your limits and in the latter you stretched your limits.

There are limits that we must all abide by, both our own and the ultimate limit that we all share: reality. Right now we do not seem to understand that the ultimate limit applies to all of us; no matter what, and no matter who we are. I once read that if a jet engine had a purpose, that purpose was to blow up. That struck me in an odd way. Evolution is a blind machine that, perhaps, has the same purpose. Watching a beehive, for example, is a brutal reminder of that “purpose”.

So, what do airplanes and Evolution have in common with this kinda-sorta preachy little bit about limits? Well, for one thing neither evolution nor airplanes have limits: extinction and explosion are not limits. Such things simply act as their nature (and nature itself) dictate. We humans are a bit different: we have the capacity for thought and the belief that we can act upon those thoughts. We have limits that we can stretch for these reasons. Or do we?

Is it the nature of human beings to destroy themselves, to not stretch but break the natural confines in which we live? Such a thought is disturbing to many and for many reasons. First, we are doomed if this is so. Secondly, we are not free if this is so. Third, the capacity for thought is an illusion. Perhaps we are just another blind alley that Evolution follows. I don’t like to think so, but I am wary of not doing so.

Destruction is part of nature, it is inevitable, but our own destruction at our own hands (I would like to think) is not; it cannot be. However, in order for us to learn how to stretch our limits, we must first know that we have limits. Perhaps it is time for us to find a way to define our limits before those inextricable and inescapable limits cost us the very thing that we are so fond of: living at any cost.

The Patient Gardener

snow garden

Gardeners tend to regard snow with disdain. The coldness keeps us from going out and feeling the dirt between our fingers. The snow blankets all of our past work and the plants are leafless and lifeless. At least that’s what it looks like. However, there’s a dry spot in my garden out back where I will plant hops this coming spring and I found myself shoveling wheelbarrows of snow onto the spot to bring the soil to life. It is arid during the season and I have always had problems getting things to grow there.

At the end of the day, gardeners are in the business of building up soil and while I was trudging around in my garden the other day in 8” of snow, shoveling the stuff onto my “dry spot”, I was reminded that nothing in nature is without ground; both figuratively and literally. The snow acts as insulation against the raw windy cold. Snow melts slowly into the ground breaking up clods and working manure into the soil. Snow provides moisture over time and gives the soil time to recover from the gardener’s incessant need to interfere with what nature does best.

This last point is the cornerstone of a subject that I have become more and more interested in: permaculture. It seems to go against the concept of gardening itself: just leave it alone. I have found that it helps to remember that we are not really managers as much as stewards. That answering the question “How?” does not answer the question “Why?” As a gardener, I want to produce food and resources for food. I want hops not because hops are somehow inherently good, but because I love beer and want to make beer that tastes good. Hops makes beer taste good!

However, permaculture does not dismiss our utilitarian desires. Rather, it reminds us that our utilitarian desires need to be limited by the resources that we actually have and the resources that we actually have can be more than enough…as long as we don’t get greedy. It takes patience not to be greedy.

Snow forces us to be permaculturists rather than gardeners in the true sense of the word: work intentionally and don’t do too much and don’t take too much. It’s funny that we have to be taught these things as they seem to be self-evident. Maybe the lesson to be learned is: gardening is easy if you have patience, but being patient makes gardening difficult. I, for one, find that to be true anyway.