THR Blog   /   July 9, 2020

Handmind in Covidtide

By forcibly breaking some of our technological habits, Covidtide creatively destabilizes others.

Alan Jacobs

( Gardener working a cypress in the cemetery of Tulcán, located in the city of Tulcán, capital of the Carchi Province, north of Ecuador. Diego Delso / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0))

I’m always an early riser, but this morning I was up long before dawn, and after some fruitless attempts to return to sleep, I rolled out of bed. At least it would make my dog happy—for Malcolm, no hour is too early for breakfast.

I fed Malcolm, let him go outside, made and drank coffee. After sitting for a few minutes, I headed outside into the humid and cloudy morning, picked up my garden shears, and got to work on the hedges.

Sometime last year I found these shears in a box, thoroughly rusted but otherwise in fine condition. How they got into the box neither my wife nor I know. We don’t remember having bought them, but who else could have done so? I hung them up with our other garden tools and then, a couple of months ago, I found time to sand off the rust. I had a mill file to sharpen the blades, but I didn’t need it: They were quite sharp already. Apparently the shears had been left outside to oxidize before they had even been used. In any event, once I got them cleaned and oiled I took them to a nearby bush and tried them out.

Up until then I had always used electric hedge trimmers. For years and years I got them out and then dug around for an extension cord, hoping that it would reach as far as I needed it to. If not, then I had to unplug and re-plug somewhere closer. And when using the trimmers I had to take care not to cut through the cord. These problems were eliminated when I bought battery-powered trimmers, though then I had a new problem: discovering only when I was ready to begin the job that the battery had not been charged.

With years of this kind of experience behind me, I was not really prepared for the pleasure of using a pair of good garden shears. First of all, you just pick them up and start trimming—no plugs, no chargers. The grips of the handles fit your hands, and the open-and-close movement, snip snip snip, is comfortable and natural. They are lighter and more maneuverable than electric trimmers, easy to use at any angle. If the shears are sharp, they cut the hedges neatly and precisely; electric trimmers, especially if their blades have dulled, tear rather than cut the wood, which can make the plants more susceptible to disease.

Above all, garden shears are quiet. Having no motor except human arms—which if functioning normally are quite noiseless, at least if my experience is anything to go by—the shears make only a gentle rasping sound as they open and close, which, once you get into a rhythm, is almost hypnotic. You find yourself working in a contemplative groove, unhurried and relaxed. (It doesn’t even take that much longer to trim by hand than with the electric trimmers, but in any case the time passes easily.)

Two minutes into that first encounter with my found garden shears I knew that I would not go back to electric trimmers.

This is of course a familiar story: the WEIRD person—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—rediscovering his body. Levin in Anna Karenina mowing with the peasants, encountering what Matthew Crawford calls “the world beyond your head.” One of the loveliest evocations of this kind of experience comes in Ursula K. Le Guin’s unclassifiable book Always Coming Home, when a young woman named North Owl spends some time with a master potter:

He thought of very little besides clay, and shaping, and glazing, and firing. It was a good thing for me to learn a craft with a true maker. It may have been the best thing I have done. Nothing we do is better than the work of handmind. When mind uses itself without the hands it runs the circle and may go too fast; even speech using the voice only may go too fast. The hand that shapes the mind into clay or written word slows thought to the gait of things and lets it be subject to accident and time.

Now, in one sense working with a pair of garden shears is not like forming a pot with your hands: North Owl touches the clay, but I do not touch the hedge. Yet I am close to it: the shape and form of the shears keep me in a kind of intimacy with what I ask the shears to cut. They are for me like a blind person’s cane. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson poses a thought experiment:

Consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? These questions are nonsense, because the stick is a pathway along which differences are transmitted under transformation, so that to draw a delimiting line across this pathway is to cut off a part of the systemic circuit which determines the blind man’s locomotion.

Because my use of the shears establishes this “systemic circuit,” I think I can say that my work with them is an example of the goodness of “handmind.”

Again: a familiar story. But perhaps slightly less familiar is my realization that the garden shears are simply a superior technology for the work I need to do. There are many, no doubt, for whom electric trimmers are better; but I am not one of them. In every single respect they do a better job than their more technologically recent alternatives, even when you take into account the additional time they require—because why would I want to cut short a period in which I am doing quietly enjoyable work?

Moreover, one of the effects of Covidtide, I think, is that by forcibly breaking some of our technological habits it creatively destabilizes others. To have any one thoughtless pattern of life disrupted is to be put into a frame of mind that allows you to contemplate the deliberate disruption of a different thoughtless pattern. Thus all the people who, after three months of baking bread, are now saying that they’ll never go back to buying their bread from the supermarket. They probably will buy bread from the supermarket; but they’ll know what they are doing, and why. And this is useful knowledge.

Nothing about Covidtide made it impossible, or any more difficult, for me to use electric hedge trimmers. But I think it has made me aware of the power of technological habit, and of my ability to break any such habit, should I choose. It has brought to my attention something I knew already, but only, as Cardinal Newman has said, notionally: that newer technologies are not necessarily superior ones. This strange time made it easier for me to pick up a rusted pair of garden shears and see not junk but possibility. And should our social order descend to chaos, should our energy grid be broken down, should we all be reduced to surviving by our mother wit and acquired resourcefulness—well, at least I’ll have the neatest hedges in the neighborhood.