When you’re a kid, the “bush” is a place to play. When you’re older, you realize the woods are a place for some real hard work. Especially if you rely on firewood to keep your house warm all winter, summer days spent cutting and splitting logs involved work that was necessary, tough, dirty, and (for all those reasons) fun. I won’t easily forget the days we’d cut, stack, and split logs till our hands were raw and our backs ached. And I can still hear the whine of my father-in-law’s chain saw as it ripped through bark and branches. There was—still is—something terribly beautiful in the raw power of a chain saw at work. If you’ve ever used one, you know what I’m talking about.
I was reminded of this again last year during a trip to Germany. I spent several weeks touring the country’s widely-celebrated manufacturing sector and saw repeatedly how Germans take the same pride and effort and care in perfecting their beer as they do their Porsche engines or ball bearings. A seamless fusion of beauty and utility runs through most things stamped “Made in Germany,” and my visit to the STIHL factory showed that even a chain saw was no exception.
With all its robotics and impossibly complex moving parts, the factory looks to most like something from an H.G. Wells nightmare. But what struck me—as log after log was cut, stripped, and stacked on the testing room floor—was a certain poetic beauty in how this windowless, mechanized world was so intimately tied to the work going on in so many different woods the world over. From the engineers worried about chain durability to the design team concerned with aesthetics to the marketing team thinking about affordability— they all have to think about some country bumpkin or a professional logger cutting for twelve hours a day in British Columbia’s back country.
It might be easy to wax eloquent about the beauty of woodcutting in rural Ontario and then disparage “big” industry. But there’s a direct line to be traced from all our “local” work back to the industrial sites where our tools are conceived and made. I could see this in the STIHL factory. Here was a place where workers on the line had ownership over their work and input into the process and where young men and women were brought into work to be trained and educated on site. Above all, the company was shaped by the pervasive belief that good work relies upon good tools and, conversely, that a good tool relies upon good work.
When I look around at some of the shoddy tools I could buy at Home Depot, it’s easy to despair that we’ve become a disposable culture. But I wonder if this problem is perhaps not embedded into a larger cultural malaise around physical work. Are we becoming a society that is less and less interested in the work of which our hands are capable? If so, does that translate not only into how we view such workers, but to the attention and care we give to the making of their tools? We can’t simply adopt the German model for numerous reasons, but if we could create a culture that valued good work in all its manifestations and bridged the divides we’ve perpetuated between the white collared “thinkers” and the blue collared “doers,” perhaps we’d start to recover the sense of excitement, creativity, and purpose around work—the sense a child might feel the first time he gets to help out with the summer woodcut.