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In Praise of the Right Tool

Much of my “free” time has been occupied by gardening for the last several weeks. I’m trying a number of tactics to keep up with the garden tasks this year, the details of which I won’t bore you with. But one of my more unexpected successes was buying gardening gloves.

I must say that it’s a little difficult for me to admit that purchasing a new pair of gloves covered in some waterproof purple rubber/plastic substance turns out to have been an important part of implementing my plan to spend more time outisde, learn more about growing my own food, and commune with the seasons. It’s even harder to admit that several weeks later it still makes me grin to put them on. I grin because they fit so well (thank god for extra-smalls, especially ones that aren’t pink and flowery) and because I’m glad that I got over feeling silly about wanting them in the first place.

I did feel silly about it. I mean, wasn’t “getting my hands in the dirt” part of the joy of it all? Was I becoming one of those uptight people who is afraid of getting mussed? Was I next going to find myself never walking in the rain without a plastic rain bonnet like my grandmother? Was I going to start spending willy-nilly in search of other stuff that would make magically it easier to do things I’d had trouble setting time aside for in the past?

You may say I was overthinking a wee bit. Just maybe. After all, it wasn’t that complicated to acknowledge that there’s a difference between being afraid of dirt and recognizing that having my hands and nails caked in it after hours of gardening ends up feeling dry and unpleasant. The simple little addition of my gardening gloves makes the whole thing more appealing and less of a production, and if I’m to keep up my several-visits-a-week schedule, those are helpful things. Why the concern?

My small-scale angst reminded me of the wise Wendell Berry’s distinction between consumerism and materialism. Consumerism is focused on buying things, having new things, having better things than someone else. Materialism is focused on caring for the things we have and appreciating their value as tools, made of the “stuff of creation.” Environmental writer Alan Thein, referring to Berry, says “A true materialism cares for things—it emphasizes elegant functionality, durability, repair.” Far from being too materialistic, said Berry, our current culture is not materialistic enough.

Appreciating the value of a good tool, taking care of it, and learning how to fix it or mend it, these are good materialistic values. Disposability, brand over quality, and trying to replace skills and community entirely with things, these are the hallmarks of consumerism.

When I went looking online to confirm my memory that it was from Wendell Berry that I first heard this distinction, I noticed that most people are still using the two interchangeably, or usually in tandem, as in “our consumerist, materialist society.” Much thanks to Madonna, I’m sure.

That’s too bad, because I think Berry’s definition of “materialist” is useful. It’s too easy to hear calls to reduce our consumption, tread lightly on the earth, and reduce our eco “footprint” and think that means a return to the stone age, or at least that it means a kind of passive interaction with our material goods, accepting whatever bits and pieces come our way, but not wanting to put too much thought or energy into selecting particular ones. That might be too much concern about things for our eco soul. It might start us down the slippery slope to the belief that catalogs full of recycled-material tchatchkes will save the world.

But humans are tool-using critters, and going without appreciation for the right tools often yields dysfunctional, grubby, and awkward results. Besides, I’d wager, it’s often just as resource intensive anyway. I know that for my family, a set of good pots and a few other well-cared-for kitchen implements are a key part of being happy to regularly make home-cooked meals based on local ingredients rather than packaging-heavy prepared foods or take-out. (To be fair, at the moment, having structured our family life so someone has enough time to cook still makes more difference. Good tools don’t erase the difficulties of prioritizing our time.)

I am, I know, a long way from being a good materialist. I don’t know the first thing about fixing my car, and hardly more (with far less excuse) about fixing my bike. I got a lesson in darning from my mother-in-law last Christmas, but I haven’t really tried it yet. Of course that’s largely because we only recently were given a darning egg—a wonderful light-weight egg-shaped bit of wood passed down through the generations—and I haven’t yet tracked down a darning needle. Sometimes it’s all about the right tool.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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