When I was a teenager I sometimes helped my father shovel grain. His strong arms never seemed to be straining. He smoothly and rhythmically slid the scoop shovel back and forth, back and forth. The wheat or barley appeared to run into the auger on its own. I struggled to push the grain ahead of my shovel. My dad would laugh and tell me, “You’re working way harder than you need to.”
My father was born in 1895. When he was young, grain was shoveled onto a wagon and then shoveled off again at the point of delivery. As difficult as that sounds, the job may not have been as onerous as we might think. Granaries were often designed so that gravity helped the process. The ground was higher on the unloading side and lower on the loading side. A wagon didn’t hold anywhere near as much as a modern grain truck. People who regularly shoveled grain developed muscles and the strength to do the job. Not only were their arms and back conditioned for the work, but they knew how to do the task efficiently.
My dad moved grain with the grace and ease of a ballet dancer. He could shovel faster than the auger could swallow up the grain. He could pound nails with an amazingly few blows. He could effortlessly saw through a board with a hand saw and drill straight holes with a hand powered brace and bit.
Our aversion to doing things with hand tools may stem, in part, from our not having the skill to work with them efficiently. Our bumbling, unpracticed efforts really are hard work. Using a hand saw, plane, scythe, spade, axe or pitch fork requires practice. When we are forced to use these tools we are at a disadvantage because we have not learned to use them well and we “work way harder” than we need to.
There is no doubt that our labor saving tools make work easier, but perhaps work in the past wasn’t quite as hard as we imagine it. People knew better how to use the tools they had. Work required skill and practice. Muscles remembered the rhythm of the work, the arc of the scythe’s swing, the grip on the handle. These are things that are taught by one person to another. They are difficult to master on your own or from a book.
Except for a few people who treasure things of the past, most of us have lost these skills passed on from master to apprentice. We assume we will never need them, that our power tools will always be available for our use. We are always looking for an easier way to substitute a machine’s work for our own.
I never did learn to shovel with the skill and grace of my father. I didn’t have to. I’ve never had to fill a wagon with a shovel. There are times, however, when modern gas powered or electrical tools break down, won’t fit in a small spot, or are too far from the outlet and I am forced to use old tools. That’s when I wish I knew what my father knew.
Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains