Monday, May 26, 2014

Meditations on human-powered tools

April through June is my favorite time of year and also the busiest time of year for people in this area who have lawns or gardens to care for. In my case, with an acre lot which has less lawn than when we moved here but still more than I’d like, and with good-sized vegetable and herb gardens, lawn and garden care is my primary job for these three months.

While this post begins a short series on human powered tools, I wanted to include a few photos from the vegetable garden, where the 2014 garden science project is in progress. So far this year I’ve been able to plant everything at the proper time. Between that, the favorable weather, and probably the continuing good effect of proper re-mineralization, the spring crops appear larger and healthier than any I’ve grown in past years. To the left is the lettuce plot, with six different varieties. We ate the first lettuce of the season yesterday. It tasted delicious, no bitterness at all.

The ‘Golden Acre’ cabbages are the lower plants in the foreground of the photo above. I allow them 2 square feet per plant. Behind them are three different varieties of broccoli.

‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ cabbage is in the foreground, with broccoli plants behind. This cabbage is smaller than ‘Golden Acre’ so I grow them closer together, allowing 1 square foot per plant.

As I mentioned above, I’m beginning what I envision as a short series on human powered tools that I favor and how to use them effectively. A good book to read along with this series is The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles over Motors by Tamara Dean. She discusses the physics and mechanics of human power before addressing various devices powered by human arms and/or legs, some commercially available, some made by various people and organizations for specific purposes, some as plans for building yourself. So far we’ve stuck to human-powered tools we’ve been able to buy new or used. I do have an idea for a human-powered leaf shredder percolating in my mind but I don’t know if or when we’ll try to make it happen.

Before moving on, please know that when I discuss using human-powered tools I am addressing only those people who are physically able to use them, or could with only a minor amount of exercise to build up sufficient muscle strength to do so. All thoughts I have on human-powered tools apply only to people who can use them. I’ll repeat this before each entry in the series because of its importance.

Those of you who meet the condition above may be asking yourself, why use human-powered tools when motor-powered tools are so readily available these days? Whether powered by gasoline, line current, or batteries, it seems possible to avoid using our muscles for almost any yard, kitchen, or household task as well as for transportation. Motorized tools are promoted on the basis that they save labor, as if the labor associated with using a human-powered tool is too excessive for physically capable people to consider doing. The ads also imply that the motorized tool is a real advance, part of the continued progress of humans toward a state of leisure. And in fact, motorized tools are faster and more powerful than the human-powered versions in every case that I’ll discuss. In a few cases the power advantage is significant enough that I continue to use the motorized version at least some of the time.

More often than not, however, motorized tools actually don’t save us labor, not if we include the labor required to obtain, learn how to use, maintain, and store the tool compared to the human-powered version. New motorized tools may be cheaper to buy than a new human-powered version, but over the life of the tool the human-powered tools I’ll discuss are cheaper to use. If you can find a good used version of the human-powered tool it will generally be cheaper than a new motorized version. This is one of the reasons that Mike and I prefer to use human-powered tools where possible.

Another problem with motorized tools is their use of fossil fuels, whether directly as gasoline or indirectly as fossil-fuel-generated electricity or as batteries manufactured and shipped with the aid of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel supplies are limited; we’ve already passed the peaks of cheap oil, cheap natural gas, and cheap coal. Price movements will likely continue to be erratic but upward over the long term and it may become harder for us to justify use of motorized tools as we find it more difficult to stay employed (one effect of passing the peak of cheap fossil fuels is slowed economic growth) and need to divert financial resources to keeping ourselves fed and sheltered. Mike and I prefer human-powered tools because they reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and the various costs associated with their use.

A third reason to choose well-designed and good-quality human-powered tools is because they promote health by getting us to use our muscles appropriately. Ironically, because we have populated our lives with “labor-saving” tools, many of us find we need to spend some of our precious time off the job getting exercise in ways that don’t make use of the power our muscles are generating.  Walking on tracks or using gym equipment exercises our muscles, but it takes time and costs money as well (the gym membership, the commute to and from the gym or track, specialized shoes and/or clothing). I don’t need these because I get plenty of exercise using human-powered tools while wearing clothing and shoes I already have, and at the same time I put the power generated by my muscles to good use.

In the vast majority of cases I can think of, human-powered tools are safer to use than motorized versions. Motors vibrate. I find the vibrations hurt my hands and arms in some cases, such as lawn mowers and string trimmers. Human-powered tools don’t cause this vibration-induced injury. The much slower speed at which blades of human-powered tools move make them much safer to use in most cases (a sharp knife might be the lone exception). Because most human-powered tools are safer, older children and teens can use them, giving them a chance to contribute useful work to their families and households. Motors have many safety issues, such as shock hazards, that are not present with human-powered tools. Often these are serious enough to recommend or require the use of specialized clothing, shoes, or accessories when using a motorized tool, adding to its cost and inconvenience. And motors are loud; human-powered tools are quiet. We prefer human-powered tools for all of these reasons.

Finally, I think there is a spiritual purpose to meeting as many needs as possible through human-powered tools. When I use the proper tool for a task and that tool is working at its best, not only do I get the job well done, but I feel good physically even if my muscles are a little tired. I also feel good mentally, knowing that I can do the work needed to care for Mike’s and my needs and wants at a very low cost and without contributing to the problems associated with fossil fuel use. In some cases, such as the first time I used a scythe to mow grass, I felt good beyond the ability of well exercised muscles, a well-done job, and the satisfaction of doing the job without fossil fuels and at minimum cost can explain. I felt a sense that I was doing exactly the right thing, fully alive, in tune with the earth and the cosmos.

When we use human-powered tools we feel deeply our power and our limitations. We work in concert with the animals, plants, and people around us; we can stop to listen to the birds, watch the breeze, smell the flowers, attend to families and friends and then return to our task. We work together with all life. Try them and find out for yourself!