I’ve been thinking about hands, and how little I use mine these days. Yet my father made his living through manual labor—you can’t get much more manual than playing the violin—and my mother mended socks and shirts and sheets. Her mother slaughtered, dressed, and cooked chickens, pigeons, and rabbits for the dinner table. My grandfather, a vet, spent his life with his hands on, and in, the animals he cared for. And when they were done with these tasks, there was the reward of a “good as new” shirt, a succulent rabbit dinner, and a much relieved cow nuzzling her newborn.
Yet despite all this hands-on heritage, I chose about as hands-free a profession as there is—literature. And I wasn’t even producing literature, but stuffing books written by great French writers down the throats of college students. My students did learn, which was nice, but at the end of the day, what did I have to show for my efforts? Perhaps in her dorm room one of those students was figuring out the pluperfect subjunctive, or rereading a poem by Ronsard because she finally realized how beautiful it was. But this seemed too far removed from me. I longed for the energy I expended in my work to yield direct, tangible results.
Then my husband and I bought our first house. It had a big vegetable garden, an orchard, and a chicken coop, and to the alarm of my loved ones, I dove headfirst into homesteading. I went into it with a kind of desperation, as if the garden and the animals were a life raft that would save me from drowning in a sea of abstraction. I didn’t understand what I was doing, or why. All I knew was that after a day of explaining Montaigne to sophomores and sitting on faculty committees, I would run to pick the lettuce, or clean the coop, or milk the goat, and only then feel that I was touching the real world.
I was vaguely ashamed of my passion, and my friends used to worry because between my work and my children I found it hard to catch my breath. “Why can’t you just buy your food at the store, like most people?” they asked. But, driven by an urge that I didn’t understand, I persevered.
Now, thanks to a spate of books and articles about the importance of handwork, I’m beginning to see what was going on. Matthew Crawford, a political philosophy Ph.D. who gave up the academic life to run a motorbike repair shop, writes about the significance of working with our hands. As more and more of us become knowledge workers instead of earning a living with our hands, he believes, something vital is being lost.
Moving the hands activates much larger areas of the brain cortex than moving other parts of the body, and the rhythm of such activities as kneading dough, spading garden beds, or hewing stone has a soothing effect on the mind, as does the physical fatigue they induce. For eons our species has used the hands for almost everything, and seeing immediate, tangible results. Although we still need the brain stimulation, the rhythm, and the results, we’re not getting them.
We no longer make things, or fix them when they break. Bread comes pre-sliced and vegetables pre-chopped from the store. Machines wash and dry our clothes, and who even irons anymore? We are in danger of letting go of physical reality in favor of pure information. Our online lives reflect more and more of our preferences and idiosyncrasies, and we each exist inside the shell of a self-created personalized universe. But when we come in contact with the “hard” reality of the material world we are forced to overcome our self-absorption.
It’s good to know that I wasn’t crazy during those homesteading years. Weary of being confined to flipping the pages of a book, my hands, like sheepdogs relegated to pet status, were signaling to my brain that they wanted more interesting tasks. Now that the goats and chickens and garden are gone, I need to find ways to give my hands the challenges they deserve, beyond this eternal tapping on the keyboard.
For a lovely evocation of the beauty and meaning of handwork, here is a video of Renate Hiller that will have you reaching for your knitting needles.