Throw together a couple $5 words, and you have a solid title for a blog post. Actually, this phrase popped unbidden into my head as I was splitting firewood, contemplating how the process of swinging a hefty edge tool at a standing chunk of hardwood, over and over, helps center my thoughts. There’s something about a repeated manual task, built around muscle memory and a degree of unconscious problem-solving, that functions as a relief valve for the mind. Once I get into the groove with a woodpile, the jacket comes off, the stack of split fuel grows, and the loud problems I’ve been wrestling with seem to sort themselves out.
Running is another of these elemental, physical practices that is both meditative and unconscious. My wife often tells me, “You need to go for a run,” when I’m hovering around the house being a nuisance or getting worked up about something. As usual, she is right. Getting out onto the trail or road, putting one foot in front of the other a few thousand times, each step micro-adjusted and adapted for the ground conditions without any input from my waking thoughts, feels like a cleansing practice. Author Christopher McDougall, who penned the bestselling Born to Run, writes that “If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.”
Working wood with hand tools is rife with these kinds of experiences. Ripping boards, thicknessing stock with a fore plane, or chopping mortises can become a kind of flow-state process where the body takes over and the conscious mind almost relaxes, in a frame of focused calm. Matthew Crawford unpacked this idea in Shop Class as Soulcraft (which Nancy Hiller reviewed for Issue Nine). He says, “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.” This he contrasts to the way we feel when we are disconnected from that physical work, disburdened through the use of technology from the repeated manual action of, say, sawing a board. The further removed we are from the process and detached from the energy input needed, the more prone we become to distraction and boredom. And the less fulfilling the work becomes.
Catching the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain (1,530 feet tall) here in Acadia National Park has apparently become a “bucket list” item for many. In the U.S., the sun touches this point first on most days of the year. Depending on the trail you choose, running or hiking to the summit is anywhere from a four-and-a-half to seven mile round-trip. Predictably, when I’ve set out to meet the sun at the top, I’m a few minutes behind schedule when I reach the trailhead and have to pour on some extra effort to make it up in time. I don’t consciously think about each individual step – that would be overwhelming. Instead, just quietly being in the moment as I plod my way up the pink granite allows me to absorb the whole experience of the mountain waking up to a new day. The trees and rocks and whitetail deer and morning birdsong seem to flow by through steady physical effort. Once I crest the last rise and see the sun just emerging from the dark Atlantic, I can stop and catch my breath, soaking it in.
But there’s also an auto road up the mountain. The trail emerges just below the summit into a large parking lot, and at every summer sunrise it is full of rental cars and bleary-eyed folks wearing parkas and pajama pants, nursing cups of coffee. They, too, are blessed to enjoy the sun’s first rays on their faces. But we’ve taken different paths to the summit – we’ve chosen different means to get there. The ease of being a passenger for the journey, expending no effort beyond that of rolling out of bed too early and stumbling to the car, seems to take away much of the immersive value of the whole experience. Once the sun has cleared the horizon, the summit crowd moves on to the question of where to go for breakfast. The lot is empty again in half an hour. But I still have the best half of the run ahead – the long glide downhill.
The point is that we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the monotonous. Manual tasks like splitting firewood, building furniture using tools that are entirely “you-powered,” or taking the road or trail less traveled with our own two legs offer both physical satisfaction and mental release. The frustrations of the day, powerfully influential as they seem at first, tend to fade with each shaving that falls to the workshop floor.