To be certain, there is nothing like the smell of saw dust on you clothes and in your hair at the end of a day. It fills me with a sense of accomplishment, as though I did something meaningful by using my hands, working with wood. I don’t feel more like a “man” because of it, but I feel more human, more aware of the creation that I’m a part of. And I blame it on Lent and Wendell Berry.
Our Lenten practice as a house is to celebrate each other. Each week we’re assigned a different person that we’re supposed to spend time with or do something for. This week, I have Dan, who has been working on our basement for the last 5 or so months, so I asked if I could help him with anything in that area. We spent the day picking up doors from Home Depot and then in the afternoon sanding and staining some boards to be used as stair treads and frames. I’ve always been fascinated by carpentry and envious of people who know what they are doing. My few experiences in high school working on houses were exciting and educational, but I’ve never really learned a lot about it. We didn’t do anything complicated, but just getting to take part in building something, and more importantly getting to learn from someone, meant a lot to me. Dan and I had a great day talking about books and music and just enjoying the weather.
I blame it on Wendell Berry as well. I’ve been reading “Life is a Miracle,” an essay “against Modernist suspicion.” He rails against the scientific cult of knowledge and original thought. The quest (and belief in in its possibility) to know everything, to know all mysteries through empirical proof, is ultimately a destructive one. As the unknown is reduced merely to a problem that can be solved, science embarks on “new discoveries” (creating new problems as well) without consideration to the propriety of such an investigation. The startling conclusion is thus: perhaps there are some things we are better off not trying to know. It reminds me of the line from the Jurrassic Park movie, where the mathmatician says to the old guy (roughly), “You were too busy trying to figure out whether you could, that you didn’t stop to think whether or not you should.” At the root of this Enlightenment ideal is the god of original thought. That the highest achievement of a human being is to do something entirely new or original is a complete lie. You cannot do or be anything you want. Some people cannot become leaders or rocket scientists or any number of other “prestigious” occupations, but will become farmers, carpenters, and other kinds of workers without which the world cannot exist. Despite the necessity of this kind of work, it is not valued equally by the world.
Wendell Berry (and Dorothy Day too) is at fault for my appreciation for today because he reminds me that all work in the arts and sciences has to have as wide a context as possible, and should always be done in consideration for one’s local community. It is essential to becoming whole creatures of our earth that we find ways to be less removed from the nature that gives us food, oxygen, and sustains our species.
It is humbling that Lent begins with the reminder, “From dust you were made, and to dust you shall return.” A season that shows us through our fasting how often we fall short also reminds us that we too shall come and go like the grass of the field. The weight of our sins is brought into greater relief as we recognize how short our lives are, and how far we have to go. I like the image of dust. It makes me think of sawdust, little particles of wood which will always carry the DNA and makeup of the original piece, yet are scattered and blown wherever the wind wills. All the dust together will never re-make the tree, but the tree yet lives in the particles it creates. In fact, without the tree, the particles would not exist. A fascinating paradox, that unless “a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”