Many years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Tool Box”; it’s included in my book, Red Laredo Boots. In it, I looked at a box John’s grandfather had made in England for John’s father Ben when the family emigrated to Canada in 1953. John’s grandfather had been a cabinet maker and he filled the box with handtools, little tins of grease, and he’d even made a level; I think he imagined his gift to his son would be very useful for a life in a new country. The box became a catchall for the things a family accumulates and when I examined the tools within it, I realized that some of the chisels had been used to pry open paint cans. Was the level ever used? Probably not. I keep it on my desk now and take it in my hands from time to time for the comfort of its shape. We built our own house and I learned to use a big level when we were pouring footings and raising walls. It gives me pleasure to see that my desk is level — that means my readings all those years ago were accurate and that our building is sound.
I’m working on an essay now about Gregor Mendel, the Moravian-Silesian monk and gardener who is considered to be the father of modern genetics. This essay was actually born out of another, “Euclid’s Orchard”, a long sprawling piece about love, coyote music, quilts, mathematics, orchards, and genetics. And I couldn’t seem to knit the parts about genetics in neatly enough. So out they came and I’ve been working on them in a different essay. I realized that the thing that really interested me when I visited St. Thomas Monastery in Brno, in the Czech Republic, where Mendel was a member of the Augustinian order, was the case of his pruning tools.
They are so elegant, with their brass and wooden fittings. And they were obviously cared for. They tell me something about the man who used them — his patience, his diligence. So I’m looking at them, letting them talk to me, and we’ll see what happens. I brought peas back from the little shop in the museum at the Abbey of St. Thomas and kept notes (careless haphazard notes) on growing them in my garden over four years. That will be part of the essay too.
Most of all, I’m hoping that some of Mendel’s patience and care rubs off on me. I think of our pruning tools — one broken saw and one usable one; four pairs of secateurs, one pair held together with black electrical tape and one pair (I’m sorry to admit) hanging out on the fence by the garden where I was using them yesterday to cut down the fennel. A machete we found in our woods, which had probably been left by a salal cutter decades ago. John takes much better care of them than I do. He almost always returns them to their hooks in the workshop. But I get sidetracked or forgetful and leave them out in the weather.
In the top left corner of the photograph of Mendel’s tools, you can see a whetstone. It’s never occurred to me that our pruning tools should be sharpened regularly. I’ve occasionally used a knife sharpener on the edge of one pair of secateurs. Mostly I just struggle when cutting a difficult branch. Is it too late for me to learn new habits? I hope not. I remember how my father kept his hunting knives well-sharpened. In “The Tool Box”, there’s a memory of the oil he used, “a delicious smelling oil that scented the whole basement….I remember sitting on the basement stairs, listening to the blades being ground across the stone, and breathing in the heady oil.” It makes me wonder why some things — hair colour, body shape — are inherited but not the useful things, like the need to keep tools clean and honed.