The system of nature, of which man is a part tends to be self balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology. (E.F. Shumacher)
Some call it a Kaiser blade; some call it a sling blade. Well thank you very much Billy Bob. But this particular piece is not about that great film (although it is one of my all time faves), but about one man's venture into "alternative" lawn care and what that experience produced. The actual yard tool that is called a sling blade is a heavy hooked steel blade with serrated teeth at the end of a long wooden handle that is used to cut brush, briar, tall grass, and weeds. The blade is double edged with both sides kept sharp. Though I haven't used one since I was a kid, after many attempts to locate one – I finally found one and bought it. It really works great on a property where lawnmowers and other "conventional" equipment can't go. And doggone it, its great exercise swinging that thing. And while I didn't begin my adventure with an anti-gas powered lawnmower bias, the EPA has estimated that just one such mower can produce as much air pollution as 43 new cars each being driven 12,000 miles. Another startling EPA estimate is that over 17 million gallons of gas is spilled just refueling lawnmowers every year. That and other jaw dropping information about the down side of gas powered mowers can be found at www.peoplepoweredmachines.com.
While using my sling blade, I discovered something. Yes it is hard work, but it is also liberating. I began taking my frustrations out on weeds, brush, and grass rather than on people. And if you start slinging early in the morning, it helps to clear the mind. And when you're done, you feel a sense of accomplishment. But not long after using the sling blade for the first time, I realized others didn't share my enthusiasm for such an "archaic" yard tool. One passerby took pity on me and mentioned she knew someone who could take care of that for me. (Someone who had a large battalion of gas powered yard tools at their command no doubt.) I then made the mistake of telling her I was getting my exercise. She shook her head and walked on. Silly me, exercise is something you do at a high dollar gym. You hire a personal trainer to firm up those abs and tighten up those buttocks. You certainly don't want to expend any energy sweating and toiling on yard work. Others would just stop and gawk, in apparent disbelief at what they were witnessing. They looked at me like I was part of a Texas chain gang. I risked becoming "that crazy sing blade man" of the neighborhood. And crazy in this neighborhood is really saying something. I kept waiting for the sheriff to pull up and in that hokey Texas accent that you've heard in hundreds of bad movies say "put that thang down boy! We don't cater to folks using sling blades around here."
Disheartened, I again turned to my well worn copy of Wendell Berry's What Are People For? and E. F. Shumacher's Small Is Beautiful (Economics As If People Mattered) to help me make sense of this seemingly petty yard problem made worse by small minded people. The works of both men often refer to appropriate technologies to achieve a particular task. Is someone who uses a top of the line, gas guzzling, multi horsepower, carbon fume emitting riding lawn mower on a lawn the size of a postage stamp utilizing appropriate technology? I think not. But while reading their essays once again, as often is the case, I began to broaden my thinking about other areas of life where "bigger" is not always better.
One alarming example of this kind of mind set has to do with the food we eat. It was only back in August that the FDA issued a huge egg recall after 1,600 salmonella illnesses were traced to a behemoth of an egg farm in Iowa. 380 millions eggs had to be recalled. An FDA inspection found dead chickens, insects, rodents, and towers of manure inside farm facilities. As of this writing, the FDA has still cited safety concerns. And it was only three years ago that a massive spinach recall was conducted due to a salmonella outbreak. Tomatoes, peppers, and avocadoes have also come under scrutiny in recent years. Millions of acres are full of crops that have become genetically modified. Cattle are confined to huge feedlots and fed feed dosed with growth hormone. Welcome to the new agriculture. As our nation's farms have become bigger and bigger, our food has become less safe. Why should our nation's food supply be held hostage by a few mega farms? Why does our produce have to be shipped an average of 1,500 miles before it arrives on our dinner plates? Well it shouldn't. Buy from local farmers who have a vested interest in the community and your well-being. Start a garden and grow your own food. If that is not possible, join a community garden. Buy beef that is grass fed.
Perhaps one of the best shows ever produced for PBS (and there's been many) is the recent Endless Feast. The show highlights several communities around the country and Canada where such growers and consumers gather together. The show culminates in a feast where the participants celebrate community and locally produced fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese, and wine. One episode features a Brooklyn, NY neighborhood which proves even urban areas can get into the act of exploring alternatives to the conventional way food is produced and transported. Those involved with this great series are simply taking the writings and ideas of Berry and Schumacher and putting them into action. And we can't forget about Neil Young and the good folks at farmaid.org. Farm Aid was originally designed as a one time benefit concert in 1985 to help those family farmers who got too big and took on too much debt. But that one time concert grew into a movement and now 25 years later the organization is still helping those in crisis. But down through the years, Farm Aid has also emphasized the need for sustainable agriculture, alternatives to factory farms, and bolstering family farms and safe food.
As I went back outside and grabbed my sling blade, I realized there were valid and "appropriate" alternatives to the choices most of society has readily embraced. Alternatives that are cleaner, greener, healthier, and more eco-friendly. Alternatives that bring us closer to people and the land. Some call it a Kaiser blade; some call it a sling blade. I call it a good start.