Years ago my friend Ben and I went on a bicycle tour of the island of Nova Scotia. It was a two-week trip. We had bought new bicycles a couple of years before in London. The terrain was pretty flat at first but it became very hilly as we neared the Northern end of the island called Cape Breton. There was only one way to make it around the Northern tip of the island and that was on an extremely steep trail called Cabot Trail. As we neared the Cabot Trail, we'd meet bicyclists coming the other way who had just completed the trail. They would stop and tell us how incredibly hard the Cabot Trail was to ride. The nearer we got, the more extreme were the descriptions. We started to get nervous. When we finally entered the trail, it was every bit as bad as everyone had described it. There were long sections of this road that had a 10% grade. And imagine riding that with the 50 lbs. of gear we each had on your bikes! When we were half-way through the steep terrain, we saw two bicyclists coming in the other direction. They had the cheapest, oldest, rattiest bicycles I'd ever seen. Old three-speeders. And they didn't have any formal panniers - just bags tied on to their bikes.
I was filled with admiration. How they made those hills with three-speed bikes I'll never know. But they fortified my love of all things low tech.
Who was I to admire more – someone with a fancy expensive bike who was pretty strong or someone with a simple bike who was super strong? My allegiance went to the crappy bikes and the supernatural calf muscles.
My friend Jill is after me to buy a new bike. But I am happy with my bike – a cast-off of hers from 10 years ago. It’s so dilapidated that I am never afraid that someone will steal it. It fits me to a T- even though the frame is bent.
My low-tech tendencies show up throughout my life. In pottery I think it is funny that I start each semester with a new “starter” kit of tools for $13. I seem to lose them every time between terms. And so I again buy and rip open the plastic of the new set. Once when I brought my clay to a studio with a naked model, I couldn’t find my tools (again) and used a toothpick from my Swiss army knife to carve the clay instead. Here’s the piece I made:
Sometimes you can do more with less. I like working with “handicaps.” When I studied painting in college, the professor had restrictions on what colors we could use, what size of canvas we had to stretch. I loved it. We started out in black and white and one other color. I was so astonished with what you could do with those three that I couldn’t imagine using all the colors. Some how the limitations made my choices feel that much more expansive.
My low-tech proclivities are tied up with machismo. I feel tough with my simple clay tools, old bike, crappy work-out clothes, bare basics for gardening tools (a hoe, rakes, shovels, a trowel and a long pointy thing for digging up roots- sometimes I even use a spoon. I snicker at people getting into gardening with a brand spanking new set of tools and knee pads!) I feel that it is just me and whatever talent I can squeeze out of my hand, as I set to the task.
On the other hand, I wonder what it would be like to have proper tools. Having worked in the construction office of Portland YouthBuilders, I have come to have some appreciation for the correct tool. I asked my friend Dale to help me build a chicken coop because I was having trouble doing it. I had tried to bang the supports into the ground while standing on a recycle bin flailing a broken brick and wasn’t getting anywhere. He showed up with a post-pounder and I was amazed that anyone had the ingenuity to invent such a brilliant thing. I went out and bought one for myself. I now post-pound every stake and support that I use in my garden.
It took me about 10 years before I allowed myself to use swim goggles. I just looked at the world through rainbow-halos from having my eyes sore with chlorine. I thought I had to be swim-team good before I could use them. Now that I use them, I love them. Is it a matter of self-esteem to claim the right tool? How well equipped do you like to be?