Nothing prepares you to handle a pickaxe for the first time. You don’t anticipate the heft of it, the welt of solid iron, the brutishness of the shape. The name becomes scrutable: A pick, because that’s what it does. An axe, because it’s built like one and because you swing it. The function of a pickaxe was clear to me when I was handed one (it’s clear to everyone), but I can’t say I intuited the spirit of the thing. I found out, digging a precise hole in southern France, that the best way to pickaxe is to lift the heavy end straight into the air, and then to drive down with both arms, with all available back muscles, with knees bent and feet rooted at an athletic distance. It occurs to you, once you start using a pickaxe correctly, that you could easily use one to kill. Pitchforks and torches come to mind. Should I say this? — In brief flashes, I thought of bloodying our hosts, kind as they were, and eating all their foie gras.
We forget that the pickaxe is a perfect object. A perfected object. A tool honed by centuries of workers and centuries of work itself. We’ve always felt a need to dig. Elongate the arm twofold and add to it a dense metal bludgeon, and you have a thing that superhumanizes the human. Add a spike — and all the momentum slings down toward a single minuscule point.
Rachel and I found Peter and Jennie Van Hanswijk Pennink through a website called Workaway. We traded four hours of daily maintenance work for meals and use of a vacation home they owned in the Dordogne River Valley. They were nice folks, of course — Dutch-English expats who had gone from “going grey” to “gone grey.” Their house was a converted stone barn with guest rooms and underfloor heating. The stone was honey-colored. When we ate early dinners outside, we ate in the glow of the house, whose face seemed to take and hold the evening light.
The days, normally:
Wake up close to 9:00. Frugal breakfast. Begin working.
Lunch served at 1:00. Afternoon free.
Dinner served at 8:00. Bed near midnight.
I dreamed about the work. Peter wanted me to level a 160-square-foot portion of grassy slope, and then to build a parking garage atop it. He hoped it would be done in a week — “Then we can paint!” One week was unrealistic (three weeks was unrealistic). Still, with Rachel’s help, by Saturday I had dug 2 feet into the high end of the slope, broken the soil from there downward, shoveled the dirt away, hacked and raked the plot flat, tamped it down with Peter’s Mercedes, set a perimeter of concrete stones, and laid gravel, checking and re-checking the level. Several days into pickaxing, shoveling, raking, I would sit up in bed with a faint grasping impulse in my fingers, and then in all my other muscles — as if my palms and limbs and shoulder blades and the arches of my feet had thoughts of their own, and were thinking of how hungry they were to be back in motion.
I had started reading Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium in the two or three weeks before France. The book is a series of lectures, a short compendium of the writer’s thoughts on literature heading into the 21st century. Calvino’s ideal literary patron is the Olympian god Mercury — god of communication and mediation, inventor of writing. “Mercury with his winged feet, light and airborne, astute, agile, adaptable, free and easy, established the relationships of the gods among themselves and those between the gods and men, between universal laws and individual destinies, between the forces of nature and the forms of culture, between the objects of the world and all thinking subjects.”
I remember the first few days in France, when I would hack with the pickaxe for 10 minutes at a time, then stop for bouts of despair (“water breaks,” if Peter was looking). Standing over my sandbox-sized ruin I would think: Accomplishment has never meant less. Progress has never looked so stupid. A man to build the garage, finally. A wheezing, flailing kid.
But if Mercury is one ideal, Calvino admits that there’s Jupiter’s other son Vulcan — “a god who does not roam the heavens but lurks at the bottom of craters, shut up in his smithy, where he tirelessly forges objects that are the last word in refinement: jewels and ornaments for the gods and goddesses, weapons, shields, nets, traps. To Mercury’s aerial flight, Vulcan replies with his limping gait and the rhythmic beat of his hammer.”
It got to be that my hands understood before I did the steps that would come next. My limbs came to revere the rhythms: pickaxe, shovel, rake, level, repeat. They knew the coming days would be spent knocking wood in place, nailing the roof together, weatherizing, painting. And they sat up ready. The sinews, knowing, led. I suppose this kind of manual instinct, the product of hours, is craft.
It was an industriousness I’d forgotten — a feeling of youth, and puissance. Of muscular growth. I missed digging through something impossible for the sake of the feeling. Having simple, but good, tools. And time. Somewhere in France, a wooden structure is standing on perfectly level ground. It’s a monument, if nothing else, to a series of precise motions I once made, rhythms of thought I once knew. Like a pickaxe I’ve laid to rest. Or a book I’ve shelved in a foreign home.