I step in shit all the time and recognize it when I do. I’ve just learned how to scrape it off my boots and carry on.
– Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights
It hurt like hell.
The moment the block of Ponderosa pine slipped through the grip of my glove, I knew the fingers between that log and the bed of my truck were in trouble. Pain shot up my arm.
I paused to breathe through the pain. The cool evening breeze of autumn caught the sweat trickling down my face; winter was around the corner. As I drew in a deep breath, the setting sun caught my attention. One irony of the relentless drought and heartbreaking wildfires seizing Colorado this year has been magnificent haze-amplified evening glows, streaking the sky in magenta, apricot, and cobalt.
Suddenly, I recalled a long-ago moment with a buddy of mine and laughed out loud for the utter joy of it all.
“You know what your problem is? You’ve got computer hands.”
The diagnosis had come to my buddy when he was elbow deep under the hood of his truck, trying to learn—with the help of a crusty old mechanic—how to replace a fuel pump. With the mouth of a sailor and a waiting room that looked like a storage closet for broken chairs and greasy magazines, this mechanic was like a character right out of a film on masculine initiation. My buddy was doing his best, unsuccessfully, to loosen a bolt when Neil (no last name—it’s just Neil) announced, “The problem isn’t the wrench. The problem’s the hands. You’ve got computer hands.”
When he told me the story, my buddy and I had laughed, both looking at our hands. Well-groomed indeed and ready to bravely face any foe that might present itself…online.
But for doing real things—physical things, messy things—our “inside hands” were no match for Neil’s four decades of turning a wrench.
That was a long time ago, and though I still spend an obscene number of hours on a computer, my hands and my body are now marked with scars and stories of initiation into real things.
An hour earlier, I had been sitting behind a desk plugged into the matrix, faltering in that unique fatigue known perhaps only to modern humans, a fatigue not from physical labor but from choices. An exhaustion from decisions, mental activity, and the endless flow of byte-sized virtual communications. Each piece no doubt laced with deep meaning, but collectively simply too much. An overload of choices and inputs and a woefully disproportionate ratio of mental expenditure to the physicality that fuels the masculine soul like food. Too much of too many artificial things, all clouding my spirit and removing me too many degrees from the real.
But now that was behind me. I was outdoors instead of indoors, in my weather-worn Carhartt coveralls infused with the scent of man and reeking of the joy of the last dozen or so adventures. My chainsaw chaps, caked in an aged compound of sawdust and bar-chain oil, reminded me of the brilliant coloring on the shed antlers of bull elk that hang from a rack in my garage: the blend of rich browns painted by the sap of pine trees mixing with blood from the bull elk scraping their antlers against hefty trunks in order to shed summer’s velvet.
I removed my glove to confirm that my finger could make it through at least one more cord of wood blocked and loaded into the truck bed. Thankfully, I knew all I’d lose was another fingernail.
My thoughts went to Aldo Leopold and his epic work A Sand County Almanac. As a young man, I’d gotten lost in the wonder of what it would be like to experience what he did, a thousand times over—sitting with a pot of coffee on the front porch of his farm for over an hour, simply watching the earth wake under the glow of a new sunrise. Day after day, Leopold would posture himself to take in the magnificence of morning as God produced and directed another episode of the birth of a new day. I thought of Leopold’s invitation to take heed of two spiritual dangers: the twin illusions that heat comes from the furnace and food comes from the grocery store.
As my pulse thudded in my finger, I recalled the process of awakening, years before, to the reality that heat and food come from the grace of Nature combined with the hard work of humans to painstakingly participate in, cultivate, and harvest the raw materials Nature provides. Now, over a decade later, I took a soul’s inventory: though I still have a long way to go, the illusions created by my stubborn preference for convenience are slowly disintegrating through connection with real things. I’m now a gleaner of firewood from anywhere and everywhere I can. Tonight, the source is the property of a friend who needed to remove a couple of big Ponderosa pines that had succumbed to mistletoe. At my feet are a pair of well-used chainsaws. The logs are loaded in the pickup I waited twenty years to own, a truck now marked bumper to bumper with mud and scars from adventures in field and forest. The aroma of pine is nearly intoxicating. I am surrounded by what will be the seventh cord of firewood I’ve put up beside my suburban house over the last year to heat our home for the winter. (I am finding unexpected joy in lowering the property values in my neighborhood as my woodpile grows.) By the grace of Nature and the love and leading of our Father, I am recovering my soul as a man.
In the pain and the sweat and the brilliance of the glimmering sky, I knew this:
Lost parts of my soul are being recovered, and
Broken parts of my soul are being restored.
Right here, next to the driveway where our minivan is parked and the curb where we set out our trash cans on Tuesdays. Right here in the midst of a “normal life.”
Everything is changing.
From the inside out.
Now, much of our heat comes from pine and aspen harvested with care and story.
Much of our food comes from the field and choosing to hunt on public land in a state where wild game is available. Seven years ago, I asked God to allow us to never run out of wild game, to at all times have at least one package in the freezer. My Father has been faithful, and we’ve never run out of meat or new opportunities to harvest something, from rabbits to roadkill and everything in between. In August we were down to three packages, but by the close of archery season we’ve managed the better part of enough animals to fill the freezer and pass some JoyBombs along to others. (What could be happier than putting a rack of moose ribs in your buddy’s freezer? Oh, how I wish I could’ve seen his wife’s face when she went out to grab some more LaCroix.)
The journey to exchanging computer hands for the hands of a generalist began with curiosity.
It began with responding to a Father who was inviting me into the impossible along my frontier of masculine initiation.
It started with one small but intentional step: consenting to an unknown path upon which men with computer hands like mine don’t feel too steady. Remember, true courage is feeling fear and doing it anyway.
It was partnership and participation.
It was failure and setbacks.
It was a long obedience in the same direction.
And it was miles marked with joy around what seemed like forbidden and intimidating corners.
My finger will heal.
But the scar will likely remain.
The scars will help me remember.
And so many others.
Scars born of adversity, loss, failure, and many tears.
It takes a lot of shit to make good soil.
Go ahead, buy a chainsaw.
Say no to alcohol for a month.
See a counselor.
Or, like Aldo Leopold, take a wonderfully inefficient hour to watch the miracle of the awakening day—with no technology at the ready.
Take the time to learn how to sharpen a pocket knife or a chainsaw blade (thanks, Justin, for the lesson last year).
Fix something that’s broken.
Let go of the thing that is no longer serving you.
Unlearn the habits and mindsets that have cluttered your garage, your calendar, or your soul.
Get into your body in new ways so you can recover your masculine soul with a strength you might think is impossible.
Take a risk you won’t regret.
It’s worth the cost.
Everything he has for you is yours.
If you want it.
For the Kingdom,
Look for this article and more in the upcoming issue of And Sons Magazine.