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Collamer’s Tools

Column by John Mattingly

Agriculture – July 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

I ALWAYS KNEW MY FATHER was older than I was, but I didn’t realize he was actually old until one day when he faced me after a bout with the flu. A cold spring wind blew at us under a darkening sky. His face had no color; his hair was the color of snow. I was in a hurry, as usual, pushing to get some field ready for planting, and I didn’t want to stop, but there he was, detaining me, looking at me, an old man, and it drained the rush right out of me. Father somehow always had been young. He didn’t grow old and decay. He stayed strong and smart. But there he was in the cold gray wind, facing me, an old man, talking about how he needed me to do some ground work in his orchard.

There was a moment, years earlier in the fall of the year when father stopped me from frantically harvesting corn and took me to his orchard. There was one old tree left among the new varieties, a Northern Spy, brought out by homesteaders at least a hundred years earlier, a variety that can’t be found anymore. It’s gone from the pool of genetic possibilities, and yet father kept it alive through many attacks from fireblight, fungi, and bugs.

He loved that old tree, even though it hadn’t made fruit for years. But this particular year it made five big apples, and father wanted me to climb the tree and pick them, as they were in a spot inaccessible by ladder. A bitter wind blew in gray sky. Spits of small, hard snow hit the ground and tree branches, like a crisp blanket spreading over us and Earth. I handed the apples down to father one at a time. He held them against his chest in the soft curve of his arm. When I jumped down from the tree, he handed me one of the apples. I bit into it. He watched my reaction to the taste, then bit into the one he selected for himself. We stood there, the two of us, eating apples. I had never tasted a real apple until that moment. All prior apples were nothing. They weren’t even close to what I now understood about apples, and father showed me this. We looked at each other, and understood something truly wonderful had been given to us.

There was an ancient man named Collamer who had old apple trees like father, and the two of them often got together to exchange tricks about managing the abandoned varieties. Collamer died, and an auction was held to sell his tools. Father and I went to the auction. Father bought all of Collamer’s hand tools, scaring off any and all bidders, paying more for them than equivalent tools cost new at a hardware store. Father told me on the way home that Collamer had been a craftsman, and the tools of a craftsman carried a piece of the craft when they passed to another man.

After father’s second stroke, he became very weak and shrunken. One afternoon we returned to the farm after going to town for groceries. It was snowing so hard, the walkway so slippery, that I picked father up and carried him to his house. He only weighed about eighty pounds. With snow hitting my face, and with his face buried in my shoulder, I felt he had fallen into my arms with the snow, that we were floating, drifting, becoming together a blanket on the Earth.

A few days later, father gave me Collamer’s tools.

I NEVER USED any of the tools. I don’t even know what some of them are designed to do. Many are specific to orcharding: special saws, pickers, and such. I recognize the old square-jawed pipe wrenches, hand forged chisels, oak levels, planers, and spanner wrenches with curved handles that fit nicely in hand, but are thick and clumsy on the hard-to-find-or-reach nuts of the newer machines.

Collamer’s tools hold down a dusty corner of my shop, keeping father and Collamer alive in some way. Every time I consider getting rid of them, or donating them, I’m stopped by a foolish longing to go back to the simpler world in which these tools were mainstream, where a man like Collamer, with a full set of hand tools, possessed a significant strand of autonomy over the machines he needed to operate his business.

IN THE LAST DECADE or so that I farmed, I felt a gradual, ever-widening divergence between myself and my machines. Many of them I couldn’t really touch to work on, let alone fully understand — like the problem with my new swather that brought a warranty techie (not a mechanic) to the field who told me the two computers on the swather weren’t talking to each other in the same language. That is, the computer that managed the header wasn’t communicating with the computer that managed the power train.

My newer tractors and implements had all sorts of devices to protect me from myself, like the micro-switch under the seat that shut off the engine if I happened to get up while the tractor was moving. Anyone who’s taken a newer vehicle in for its multi-mile checkup knows the first thing the technician (notably not known as a mechanic) does is plug the vehicle into a diagnostic computer, and frequently the service involves changing silicon chips instead of the oil.

While Collamer’s tools truly were hand tools, requiring the human hand as part of the action, today’s tools and machines are slowly designing the human out of meaningful participation. Collamer’s tools are not only of a different generation, they’re like the apples off that old Northern Spy. They’re a different variety. Maybe even a different species.

John Mattingly lives on acreage near Moffat, where he is a recovering farmer.