Zen and the Art of Backhoe Operation

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather

By Cam Mather

There was a book years ago called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance.” I don’t know what it was about. I never read it. But I
loved the title.

I’m not even sure I really understand the concept of Zen, but I
believe it is sort of an advanced state of enlightenment one achieves
through meditation. I believe it’s something I often achieve when
weeding the gardening or cutting firewood. It’s a pretty great feeling,
even if I’m not doing the meditation thing correctly to get there. But
if the endless chatter in my brain can shut up long enough for it to
happen, that’s an accomplishment.

On a different but related topic, I have great neighbors. I don’t
think anything makes the move to the country easier than getting great
neighbors and we’ve been blessed with lots of them. A while ago I wrote
about the exceptional women of Mountain Road (the
road that we live on.) There is a new addition to this group of
wonderful women, Heidi Lind. Heidi built a very efficient house not too
far from us. She was one of our best customers buying vegetables from
us this past summer and has been a tremendous source of support for
Michelle when she joined that very exclusive club, the one no one wants
to join, the breast cancer club.

Heidi and her husband Gary have a Kubota tractor with a backhoe
attachment. I have coveted such a machine for many years, and when I
saw theirs I did try and hide just how “green” I am, in this case green
with envy, about that fine machine. Heidi and Gary were gracious
enough to offer to lend me their exceptional tractor. I think it was
above and beyond and just can’t say enough how impressed I was with
their offer. I could have been a proud, independent, “No, I can do
stuff myself” kind of guy, but I must be getting old because I jumped
at the chance to use their machine. And I’ve gotta tell you, it was a
little mini dream come true.

I have been saving jobs for a backhoe for months. Rocks in the
garden that are too big to dig out by hand. Manure that needs
spreading. Sand that needs spreading. Top soil that needed to be moved
into the barn foundation. That big rock over by the paddock that always
gets in the way but that I haven’t been able to move myself. Moving
some gravel to a new trench that I dug to keep the guesthouse from
flooding. The list was long.

So for the last week, every chance I got, I was blissed out at the
controls of a backhoe. It’s not a huge backhoe, but I am in awe of how
much I was able to accomplish in a week with this machine. I am also in
awe of the diesel fuel that I poured into it to power this manservant
that was able to accomplish days and weeks worth of work in mere hours.

I have had Ryan Tyner, who owns a large backhoe, come to my place a
few times. I usually have a main job, like digging the trench from the
wind turbine to the house, but I save up dozens of other jobs and get
him to do a bunch of stuff while he’s here. Stuff like pulling stumps
near the garden and moving rocks. The walls of the barn foundation sit
in sand and are starting to list, leaning away from the floor. So every
time Ryan’s here I point out a whole bunch of big rocks and get him to
dump them against the walls in the hope of holding them up.

Ryan is a joy to watch. He and his machine seem to become one. The
bucket moves as effortlessly as if it was connected to his brain. Me,
well, there was not the fluid man/machine connection. Well not at
first, anyway.

It took me a while to get accustomed to the 6 main movements that
the two levers control. Side to side, up and down, bucket in, bucket
out, arm out, arm in, etc. Even after a week I was still moving the
levers in the wrong direction half the time, but I was getting better.
And as I got more comfortable with the controls, I was amazed at what
an absolute blast it was.

It’s partly the joy with not having to do these various jobs with a
shovel and wheelbarrow. It’s partly amazement at what some steel and
hydraulic fluid and diesel fuel can accomplish. And at some level I’m
sure it’s that same feeling I had as a kid on the beach using Tonka
toys to build roads and things. Some people just like to build stuff.
Using a backhoe reaches down to a very primordial level for a male.

What I really noticed is that when I was using the backhoe I was not
thinking about bad things. I wasn’t worried about money. I was not
thinking about climate change (despite probably accelerating it by my
use of this machine). I wasn’t thinking about problems in the office.
Or health issues. Or what’s for dinner. Or how much I have to do before
the snow flies. I was simply focused on moving that pile of rocks from
point A to point B.

It kind of makes me wish that I had pursued a trade when I was
younger. In high school I took mostly academic subjects like English
and Math and French and Gym. You know, the stuff that gets you jobs. I
did take an Auto shop and Machine shop class in Grade 9 but it wasn’t
for me. It’s one of those things I have regretted since moving
off-grid, not having taken some basic, practical, hands-on classes like
electrical that would have helped. As it was I was starting from ground
zero trying to figure stuff out. Luckily I had great teachers along
the way.

Now I’m wondering if it’s too late to buy a backhoe and go into the
business! It’s bad timing. With collapsing housing markets and
governments up to their eyeballs in debt, I don’t think they’ll be
building as many roads. But there I go, thinking too much again. I just
kinda wish I were still sitting on that backhoe, moving some soil
around. Becoming one with the machine. Achieving that Zen-like state
that only comes when you shut off the chatter in your brain and focus on
one specific task. I’m surprised you don’t see more backhoes at
Buddhist Monasteries.

I tried Tai Chi once to relieve stress I was having in the office.
It didn’t work for me. I ended up joining a badminton club because I
preferred to smash the heck of out of plastic bird to take out my
frustrations.  So while I respect the concept of being in a Buddhist
monastery, I don’t think I could take the quiet meditation. I’d rather
be hauling firewood, or pulling weeds, or if I can stay in Heidi and
Gary’s good books, borrowing this marvelous machine that is better than
the best mantra to help you achieve Zen. And as a huge bonus I’m
moving rocks and soil while I’m at it!

Photos by Michelle Mather. For more information about Cam or his books please visit www.cammather.com or www.aztext.com