I grew up a mechanic’s son of a mechanic’s son on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. My family has long lived around the Range’s tamarack swamps, seldom within its cities and often many miles out. Always more focused on the machines, the woods and the work than the machinations of the region’s booming, busting ways, the only consistent connection between my family and Range culture is stubbornness.
And I am still here, still in the woods with a sight line to a taconite plant but so far away as to not hear the industrial hum of its concentrator. Like all the Iron Range children of the 1980s I was raised to leave, but I did not. I nevertheless failed to learn the language of machines, the tongue heard in my home as I matured. My dad tells of hearing Finnish in the home of his grandparents, even being able to understand some of it. But he lost the language and I never learned it and my memories of machines run more or less similar to his of Finnish. I am now more likely to learn Finnish than to overhaul an engine.
I write and teach. I can fix a toilet, mow my lawn, haul my own garbage. But I am a denizen of the Information Age and the service economy. I plot podcasts and websites, delicate vases in a sea of engine blocks.
The other night the wind blew hard. It was 20 below. I was washing dishes when the lights blinked. Just a blink. The split second of threatened darkness reminded me that if the power were to go out for a day, which has happened in the past, the whole works would freeze. So much depends upon our machines, or rather our command of them.
I call out in the language of the machines, a prayer to the power behind fate and motion.
Above, my son Henry peeks into an old car parked out at my grandpa’s hunting shack a few years ago. Thanks to Historically Minded for a post that inspired these thoughts, a thoughtful essay on the man who started a tractor encased in Antarctic ice. Additionally, I am always inspired by the complex simplicity of my friend C.O.’s “What’s in the Shop” blog — one of my remaining windows into the language of machines.