The cold touch of metal, the language of machines

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.


  1. I enjoyed your essay. I think how much I missed out on learning from my dad who would tinker with the car and do a few repairs. He was missing two fingers and had a tremor in his left hand, so he often needed an extra pair of hands to hold things, so I did, but he never explained and I guess I never asked or felt welcome to ask. Of course, that was when girls could only aspire to be nurses, teachers, secretaries or airline stewardesses. And we couldn’t take shop in school. Yet, I do have a mechanical bent, sort of.

    My husband has done much of the work on our house, without ever having heard that mechanical (or wood working) language in his past. He’s not a natural, but he’s able to read and learn. Saved us a ton of money, of course. And it means that he can often fix something he installed in the first place. Unless the parts and fittings have changed. Which ALWAYS happens.= One hour to replace the outlet in the bathroom because everything in the inside was different from the original.

    Can’t help but think of our political candidates and wondering how many of them have ever done a thing for their own houses or cars. Or done any work where they might be injured, as several of my friends’ husbands have been. I’m realizing how much we all take for granted the difficult physical work needed to bring natural resources to market for our use.

    Also wondering if those on Wall Street who gamble with other people’s money ever have to file for unemployment compensation. Paper cut maybe?

  2. Thanks PS. I’m always interested in how just a little bit of manual labor (and I mean a minimum) gets me thinking about this stuff. I run out and write about it nearly every time! I think there is a connection there to something missing in the modern world and something that will end up coming back, at some time.

  3. When I moved here to North Central St. Louis County in the 70’s, I was impressed with how many people owned their own homes because of the sweat equity that they could put into the buildings. And how many people had skills that they could use for a job on the side, besides their regular job, if they had a stead one.

    A former pastor of ours lives in California. He says that the people he serves there are “helpless.” I think that this stuff, these skills, as well as, perhaps, gardening, hunting and fishing, is what he is referring to.

    OTOH, when I visited the Mille Lacs Indian Museum many years ago, I was very impressed with the displays. They showed the “technology” that the people had developed to deal with each season of the year in our harsh climate.

    I felt pretty helpless and stupid, after seeing that.

    If a terrorist ever attacks our electricity grid, a lot of us will have to move from stupid to smart pretty fast to survive here.

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