Saturday, June 21, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 3

Handy. What a useful little word. The sort of word you could carry in your pocket like a jackknife or a ball of twine. One of the earliest members of the genus Homo is called Homo habilis, handy man. Skulking around in the savannahs of East Africa two million years ago with a bit of sharp rock in his hand. Maybe a pointed stick, too. Or a shell. And who knows what other crude tools he contrived from what he could find. He was short, with long arms dangling at his side, and a cranial capacity only half that of modern man, but wherever his bones have been found there are tools too. Hand and mind working together: He knew what he was doing.

Handy. Homo. Habilis. His. Himself. All those Hs with their feet planted firmly on the ground, hands upraised, ready for work, ready to knap a flint or dig out marrow with a twig. We were, apparently, habilis before we were sapiens, at least in nomenclature.

Some years ago, a treasure trove of prehistoric art was discovered in a cavern near the town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in southern France. The cave contains multiple images of horses, bison, bears and rhinos, in red, ocher and black pigments. These exquisite drawings appear to date from around 20,000 years ago, long after Homo habilis disappeared into the fossil beds of East Africa. Whoever painted the cavern at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc was us, Homo sapiens, but still handy. No, handier. The animal images are accompanied by stenciled hands. Lots of hands. Some anthropologists say the hands are a mystery, but I think not. The animal drawings at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc are similar to those at other caves in southern France and Spain (I once visited with my children the exquisite galleries at Altamira). The images of animals probably had something to do with religion or the magic of the hunt. Collective things. Congregational things. But the stenciled hands seem to spring from something prior and private. Warm flesh pressed against cold stone. Spontaneity. Individualism. The stenciled hands are not abstract works of the mind; they are immediate projections of the body. They are the physical self making contact with the stuff of the world. They remind us that behind the wonderful animal art there was mortar and pestle, pigment and torch, stone and spear.

Stenciled hand at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave. (Photo by Laurent Chicoineau / CC BY-NC-SA)
Homo sapiens. Knowing man. By most accounts, it’s our brain that defines our humanity. But it’s with our hands that we make physical contact with reality. Our hands are our emissaries to the world. If I learned one thing from my father, one thing I have carried with me through life—one thing I hope to have passed on to my children—it is a respectful consonance of hand and mind. From an early age he taught me to use my hands, to value craft, to relish the touch of wood and metal, to respect the heft, hardness and edge of a tool. It was his conviction that the best way to understand how the world works is to take it apart and put it back together again.

Anthropologists endlessly debate the proper place of the various hominid fossils in the human family tree. But no one I know of doubts than we became human when we became handymen (and handywomen). Yes, chimps and crows and a few other animals use tools in certain instinctive ways. But there must have been a moment when the characterization Homo became definitive. I try to imagine squat, long-armed Homo habilis crouched at the side of a stream looking at his cupped hands leaking water, say, and that little anachronistic light bulb goes on over his head, and he conceives, dimly, but irrevocably, the idea of a bowl, an emptied shell, perhaps, or a broken skull, or a hollowed-out stem, but something made, something shaped by the hands to a purpose. And, as long as we are fantasizing, let’s be even more hypothetical and imagine him jumping up, pumping the air with his fists. H. Eureka! Handy and sapient.

Of all the artifacts of pre-Columbian America culture that I have seen, the one I like best is the life-sized “Hopewell hand,” a silhouetted human hand cut from a paper-thin sheet of mica by a craftsperson who lived a thousand years ago in southern Ohio. I saw the hand more than half-a-century ago in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. For years, I had a colored transparency of the hand taped to the window of my office, glowing in the sunlight. Something about those long, slender fingers, the delicate crook in the thumb. The people of the mica hand were ancestors of the Algonquians, Iroquois, Cherokees, and other Native Americans. They lived in river valleys of central North America from 200 BC to 1000 AD, and left behind impressive complexes of burial mounds, temple mounds, hilltop ramparts, and earthen walls. They are generally called the Mound Builders, and builders they certainly were, and fine handymen too. Many of their ancient sites were excavated a century ago to provide an archeological exhibit for the 1893 Chicago world’s fair. One of the richest sites was on the farm of M. C. Hopewell in Ross County, Ohio, and the Hopewell name has come to signify the culture of the people who built the mounds. The mica hand was found in a burial mound on Hopewell’s farm. It is flaky-thin and subtly tinged with color. That it survived unbroken in the earth for a thousand years seems little short of miraculous.

The Hopewell Hand
Perhaps the Hopewell hand represents the universal symbol of amity—raised palm turned outward, no weapon, “I come in peace.” Certainly, its gracile elegance evinces the life of the mind, not war. Or perhaps, like the stenciled hands in the cavern at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, or the traced hand that a child might make with a crayon, the mica hand was a craftsperson’s was of saying, “Here I am.” Whoever made the Hopewell hand was a handyman (I do not dismiss the possibility that it might have been a woman). He (or she) was our contemporary in every biological way.

As infants, it is hands that tease us into our humanity. “Gitchy-goo,” we tickle. “Itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout, down came the rain and washed the spider out. . . .” We begin our expressive lives with our fingers. Tugging. Sucking. Wriggling. We begin our social lives stroking and grooming. Before we made looms and potter’s wheels, we made cat’s cradles. Before we invented geometry and algebra and calculus, we counted on our fingers. Before we made harpsichords and flutes and tambourines, we put blades of grass between our fingers and blew. It is our hands we fold to pray. It is our hands that make us artists and athletes and musicians and carpenters. It is our hands that make us handymen.

Computers may one day equal human intelligence in rational thought, but the light that turns on in a child’s mind with “Itsy bitsy spider” is viscerally human in a way that programmed thought will never be. Computers can presently play chess at the level of grandmasters. I can imagine that someday computers will put mathematicians and composers and even psychologists out of jobs. But its hard to imagine a computer ever taking up a sheet of natural mica and scribing it with a sharp tool in such a way as to make a hand of such exquisite loveliness as the one found in the mound on Mr. Hopewell’s farm—mind and flesh working together, each instructing the other, thought and matter in a mutual unfolding in a handyman’s hands.