Zen and the Art of Backhoe Operation

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!

8 Responses to “Zen and the Art of Backhoe Operation”

  • Cam,

    As a man with some of the talents you envy, i feel i am somewhat prepared for the life I have long desired on the land. Thank you for an inspiring blog that I can totally relate to when it comes to the gift of machinery. “Ahhh, I love the smell of diesel in the morning”,



  • Aubrey Blalock:

    Cam – I cannot tell you how fun it was to read this post (saw it on Mother Earth News). I laughed so much because I too dream of even having a tractor, much less a back hoe attachment.

    Wife and I are moving near term to a portion of her grand father’s farm and will build house and garden. i have much to learn after being a city boy all my life. I relate so much to your discussion of academic pursuit in lieu of other skill areas.

    Keep up the good work.

    Beaumont Texas

  • Lawrence Walker:

    Edit- just replace the “your”s with “Cams”

  • Lawrence Walker:

    I’d second that Gerrit. It’s an incredible book. In some sense your article echoes the theme of ZAMM, as do some of your other articles.

  • Cathy:

    Zen comes in many forms. When you mentally connect with something so deeply that all other thoughts evaporate and total focus is “centered” on one thing….like me reading my library book, “Thriving During Challenging Times”. Where was I in 2009 when you wrote this book? I was trapped in the consumer credit driven rat race on a treadmill getting no where, running a dying business in a dying economy. Now I see I am renting my home from the mortgage company that currently holds the paper on it, that my name is on. My $1400.00 mortgage payment, in truth, is rent on my upside down home worth half of what we bought it for. But it is a fantastic lot with valley soil. Thanks Cam…

    Back to Zen…Your momentary high, riding the Kaboda, use to come from a no carbon team of horses doing the same work. Mine was a red sports car that I made huge payments on. Many men have the same addiction to trucks. Do you really want to spend thousands of your hard earned dollars on a carbon consuming machine? One week of work a year and 60 monthly payments?

    Your book has confirmed and reinforced my new reality. My conscience is now so hyper sensitive that I see my addiction for what it is. Maybe you need to consider a 12 step program for recovery from this week of weakness. 🙂 I’ll bet it got a lot of work done though, maybe a years worth for a couple of hay burners and a dirt farmer. Better wash that deisel off your hands and get them back into dirt.

    If you had had a tractor to work on in high school instead of a vegetable garden, you wouldn’t be where you are today. Our opportunities and choices determine our destination, our destiny. You are where you are suppose to be, me too. Your choice now is to follow a path straight and narrow, to the garden or keep a kaboda between the ditches. Happy trails……

  • Cam, the ZAMM book is a classic and well worth reading. It’s much more about philosophies of life than about zen, but does touch on the zen-like experiences of the motorcycle. I read it first when I was much too young and then tried it later on in life, with better results, although I’d have to go back to it to get a grip on all the themes again. Your reflection on not taking a trade and the differences between technical people and non-technical people is well represented in the book. You’d like it quite a bit, I think.

    Sustainable Living Blog

  • william:

    Hi Cam,I am fully with you on the tractor thing,bought my Kubota to log my trees for my post and beam straw bale house in Muskoka.Never thought of owning one but now cannot imagine being without it and all its fun attachments with more to come.Thanks for the great writings.

  • Love the “surprised you don’t see more backhoes at Buddhist Monasteries” line!!! Great article 🙂

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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