A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Craftsmanship

(With my apologies to Dave Eggers for using a variation on his greatest book title ever)

When I lived in suburbia I was very aware of the concept of people ‘killing time.’ This wasn’t just the obvious mall walking or traveling south in the winter upon one’s retirement, not that there is anything wrong with these choices which capitalism and democracy has allowed us (convinced us?) to pursue.

At that time we ran own business and I worked horrific hours. I had an office away from the house and when I could I would ride my bike back and forth. I remember seeing several men engaged in activities like moving patio stones from one side of their front yard one year, and then back again the next. It was like they were driven to accomplish actual concrete tasks but because the gift of ancient stored sunlight in fossil fuel had freed them of drudgery and allowed them to earn a good living and then retire, it was still in their basic DNA encoding to actually need to accomplish something.

You see it a lot on TV, sometimes on the news, one of those human-interest bits where they show the man who spent 10 years constructing a scale replica of the Star Wars Millennium Falcon as a backyard tree house. First I think, well, that’s kind of cool (if you’re a Star WARS fan) but then I would wonder what if he had devoted himself to another cause like saving the Amazonian rain forest, or lobbying for a price on carbon. Wouldn’t that be a better use of this time? What is this obsession he has with this mindless pursuit that causes him to waste his time on such a valueless pursuit?

And then it hit me. I am that man.

I offer you, as proof, Exhibit A, the new oak shelves.



There is a great deal that I am attempting to accomplish this winter, such as fixing a number of broken rototillers, getting “The Sensible Prepper” ready as an eBook or a Print on Demand hardcopy, finalizing the details of our greenhouse project for the spring, etc. There is just a long list of stuff to do.


But in between my works on these tasks I may have taken the odd trip to Don’s scrap wood pile (henceforth referred to as “Cam’s Happy Place”) whereupon I came into possession of an extensive supply of beautiful oak hardwood floor scraps, planed on one side. In other words, one side is beautifully finished and looks just lovely.

And so I dragged these scraps back to the house and leaned them against the outside wall of the guesthouse, to get back to later in the winter, after my other projects were finished. But there they were, calling to me, like some inanimate object from a Twilight Zone episode, which eventually causes the madness of the protagonist.


I’d hear them late at night as I was getting ready for bed … “Cam, come out and make something out of us… we’re just wasting away.” Or as I was shoveling snow around the guesthouse, “Cam, what are you waiting for, you need more shelves downstairs in the guesthouse … make us into shelves … you know you want to.”

I struggled to ignore the voices of the oak wood scrap pile. But the force was strong in this one. It would not stop the yammering. It would not leave me alone.

There is a great scene in The Godfather (Part II I think), where Michael Corleone is trying to make the business legitimate and he says “Just when I thought I was out, they puuulll me back in.” Tony Soprano’s consigliere “Sal” played by Steven Van Zandt often did his impersonation of this in The Sopranos. And now, I was trying to accomplish my winter tasks and yet that pile of oak scraps was trying to pull me back in.

I was busy organizing the downstairs of the guesthouse one day. We store our books and our CSA gardening materials there and they needed to be tidied up. But the voices wouldn’t stop … “Cam, you could put a new set of shelves over there, and take that wall unit upstairs and Michelle could store bedding on it. Michelle will appreciate this … Michelle would love this …”

I am a weak man. I am the king of rationalization. Every book you read about being happy has these little expressions like … “Live in the moment”… “Live your dream …” “Do what you’re passionate about …” Blah, blah, blah. The noise was constant, the voices wouldn’t stop, the rationalizations and the impulse to build shelves took over like a heroin’s addict need for the next hit.

Then one day we had brilliant sun, and the batteries were charged, and it was a perfect day to use the chop saw. And I was weak, and I cut that pile of oak scrap down to size and put it together with screws and it became a heartbreaking work of staggering craftsmanship. It is for sale for $975 but it weighs 1100 pounds because it’s oak, so you’d have to pick it up if you wanted it.

These shelves will last for 1,000 years. They will be around long after my grandchildren’s children leave this mortal plane. They are made of recycled wood that was going to be burned. They represent a truly environmentally responsible re-use of materials. And they represent my weakness of not being able to ignore the voices … the ‘build me’ voices … the ‘come on, distract yourself from what you need to do and do what you really ‘want’ do to’ voices.

And now every time I walk by them I touch them and marvel at their construction and their beauty and achieve what Buddhist monks mediate a whole life trying to achieve. I may never have enough stuff to fill those shelves, but that’s okay. They are my shrine to non-sensical human endeavor. I’ll figure how to build that greenhouse tomorrow.


8 Responses to “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Craftsmanship”

  • Love the shelves and love the post! I had similar nagging thoughts about an old, grungy-looking shelf that was sitting in a shed a few years back. I still look at it admirably and think of all that peaceful time spent sanding and staining it 🙂

    Now you’ve got me thinking of what wood repurposing project I can come up with to distract me from the variety of outside work I could be doing once the warm, invigorating days of Spring are upon us. And with the serious cold snap we’re going through right now, I’m voting for an early onset of spring warmth!

  • Pat Nobbs & Lauder Smith:

    They look great Cam, Good work indeed.

  • Awesome! I have projects like that laying about too:} I don’t feel bad, for the piles sitting there or when the day comes when it’s time to do the project and neglect everything else…either way it feels good:}

  • Jean:

    very, very nice, Cam…

  • Awesome shelves, Cam! I’ll take a set. You can mail them in individual pieces and I’ll put it together here. 😉

  • What do you mean you may never have enough stuff to fill them? Build it and it/they will come. Those voices will just start talking again. BTW you do know that is a sign of Schizophrenia? Perhaps you need to have that checked. And your reference to “this mortal plane”. I always had that pictured as a plain like a big field with waving grass and stuff. Are you telling me I am going to be stuck on a 747 when I go? LOL

  • Gerrit:

    Great stuff Red Green!

  • larry:

    What?…no duct tape? 🙂

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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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