My inability to build a pencil from scratch

I sometimes think about how a person can learn in their lifetime to build a canoe from scratch, but not a Corvette.

I mean, think about what it would take just to make a pencil. The wood needs to be harvested, which requires an axe, and for the axe head I’ll need to take a forging class, or at least find a very sharp stone. Do I have enough decades left to be chopping down trees with stones? Fine: I’ll find wood on the ground in a perfect pencil shape. Then I need graphite powder, some clay to hold it together, a technique for encasing it all inside my perfect stick, and we haven’t even gotten to the eraser yet. The mind reels.

The computer I’m using to write this essay is made from technologies and ideas and resources in a manufacturing process that I have little capacity to appreciate, let alone understand. I mean, the ability of humans to reach the point of being able to split atoms – it would seem to me to derive from the contributions of millions of people over thousands of years, with no sense of the distant outcome, until it occurred to a few people, right at the end of the process, Now we have what we need to do this.

I remember being staggered, and feeling jealous, to learn of a project by Thomas Waites to build a toaster. No pre-industrial tools or methods; mining and smelting the materials all on his own. Just “a heroic attempt,” in his words, “to build a simple electronic appliance from scratch.” (And he achieved his goal!) Because sometimes I sit in my car and stare at the dashboard. Forget the engine – how did the radio buttons originate? What does it take to curve them, polish them, affix them in place?

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari writes:

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.

It makes me think that what humans have figured out how to build, these extraordinarily complicated, unnatural things, would seem to be the result of a process that’s quite natural, quite Earthly at its core. And the more I think about that, the more the words ‘possible’ and ‘probable’ feel like synonyms.

Newsletter update. Tomorrow morning will see my first “Sunday Supplement” sent out to paying subscribers, with three recommendations of things to love.

The first bulletin includes an unlikely favorite book; a new show that makes me weepy (in a good way); and a different way to think about organizing music streams. Upcoming editions will include some other recent discoveries in the worlds of art, software, coffee, magazines, podcasts, and outdoors gear for your smartphone.

Thanks to everybody who’s signed up so far, I hope you enjoy it. By the way, there’s still a discount available for people who’d like to give it a shot.

As always, thanks to everyone for your support.

What the what? “Meditations in an Emergency” is a weekly email newsletter published Saturdays by novelist Rosecrans Baldwin about things he finds beautiful. “The Sunday Supplement” is his weekly recommendation bulletin for paying subscribers. You can sign up over here.

Rosecrans’s new book, Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles, is available from BookshopAmazon, or your local store. Any other books mentioned in this newsletter are featured on this list.