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Working with Ones Hands
Connects Humans to Humanity

by Lynda V. Mapes, staff reporter
Kansas City Star - September 6, 2002

SEATTLE -- Hand out the driver's-side window, packing heat, Don Jackson lets loose an earsplitting volley of screamers and bombs. "Shooting pyro," he calls the fusillade of fireworks he uses to haze seagulls circling over baby salmon.

Tenacious predators, seagulls would quickly become habituated to automatic propane cannons, which fire always the same BOOM from the same place. Bird wire? Effective, but it's impossible to canopy the Lower Snake River bank to bank, where it backs up at Lower Granite Dam, providing a smorgasbord of the salmon migrating downriver.

"If they had something else that would work, I wouldn't be here," says Jackson, loading another round.


In a mechanized, mass-produced, outsourced world, some jobs are still endemic to the place, even to the person. And sometimes, the only way to get the job done is by hand, a uniquely human tool.

We're not the only beings with opposable thumbs. But no other creature has a tool so extensively wired to the brain, that is under complete, voluntary control. We can position our hand in space, at will, applying a wide range of grip and touch.

Other animals use their upper extremities for locomotion. But our hands are reserved for language, for communication, for art, love, violence, healing - and work.

Some tasks certainly could be done by machine, or by cheaper hands, overseas. But they are not. Out of sheer cussedness, a decision not to go that route. Or even a sense of identity, found in work still done here, the way it always has been. By hand.


With a firm but light tap, Dr. Weiyi Ding quickly plants a forest of slim needles in her patient's brow.

"The key is to be fast. Quick, and then less pain," Ding says. One hand holds and positions the needles while the other sinks them with a rap of an index finger. Many of Ding's acupuncture patients remain so relaxed, they drift off to sleep, she says.

A professor at Bastyr University and on the faculty of the clinic at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health, Ding also maintains a private practice, where patients come to ease everything from hot flashes to the side effects of chemotherapy.

Working in concert with Western medicine, Ding uses Chinese herbs, acupuncture and a traditional, holistic approach to diagnose and treat her patients.

As they settle into her examination rooms, Ding takes their wrists in her bare hands. Not just to count the beats of their pulse, but to palpate it, to discern its depth, strength and shape.

"Is it superficial? Deep? Slippery, like beans, or pearls? Or like violin string, tight? Or like the sea wave?" Ding feels for 28 different types of pulse in all, to help determine her patients' health.

"I use the hands to make the person better."


As he talks, Bruce Miller counts off the weaves of the basket in his head, its design and shape seeming to open and bloom effortlessly in his hands.

A master Skokomish weaver with more than 50 years of experience making baskets, Miller began his apprenticeship with his elders before he was even 10. Now, at 60, Miller has apprentices and students of his own; over his lifetime, he's taught nearly 3,000.

"I will teach whoever comes to learn. My immortality is the teachings I leave behind. And the things we create live two, three times past our lifetime, and in that way we become part of history.

"What could be more meaningful than that? I may be gone, but my breath is still here."

Miller makes baskets to donate for auction, for trade, and to leave for the giveaway ceremony to be held after his death, "So I may leave this world graciously."

Miller learned the art of gathering materials to make the baskets, from cedar bark to grasses and sedges, from elders who taught him what should be gathered when, which plants make what dyes, and how to prepare the materials for weaving.

Today Miller works both with traditional materials and patterns and innovations all his own, even weaving Pendleton wool into baskets. Each one tells a story. Asked where the new patterns come from, Miller taps his head.

As he works, Miller's fingers constantly feel inside and outside the basket, checking for smoothness, all the while keeping just the right tension on the material to weave a fine, tight pattern. So tight, the baskets were once used for boiling water.

Seeing the students he taught become weaving teachers in their own right gives Miller the greatest satisfaction. "To see the living knowledge of my people alive another generation, and not just in a book, a picture saying, this is what once was.

"It's our living connection to the past. When we lose that, I call it the cost of acculturation, where you become the same as everyone else, but nobody special."


Rotating the gleaming bronze trumpets slowly as he works, Kevin Britz works up a brilliant shine on an array of Cunningham air whistles, machined and finished by hand.

These whistles, used for everything from the state ferries to lighthouses, have been made in the Puget Sound region since 1927, most recently at Olympic Instruments Inc. on Vashon Island, Wash.

The whistles could be made entirely by machine, using electronics instead of human judgment to guide the cutting tool of the metal lathe. Or they could even be made from plastic, with a few metal parts.

"We choose not to," says Britz, Olympic's owner.

"It wouldn't sound the same. And there is a historical side to it. There are a lot of boatbuilders and collectors who don't want it unless it's authentic, so they come to us. And you put out a product that is not a piece of junk, people will come back."

Phil Montgomery does most of the whistle work at Olympic, guiding the lathe's cutting head by the look, sound and feel of the work. A rubber cone thrust in the trumpet of the whistle keeps the metal from singing as it's shaped. A Nerf ball also works.

The whistle is so finely cut, the trumpet has a smooth, brilliant finish, the etches of the cutting tool barely visible. Most distinctive is its sound: The Cunningham, made from solid bronze cast in Seattle, delivers an ear-shattering report, audible to four miles. So loud, at close range, it makes the sternum rattle.

But why is it called a whistle, instead of a horn? At Olympic, they take time to consider such matters. "A horn," says Britz, "is a protuberance on an animal. And a whistle issues a musical note."


Quicksilver bright, shades of lavender glinting in their scales, baby chinook sluice down the PVC trough, drunk with anesthetic laced in their water.

Vicki Sager of Clarkston, Wash., working in a trailer by Lower Granite Dam, gently palms the slippery fish in her left hand, lightly curling her fingers to grip it. With her right, she pokes a tag in the salmon's belly, injecting it with a sterile hypodermic.

Tiny as a grain of rice, the tags allow scientists to track salmon, to know if they survive the trip past eight dams on their journey from the Lower Snake River and mainstem of the Columbia to the sea.

Wriggling, big eyes staring, the fish take the needle without so much as a blink as Sager and other workers gently stow chips in their bellies, avoiding vital organs, tender fins and blood vessels.

No one handling the fish wears gloves, despite the cold water and sharp needles. "You need to be able to feel the fish. You couldn't do this with anything but your hand," Sager says.

The work carries on into the night when the run is at its peak, thousands of silver flashes, briefly held in human hands, fighting extinction.


Tiny culls spin like marbles under their feet as workers move 8-foot aluminum ladders amid the trees, hands rustling leaves and dropping a steady rain of apples.

More than 11 billion apples were produced in Washington's commercial orchards last year. And every tree is pruned, thinned, picked by hand.

It takes about 20,000 people just to thin the crop come spring, stripping the smallest ones so the choice fruit will grow even larger by harvest time. The top producer of apples in the country, growing the state's only $1 billion crop, Washington farmers depend absolutely on careful hand labor.

It matters how the culls are pulled off. It matters how they're dropped. A good thinner doesn't harm the spurs that make next year's crop. Or bruise the apples left behind, by dropping the culls on top of them. And yet, thinners have to be fast. A good one can thin 30, even 40 trees a day.

No one yet has invented a machine that can work fruit trees as well as human hands.

Jose Ramirez, manager of this 300-acre orchard near Royal City, Wash., worked his way up, doing every job in the orchard, once planting 417 trees with a shovel in a single day, just to see how fast and hard he could work.

"The trees become like your babies. I planted them, it's a living process. You take pride in this job, starting with the pruning, and all the way through to harvest. It's another year, and it takes a lot to get the finest product."


An explosion inside Unit One at Lower Granite Dam in April, 2002, was the clue that the winders needed to get to work.

For when the equipment called the winding on a generator fails, more than a year of painstaking hand work is usually the only thing that will get the giant generator humming again. It's delicate work, done deep inside hydroelectric dams all over the Northwest.

Made of more than 730 copper bars, this winding takes thousands of motions, in tight, awkward spaces, to repair. Hand-forming the connections; putting the bars in place; soldering the joints; filing them smooth; wrapping them with tape for insulation; slathering on epoxy to seal the work.

Six days a week, 10 hours a day: Some members of this 12-person crew from across the West haven't seen their families in months.

Each knows how to do the other's jobs, and they switch tasks daily to stay fresh.

Some slip off their gloves to stroke the metal bare-handed, making sure it's smooth. "It still takes hands. And they get pretty sore," says Richard Gillett of Republic, Wash.

With weeks on the job yet to come, Gillett's young son asked on the phone, "`When are you coming home, Daddy? Could you do a bad job so you could get fired?'

"I said, `Buddy, it don't work that way.'"

Lynda V. Mapes, staff reporter
Working with Ones Hands Connects Humans to Humanity
Kansas City Star, September 6, 2002

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