Before me is a bucket of gooseberries to be processed. Each and every berry must be picked up and aligned in the fingers of each hand. The blossom end to one hand, the stem end to the other. That dried blossom end must be removed as must the stem; otherwise the berries are useless. They are absolutely round, hard, green, and sour. When cooked up with sugar into a sauce, or pie filling they become delicious beyond the telling.
I pick up a berry, and suddenly something wonderful happens: the thumb nail of one hand scuffs off the remnant of the blossom and the opposite nail “cuts” off the stem-- and the job is done-- for that berry-- almost before I can think to do it. It’s as though the nails had had a complete course of training.
I think of those thumb nails doing their precise work so well. I try to imagine a finer technology for this work and cannot. In these days when “technology” is the password to contemporary living, I find myself sitting here with these gooseberries employing what may well be the oldest and even the first technology of them all: the nails on those miraculous opposing thumbs that are good for nothing in particular and just right for everything.
They are surely one of the first principles in evolution-- from claws and talons to my sophisticated nails-- so ubiquitous are they among the species.
I catch my breath at the thought of that first little African mother-of-us-all, busy discovering how many things she could do with her nails. I think we must call them The First Tool. We who tinker with things could not get through a day without them. I could not.
Not only can these nails do their every work, they have a strange sort of consciousness about them. They seem to talk back and forth to the brain. They tell the brain when they have accomplished their task, sometimes, even, that the task is impossible and must be aborted. They even remark on the quality of the work. It’s as though I were a by-stander in my work with the berries.
I drift off into a reverie as the repetitive action goes on and on, a full hour to do a single quart of berries. I dream away about this and that, and still the work goes on, and goes on well!
And all of us, everyone, has this remarkable set of tools with us all the time, everywhere we go, If only just to scratch an itch. Think of it!
I have written that an angler’s fly box is private and intimate, not for the gaze of the general. Our manicures are like our fly boxes, private, and personal-- nobody’s damned business. These nails are our most personal tools, to be kept up, cleaned, and sharpened, each in its own personal way-- for me right now, to work these berries.