Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Today's financial crisis has given prominence to the dangers of 'leverage', in which a small amount of money is made to do too much work, with the attendant risk that the house of cards will at some point collapse. In this world, leverage is associated with empty promises, excessive risk etc. But in the real world, leverage is a vital principle and power.

Beside the new road connecting old and new YB, there are many rocks, haphazardly abandoned by the bulldozer when the dirt stopped moving. Returning from a short morning walk, inspecting the germination of the feed-wheat scattered for erosion control on the banks of the road, I came across a small family of 7-8 rocks that called out to be stacked as a cairn. The large ones were hernia fodder - too big to lift, but not too big that one might not THINK one could lift them. Pondering the situation, I flashed back to another early morning scene outside a monastery on Mt Athos, in Northern Greece, where four elderly monks were moving enormous stones using wooden staves as levers. I quickly found just such a tool, about 5 ft long, made of cedar. And with its help I was able to slide one stone onto the base stone, and then swivel it into position by turning it on a proud point on its surface. With leverage there was almost no effort, where before the whole body strained in the heaving.

When we think about the history of fundamental inventions, it is easy to run forward to the wheel, and to forget altogether about the lever, which, before donkeys and horses, already made it possible for humans to move things they otherwise could not, giving us what is called 'mechanical advantage'. And so I aligned myself with the builders of Stonehenge (who also rolled stones on logs), achieving what seemed impossible, with simple equipment, ingeniously deployed. And with the bird who uses twigs to poke insects out of dead trees.

Nearing the top of the cairn, I lifted rocks directly, using the ropes and hawsers and bone-levers of my own frame. Can we really be 97% water? Well, my tractor's front-end loader runs on hydraulic fluid. Working with and against gravity. These rocks now look as if they have been there forever. Moss is colonizing the North face.