Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

Zen and the Art of Backhoe Operation

By Cam Mather

There was a book years ago called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I don’t know what it was about. I never read it. But I loved the title.

I’m not even sure I really understand the concept of Zen, but I believe it is sort of an advanced state of enlightenment one achieves through meditation. I believe it’s something I often achieve when weeding the gardening or cutting firewood. It’s a pretty great feeling, even if I’m not doing the meditation thing correctly to get there. But if the endless chatter in my brain can shut up long enough for it to happen, that’s an accomplishment.

On a different but related topic, I have great neighbors. I don’t think anything makes the move to the country easier than getting great neighbors and we’ve been blessed with lots of them. A while ago I wrote about the exceptional women of Mountain Road (the road that we live on.) There is a new addition to this group of wonderful women, Heidi Lind. Heidi built a very efficient house not too far from us. She was one of our best customers buying vegetables from us this past summer and has been a tremendous source of support for Michelle when she joined that very exclusive club, the one no one wants to join, the breast cancer club.

Heidi and her husband Gary have a Kubota tractor with a backhoe attachment. I have coveted such a machine for many years, and when I saw theirs I did try and hide just how “green” I am, in this case green with envy, about that fine machine. Heidi and Gary were gracious enough to offer to lend me their exceptional tractor. I think it was above and beyond and just can’t say enough how impressed I was with their offer. I could have been a proud, independent, “No, I can do stuff myself” kind of guy, but I must be getting old because I jumped at the chance to use their machine. And I’ve gotta tell you, it was a little mini dream come true.

I have been saving jobs for a backhoe for months. Rocks in the garden that are too big to dig out by hand. Manure that needs spreading. Sand that needs spreading. Top soil that needed to be moved into the barn foundation. That big rock over by the paddock that always gets in the way but that I haven’t been able to move myself. Moving some gravel to a new trench that I dug to keep the guesthouse from flooding. The list was long.

So for the last week, every chance I got, I was blissed out at the controls of a backhoe. It’s not a huge backhoe, but I am in awe of how much I was able to accomplish in a week with this machine. I am also in awe of the diesel fuel that I poured into it to power this manservant that was able to accomplish days and weeks worth of work in mere hours.

I have had Ryan Tyner, who owns a large backhoe, come to my place a few times. I usually have a main job, like digging the trench from the wind turbine to the house, but I save up dozens of other jobs and get him to do a bunch of stuff while he’s here. Stuff like pulling stumps near the garden and moving rocks. The walls of the barn foundation sit in sand and are starting to list, leaning away from the floor. So every time Ryan’s here I point out a whole bunch of big rocks and get him to dump them against the walls in the hope of holding them up.

Ryan is a joy to watch. He and his machine seem to become one. The bucket moves as effortlessly as if it was connected to his brain. Me, well, there was not the fluid man/machine connection. Well not at first, anyway.

It took me a while to get accustomed to the 6 main movements that the two levers control. Side to side, up and down, bucket in, bucket out, arm out, arm in, etc. Even after a week I was still moving the levers in the wrong direction half the time, but I was getting better. And as I got more comfortable with the controls, I was amazed at what an absolute blast it was.

It’s partly the joy with not having to do these various jobs with a shovel and wheelbarrow. It’s partly amazement at what some steel and hydraulic fluid and diesel fuel can accomplish. And at some level I’m sure it’s that same feeling I had as a kid on the beach using Tonka toys to build roads and things. Some people just like to build stuff. Using a backhoe reaches down to a very primordial level for a male.

What I really noticed is that when I was using the backhoe I was not thinking about bad things. I wasn’t worried about money. I was not thinking about climate change (despite probably accelerating it by my use of this machine). I wasn’t thinking about problems in the office. Or health issues. Or what’s for dinner. Or how much I have to do before the snow flies. I was simply focused on moving that pile of rocks from point A to point B.

It kind of makes me wish that I had pursued a trade when I was younger. In high school I took mostly academic subjects like English and Math and French and Gym. You know, the stuff that gets you jobs. I did take an Auto shop and Machine shop class in Grade 9 but it wasn’t for me. It’s one of those things I have regretted since moving off-grid, not having taken some basic, practical, hands-on classes like electrical that would have helped. As it was I was starting from ground zero trying to figure stuff out. Luckily I had great teachers along the way.

Now I’m wondering if it’s too late to buy a backhoe and go into the business! It’s bad timing. With collapsing housing markets and governments up to their eyeballs in debt, I don’t think they’ll be building as many roads. But there I go, thinking too much again. I just kinda wish I were still sitting on that backhoe, moving some soil around. Becoming one with the machine. Achieving that Zen-like state that only comes when you shut off the chatter in your brain and focus on one specific task. I’m surprised you don’t see more backhoes at Buddhist Monasteries.

I tried Tai Chi once to relieve stress I was having in the office. It didn’t work for me. I ended up joining a badminton club because I preferred to smash the heck of out of plastic bird to take out my frustrations.  So while I respect the concept of being in a Buddhist monastery, I don’t think I could take the quiet meditation. I’d rather be hauling firewood, or pulling weeds, or if I can stay in Heidi and Gary’s good books, borrowing this marvelous machine that is better than the best mantra to help you achieve Zen. And as a huge bonus I’m moving rocks and soil while I’m at it!



  1. When I read your post I had a flashback to when I first ripped into the dirt with mine. I could not afford a proper one so I built my own, but since then I have found a few sites were they sell kits. I thought you might find one of them of interest as it is close to you (same province), and If I am reading the site correctly it appears that the precut metal parts are very affordable (under a 1000) though from experience I believe the engine, lines, pump,cylinders, and such will add about another 1500 to that. It is cdp Looks like a few different models there.
    There is another site called They have a section on homebuilt units but also a section on small manufactured units built mostly in the 70s 1980s.You never know, you could stumble across one of these used for a good price, anyway good post, happy digging!!

  2. john

    well you sure know how to push my green with envy button, and talk about flashbacks…. thirty five years ago when my filmmaking career was at a low ebb, I thought about pursuing a real job and inquired into a government sponsored training program to teach me high/hoe and bulldozer operating only to learn that there was a two year waiting list.To this day I have never even sat at the controls of a back hoe but in my dreams I’m riding high on top of that little Kubota tractor and have become a real “superman” able to move small mountains with a few shifts of my wrists…… you know what I mean….. and as Denice likes to say ” it’s a guy thing” Hey maybe Heidi and Gary would like to barter blueberries for backhoeing….. that would be a lot of blueberries. OK so maybe I’ll just have to live with my backhoe envy….. until one day !


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