March / 2009
The View From Plum Lick

Gee-haw whimmy diddling
by: David Dick

After almost 20 years of writing this back page column, wandering through the gee-haw whimmy diddles of “This is right,” “This is left,” “Let’s do this,” “Let’s do that,” it may do us all well to go back to another time, a century past to another flicker of sunshine and shadow.

(“A gee-haw whimmy diddle is a wooden toy consisting of two sticks. To the end of the stick held in the left hand a small propeller is loosely nailed and on its side several notches are cut. A stick held in the right hand is rubbed vigorously across the notches by the one held in the right hand causing the propeller to spin. Upon saying ‘gee’ [right] or ‘haw’ [left], the person holding the sticks can cause the propeller to change direction by shifting the position of the left hand holding the stationary stick.” – Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English published by the University of Tennessee Press.)

The year is 1845. The youth is 27 years of age. His name is Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). He has knocked on the doors of the literary parlors of Boston and New York City, found the players to be more gee than haw, from time to time more haw than gee. Thoreau is not pleased. He cradles his whimmy diddle and takes up residency at Walden Pond.

Home alone.

Two years of thinking.

Thinking about what?

Thoreau the youth considered “Economy,” “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” “House-Warming,” and “Higher Laws.” What did he have to say about these things? Please go read, then figure.

Meantime, might we not gee together, for example, on the matter of cleaner coal for electrical power? What will happen when there is no coal to be cleaned? Will we just sit around the whimmy diddle and blow in each other’s faces?

Thoreau said, “When a man is warmed by the several modes which I have described, what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the same kind, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous incessant and hotter fires, and the like.”

Hold on.

Walden is not for everybody. But thinking is for everybody and can lead to simpler, richer possibilities, which is where the whimmy diddle meets the need, the pedal meets the metal, truth like jelly is finally nailed to the tree.

It begins with questions—closer to home than we might think.

Who pays for clean-coal technology?

Who thinks windmills across the land, up and down the valleys, are a satisfactory substitute for fossil fuel? What will the birds think about huge blades slicing the air, night and day? Do we care what birds think? Do we care what bird watchers think? At what cost are American eagles? Hummingbirds? Geese in their fly paths?

Should there be more dams, more hydroelectric suppliers? Do we care what happens to low-lying churches, graveyards, and homeplaces to be inundated by the creation of new impoundments?

Again, who pays for it?

Thoreau might suggest we begin with “Economy,” first chapter in Walden.

To that end several possibilities seem worth the effort. When leaving a room, turn off the lights. Even for the short walk to and from the bathroom—light on, light off. Lower-wattage light bulbs. Dryer logs of seasoned timber for the wood-burning stove. More blankets for the bed. Sweaters in their seasons. Half tubs of water for bathing. Turn off the TV when nobody is watching.

At the risk of pushing Walden too far, wouldn’t it be wise to set aside a small sum to help pay for improved energy technology? Or do we sit around gee-haw whimmy diddling until the fossil fields are barren, winds don’t blow the way we wish they did, or the hydroelectric dams are silted with generations of neglect?

Geeing together could be the first step taken.


David Dick was a retired news correspondent and University of Kentucky professor emeritus, and a farmer and shepherd. Read more about him at www.kyauthors.com.