HESP November 1, 2017

I am a lead pencil,

The ordinary wooden pencil.

Writing is both my vocation and my avocation;

That’s all I do.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy.

Well, my story is interesting to begin with.

And, next, I am a mystery,

More so than a tree

Or a sunset or even a flash of lightning.

But, sadly,

I am taken for granted by those who use me,

As if I were a mere incident and without a backstory.

You must hear me my friends,

Like G. K. Chesterton observed,

“We are perishing for want of wonder,

Not for want of wonders.”

If you can understand me—

No, that’s too much to ask of anyone—

If you can become aware of the miraculousness

Which I symbolize,

You can help save the freedom

Mankind is so unhappily losing.

I have a profound lesson to teach.

And I can teach this lesson the best

Because I am seemingly so simple.

Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth

Knows how to make me.


My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree,

A cedar of straight grain

That grows in Oregon.

All the saws and trucks and rope

And the countless other gear used in harvesting,

All the persons and the numberless skills

That go into fabricating,

Contemplate all the untold thousands of persons

Who have a hand in my making,

Including those who to cart

The cedar logs to mills by railroad siding.


The mills in San Leandro, California,

Cut the logs into small pencil-length slats.

The slats are waxed and the kiln dried again.

How many skills go

Into the making of the tint and the kilns,

Into supplying the heat, the light and power,

The belts, motors, and all the other things?


Once in the pencil factory, each slat

Is given eight grooves by a complex machine,

After which another machine lays leads in every other slat,

Applying glue, and placing another slat atop—

A lead sandwich, so to speak.

Seven brothers and I are mechanically carved

From this “wood-clinched” sandwich.


My “lead” itself—it contains no lead at all—

Is actually graphite mined in Ceylon of Sri Lanka.

Consider these miners

And those who make their many tools,

And the makers of the paper sacks

In which the graphite is shipped too,

And those who make the string that ties the sacks,

And those who put them aboard ships,

And finally those who make the ships

Travel safe and smooth.


My graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi,

Its ammonium hydroxide used in the refining process.

My cedar receives six coats of lacquer,

Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer?

Who would think that the growers of castor beans from Italy

And the refiners of castor oil from Indonesia

Are a part of it?

They are.


The complete story of why

The center of my ferrule has no black nickel on it,

And why the part man uses to erase

Called “factice” does the trick,

Would take pages to explain.



Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion

That no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation,

The only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon

And the logger in Oregon

Is in the type of know-how.

Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with.

Each one wants me less, perhaps,

Than does a child in the first grade.

There are some among this vast multitude

Who never saw a pencil

Nor would they know how to use one.

Their motivation is other than me.

Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how

For the goods and services he needs or wants.

I may or may not be among these.


The absence of a master mind,

Of anyone dictating or forcibly directing

These countless actions which together bring me into being

Is astounding.

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles:

A tree, zinc, copper, graphite.

But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature

An even more extraordinary miracle has been added:

The configuration of creative human energies —

Millions of tiny know-hows —

Configurating naturally and spontaneously

In response to human necessity and desire,

And in the absence of any human masterminding!

Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows

To bring me into being

More than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The lesson I have to teach is this:

Leave all creative energies uninhibited.

Merely organize society to act in harmony.

I, Pencil,

Seemingly simple though I am,

Offer the miracle of my creation as testimony

That this is a practical faith,

As practical as the sun, the rain, the good earth and a cedar tree.

This essay was an optional read in HBX CORe – Economics for Managers. You can read the full essay here.


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