Reservoirs of Craft. The phrase came to me one night upon closing my eyes to fall asleep. I took the trouble, made the effort as a sign of respect for whatever muse it is that comes too me at such moments – along with a realization from sad experience, that if I didn’t write it down I would either toss and turn attempting to fix it in my memory, or awaken the next morning with nothing more than a vague sense of something important that I’d overheard and failed to note, most likely both, lost sleep and a lost insight.
I’ve been talking about Craft here, and over on Boats for difficult times and Horizons of Significance for some time. I’ve been aware that I’ve been running ahead of myself and hoping others could follow along almost solely on momentum alone, but that the time would come to be more specific.
By Craft I do not mean any particular Craft Tradition. I also am not referring to Craft as it’s commonly used to denote a certain handiness, or the Do-it-yourself spirit! What I find these meditations on Craft to be pointing towards is a conception of Craft to counterbalance the apparent transparency of our ubiquitous use of the term technology to cover every aspect of how we interact physically with our world. Not every tool is technology. Not every form of interaction with the physical world takes place within a relationship we might have to tools and “things” that one generally assumes when we speak of technology.
I hold two instances in mind whenever I glimpse this insight into Craft. The first is to imagine how a crow works with tools. How does an awareness as sharp and clear as theirs, one that is found in a creature with what we so callously refer to as a “Bird Brain,” that none-the-less, is able to perform remarkable feats of problem-solving and in general is almost preternatural in its abilities to perceive even the intentions of others. – They can not only distinguish a stick from a rifle. They can seemingly tell an unloaded rifle from one ready to fire!
What does tool-use mean to a crow?
I don’t know. It’s probably impossible for us to find out, really. I can imagine that it is not a simple quid pro quo, as behavioral psychology might insist. There is too much going on and not enough “processing” gray matter involved for it to be just that. My intuition is that there is a strong connection between these birds and the forces and fields in which they are immersed and that tool use, or any of their behaviors, wells up out of this interaction without there being any meaningful conclusions that can be reached by reductive analysis alone.
The second instance is from my own experience and is part of an entire fabric of experiences that covers a wide range of ultra-rational conditions. I once created a sideboard for a house I’d designed and helped build for my wife and me. I had an intractable given as a starting point. I had two matched boards of live-edge walnut that had been cut and stored for about fifty years. These boards would be all of the visible wood in this piece. There was also the space and function the piece would have to accommodate. In the end, there were a few slivers and wedges of bark and sap-wood that remained unused, but that was it. The entire piece was made of those two boards including incorporating some old worm-damaged tails from down at the butt of the tree to make one foot and a corner of the case, as though the piece was ancient and had survived a long period of neglect.
I consider this one of my most rewarding woodworking experiences. It was a culmination of a way of looking at such projects that I’d first been exposed to the first time I went to the Atlantic White Cedar stack at the boatschool so many years ago. Something made of wood could be something more than just the meeting of a commodified recently living thing with a slavishly followed written specification for its pre-established result. The living thing that had been sacrificed to make something has a voice. It has a say in what results from its use. That say is not simply do be a part of a negotiation to find out who will “win,” who will “lose;” but it is an opportunity for a dialogue in which all parties gain, and the result is superior to anything that could be arrived at any other way.
Somewhere amongst these hints are signs of a Reservoir of Craft. It touches upon all of our Craft Traditions in some way. It also diverges from them as they now exist because of the accommodations that have crept in over time to meet the demands of our culture’s devaluation of everything but efficiency and how all should be subsumed as a means to some unquestioned and ill-considered end.
Our remnants of Craft Traditions, their artifacts, their institutions, their practitioners are priceless in their value to us going forward. They are definitely part of our Reservoirs of Craft.
At present they are endangered, as is everything else! Part of what needs to begin happening is for us to look at them and claim them as reservoirs of future use, instead of defending them as quaint hold-overs and some anodyne blend of education and entertainment. Our present approach does not do them justice and allows their value to slip between our fingers. There is no one to blame for this, but for it to change we need to be direct about their value and not apologetic about our need for what they hold.
That said; even these reservoirs of artifacts, tools, and techniques; will fall short unless we can begin to see them as part of a deeper and broader way of interacting with the world. If we just take our traditions and plug them into the status quo of assumptions concerning technique and technology we will watch what’s been saved just spill upon parched, barren ground without germinating another way of life.
This is the heart of the conversation we need to be having around our Crafts, and around our approach to doing and making. This is a big job! It requires many voices and many different perspectives to come together. Let’s begin this process.