Mending Fences

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”  Maya Angelou

As an artisan, the tools and materials you work with are concrete and finite, predictable and dependable. Humans can be capricious, contradictory, vain, temperamental, and (occasionally) refreshingly decent.  Some people just are not honest, and neither handshake nor contract will make it so. If you do succeed in dragging them up to the line, they will forever damn you with faint praise. One of the most insidious manipulations is essentially a twist on the classic victim-persecutor-rescuer triangle in which the disappointed patron switches from loyal supporter to victim of the artisan’s bid for independence. [Don't hesitate to use your wand, a stupefying spell works wonders here.]

This morning at the Farmers’ Market, I came across several people that I have fallen out with over the years.  Individuals whom I no longer trust to be fair-minded or whose affect is so consistently cynical or sarcastic that their company became intolerable.  Do other people have similar experiences when they live someplace for a really long time, or is it just that I expect too much?  Several of these folks have a substantial improvement to their homes at my expense, and they’ve never made the first move to compensate me.  The others have for a short time made work less than enjoyable, and I’ve done with them.

A meeting of the minds requires effort from both sides.  Eye contact, a smile, an open heart.  Forgive, don’t forget.  “…good fences make good neighbors.”  Several years ago, I was thrown into a living and working arrangement with Clay O’Reilly, a zealous follower of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program.  Not ordinarily a drinker, contrariness moved me to buy a six-pack, go to the lakefront dock and work out tunes on my guitar.  Clay came down later, and told me this story [he was from Arizona, and had married into a Navajo family]:

“I set out for a walk one morning with my brothers-in-law. We came across a break in the fence, and I started back the way we had come to fetch some tools.  A short way down the road, they called me back to resume our walk.  Having found some pieces of wire and a couple of sticks, they had mended the fence.  Just like that.  You learn to work with what comes to hand.”

This summer I had to replace our sewer line, after years of living with clogged drains and litigious, entitled neighbors. I seem to have so little in common with these people, but managed to begin mending fences. We share boundaries, love dogs, fly-fishing, and enjoy a certain pride of place. We just won’t talk about politics: immigration, rights of minorities, rise of the capitalist oligarchy, excesses of US foreign policy, inexorable decline of democracy, or the systematic destruction of public education. For now. For now, the plumbing works and I haven’t precipitated a lawsuit.

In the early 90’s, I spent a winter in Maine working for a struggling publication called Joiners’ Quarterly.  We rarely published on time, payroll was irregular as well. The housing market had taken a dive in the late 80’s leaving the owner/editor/publisher financially embarrassed.  Irate building clients, hungry creditors (his father-in-law among them), and a litany of subscribers’ complaints occupied most of his time.  I took to visiting a local roadside diner, where I fell into a conversation with one of the patrons. Something on the order of Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” ensued, and I had a minor epiphany:  all small towns are essentially alike, everybody knows everybody, they have all had dealings, and some people can only be trusted if you are willing to work at keeping them honest.  Caveat emptorCaveat Artisan!

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The Parthenon Enigma

“Thus, over the course of the fifth century, a new Athenian identity emerges, one carefully constructed to glorify Athens and incite fear in the hearts of its enemies.  The trappings (and overreach) of empire continued to bloat Athenian self-regard.  Still, it must be said that the picture that Athens consistently projected of itself–in funeral orations, speeches in the law courts, dramatic performances, and the sculptures of the Parthenon–stands in contrast to the self-image expressed by other cities.  We continually hear from the Athenians about their exceptionalism, how they are resilient, competitive, aggressive, quick but thoughtful in action, innovative, aesthetically aware, and open to engaging outsiders on the world stage.  And many non-Atnenians accepted this characterization…”

Joan Breton Connelly, The Parthenon Enigma Knopf 2014

This is a brief comment in a fascinating work about the interpretation of the Parthenon’s sculptural frieze, much of which has been looted by Lord Elgin and others.  It is in part an eloquent plea that the pieces be restored to their home, and a magnificent contribution to our understanding of classical Greece.  It just struck me as ironic that the Athenians appear to have been as vain, contradictory, and self-serving as Americans today.  Exceptionalism…Hubris!


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The First Church

I have this rather obscure little book, picked up at a flea market somewhere sometime, The Drama of the Lost Disciples, by George F. Jowett.  Jowett is remarked in the dust jacket as being “…from a prominent literary family.”  which I suppose would include Benjamin Jowett, translator of Plato.

The book presents the argument, supported by various documents, that Joseph of Arimathea, Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and a number of other followers of Jesus were exiled:

“In that year the party mentioned was exposed to the sea in a vessel without sails or oars.  The vessel drifted finally to Marseilles and they were saved.  From Marseilles Joseph and his company passed into Britain and after preaching the Gospel there, died.”

That year was 36CE, and the author of this excerpt was Cardinal Baronius, Curator of the Vatican Library, from his Ecclesiastical Annals.  Jowett proceeds to tell us that in 38-39, Joseph and company proceeded to erect a church near Glastonbury, twenty-six by sixty feet, built of wattle, and that it remained until 1184 when it was destroyed by fire.

Curiously, Jowett steps back and tells us another tale, supported by a letter from St. Augustine to Pope Gregory:

“In the Western confines of Britain there is a certain royal island of large extent, surrounded by water, abounding in all the beauties of nature and necessaries of life.  In it the first Neophites of Catholic Law, God beforehand acquainting them, found a church constructed by no human art, but divinely constructed, or by the hands of Christ himself, for the salvation of his people.  The Almighty has made it manifest by many miracles and mysterious visitations that He continues to watch over it as sacred to Himself, and to Mary, the Mother of God.”

Or, in somewhat plainer English:  Jesus, being a carpenter by trade, was apprenticed as a youth and traveled extensively during the “lost years” journeying as far as Nepal and Britain.  Jowett asserts that while in Britain, Jesus built a small church of timber and wattle in honor of his mother Mary.

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Design and Workmanship

Before the “Maker Movement”, there was David Pye.  If you make things, or design things, and ever feel the need to communicate about making or designing, you should read these books.

In 1964, David Pye published The Nature of Design, a strikingly well-designed little book about how material things come into being and how they are used.  And, incidentally, what they happen to look like.  The Nature and Art of Workmanship, a companion volume, was published in 1968.  They were eventually re-published by Cambium Press, and are still available.

For starters, Pye suggests that we set aside the word “craftsmanship” and instead proposes the more semantically neutral “workmanship”.  He then proceeds to totally skewer the “form follows function” dictum of Modernism and instead offers terms in plain language to describe designing and making things.  At the heart of his argument, Pye invites us to discern making things as workmanship of risk vs. workmanship of certainty.  He rounds off with a scathing critique of John Ruskin’s Nature of Gothic.

“…the sense of quality in general, belongs to the makers particularly, and has come to them not because of making by hand–whatever that may mean!–but because most things can only be made in reach of the hand, and so at a certain distance from the eye.  A maker is in the habit of seeing things close to him and looking at them closely…”

“Technique is the knowledge of how to make devices and other things out of raw materials.  Technique is the knowledge which informs the activity of workmanship.  It is what can be written about the methods of workmanship.

Technology is the scientific study and extension of technique.  In ordinary usage the word is slapped about anyhow and used to cover not only this, but invention, design, and workmanship as well.

Workmanship is the application of technique to making, by the exercise of care, judgement, and dexterity.  As opposed to design, workmanship is what for practical purposes the designer cannot give effective instructions about by drawings or words, although he can envisage it perfectly well.”



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Book review: ‘The Old Straight Track’ by Alfred Watkins

Originally posted on The Hazel Tree:

The Old Straight Track (1)Quite possibly my favourite book of all time… I’ve been meaning to review this for so long!

When Alfred Watkins was riding around the Herefordshire hills in the early 1920s, he pulled up his horse to gaze across the landscape, and he had a sudden revelation.

In his vision, every landmark, whether natural or man-made, was linked by a network of straight lines, which he saw as glowing wires laid out over the surface of the land.  The lines passed through hill summits and cairns, linking church spires, prehistoric settlements and burial sites, old encampments and sacred monuments.   Following the route that they took were trackways, straight roads that had been ancient and well trodden long before the coming of the Romans, along which the first settlers of this country would have travelled by day and night, their eyes keenly aware of waymarkers that we, in our age of…

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Piñata of Ideas


Ever have a really good idea, and when you float it out there, someone just can’t wait to knock the stuffing out of it.  Yeah!  Just think of it as a piñata, a little out of reach but interesting enough to take a swing at.  Consider it a sort of backhanded compliment, an inverse relationship.  The more people who try to knock down your idea, the better the chance that it’s actually a good idea.  Good idea…wrong people.

Ad hominem:  a classic response is to simply attack the person who proposes the idea (it’s no co-incidence that attacking someone is called “offensive”) while simultaneously scheming to steal the idea and take credit for it.  Discrediting the person who had the idea originally is often seen as a pragmatic necessity.  “Kill the messenger”  is timeless, and still quite effective.

Attacking the idea itself is more complicated.  That strategy can focus attention on the idea, allowing it to develop it’s own momentum.  Popular movements like Occupy work that way.  Thoreau’s solitary act of resistance in refusing to pay a tax to support a war he didn’t believe in resulted in his essay on Civil Disobedience, which influenced Ghandi, and later King.  Ideas are powerful, and hard to destroy.

“Keep away from people who belittle your ambitions.  Small people always do that.  The really great will make you feel that you too can become great.”  Mark Twain

 If you have the time and interest, the July/August issue of Wooden Boat magazine (available at Barnes & Noble $6.95), devotes the entire Currents column to a dozen or more youth boatbuilding programs.

The program in Philadelphia uses the STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics) acronym and lots of grant-seeking language “specific educational objectives, competencies, and key concepts”.
Another program targets “kids at risk of dropping out of school, in hopes of directing them into further technical and trades-oriented educational programs.”
Several of these programs have partnered with Charter Schools and other cultural organizations.
There are many other existing programs, Teaching With Small Boats Association, Rocking the Boat, Building to Teach…they just don’t exist in Arkansas.

I have been occupied with building a small wooden canoe,  my birthday present to myself.
When this one is finished, I intend to build another, and another.

I am not asking for anything, or proposing anything. All that I can do is put this information in front of you, and ask that you consider, not my interests or agenda, but the potential positive impact that a program of this sort might have on young people in our state. I offer imagination, intelligence, and building skills.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Ghandi

Posted in agrarian reform, architecture, boatbuilding, carpentry, education reform, food for thought, Uncategorized, woodworking | 5 Comments

Learning Curves 11


IMG_1399Not exactly sitting pretty, I swamped and soaked myself.  Even worse, I lost my balance getting aboard, and slammed my foot so hard into the bottom that it split the hull.  This is the sort of thing that the books and websites don’t bother to mention; what a tender craft this can be, or how damage can happen and how to deal with it.  Repairs are underway back home in the Research and Development Department, with a round of Irish coffee for the crew.  At the moment, I feel a lot more like Toad than Water Rat.

The discovery of the day, though, happened because Evan and I went fishing in the rain, and after getting thoroughly soaked went for a drive.  On a whim, he suggested Pump Station Road, site of an old dam and pumping station on the White River.  There’s potential here.  Good structure, great location.  Maker space, anybody?

IMG_1393 IMG_1395 IMG_1396 IMG_1397 IMG_1398

There’s plenty of water here, year-round, and so close to town.  If she hadn’t been taking on so much water, we could have explored a bit, maybe next time.



“The canoe implies a long antiquity in which its manufacture had been gradually perfected. It will, ere long, perhaps be ranked among the lost arts.” -Thoreau

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