Craft

Mortise and TenonOver time I have built a few pieces of furniture – a book case here, a table there.  Wood is good and great pleasure is derived from the process of milling rough lumber into useable boards, shaping and joining those boards into something aesthetically pleasing and lasting.  It’s almost creative.  I say almost because everything I’ve built has been a reproduction of someone else’s design.  I’ll leave the creative distinction to the works of genuine masters like Sam Maloof or Gustav Stickley; guys who left truly fresh footprints in the shavings on the floor.

Still, even in a reproduction there is a sense of accomplishment as a project takes shape, certainly in looking at the finished project, but even more so in the making and fitting of the joints.  Decisions must be made as to what type of joint will be best for each element of the piece – which should be purely structural and which can afford a bit of aesthetic flair.  Then it’s down to the business of applying craft to the fit and finish of each.  With proper attention to detail, the resulting whole will remain robust over time and pleasing to the eye .

While I am far from being a master craftsman, I’ve developed sufficient proficiency in milling and joinery to allow me to take on more challenging projects with some confidence.  IMG_0102My earliest pieces appeared to have been built by someone who didn’t know what he was doing, but this is only because they were built by someone who didn’t know what he was doing.  Butt joints and screws and out of square boxes were my trademark.  But as time went on both my tool collection and my ability to use them grew.  I studied the strengths, limitations and applications of different types of joints.  I practiced, failed and improved.  Importantly, I learned that there is a difference between a hobby and a craft.  When approached as a hobby, woodworking can be fun, but expectations surrounding the quality of the finished product should be tempered.  Approached as a craft, working with wood becomes rewarding. Study and practice become requisite steps in the completion of a project, and the finished product reflects that.

There is a strong parallel here that can be applied to the writing of fiction.  Having long approached it as a hobby, my work has been visibly out of square with loose joints and poorly sanded surfaces.  Those with an understanding of the craft might have read some of my past forays into fiction and thought them to be written by someone who didn’t know what he was doing. But that’s only because they were written by someone who didn’t know what he was doing. Creative flair has its place, but that place isn’t in the load bearing corners of a story.

There are fundamentals to effective story telling; firebricks that prevent the writer from burning the whole thing down before the reader warms up to it.  These fundamentals, set apart from any inherent talent a writer may have, must be learned.  Conflict, layered characters, backstory, subtext, pace and story arc. Of late I have immersed myself in studying these elements, the craft of the written story. I am practicing, failing, learning, mindful that there is a difference between hobby and craft.sam-maloof

Before he could break the rules of rocking chair building, Sam Maloof had to learn how a rocking chair works. Grain direction, allowance for seasonal expansion, the correct joint for the job.

I will continue to join both words and boards. In fact there is a bookcase I have been wanting to build, its shelves to be joined to its sides with sliding dovetails. A perfect joint in form and function, one I have yet to master. And there is a book being written. If any good, it will read as one written by someone who has practiced and understands the craft of a well written story. I look forward to seeing its pages bound and resting in a well built bookcase.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arlo

As I generally prefer dogs to people, it’s fitting that I share a few thoughts about Arlo on his birthday.

Now it’s not that I prefer all dogs to all people – some of my best friends are people – but Arlo tends to put most of us to shame in the areas that count.

This guy has never lied to me.  He takes our social contracts seriously and generally holds up his end of the bargain.  IMG_0735Years ago, for example, we came to an agreement whereby if he was called in from the backyard, and he did so, he would get a treat and a “good boy” when he came inside.  To demonstrate his commitment to this pact, he will frequently ask to go outside, turn right around to come back in without me even having to call for him.  Cynics might think this a duplicitous ploy to get a treat, but I know better.  It’s called integrity.  Him doing his part without being asked.

He’s always happy to see me. Me, you, everybody. Always. Very, very happy.

He doesn’t take anything too seriously.  Notable exceptions being squirrels and rabbits.  But even then it’s his selflessness that stands out.  IMG_0338You might live five doors down, but he understands that squirrels and rabbits are a neighborhood problem, one that doesn’t stop at some artificial line separating his yard from yours.   He will go above and beyond (and under and through) to combat this scourge.  Should he trash your flower bed on the heels of a rabbit, he does so with full knowledge that sometimes there is collateral damage in pursuit of the greater good.

He’s not hung up on body image.  Shower him with compliments over how good looking he is and he’ll trot off to find some fresh bear scat or a dead carcass to roll in.  He likes to keep it real.

Arlo is a character with character.  While his public antics elicit smiles and chuckles, there is a side to him few get to see.  He and I spend many days and evenings together away from our family, and he has a keen sense for the state of my mental health, particularly in the evening.  If I am in a funk, or maybe drifting from solitude into isolation, he picks up on it.  But more importantly he acts on it.  He will often rise from his resting place and relocate to my place of unrest.  His paw or chin will go to my lap or his body will cover my feet.  He offers true compassion and asks for precious little in return.

So happy birthday my good friend.  Long may you run.

Breaking Trail

If the function of a writer is to write, which it is, I haven’t been very functional lately.  Feast and famine cycles aren’t new to me, but at least over the course of this latest dry spell I enjoyed the company of my son Graham who had been working with me while on his winter break from college.

We were preparing for a snowshoe event coming up in Eagle River.  Breaking trail, cutting and splitting wood for campfires, hauling straw bales for folks to sit on.  Being together in the January northwoods.  IMG_0995It was a joy to have him up here with me, especially in the evenings.  He’s a good cook, a good companion, and as this time together reinforced, a good man.

It’s been a real January in the north woods.  Working off a long list of tasks with a deadline, we allowed the weather to arrange their completion, or at least the time of day when they might be done.  Sometimes breakfast would take a little longer than needed while the temperature was allowed to rise a bit, and the indoor tasks generally took a morning slot, chains to be sharpened, signs to be built.

And then it was a dad and a son and a dog in the woods and they don’t make weather bad enough to spoil that.

The snowbound woods were silent but for snowshoed feet making our way.  One of us stopped now and again to point at some scene as beautiful as another we’d just passed, or to identify a good spot for a trail marker.  Words weren’t needed but sometimes we’d string a couple together as if we were supposed to.  Together we enjoyed the IMG_1008woodland solitude.  The Germans, ever efficient in their vernacular, call it waldeinsamkeit, and with similar efficiency we placed one foot in front of the other leaving marks in both the snow and our memories.  Arlo scoffed altogether at the concept of efficiency and crossed our trail repeatedly, coming from places we may never lay eyes on.

With another set of tasks checked off we gather our chill and our tools and bring them back to the farmhouse for some warmth and a meal.  Out of the woods the words flow more freely.  A recap of the day between mouthfuls and some thoughts on what tomorrow might hold with the weather checked.  An evaluation of what worked and what didn’t with how we were dressed and what might be changed tomorrow.  Glances down at Arlo who will be licking his paws well into the evening.

On one particular evening conversation went well past when the old man typically retired.  The younger was enthusiastic in his want to discuss all things celestial, the physical universe and the confounding notion that it bears an edge.  Time and space and spacetime, God and physics and questions without answers.  A father and son and waldeinsamkeit.  A dog licking its paws.  A different kind of trail was broken that evening, winding unmarked through mysteries and circling back upon itself.  Each of us stopping at different points suggesting that here might be a good spot for a trail marker.  The bed was soft that night.

Then another January morning and a breakfast that took  a little longer than needed.

Plus or Minus

As I write this in the predawn hours it is -29F in Eagle River, WI and +24 in Eagle River, AK.  So the temperature in Eagle River is -3F, plus or minus roughly 27 degrees.  I am in Wisconsin.

From the window I see the smoke from the wood furnace rising perfectly vertical and new pope white against the black morning sky.  Waiting a few hours to stoke the furnace would mean only a negligible increase in temperature and an opportunity missed.  There is something about the early morning sky, in the darkest hours before the dawn, that draws me in.  It dons a mystical aura when the air is very still and very cold.

So while the coffee brews and with wool socks already on my feet, I slip on tall boots and a few layers of fleece.  Arlo is standing by the door looking up at the handle waiting for a gloved hand to do what he can’t, and is the first to bolt out into the cold morning air. IMG_0366_2 He will dash off into the balsams in an attempt to flush out an unsuspecting rabbit, will take care of his morning business and then eventually join me by the woodpile.  He lives for mornings like this, and for any other kind of morning for that matter.

But on cold still mornings like this while he wanders the area with his nose, I like to stand still for a bit and just listen to the absolute nothing that surrounds us.  Every now and then these very cold morning vigils are rewarded by a loud crack from the ice on the creek below me or from a living tree freezing.  Short of that, the clear black morning sky, the same cloudless sky that allowed the temperature to plummet, offers a tapestry of morning planets and constellations that only the earliest of risers witness.

There was a January morning a few years back, similar to this morning in time and temperature, when I noticed Arlo sitting near me in the snow gazing at the stars.  I had never before witnessed a dog doing this and it confirmed for me that we were born of the same exploding star.

But as with that morning, my reverie is broken by the growing pain of sharp cold on my exposed face.  I open the wood furnace door, rake the night coals forward, and charge it with a tier of fresh logs sufficient to get through the day.  Near dusk I will do the same, a bit more generously and with wood more carefully chosen, to ensure a good coal bed in the morning.  Then back inside to a warm meal, an evening read and a resting dog.  And on the eastern horizon constellations will be rising to begin their night path across the sky, knowing that I will greet them in the morning.

Still Standing

Late yesterday afternoon we had occasion to travel for a few hours through the lower mid section of Wisconsin.  In between the small villages and towns stretched rural spans of dairyland.  A strong and strangely southern January wind blew a low foil of snow from fields on the left, across the highway, to fields on the right and the late day sun snuck an angled glare between the field’s crusted surface and the blowing sheet.   The state highway we travelled followed a curved route carved with deference to glacial remnants and the clout of some long ago landowners.   As is often the case along these long rural routes, prosperous and well kept farms were interspersed with those that were less so, and every now and then, like periods in a Faulkner novel, abandoned homesteads appeared.

These places have stories.  farm

My eyes are drawn to these unsigned historical markers as I drive by, but I always settle for a passing glance and the thought “that place has a story.”  What if I were to stop and actually take the steps and time needed to learn that story?

If I did I might learn that the quarter section it sits on was originally claimed and cleared and plowed by somebody named Fredrik or Karl or maybe Ernst.  I might learn that with the exception of the bottomland on the northeast forty, the land was fertile and the harvests  were generally good, God willing.  And that the stone foundation over there was to a smokehouse built under US Grant and used through most of FDR.  I would learn the names of the children and draught horses and the make of the first tractor on the farm.  Which daughter went to the State Normal School and came back to teach.  I would learn that the drought years were bad but the war years were worse, that Johnny didn’t always come marching home.

It might be learned that the GI Bill and opportunities elsewhere pulled the boys away from the farm and that grandpa moved into town to live with Bill and Marie two years after grandma died.  That he sold the farm but couldn’t attend the equipment auction.  That he wasn’t cut out for town life, much less being a burden to his son’s family, and that the reaper took him the first harvest season after he left the farm.

Then again the real story might be different on all counts.  How would I know?  We had places to be and the way that snow was blowing there’s slim chance I would have found the smokehouse.  Even if it had been there in the first place.  What I can say with certainty is that history casts shadows and the house still stands.  And there’s a story in there.

Photo: First Snow, by Swainboat, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fresh Steel

IMG_0968A glance at the thermometer yesterday morning showed -16F.  It was a good day to continue working in the shop, sharpening and tuning hand tools.  Sharpening plane irons and chisels is therapeutic for a mind like mine.  It asks me to slow down, to reorient my sometimes “squirrel in the road” thought process, to focus.  It is mindfulness practice with really sharp objects.

There is a ritual associated with this sharpening meditation.  The bench is cleared and the workspace prepared with the means to the end.  A coarse diamond stone is placed on the left should it be needed and two Japanese water stones in steps to the right; one to sharpen, one to hone.  A bottle of water to lubricate the stones, a rag to clean the tools between steps, and a scrap board for tuning are placed close at hand.

Then the tools themselves are chosen, planes first, chisels last.  Dust, memory and a careful drag of the thumb indicate which need sharpening and a swipe on the test board is used for triage.  The sharpest of the lot is the first to go through the process.  Bringing a tool from “pretty sharp” to “scary sharp” sets the standard.

The plane is then disassembled by removing its lever cap and iron assembly, leaving the frog exposed for inspection and cleaning.  That this finely crafted tool has a key component labeled a frog is a thinly veiled attempt to break my concentration – to which I sometimes succumb.  With the iron in hand it’s time to put steel to stone.

Both visual and tactile senses are brought fully to bear as the stone is stroked by the iron, carefully maintaining the angle to be sharpened,  watching the slurry darken to indicate progress.  A wipe with a rag and a feel with the thumb reveals a slight burr on the back of the iron.  Fresh steel has been exposed; the essence of sharpening.  A few strokes on the fine stone, front and back, to hone the sharpened edge completes the process.

The plane is then reassembled and tuned; the tuning board presiding as judge.  The iron’s exposure and bias are adjusted and readjusted until the plane sings across the board and offers up a uniformly thin shaving, a gossamer slice of grain.  An inward smile, a nod of satisfaction accompanies the placement of the plane back in its till for safe keeping.

And so with the others.

And so while the wind factored chill into already frigid air, I found refuge in a task.  Protected by walls and a sense of purpose, a day passed warmed by the mindful engagement of stone and steel.