Two stools

Since I’ve written a couple of times about working on a shaving horse, I suppose I should post some examples of what I’ve been able to do on it. So far, two stools, functional and good-enough looking, and good projects for building skills.

For my first day working on a shaving horse out at Duke Homestead I just grabbed whatever potentially suitable wood I had lying around, which happened to be some pieces of Bradford pear and dogwood branches I’d trimmed the previous spring, still with bark on. The dogwood was easy enough to work, the pear considerably more challenging: not only is it harder wood, but none of the branches was straight, and each had side branches that had to be trimmed, leaving knots. Back home, after I built my own shaving horse and bought a spokeshave, I had another go at the pear branches. The tricky grain made a good exercise for learning to use the tools, and with considerable patience they turned out gorgeous. So I dug out a piece of butternut I’d bought years ago, cut it for a seat, and made a stool.

Staying inside the lines

For much of the summer, work crews have been repaving the main road that runs past my house. First they widened it, then they repaved it, then they painted new lines. The road was already plenty wide enough for two cars, but bicyclists use it — recreationally; I’ve never seen anyone commuting from Hillsborough to Durham on a bike — and I expect the road was widened out of safety concerns. But…

I use the road to run. I don’t run far on it, because there’s too much traffic and too many blind curves, but I have to run a brief stretch on it to get from my neighborhood to other less-traveled back roads. The wider road may be safer for bicycles — that remains to be seen — but it’s more dangerous for me. It used to be that if I saw or heard a car I could hop off onto the grass, but now for most of that stretch the paved road drops right off into the drainage ditch. And most drivers, I’ve noted, seem to think that however wide their lane is, they own the paved surface.

The wider road is also more blacktop for turtles to cross, if you care about turtles. I do, but they don’t have much of a lobbying interest with municipal governments and highway commissions.

The end result of this “improvement,” then, was to make the road less safe for those of us who rely on our feet and not on wheels. But there’s a catch, and this is the interesting part.

Keep home economics in the home

In today’s New York Times, Helen Zoe Veit argues that America’s public schools ought to revive the teaching of home economics. That simply isn’t going to happen, not given the state of public school funding, the priorities of education reformers, or the inexorable march towards core curriculum. And that knowledge, frankly, is a relief to me, because I’d be deeply worried about the effect the schools might have on what little there is of American home cooking. By all means, teach children to cook – but not in school.

Spaces in the world

Recently I was rereading Aldren Watson’s Country Furniture and was reminded of his observation that early American woodworkers were, as they had to be, generalists. In England the profession was ancient and structured and specialized; in the colonies a woodsmith had to be joiner and turner and sawyer and everything else, and as the cities grew and urban shops specialized there were always smaller towns where a generalist might be of service. There simply were not enough skilled workers — enough workers, period — to permit great specialization. What was needed in that environment, Watson wrote, was a “singular adaptability to find practical solutions,” not a learned understanding of existing solutions.

For that matter, a woodworker would be lucky to be able even to specialize in working wood; likely he raised some of his own food and perhaps ran one or two side businesses. Early American villages, Watson wrote, were only tenuously connected to the larger world, and so “Each person in the small community did all the things for which he had an aptitude.”

The eighty-twenty rule of traditional craft

I have been building a tool carrier this week, a wooden box with splayed sides and a handle like every carpenter had a hundred years ago, long enough for my hand saws and my jointer plane, designed for easy carrying. This was supposed to be a simple project, which was my first mistake — but I’ll get to that later, in another post, after I’ve finished the thing. In addition to being more complicated than I realized it has turned out to be more work than I’d expected, for a couple of reasons.

Cicadas and similes

The thirteen-year cicadas emerged yesterday, in our woods at least; a few miles away they’ve been active for weeks. We heard their song in the afternoon, and in the evening I found a half-dozen husks hung out to dry on the clothesline like withered garments from an attic trunk. Along the Eno today the woods vibrated with them, a low local chattering backed by the familiar high-pitched drone that I guessed to be the chattering’s more distant echo. I tried, and failed, to describe the sound. A friend said “loud as a police siren,” but that seemed unfair to the cicadas. I thought of the hollow rattling of dice in cups, but more rapid and higher-pitched, as if the Chipmunks were playing Yahtzee. And that being possibly the single worst simile in the entire catalog of Western literature, I thought I’d turn for inspiration to days before police sirens and Yahtzee and 33 rpm records played at 78, when, one would hope, the well-read and literary-minded could invent better comparisons.

Two gardens

Behind my house is a patch of ground that used to be a garden, a raised bed. Our old dogs left it alone; the new ones persisted in digging it up. So I took down the boards, shoveled out the dirt, flattened it. I meant to plant grass there last fall, before the frost set in, but I didn’t. I never got around to it.

Then, in April, this happened:

You can’t tell the birds anything

Spring is entering its second act. The bluets are fading, the last of the dogwood flowers fluttered off today in the downpour, but the trees all have their leaves, the birds have paired off and spread out to claim their nesting spots, the robins to a poplar, the jays to the brush in the woods, the wrens to the sheltered cap of the propane tank. This is what the wrens do, year after year. You leave three-quarters of an acre of open woods and they nest in your propane tank, when they don’t claim the shelves in the shed.

The cardinals have been courting for weeks, a big scarlet male bringing food to a female — the one who broke her leg last summer as a fledgling and has survived the winter darting back and forth to the feeders and now, it seems just possible, is going to beat evolution and reproduce. The Little Lame Cardinal, balancing one-legged on the edge of the birdbath, nesting in the bay laurel, passing on her clumsy genes, and also her plucky ones. Winning! That’s the thing about nature; you can’t predict it. You can identify grand strategies and see broad sweeps and make educated guesses about generalities, but you can’t predict the details. The details are the good stuff. The stories are in the details. You think you know how they end, but sometimes nature likes to play little jokes on itself, and all you can do is wait for the punchline.

Local ground and rhetorical ground

Benjamin Cohen writes on Grist this week (“What bean-counting ‘contrarians’ miss about the local-food movement”) about some issues I’ve been mulling over since getting involved in the “local food movement” a decade ago — namely, the terms of the debate. Cohen takes on writers who have reduced ethical consumption to a single metric — typically greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or energy efficiency — and who have then used that metric to deny the value of eating local. The problem with this approach, Cohen says, is that no single metric can assess the value of something as complex as a food system; as he puts it, “regionally configured food systems are about more than energy.”

So, for example, Stephen Budiansky argues that the damage done by the fossil fuels he consumes driving back and forth to the farmer’s market negates the good he does by buying food locally; Cohen responds that Budiansky takes fossil fuel use as a given — something most local food activists would like to change — and deliberately removes taste, freshness, and community from his rhetorical framework.

I’d go further in my critique, and it’s a critique that cuts both ways.