My studies and the rest of life generally have kept me away from the bench, and even more, away from this blog, for a while. But, since my little Popular Woodworking article was just published, I guess I ought get back to this on a more regular basis.
I’m in the midst of reading a biography of Henry David Thoreau right now, and learning how much woodworking/handymanning he actually did. We think of him as the patron saint of American environmentalism, and he was in many ways. Observation and appreciation of nature are at the root of his writing and life. But he also invented processes and machinery for the family pencil manufacture business (which was housed in a very modest building for the quantity the Thoreau’s were turning out in the 1840s). He was also a major fixer of things that broke in the Emerson household (Emerson was famously clumsy, his son Waldo once worrying that he would “dig his leg”).
This has given me the idea of further research on Thoreau’s knowledge of woodworking. While much has been written about the cabin, I’d like to do some more research on Concord’s carpenters and joiners of the period–and maybe try to figure out what other tools besides an axe Henry have borrowed.
Thoreau’s woodworking (and his writing about it) could also be compared to Walt Whitman’s (they met and enjoyed each other’s company and writing). Whitman worked as a house carpenter (like his father) for a time and of course wrote “The Song of the Broad Ax” in 1856. Both of these literary figures have had a lasting impact on the way that American culture talks and thinks about the relationship of work to the world around us. I suspect the role of working wood probably hasn’t been much explored–the ways that woodworking metaphors and metonyms pervade our common language and understanding of self, for example. That might be because scholars aren’t usually woodworkers, and woodworking scholars don’t usually turn to literary figures.