A few thoughts on World Made By Hand

 In the last couple weeks, I tore through James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand and its sequel The Witch of Hebron. And I keep mulling them over. I am trying to decide if I like them or not.

The premise is that these novels (the two I read are the first half of a tetralogy) take place in a world after “peak oil.” They happen to locate the collapse in the 2010s, but the dates don’t matter as much as the vision Kunstler presents of the world after cheap energy. In that world, the increasing expense of oil caused a “war in the Holy Land” as well as two nuclear attacks by terrorists on US Soil, one in L.A. the other in Washington, D.C., and the eventual failure of the electric grid. But those events are distant rumors to the main characters, who are now stuck living a hyper-local life in a fictional small town located in the real place where the Battenkill River flows into the Hudson in upstate New York.

One fun aspect is that the main character of the novel is a carpenter. A former software executive who now makes his living using the handtools that once made up his hobby to update and repurpose his neighbors’ homes and barns (in fact most of the good upstanding farmers are former CEOs and various white-collar workers with the common laborers being drawn from the retail wage class; there are no farmers who were farmers in the book). He’s also a flyfisherman, jealously protecting his graphite carbon rod and presumably all the petroleum-derived fly lines and leaders and saving every last hook. But the trout have grown fat and stupid since the population plummeted after a flu epidemic worse than 1918-19 (winkingly, this time the Mexican instead of the Spanish flu) and they form a large part of the villager’s diet, whether caught on a fly or by any other method.

There are other bits of nostalgic projection that are delightful: a sort of bioregionalist’s wish fulfillment. The meals are lovingly described ala Hemingway or Brian Jacque’s Redwall books. Reading about all the cornbread can get old, and I pity the characters lack of coffee, but their other meals often sound delicious and rich. Food has become one of their main concerns, after all, and status is signaled by hams, smoked trout, sumac tea, or the less appealing “puddings” that sound like the catch-all casseroles (or hotdish) of the Midwest. Such meals often take place at large social gatherings Kunstler and his villagers call “levees,” full of dancing, socializing, and bonding. Characters often think back to the “old times” of automobiles and antibiotics, but many seem to believe that the world is better without oil. And of course, what environmentalist, especially of my own Wendell Berry stripe, hasn’t thought the same thing. Kunstler’s village, when things go smoothly, is a Berrian/Berean utopia of local food, yeoman farmers, and home industry craftspeople. Aligning with an agrarian view of American society that goes back to at least the 18th-century writings of Crevecoeur and Jefferson, the farmers who work hard and understand clean living are rewarded with the joys of the hearth. Which includes cannabis and lots of high-quality homemade hooch, by the way.

But of course, there are darker sides to this bioregional localized world. One is the predictable post-apocalyptic gangs of bandits, drawn from Medieval history or Madmax. These are the sort of prepper/frontier dream of the survival of the strong. And in many ways, the portrayal is convincing, if disturbing. Certainly, it would seem that with no functioning government, a certain number of semi-warlords would take over and run things by graft and extortion as they do in many parts of the world today. But there are also class and race overtones in the portrayal of these bandits that are troubling. The novel addresses this head-on at times, with characters shocked that problems they “thought belonged to the last century” resurface along racial and ethnic lines. But the novels are also startlingly white. There are no speaking characters who aren’t white–not even any Latina/os–and no real explanation is given for this, since currently upstate New York isn’t a racially homogenous place. And the bandits are also the “gearheads” and bikers and live in their own sort of tumbledown village in a former trailer park. Their evening entertainment includes renditions of Nirvana (instead of the old-time string music the fiddler/carpenter hero prefers) and live pornography shows. And this way of life is compared (rather favorably) to the Iroquois 250 years earlier. To me, this reads as Kunstler’s latent cultural conservatism seeking to justify itself by speculative causality that links prosperity to morality–and race.

Another problem is Kunstler’s view of gender. His protagonists are all male, and the women in the novels have fallen into gender norms from the 19th century “almost without comment” to the point that when a woman is widowed, she moves in with a new man within a week rather than trying to make it on her own. The women cook and clean and seduce men or get raped and are often have their bodies described in the specialized and obsolete vocabulary of strongly patriarchal society (we don’t call people “slatternly” or “blowsy”). Again, this smacks of naturalizing what are social institutions–even if it very well may be the most plausible reaction to this sort of crisis.

However, it seems to me that these gender and racial stereotypes are more insidious than insightful. They aren’t speculation about the possible, but fantasies of regression. This is driven home by the cultural moments that are valued, and I say that even when I obviously share Kunstler’s cultural tastes (I’m trying to learn many of the old-time string band songs his fiddling flyfishing woodworker plays). And even further is Kunstler’s fantasy of a regression in the American vernacular language to something from 1900. As if when the electricity shuts off we will all start speaking like Teddy Roosevelt and Edith Wharton (one of his favorite words is “foolscap” which I think we’d probably still call printer paper long after the laserjets stopped).

And finally, in what I presume is a nod to the tenuous nature of a rational science-based worldview as dominant, an element of magic drives the plot of the books and would likely turn some people off. At the very this least stretches the credibility of calling the books “convincing” in a nonfictional sense.

Kunstler’s books, on first glance, are critical of many things the environmental left dislikes–runaway capitalism, petroculture, habitat destruction, industrial agriculture. But in the imagined pathway to greatness after a collapse, they are practically Trumpian. With its vision of class, gender, and race, the books even have tinges of the “Heimatroman” long beloved by blood-and-soil fascists. So even as I romp along through the world of these novels, eager to hear how they get out of scrapes, create hand-hewn beauty, and distill brandy, it’s with more misgivings and a guiltier conscience than when I read Walden or Moby-Dick. Thoreau and Melville lived in a world existed, with all of its faults. Kunstler’s World Made By Hand doesn’t exist and probably won’t, but any reader shouldn’t let that cloud the fact that the novels’ faults are more our own than the future’s.



Mental Labor

I can count on one hand the weekends I’ve spent at home over the past two months. I went to weddings in Texas and Oklahoma, a literature conference in Minneapolis, a writing retreat at a ranch on the border with Kansas. I presented a conference paper, submitted an academic article (they promised I’d hear back in seven to eight months) and applied to three assistant professor jobs. I might hear back about those before Christmas, and with some miracle, maybe I’ll get asked to interview. In that case, I’ll need to make some major progress on the dissertation, which currently takes the form of three different notebooks, a long list of sources, and a few avoided conversations with my advisor.

I have stolen time on a few afternoons to finally (finally!) try fly fishing here in Nebraska. I’ve caught a few stocked trout and some crappie, but it has done wonders for making me homesick. It’s even getting into my dreams now. And tying flies is a much quicker project than making furniture. It’s also got me paying attention to the weather again, and noticing the details of the local ponds, and planning future trips to rivers.

But the woodworking has mostly been in my head. But I have been thinking about the ways in which the physical tasks of furniture making help or hinder my mental work. For example, I haven’t been working in the shop for months, but the projects that are there are still waiting for me. The boards I had rough cut for another boarded bookshelf are still sitting against the wall. It will take some time to get back into the mindset of the project, and I’m sure my ideas for how it should look as finished furniture will be a bit different. And when I do find a few evenings to string together to work on it, the tasks sort of contain their own focus. It’s not hard to stay on track while working a face flat, or an edge square. I do find myself distracted at times by a tool that needs sharpening, or stuck trying to decide which step comes next, but usually, once I’m working I can follow a checklist.

My intellectual labor–teaching and writing–isn’t the same. Writing, especially scholarly writing, with its constant back and forth to sources, seems to actively push me away from the task at hand. It takes a constant exercise of willpower just to keep at it, and that means it gets exhausted quickly. Surroundings can help, and I have found it’s best if I work disconnected from the internet, in my notebooks and with books and articles that are physical and not on a screen. Otherwise, I’m just too distractable and will track down woodworking articles, or indulge escapist consumer fantasies about teardrop trailers and #vanlife, or scope out secret trout streams in the wilderness of Idaho. I am always aware that the work I’m doing isn’t “hard” in the everyday sense, but I also feel like it’s the hardest thing–mentally–that I’ve ever done.

Teaching is a little different–the prep is usually easy enough to stay on task for, but it’s impossible to ever prep the right amount. I go in to class each day either wildly under- or overprepared. And the problem of teaching almost always feels hopelessly intractable. How am I supposed to convince a room full of 19-year-old Nebraskans that Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad or Lynn Nottage’s Sweat (all Pulitzer Prize winners) aren’t “boring”? How can I convince them that I’m not interested in them telling me “the answer” but that I want to hear their thoughts? And that those thoughts, while they aren’t “right or wrong” can be better or worse–they all want to fall back into a lazy relativism and not be disturbed by something so urgent as justice, history, or the problems of life in a community. Somedays it goes well, other days I leave a little bit of my optimism behind as I leave the classroom.

All this to say that I’ve been trying to think about how I can take lessons or practices from manual work and apply it to intellectual work. What’s my dissertation’s cut list? What sort of joinery does it require–nothing fancy, mind you, just something sturdy enough for the task at hand. What is the form or style of my teaching–Arts and Crafts or Shaker? Maybe if I can systemize and categorize these abstract processes well enough to apprehend them a bit better, I can get back on track.


Hobbies, Projects, Distractions

I’m really not a very good woodworker. That’s what I have to face these days, as I scroll through Instagram. The people that I follow are all churning out beautiful work, some at an absolutely astonishing rate.

I’ve got not much to show for the summer. A couple of ugly, incomplete spoons. A big slab of hackberry that’s cracked as it’s dried in my shop, though I’ll still fit it with legs for another firepit bench. I have a bunch of wood propped up against the shop walls, a lathe waiting for some key parts and alignments in the basement, and unkept promises of projects.

The main problem is: I do too many things. First off, I’m a graduate student, which means I’m a teacher and a research writer and a volunteer organizer/advocate/liaison and an freelance editor and…I could go on, but you get the picture. Because I live two huge states away from my family or my girlfriend’s, in the summer, I try to cram in all the visits and relaxation possible. Which makes those few months pretty hectic. Lots of road trips. Lots of hello how are you, goodbye, I’ll miss you. And then back to school at the end.

I’m also looking for work as an English professor this year. And if you don’t know about how that works, it’s brutal. This post outlines it. Like, send out 20-30 applications and hear back from one school brutal. And, by the way, I have 7 years of education to show for that non-response.

So that’s all just to say that I haven’t gotten much done at the bench in a while. But I’m still collecting ideas, sketching projects, paying attention. Maybe in the cold dark winter, between rounds of editing and trips to the library, I’ll have a chance to put some wood together. Until then, I’ll have to get by on keeping my head above water and dreaming.

Trade School

IMG_0424Two weeks ago, I visited the North Bennet Street School in Boston. It is one of the oldest trade and vocational schools in the country, founded in the 1880s. I stepped  into the school from a hot bustling day in Boston, with tourists herding down the street to behold the Paul Revere house and the Old North Church. It’s quiet inside, with a beautifully restored antique bandsaw and a wall of furniture leg patterns. The gift shop has a mix of coffee mugs and fine furniture that costs close to what I make in a year.

I had emailed ahead, and so I got to take a walking tour through the workshops with Rob O’Dwyer, the director of admissions for the school. It was mostly empty, but there was a three month intensive furniture making class going on, and some students and instructors were in their shops working. Their tool chests were works of art, inventive and proportional. The space was full of natural light, though each individual work bench had little more room than I have in my own little shop. Most of the work is done with handtools, though there is a machine room in the center to speed up production.

There was an instructor there who had made an incredible federal style table. It was inlaid, had a folding top, beautiful banding. He was working on it “just to try it out.” I felt the awe and envy come over me that always does in the presence of people who’ve devoted themselves fully to a task. He asked if I was thinking about attending the school–and I groped for an answer. Of course I was holding that dream in my mind. But I also told him that I was one year away from finishing my PhD in American Literature. And as he said, “Well, sure. If you’ve given your prime years to that, you’ll want a career in that.”

If only it were so easy. A PhD in American Literature, sadly, is not a degree that garauntees much in the way of job prospects. Certainly there are English professors, but there are far more PhD holders than there are tenure track professor positions (largely a result of running universities as businesses, but I digress).

So I always have a certain degree of dreaminess about my work. I followed this path not because it would lead to a good job, but despite the fact that it may not. An undergrad professor, when I was just starting my program, asked me: “In five years, would you rather have done the PhD and not continue, or look back after five years of working and wish you’d done the PhD?” Then it seemed obvious. I suppose it still does. But I also wonder about all the paths taken or not.

The idea behind Sloyd education (as practiced at the NBSS) is that craftsmanship is a moral and spiritual training as well as a manual one. That in connecting a student to the values of good workmanship, honesty, perseverance, justice, and a suitably humble estimation of the self will take root in the soul.

I wonder, dabbler that I am, how to practice those virtues without giving up my acquisitive curiousity. Is it possible to be devoted to these many things? To scholarship and teaching, to craft and honesty, to nature and the best that has been thought and written?

I’d like to take that three month class someday, but I probably never will. I’ll instead devote time to reading and teaching. To finding ways to open up students to the world around them that isn’t clamoring for their attention and doesn’t need their money. I will enjoy that beautiful high end furniture, and maybe make a peice or two someday. I’ll practice violin until I can play without embarrassment, but I’ll never solo with a symphony. I’ll keep flyfishing and rock climbing and sailing; without record fish, first ascents, or round the world voyages.

I don’t know that I’ll ever really make my peace with that, but I’m always inspired to be in the presence of that devotion, and glad that places exist to foster it.

A Pilgrimage

So, this post will be about Walden. Not Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s magnificent gift to us all. Instead, it’s about the pond.

A little background: I first read Walden during my junior year of high school. Looking back, I think I was pretty insufferable at that point in my life.  I was a moody know-it-all (problems that still haunt me today) who thought I was too good for Idaho.  I had dreams of going to a fancy school back East–I was into the idea of The Great Books in a very big way.

But, I loved the outdoors of the West (how much wasn’t yet clear to me) My family went on a trip to Yellowstone, and being a pretentious teenager, I packed a cheap recently purchased blue Barnes and Noble Classics edition of Walden (I also had Adventures of Huck Finn to read for English class). But, even if I had questionable motives for bringing it along, reading that book at that moment changed my life. Not all at once, but slowly. Here was someone who was a judgemental as I was. But he included himself. And he was funny, witty. But he was also compassionate and impassioned. Wise. It was like I had found a soul that spoke to mine.

Now, getting close to 20 years later, I visited Concord for the first time. I’ve read Thoreau consistently since then, and written a Master’s thesis and several seminar papers trying to gain more insight into a man I have come to feel is a friend. Yes, I know he’s dead. But he also lives on. I read his words and hear him speaking as if from the next town over. We’re on a first name basis, Henry and me. And I’d learned that we share a birthday, July 12th, 168 years apart. We both graduated from college into profound economic downturns: his in 1837, mine in 2008. But through all this, he’s taught me to be me. To observe closely, not just the phenomena, but my own experience of them. To love both neighbors and solitude. To value making things for the making and for the new ways making shows me to grasping the world. He loved sailing, sought justice, was awed by the beauty of the natural world. He is the man whose life I most would like to emulate in its details as best I can.

So I had been planning to visit Concord and Walden pond for several years, ever since I realized it would be his 200th birthday. And how glad I am that I did. At dawn, my AirBnB roommate and fellow Idahoan, Jake, and I went to Walden. We walked with Richard Smith, a talented Thoreau impersonator who welcomed us especially–the only two first time pilgrims in a group of at least 20. When I stepped inside the foundations of his cabin, I removed my hat–almost without thinking. I stood ankle deep in the water, a sort of communion and baptism at the same time. It was a most auroral hour.

Later in the day, Laura Dassow Walls, one of the most generous and brilliant scholars in my field, released her new biography in Concord on July 12th. We’ve had several conversations and she is as warm and inviting as I imagine Henry was to his friends, or to the fugitive slaves he housed in his cabin. She inscribed it, “Happy Birthday to you, and Henry too!”

The day was full of speakers, Henry’s friends from several continents, speaking in the First Parish church which he attended until his conscience made him resign. Over the week, we presented in spaces that he had lectured in. I visited his grave, which modestly reads merely, “Henry”. I left my pencil, a tool he did much to modernize, back engineering–somehow–the process the French were using to make a uniform graphite-clay amalgam. I walked from Concord to his family farm, something over two miles outside of town. That evening, rain poured down on Concord in a deluge unlike any on record. It momentarily flooded the streets to impassability, requiring us all–the whole town–to pause. The TVs and cell phones went out. Thunder rumbled and water streamed like rivers down the windows. We all stopped. We listened to the earth, the water, the wind. We were being invited to wake up.

Thank you, Henry. Happy Birthday, dear friend.

New Traditionalism

My thoughts on Jim Tolpin’s nondogmatic starter book

So, a short apology. It was a little ambitious of me to think I’d get the review up in a day. If you follow my instagram you know I’ve got a lot of travel this summer. I’m currently in Kansas City, grading AP Literature exams. I read something around 100 today. There’s no excuse except that a man’s gotta eat. But let’s get to the point.

If I were to start my education in this craft over again, I feel like I’d only need two books: the Anarchist’s Design Book and New Traditional Woodworking. The ADB teaches you how to build sturdy set of furniture. NTW teaches you how to do everything before and after that.

I stumbled into woodworking through InterLibrary Loan. While working on my Masters I learned that no one at the library questioned if the books I wanted were “legitimate” research or “just for fun.” Wisely, they don’t recogize that distinction. And I don’t remember exactly how, but one day, I walked out of the library with Jim Tolpin’s book.

It was gorgeous. The rich red tinged colors of the design and the wood tones of the photography sucked me right in. The hand drawn sketches had personality. And the “story” of the book was the yin to Schwarz’s yang (or have I got that backwards?). I’d already found the Anarchist’s Tool Chest at this point, and enjoyed the thumb-in-your-eye contrarian fun. But, much as I admire that style, it’s not me.

Jim Tolpin gave me the story of woodworking that resonated with me. His Port Townsend sensibility was familiar. I’ve spent some time sailing on the Puget Sound, and the laid back hippie craftsman–though it might get scoffs–seemed like an  echo of the Thoreau of the Journal that I think of as a good friend. Someone I could not only relate to and wanted to have a beer with, but a persona I could imagine myself inhabiting, a role model of sorts.

Tolpin’s story of a craftsman is more internal than some. Forgive a well worn cliche: it isn’t so much about the products as the processes. More about the satisfaction he guides readers to is in knowing how to do a job, and do it well. The book is basically a set of instructions for shop appliances, and yet each one is carefully designed to be both functional and beautiful. If you’re going to make your own stuff, why not enjoy the whole process? Why not make your shop warm and beautiful, too? As my sailor friend used to tell me: “You know you’re doing it right when it looks beautiful.” Tolpin told me, and modeled for me, a plausible story of that sort of livable grace.


The books had a few flaws for me, mostly in that it doesn’t seem to have been written for those of us on a budget. There are lots of glamour shots of expensive tools: endgrain shooting planes, toothing planes, a slick plow plane, that I will probably never own. But there are generally work arounds provided, and the explanation and step by step photographs of the procedures more than make up for it. The few places that I’ve encountered that leave me stumped are inevitably my thickness of head and not the fault of the text or photos.

I haven’t met Tolpin, though I’ve watched some of his videos at byhandandeye.com. He seems as quiet and peaceful as his writing. I hope to achieve that composure someday, and maybe I can learn it if I get a chance to attend a class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking.

This book continues to be influential to me. I checked it out three times from the library before I finally caved and bought it. I have no regrets.

Next up (though probably not tomorrow): Walden.

A New Project

Two of my bookshelves

First off, what an amazing and humbling thing to have such a great (okay, sometimes great and sometimes inflammatory to the point of seeming allergic) response to my essay in Full Stop. Reading the comments, both on the Full Stop website and on the Lost Art Press blog was by turns cheering, frustrating, and confounding. I won’t bother arguing point by point with various commenters, but I will say that I am encouraged by how much diversity of opinion exists among those who identify as woodworkers (esp. handtool woodworkers). One key thing I learned is that mentioning the name of Karl Marx (briefly in a several thousand word essay) is still enough to derail the whole argument for some. There’s a valuable lesson there–some ideas might suffer from attribution. But really, go read some Marx. As one commentor pointed out, attributing Communism and the acts of Lenin and Stalin to Marx is like attributing the Inquisition to Jesus. Marx was a deeply ethical, careful thinker.

But, back to my new project. The response to my essay, along with Nancy Hiller and Megan Fitzpatrick’s Instagram posts about their bookshelves and several wonderful emails, has gotten me thinking about my books. Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to get me thinking about my books, since I’ve devoted my life to being a scholar of literature (a.k.a. “overeducated buffoon” to one axe-grinding commentor). I chose to go to grad school not because I thought it would be a plum way to get a living–in fact it means seven years of no savings, sub 20k salary, and constant stress. And chances are I won’t ever land a faculty job; less than half of literature Ph.D.s do (though it’s good work if you can get it). Instead, I decided to get a Ph.D. because I have a deep belief that our lives are driven by the stories that surround us. And I wanted–needed–to understand those stories, especially the ones from what still seems to be the pivotal moment in American history and identity: the mid 19th century.

At root, this goal of understanding stories stems from the premise that stories are fundamental. We want certain things because we have stories about them. We do what we do because of stories. That’s why we make things from wood. Because we have a story (or many stories) about what it means to make things from wood. That’s why we want to take vacations to Hawai’i. We tell ourselves that it’s pleasant there (and it is!). But we also know that going to Hawai’i has some social value–we have a story about “making it” that includes beach vacations, Mai Tais, and tan lines. We know the value, to ourselves and others, of having those personal and shared stories of joy and pleasure (after all, memories are just stories we tell ourselves, and psychological experiments has shown its not very hard to make memories of things that never occurred). So we have all these stories, most of which are given to us and all of which share a certain architecture, and then we tweak them and live them and try to realize them.

So my new blog project, for the next several weeks (while I’m not home with access to my little workshop) is going to be book reviews. I want to write a bit about the stories that my books have told me about what good work is. That might mean work with wood. It might be more abstract and philophical takes on work. You’ll get my little reviews of Jim Tolpin and Hannah Arendt, Henry David Thoreau and Christopher Schwarz. I don’t know where it will lead, but I hope you’ll check back.

Tomorrow: thoughts on Jim Toplin’s The New Traditional Woodworker.