Thursday, January 31, 2008

Today I heard from the Scientific Committee of the Crafticulation Education Conference, Helsinki, Finland that my abstract for a presentation on the use of student-made tools to develop enthusiasm for learning was approved, so I am officially invited to present if I am able to arrange to attend in late September. Unlike major universities that have budgets for international travel, my small private school in Arkansas is dirt poor, and I will have to travel on a shoestring. I'll be looking for grants to help me on my way.
It is a very snowy day in Northwest Arkansas. We have just over 2 inches of snow on the ground and expect another 5 to 10. School is canceled for today and probably tomorrow as well. Our rugged terrain, steep hills and winding roads makes gathering at schools for classes a danger to be avoided when things get this bad. I get to spend the day in the wood shop. With a fire in the wood stove, I'll make boxes. If the power goes out, I'll clean for next weekend when I will have a bus load of arts patrons from Little Rock come to visit my studio as part of a tour.

On the news this morning they told about the marketing of fake "green" products designed to take advantage of the public belief they can save the world by buying stuff. We have this strange notion that by buying more and more stuff we can make a difference. At Walmart this week, it seems the big center isle sale is on storage containers in all shapes and sizes. We can buy big plastic boxes so that we have places to put all the other things we buy but have little use for.

At the University of Arkansas this week they are having a "green" conference this week suggesting ways we can reduce our personal carbon footprints by up to 2 percent. But, sorry, folks, with the US leading the world in unnecessary consumption and wasteful energy use, 2 percent is not enough. It can be hard to sort the truly green from slime.

What if, instead of buying big plastic boxes to put our stuff in, we didn't buy the stuff in the first place? What if instead of spending time shopping for things we think we need but really don't, we spent time making things instead? It wouldn't measure as contributing to the economy, but it would measure in the quality of our lives. This is a scary idea to those whose lives of excess are sustained by the excesses of the American consumer culture, but not a bad idea for those who wish to live in greater harmony with the natural environment and each other. Now, that is enough preachy stuff for one day. It is time to warm up the shop.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

It was a busy day at school today, and I left the camera at home so there are no photos to share. But I got some exciting news about photos today from Tom Begnal at Fine Woodworking Magazine. A group of my small boxes will be on the cover of the issue that is just going to press. I knew the article would be in, but had no idea that my boxes would make the cover, and that is an honor, indeed.

Years ago, as I was starting my woodworking career, to have work featured in the most widely read, prestigious and admired woodworking magazine in the world was beyond my wildest dreams. So, you may be able to imagine how pleased I am with this news. Around the middle of the month, my woodworking with kids projects will make their debut on the Fine Woodworking website. I'll let you know when they appear. In the meantime I am so very amazed and full of thanks.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Just imagine you and everyone in your family were addicted to very dangerous drugs, and the effects were starting to wear off. Your father and mother made the decision to go out and get more, borrowing the money from the local drug dealer, rather than encouraging you to come down safely from your dangerous high.

The US Congress today decided to pass out drugs in the form of rebate checks intended to stimulate wasteful and wanton spending to boost the economy. We are addicted to shopping for meaningless stuff and we have become helpless in making things ourselves. The little common sense we have tells us not to take on additional debt, but the US House of Representatives and Senate are taking matters out of our hands and plunging us all deeper in the hole despite our best judgment. The effects of our addiction make us weak-willed and powerless to resist. So rather than encouraging us to come down from the drug induced high and re-engage in hands-on reality, the US Congress has decided to borrow money from our future (and from our Chinese drug dealer) to give us all one more fix.

They do this without having any long term plans for correction, or recovery. As I've stated before, we are a nation of idiots. Now lift your hands from the keyboard or mouse. Examine them closely. They do have the power to bring change. Tonight I'm baking potatoes, steaming carrots and broccoli, and making a salad. In a very small way, we each take the future in our hands.
This morning at The Clear Spring School wood shop, the 3rd and 4th grade students made miniature Zen sand boxes. Next week we finish them and make tiny rakes to use in making patterns. If we have time we will also begin making sailboats. These projects are a continuation of their study of the sea.

The first and 2nd grade students are still studying dinosaurs and we finished their T-Rex models and also made tiny hammers for them to use in excavating fossils. The photo at the top shows my volunteer shop assistant Bob helping Kaitlin with nails. I asked the 1st and 2nd grade students at the close of class whether they were surprised that they could make their own tools. They were pleased but not surprised. They know you can do just about anything in wood shop.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Story of Stuff tells the sad story of the hidden environmental costs of our shopping fixation and overload of meaningless stuff. As a maker of stuff, I would like to think that my stuff might carry some deeper meaning, but then we all have delusions, don't we? While I can find meaning in the making, whether or not the things I make are meaningful to others is for them to decide.

Joe Barry told me yesterday of a woman who thought she had found the ideal solution to too much stuff. She had several homes and a shopper and a planner, so for each home she could buy the same things. In each of her homes (all 10) she had identical closets, each laid out with the same arrangement of hangers, shelves and drawers, so regardless of where she was she could still find her stuff. Her shopping assistant kept a closet just like it to help in arranging and would give orders to the woman's housekeepers as to where things were to be put. I suppose when it came time to clean her many closets, it would require servants in each home and a conference call. That may be the kind of life that people might aspire to if they are crazy, obsessed and out of touch with reality. It makes my small delusions pale by comparison.
Today is my day to do those things that most craftsmen despise. I have forms to fill out and checks to write... my end of the year accounting to a governmental system designed to inhibit free enterprise. If we wanted to make things easy for the expansion of business in America we would make it easier for very small businesses like my own to cope with the paperwork.

When the government talks about small business, they mean companies with less than a couple thousand employees, but most of the small businesses in America, and those presenting the most potential for immediate growth, are the smallest: companies like mine consisting of a single employee (in my case, me) or fewer than 5. The nightmares of accounting and the high expenses of contracting those needed accounting services for very small businesses present a major obstacle for their expansion. There are two consequences. Businesses try to operate illegally in the underground cash economy and avoid the paperwork, or they just decide to keep small, refusing to hire help and thereby avoiding the complications of payroll deductions and accounting, but also never reaching their full economic potential.

The consequences are huge. And if the system were designed by people with some experience in the real world of small business it would be simple, more direct and less burdensome and thereby encourage growth... A system designed with with the smallest businesses in mind would allow for making the next steps in the growth of small businesses reasonable and practical.

So, here I go again, off on a tangent, talking about stuff that seems unrelated to craftsmanship, or is it? What happens when a maker of beautiful things decides to keep his or her business small, avoiding the complications thrown in the path of growth by the IRS and other governmental organizations? There is a simple answer. The vast accumulation of knowledge from the hands and heart of that maker may not be passed along to others. And it might not arise again.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A friend of mine read yesterday's post and informed me that I seemed "smug." I told her that if I seemed smug yesterday, she should read today's post. There is some justification for affirmative smuggery, to counter the thousands of years of academic and upper class smuggery that has gotten us to where we are now. We live wasteful lives, endangering the health of the planet in order to attain goods and services that leave us unfulfilled and with an unreasonable appetite for excess. I went to the book store today and wrote down the name of a book which I didn't buy. It is called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Swartz. I didn't buy it. I already knew what was in it and try to practice the principles it offers. But if you don't understand, or know someone to whom you wish to explain, Barry's book might help.
Now for the difficult and painful truth. If the scientific understanding that I've presented here about gesture, and embodied cognition is true, it tells us something about our current culture, the state of our leadership and its failings, and the gross deception that arises from the educational system in which you are rewarded and promoted on the basis of how well you can sit idly at desks.

This morning in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a newspaper strongly aligned with a conservative Republican agenda, Paul Greenberg described how Saddam Hussein was responsible for the US invasion of Iraq because he lied or was noncommittal about the presence or absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Iraqi arsenal.

Greenberg offers this tidbit of historic revisionism despite ample evidence that Bush and Cheney were planning war with Iraq even before 9/11/2001. And of course it would be complete idiocy to lay fault on Saddam for the poor planning of the invasion or the mishandling of the occupation, but perhaps that comes next. I'll keep reading to find out if Greenberg's stupidity or willful deception can extend so far.

The following is from Charles Henry Hamm's book, Mind and Hand, 1886:
It is thus that the trained hand comes at last to foresee, as it were, that a false proposition is surely destined to be exploded. The habit of rectitude gives it prescience. It invariably discovers, sooner or later, that a false proposition, when embodied in wood or iron, becomes a conspicuous abortion, involving in disgrace both the designer and the maker. A false proposition in the abstract may be rendered very alluring; a false proposition in the concrete is always hideous. One of the chief effects of manual training is, then, the discovery and development of truth; and truth, in its broadest signification, is merely another name for justice; and justice is the synonym of morality.

And so the truth, long clouded, vigorously denied and ignored is made clear:
People who work with their hands and hearts as well as their heads are made wiser, more intelligent and more humane than those who work with words, concepts and ideas alone. The latter send young men and women into battlefields to test their distorted notions, while failing to acknowledge responsibility for the shameful consequences.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

This morning I worked on boxes and then the day became too beautiful to be indoors, so I stacked and stickered the walnut and cherry lumber that was delivered yesterday. When the afternoon turned cool, I went back to my boxes. It is ironic that people will do everything they can to avoid physical labor but spend money monthly for memberships at fitness clubs. It seems to have something to do with appearances and the social stigma attached to manual labor. Working out at the gym, sweat flying but with just the right kind of spandex, thumbs up. Work clothes and moving lumber, forget about it. But they really don't know what they're missing. There are feelings of satisfaction that arise from physical work.

To air dry wood, it has to be placed on a stable foundation. You "sticker it" by placing 3/4" - 1" square sticks between each layer. The sticks should be placed directly over each other to prevent unnecessary warp, and the stack should be covered to protect from both rain and sun. Initial moisture content of this stack measured 32%. After about a month, with adequate drying conditions (wind and warmth), the moisture level should drop to about 20% and I should be able to move it into the barn where it will drop over the next year to about 8% and be ready for use. Many craftsmen prefer air dried wood to kiln dried. It has been subjected to much less stress in the drying process and has noticeably better working qualities. It is not as brittle so it works better with hand planing.
I woke up in the middle of the night with sudden Buddhist clarity. If you choose to take pleasure in something there is no suffering. If you choose to make do, to fix, to make or to give, the opposite of suffering, joy can be found. My wife brought home a DVD documentary called Beauty Without Borders, and she remarked how joyful the women of Afghanistan are in comparison to the women of America.

There are secrets ready to be revealed in middle-of-the-night-awakenings. We prime our consciousness for receipt of those awakenings though small actions taken during the day. We say, "I choose this life." Then we use our hands, cleaning, cooking, making, caring, providing. We breathe deep and feel the hearts beating in our chests.

Today I'll stack the lumber that arrived yesterday by truck. I'll check the moisture content so that it can be observed over the next month. I'll continue work on the small boxes in my shop. We measure the importance of nations by their Gross National Product. What if we were to measure their joy instead?

Appalachian Spring Galleries in Washington, DC are now featuring some of my products on their website. At the opening of this page, you will see some of my work. Appalachian Spring is one of the most highly regarded craft galleries in the US, representing hundreds of craft artists like myself and offering high-quality made-by-real-people-in-the-USA products. In fact, I'm headed back to the shop right now to work on filling orders.

Friday, January 25, 2008

It seems to be official, the Democrats and Republicans are planning to jump start the American economy by passing out checks. And of course the money is borrowed, placing each American deeper in debt. The checks may be coming in May. The situation is this, most Americans, are unwilling by personal choice to go deeper in debt for the consumer products that the government thinks we need to buy. So they create an illusion, borrowing the money at the governmental level, and passing it around to give the false impression that it is free, but encumbering some unborn Americans with the responsibility to pay it back.

But real free is when you make things yourself, or fix things or grow things or give things to each other. A few of us won't be deceived.

I bought some walnut and cherry lumber today. It wasn't free but cost only $1.16 per board foot. It is green and I'll air dry it under cover for about 3 months and then move it into the barn for another year or so before it can be used. If I had bought it dry and ready to use, it would have cost twice as much. If I were to pay myself for the time spent in handling it, it could be measured as costing more than $1.16 per board foot. But when no money changes hands, there is no measurable impact on the economy. But if I make something from it, is it any less real?

We are so fixated on the things that exist only in the cerebellum. We concern ourselves not with things themselves but measurements of things, and there is the idea that if it can't be measured and controlled, it is of no consequence. But before there was an "economy", people were living and caring for each other, and regardless of what happens to the "economy" we will continue to do so.
Today the 9th and 10 grade students at Clear Spring made rock tools for their study of minerals for Earth Sciences. We made small mallets using a Veritas tenoner, turned ash and hickory scraps from a handle factory, pole barn nails and turned wood to make chisels. The students went immediately with their new tools to gather minerals along a trail through the woods on school property.
A friend Ruben sent me links to an article on the Lee Valley Veritas website about Marco Facciola and his fabulous all wood bike as shown at left. Marco says of his project, "I have always enjoyed woodworking and design, so I decided to build a functional wooden bicycle. There was to be no metal used in its construction, only wood and glue. I wanted a project that would be a challenge."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Educators have long known that interest and enthusiasm for reading comes best in its appropriate developmental time.... a lesson ignored by both parents and politicians in their efforts to accelerate reading. The following is from behavioral pediatrician Dr. Susan Johnson:
True reading readiness (as opposed to forced reading “readiness”) is a biological phenomenon*, and requires that a child has passed a number of benchmarks of sensory-motor integration—which is an aspect of healthy brain development! Many of these benchmarks have been passed when a child is able to do the following:

* Pay attention and sit still in a chair for at least 20 minutes (without needing to wiggle or sit on his feet or wrap his feet around the legs of the chair as a way to locate his body in space)
* Balance on one foot, without her knees touching, and in stillness, with both arms out to her sides—and count backwards without losing her balance.
* Stand on one foot, with arms our in front of him, palms facing up, with both eyes closed for 10 seconds and not fall over.
* Reproduce various geometric shapes, numbers, or letters onto a piece of paper with a pencil while someone else traces these shapes, letters, or numbers on her back.
* Walk on a balance beam
* Jump rope
* Skip

If children can’t do these tasks easily, their vestibular and proprioceptive (sensory-motor) neural systems are not yet well-integrated, and chances are they will have difficulty sitting still, listening, focusing their eyes, focusing their attention, and remembering letters and numbers in the classroom.

Support for sensory-motor integration comes not from flash cards or video games... but from the following activities:

Physical movements, such as
* Skipping
* Hopping
* Rolling down hills
* Playing catch with a ball
* Jumping rope
* Running
* Walking
* Clapping games
* Circle games well as fine motor activities to strengthen important neural pathways, such as
* Cutting with scissors
* Digging in the garden
* Kneading dough (play or bread!)
* Pulling weeds
* Painting
* Beading
* Drawing
* String games (e.g., Jacob’s Ladder)
* Sewing
* Finger crochet/knitting
All of this information, of course suggests once again, that learning, memory and intelligence are whole body phenomena. So what's happening in modern education? Many schools have abandoned the well proven early childhood developmental activities and shove reading down their children's throats at too early an age. Then we wonder why reading and literacy are in decline. Can it be that we've taken the fun out of it?

The first and second grade students continued work on dinosaurs today, sanding parts and drilling holes for teeth as shown in the photos above and at left. Wood shop is always a great social time and the students were all particularly happy today, singing and humming as they worked. The 3rd and 4th grades students finished their ocean life mobile which you may remember they started last week using coping saws to cut out the shapes of the sea animals they had designed. Late last week, they were painted, and today we found the balance point of each and arranged them to hang in balance. We take photos at the end of each project and the students particularly like posing for silly pictures like the one above.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Today, the 5th and 6th grades students made their sieves for diamond mining and this afternoon 7th and 8th grade students and 11th and 12th grade students team up to do special projects illustrating energy and mechanics. One group is making a windmill, another is attempting to make a model catamaran, and the third is making a model of one of Leonardo DaVinci's illustrations of a siege engine. I expect it to be fun.

As you can see in the photo above, the sieve is a simple thing. Cut the wood parts to length, sand them and nail them together. Then cut window screen and staple it in place on one side. To give strength to the window screen, an additional layer of 1/2" mesh hardware cloth is added.
Here is what we have learned so far. The brain is a complicated switching mechanism. But, every cell of the human body resonates with wisdom, memory, experience and intelligence. During the long history of human culture, from before Aristotle and Socrates, humans have attempted to disparage the works and wisdom of the the hands, as they denigrated the physical world and celebrated their illusions of the purely cerebral. As a simple consequence, we have pushed the planet to the edge of our destruction, concurrent with the scientific discovery of the true nature our physical reality and the sources of our intelligence. And so, it is time to put the body back at work, in learning, in schools and homes, putting the brain back in its place, releasing the hands from behind backs, from their positions folded on desks, to engage the world, sensing and exploring and creating. If you want to know how it works, please come visit us at the Clear Springs School or the Eureka Springs School of the Arts.

Today, the 5th and 6th grade students will be making sieves to use when they visit the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Maybe they will be lucky and find diamonds. But there are more certain riches here at home in the wood shop.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I managed to get the first chapter of my new book sent off to the publisher today, thanks to the ice that closed school, giving me a chance to spend extra time on the laptop.

I live in a unique city. If you think about the threads laid out on the loom, the warp, goes one way and the woof or weft goes the other. Those of us who arrived in Eureka Springs since the 1970's are the woof. What we found when we arrived here was the loom carefully laid with a strong legacy of the arts by regionally and nationally known artists like Louis and Elsa Freund, Glen Gant, and others who embraced and nourished those of us who fell in love with this community and came to do art. Now, of course, every new artist who arrives, being as artists are, carry the exaggerated sense of self that seems to be required to survive. And so we and our work become woven in. It seems the weft is the part that gives color, while the warp gives strength. Becoming parts of a tapestry, diverse, full of attention and growth, we take turns at center stage. The loom, carefully laid with strong thread may not be known by some or seen by all, but it is there, holding us together as a community of the arts.

Today and this evening Eureka Springs artists and business community played host to visitors from Crystal Bridges Museum which will be opening in Northwest Arkansas in 2010. This morning we opened the day's events with a showing at ESSA of work by Louis and Elsa Freund, and work by our children. This evening, many of the local artists participated in a reception and showing of their work. The most wonderful thing in listening to the various speakers is that our local business community has become awakened to the value of the arts. It seems that things come in their own time. Years ago, and year after year and week after week Louis Freund attended the meetings of the Chamber of Commerce and described to those in attendance the incredible value of the arts and artists, their potential and promise as an economic and cultural resource for our city. Suddenly all seem to be awakened by the development of multi-million dollar Crystal Bridges less than an hour away.

It was a great pleasure to spend part of my day in the company of staff from Crystal Bridges, to remind and be reminded of those who laid the warp, and to see the gathering of woof, diverse, colorful and strong. The photos above and below are of an old friend Jim Nelson and his new work that I have been privileged to encourage and watch develop. It is made of wood.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Today, I am working on articles (on-line and print) and the first chapter of the new book. I am also preparing for classes and to greet visitors from the new Crystal Bridges Museum when they tour the Eureka Springs School of the Arts tomorrow. I will offer one small thing on the blog today. As shown in the photo above, scissors and paper can be a great design tool for creating symmetrical objects. Fold your paper in half (or more), make your cuts and voilĂ ! Very long gone are the days when children played with paper dolls, and the simple design skills that come from play with scissors are disappearing fast. Those simple activities are great for helping children to develop the spatial sense required for success in geometry and trigonometry. As we now know with ever growing certainty, the hands hold processing capacity for human intelligence. Use them or lose it.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Nesting.... How do we turn our lives from being head centered to hand centered? The details of the Bush tax rebate suggest that the average American couple may get up to $1600.00 to throw away on consumer spending to enliven the American economy. As Mario suggests in the comment below, putting it in the bank or paying down debt is another idea... not what the government has in mind. In fact, it is exactly what they hope doesn't happen. The idea is that the economy is just one big idea, a bubble sustained by people putting all their hopes in it. Like a real bubble, it takes blowing and blowing (spending and spending) to keep it full. When Bush did this before, passing out hundreds of dollars to individuals and married couples before plunging our nation deeply into dept and throwing us into war with Iraq (the other way to falsely stimulate the economy), my wife and I invested a portion of our rebate in the Democratic Party. At the time, that was another big waste.

So, here is how to put the money to work in your own life. First, don't spend it dining out. The average American family spent nearly half its food budget on meals eaten away from home. Less than one-third of families prepare meals from scratch. This means that between the meals eaten away from home and the health-impairing fat-filled prepared foods, Americans are making themselves sick and over-weight and pushing health care costs through the roof.

Use your government promised nest egg to do a little nesting. It may not be the best way to stimulate the economy but it will stimulate and sustain the culture and the soul. Here are a few specifics:

Invest your windfall in kitchen improvements, energy saving appliances, cookbooks, and things that make your cooked-from-scratch mealtimes an absolute delight. And don't forget to add a few candles. The unintended consequence of dinners made at home might be conversation and romance.

If you are part of that one-third of American families already cooking from scratch at home, do more of it, and add another layer of hands-on activity to your busy life. There's knitting to do, stitching of buttons. If objects of clothing were repaired to last just 10 percent longer, that represents a 10 percent reduction in the energy and material required over the long term. After a bit of stitching, you might find it to be fun. Spend your rebate on a very good sewing machine. By making the clothes for yourself and your family, you can save thousands and reduce the overall energy required.

Make up a good fix-it kit. Pliers, wrenches and assorted screwdrivers to fit a variety of weird screws will do. By fixing things you can extend their lives to more than double and gain a sense of mastery over the technological world. I am reminded of an experience when I was a teen. My sister was throwing away her two year old clock radio because it had stopped and she couldn't get it to start again. I took it apart, rotated a few parts, just turning them to see if I could see what was wrong and not finding anything obvious that I could fix, I put it back together. For reasons I will never completely understand, when I plugged it in, it worked, and lasted another 10 years before it died for good and went to the landfill. Fixing things yourself won't stimulate the economy, but it is the best way to live with technology, reaping a sense of power from our relationship with it rather than dependency.

Make things for your home. Invest in tools. Make your yard beautiful. If you have done those things, weatherize your home. Invest in deeper attic insulation. Replace all your light bulbs with energy efficient ones. Buy a good bicycle and use it. You will cut your transportation costs and regain physical fitness, while reducing your health care costs as well. And if you have done all those things, pay down debt. You will be expected to use your windfall to jack up oil company profits. But with some care and planning you can crank your own life up to a higher level of comfort, security, and personal satisfaction. The consequence whether intended or not will be that you will live in greater harmony with family, community and the environment. If you listen to the Bush line and Bush fears, you might feel guilty about failing to sustain the growth of our Gross National Product. That might make sense if our GNP weren't so gross in the first place. Our transition from helpless consumers to hands-on revolutionaries is not what the Bush administration wants, but it is what the times require. If the money does come, please remember that it is borrowed from the future. Don't just spend it as Bush invites, invest it wisely in things that help to assure that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will live meaningful lives. And please don't worry that you aren't doing enough to boost the economy. There will be plenty of fools who will take their checks and waste them on stimulating the economics of wasteful consumerism.

If you happen to be one of the many readers from other countries. First, I congratulate you for having smarter government leaders than we do in the US. And I thank you for being friends of the American people despite the foolishness and stupidity of our President.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Economists are starting to worry about the American consumer. We're not buying enough plasma TVs to make the powers that be happy with the one or two percent they can skim from the top. If we choose to simplify our lives, it has dire consequences, forcing a reduction in the national cash flow, an increase in the national debt, and a reduction of the impact we have on the global environment. They call it recession and are talking about cutting checks to American taxpayers to get us to spend more and more.

People seem to be learning to do other things: Working with their hands to build communities, finding simple pleasures to replace what they no longer care to see on TV.

Warning, warning! It might get worse. Much worse. We might learn to walk and cycle more leaving our cars at home. Walking, we might become fit and lose the fat and live longer, reducing medical expenses and have further dire impact on the GNP. Walking, we might meet our neighbors and develop friendships, overcoming barriers of race and sexual orientation and thence be no longer subject to the bizarre manipulations of fanatics. Needing less gas, and almost no plastics, we might reconsider our hunger for world domination and insist on the restoration of our position as an example of real working democracy.

I am sorry to present such a doomsday scenario on a beautiful but cold Arkansas morning. But behind some dark clouds there are silver linings.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The earth science class finished their rock and mineral collection boxes today, nailing the corners, sanding the sides, cutting and assembling the dividers.
The following is from Charles Ham's 1886 classic Mind and Hand and is offered as a reflection on yesterday's post:
It is through the muscular sense that the hand influences the brain. According to Sir Charles (Bell, The Hand: Its Mechanisms and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design, Harper and Bros. 1864) the hand acts first. It telegraphs, for example, that it is ready to grasp the chisel or the sledge-hammer, or seize the pen, where-upon the brain telegraphs back precise directions as to the work to be done. These messages to and fro are lightning-like flashes of intelligence, which blend or fuse all the powers of the man both mental and physical, and inform and inspire the mass with vital force.

Through constant use the muscular sense is sharpened to a marvelous degree of fineness, and the hand, permeated by it, forms habits which react powerfully upon the mind. If now, during the period of childhood and youth, the hand is exercised in the useful and beautiful arts, its muscular sense will be developed normally, or in the direction of rectitude and the reflex effect of this growth upon the mind will be beneficent.
Also in support of yesterday's post is this from Dr. Henry Maudsley Body and Mind, 1883:
Those who would degrade the body, in order, so they imagine, to exalt the mind, should consider more deeply than they do the importance of our muscular expressions of feeling. The manifold shades and kinds of expression which the lips present--their gibes, gambols, and flashes of merriment; the quick language of a quivering nostril; the varied waves and ripples of beautiful emotion which play on the human countenance, with spasms of passion that disfigure it--all which we take such pains to embody in art--are simply effects of muscular action. ...Fix the countenance in the pattern of a particular emotion--in a look of anger, of wonder, or of scorn--and the emotion whose appearance is thus initiated will not fail to be aroused. And if we try, while the features are fixed in the expression of one passion, to call up in the mind a quite different one, we shall find it impossible to so. ...We perceive, then, that the muscles are not alone the machinery by which the mind acts upon the world, but that their actions are essential elements in our mental operations.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

John Grossbohlin sent me a link to an article on "embodied cognition" from the Boston Globe that reflects on some of the concepts I've discussed earlier in the blog, like Susan Goldin-Meadow's research on gesture and George Lakoff's use of metaphor to examine the relationship between mind and body. It is always exciting for me to see these kinds of things being discussed in the mainstream media. The re-examination of the mind-body, the idea that the body itself plays a role in the process of thought, by necessity includes the hands. It also leads us to a re-examination of our children's education.

According to Angeline Lillard, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, the value of embodied cognition in education is self-evident.
"Our brains evolved to help us function in a dynamic environment, to move through it and find food and escape predators. It didn't evolve to help us sit in a chair in a classroom and listen to someone and regurgitate information."
It may be that consciousness and intelligence are widely distributed throughout the body according to the theory presented by Anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff and Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose. Quantum Consciousness was been lightly summarized for me as follows by a psychologist friend of mine Bill Symes:
The theory Hameroff and Penrose have been pursuing is that microtubules, microscopic hollow hair-like fibers populating every cell by the gizzilions, are the microprocessors of the body that interface with the quantum field/reality. The microtubules capacity to vibrate at multiple frequencies allows the cell to gather and distribute huge quantities of information at any single moment. The brain seems to be a switching system directing responses, but not necessarily the source of insight or information.
As the hands are the primary and most direct physical engagement (both sensing and creating) between the individual and his or her environment, you can imagine the amount of information that is processed within and through. Quantum Consciousness is also a scary concept to imagine for those conditioned to look at the world through the typical human centrist perspective. If individual cells are the seat of intelligence and consciousness, then we are challenged to re-examine our self-serving dominance of all life. That would be a huge leap of human consciousness. Can you imagine humans as stewards and protectors of all life rather than as god-like predators at the top of the environmental food chain? If you can imagine it (stretch a bit, OK?) it can happen.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Today the 5th and 6th grade students made Arkansas puzzles showing the various geographic regions of the state. We used coping saws and scroll saws to cut the various pieces. This is preparation for their annual spring trip. As you recall, last week they made mineral collection boxes, and next week they will make sieves for use when they go diamond mining at Crater of Diamonds State Park.

The materials used with this project were 1/4" birch veneered plywood. Step one, cut the shape of the state from photocopy. Then use spray adhesive to stick the cut out shape to the birch plywood. Drill a hole at one corner of the state so that a coping saw blade can be inserted to start the cut. Cut around the perimeter of the state. Some students chose to cut the river boundary on the eastern side of the state with the scroll saw for greater detail. After removing the state shape from the background wood, it can be cut into the various regions. The finished puzzles will have poster board glued to the back of the frame and details about the unique features of the geographic areas will be written under each puzzle piece.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The first and second grade students began making their T-rex models today. They had a long list of other favorite dinosaurs they also want to make, so some will be made back in their classroom from the scraps left over from other wood shop projects. A total of 4 different dinosaur species will be made in wood shop. Each dinosaur takes two 1 hour class sessions to complete so we only made the first 4 cuts today. The photo shows 2nd grader Noah at work with the T-rex prototype in the foreground.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Tomorrow, the first and 2nd grade students extend their study of dinosaurs to the wood shop by making T-Rex models. All the parts are cut from a single 7" long 2 x 4. This is one of three projects that will be featured on the Fine Woodworking website in February. The photos are from 2 years ago.

Today I am finishing my western cedar tables and preparing materials for tomorrow's classes. I would like to take a moment to look up from all the technological red herrings, thrown up in cyberspace that provide the illusion that we can manage environmental change through continued advancement of technology. The ideas are rampant. We'll go solar, we'll go wind, hydrogen fuels mined from coal will do it. No, we must go back to Nukes! And fusion is looming on the horizon. We'll harness the power of the sun in our own kitchens to activate our electric cheese graters! We want all our modern conveniences and the entertainment and comfort they provide. Apparently the unsophisticated billions of people in the third world want the same things. And the technologies offered to correct things are still in the developmental stage with unintended consequences yet to be revealed. People don't talk much about conservation. That would take money out of corporate hands and lead to a possible reduction in the economy.

Very few are talking about the kinds of solutions that matter. The highest concern for most is preservation of the economy and not the preservation of the planet. There are some very simple things we can all do right now that address the issues. When I was traveling by ferry from Turku, Finland to Stockholm, the group at the table next to mine was engaged in a discussion of America. One had an American brother-in-law who like so many Americans was obsessed about the size of his home and the number of cars he could fit in the garage, attitudes which were hard for the Swedes and Finns to comprehend. There is a saying, live simply that others may simply live. Reduction in home sizes, curtailing of spending on poorly made consumer products, choosing to live and make your livelihoods in old neighborhoods and small communities, investing yourself in friendships and nourishing those friendships over years and years, learning to make the things you need, fixing things that break, taking pride in making do or doing without... I can go on and on. And the most interesting thing is that all these suggestions lift and nourish each person and our communities. These things can't be measured in the Gross National Product, but are the true markings of sustainable community and culture.

So, listen closely this election season as you listen to political greenspeak. When people are talking about finding warmth, not from coal, but from each other, you will know we are beginning to find the right track.

The photo above shows drilling the top of a small rustic table for large dowels to secure the top to the base. It is a bit different from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It can be done in your own shop and it is much more fun.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

For those who have not lived in a small town, or an old neighborhood, I recommend it. Today's presentation at our local Unitarian-Universalist Church was by former head of Greenpeace's toxic waste campaign, Pat Costner. She, a few others and I were involved in a grassroots clean water crusade over 30 years ago. Pat went on to become an internationally known and respected environmental chemist who left her mark in the text of international agreements like the Stockholm Accord. Pat is at heart a small town girl who moved to backwoods Arkansas to raise her small family in peace while knowing that the human race was headed toward disaster that she stubbornly sought to avoid. The church was packed with friends, both old and new, and filled with others who share concerns about our environment, both local and global. The service started as usual and then slid into live music with Pearl Brick singing her own composition, then followed by Pat's talk.

There is allure to the digital age, the convenience of having things immediately at our beck and call... The ability to withdraw into the security of the known and familiar tunes preserved and available until the battery dies or the innards fry. And then there are those things that demand full presence. A word spoken by the wise. A chord on a real guitar. A walk in the woods. A journey that starts one year as we are young and that continues as we meet in middle years and then again as we turn more corners in years to come. It is just life in a small town. No batteries required.
A friend of mine, after reading my blog, confessed to having found his new iPod to be a wonderful addition to his life, keeping his entire music library accessible. My daughter has two, due to the second she received as a bonus incentive for the purchase of her macBook before going to college. Perhaps mentioning the iPod yesterday in a somewhat derogatory view of American culture is out of line. One thing I learned from Lucy is the effectiveness of the iPod as a purposeful tool of urban isolation. She described being on the subway at 12 AM going to the Port Authority to meet a visitor from out of town. "I set the volume so I can hear something if necessary, but people can see I'm listening to music and don't bother me." The music provides a means of withdrawal from potentially undesirable social circumstances.

In Time magazine this week, an article described the renewal of interest in vinyl recordings-the old LP that you can either dig out of closets or buy on eBay, and new ones imprinted with the images of the artists, complete with liner notes and the visual information that made music collecting an important part of American culture. Being a hands-on person as well as being deeply affected by sound and vision, I can well remember being in countless social situations with liner notes and LP cover in hand, while the rich sounds of stylus on vinyl filled the room.

It seems the same things that mattered before still matter. New advocates of old vinyl find the warmth of the sound, the liner notes being passed one to another while friends gather around turntables and swap vinyl disks, return music to its position as a social center, providing context for shared warmth and companionship.

And of course there is a lesson to all this as described in in an old Girl Scout song. You may not be able to find it on vinyl or iPod but will find it sung by pre-teens in camp. It goes like this: Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver, the other gold. It is too corny, so I won't sing it for you. But it tells us something about why we need to have hammers, saws and screwdrivers and why we might want vinyl, even in an age of iPods and laptops.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

This afternoon I've been working on the rustic tables from Western Cedar. I'm using long ring-shanked pole barn nails to secure the parts. In order to drive them in with the least difficulty, pilot holes are drilled first from the inside as shown in the photo. While nails are usually disparaged in the making of fine furniture, there is an any-thing-goes quality to rustic work that can be liberating and creative.
In reference to the earlier post having to do with Yanagi's Unknown Craftsman and the responsibility of the artist in the restoration of culture, we need to investigate the reasons for our cultural degradation and why it would be the artist who bears such a burden. Of course it is OK if an artist or craftsman chooses to simply fit the existing culture, strive for the common goals of fame, glory and financial success. But there are factors of our cultural degradation that the artist is uniquely positioned to address. The integral creative relationship between the head, hands and heart is the foundation of all culture. The separation of people into social classes based on the distinctions made between the work of the head and the work of the hands is the source of our human degradation. By nature, the artist is that individual best positioned to restore a greater vision of human purpose, and to do so, he or she must adopt a greater vision and purpose for his or her own work than the more common personal goals of fame, glory and financial success. When artists and craftsmen understand their restorative potential and when schools across America invite their involvement we will see some important changes made in education.

Of course there are those who might disagree on the state of our culture. We have television and the internet, right? We have iPods, right? And very cheap stuff, right?

Please forgive my sarcasm, and pass the Prozac.

On a positive note, I ran into a friend Mark Rademacher at the grocery store. He is looking forward to teaching another week long class this summer at ESSA . Last summer's class was Mark's first time as a teacher, he loved it and his class was a tremendous success. Mark is one of Arkansas foremost artists, working in both clay and wood. Photos of his interesting and beautiful pots are shown above. Mark's pottery is sawdust fired and decorated with patterns from real leaves from the Arkansas forest. He was actively discouraged by his very successful father from becoming a craftsman so he is a self-professed "late bloomer." Can you imagine a time in which each man or woman's life might be filled with creative expression? I can. Those were the times that Yanagi described in the Unknown Craftsman.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Art as a sign of society's degradation... In cleaning my office, I ran across a photo copy of pages from the Unknown Craftsman by Muneyoshi Yanagi that John Lavine, editor of Woodwork had shared with me a few years ago at Furniture society. John's interest was in discussing Yanagi's view of the role of the craftsman in the future and his or her responsibilities to society.
Interpreting the words of Laotze, the world needs an artist lest darkness prevail. The one who brings the light into a degenerated age is the artist and as he does so he performs a mission. But the world that does not require the special individual artist is a wonderful world--a world where the genius is merely a common individual. I think such a world is a place of the greatest virtue--nor is it only a dream. Let us take the beauty of Sung pottery for example. The Sung wares were not made by a few distinguished geniuses. All pottery of the Sung age was made by unknown artisans. Not any of this pottery was made by an individual artist as in these days. Everyone made wonderful pottery--genius was found everywhere... It is very significant that many progressive pottery craftsmen at the present time consider the Sung wares as their models. But these modern craftsmen must endure many difficulties, while it was easy for the old Sung craftsmen to produce such wonderful work. What is the reason? the reason is that no individual artist today is living in his proper environment. When tradition has decayed, only the genius is left at work. This is not a fortunate condition at all.

Once tradition has died out, it is necessary for individual artists to work in place of the tradition. Their purpose, however, must not be to work for themselves, or by themselves, but to prepare the way to make a new tradition. For that reason, it is desirable that they have a strong social consciousness. Otherwise, society around them is not helped, even though they attain a personal salvation. Without social salvation the kingdom of crafts shall not prosper. The difference between the mission of a pure artist and that of a craftsman will always focus around this point. Of the former it will be said that he goes his own way, while of the latter that he readily goes together with society.
We will know when our society is restored to health by a resurgence of craftsmanship, supplanting and transcending the arts... when the beauty of useful form takes precedence over empty experimentation of concept and the artist's struggle to gain attention and notoriety.
This is from the Maclean's article mentioned earlier:
Rena Subotnik noticed that brilliant kids often fall short of expectations. She "checked up on 210 graduates of Hunter College Elementary School, a Manhattan school for intellectually gifted children. These kids had a mean IQ of 157-higher than over 99 percent of people. They came from economically advantaged families. If raw intelligence predicts career success, they would surely have it. But when Subotnik checked how the kids turned out, she found that in middle age they had become happy, prosperous, community-minded citizens, but they hadn't aspired to achieve great things."
As people of average intelligence we might be inclined to look up from the wasteland of American culture, and see glory in the wrong places, wealth and fame as the measure of our success.

Perhaps very smart people would have motivation other than wealth and national attention. What if our expectations for ourselves and our children were to become as Subotnik described, "happy, prosperous, community-minded citizens?" Would that not be enough?
Mario Nunez sent me an article from Maclean's Sept. 10 '07 about whether "grades really matter." An interesting quote from the article is: "former "A" students teach "B" students to work for "C" students." So you can probably guess that the article is about the kinds of "C" students that rise to the top positions in today's society despite lackluster performance in school and marginal basic intelligence. Of course our commander in chief, George W. Bush, a "C" student at best was chosen (though probably not by the electorate) for his social skills rather than intelligence and grasp of the issues and his disastrous presidency shows a lack of basic competence.

Of course the point is that by focusing American education on grades and test scores we are doing exactly the wrong thing and sending the wrong message to our children. More often success is not earned through knowledge alone, but by the strength of three qualities: curiosity, ambition, and the social skills that allow one to work effectively with others.

Today I am cleaning in my office, putting things away and organizing. My home and studio will be visited by a bus load of art enthusiasts in February, and I don't want things to look too big a mess. This morning the Clear Spring School 9th and 10th grades students made mineral collection boxes, each to hold 32 rock, mineral and fossil samples they will collect during field trips in Arkansas. I'll show photos of the finished boxes next week.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Kevin Borg author of Auto Mechanics
Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America
sent me the following link illustrating the work of a French Gizmologist. We are rapidly becoming a two tier populace, those who are curious and those whose only wish is to be entertained. This short video bridges the gap.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Opening the black box... I have mentioned before the loss that is occurring as processes and relationships are increasingly hidden from view. Go to your local Toyota dealership and pop a hood on a new car or truck to see what I mean. You will find the motor hidden behind a shroud, helping you to avoid a sense of fear from the complication of the mechanism, and making absolutely certain you will return to the Toyota dealership rather than trying to service or repair it yourself.

Today in wood shop we played with my old eggbeater drills, exploring the relationship between the gears and their ratios. On one we found that every turn of the crank led to four turns of the chuck. Others were less precise ratios with the numbers of inter-meshing teeth designed to minimize wear. The most interesting thing was that in these old tools everything was clearly revealed. No mysteries involved.

It is in seeing the processes of things that our curiosity is aroused. And it is in understanding the relationships between things that we are empowered to create. Can you see what we are doing to ourselves and our children? Perhaps it is OK that we are becoming a nation dependent of the skills of other nations, and in which we are passively entertained without contributing to the welfare of all. Right?

The drills, clockwise from the top are: Craftsman two-speed shoulder drill, Mohawk, and Millers Falls. If they were making these drills today, the gears would be shrouded in plastic to protect you from injuries that would result from intentionally putting your fingers in places that reasonable common sense would tell you to avoid, and also denying you an understanding of how they work. Can you see how our products can be effectively designed to make us dumb and then dumber? An interesting note is that these drills still work as new and are well over 50 years old, but I am having to dispose of the 5 year old drill at school because batteries are no longer available except at unreasonable cost. That is real stupidity.

The fifth and 6th grade students at Clear Spring are starting their annual study of Arkansas, and we rotate projects every two years repeating the same set from two years before. The first project is a mineral collection box in which they will keep a collection of 9 different minerals from their travels in the spring. The photos above show the students at work and finished boxes. I demonstrated making the dividers using the sled on the table saw and stop blocks to position the half-lap cuts that allow the dividers to be assembled. Next week the students will make scroll-sawn puzzles of the various geographic regions of the state. Additional projects in this unit will be making Arkansas shaped cutting boards, and making sieves which will be used in diamond mining when they visit the only diamond mine in North America, The Crater of Diamonds State Park.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The butterfly effect, also called sensitive dependence on initial conditions, terminology derived from chaos theory, is a concept also described in an ancient Chinese saying. "If you want to know how things will turn out, examine their beginnings." It is at the beginnings of things that motives are most clear.

So how can it be that the breath of a butterfly's wings might set off global change, whereas the huge turbulence of thousands of jet engines of planes taking off at all the world's airports would not? The answer lies in the purity of intent as contrasted with the random meaningless act. The world and all within it respond in time to the purposeful nudge of gentle heart.

It is easy to be distracted and caught up in meaningless random stuff, to be sucked into the engines of huge airliners and be spewed out as more insensitive sameness of civilization. The Wisdom of the hands is a different path. As the world spins with huge centrifugal force, the hands are centripetal, calling us back to center. If you don't understand what I'm talking about, take your hands out for a test. Put them to use. Make something. Get a grip and see if you can grasp my meaning.

Several years ago, I was sitting with my wife on our porch swing, and I was thinking about a book I had read called "The Black Butterfly". In the book, the author described his moment of "awakening" when he saw a black butterfly and a white butterfly mating in a field. He perceived in that moment the oneness of all things and felt an elevation of senses that some have called enlightenment.

So as I sat on the swing with my wife, I wondered what the offspring of those mating butterflies would be. I was thinking shades of gray, when out of the corner of my eye, a moth fluttered into view. It landed on my left arm. It was black with white polka dots and fuzzy orange antenna. I studied it closely as I explained to my wife my thoughts prior to its arrival. Jean got up to go into the kitchen to get ice tea, leaving me in contemplation of the funny moth on my arm. When Jean returned, I looked up and then quickly back to my arm and it was gone.

Can such funny things happen in answer to our thoughts? There are forces and principles at work in the world that are beyond our comprehension. And perhaps within those forces are the powers through which the breath of a butterfly's wings might be expressed to an endangered planet.

Today at Clear Spring we had practice day for first through 4th grades. The First and second are beginning to make dinosaurs for their study of dinosaurs, so I wanted them to get better at cutting angled lines from a piece of 2 x 4" wood. All the parts of the T-Rex are cut from a single block with the exception of the dowels used for arms and the tiny teeth in the movable jaws. The T-Rex is one of three projects from the Wisdom of the Hands program that Fine Woodworking will feature on their website in February. Of course the students in their practice today had to make things. Who could resist? Some made cars and trucks or sculpture, Bella made an alien. Practice is even more fun when there is something to be made from it.

The 3rd and 4th grade students will be doing two projects in the coming months that require the use of the coping saw. This was the day to introduce that tool and get them familiar with its use. So, I provided 1/4" OSB to practice their cuts. They drew curving lines and cut the practice piece into small parts that they decided could be kept as puzzles. So what began as mere practice became another project which the kids loved as you can see in the photos above.
There are days when I think of the blog and wonder, "What more can I say? What haven't I said a thousand times already?" And yet it seems there are still a few words and a few pictures that are needed to explain a very simple thing, the relationship between the hands and learning. There are so few people paying attention to this issue. Just a crackpot in Arkansas and a few scattered readers throughout the world that have no other connection with each other.

A friend of mine reminded me of the "Butterfly effect" and told me that they have developed a more scientific name for it, sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The gist is this: A butterfly flaps his (or her) wings someplace in the Amazon jungle and the movement of the air from its wings is enough over time to have major effect on global weather.

So, here we are flapping, you and I. We use our hands in place of wings and our spirits soar. The hands are responsible for the world as it exists now, but like the opening of Pandora's box, the curiosity of the brain led fingers to unleash both the wonders of human creativity, and also the vast powers of intentional and unintentional destructive consequences. And here we are at an apex and turning point. If the wisdom of the hands were the flapping of jaws alone, there would be no power in it. But kids and tools and a bit of wood can reclaim the world of creativity and exploration of human spirit.

Today the 3rd and 4th grade students at Clear Spring School learn to use the coping saw. Perhaps they will teach us all to cope with change, growth and other things.

Monday, January 07, 2008

My mother has gotten to the point in her life that she repeats some of the same stories over and over. I do the same thing in the blog, but I call it practice as I hone and refine my message to bring greater clarity. If I get to where my stories ramble on and on without improvement, please let me know.

One of the stories my mother likes to tell is about sewing with my daughter Lucy. Mom was doing a repair on one of Lucy's stuffed animals, and Lucy, being 3 or 4 years old wanted to sew, too. Mom gave her a threaded needle and some fabric and Lucy began to make what she said was a purse. Mom sat on the couch, and Lucy on the floor, singing as she sewed. After a time Lucy started to cry. The purse wasn't turning out quite as she expected. Threads were tangled in knots. So Mom, took her scissors and cut away a few wayward threads and handed the "purse" back to Lucy. Lucy beamed, "perfect!" There was very little there that any normal person would identify as a purse, but in Lucy's mind and in the situation of sewing with Grandma, perfection was clearly there to be found.

Perhaps in another time, gaming with grandma will take the place of sewing and other forms of more traditional human activities in stories told over and over in fond remembrance. But there are unintended consequences to everything. When we introduce new technologies they displace other means and forms of relationship. We may want to be careful and know what we are giving up as we trade one for another.
The Hundred Dollar Laptop movement was in the news today, and I have to admit I missed the story. As I work and listen to the radio, I often miss things and get just bits and pieces when my tools are turned off between operations. The story seemed to have involved some kind of setback in the proposal that would make inexpensive, rugged laptops available to the poorest children on the planet. I could check on CNN.

I have to applaud the generosity of those involved and also have to call to question the idea that technology will solve the world's problems. Do children need laptops? Or do they need laps? We have been witness to hundreds of years of cultural displacement and loss in which traditional values passed down through generations are displaced by incessant fixation on the entertainment provided by new products.

So here I am, writing this on my old mac. Seven years old is very old in computer standards. I am no Luddite, and when this mac dies, I'll get another. But I would ask that children be provided with tools beyond laptops. We could do as much for the world by supplying children with saws, hammers, and the tools that under the guidance of their own mothers and fathers would be the foundation of loving communities.

One of the dangers inherent in the distribution of laptops is the displacement of the traditional role of the parent and grandparent in the community. Give children laptops, and their loving parents and grandparents will no longer be the centers of their children's lives. That may be acceptable in the US and Europe. But is that a standard which we should offer to the rest of the world? Or should be we doing other things first? Food? Clothing? Adequate Shelter? Clean Water? Freedom from HIV and malaria?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The photo below is from and while I've not obtained her permission for its use, I hope that credit to her and my thanks will suffice. Several years ago a friend of mine came back from Vietnam with photos of his travel and some showed tribal women in their native garb. Particularly fascinating were the various hats associated with the different tribal groups. The simple indigo turbans worn by the Black Hmong are a testament to the wisdom of their hands. Concealed in the folds of the turbans wrapped on their heads are sewing supplies and threads for the intricate embroidery that keeps their hands busy at nearly all times they are not occupied with something else. Their children are decorated in their mother's attention, pride and love in much the same way mothers throughout the world showered their attentions on their children before the rise of "modern" civilization. Can it be that in our modern culture we are missing something?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

When Lewis and Clark traveled across the American continent exploring the Louisiana Purchase 200 years ago, there was very little that actually set them apart from the indigenous peoples they met along the way. Their clothing was different in subtle ways. All wore buckskins and animal hides. Their technologies were slightly different. Lewis and Clark were armed with rifles while the indigenous peoples were armed with bows and arrows. Like the indigenous peoples, Lewis and Clark and the members of their expedition were skilled at survival in the wild based on knowledge of the natural world, its materials and working qualities. They crafted boats and shelter, fished and hunted for provisions, learned essential language skills for communicating with the people they met and held steadfast to a mission of scientific interest and national purpose. An observer from modern times hypothetically dropped into Lewis and Clark's encampment of 200 years ago today would feel as completely estranged and incompetent as if he or she were abandoned to a tribe in the darkest jungles of South America today.

We have a fascination with the concept of survival. We see it in the popularity of movies like Will Smith's I am Legend, Tom Hanks' Cast Away, and the television "reality" show Survivor. The idea of each is that the main character with whom we identify is able in some way to persist, or even thrive in the face of incomprehensible wilderness.

Today's children (and adults) are sheltered from physical reality, deprived of understanding of how things are made and how things grow. We are incapable of survival without the shelter of our homes, the distraction of our mass media, and the regular delivery of processed foods and mass-manufactured merchandise.

Can you see why it might at some point be important that we offer our children the opportunity to gain confidence and sense of mastery of the material world that comes from making things, building and planting gardens, exploring the outdoors and becoming familiar with its wonders?

Things may go on and on for our civilization. Our TVs may always work and distract us. The evolution of technology to expand our control of our world may go on and on. Or they may not. I'm not wanting to frighten you, but to encourage you to hedge your bets. Use your hands. Develop skills. Make things. And make no mistake. The skills you develop are carried like a great quest, a mission to the far side of an unknown continent, a future and survival that will depend on all human resources, not just those of the mind, but of the hand as well.

Friday, January 04, 2008

My daughter and I were working in the shop today when the power went out, so we went to the woods with the chain saw. I had gotten my old Alaskan mill set up and we used it to cut lumber from the sycamore log I'd hauled back from Harmon Park. In the photos above, you can see the results.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

I have been busy today, still gathering some materials for the new book, making boxes so I can keep galleries supplied during the spring and summer, and meeting with teachers about new projects at school for the various grades. I think we have some fun things lined up. The photos above are of drying wood. This maple log is stacked in layers (stickered) reforming the shape of the original log, and the second photo shows a moisture meter hooked up to wires from nails buried in the stack, allowing me to check the progress of drying. The sticks between layers provide for air circulation so the wood dries thoroughly and without additional decay. After drying outdoors under cover for 4 months, the wood was moved inside for another year for final drying. You can't buy wood like this as few sawyers will take the time for such careful handling. The log was given to me free, but if time is money, such lumber is expensive. The opportunity to have perfectly matching materials, however will enable this spalted maple log to be made into a piece or two of beautiful furniture.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The following link is to an article in on a boat building program in Unity, Maine. Unity Boat Shop is a program designed to give children hands-on experience to initiate life-long learning. It is one of many successful boat building programs throughout the East coast. As stated by Steve Sheaffer, director of the Maine Advanced Technology Center at Southern Maine Community College in Brunswick.
"Most children pass through elementary and high school without so much as lifting a hammer. For the kid that touches that block plane, and starts planing on a piece of wood, that's magic. That experience is super-important for a middle school kid. That may never leave their mind."
Thanks Reuben for the link.
There has been an interesting discussion on the Woodworking Teacher website in which a new poster asked the question,
What can I major in to become a woodshop teacher other than technology education?
The various replies present an interesting anecdotal overview of what is happening to the education of the hand in American schools. It doesn't look good, and those in the academic community don't seem to notice the problem.

In the meantime, it looks as though the end of the Bush presidency will bring the end of the "No Child Left Behind" Act. None of the presidential candidates from either party is willing to pick up the stupid thing. This legislation placed emphasis on accountability over creativity, pushed standardized testing to dominate education and marginalized the teaching profession. The end of NCLB may leave the door open for a return of the hands. Keep your fingers crossed.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The cartoon shown above by Matt Collins is from the current issue of Scientific American and was used in association with an essay by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The Earth is in danger, and in the essay Jeffrey Sachs describes some of the governmental action required throughout the world to help shift the balance. You will see in the cartoon, that the people are from many countries. The important thing to note is the application of the hands to the rope. It is not enough to be brain-smart and have knowledge. And as the cartoon shows, it all comes down to the hands on the rope.

The beginning of the New Year is a time for resolutions, most of which don't last through the first week. But I have a simple one to offer and if you keep coming back to the blog, I'll remind you. Think more of your own hands. Challenge them to learn and to participate more in the process of thought. Move them more freely as you speak. Use them more consciously in every aspect of your life.

In our upbringing, in our education, and in our culture, the hands have been marginalized to the degree that we sit complaisantly as things come apart. In schools, knowledge has become separate from action. We are taught patience, boredom and complaisance. We fill our brains with circling thoughts and idle fantasy. The hands offer fulfillment, but we have become unused to their conscious use. We have become trained as “brain centered” finding our identity in our own interior dialog. The yes, no, maybe of the brain state leads to immobility, isolation, and incapacity. To consciously relocate one’s identity toward becoming “hand centered” restores the ability to act.

So do this simple thing. Just take notice of your hands. Provide them the challenge of doing new things. Allow them to move more confidently as you speak. Think of your hands as ground zero from which the course of renewal can commence. Rub your hands together and warm them for a good grip on the rope. Allow them to lead you to join others in actions that restore quality to our lives, hope to our hearts and security to the planet and its resources.

Happy 2008. May it be a great year for your hands and heart.