It takes 100 years to grow a tree

Recently I was talking to a young former student of mine and she asked me about my pinterest habits since she follows me. For example why I like tiny houses, old cabins, old furniture, and handmade things (particularly tools). My answer to all these questions I realized was pretty connected to a philosophy that is really not in vogue right now.

I told her I had no love for “decorators” that changed all the furniture in their house like I change my shirt. Because, it turns every piece of furniture into a throw away piece. And it takes 100 years to grow a tree worthy of furniture building. So it follows you should only use something that difficult to replace for things designed to last at least 100 years. So I like old furniture and old houses, and things built to last for generations. I respect things that were done by hand with an eye to the future. I respect designs that have proven themselves for at least 100 years. Because a design that has been around that long and still looks good is to my mind a very good working definition of the term “good design”.

Current consumerism has no place for anything long term. In current thought few people generally consider repair as on option, just replacement. This in turn makes low price, surface appearance, and “trendiness” the only meaningful metrics for most purchases today. I went on to explain to her that people who wish to replace all their furniture regularly should by all means shop at Walmart or some other place where cheap “furniture” made of glorified cardboard designed to last no more than a few years is sold. Those who wish to own real furniture made from old trees by skilled workers, need to think in terms of generations, or at the very least in terms of resale to someone else who respects quality materials and workmanship.

I was surprised at the response to my admittedly snarky old man rant. She just looked at me a bit stunned and said, “I have never thought of any of that before”. We live in an age where people are so removed from the sweat and process of life that they never seem to even consider what is involved with the creation and existence of everything from the chair they are sitting on to the food they are eating while doing so. To them everything comes from the store. It’s magic, I guess. I suspect if they saw what went into the manufacture of even cheap junk furniture they would never sit quite as casually again.

What’s a guy to do

I walked away from that conversation disturbed. I thought as a teacher I have influence, but rarely do I get the chance (or more accurately take the chance) to try and help a generation that literally does not know what it does not know. Obviously I do this when teaching the subject at hand. But I think there is a need to talk about the things people rarely even think about. I left wondering if there was a way to restore the appreciation of quality, of workmanship, and of longevity that has been lost to consumerism.

This seems to be a generation on a treadmill running as fast as they can to get whatever the current crop of marketers tell them they need, only to throw it all away a short time later and continue their chase to the next big thing. We buy phones and computers nearly impossible to take apart because they are not expected to last any longer than their batteries. These items are as much status symbols and fashion accessories as communication devices or tools.

This attitude has worked it’s way all the way through our culture and has trained people that nothing should be expected to last for very long. Even if it still works it soon will be hopelessly out of style and therefore “useless”. Form over function, style over quality, the neverending quest for acceptance and validation from a culture with no anchor and no compass.

I think for those of us that do appreciate handwork and creativity. Those that can look at a nice piece of lumber and understand how very long it took to produce such wonderful material, to appreciate just the material itself prior to it becoming anything else by the work of human hands. For us, I think there is a responsibility to help others learn to value the attributes that constitute true quality and value.

How? One by one I suspect.

I have recently been reading  The Teachers Hand-book of Sloyd by Otto Soloman and while I could not find the exact right quote for this article, the whole gist of the sloyd concept is the training of the whole person through systematic instruction in the manual arts. That by working with their hands they would learn not only manual skills, but more importantly it would build character and give the student appreciation for the importance of precision and quality. In addition to the development of a host of other difficult to measure but important character attributes and skills. All of which contribute to their composite worldview.

I can’t help thinking that the elimination of manual skill training in our schools and our culture’s general attitude toward those that do manual labor for a living have seriously robbed the young in particular of any deep appreciation of art, craft, and hard work.

My response

My schedule is as full as anyone else’s I suppose, but I have been feeling quite often of late that I should probably teach a Sloyd-like class on woodworking. Not a masters class of any sort, but a woodworking class that is as focused on developing the person as it is on developing that persons woodworking skills. As I have studied and thought about this project I have begun to realize just how challenging this may be. But in the end I believe it will be well worth the effort.

I will try to keep you posted as this idea matures.

Meanwhile… enjoy!

Tom