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February 23, 2012

Up On Hawthorn Hill: Quiet wisdom

— Reading is akin to a treasure hunt. There are surprises around every corner. Part of the fun, especially when reading fiction, is anticipating what might be next. Sometimes one guesses right and sometimes one is way off. But that is all right.

One just keeps at it, pulled along, if the narrative flow is deftly constructed, by the love of the chase. Non-fiction  offers a different kind ofexperience. One anticipates things differently, since so little depends upon multiple interactions among characters. But there are just as many pearls to be harvested. They just come at one differently.

No matter the genre, wisdom reveals itself with characteristic grace. That was the case while reading George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop yesterday morning.

I find that what I remember most when reading are  snippets of thought. Ask meweeks after reading a novel about some plot detail and  most likely all you will get is ablank stare. Teaching is great for detail retention since it requires a thorough and deep knowledge of a particular text that comes as a result of study and repeated readings.

I do not do that kind of reading anymore – and I am glad of it. If a word, or phrase, or thought sticks without my having to work at it then so be it. If not, the invisible winds of memory are allowed free play. Sturt writes eloquently about the wheelwright’s craft.

He writes about his own experiences, as well as those of his father and grandfather. In so many ways it is a love story. In order to be good at any craft  the craftsman has to not onlylove the work, he must also love and respect, and come to know deeply, the tools and materials of his craft. One of the disturbing and unfortunate realities of contemporary life is the extent to which craftsmanship is so undervalued. Sure, we appreciate the work of a good furniture maker, carpenter, or auto mechanic. But as a society we pay lip service to craftsmanship and to those who actually make things. Instead we value moneymakers, most of whom would have a hell of a time fixing a toilet, chopping firewood, or shingling a roof.

We did away with perhaps one of the best ways to learn anything, the apprenticeship system, and have replaced it with inane, utterly useless and ultimately inadequate programs with names like ‘systems technology.’

To read a book like Sturt’s is to once again be reminded of the beauty, value, utility, and artistry of the manual crafts. To be an expert craftsman of any kind takes years of tutelage, practice and intelligence.

Ask me to choose between a master carpenter and a day trader and - well, there really is no choice. The reasons are obvious. To master any craft takes commitment and patience.

As Sturt points out, master wheelwrights turn out carriage wheels not because they work quickly, but because they work deftly and masterfully.

In short, they know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and take pride in what they make. I have become a fair carpenter over the years because I have worked at it. But I will never catch up to those who have practiced that beautiful craft as very young men and women. I envy them. In a chapter titled “Carting and Converting” Sturt describes the carters who deliver the timbers to the wheelwright shop.

He says they “… had rustic talk and anecdotes, rustic manners. I never saw them other than quietly wise.” That last sentence is one of those snippets I will never forget. I will never be a wheelwright or a carter, but the notion of being quietly wise I will cherish forever.

Ours is a very raucous, selfcongratulatory, self-righteous, egomaniacal age. There is precious little quietly imparted wisdom to give us pause, to invite even the briefest of respites from the din of disquieting discourse that characterizes contemporary life.

Perhaps things would quiet down a bit and wisdom might just reveal itself a tiny bit if every member of Congress were required to take a shop class with someone across the aisle a few times a week. But then again, they would have to shed those awful duds they sport when standing in front of the cameras for those hastily called press briefings where they all stand there smiling like Cheshire cats!

Think about it. How nice – and even civil – it would be if more of us tried a little harder to be quietly wise.