Artificery

I often think about a particular sort of conflict or contradiction in the way I feel about the world. One feeling that has been core to my view of the world around us is how much damage has been done by the transactional nature of society, the economy of life. This manifests both in the common feelings about the exploitive nature of capitalism, as well as the harm we cause ourselves by measuring our interactions with others like an exchange of currency. Somewhere down this path, I inevitably touch on my feelings about materialism. Valuing things above people, their feelings, and the genuine execution of life has always felt like a source of great suffering, and a contradiction of the beautiful nature of people to be open, vulnerable, and generous.

The particular place where I feel conflicted with that belief comes in the joy I get from making things. Intentionally creating something, for yourself or for others, leads to an appreciation and attachment to an item that seems contrary to a resistance of materialism. Luckily, I’ve learned over time to acknowledge and observe thoughts like that without feeling an urgency and need to reconcile them into a perfect system of understanding.

Creating things, particularly for other people, brings me great joy. And sometimes those things in turn bring about joy in the recipient. There is a subtle magic in the act, and creating space for that is more valuable to me than adherence to the concept of opposing materialism. Ideas are great, but experience is always more important to me. Here’s a bit of a story about some recent creations that have made my world feel more rich and wonderful, regardless of their lack of practical value.

There are a number of projects that seems to be common in the pursuit of woodworking expertise. Things everyone seems to eventually try their hand at, almost like rites of passage. I’ve recently made 2 of these sort of projects, an end grain cutting board, and some wooden hammers.

Cutting boards have obvious use, and it’s nice to add some meaning to one of the random objects that collect in our lives. I felt an additional appreciation for this small project, because it amounted to collecting some scraps, offcuts and discarded pieces laying around my garage, and creating something useful from them. In a small way, it made me feel connected to the stories of indigenous peoples using all parts of a slain animal.

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This cutting board is the result of glueing together some scrap maple, cherry, walnut and acacia I had laying around.

The more interesting project has been making wooden hammers. While I’m sure many are created for a practical purpose, to aid in future woodworking, I was just screwing around. Using some cast aside pieces of walnut, cherry and wenge, and turning a piece of Lignum Vitae I had sitting around, I made myself a hammer. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a woodworking mallet, or a dead blow hammer. It’s unwieldy, too large, oddly shaped, and really just an ornamental piece. But it reminded me of the stories of Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer used to defend the gods of Asgard. What it lacked in practical use, it more than made up for in whimsey.

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My girls, with the great wisdom of childhood, had no thoughts about the impracticality of such a creation. They thought it was neat. That appreciation and acceptance gave me the freedom to let down my pragmatic judgements, and led to a side hobby is making something just for the sake of enjoying it.

The second hammer I made was a gift for Natasha’s son Revel. During a short visit to return some forgotten items, I was told of a game Revel has been playing for years. Jumping around the house, blasting things with his own magic. Originally, Revel used a particular favorite implement to channel his magic, and over time learned that he could channel his power with or without a magical implement. Again I was reminded of the mythology of the Norse, which has always been a particular favorite, and decided that Revel would probably love a magical hammer of his own.

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Rev’s hammer was the first to include some burnt in Norse Runes. It made me happy to think about giving a gift to a child that included some old magic, and the idea of laying down some intentional meaning to the object added something fun to the work. It was received very well, and predictably Olive and Nora asked for hammers of their own.

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My favorite part of this experience was the day I gave the girls the hammers I had made for them. They were so excited to have something of their own, and what could be better than a magical hammer. This also gave me the chance to tell the girls a piece of one of my favorite parts of Norse Mythology.

I explained to them, that like the great hammer of the gods Mjölnir, these magical hammers we alive themselves. The hammers themselves control their own magic. If you use them for good purposes, the hammer will lend all their magic to aid you. But if you use your hammer for cruel or bad means, such as hurting someone or to break things that belong to others, they will withhold their magic, and refuse to lend you their true strength. The girls beamed with happiness thinking that their new magical tools would help them if they were kind and good, and knew to be careful not to do harm with them.

Of course I am working on making Natasha a magical hammer of her own. It’s still a work in progress, but is coming along nicely.

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While these things aren’t going to solve any great problems in our day to day lives, I believe there’s something great about being given a magical implement. Unless of course any of our homes are invaded by Frost Giants, in which case we’ll all be thoroughly prepared.

(I’ve added descriptions of the materials, and the runes and meanings to these images over at Phil’s Woodworking)

The Buffalo People

A recent recurring theme in my life, dreams, and conversations lately has been the buffalo, or more accurately the American Bison. Obviously this project was spurred on by a story involving a buffalo (although this was the accurately named African Buffalo). But apart from that, I’ve had some memories and dreams come up featuring the buffalo as a key figure.

Most interestingly to me, was a memory of a concern I went to many years ago. I went to see possibly my favorite band, Built to Spill in concert. This wasn’t a terribly remarkable occurrence, as I tend to see them every time they tour within driving distance, and have on a number of occasions seen them two days in a row (at the Chameleon in Lancaster, and a venue in Philadelphia the next night). But one of those shows included an event that’s always stuck out in my mind.

I’ve played guitar off and on since I was around 13. And like most young musicians, soon reached the point where I could identify, and approximate the cost of any guitar and amp I happened across in the world. This isn’t a terribly entertaining hobby at a Built to Spill show, as Doug Martsch, the lead singer, has played the same guitar every time I’ve seen him, with the same reliable backup in the event of an issue. However, at this particular show I saw something interesting. One of the other guitarists, a man by the name of Brett Netson, was playing through a most peculiar amp.

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After the show was over, I did something pretty out of character for me at the time. I walked up to the stage as the band was breaking down their gear, and asked Brett about his amp. This was a little surprising, even in retrospect, as I had more than a little bit of social anxiety at that time in my life, however Brett was delightful to talk to. He and Jim Roth, the long time third guitarist in the band built the amp he was using together, from extra parts and tubes Jim had laying around. When they got it working, they realized that neither had any real plan for building the enclosure, so they found some random scrap wood, cut the upholstery off an old couch, and whipped something up. Once they were done, Brett decided to decorate the amp a bit with the name of a local charity he felt strongly about, The Buffalo Field Campaign.

This pattern lead to some research into the symbolism associated with buffalo. The first thing to note was the epic website I got the information from. Seriously, you owe it to yourself to look at this link. Anyway, the description of “Buffalo People” resonated with both Natasha and I. It was almost eerie to have an external source describe core parts of my behavior and personality so well.

An initial idea for this project was to write poetry with a common prompt. After talking about the idea of Buffalo people, and sharing stories of buffalo in our respective lives, we set forward to write our first prompted poems. Here they are, enjoy.

Buffalo

by Natasha

You rise at dawn. Your muscles are stiff. Your breath comes in puffs in the cold morning air; you shiver and stomp to wake up. You raise and lower your head, look around, scan the horizon, run your eyes along the thin line where land meets sky in the distance. The ground is frozen. It is hard as rock beneath your feet.

Beside you, your child is stirring. He nuzzles you with his cheek and presses against your warmth.

Above, the black vultures are circling, circling, always circling. You look up and blink against the sun. You worry. Something is not right.

Your people are moving around you, brushing against your shoulders and hips, bumping and pushing. You are shoved forward. Your child is beside you one moment; the next moment he is not.

There are bodies running, but you stand still. Steady as stone. You look for your son. You know his gait, the sound of his cry. You know you’ll spot him if you just stand still long enough.

And then you see them.

Shadows really, in the early morning light. Quick, dark shadows, moving unbelievably fast over the rough, uneven terrain. They move in a pack, but there’s one out in front, clearly in the lead. They’re in formation,  running, running, always running.

That’s it. A half dozen maybe. The one in the front, a few more to the sides, some to the rear. Close now, you can hear them pant. They’re circling, circling, always circling.

Time stops. Everything slows. You see your people, stumbling, tripping, madly and blindly, running for safety. Their eyes are wild, their movements hunted.

The sound of their feet on the earth is thunderous, explosive. You can hear your own heart beating in your ears. It’s the sound of fear, of terror. Of love. Because then you see him. Your baby. On the edge of the herd. He is silent. Unmoving. His eyes look this way and that, but he is frozen, still standing and standing still. He is looking for you.

And so you go to him. Of course. Your body bursts into motion. You run, head down, focused, alert. You see the vultures above, circling, circling. You see the panting shadows circling, circling. You carve right through, like a bullet, like an arrow.

You reach him. You smell him. Your bodies connect and ease with the touch, with the ease of the touch even in this terrible moment.

The shadows are panting. Their teeth are remarkably sharp, their eyes remarkably clear. You know you are alone, you and your baby. You make small circles around him, circling, always circling. Your eyes are trained on the wolves.

In this moment you know you are the same. Both are hunter, and hunted. It is not clear who will win. Who will live and who will die. The shadows have babies too, at home you know, tucked away safe in their den. This is your den, the endless sea of sky, of grass. You know you are the same, but different, but the same.

You nuzzle your baby. You lick his sweet fuzzy cheek. You move.

They move too.

There is muscle against muscle, flesh against flesh. You shout “run!” in your language to your boy, and he does. You watch until he reaches the herd.

There is struggle. There is fight. There is the clear blue sky of the morning and the cold ground beneath your feet. There is your heartbeat keeping time. There is predator, and prey. There is love, and there is life.

Circling, circling, always circling.

I Am The Buffalo Man

by Phil

Long ago, we walked the wide plains,
We drank from the rivers and lakes,
We foraged, and pressed our way through the woods,
And we died, and returned to the earth.

There were many others,
Creatures great and small,
Cunning and cruel,
Peaceful and soft.

There was even man,
He watched us like the birds,
He hunted us like the wolf,
He lived in our shared world.

In all things, there lives a song,
The song of their lives,
And in all their songs was a piece of love, just for us.
And in our song, they each had a piece of love as well.

Even the wolf,
Even the man.

Then came the great destroyer,
The plight that ravaged our world,
And silenced many songs,
Without a song of its own.

Civilization, it is called.
But it is not civil,
It makes much noise,
But sings no song

Many things died under its relentless march,
Many bodies left on the ground,
Stripped of their skins,
And of their songs.

Some survived, and walk the land still,
Some believe many more ran into the mountain,
Waiting for the world to be ready to hear,
Waiting to bring their song back.

Some have gone to where the blight can’t see them,
Into the realm of spirit,
Finding souls who hear, and sing for all they know.

You can see them if you know how to look,
Gentle and strong, Patient and kind,
They bow to help carry your burdens,
Pushing ever forward, head down and shoulders broad.

With those, the buffalo still walks the earth free,
And they still sing,
Some quiet, some loud,
A song that loves all things

A song that loves you.
I know this to be true,
For I am a buffalo man.

It begins with a story…

There once was a man who lived his whole life in the forest. And his parents lived their whole lives in the forest, and their parents before that, and their parents before that and their parents before that, as far back as anyone can remember. This forest was very thick with trees, and the man and his people lived amongst them, making tiny shelters between the trunks in the shade and protection of the great many leaves above them.

The man and his people acquired all they needed from the forest and each other. Food, shelter, weapons for hunting, protection, companionship, and community. The forest was so broad and wide that the man and his people never needed to leave it, and so they spent their whole lives surrounded by trees, in the tiniest clearings between the trunks and branches.

But the people knew there was a world outside the forest, and one day the man had to go to that other world on some important business.

He rode in a car and the car took him over many winding roads until they reached the edge of the great forest. Suddenly the man entered a vast clearing, a wide open space that stretched for many, many miles, the likes of which he had never seen before.

The light of the sun was nearly blinding after the dappled shade of the forest, and he felt a little dizzy with the vast expanse stretching out around him after the close quarters of trunks and canopy he had lived his whole life within.

Ahead he could see something moving. It was no bigger than his thumbnail, and appeared to be moving. He squinted his eyes to get a better look and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “What is that tiny buffalo?!” He yelled, incredulous and a little frightened, for there before his eyes was a perfect, miniature, version of the humongous buffalo he had  seen winding amongst the trees of the forest out on hunting trips with his people. As he watched, the buffalo appeared to be growing larger.

“What is that tiny buffalo?!” He demanded again. “Why is it so small? And why does it appear to be growing?”

The man driving the car laughed and said “it’s not tiny, it’s just a regular sized buffalo. But it’s very far away so it just LOOKS very tiny. It appears to be growing because the closer we get to it, the larger it appears. That’s what distance does, that’s perspective.”

But the man, who had lived his whole life amongst the close and comforting press of trees, could not truly understand….

This story is the origin of a project, a collaboration in expression. You can find out more about The Project and Who We Are, as well as look over our other works in The Stacks.