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A New Experience

February 18, 2015

This is February vacation week, though with all the snow days we’ve had this month one would hardly know the difference. Even if we had school this week, Monday was Presidents’ Day and that would have been the fourth Monday in a row with no school. I have spent plenty of time outside this month, along with untold thousands of my fellow New Englanders, shoveling. But somehow I have not felt particularly productive. So, I started the break by making a new pair of mittens. I had just enough elk skin lying around to make a replacement for my old deerskin pair. As much as I liked the old pair, I think the new ones are a definite improvement. The pattern for the new ones came from a company that makes patterns for re-enactors. In addition to the mittens, I have made a couple pairs of gloves, which as you can see from the picture, get quite a bit of use. But for the mittens I decided to use my old sewing machine, instead of sewing by hand, as I did for the gloves. The machine is a beauty, but it takes a while to get tuned up each time I use it, which is not often, and it can make me a little crazy until it is going smoothly.

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With my new mittens, I decided to head down to the farm, not on my usual Saturday trip, but on a Tuesday. The traffic was lousy. As you may have heard, the commuter situation in Boston these days is horrendous. The T (subway) is running about 30% capacity, and they are literally hiring folks off the street to shovel the outdoor lines. Yesterday I heard they were paying thirty dollars an hour! (I thought they should consider trading T passes.) For me, the best parts of the drive are when I can view the ocean. So, I always look forward to Wollaston Beach in Quincy and from Hingham Harbor on down to the farm. This time, Wollaston Beach was hidden behind massive piles of snow many as tall as fifteen feet. However between the piles I could glimpse a frozen Quincy Bay. With no wind, the water was frozen well out into the bay. The Northbound traffic was making very slow progress up Rte. 3a. As far South as Weymouth traffic was a crawl. At Forest Avenue, the small beach was also frozen. Against the rocks the slush water sloshed about disconsolately, but a few feet out it was frozen and appeared frozen several hundred feet out into the ocean.


When I got to Cohasset the street pavement disappeared and I didn’t see it again until I left.

When I pulled into the barnyard, it looked like nothing I had ever seen before. Snow was piled everywhere. The road down to the turn around was plowed only as far as the blacksmith shop. I drove my truck to the ox barn and went to check in with my Aunt Jean. She told me that my Cousin Charlie , who lives up in the woods with his family, has been doing a great job plowing the main drive. But even on a farm, there is only so much room. Every so often a friend with a Bobcat front-end loader comes by to scoop up the great piles and move them out of the way. Nugget the horse was frantic because he couldn’t see his little pal Pumpkin the pony in the paddock (the drifts were so high). And they couldn’t be in the same paddock because there was so much snow.

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One paddock was filled right up to the top of the top rail of its fence.

The first thing I did after checking in with Aunt Jean was shovel my way into the oxbarn. My first job for the day was replacing the sled chase I had broken the previous week. Then I went out into the barnyard and pulled some of the snow off of a couple roofs. Most of it had been raked by someone else, but I try to help out where I can. Then I decided to go snowshoeing.
If you read my last post you will know that during last week’s outing into the woods I had some trouble with the snowshoes I made. The toes of the shoes kept getting stuck in the snow and I would stumble forward. Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that this week I had a much easier time of it. The bad news is that I used an old pair of snowshoes that I did not make. This time I was not pulling the sled, so that may turn out to be the problem. But if it really is design of the shoes, I will hang mine up on the wall and switch to these new old shoes. In any case, the hike was truly unlike any hike I have ever taken on the farm. There was so much snow that the trails became purely theoretical. The horse briar, which normally makes the woods so impassable, was buried under three to four feet of snow and it was possible to walk anywhere. Stone walls, small streams, underbrush, poison ivy, I was tromping above it all. At one point I caught a glimpse of a small, dark, possibly canine sort of critter. It was about fifty yards off and I was able to walk directly toward it. In the summer, not only would I never have seen it, but it would have extremely difficult to approach it through the underbrush. But I made a beeline toward it to looks for tracks. Unfortunately, I didn’t find them. I walked straight to where I thought I saw it and found nothing at all. I can only imagine that it had a den in the vicinity and was safely ensconced inside. I saw no tracks in the area. One thing I did find was the largest oak tree I have ever seen down there.

I would say its circumference was well over double my arm span (that is, just under six feet or twelve feet total). And that was at my chest height plus the three feet of snow I was standing on. In other words, at eight or nine feet up the trunk the circumference was about fourteen feet or so. It was a magnificent sight and one that I would never have seen in the summer. The woods were also wonderfully quiet. Activity in the area was minimal and the snow absorbed much of the sound that was around. Several times I simply stopped where I was and sat down to listen to the quiet. After an hour or so out in the woods, I stepped down off the snow and onto the driveway with a jolt. It was as if I had been walking around on one giant mattress and then landed on a hardwood floor. I hadn’t collected any materials for furniture, but the trip had been well worth it. I hope to get another such one in again soon.
My grandfather used to tell me of his youth when, rather than plow the roads, they rolled them with logs pulled by teams of horses, so that they were smooth enough to sleigh on. Apparently the town of Cohasset is renewing that old tradition, as they seem dedicated to making sure no ones’ runners are damaged by the salt or pavement.


It is hard not to wonder what my Grandfather would have made of this year’s snow. He always contended that there was much more snow in his youth. But I think this year’s totals might even have matched his memory.

Another Snow Day

February 9, 2015

We have now had our third snow day Monday in a row. I hate missing the school and the idea of having to extend the school year further into the summer, but the extra days off have been giving me a chance to write. And so it is today. After a morning spent shoveling, I have some time to write another post.

Front steps on another snow day

Front steps on another snow day

The drive down to the farm two days ago was quiet. The latest weather had not yet moved in. The roads had narrowed, but were all passable. Wollaston Beach was frozen and calm. The sky was gray. Driving up Rockland St. in North Cohasset the great Hull 2 wind generator was being pushed by a strong West Nor ‘west wind at a pretty good clip. As I came round onto Jerusalem Rd in sight of the ocean, the sea was flat, and the horizon was invisible. The barnyard was piles of snow, infiltrated with paths and lanes for people, cars, and animals. The ox barn was snowed in again, and I had to dig my way in through to the side door. Only a bit of snow had filtered in through the main door. After my usual check-in with Aunt Jean and a quick introduction to the gentleman who’d come over to clear snow with his bobcat, I pulled my sled out of the snow bank and hooked up the traces. After getting my snowshoes on, I gathered my harvesting tools and threw the leather yoke over my shoulders to head out into the woods. Over the past few weeks we’ve gone from no snow to more than a couple feet. Last week I went out without the snow shoes and it was pretty tough going. This week I was wearing them and it was pretty tough going, but at least I wasn’t sinking more that a few inches. Sadly, I think one problem may be the design I chose when making these shoes. I made them in the Ojibwa style. I really like the look. But the extended “toe” of this shoe may make for tougher walking as the toe often gets caught in the snow as I lift my foot. On the other hand, as Grandma Cornelia often said, “It’s a poor workman who complains of his tools.” Perhaps I just need more practice.

Ojibwa style snowshoe

Ojibwa style snowshoe

When I stopped to begin cutting I realized I’d left my saw in the barn. I like to use the pruning saw, especially when cutting farther up the trunk of the tree because it leaves a cleaner cut than the axe. The axe isn’t bad if you are cutting close to the ground and the trunk can’t move much, but further up the tree and the trunk can move with the each strike absorbing the energy of the blow. I hit the first tree trunk where it emerged from the snow and the tree moved several inches. When I checked the depth of the snow with the axe handle I found it was over two feet. This meant that unless I wanted to clear away the snow from each little tree I’d have to cut them at about two feet and they’d be a pretty sorry sight in the spring. So I did the best I could with the axe. After I trimmed the saplings and cut them into manageable lengths (from six to twelve feet) I lashed them to the sled. About a quarter of the way back to the barnyard the sledding got very tough, and I was really yanking on the traces when one of them gave way. As I sat panting in the snow, wishing that I had finally remembered water and marveling at how thirsty one gets in the working in the snow, I debated whether to leave the sled and come back later to pick it up. It put me in mind of a trip I had taken with my buddies fresh out of high school from our home in Michigan to the mountains of western Montana. We were camping in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, when the strap on my backpack broke. I was already anxious about being out in the middle of the wilderness on our own, and I started crying and carrying on. Craig and Alan basically said, “Get over it. We have no choice but to fix it and get going.” Despite my protestations that that was impossible, I dug out my sewing kit and fixed it and we got going. And so it was this time. I removed the leather yoke from the traces and threw the broken trace on the sled to fix at home. I tied one end of the yoke to the sled and held it in my left hand. I held the remaining trace in my right. Sometimes there ain’t nothing to it but to do it. And I hauled it home. It was a tough slog, but not truly that far to go. And I was more worried about exhausting myself for basketball the next day than about survival. I got back and had a lengthy drink from the water bottle, unloaded the wood and bent a few choice sticks around the stanchions to use in chairs in the summer.
The last job for the day was to fashion a new handle for the lovely adze that my pal Robert had given me when he came down to visit a few weeks ago. The trick with this sort of tool head is that instead of fitting the end of the handle into the head, as with an axe or sledge hammer, the entire handle has to slide through the head, as with an grub hoe. This makes for a tool which is much less likely to fly off the handle, but requires that the entire handle be shaped.
adze head - handle inserted

adze handle full length

I chose a piece of ash that I found that day and used a pair of drawknives to shape it. This morning when taking these pictures I discovered that the very green wood had checked. So I am not sure whether it will be suitable for use. We’ll see in a few weeks when I get a chance to try it out.
Last week, during another snow day I tackled an indoor project, sorting and replacing many old photographs into a new album. There were pictures from the first six or so years of my life. Many, many were of the farm. Amongst them was this one. Apparently I have had a longstanding interest in wood. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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Eternal Lure of the Ocean

January 31, 2015

The ocean fascinates me. Occasionally I am lucky enough to get to take a course at the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine and I love the classes, I am just as happy to sit down on their dock at admire the boats or listen to real sailors talk ships in the dinning hall. It could be my ancestry, with a sea captain or two amidst the branches of the family tree. It could be the enormous ship model that once belonged to one of said captain’s and graced my grandparents’ living room when I was a boy. It could be the stories I read and continue to read or the movies I watched and continue to watch. It could be the Jacque Cousteau documentaries that amazed me as a child. Regardless, I love watching the ocean. I love its endless moods. I love its smells and tides. And I can see why, despite the immense danger, humans have gone down to the sea in ships since time immemorial. They have gone for sustenance, escape, fame, fortune, transport, even fun.
The sea is elemental. It bore us all. It can nurture and heal. It can maim and destroy. It is worthy of its own god if not many gods, goddesses, and all manner of god-lets. From earliest times, humans have taken to the waters on logs, rats, dugouts, kayaks, canoes, wherries, dorries, dhows, junks, sloops, shalloops, barks, brigantines, clippers, man-o-wars, frigates, catamarans, whalers, tankers, destroyers, and absurd cruise ships. The names evoke and the sea rolls on – sometimes caressing and soothing, sometimes grasping, terrifying, dragging, devouring, engulfing – always indifferent to our plight.

The past few weeks’ procession of winter storms coming of the ocean has resulted in some noteworthy seas. On my trip down to the farm today, as I turned on to Jerusalem Road in Cohasset, I was greeted by a roiling scene. Under pale blue gray sky the waves were crashing over the great granite rocks of that town’s coast like water slopping from an over full bucket carried by an under sized child. The white caps extended to the outer limits of visibility. Breakers crashed and the spray exploded icing the exposed rocks. And all the while the gulls and sea ducks bobbed improbably on the swells. The road was strewn with oceanic detritus. The ocean was not blue, nor is it often. Today it was a pale green, reminiscent of frothy pea soup – very cold frothy green soup. It was the sort of sea that reminds of the unnumbered hazards of a life at sea. There were waves, rocks, winds, and ice –those plagues to sailors of any era. One could see Minot’s light stalwart and erect in the misty distance.

Oddly, when I worked on the farm I rarely visited the beach a quarter mile away. It was always colder than I liked, even on the hottest day. And I loved being on the farm. In fact I was often taken aback when the wind shifted and blew off the water, and I could smell the tide and seaweed and was reminded that it was all so close. Growing up in Michigan I was spoiled, not only by the many ponds and small lakes, so cozy with their size, warmth, and sandy beaches from which I fished and swam. But also by Lake Michigan, as vast as an ocean (or it may as well have been for one cannot see its dimensions from the shore) and completely and wonderfully salt free. Yes it’s true; as much as I love the ocean I can’t stand swimming in salt water, no matter the temperature. The Great Lakes are a miracle. They are vast and wild enough to have sunk literally thousands of ships (perhaps most famously the Edmund Fitzgerald). They can develop serious waves and have surprised many a “blue water’ sailor the major yacht races that are held on their immense waters every year.
So, I would be happy to stare from my front porch or through some picture window at a Great Lake as much as I would enjoy looking upon the ocean. But I would miss the smell of the sea. And if I could find a small house, overlooking a working harbor, and could hear the sounds, and see the sights, and smell the smells (and had a nice little pond to dip my toes into not too far away) I think that might be heaven.

New Year 2115

January 19, 2015

For the most part I avoid New Years resolutions. If something is worth doing, I try to start doing it no matter what time of year and not put it off to January 1. However, as the new year began, some students in my school were given an assignment to poll staff on their resolutions, and while thinking about what mine ought to be, I realized that it really was time to buckle down and get back to my blog. So, here I am.
Despite months of web silence, I have been making regular trips to the farm. I had a very productive summer making things from more furniture (benches, stools, a pair of armchairs, and a pair of dining chairs)

Arm chair - one of pair

Arm chair – one of pair

to clothing including an elk skin jacket, two pairs of sheep skin boot/moccasins, and a couple pair of serviceable gloves. The sewing has been one of the things I have been doing instead of writing. Another factor has been my new phone. Why should a new phone be a problem? Well, it takes very nice pictures, so I have stopped using my camera. Unfortunately, I am not proficient at uploading those pictures on my phone to the blog. And so pictures of all of the above-mentioned projects are locked safely on my phone waiting for me to learn the intricacies of yet another technological “advance”. However, one can see a picture of my jacket and me sitting in one of the dining room chairs in a picture taken by my friend Robert, who visited me on the farm last weekend with his camera and posting it on his flicker account.
As for the coming year, I really can’t say whether I will be able to continue making regular contributions to the blog. I hope so, and I will try to get my photos up for viewing. I have decided one thing. Up until this point, I have always had a laissez faire attitude about selling my furniture. But this spring/summer I will put a bit more effort into the enterprise. When the farm stand reopens, I will be putting all my furniture out on display and letting people know that it’s available rather than just hoping folks will stroll around to my corner of the barnyard and make a spur of the moment purchase. It will be interesting to see what happens.
Meanwhile, if you live in New England you have probably noticed that despite a few chilly days, we haven’t really had much of a winter. We certainly haven’t had any snow to speak of. While many folks are just fine with that, it has put a big dent in my twig collecting. That is because I usually do this with my sled

Me and my sled, obviously not the winter

Me and my sled, obviously not this winter

and the alternative is to go out and carry the harvest on my back. So far I have been waiting for snow, but pretty soon I will have to go out and do it the hard way. Of course, beyond my personal travails, it is just plain disturbing to have a winter go by with no snow. Last year was just announced by NASA and NOAA to have been the warmest on record, ever. Snow is ground cover, habitat, and water for spring growth. People don’t like to shovel, but it is a nuisance that we depend on for the health of the environment.
While I wait for snow I have been occupying myself with wood splitting, but on a slightly larger scale than usual. This winter break, it was my great pleasure to have a visit from my brother Owen. We decided to take on an oak log about six feet long and three feet in diameter. We weren’t trying to split it down the middle but along one side to make slabs. We were under equipped (only two steel wedges and a couple sledge hammers) and he was very game about the whole ridiculous enterprise. After a few hours and ambiguous results as well as several broken sledge handles (my doing) we called it quits and I had to wait a week to get back down to finish off the job. I bought two more wedges, made some wooden wedges, and manufactured replacement handles for the ones I had broken. I finally got the slab off. Only after removing it did the sizable internal knot that had made it so tough to split become visible. Did I mention that I got poison ivy in the process? Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t get p. i. in the winter. But it is the challenge that makes the effort worthwhile. And I have learned several useful things in the process. One, when trying to get steel wedges out of a split in a log, don’t bother trying to knock them back and forth in the direction of the split. Hit them at ninety degrees to the split and the will wiggle themselves out. Two, lots of wooden wedges with very slight tapers and increasing widths are invaluable. Start with the steel wedges then use the wooden wedges as place holders or to stack with the steel wedges to widen the split. Three, watch for poison ivy vines, even if there are no leaves (but I should have known that one).
Now I have two slabs, six plus feet long and a couple feet wide. They will take a lot of work with an adze, and might even be a excuse to buy a broad axe. I am not sure what they will turn into. But they are still very wet, so I have time to think about it.
So, I will continue to wait for snow, try to split off another slab, do little chores around the ox barn, and if needs be, start harvesting new twigs and dragging them in by hand. It’s the challenge that makes it worthwhile. Happy New Year!

What do I do with these pictures?

February 22, 2014

There is a fundamental conflict within this blogging business, at least for me. That is, that time spent on the computer is time not spent DOING. Sometimes, of course, there is not that much else to do, but that is pretty rare. And we all know that many times when we get on the computer to do a chore, we end up checking email, a question occurs to us and we’ll just look one thing up, find that one thing leads to a dozen things, forget the chore, surf the web, play Zuma’s Revenge for an hour, and get nothing done. Or just check Facebook, and get nothing done.
One of the chores I have been meaning to do for ages is post various pictures. Sometimes I have pictures that go with a post I never write. Sometimes I have a post that I was planning on adding pictures to after the fact, and never got around to adding the pictures. Sometimes I take pictures that I planned to add to my website somewhere, but never quite figured out where to put them. In any case, one of my biggest computer frustrations (and that’s saying a lot) is the proper disposition of pictures. So easy to take, so hard to manage. I guess it has been ever thus. I know that I still have boxes full of pictures from film that were never placed in proper albums, and thought the digital pictures so much better. And, never satisfied, now have even more digital pictures that I never look at and would like to print them out is some sort of logical, aesthetic manner so they aren’t wasted taking up the miniscule computer space they occupy, yet are never enjoyed. I have printed up a few albums using various online services. But there are so many pictures.
Anyway, what I really sat down to do today, but got distracted – as I so often am when I sit down in front of a computer screen – was to get some pictures off my camera and put them on my website.
Some are of things I made that don’t fit into the usual categories. These are things like the tree ornaments, wooden spheres, et cetera I made for sale at the Holly Day Fair last December.
The other is items I have given as gifts mostly to family, some wood, some metal, some ceramic.

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The following little scene of a pair of wood cutters was all hand made and painted by me this past December. It is a very old form of amusement given movement by the sliding back and forth of the two pieces of wood at the base of the piece.

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By placing the cursor over the image and hitting the forward or back icon you can speed up the action and make the motion a little more apparent.

Why am I posting these? Just vanity, which is at the heart of any blog (okay, maybe not any, but certainly mine).

First Snow – 2014

January 5, 2014

Saturday January 3, 2014
A couple things were notable on the drive down to the farm today. For one, it was cold. Boston Harbor at Wollaston Beach was all iced up. But when the water came into view as I on got onto Atlantic Avenue in Cohasset, it looked downright scary. There was an ominous green/brown foam on water, probably pulverized kelp left over from the Northeaster of last night, and as one looked out toward Minot’s Light one saw breaking surf as far as the horizon. It was hard, for me at least, not to imagine how deadly the sea can be, and why most sailors in the North Atlantic never bothered to learn to swim. I’m sure it was a lot worse yesterday and last night.
When I got to the farm it was quiet. Aunt Jean was feeding the animals. They had weathered the storm and was glad that there had been no power outage and no frozen pipes. The cold, of course, means lighter snow and no ice to take down power lines. But it can also mean burst pipes. We’d hit the sweet spot: a different sort of perfect storm. I’d brought my snowshoes and took my sled out for the first time of the season. I had to dig out the door to the oxbarn, but with the powdery snow, that was a piece of cake. Snow had blown in the large gaps between the door and the frame, and had blown over the window high on the Western wall of the barn. That window was built open, as the oxen created all the heat they needed when they were housed there. My father tells me it was the pleasantest barn in the winter when it’s bovine residents were there, as their warmth and the smell of the hay they ate made the atmosphere inside a sort of permanent springtime. Even now, the door has a southern exposure and the sun shining nicely into the barn meant it was many degrees warmer inside than out. With most of my furniture stored away in the icehouse for the winter, and just an armchair and table in the ox barn, I could almost imagine I was in a cabin rather than a barn. So I pulled my sled down and attached the traces, threw my snowshoes on the sled and headed down the drive. When I got to the edge of Peck’s meadow, I put on the shoes and headed across the ox pasture into the woods. That takes me to one of my favorite spots on the farm in the winter. It is a path that runs along with the salt marsh visible through the trees only when the leaves are gone, and a large ledge outcropping to the left that gets covered in ice and icicles. When it is sunny, as it was today, the snow and ice have a magical aspect. Though, I must admit, pulling the sled today and in my snowshoes, I was mostly looking down to avoid tripping. The trail takes me up to the Hunt “Field”. Field it once was, but now it is a grove of tightly spaced saplings from one to four inches in diameter at the base from which I collect the bulk of my straight stock. When I first started I worried that I might pull out to much to be sustainable, but now I realize the danger is that I won’t be able to keep up and the saplings will all turn into trees too large for my purposes. Today I cut down about twelve to fifteen saplings and cut off most of the small branches and cut them more or less in half before tying them down to my sled. This left me pulling twenty something twigs about ten feet long. It probably weighed one hundred pounds or so. The snow was so fluffy that I took off my snowshoes for the walk back as I was sure they would just get in the way. (Pulling the empty sled, I sank half a foot into the snow, even with the snowshoes on.) The pull back was tiring. Every time I stopped I marveled at the thought of those Antarctic explorers pulling their massive sleds across snow so cold that the runners didn’t run. But it was fine out there. That was the other notable thing about the day – it was really quiet. I didn’t hear the usual summer noises, like traffic, or planes, or construction, or chain saws, or lawn mowers. I didn’t hear winter noises either, like kids sledding, or tires spinning, or planes, or snow blowers. I just heard the sound of my breath, and the shriek of a red tailed hawk out looking for a snack. I did see some prints in the snow. There were rabbits, and small birds (even the tracks of a tuft of grass blown about by the wind registered in the unblemished snow). A mid-sized canine (dog, fox, coyote?) left behind a loping trail for me to see. But there were no other human tracks. I was first explorer in these woods since this storm. Another sound I did hear was one of the loveliest that a winterscape can offer. It was the trickle of a brook running under the ice. It has a special sound slightly different from a brook in summer – a special musical quality.


With my fully loaded sled, I was forced to stop to rest several times on my return to the barnyard. When I got back I stacked most of the wood up against the metal stanchions in the barn. These uprights are spaced with two bars about a foot apart and then a gap of four feet or so. The oxen were held in place by means of a metal yoke with metal chain attached at the top and bottom to allow the animals some movement. The chained yokes are gone and now the bars are just two close then larger gap and then two close again. As an experiment (which I will photograph next time.) I have placed some twigs between the close uprights and then pulled the remaining free end of the branches back again so that the wood is “woven” between the bars. I am hoping it will dry in a shape useful for making chairs that have a more comfortably angled back, and that I will have a bunch of pieces with uniform angles. I’ll keep you apprised.
The weather forecast over the next few days is crazy. Tomorrow it is supposed to be in the 30’s and rainy. Monday is forecast to be around 50 degrees. And after that temps are predicted to go back to the teens and twenties. I don’t know if there will be snow around next week or if it will be too icy to do anything. So we’ll do what folks have been doing forever, see what comes and play it by ear. Let’s just hope it is quiet enough that we can hear and appreciate the sound.

Nifty Little Video

December 3, 2013

If you read my last post you may remember that I had a student who was building a scale model of a rowboat. Well, you can now take a look at it.

I am also posting a link to a nifty little video about Holly Hill Farm. If you get a chance, take a look.

Shop v. the Computer

November 20, 2013

Now and then I write essays on my professional life. Some of them get posted on two websites associated with my work place, the Dearborn Academy in Arlington, MA, one of Schools for Children, Inc.’s multiple schools in the Greater Boston area. I have submitted this one to these others sites, but you saw it here first.

The other day I was asked by my supervisor whether I thought my students were enjoying shop class as much as they used to. I had to admit that fewer students had been signing up for shop at recess than in previous years. She was surprised. She knew during tours of our school the shop is always a big draw. It’s true. I see the potential students on the tour. They get to the shop and their eyes widen and a look of great excitement comes over most of them. Their parents/guardians too get that look. The adults invariably remark on how they love the smell of the wood, that they wish they could take shop, or tell me about their three fingered shop teacher and the step stool they made in junior high school that they still use every day.
However, if they are eventually enrolled at our school many of these students find that shop does not quite match their expectations. And lately computer recess has become a much more popular option. There are several reasons for this, some are intrinsic to woodshop, and some have to do with the comparative qualities of shop and computers in general.
Interestingly, the most popular game in computer recess these days is Minecraft, a deceptively primitive looking online game, in which gamers build, virtually, any number of things, including houses and their contents. Despite its low quality graphics, what engages kids is the ability to make things. Why would students prefer building virtual objects to real? The answer is twofold. First is speed. In the virtual realm, building a table requires approaching a tree with an axe. Several mouse clicks later a pile of boards appears in place of said tree. When the player swaps the axe for the hammer, it only takes a few more mouse clicks and a table appears where the pile of boards had been. The real world has a tough time competing with that. In addition, the pride that we might expect they would feel only from making something in the real world, is available to them in the virtual world as well. Because these games are multiplayer internet games, my students are playing them with their friends at all hours with no geographic restrictions. Those who are good at them can show off and share their skills with many more people than they could ever show their real world shop projects. They also have access to items they “made” in school anywhere they have an internet connection and a computer.
The social aspect of these games is an important part of the appeal. The chance to feel competent within a large community while doing something one enjoys is very seductive. If I did not believe so deeply in the value of the skills a student can learn in shop I’d be tempted to throw in the towel, and just say, “Let them have their fun.” But much of what is hardest to “sell” about shop is what makes it so valuable. While I make an effort to help students make their projects in a reasonable length of time, their projects often take a few weeks to complete, as opposed to a few mouse clicks. The process also requires planning, manual dexterity, accuracy, and above all patience. Many of these skills can be translated to other classes and areas of their lives. Math is the most obviously transferable of these skills. But in shop one must read and interpret instructions as well. Both in school and out, what I hope students will learn, more than any particular wood working technique, is patience, planning, and the ability to carry a project through to completion.
Oddly enough, since the time I started developing this essay, a student asked me to write a note to his classroom teacher. In part it read, “Save me from myself and sign me up for woodshop recess every day, because I am addicted to computers.” Now, he was only half kidding, but since that note he has come down to shop every day and is working on a beautiful 1/8th model of a rowboat. Now, that’s a hopeful sign.

Dreary Day at Holly Hill

November 2, 2013

Despite the brisk October temps, and the bright blue fall sky, and the amazing light bouncing off the Atlantic, it was a dreary day down at the farm. When I pulled in I asked my Aunt Jean how things were going and she told me, not well. The goat, Kate, (after a week of doing better) was very sick and she was calling the vet to have her put down. They weren’t sure what was wrong, but none of the possibilities was anything they could do anything about. So she needed to dig a grave. I offered to help and we began to dig a hole for poor Kate. We found a bit of space at the bottom of the turn-around, where the big wagons used to turn around when they were still haying on the farm. Now it is the graveyard for old farm equipment and the occasional deceased farm animal.
Digging in the cold New England ground, I couldn’t help but reflect on the centuries of grave digging that have gone on before. We were lucky. We had found a small circle of earth that was not too rocky and not too full of roots. And if we were really lucky, we would not find Kate’s companion, Jasper, who had been buried earlier this fall. Jasper had succumbed to some other mysterious illness, which the vet had feared might be rabies. To test this, they had to autopsy his brain, which meant he was buried headless. Macabre as it may be, a headless goat is easier to bury, given that the horns get in the way otherwise. But Kate would be buried whole, and we had to make sure that hole would accommodate her. And so we dug, and did not run into Jasper the headless goat. It took between a half hour and an hour. We each were alone with our thoughts as we chopped away at the heavy earth. Unfortunately, by the time the hole was dug the farm stand had opened. And we had not yet buried her. Many folks bring their children to the farm and we did not wish to explain to them what we were doing, so we left Kate under a tarp behind the shed that borders her pen until the evening, when my cousin Charlie helped deposit Kate into her final resting place.
When I was done grave digging, I tried a little blacksmithing. I was making small brackets for some coat racks I made a while ago, as well as some hardware for a bench I finished this summer. I was making the small brackets out of nails. I got the idea from an article I saw on DIY snipe hinges in Fine Woodworking. I have to say, it is fun to use my little forge, and I have moved the anvil up from my grandfather’s blacksmith shop so I have a good one. But there are problems. First, blacksmithing is better done indoors where you can more easily see the subtle changes in the color of the metal, but I can’t use the forge inside the oxbarn without a chimney. In fact, after a morning of using it, even outside, I feel pretty headachy and as though I have inhaled much more coal smoke than I’d like. Secondly, working outdoors means wind and it was breezy. Breezy means little embers blowing around and that is a pretty scary thought around all the dry leaves and barns.
While I was working, someone mentioned that my grandfather would be pleased to see me carrying on the tradition. He might, though he might also be too aware of how unskillful I was to be truly pleased. However I was thinking more of my grandmother. My grandmother was a big one for sayings. She had a saying for just about any occasion. When someone mentioned how good looking someone was, she would say, “Handsome is as handsome does.” She was always saying, “Waste not want not.” If we asked what was for dessert, she’d tell us, “Patience pudding with wait-and-see sauce.” And if we wished we could do this or that, she’s say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” So as I labored away, struggling with tongs that were too large and a forge that was too smoky, etc. I could hear her saying, “It’s a poor workman who complains of his tools.” I suspect, that in her day she heard a lot of complaining about tools.

October Morn

October 12, 2013

The morning in Watertown was beautiful. Not what the forecast had been at all. The sky was blue with minimal clouds visible from my kitchen window and the sound of the migrating geese was a perfect accompaniment to the perfect fall morning. But by the time I was getting into my truck to head to the farm it had clouded over and the entire drive down the sun seemed ambivalent about whether to show for work. At Wollaston Beach I could see that the wind was out of the North, making for a low chop in the bay and even some minor whitecaps. The runners were bent into the wind, and even with the windows up and the tide high I could smell the ocean. Not that I needed any confirmation, but on Rockland Ave. in North Cohasset, I could see the big wind turbine, Hull Two, churning powerfully in the strong North East breeze. It was certainly the chilliest day I had been at the farm this fall, though not unpleasant. In fact, by ten I was able to work comfortably in a tee shirt. I had come down with a plan.
Last year, on Halloween or the day after, it had occurred to me that it might be fun to make small decorative brooms to sell at the farm stand. Of course, by then it was to late for last year, but somehow after a year, I managed to remember and my plan this morning was to go out into the salt marsh and cut some salt grass. There are several scythes lying around the farm and I thought I might give one a whirl so to speak. The farmers were wondering what I was up to as I made my way down to the marsh. It just so happened that a lovely gentleman, by the name of Hap Pompeo was visiting as well. He worked with my grandfather many years back, and longer ago than that he had worked with his grandfather cutting hay with a scythe. I don’t know what he must have been thinking when he saw me with the implement, but he was kind enough to wish my good luck on my way by. Well, I hacked away at the tall grass for a bit and came away with plenty of material for my project, but all I could think of was how those Bruegel peasant’s would really have had something to laugh about if they had seen me, and if Death had been as inept as I with a scythe, the bubonic plague would have been remembered not as the Black Death, but the annoying sniffle. Anyway, I carried my harvest back to the barn under one arm and the scythe in the other and began.

I cut a few curly branches that seemed unlikely to ever make it as actual furniture, and tapered the ends with my drawknife. Then I made a small slipknot of twine and slipped it over the end of the stick. After putting some grass around the stick I placed a small loop of string along the grass and put the slipknot over the stick, grass, and loop of string. Then I wound the twine around all three for a couple inches. With the loop of the string sticking out, I cut the twine, placed it through the loop and pulled the string under the wound up twine. I have tried to show that in these photos.

I had several brooms finished before the farm stand opened and sold not a one. But as always, the fun is in the doing. It was a good day for visitors, lots of families, and lots of questions and compliments. Maybe next week I will actually sell something.

The farm stand, by the way, is looking great these days. Harvest, bounty, cornucopia, all these words come to mind as you look at the beautiful result of the summer’s labors. On the way down I had stopped at a bagel shop and was asked if I wanted a tomato on my sandwich. Looking at the tub of green-pink vegetable matter, I bit my tongue and said no thank you. Then I bought a “second” from the farm stand that was better than any “tomato” to come within a mile of that bagel shop and put it on my sandwich. It is a magical time of year.

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