Shop Class as Soulcraft – An Inquiry into the Value of Work

ShopclassSoulcraftShop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work
By Matthew B. Crawford
2009 The Penguin Press, 248 pp, $25.95

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, author, philosopher, and mechanic Matthew B. Crawford challenges the fifty year-old notion that America is headed toward a “postindustrial society” where we are sliding into a pure information economy and leaving our material reality behind. He points out that out-sourced, off-shored workers aren’t much help when it comes to the physical reality of busted water pipes, electrical wiring gone bad, and decks with rotted boards.

For decades high schools have been shedding shop classes but, maintains Crawford, at a high cost for both society and individuals. He argues that manual crafts are no longer honored due to a fear that acquiring a unique skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, many students don’t learn how to do specific tasks. Their college education is engineered to be a doorway to an open future. While being open to the possibilities of life is a valuable asset, this postindustrial mindset celebrates potential rather actual achievement. Crawford points out, “Prestigious fellowships, internships, and degrees become the standard of self-esteem. This is hardly an education for independence, intellectual adventurousness, or strong character.”

However, in traditional shop class, students learn how to do one thing really well. And in doing so, secure a meaningful place for himself/herself in a society. The value and security of being good at something lies in the fact that the individual has firsthand, personal knowledge which gives that person a large degree of independence as well as personal responsibility.

In 2006 a Wall Street Journal article wondered if, “skilled [manual] labor is becoming one of the few sure paths to a good living.” Crawford points out that there are chronic shortages of skilled labor in many industries. He says, “Out of the current confusion of ideals and confounding career hopes, a calm recognition may yet emerge that productive labor is the foundation of all prosperity.”

Lost Crafts: Rediscovering Traditional Skills

Lost Crafts: Rediscovering Traditional Skills
By Una McGovern
2008 Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd, 376 pp, $24.95

Lost CraftsAuthor Una McGovern turns back the pages of time to remind readers of half-forgotten skills that were once as ubiquitous as the smartphone. Before the industrial revolution, every household had their own cider maker, beekeeper, rope maker, basket weaver, candle maker and much more. These abilities were not just the result of years of learning but also the result of careful observation of the natural world. They made families self-sufficient and in a hostile world this knowledge was often the difference between surviving or not.

The skill of coppicing, for example, is an ancient method of woodland management that intentionally produces material that will later be used for house building, making charcoal, basketry, brooms as well other things important to the function and comfort of the household. Like most of the skills in this book, coppicing is not instant gratification. And, it also requires the craftsman to work in tune with nature. When a broad-leaved tree is cut down, if the stump and roots are left intact, the tree will coppice. This means the tree will put its energy into regrowing by sending out new shoots. When the shoots reach the correct size for their intended purpose (which could be years) they are harvested and the process starts over. A practice similar to coppicing is called pollarding. Instead of cutting the tree at the ground, the tree is cut about eight feet up. Because the resulting shoots grow above the grazing level of animals, it is a useful method of growing firewood in an area that is also used as pasture.

Lost Crafts is filled with practical, simple knowledge that enabled former generations to live in harmony with nature and themselves. In a time where the ability to “work with one’s hands” is once again re-gaining the respect it deserves, this book opens a door. McGovern reminds us that even in a modern world, the ability to make a fire without a match, fish with creel, skin a rabbit, forage for wild food, and navigate by the stars are still very valuable skills to have.

The Ancient Art of the Arborist

In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil was an eternal green ash tree that protected the entire world. Christian mythology says that the tree of life stood in the Garden of Eden uniting heaven and earth. And it is said that the Roman god Attis lent his spirit to the pine tree, which became the Maypole. On Midsummer’s Day, dancers would participate in a ceremony to celebrate the weaving of the world. As early as 600 BC, Celts planted trees in the names of their children to insure a connection between the divine and earthbound aspects of the soul.

These ancients would have easily understood Bryan Lilly. The bumper sticker on arborist Lilly’s truck reads, “Treehugging Dirt Worshipper.” Trained in the art and science of planting, caring for and maintaining individual trees, Lilly is a self-confessed plantaholic. He takes the health and welfare of trees personally by careful pruning, environmentally responsible pest management and constant monitoring. One of his latest projects has been to restore an entire heirloom apple orchard back to wellness.

Trees are the longest living and largest living organisms on earth, so it is no wonder that many ancient traditions, and Bryan Lilly, believe that trees produce both the fruits of knowledge and life. Bryan Lilly, ISA Certified Arborist – find him hugging trees at Natural Elements LLC (540-675-3084) in Huntly, Virginia.

For more information on the art and science of caring for trees visit the International Society of Arboriculture.

Taking Control of Fire and Air: Traditional Blacksmithing at Sanborn Mills Farm

The ancients believed that with an anvil, a hammer and a strong fire a blacksmith could make everything he needed. After that, he could make everything anyone else needed. It’s no wonder that an art which forged nations is experiencing a renewed interest around the globe. At Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire, students come to learn this and other traditional skills that were once central to every thriving community.

A blacksmith creates an object by forging metal into a desired shape or form. Under his hammer, iron and steel becomes tools, horseshoes, weapons, armor, furniture, sculpture and whatever else he wills. Yet, there are only five basic operations or techniques used in forging:
Drawing – lengthens the metal by reducing one or both of the dimensions
Shrinking – the opposite process as drawing, resulting in a thicker piece
Bending – the metal is hammered or bent to desired shape or angle
Upsetting – the process of making the metal thicker in one dimension through shortening in the other
Punching – making a hole

Photo by E. John Waldron

While the idea of forcing iron to submit to your will may seem daunting, “If you can hammer a nail, you can get started blacksmithing.” says Colin Cabot, farmer, conservationist, preservationist and entrepreneur. Some of the things students will learn during the three-day workshop for beginners is safety, respect for the art, fire management, air handling, how to find the hottest part of the fire and how to “read” what is going on with the metal by judging its color. Beginning blacksmiths will use the techniques of drawing and tapering to create a gate hook. And they will learn the important secret of making multiples of the same item.

“Learning to forge metal is a linear progression of skills.” says Cabot. Individuals taking the intermediate workshop can expect to further develop their basic skills while moving onto finer work such as hardening steel for tools and knives.

Photo by E. John Waldron

Sanborn Mills Farm is a traditional New England diversified working farm with agricultural fields and managed forests. The timber-framed barns and outbuildings are used for animals. Dating from the 1830s, the water-powered sawmill and grist mill, and blacksmith shop still serve their original purpose. The farm buildings are clustered around two dams at the outlet of Sanborn Pond. At one time, the farm was a bustling center of agricultural activities that supported an extended family and served the surrounding community. Today, Colin and Paula Cabot have gathered farmers, craftspeople and historians to teach traditional skills. They provide opportunities for people to learn old-fashioned ways and explore how this knowledge can be integrated into modern life. Colin and Paula believe these skills are a vital connection to the land and continue to be important and relevant in our time. Surrounded by almost 2,000 acres of open space held in conservation, Sanborn Mills Farm serves as a meeting place where current needs for sustainability and community are forged with the skills and knowledge of the past.

A few of the other workshops offered at Sanborn Mills are: forge welding, tinsmithing, building stone walls, and logging with animals. Workshops generally cost around $100 per day depending on whether meals are included.  Accommodation is $30 per night. Some materials may be extra. To arrange for classes or gather more information visit:

Where: Sanborn Mills Farm
7097 Sanborn Road
Loudon, New Hampshire 03307
Phone: 603-435-7314
Email: colin@sanbornmills.org

Photographs by E. John Waldron

Facts for Farmers

In 1870, farmer and journalist Solon Robinson (1803-1880), published a two-volume book entitled Facts for Farmers. Bound in dark blue leather, the books are emblazoned in gold with the image of an eagle clutching a pole from which an American flag flies. The word “Liberty” caps the flag pole. Beneath the eagle floats a banner which reads, “Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment of man.”

The 1,098 pages of Facts for Farmers are filled with illustrations, graphs, charts and detailed instruction on everything from managing apple orchards to making whitewash. Interwoven are commonsense tips and practical bits of wisdom on the topic of getting along with nature. Robinson upholds the notion that part of what one earns from life as a farmer is contentment, self-respect and personal freedom. In Robinson’s day you didn’t need much more than a strong back, a patch of ground and an earnest measure of patience with which to await the miracles of Mother Nature—the same is still pretty much true today. From time to time, RLJ will revisit the writings of Robinson to share ideas that are as useful today as they were years ago.

For many years Solon Robinson was the agricultural editor of the New York Tribune. In 1862, under the direction of President Abraham Lincoln, he helped establish the United Sates Department of Agriculture (USDA), “for the purpose of helping farmers obtain good seed and providing them sound information for growing their crops.”