Saturday, 16 May 2009

Blacksmithing


If you want to spend a few days surrounded by scenic landscape, you could do worse than Bealkelly Wood in County Clare, Ireland. There, decades ago, an old survivalist bought land at the edge of Lough Derg, planted trees and maintained the forest, and still lives off the land today – and occasionally greets a hundred or so guests.

The land is now the site where the non-profit CELT– Centre for Environmental Living and Training – hosts courses in fishing, smithing, carving, stone building and many other traditional crafts. This past weekend, our whole family journeyed across the island to one of these events, and everyone took a different course -- my wife took copper-smithing, my mother-in-law wood carving, The Girl played with other children in a central area in view of all of us – and I tried my hand at blacksmithing.

You don’t become an expert blacksmith in a couple of days, of course, but the class bestowed the basic information and a little experience. Two very patient smiths worked with myself and three other students, walking us through the basics, correcting us and stepping in when we went wrong, until we each came away with some hand-crafted work.

In movies blacksmiths look like WWF wrestlers, dramatically slamming white-hot metal with sledgehammers. Our experience was different – a plate-sized fire, small tools and frantic tapping. The forge was an old metal hubcap, with small holes drilled in the middle, standing on a metal pipe. At the other end of the pipe was a hand-cranked blower – I don’t know what it was originally, but the smith said you could substitute the metal fan from an old Electrolux vacuum.

Our elderly teacher began each day by lighting a small fire in the middle of the hubcap, right over the holes. Once the fire was going, he placed charcoal delicately over it, and then a ring of coal around the charcoal, and the crank fan blew air through the middle to keep the fire hot. Iron-working only appeared in the last 5,000 years or so – the final 0.3 percent of the time humans have had fire – because ordinary wood fire does not heat iron enough to work, and large amounts of charcoal and air are needed. The coal, I was told, helps the fire continue but is not necessary.

The four of us quickly learned that you need to spend a great deal of time standing over the fire, with the metal part in just the right place – in the middle, above the blower and slightly buried in charcoal – to get the right temperature. Too little heat, of course, and the metal cannot be worked, but too much and it begins to “burn,” liquefying and deforming. A lot depends on the size of the metal piece – the tractor axel we put in took ages to heat, but I accidentally burned off the tines of my fork in short order.

Once the metal was glowing orange, we had to rapidly move it to the anvil without yanking it out and sending hot coals everywhere, and without burning the people standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you. Once at the anvil you had only several seconds of BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM ... until it was black and solid again.

Also useful are steel vices (vises to Americans) and hefty pliers, which allowed us to grip metal while turning it – hence the twist in the fork handle. None of us wore gloves, but leather aprons and goggles were recommended against flying sparks and coals.

In the end we came away with two roasting forks – one made by me, the other won in a raffle – and a horseshoe that I’m not including in a picture. I was supposed to shape it into the head of a horse, but mine looks more like a praying mantis.:-)

Blacksmithing is one of the dozens of professions that were widespread until just the last century, now is kept alive only by a few aficionados. For thousands of years in metalworking cultures, smiths were a vital and respected role – look how common it is as a surname today. They might become vital again if the coming decades bring the turmoil we anticipate. With charcoal and tools, a smith could turn landfill scrap and old car parts into useful tools again – and as far as I know, there is no end to the number of times metal can be recycled.

When the world is no longer able to mass-produce new materials at its former rate, when there is no new plastic and fewer forests, we will have billions of tons of landfill waste. Movies like WALL-E posit garbage covering the Earth, but in real life much of that garbage would not only be reusable, but precious. Some of it will be metal – the U.S. alone will have a car for every person, and a few decades from now few of those cars will be driving. The Chinese are doing their best to buy up all this precious resource from U.S. junk dealers, along with the plastic we might need again, but hopefully enough landfills will remain to become mines.

Some of my favourite books as a teenager were Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, about human cultures scattered across space in the far future. In the pivotal novel of the series the prescient leader gradually transforms the titular desert planet into lush greenery, its Bedouin-style inhabitants, called “Fremen,” into farmers. He bids a small minority of them, however, to live in the one remaining desert as Museum Fremen, keeping the old traditions alive. He is the only one who knows that the planetary transformation is only temporary, that someday the land will become desert again, and the Museum Fremen can teach the others how to live. Weekends like this allow us to become museum people, accumulating the knowledge that our children might need.

Top photo: The fire, with a tractor axel in it. Bottom photo: the forks.

4 comments:

lagedargent said...

Dear Brian,
I happened on your blog by Energy Bulletin, and I'm following you for a week now.
Nice story about the blacksmithing workshop, but please tell me, do you honestly believe...

>> Weekends like this allow us to become museum people, accumulating the knowledge that our children might need. <<

... that you and I should acquire these skills now to help our kids survive in a not too distant future?

Brian Kaller said...

Lagedargent,

Thanks for reading, and the short answer is yes. A better answer would be more complicated. Here’s the bullet-point version, and just skip over the parts you already know.

Most of us have been raised in the modern West, in societies that were burning through the world’s available resources at an exponential rate – we are used to advanced technology, a surfeit of cheap energy and easy transportation. But the supply of fossil fuels are limited, our emissions are transforming the climate and landscape, and our population continues to rise. These trends cannot continue forever, so our modern world will not go on as it is now.

Exactly how we will live will depend on our location and the details of future events – wars, new technologies and so on. Most likely, though, we will have to live more like people did centuries or even just decades ago – using less, wasting less, becoming more self-reliant and local, fixing and building more ourselves.

People lived agrarian village lives for thousands of years, the closest we have come to the truly sustainable, and those ways might grow widespread again.
For that reason, many basic skills – growing food, crafting wood and iron, raising animals – will probably be needed, and they have become rare in today’s world. Thus, we are trying to re-cultivate the knowledge for if and when they are needed.

I don’t think that the world will look just like Hollywood post-apocalyptic action movies, or like the Amish or traditional Irish. We will still have our modern infrastructure – highways, skyscrapers and cars, although we will have less energy to use them. We will have a whole range of scientific knowledge not available before the modern age -- how plants work, that boiling water kills germs, and so on. I expect future generations will use some blend of traditional life and modern knowledge, and my associates and I want to see that combination take the best of both worlds.

As I say, I did not become an expert blacksmith over a weekend, any more than I am an expert cob builder, bushcrafter or gardener. Such proper skills take a lifetime, but we are gradually learning the basics -- not because we think we will be living in the Old West in a few years, but because our children migght find them handy.

Happily, activities like growing food and learning traditional crafts can be practiced by almost everyone, and are fun family activities, harmless if these predictions turn out to be mistaken.

I covered this in a series of posts starting here:
http://restoringmayberry.blogspot.com/2009/03/transcript-to-transition-town-speech.html

lagedargent said...

Brian,
I followed your suggestion, and read through your transition-town speech of March, and up to the bluebells of May, enjoying your pictures of the Irish countryside along the way.
Initially, I was triggered by your nettles' post. Once we actually made and ate nettle soup, and personally, I prepared myself an experimental dandelion sandwich, flowers and all, to my wife's utter horror and disbelief. Maybe now, I would have added a drop of balsamico, but such delicacies were unheard of at that time, at least at our latitude.

With respect to your philosophies, never before did I encounter a view as balanced and encompassing as yours, I daresay, bar John Michael Greer's.
The important thing is to prepare for the worst, while enjoying what you're doing, and in the company of like-minded people. There's your advantage over me. I've been a towndweller, all my live, and I don't know any one on a personal level, who has the slightest clue of what the near future may have in store for us. Raise the subject, and try to paint an even modestly bleak picture, and what you meet is denial and quite unmodest irritation.

Even though the rashness of the decline of the banking system makes every one wonder, only a very few people are prepared to acknowledge the brittleness of the systems modern life is depending on. They just won't see it, and keep clinging to the straws that join their sense of well-being with the pursuit of the world of plenty.

That's why I expect the emergency to be indeed a very long one, a protracted up-hill struggle of the majority of our species against the superior, but fickle champions of Gaia. Western civilization is built on entitlements, the idea that individuals can claim inalienable rights to the fruits of the earth - and those of their less developed fellow men. It will be long ere they can acknowledge the inconveniable truth that these entitlements, too, might have been only a fiction of their over-stretched imagination in an age of cheap fossile fuel.

I do fully agree with you, that this process will result in a motley range of different, small societies, scaled to the quirks of local circumstance. As to the time-scale, I'm completely in the dark, as well as to the moment that things will get really nasty.

Brian Kaller said...

Thank you – I’m honoured to be compared to Mr. Greer. I just had some dandelions myself in salad, and was just writing something about them now.

I wouldn’t write off your area yet – even if most people are not familiar with the Long Emergency idea, they are probably familiar with climate change or some other environmental problem. Organic food, community gardens, localization – these are all growing rapidly, so some people are seeing pieces.

We didn’t know many people when we moved here, and we have a smaller pool to draw from than a city-dweller would. But we found a few kindred spirit or two, and they knew someone, who knew someone, and so on. So don’t give up on your area just yet.

I think we agree about the general course of events, and they might grow as dark as you say – but people can also surprise you. Look at any social movement of the last century – women getting the right to vote, for example – and few people believed it would ever happen, until it did. Right now news of our issues is spreading rapidly – look at how few years ago peak oil and climate change were considered fringe issues. So there is hope.

Glad to have you reading.