Monday 29 August 2011

Review: Hand Made in Tasmania

Many people I know gravitate to antiques – tools or toys, decorations or devices -- for their beauty and durability. Why, however, must these qualities be antique? Age alone does not improve most items; on the contrary, antique buyers must accept deterioration as part of the item’s already high price.

What draws most antique lovers is not antiquity itself, I suspect, but craftsmanship, the hours of care and lifetime of skill imbued in the final product. A chair, a knife, or even a toy made before the energy needle often meant an investment of many hours of work by someone who had trained for years to master their craft. Such handiwork might last centuries – we have a desk two hundred years old, for example – and if it breaks it can be repaired or the pieces replaced.

While I was writing this, as it happens, my family was watching old film footage of a shoe shop in Naas, a short bicycle ride from us. The film, taken in the 1980s, showed the cobblers wrapping the leather to the shape of their client’s feet, adding layer upon layer, polishing, sewing and adding hundreds of tiny marks solely for decoration. I remarked on the hours and attention devoted to a single shoe, and my mother-in-law, who restored antiques here for decades, said, “Yes, but a pair lasted me thirty years – in six months your sneakers must be thrown away.”

Decades from now, our store-bought goods will not be antiques. Most of them are made of plastic or have some small plastic part, designed to break quickly and require a new purchase -- so most cannot be repaired, and those made of plastic and chemically-treated wood cannot even be safely burned.

Hand Made in Tasmania, edited by Steven French, features 39 crafters who adopted the opposite values, who eschewed normal careers in favour of a vocation. From luthiers to saddlers, felters to binders, each of them embraces, revives and sustains trades that we almost lost when everything became lightly acquired and discarded.

Each chapter, two to four pages long, offers a concise portrait of a single artist; how they came to their esoteric field, and why they have devoted their lives to it. Each explains the quirks and benefits of their passion -- whiskey distiller Patrick Maguire points out that his product, unlike beer or wine, can last virtually forever, or whip-maker Simon Martin explain that kangaroo leather is the strongest leather in the world.

Some of the crafts threaten to disappear altogether; saddler Rick Allen said that his profession was taken off the apprentice list in 1938, and that the last saddler in his city of Hobart died forty years later, the day he opened his shop. Martin said that only 12 whip-makers are left in the world, and that their average age is 68.

Other featured artists revive old techniques; glassblower James Dodson said he uses the same approach as Syrian craftsmen 2,000 years ago. Still others find new methods unique to their region; Joanna Gair makes paper using native plants and kangaroo dung. Some turn modern rubbish into art, like Debbie Reynolds’ baskets of found rope, driftwood and shells.

While the majority of the artists are native Tasmanians, many came from elsewhere; shoemaker Luna Newbie from the UK, knife-maker John Hounslow from New Zealand and beekeeper Yves Ginat from France. In some cases they began in a different field that led them, unexpectedly, to their craft; Hounslow came to knives through cooking, Ginat to beekeeping from farming.

French quotes author Mark Thomson that “… our civilisation, created by technology, is simply an unstable veneer that could snuff out as suddenly as a blown light bulb, leaving us with nothing to fall back on.” Some of these artists will be the people we will turn to in such circumstances – beekeepers, cheese-makers, boat-builders and basket-weavers.

Many of the subjects, admittedly, lean in more purely artistic directions: Rebecca Coote’s glass installations, Ben Kurczok’s hand-crafted kaleidoscopes, Susie McMahon’s sculpted dolls and Emma Colbeck’s refashioned buttons. But the world needs beauty as well, and the same hands that can shape the glass of a bauble could one day do the same, or teach others to do the same, for spectacles, sextant and Sterling engines.

Tasmania might be a particularly fertile ground for artisans, but you likely have people in your area keeping traditions and crafts alive. Wherever you live, there is likely a similar book waiting to be written, filled with allies waiting to be found.

Monday 22 August 2011

The turn of the year

The Girl looking at the neighbours' horses
The seasons turn differently for all of us. My family in Missouri are seeing the last 40-degree (100F) days of an unusually harsh summer, while acquaintances Down Under are seeing the close of a winter. Here, we saw our breath for the first time yesterday, and the leaves are beginning to turn.

These days feel like a countdown; we are drying herbs for tea and seasonings, pickling vegetables, brewing wine, and checking the miles of hedgerow elderberries inching closer to ripeness. The increasingly rainy weather means time is running out to get peat for fuel from the bog; we have enough, but tractor pull wagons past our front gate laden three metres tall with peat sometimes, the father driving and the rest of the family standing and holding the sides. Even though it is still summer, we all feel the oncoming darkness.

I have mentioned how strange it feels -- for one unaccustomed to it -- to live on an island less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, kept mild by a Caribbean current but at latitudes that elsewhere see polar bears. Summers for us mean light in the sky as early as 3 am and as late as 10 pm, long stretches of sun that cause our crops and weeds to grow so rapidly we can’t keep up. Unfortunately, it means that winter brings months of brief, dim light over a Gothic landscape.

Yet the temperature never ranges widely, from a median fifteen (60F) in the summer down to five degrees (40F) in the winter, and the weather only gets rainier. The Irish are well used to the damp and chill; old people tell me they walked to school barefoot in all seasons, which sounds like a standard exaggeration until I see it borne out by historical accounts and photos. Even now the Irish keep their rooms and offices at temperatures far below what most Americans would tolerate.

When the temperature hits 25 degrees, though, (70 F) some of my co-workers turn red, sweat profusely and lunge for the air conditioner – they actually have air conditioners here -- to turn the ambient temperature back down to 15 (50 F) or so. To someone who grew up in 40-degree summers, this seems ridiculous, but we were simply acclimatised to heat as the Irish are to the chill. Even in Missouri or the Deep South, moreover, everyone once lived without air conditioning, and society did not collapse.

Window in a pub near our home
Older homes in St. Louis don’t look ideal for the heat – they look like brick kilns – but they could be sealed off from the sun as Mediterranean homes are today, and instead of verandas they had porches. American homes built in the last few decades have tiny vestigial porches, but on homes built before cheap energy, they served a vital function, allowing people to work and live in shade and a breeze tunnel.

Before World War II, in fact, St. Louisans sometimes slept on their porches in the summer, or on balconies, or in rows of blankets on the grass of Forest Park. You can see a bit of this in the film Rear Window; during the heat wave, a couple sleeps on the fire escape, and the plot hinges on the fact that everyone keeps their windows open. You might think that nothing could be more dangerous than sleeping outside in St. Louis, but crime rates were lower then than now – and that in the middle of the Great Depression, when some people faced genuine starvation. Criminals find it difficult to raid a neighbourhood in which someone is always outside, and everyone knows everyone else.

Similarly, old neighbourhoods in almost any warm city had a range of features to cut down on heat. Some Arab countries feature lattices, which create shade themselves and could host climbing plants that shade further. Awnings draw attention to a window or door and offer protection from the sun, rain and snow, as do street-side trees. Southern homes had jalousie windows allowed air to pass while still offering shade, while Mediterranean homes have shutters that can be closed in mid-day, and many such buildings were white to reflect heat.

Almost all men and women once wore hats, statements not just of fashion but of profession and, most importantly, protection from the sun; hence the wide brims of European sun hats, cowboy hats, Asian bamboo hats and Mexican sombreros. Hats disappeared quickly in the 1960s, however – perhaps victims of changing fashion or the counterculture, or perhaps of the newly widespread office jobs and air conditioning.

Walk through endless miles of strip malls and asphalt in the USA today, and you notice a stunning absence of any basic features to make heat bearable using any method except air conditioning -- no awnings or trellises, no whitewashed roofs, few shutters or trees, and few hats or kerchiefs.

Nor do most modern cities feature amenities for winter; those same awnings would do wonders for keeping snow off the walkways, and those same trees and lattices would break up the wind. Insulated buildings, straw bales or firewood piles around walls, blankets in the attic, close quarters, sealed-off rooms, rows of black bottles in the southern windows – all of these and many more would reduce our winter expenses.

Just as importantly, we could adapt to far less heat in winter, even if we don’t have to walk barefoot in all seasons. A US organisation recommends an indoor winter temperature of around 22 degrees C (around 72F), but the British keep their homes at 17 degrees C (62F), and a few decades ago kept them at 12 degrees (53F), according to the UK’s Building Research Establishment. I don’t have statistics for this country, but I would guess it to be colder still. I’m getting used to it.

Most importantly, just as we can wear sun hats in summer, we can wear thermal undergarments in winter. Growing up I knew long johns mainly from old movies and cartoons, the favoured campfire dress of cowboys and prospectors, or what Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry always fell into on a washing line. As Kris deDecker of Low-Tech magazine pointed out recently, thermal underwear is an amazing heating resource, and recently developed fabrics allow us far better insulation than people had a few decades ago. A single layer of thermal underwear, he calculated, equates to four degrees of thermostat heat, letting you save you up to 40 per cent in heat energy.

The elderly people here remind me how little heat we need, just as other places remind me how much we can tolerate, both goals far beyond my current limits. My family lives with more heat than we truly need, I admit, but we live with about ten degrees less room heat now than when we first arrived in Ireland, and several years from now, one way or another, will live with less still. As with so many of our projects, we never feel like we are truly adapting, so slowly do the changes come. Then we look back several years, and realise how much we’ve changed.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Still runnning

While most cars on the roads here average several years old, as it would be across most of the West, a surprising number of our neighbours maintain cars from the early-to-mid-20th century -- these were parked at a gathering in a nearby town.

Our neighbour down the canal raises cows and his farm seems perpetually muddy, but after he got to know me he brought me to his barn where, two metres from the calves, he lifted a tarpaulin and revealed a row of mint-condition cars from the Prohibition Era, like a secret treasure.