Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wood and Water

 Wood & Water
I've noticed that the majority of visitors to this blog come to read the entry "A Building Lifestyle," about building my kayak, "Hei Matau."  There have been readers from Sweden, New England, India, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, and Nanaimo, British Columbia, just to name a few far-flung places. Of all of the things I've built or studied in the area of woodworking, boats have been for me the most fascinating and compelling. By comparison, a fine piece of furniture, or an artfully appointed room using various trim and moulding is satisfying work, and I've spent time doing that. 

A boat, though, has so many mesmerizing elements. One is just the visual beauty of curvilinear vessels. Smooth and sweeping lines, dynamic even when sitting still, the eye is drawn to study them. The nature of these shapes keeps you guessing, tricking your sense of perspective. If you've ever photographed boats you know that the two dimensional image leaves a lot to be desired. A false image is common, leaving a long and lithe craft looking stubby or even cock-eyed. Length is elusive to guage, and finding a good viewing angle is difficult. With lines vanishing from view, tapering and curving inward, lifting and terminating, it's easy to be fooled about the real proportions. 

Viking reproduction being built in Roskilde, Denmark

The idea that static wood, milled from the forest, then coaxed into shape by your hands, can soon carry you away over water, is a hugely appealing element. Seeing that the wood still lives, and reacts to the watery environment, is part of the process. They say that an astute cabinetmaker makes a poor boatwright; making joints too close and tight, illiterate about the kind of behavior to expect in the life of a boat. From baby Moses in a reed boat, to Joshua Slocum sailing around the world, the adventure and freedom to traverse water is a siren song, even to those who haven't tried it. Lore and literature is full when it comes to boats. To go from just swimming, to navigating a floating craft, is a great leap in potential. You can carry things. You might stay mostly dry. Water denizens don't trouble you as much. You can go far; travel alone or with a crew. The privilege of inhabiting a space not meant for our ambulating mode of movement feels almost like a transit to another planet. 

For me, a long ocean journey is less a draw than near-shore or lakeside adventures. Experiencing the motion of the water, a gliding sensation of speed, wind, the altered view, all rank high. Exploring inlets or cliff-bound shorelines makes for an outing you couldn't accomplish any other way. (Being able to quickly come ashore in bad weather another plus.)

There is the actual construction of the thing to make an admirer out of you. The shape and form of a boat makes for special challenges. Beauty arises from working to make a hydrodynamic hull, not from flourishes just meant to impress.  The language of boatbuilding is succintly described with the word "fair."  There may be some rectilinear constructions in furniture or homebuilding that can successfully rely on repeated components for length and width, coming out well again and again.  But a boatbuilder reserves a part of the process for using the eye, more than just taking off dimensions from a blueprint. Rote cutting and laying up of predetermined planks is not something you can expect to do successfully. Instead there is lining off as you go, letting your eye judge the curvature that the frame and the bending planks are expressing moment to moment. Being influenced and guided by the results as they appear. Although there are parameters designed into a hull as to number of planks and their general width being defined by carefully placed ribbands on a building form, so much depends on whether the trial fit in front of you is "fair" to the eye; and so you make adjustments until it is.  Especially where curves terminate at stem or stern. 

Growing up, our family lived on the west coast of North America near San Francisco, and then for a time on Pacific Islands. In the East Bay, I remember the creaking sound of seagulls along the shoreline, and seeing marinas full of sailboats. I didn't learn to swim until I was ten.  My motivation was to be able to take sailing lessons. After passing my swim test, I then spent a few weeks on Lake Merritt, learning to duck under the boom of a little Sunfish, coming about, waiting to capsize, which never happened. That was the extent of my lessons, as we moved and I didn't keep up with it. In the islands, I remember the first time I was aboard a good-sized sailboat, the captain belonged to our cycling club and had crossed an ocean or two. We sailed out far enough to lose sight of land. That was a moment of commitment, trusting the captain to find land again. When Diamond Head reappeared, some of us stopped holding our breath. So, I am a near-shore boater, I find. 

Anyway, I don't have a maritime resume, and I'm not a sailor.  But woodworking has been a big part of my life, and as part of that I've devoted many hours to exploring the craft of boatbuilding. Even though I've lately spent years landlocked in the Rocky Mountain West, always on the lookout for a quiet lake without a surfeit of motorized craft. 

Recently, I took a trip to Maine, and I was struck by how completely familiar it all seemed to me. I've spent years poring over Woodenboat magazine, reading about Pete Culler, or Nathanial Herreshoff, 

and taking in boatbuilder Tom Hill's words about 'gunkholing,' as I built an example of one of his lightweight canoes. Numerous other windows into the 'Downeast' lifestyle came to me as I stood on a hill looking over Camden, or looking out to sea from Owl's Head. Weaving along the coast in a car or on a bicycle, the ever-present shoreline and the sound and smell of the sea seemed so familiar, so dejà vu, though I had never been to these places. Almost everywhere, even at the end of the season, boats and fishing and a lifestyle of living near the sea were prominent. 

Even my time spent living on a Hawaiian island, surrounded by 3,000 miles of ocean, did not feel so bound to the sea as did these small coastal towns, with their fishing boats, lighthouses, boatyards, and lobster traps. Perhaps my own distraction with school and work kept me from feeling such a connection. Sadly the lack of a strong traditional sense of the sea may have been because seafaring has been eclipsed by the frantic tourist trade. Most visitors arrive by plane now. The beautiful Pacific islands are certainly historic for seafaring tradition. That Polynesian navigators and sailors found the islands in the first place looms large, these sailors arriving without modern navigational tools but in possession of truly canny knowledge of stars, currents, and myriad other signs of the sea.  An odd memory I have is of the carved and painted wooden sailors found in Lahaina, Maui; from traditional carving styles brought by colonial sailors in the 1800's. Anglo, white-bearded, smoking a pipe. They look just like a sea-captain statue you would see in an east-coast seafood restaurant. Tourists bought them. I feel a vague sense of loss that this symbol, rather than some other, would define Hawaii to some brief traveler.  The antipathy many locals had for 'discoverer' captain Cook rubbed off on me, I guess. 

Certainly every hour, every year that I spent near the ocean left a mark on me. I can call up the sound of crashing waves without any effort. Doppling from quiet to loud;  hissing in retreat. Jumping into the waves, buoyed by their saline strength, it never felt cliché to be exhilarated by the ride back to shore. Counting the sets, seeing the crest grow taller by the seventh or ninth wave, and deciding at the last minute whether to dive under or to turn & join the fluid force that either propelled you, or might instead pummel you. 

My sentimental attachment to the sea, and my admiration for boats made of wood, made my visit to Maine feel like an unexpected homecoming. 

I stood at various wharves and ports and beaches, made aware of my vast ignorance, while I was at the same time feeling a stirring connection to the whole scene. 

Rockport, Maine

I've stood at water's edge in Skuldelev, Denmark, admiring small double-ended boats whose design goes back to Viking times. I've pedaled along canals in France, outpacing sturdy and sometimes artfully built bateaux. I've seen iconic gondolas in Venezia, coexisting with modern vaporetti. But having a boat of one's own, of any design, is hard to beat. So I like to imagine that those many readers who are studying my little Hei Matau kayak have strong connections of their own to wood and water. I find it a hopeful thing, that folks in places near and far are looking at something they can build with their own hands. I say, do it!

Skuldelev, Denmark

All photos by author."A Building Lifestyle"

Thursday, January 3, 2013



I started to notice it a few months ago.  First, a lone truck with a cab-over camper. It was parked on a dead-end city street near a giant elm tree in the middle of a cul-de-sac. Almost every time I passed the little-trafficked spot, the truck was there, especially in the evenings.  At night, lights were on in the camper.

After a while, another vehicle became a regular sight.  In the daytime, there'd be someone in a lawn chair, reading.  Towels or sheets draped over the insides of windshields and side windows for privacy.  A third vehicle soon appeared, looking lived-in as well.  

At first, it seemed it might be a concern for neighborhood security.  Should someone report them? For what? Were these urban gypsies doing any harm?  If I put myself in their shoes, I'd have thought I'd selected a location rather well. Quiet. Cool under the shade of a hundred-year old tree. A park bathroom nearby. Not a lot of cars going by to  disturb them. It took only a moment to realize these folks were homeless. Their cars are probably their last large material asset. And now their only physical shelter. 

After many months the situation started to seem ordinary on my trips through the park by bicycle. Living just a few blocks away, I feel a mild sense of ownership over the neighborhood, but I began to think that it would be nice if no-one bothered these resourceful campers. As long as they aren't disturbing anyone or endangering the area. We have several anecdotes to show that these particular campers have some civic pride. They seemed to become unofficial members of our loose neighborhood watch. One or two of them are quite polite, sharing resources and looking out for each other. A nearby homeowner observed that the casual drug deals sometimes seen at the park ceased once the campers took up residence.

One recent summer morning, I was riding back from errands, slowly weaving around the dead end past the old tree. I saw a new car parked in the area. A beautiful dog was lying on top of blankets and a sleeping bag piled on the sidewalk. A vibrant young woman was organizing a pile of clothing and some boxes. Her older sedan was overfull. I thought, What if this was my own fate? What if I am someday reduced to living out of a car? 

How did the campers learn about this spot? Did they meet each other elsewhere and share "hobo knowledge" about how to survive? Is there a tipping point coming, where too many will eventually make an unsupportable impact and ruin it for all? (Months later, for unknown reasons, there now seems to be only one car, and it's not there all the time.) 

Is this happening all around the city? I think it is.  Several homeless camps come and go along the river downtown, and around various empty lots in secluded places. Wooded bike paths out of sight from roadways are known spots. The police have done a sweep


or two, moving vagrant campers out at times.  There was a campaign to give bus tickets home to many of these transients in our city. At the time I wondered if there was anywhere they wanted to return to; were they still inclined to name some faraway place as their home? Did they not think of our city as their home? 

As the city grapples with the issue of the indigent or homeless, sometimes they legislate or make proclamations to try and overcome perceived side effects. Recently our city drew a line around downtown and outlawed panhandling within those bounds. It was contested in a higher court and looks like it won't hold up legally. Maybe too broad of a brush, too arbitrary a rule. Is there a better way to groom the behavior of all kinds of citizens downtown? Are we not all free to say no to a panhandler? What kind of asking campaign is legal? Is fundraising the domain of only the elite? Among other things, the rule threatened holiday bell ringers, and a dilemma emerged.

Meanwhile, historical images in black and white come to my mind. Images of early horseless carriages, overloaded with haphazardly secured objects, improbable ones; pianos and furniture. As if a new home were certain to be secured soon, with space big enough for these large material goods.  A poignant sense of hopelessness drips from the scenes. But hope is there, in their defiant sense of courage, striking out for the unknown. I'm referring to migrant photos from the Dust Bowl era, famous images captured by Dorothea Lange.  Writer John Steinbeck made stark reports on the migrant phenomenon appearing in California. He traveled around with the man responsible for trying to govern the many camps that sprang up near farm fields. The work was not enough to sustain the families, their children were not welcomed at local schools, illness and hunger was rampant. Many incurred debt just trying to buy food at local stores, sometimes owned by the same large farms they worked on. A wage may never have translated into savings. 

The homeless dynamic of those displaced after their homesteads were buried in dirt naturally would have had a fragile thread of pride, a forlorn desire to deflect the pain of stigma. Through no intention of their own, they had been wiped like dusty chalk from a chalkboard; the midwestern fields flew up in a seeming rage and made going on impossible. They clung to the possibility of finding work out west.  Large caravans 

Dust bowl era house, North Dakota   (Photo by Alex Sienkiewicz)  

traveled to California; the camps along the way made a visible event that drew attention by its sheer numbers. Though they could have been described as heroic survivors of an event of nature, they were scorned and often turned away. We only later learned that the collective effect of plowing vast areas of grassland contributed to the Dust Bowl, but a fair person would be loath to incriminate individual farmers caught up in what was the order of the day. 

At present, we seem to have a more occult homeless phenomenon, unseen by many. We don't have large caravans to observe. Instead it occurs in ones and twos, adding up to surprisingly large numbers.  It's commonly assumed that many homeless are somehow deserving or responsible for the situation they are in. Perhaps that's sometimes true. But do we feel qualified to decide which ones "chose" to live on the street?  And either way, are we right to turn to scorn? I've seen seemingly ordinary people down on their luck, trying to survive. They find a way to double up with family, or live in their car unobtrusively, keeping on the move. Staying 'under the radar.'  

I think we'd like not to think very hard about this, if only because we may be eerily reminded that our own path may only be steps away from a similar fate. We'd like to think our pure will and determination are a complete defense against ever becoming homeless. We're not at all like any of those who are homeless. Or, are we? 

If we're not called to bring every last one in out of the cold, something easier said than done, at least the graceful thing to do is to reserve judgement about their character and how they got there.