Sunday, September 02, 2012


I just got back from Brooklin, Maine and the Wooden Boat School. I took a class from oar-maker Clint Chase, who was able to communicate a his craft clearly, patiently and with deep knowledge. If you've ever thought about building your own boat or learning to row or sail, this school is amazing, and I can't recommend it enough.

I haven't ever done any fine woodworking before, so there was a huge learning curve -- as there is with almost every aspect of this project. The woodworking that I'd done before, I did as a kid with my dad. My family had a really nice group of shop equipment that had been in my mom's family: a band saw, a fixed jig-saw, a drill press ... I think there was a planer too, but I never saw my dad use it. He wouldn't have needed it because he never did precision woodwork. We built utility shelves and small, practical things like that.

I spent a lot of time during the week thinking about my dad. Ostensibly, my project centers around the story of the death of my great-great-great-great grandfather on my mother's side of the family. But the emotional core of the project really resides with the loss of my own father. And working in a shop, relearning how to use the power equipment really drove this point home for me. It was an emotional week.

Getting outside of one's usual routines, of course, encourages such woolgathering --but even more so in a school environment, which is always a bit abstracted from reality. The Wooden Boat School, situated off of a stunning cove along the Maine coast is highly abstracted from my daily routine.

The cliché about attending school is that most of the learning takes place outside the classroom. On a practical level, this was not the case. I learned an immense amount in class about wood and tools and equipment and oar design and shop maintenance and pedagogy etc. And I spend about 10 hours each day in the shop working.

However, my time at the school outside the shop did raise a lot of issues that run throughout this project. The craft of building oars and boats and of sailing and kayaking and rowing -- all of the things taught at the school -- are practical crafts that were developed out of necessity. But they exist now in a rarified atmosphere -- supported as leisure activity and as art. There is nothing wrong with leisure or art, as such. But the transition away from necessity is striking -- and the bulk of the conversations at the school reinforced the aestheticized nature of the activities.

The same transformation exists in rowing, in the transition from practical skill to sport. And the transformation exists in the environmental work regarding Buzzards Bay, which seems to spread its environmental message most effectively among people that use the bay for leisure activity.

These are all threads that fascinate me as I continue my research and consider the changes that have taken place around Buzzards Bay since 1827. But, it's also nice to not just be soaking in these serious issues of loss and economic transformation. I have something other than just abstract ideas from my scholastic week. I have a great set of sculling oars.