Sunday, March 9, 2014

Happy Skis

"All these techniques have been invented long before your time, honed to perfection over the centuries."  These are the words of Genadi (spelling), a trapper in Russia's far North, recorded in Werner Herzog's film, "Happy People, A Year in the Taiga" (available on Netflix streaming).  Genadi reflects on his trade while engaging in one of the most magnificent woodworking project I've ever seen: the fabrication of a pair of skis.

Using a small hand axe, a plane, a jig for bending the ski tips and not a whole lot else, Genandi produces a new pair of the skis that enable him to cross vast distances of the frozen Taiga and ply his trade.

Genandi's skis takes the concept that an object's form should be an expression of its function-- and elevates it.  The skis also express the natural environment from which and in which they are made. They embody the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next.  They help define the relationship of Genandi's remote village to modernity. They inform Genandi's understanding of himself. And most importantly, the skis are absolutely necessary.  Just as the skis would not exist without Genandi their maker, Genandi would not exist --in the way that we see him in the film-- without these skis.

He starts by driving his exceedingly sharp hand axe into a living tree, parallel to the trunk, testing the grain for straightness.  Everywhere are trees.  They define the Taiga, a vast wilderness one and a half times the size of the United States.  Genandi's task is to find the one tree that will serve him best, with grain perfectly straight, so that the skis will flex but not break.  He fells the tree with a chain saw, cuts a section of trunk the length of the skis, then in short order fashions wooden wedges with his axe then drives these into the stem to split it along its length into boards.  The wedges amplify Genandi's strength, so that he can talk at ease about his work as it progresses.

"Naturally you pick up things from others as you go along.  A little bit here, a little bit there.  You add your own improvements... You can't reinvent the bicycle."  Just as Genandi was taught to make skis, he passes on his knowledge to his son, showing him how to steam-bend the tips.  This is where I expected the whole narrative to break down.  The son, surely, would find a way to purchase modern cross-country equipment then ski circles around his father, still trudging along on the crude, heavy, wooden slabs of yesteryear.

As it turns out, this is not the story of an old guy sticking stubbornly to old ways while the world changes around him.  Genandi, by necessity, is an intensely practical man.  He owns a snowmobile and a chainsaw, because these help him work.  But when it comes to skis, the purchased item is inferior.  "You may have those factory-made ones.  You and I go into a wood, you'll drop dead from fatigue after 15 kilometers.  You won't be able to move a leg.  Me, I just keep on skiing without a care in the world."

Genandi the trapper has a wife and family who live in town.  He sees them at Christmas and occasionally throughout the year.  But most days he's out traversing his vast territory, preparing traps, building and stocking shelters.  Aside from being learned in his craft, hardworking and innovative, he's a reflective man.  It's beautiful to see him understand, not romanticize, the role he and the skis play in the perpetuation of a way of living.

"You can take away anything from a man.  His wealth and health and such-like.  But you can't take away his craftsman skills.  Once you learn a trade, you'll always know your trade for the rest of your life.  Do you agree?"

The aesthetic of the skis does not exist apart from Genandi the trapper.  You or I might hope to replicate the skis, but we would only be replicating the object.  The higher levels of relationship would all be lost.  The afficionado could have a pair made for him, or even learn to make a pair himself, but would get only skis.  When one watches Genandi, a man who works incredibly hard and at great peril to meet the basic survival requirements of his family, one can't help but think, "he doesn't have what I have."  But the skis make clear that we also cannot have what he has --not just the skis but the life they embody, of relying on one's wit and skills while traversing vast expanses of the Taiga alone.

This brings us to woodworking for those of us outside the Taiga and to how it is taught.  I take away two things from Genandi.  The first is that we do not need to "reinvent the bicycle."  We should teach the "techniques (that) have been invented long before (our) time, honed to perfection over the centuries."  The second is that we should find practical projects that meet our needs.  It would be fun, but silly, for most of us to make skis.  Emily Pilloton of Project H gets it right when she has her students build a farmer's market for their community.  Let's employ the techniques of old, but get past the romance of skis, or period furniture and find projects part and parcel with who we are.

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