Craft and Place

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Dismantling a farmhouse and building a museum with the same wood can teach many lessons in craft as well as ecology.

The Alps in Bavaria remind me of the lower Himalayas. Pine cones smell the same; the air has the same crispness. The deeper I went into the forest, the more I felt that I belonged to the earth, to things like streams and bark-pieces, that one day it would all swallow me clean, that there was no absolute meaning in words like ‘German’ or ‘Indian’. To return to the streets was to return to societies and languages, to smile at old couples drinking beer on a cold, sunny afternoon. To think of arriving for my project in Germany was also to remember airports, passports, security, car-parking, credit cards, baggage-claim, seat belts and freeway exits.

Halfway through a project on museum-restoration in Germany, I’m considering what craft can do for our lives, what it could mean to travel in meaningful ways, and how certain forces whisper in the same language across map-lines and continents, as ancestral patterns that arrange themselves in my way, telling me that my travelling is, at their level, insignificant. The deeper I went into the forest, the more I felt that I belonged to the earth, to things like streams and bark-pieces, that one day it would all swallow me clean, that there was no absolute meaning in words like ‘German’ or ‘Indian’.

Fifteen of us from different parts of the world, all with different stories, are living together in Bayrischzell, a quiet Bavarian town full of cafes. We are building a museum in nearby Schliersee as a learning fellowship. A rotting 17th century farmhouse had been dismantled and transported to the museum’s site; we’re now doing some cosmetic surgery on it and putting it together again. Five hardy German craftsmen with red cheeks and pocket-dictionaries are guiding us. People used to learn, before the industrial revolution, by becoming a craftsman’s apprentice; you could say we are apprentices of a sort, except that we’ll all move on.

The idea has been to use hand-craft techniques as far as possible. That appealed to me when I applied for the project: I was keen on learning to work with natural materials in a world that’s increasingly synthetic, digital and verbal. The local culture is something the museum’s keen on sharing: we were welcomed with a traditional Bavarian heavy-booted dance called the Schuhplatteln- it’s pompously stompy and very enjoyable- and gently lowing Alpine horns.

The museum also has a kitchen, a bakery and a brewery; so when we want a bit of a change we go over to one of these places to say hello and see if we can help with the work there. There can be a sense of leisure in such work; you can usually chat and whistle while you’re at it. I’ve had some wonderful conversations with the fellows while making beer, churning cream to butter, peeling wood with a spade or measuring and marking odd shapes on old wooden beams. The sense of formality that’s present when you introduce yourself in a circle isn’t there when you look up from sawing or pass a basket of fresh apples around. And I realise it’s always interesting to spin yarns and share dreams when a diverse group comes together.

Julius from Uganda, for instance, was abducted as a child during the civil war and forced to be a soldier; he wants to reform the treatment of released prisoners in the country now. Jacques is a strong, lively Rwandan who lost his parents in the genocide of ’94, when he was 12, and survived only because he was smuggled into Congo by his uncle; he wants to work on reconciliation and on helping villagers become self-reliant through a bee-keeping project. Naomi, a construction adviser from Switzerland who arrived with a few kilos of chocolate, is grateful that Jacques is here because- since Rwanda used to be a Belgian colony- they can speak in French to each other. Denise from the Philippines wants to learn the violin and do business with hand-made paper. My room-mate Timmy is Nigerian; he wants to work on dialogue between the global North and the global South and to revive Ubuntu, the traditional African ideal of community life and generosity; he wears strawberry boxers, doesn’t believe in the United Nations and is afraid of bicycles. There are others from Mexico, Nepal, Indonesia, and the United States. All poking with chisels at 300-year old wooden beams. What is craft, and how is it different from running a factory? Is it something quaint, outdated and inefficient, from under-developed corners of the world?

I think of wood as a material with stories: it has its dreamy patterns, and in them is the history of the tree, the stretch-marks of its tissue, the paths of its climbing sap and the movements of the earth around the sun. When you peel it, the thin curly shavings glow in the sun and have a delicate minty fragrance, like some rare oil in a cinematically dingy perfumery.

On rare occasions you see a fat white worm deep inside the trunk. It’s a bit disturbing, especially if what you see after the blade went through is half a worm, but it’s also fascinating that the thing was born deep inside and was sitting there, blind, eating its way to adolescence and change. It makes you wonder how many other life forms there are in what’s considered a shippable commodity. The trails that newly-hatched termites leave are like large, gangly spiders, a mysterious art-form that seems to be watching you from several places at once.

To use wood well is also to understand its asymmetries and variations: the grain’s direction, the hard knots that branches begin from and that can leave a heavy motor-powered blade shuddering. Sometimes it’s a pleasure to shape wood and it goes well with the music on the radio; at other times the grain feels all wrong, or it cleaves without warning and a quarter of that wooden nail you were giving finishing touches to is pointing awkwardly in the air.

What is craft, and how is it different from running a factory? Is it something quaint, outdated and inefficient, from underdeveloped corners of the world? I’ve found so far that although it can sometimes be repetitive and slow, it’s fun to use your hands and see what they can do, to be involved personally, intending one step at a time, learning through imperfections and seeking to do small things precisely and beautifully.

My formal education was full of stock phrases and calculations; it didn’t have much for my senses; it led to well-paid jobs but often meant missing out on savouring life. I studied engineering and management and worked for two years in multinational corporations; there were assumptions in it all that I found dubious. Everything seemed to come from an industrial mindset, whether it was getting a team of programmers to code at a cheap rate for a client in the United States or setting up a deal to meet a sales target or running a large school with children arriving in busloads. And I felt the need for other ways of living, judging and thinking, with a natural, living, organic set of values. And one of my reasons for being part of this project- the main one was to hike in the Alps- was to see if I was sincere in my search for a different mindset, or if I’d forget it all in technological and consumerist comforts.

I’m glad that we fellows have ample time here and that we’ve stayed in the countryside and got to know strangers over coffee. If craft is about letting go of mind’s petty mires and enjoying the material, I think travelling is something similar. The easy thing to do while having breakfast, for instance, is to ask for the pepper and sprinkle it liberally while complaining that the food’s awfully bland; to travel really would be to consider the local sense of taste, and why they don’t smother their food in spices as some other cultures do, what they like about their peculiar sour breads and their strong cheeses, and to see how your own sense of taste can evolve.

If I’d travelled as a tourist, I don’t know if I’d have tried explaining the meaning of the English word ‘why’ to an elderly German worker like Otto. We’d just loaded a heavy fichte tree onto our truck, on a sunny autumn morning. I initially tried asking how he felt about cutting fresh trees with his noisy motor-axe, but that was far too complicated to translate so I asked him why we preferred fichte, a sort of spruce, over other woods for the roof of our museum.

How to convert a farmhouse to a museum

  1. Number the parts of the farmhouse meticulously
  2. Dismantle the farmhouse
  3. Transport it all to the museum’s site
  4. Clean everything thoroughly
  5. Reinforce weak sections with fresh wood of the same shape
  6. Send new wooden nails and steel screws into the beams
  7. Mimic, on the fresh wood, the imperfections of the old wood
  8. Lay the foundation stones
  9. Put it all together again like a jigsaw puzzle
  10. Design and set up indoor and outdoor experiences for visitors


‘Why fichte in particular, Otto?’

He looked blankly at me, gritting his yellow teeth. ‘Ya, ya, fichte…’

‘No, I mean, why fichte only?’ I said, pointing all around us in the forest.

He bared his teeth at the ground, wiped his beard and gaped apologetically at me.

‘Why? Why, why…’ Otto kept muttering.

Then, in German, he said, ‘What does it mean…what is the meaning…of ‘why’’?

It was a struggle. I used examples, asked why-questions and answered them to illustrate, but he kept gritting in a puzzled way. Then he lost interest and told me, in broken English, his favourite story of how he drove across northern Africa in a jeep, in 1979, with four women.

It’s touching to see how involved Markus, who founded the museum, is in its work. The meadowy, gentle slopes that the museum’s is on are where he grew up and played as a boy. For him, there’s a sense of coming home after having spent decades as a professional sportsman. He’s exceptionally good with tools and uses them in a way that’s economical and elegant. Sometimes when we’ve wound up for the day and are cycling back to the train-station, we see him in his Bavarian costume, raking leaves or splitting logs for a new fence for the cows and sheep. It’s a good time to talk about the other things he likes, like music. He plays the viola and a European instrument called the zither. It’s interesting in fact that of the five German craftsmen who work for him; four are musicians and play in local amateur bands. There seems to be something about musical instruments that fascinates carpenters. Maybe woodwork requires similar qualities: control, practice, a sense of rhythm, an understanding of texture…

There are other things to think about which are more complicated. Among the reasons why this museum’s pastoral experience is possible, it seems to me, are modern society’s technology-shifts and profligate consumerism, the emphasis on wealth-creation in its economy, the banking system and the strength of the German automotive sector. By taking a train everyday, staying in our hotel in comfortable rooms with saunas and quick-response heating, by using a crane to transport anything that’s heavy, we’re experiencing these traditions of craft selectively. I don’t know if I’d want to huddle by a fire at fifteen degrees below zero, with a bad cough, no lighting and low ceilings, with my bread cold and hard and my ham uninteresting.

Neither is it wholesome to lose our connection with nature altogether, to spend our lives in office-cubicles or at malls, eating standardized processed food and having advertisements create our needs and aspirations. It instinctively seems healthy and natural to be in touch with things like clean water, fresh air, living grass, diving falcons, fresh food and music. The key, I suppose, is to keep experimenting and asking questions, to take nothing for granted. The search for anyone worried about our life on this planet has to be for reviewing our meaning of the good life, and our willingness to question the comforts in it that we have become used to.