Opinion: Restoring craftsmanship to save the world

“Notice this attention to detail in this 8' culvet, built form native granite, under a rail line traversing a swamp where few will ever witness the craftsmen's handiwork”

“Notice this attention to detail in this 8' culvet, built form native granite, under a rail line traversing a swamp where few will ever witness the craftsmen's handiwork” Jean Stimmell photo


Published: 12-03-2023 8:00 AM

Jean Stimmell, retired stone mason and psychotherapist, lives in Northwood and blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.

I have fond memories of “old skinny,” a super-flexible carving knife my father cherished that had been passed down from his father. We all marveled at how this carver could effortlessly cut meat from a bone while bending like a pretzel.

Another of my prized possessions is my father’s Farmall Cub tractor, which he purchased after returning home from WWII, coincidentally the same year I was born. As a small boy, I named it “Tommy” after a tractor in a well-known children’s book. Tommy is still running strong today at age 78, mowing my fields each year.

Quality purchases pay dividends for generations. The founder of Patagonia, the high-end clothing manufacturer, recently pointed out in the New York Times that building quality is not only cost-efficient but critical to our survival: “If we can embrace quality as the key to living more responsibly, choosing the carbon steel knife that lasts decades over the ones that have to be replaced each year, we may just get to keep the one thing we can’t toss out: Earth.”

Building shoddy merchandise designed to be replaced has a name: planned obsolescence.

“In a world where it’s often cheaper to replace goods than to repair them, we have gone from a society of caretaker owners to one of consumers.”

Building junk is anathema to good workmanship. To see what we have lost, look no further than the timeless beauty and exquisite detail in our historic buildings crafted from local wood and stone by our Yankee forebears.

Another example is our famous Concord Coaches built by local artisans. They took immense pride in what they accomplished, something lacking in modern car assemblers, performing monotonous tasks on a non-stop assembly line.

Casting aside craftsmanship in favor of expediency and quick profits has accelerated our descent into planned obsolescence by giving manual labor a bad reputation compared to white-collar work.

It is a “symptom of a larger problem,” according to Matthew Crawford in his book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”

“We have, as a people, lost our fundamental manual competence. We can no longer fix our own stuff, and we are increasingly steering our kids “toward the most ghostly kinds of work.”

We now have another problem. The high degree of attention necessary for quality workmanship is being siphoned away by nonstop social media and smartphone interference. Studies have shown that the mere presence of a smartphone can reduce our cognitive ability by taking attention away from other tasks, even if the phone is turned off.

Despite the steamrolling pressure of big business and high-tech, we, the people, are now fighting back, just as we did against the excesses of the Industrial Revolution.

England recently advised schools to impose a complete cellphone ban, something also starting to happen in this country. A new trend has begun, led by Gen Z teenagers, where folks are trading in their smartphones for old-fashioned flip phones. And vacationers are flocking to vacation rentals that offer “off-the-grid” properties without internet service.

Rebecca Solnit alerted us about this coming revolution almost 15 years ago. She wrote then that we don’t have a single plan; instead we have, “We have thousands of them being carried out quite spectacularly over the past few decades, for gardens and childcare co-ops and bicycle lanes and farmers’ markets and countless ways of doing things differently and better. The underlying vision is neither state socialist nor corporate capitalist, but something human, local and accountable – as in direct democracy. The revolution exists in little bits everywhere...and is succeeding in bits and pieces.”

In his recent book, “Why We Make Things and Why it Matters,” Peter Korn writes about this rapidly spreading revolution. A reviewer of his book waxed poetically about what’s happening. “Almost everyone I know…would rather be making or baking, sewing or shaping, farming, tending, growing or hoeing” then being tied to a desk, computer, and smartphone.⁠

When we look around, our renewed passion for food and cooking is evident, but “Ceramics and carpentry, embroidery, knitting and dress-making are all also making a comeback. Home-made or hand-made is what we all aspire to buy and eat and own and admire.⁠”

Let’s pray this revolution reaches a crucial mass and vanquishes the alleged virtues of our throw-a-way, high-tech society before we exhaust our planet’s capacity to support us.