“why such philosophical talk about something as worldly as homebuilding? Because what is worldly about homebuilding is that it happens on this earth, it uses natural and man made materials and it requires money. The rest of homebuilding has to do with beliefs, feelings, spirit and passion. Certainly shelters can be made without these, but they probably will not be the kind of structures that speak positively and warmly to future generations of occupants. For most people, homebuilding is full of the most sensitive emotions. It seperates them from their life’s earnings, either to a good or ill end. It can bring families together or it can tear them apart, for homebuilding can be a dark and dangerous sea full of shoals and turbulant currents. I believe a well designed and well constructed timber frame house is worth the voyage, and I offer this book to help chart the course”
This is the last paragraph of the introduction to The Timber-Frame Home: Design, Construction, Finishing written by Tedd Benson. And for me it captures much of why I build. Building, to me, perfectly matches my inclinations as an artist and person who strongly identifies with place and fulfills my desire to walk a “mystical path with practical feet” (a phrase taken from Bill Plotkins, Nature and The Human Soul). Building is a worldly endeavor with tangible, real outcomes. But is also so much more then that. It can build community, make a statement, create a sense of place, give pride, provide an anchor, a home. Who are we without a home?
It has been a little while since I have written about building but that is not because I have stopped exploring it. Quite the contrary, I think I have become even more committed to it. Almost six months ago I was given the honor of acceptance as a Heartwood School Apprentice. I will be one of four apprentices who will stay at the school through this summer taking courses and also being offered many fantastic opportunities outside of the courses to participate in raising’s, go to timber frame guild meetings, and visit historical timber frame structures in the northeast. And to add to this honor I also received the very first Berkshire Woodworkers Guild scholarship to help with the cost of this summer. This was an exciting and unexpected gift that reassured me that I must be doing something right.
Almost a month ago now I went to Heartwood for our first course, Fundamentals of Woodworking. It felt great to be there. I felt at home almost immediately. And although I am sure their will be many times during the apprenticeship where I will be challenged, get frustrated, and perhaps even doubt my abilities, this first week I felt strong and confident, which felt like a good way to start. In this first course I learned a lot about tools in the shop; their function, safety, and maintenance. And we also built a toolbox as well as a beautiful little shaker stool. I was quite pleased with how mine came out and will hopefully get a picture up here of it soon. I also met one of the other apprentices, Jack, who at 17 years old is the youngest apprentice Heartwood has ever had. We got along fantastically and I am excited to meet the other two apprentices, one of whom is coming from Argentina!
When I returned to Ithaca I was almost immediately presented with an opportunity to put my new knowledge to use. It was quite amazing actually. I had just pulled into the parking lot of Ecovillage at Ithaca (where I am renting a room until I fully move into heartwood on June 13th) when I saw Dave, a fellow ecovillage resident, struggling to carry a bunch of wood and tools from the shared shop back to his house. I offered him a hand and by the time we had reached his house he had enlisted my help in his projects. Dave is an amazing man. A professor of neurobiology at Cornell University, he built his own timber frame home in Song, designing everything, including his own ingenious windows and doors and enlisting a local blacksmith to help give his house a unique and beautiful look. He also tinkers with electric bikes in his spare time, using them to commute back and forth to Cornell when the weather is nice (the hills in Ithaca make doing this commute on a regular bike only for the the most ambitious) and driving his small hybrid car that gets 70 miles to the gallon in poor weather. Now we are almost done building 4 storm windows that will match his interior window design and have a plan for a screen door that we are both pretty excited about and hope we can pull off.
In the little spare time I have between these projects and my work at the amazing local food coop, Greenstar, I have been reading some books on Timber framing. The first was Build a Classic Timber Frame House by Jack A. Sobon, a fantastic how to book that walks you through exactly how to build a classic hall and parlor house. And, having just finished that one I am starting in on The Timber Frame Home by Tedd Benson. Already I like his writing style which seems to intertwine the philosophy with the practicalities, because lets be real, yes, I like that building is practical, but if it doesn’t also fit into my belief systems and worldview then I would not be interested. The philosophies, beliefs, and ethics of building are of just as much interest to me as the practicalities of it, and I hope I never lose site of that as I delve deeper into learning all the practical skills to create a delivery system to manifest those more abstract parts of who I am. After I finish this book I hope to read The Company We Keep: Reinventing small business for people, community, and place by John Abrams, a book about a timber frame business on Martha’s Vineyard, and what it takes to run a responsible and ethical business. I like what one of the reviews on the back of the book says; “the company we keep is a soulful and refreshing reminder that businesses are no different from families, communities, or any other human organization– without mission or purpose they can be lifeless, even destructive, but infused with intention, they can sow the seeds for a hopeful future.” -Gary Hirshburg