My family has a long history with woodwork. Both my parents are capable furniture restorers, and my father has created several pieces of Australian history out of railway sleepers combined with his own talent & ingenuity. He makes fancy joints and uses rulers & whatnot. My mother not only restores furniture but has an astounding gift for wood carving, limited only by her refusal to acknowledge it's brilliance. My grandfather made walking sticks, when he was alive, beautiful hand-made things for men & women of assorted sizes. My other grandfather has restored houses in much the same way a very hungry person makes a sandwich - with a kind of desperate vigour, the results of which are usually strange but always reflective of a competent, if disordered, mind.
I've picked up a few things about the nature of working with wood over the years by osmosis, which gives me a profound insight into how little I understand woodworking as an activity. Dad's shown me plenty of wood-related things over the years, but in my childhood I never really understood its significance. As a truly aware child of my age, I was far more interested in computers, which in the early 90s were just starting to become routinely commercially available. My father used to build them out of parts, an activity I was enraptured by but incapable of really understanding. The notion seemed alien; objects were objects, they can't be broken down to components & rebuilt as something else. A pile of chipboards, like a pile of boards, was just stuff. The transformation of stuff into objects was dark sorcery. Still is.
I think about woodworking a lot when I read through job applications. As I peruse what must be one of the thousands of ads for jobs that aren't clear about what they involve, it's stark just how much like woodworking they aren't. There was a person, once, who in an environment made largely out of wood decided to make some of that wood be a flat surface at waist height, and that person took it upon themselves to tear down an entire tree, rip it to pieces, and endeavour to turn it into a table. I wonder often what the world looks like to that person, a world made entirely out of potential, of possible becomings. To see a forest and see an effectively infinite opportunity to create tables, chairs, clubs, rowboats, houses. I imagine what it must be like, to spend a day tearing down a tree and go to bed barely able to contain the possibilities it represents. To wake up the next day halfway out of bed already, warming your hands, ready to strip bark, cut limbs. The next day, plane the damn thing or saw it into boards or whatever other dark rituals are necessary to contort trees into furniture.
My own environment is made of very different stuff. My potentials are amorphous & absent, but nevertheless real. I drag myself out of bed after an hour of idleness, a vague hope that if I wait long enough, I may die for no apparent reason. Having arisen, haunted by the spectre of the disappointment of my society, my parents, my girlfriend, I try to contort my own limbs into a vaguely human shape before sitting at my computer. Still fuzzy from the small death of sleep and my mind slowly clawing its way into a full-blown despair, I begin scouring my environment for opportunities to enhance my own survival chances. Do I want to be an ADVERTISING SUPERSTAR? Am I a BUBBLY PERSONALITY? Do I have WHAT IT TAKES TO CLOSE THE SALE EVERY TIME? Perhaps I have the knack to be the BARISTA OF THE YEAR. Perhaps, if I really suppress my creative instincts, I could be an OFFICE ROCK STAR who TAKES DATA ENTRY TO THE NEXT LEVEL. I read these opportunities in my environment sitting at a desk made of pulped wood, and wonder if that first person to tear down a tree in order to turn it into a way of life for the next however many weeks it takes to make a table out of shit you found growing in your yard, ever woke up wishing he would just fucking die already.
The concept of being alienated from ones labour isn't new. That was Marx's entire schtick, if anyone's not familiar with the man's work. He was concerned that being alienated from labour would destroy the very essence of what it means to be a living being, but that doesn't sound too much like the words of a PUBLIC RELATIONS WHIRLWIND. He didn't know that in 200 years we'd all have essentially unlimited access to cheap furniture made of wood pulp, and that by that time we'd have cut down like 50% of the world's trees. He probably suspected. He was pretty canny about shit like that.
See, my parents aren't woodworkers. My Dad was an electrical engineer with a Ph.D, he worked in research and eventually moved into a management position. My Mum worked in an office at a primary school once my brother and I got the fuck out of her hair. They work on furniture as a hobby. So maybe I shouldn't be comparing my mythic woodsmith's daily grind to a career, maybe I should think instead what activities in my own life reflect this style of living, the simple abstracted action of taking some stuff & transforming into something I can use, with my own hands. Cooking came to mind first, but I don't really do any cooking because like woodwork, it strikes me as confusing sorcery practiced by people who still have their ability to taste things. There IS something, though: smoking.
When I smoke, I take a filter out of a bag, place it carefully in a paper, awkwardly pull off a pinch of tobacco (try not to spill any! That shit is expensive) and place it in the paper with the filter. Then I carefully roll it up, lick the thing, then finish it off. Ta-da! My own tiny piece of creation, my own small exercise in terraforming my environment, a sense-of-agency hobby kit. Then I set the hateful little thing on fire and absorb it into myself, imagining the essence of it mixing with whatever foul clockwork & steam forces me to keep living, doing imperceptible damage. This is my engagement with creation, what connects me to that one Noble Savage that so obsesses the white male imagination since Rousseau, I guess. That figure of legend who looked at a tree and saw a table. I look at a pile of bagged junk & turn it into a slow, painful death.
This is why, in part, when faced with job listings I desperately want a smoke, even when I've 'quit'. The nonsense of job ads makes me long for that fictional time when your job was clear to you every morning, when you invested in it every ounce of your spirit. When you could look into the eyes of your peers and say "I am a woodworker" and they would nod, the truth of that statement plainly evident from your creations. You would sit at your table, run your hands over it, remember fondly every part of the wood, every notch, every line, every...join, I guess? Whatever woodwork is made of, you'd feel it, and you'd remember the process fondly. Perhaps you'd take some solace in knowing some day your children would sit at it with their family, but even if something happened to it...shit, the whole damn world is practically made of wood! What could possibly go wrong? So long as humans have hands & ingenuity, they'd never run out of tables. I wonder what that fictional person would say to me if I told him in my time, we cut most of it down because people don't like to have to touch their own arseholes with their hands.
In our age, we've alienated ourselves from our environment to such a staggering extent that urban middle class fuckwit might as well be a member of another species. The very concept of wilderness is as an Other, a scary place Somewhere Else where there are Animals and whatnot, a dangerous land where you have to wipe your shit off with your fingers. I don't long for that place, I'm no shoeless hippy, I hate trees and I hate nature. I don't miss the Olden Days, or imagine myself as a Noble Savage, but I do often wonder, when looking at job ads, or waiting in bed hoping for death, or constructing a cigarette out of raw materials I extracted from the environment by handing a bored-looking dude some money, what it must be like to look at the stuff the world is made of in terms of raw creative potential, an opportunity not for communion with the untouched splendour of nature or some other nonsense, but as a raw material for realising the awesome power of human ingenuity. To have a Problem, and cast about yourself for the Stuff to create a Solution. Instead, I live in a world where all objects are designed. Every chair, table, computer, wall, sidewalk, power line, telephone, everything placed with purpose. There's no potential here; the potential is always already realised, there's nothing left to touch. The trees in my neighbourhood were placed there, carefully, with intent. They Belong to someone. Everything, we are told, is as it should be, as it needs to be. Even if for some reason I went out into the wilderness, if I were caught cutting a tree down I'd be arrested and hauled back into my urban origin-story & fined or thrown in jail. You can't just go...fucking with things.
So instead I sit at my computer wondering what sort of SALES GOD I've always wanted to be, how DYNAMIC I am on a scale of WIZARD to PARADIGM-SHIFT, and wonder in bafflement why I feel this compulsion to leave it all behind and destroy something & turn it into something different, something I can use, something that has meaning. Why would I want to go backwards? Do I want to wipe my arsehole with my hand? If the past was so great, why don't I go die of tuberculosis? It's because I don't want to go to the past, I don't want to leave the modern world behind. It's because I'm utterly alienated from everything around me. I didn't earn any of it, none of it reflects my cleverness or ingenuity or even just old-fashioned willpower or brute strength. Everything I own was designed by someone else, built by someone else, intended for someone else, most of it belongs to someone else.
Nothing in my world will suffer my interference with it, like a lover that will service my every need so long as I promise to never touch them.
(Inspiration from @Hoskingc & @Beliael. Thanks guys. Follow them on Twitter dot com!)