Before Glitter and Glue Sticks, ‘Craeft’
Consider his description of the making of the traditional wooden fence called a wattle hurdle. It starts not as you’d expect with the assembly of the required materials, but with the planting and tending of the hazel trees that will eventually provide the timber necessary for the process to begin 10 or so years later. His subsequent account of the (literally) Neolithic process by which horizontal branches are woven together with upright rods into a lattice goes on for a half-dozen painstakingly detailed pages. If Langlands were providing instructions for how you too could make your own wattle, the effect would be unendurably boring, not to mention borderline incomprehensible. Instead, his genuine passion for the activity at hand makes his account hypnotic. To watch a hurdle maker at work, he says, is “almost like watching a concert pianist at one with her instrument.” He is clearly addicted to that place where labor is transformed through mastery into art.
Exploring this unfamiliar territory requires navigating a deliciously unfamiliar vocabulary: hafting (attaching an arrowhead to the tip of a spear); laying, pleaching and plashing (all required to nurture a hedgerow); carding, retting, scotching (for textile production); stooking (for thatched roofs); stocking and scudding (for leather); panning, marling and mattocking (for working the earth); flushing (for sheep farming); puddling (for cisterns); and pugging and wedging (for pottery). Of course, we no longer need these words, because most of us no longer participate in the activities these words describe. For Langlands, this loss is tragic. His obsession with successfully learning to make a thatched roof, he says, “proved to me most forcefully that it’s not that we have lost these ancient skills, it’s worse than that. It’s that we have lost the conception of those skills and what they can do for us.” Ironically, the residue of these lost skills persists today in turns of phrase like “make hay while the sun shines,” “by hook or by crook,” or having “been through the mill.” Once operating instructions, these are used by people who will never clear a field, tend a herd of sheep or qualify as a master weaver.
Given Langlands’s background, it’s no surprise that he consistently locates true craeft in the years — the millenniums, really — before the Industrial Revolution. Is it really gone? As a first-year student in design school, I remember the endless hours spent doing something as simple as drawing a capital letter A, the attention to detail that blurs and vanishes before your eyes, that moment when you lose track of time. Langlands describes the sensation as being “tamed into the work.” “You resign yourself to it. Your breathing moderates as you become methodical, more controlled. This is a marathon, not a sprint.” Practicing craeft is an experience so universal there’s even a song about it, Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat.” Making things is hard but satisfying. Langlands is talking about digging a hole in the ground, but is it so very different from staying up all night writing code?
But perhaps I’m giving us too much credit. Beyond the mastery of specialized skills, Langlands is talking about something more holistic: a way of looking at the world. In reconnecting with craeft, he begins to see not just the beauty of an object or a building or a landscape, but the deeper purpose for which each has been created. And he understands, too, the environment they shape and upon which they depend. “Archaeology became so much more than just stuff in the ground,” he says about his own journey. “It became an exploration of what it was to be human, not only because we are makers but because we are resourcers, gatherers with an inveterate knowledge of the natural world around us.” How comparatively helpless are the rest of us as we contemplate the featureless mirror of the computer screen or the smooth sheen of the smartphone.
It is a deflating irony, of course, that in a marketplace dominated by mass production, it is the handcrafted item that commands a premium. Wicker baskets, made by our ancestors the same way since 5,000 B.C., are beautiful, versatile and resilient. Langlands cites a 1926 survey that listed more than 200 varieties of them in production in England and Wales.
Today, it’s far easier and cheaper to find an ugly plastic container that will be filthy in a year, cracked a year after that and interred in a landfill a year after that, presumably for eternity. The same species that made that first basket eventually invented the machine that cranks out the plastic one today. That is progress, and it has brought our fragile world nearly to the brink.
Langlands, surprisingly unsentimental for someone who made his fame doing historical re-enactments, resists the pull of nostalgia. Yet he makes a persuasive case that the surrender of our lives to machines represents a regression. “Factory manufacture,” he writes, “robs us of a special something: contemplation.” He’s not talking about the big questions of human existence, but of the hundreds of small ones that go into something as simple — or as complex — as building a stone wall: “Which to use? How to work it? Where to strike it?” In the end, this is the case he makes for craeft. At a time where our disconnection from the world around us is not just tragic but downright dangerous, recovering our status as Homo faber, the species that makes things, may be our salvation.