Blacksmithing for a Better Future
There has been a resurgence of interest in the old crafts, and not a moment too soon. This memoir is about my experience on the trail of that resurgence. The Seneca Treehouse has, as far as I know, the only coal forge in the South Carolina Upstate that is accessible to the public. Three years ago, I was attracted to blacksmithing by a medieval handbook on metalwork I happened upon. I had made pilgrimages to Greenville’s Artistry and Clemson’s art department to use gas forges and hammer out some simple implements. The heat and fierce glow of the fire, the way the metal takes on that heat and glow and succumbs to the will transmitted through the hammer, the melody and rhythm of the smacks and pings on the anvil; these things either suck you in or spit you out. I was sucked in. So when I googled “blacksmithing” and “upstate” and found not just an open coal forge but a blacksmithing course (Treehouse Tools and Training) fifteen minutes away from my Seneca house, I made my appointment immediately. This was how I discovered the Seneca Treehouse, and it proved to be a fitting introduction. The selection of courses called Treehouse Tools and Training delivers what few young people of middle class origins (like me) have ever had an opportunity or a “reason” to receive, what even fewer respect, and yet what almost everyone I know coming out of their 20s feels the lack of: real know-how, what was once called “craft” before the term was appropriated by Hobby Lobby and Michael’s to mean "shopping for decor." Part of the problem is that college-culture, inebriated by the false promise of infinite STEM jobs and the aloof abstractions of the humanities, has instilled in us a sense of shame if we don’t spend our first freedom from home and public school in expensive and increasingly spa-like universities. There is plenty of intellectual exercise to be found in college, to be sure,if you're looking for it, and plenty of recreation and entertainment to waste time your on if you're not, but one thing there isn't is practical, traditional skills transmitted unless you're very fortunate. For the most part, a young person is counseled (from almost ever quarter) to wager a good chunk of their future income, to endure a choppy “General Education” oddly broken into 50 minute semesterly increments, and four years later to go on one’s way with a document in hand, a life-altering bill, and very little concrete know-how. It takes several years to understand that this has happened to you. For some precociously wise people, the entire prospect sounds suspicious from the get-go, and the desire for something deeper, older, more satisfactory wells up from the roots of the soul: a trade, a craft, a period of apprenticeship, a life without debt, or maybe, as the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu once called it, just a time of “free and easy wandering” while you can. For such enlightened seekers (like some of the interns I’ve met at the Treehouse) or late bloomers (like myself), there is the Seneca Treehouse Project. In addition to techniques, I learned in the blacksmithing course was the presence in craft of autonomous, self-empowering knowledge and, at the same time, the experience of the interwoven connectedness of things: the fire, the metal, the charcoal, the tools, the human will and muscle. As I learned to control extremely hot fire, and to transfer its heat to metal, to deform it and reform it according to my idea, I did not feel like I was mastering nature, but like I was immersed in it. In fact, “nature,” was all around.
The Treehouse forge is open to the air, letting in the sights and sounds of pine and oak trees, robins and Carolina wrens, and the sparkling shore of Lake Hartwell. I began to appreciate the irreducible unity of the several elements in the act of the work, of which the product—in that first visit, a coat-hook for my office—was a sort of souvenir or sign. More importantly, the object has proven useful. In our Ikea-furnished homes and rental apartments, how many things have we made for ourselves out of raw material? In this case I made my hook out of a piece of salvaged scrap metal, adding a few twists and a scrolled end for ornament, all while in full control of the process from start to finish. No division of labor, no purchase (other than the cost of the course), no box store visit with the long hidden histories of its inventory, no next-day Amazon delivery.
I began the day with a discarded lump of stuff, and ended the day with with an object I wanted; not a commodity, but a product of my labor. It’s a little miracle of metamorphosis every time. How often our desires are limited to what can be bought. Move metal around for a few hours and you quickly realize that your desire is bounded only by your imagination and the natural limits of the material. Within those limits, imagination can work wonders. That is the lesson of craft and know-how. And my introduction to the Seneca Treehouse Project was to discover that such knowledge, nearly lost and dearly missed, is what is being offered there, and on the cheap!