Ascent of Man

It is always heartening to find traces of resistance to technological culture, like the graffiti pictured below.

I noticed the first example last year in Oxford, England.  The monkey on the far left looks positively joyful, perhaps existing in a pre-technological garden of eden. The transition between the man making a fist and the one holding the gun is compelling, and it is with the appearence of the gun that the man stops walking–in the next picture he reverts to kneeling. The advent of tools, in this case a gun, threatens the entirety of past evolution and seems to put a halt to human progress.   I often think of fire as the original technology, but warfare might be earlier.   Kubrick had an extended scene about monkeys discovering a bone cub which they use to kill each other in the movie 2001. On the other hand, several of the technologies that are used in Book Preservation (such as microfilming)  were originally developed by the military industrial complex.

Another take on the ascent of man, pictured below, was found last month while in Istanbul, Turkey.  A similar message, but a bit more ambiguous.  Is the man’s final step through a black door?  Is it into a grave?  Or is it a representation of an unknown future that we are carried into by our feet, since we are walking upright?  It reminds me of the monolith in Kubrick’s movie, 2001.

Some of the earliest forms of art used stencils, such as a hand, and it is interesting to see how durable this technique is. For a quick means of reproducing and distributing a visual image, is is perhaps unequalled.  Most of the graffiti (or writing as it is now termed) I see in NYC tends to be mindless tagging or acid etching of windows, which is not very interesting to look at.  But it accomplishes some of the same basic functions as all graffiti by saying “I am here, I have left my mark.”

Come to think of it, blogging could be considered internet graffiti–there are millions of people leaving their digital mark of what they thought about something, not knowing who will see what they have posted. As much as I love using and thinking about tools, I am always aware of their dual nature as Marshall McLuhan summarized so succinctly in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”  I wonder how using a tool like the internet will reshape us?

Leave it to Beaver


I found this stick while I was walking in upstate New York, and was amazed. It is remarkable how close the beaver came to eating all the bark and cambium, without biting too deeply into the sapwood, which are the slightly rougher areas. The marks reminded me of a David Pye bowel– using a hand placed gouge as an example of “workmanship of risk”. But this was teeth/paw/eye corrodination.

This stick is not craft, because craft is a learned human activity. This stick is the left over activity from a meal, the bones of a beaver brunch.   If this stick were used by the animal for some purpose, we might consider it a tool, if shaping enhanced its use.  Could we consider non-purposeful shaping a kind of animal art?

An average sized beaver is about 60 lbs. They can swim underwater for 25 minutes, and eat through a 5 inch diameter willow tree in about 3 minutes. To chew, they hold the stick in their front paws, much like we hold corn on the cob. The stick below was about 2 inches in diameter.  Look at those crisp bites through the endgrain.  


I started thinking how many tools I would need to replicate this stick– a somewhat dull chisel to get the bark off, a small gouge for the cross grain slices,  a curved bowel adz to slice the endgrain.  I would most likely have to make a miniature scrub plane to get this high degree of regulation on the surface.  And even with these tools, I doubt I could do such a good job. And it would take me much, much longer. 

I realize that teeth are not tools, and that a beaver is not a craftsman.

But looking at this stick reminds me that the skillful use of simple tools is an efficient, beautiful expression of craft.




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