Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Religion in Wood: The Shakers, continued
I've got some Shaker replicas in my house. Most photos of Shaker furniture look like museum exhibits. In my house, the dog chewed on the legs, the kids stuffed peanut butter in the joints, and I left sweaty beer bottles on top. But they still look good. It's a design that holds up.
Here's a passage from Clear Heart in which Wally teaches FrogGirl about the Shakers. The "Swedish carpenter" in the passage is pretty much based on the man I met who built Shaker-style furniture in a little shop:
“Toy chests,” Wally said. “Something I saw once. An old Shaker design.”
“Shaker as in salt?”
“Religious sect. They shook all over when they got the spirit.”
“Without the drugs. They used to build beautiful furniture, plain and simple. Very practical people building very practical things. I hear they invented the clothes pin.”
FrogGirl looked surprised. “What did people do before they had clothes pins?”
Wally shrugged. “You had to stand around holding the wet clothes until they dried.”
“Right.” FrogGirl nodded. “Maybe that’s why they started shaking. They weren’t getting the spirit—they were drying the laundry.”
Wally told FrogGirl of the Swedish carpenter he’d met, a man who built and sold Shaker-style furniture. At one point the carpenter had visited some old folks who were actual Shakers. He was expecting to see marvelous examples of their style, clean lines and solid craft, their reverence for good workmanship put to everyday use. Instead he found them sitting in plastic chairs. Somebody had offered what they considered a foolishly high price for their furniture, and they’d sold. Instead of building replacements they’d found these solid, sturdy items at Montgomery Ward. If the Shakers were still building today, Wally suspected that with their respect for the plain, the durable, the functional, they’d be building with plastic.
“What happened to the Shakers?” FrogGirl asked.
“They died out. Didn’t believe in sexual intercourse. Sort of hampered their ability to raise children.”
“And you say these people were practical?”
“What I like is, they believed that building something well was an act of prayer.”
“Amen,” FrogGirl said, applying a bead of glue. “They should’ve tried building babies well. As a prayer."
There is something deeply satisfying about planing wood. Scarcely speaking, hushed as in a church, and awash in the scent of ancient lumber, Wally and FrogGirl spent an entire evening among the quiet scraping of blade on board and the crinkle of shavings underfoot.