Wooden things, aged by time and touch, help make life fine
What would you bring back if you could travel through time? Pristine baseball cards from 1954? A thousand shares of Microsoft, circa 1986? A photo of your grandfather stepping off the immigrant ship from Sweden at Ellis Island? A dozen Bergman decoys?
"Antiques Roadshow" feeds many versions of this fantasy game. If only you had known to buy each school lunch box available in 1965 and lock them away in your parents' attic... Or if only you knew which struggling young artist is destined to be the Michelangelo of the next age...
For my part, these daydreams often don't have as much to do with financial gain as with possessing special objects that might otherwise perish with passing time, or with holding some tangible piece of history - imagine grasping in your own hands the hot and powder-stained rifle your ancestor used at Gettysburg...
I even go so far as to imagine how I'd pay for things in the distant past, and have settled on aluminum. Worth pennies a pound now we've figured out how to refine bauxite, aluminum used to be awfully expensive stuff. I'm sure Paul Revere, the Boston silversmith, will be happy to trade me a handsome teapot for a bag of empty pop cans.
My time travel desires were kicked up again last week while reading "First American Art: The Charles and Valarie Diker Collection of American Indian Art," from the University of Washington Press. UW Press has an amazing record of publishing books on Indian art. It deserves credit for inspiring a deep modern interest in the subject, and this volume keeps up that proud tradition.
I envy the Dikers, whose obvious love of this art and awesome taste is reflected in every color plate of this book, which accompanies an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. They have assembled a collection that exudes the power and incredible nuances of Indian artworks and ceremonial objects, not to mention some of their extraordinarily lovely household items.
Living where we do, I always search every new UW Press book for objects from the Chinook Tribe. Whereas some tribes of the Pacific coast - the Haida are a notable example - left an inspirational heritage of masks, bentwood boxes and other items, the material remains of Chinook civilization are far less abundant. (Perhaps too many tsunamis, and a climate that eats wood...) But I was delighted to see the Dikers' collection includes a wonderful leaf-shaped Chinook cup that may have started life within 10 miles of here.
There's little I love more than really old wooden things well used by those who created them. Nothing else has the warmth and genuine beauty of a wooden tool or other object worn smooth by human touch, polished and stained by our sweat and dirt and oily hands.
Near at hand as I write this is the iron and wood master-switch handle from my family's old mine in the mountains, the Duncan. I'm ashamed, in a sense, to have removed it from its context, though it doubtless would have been stolen by someone 30 years ago if I hadn't brought it home. But I hate to think that someday, when I'm gone, no one will remember what it was or where it belongs. I shudder to think it will be discarded by someone who doesn't love wood.
So it is with that Chinook cup. It probably only survives because some trader plucked it out of its context and tucked it away beyond harm's reach. I'm so happy it still exists. And I wish I could step back 200 years and barter for one of my own, perhaps for a handful of 10-penny nails.
Even more than this, I wish people with eloquent hands were still producing such cups here on the Lower Columbia, and that we all were using them, rubbing them smooth with our fingers and lips, imparting to them the rich character that would someday make them truly beautiful.
Creating and using beautiful objects is one of the joys of life, and it's something we're losing - or have already lost - in this mass-produced plastic age. Let's fight back. Create an heirloom today, or at least use one. It may be the treasured artifact of a century from now.