In the 21st century, there are a lot of old crafts we think we don’t have much use for anymore. Blacksmithing. Wood turning. Spinning and basket-making. But here's the funny thing — as our world gets more and more virtual, traditional skills are starting to look better and better to a lot of people.
Anne Strainchamps (00:14):
It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. Here in the 21st century, there are a lot of old crafts we don't have much use for anymore. Blacksmithing, wood turning, spinning, basket making. But funny thing, as our world gets more and more virtual, traditional skills are starting to look better and better to a lot of people.
Sara Dahmen (00:52):
My family and I, we do fur trade reenactments.
Anne Strainchamps (00:57):
Meet Sara Dahmen.
Sara Dahmen (00:59):
We live in a tent on certain weekends with a whole bunch of other people who live in tents and everybody dresses like it's 1790. All the women are like, "I just sewed this new corset, what do you think? It's just scary." And the guys are all like, "Let's go black powder hunting."
Sara Dahmen (01:18):
And at first when we first started doing it, even my good friends were like, "Huh, that's a lifestyle choice." It was very mmh. Now half of them are like, "We have a tent too, and can we join in and can we come to do that?" And so that right there, even in that niche, there's interest, real authentic interest in learning those old ways. Everybody's sharing trades. You'll spend three hours with the flint knapper and then you go when someone's making a box with nothing but hand tools and teaching, and someone's weaving with reeds and teaching and talking about it. And so you're learning all these old things and your kids are learning it and you're with everyone who's excited about it.
Sara Dahmen (02:02):
You do have moments, you do do rendezvous, and then you're yelling, do not run with a Tomahawk to your kids, or no, you cannot hunt the geese in the park with the spears you just make. But it's so much fun and everybody around you is just loving it so much.
Anne Strainchamps (02:21):
For Sara Dahmen, old world handcrafts are not a weekend activity. Sarah is a full-time professional coppersmith. One of, if not, the only woman in the country practicing the trade. She makes pots and pans simple, basic timeless cookware using copper, iron and tin. She drills and rivets hand tins, buffs, and polishes each piece using antique tools.
Sara Dahmen (02:55):
Half of these tools are originals from the 17, 1800s.
Anne Strainchamps (03:02):
Can I touch?
Sara Dahmen (03:03):
Yeah, of course, nothing's sacred. I mean, don't break it, I can't replace it. I'm kidding. All of these rotary hand tools are from the early to mid 1800s. They are original and I use them to build everything I build.
Anne Strainchamps (03:26):
What did they used to do?
Sara Dahmen (03:27):
This one, they do what they're called. So this is called a setting down machine, it sets down seams. This is a burring machine at burrs. See, they were really original in the 1800s. This is a turning machine, it turns the metal. And that happens a lot. See, it keeps breaking off.
Anne Strainchamps (03:59):
Standing in Sarah's workshop, it strikes me that well, I pay attention to where the ingredients I cook would come from. I know next to nothing about the pots and pans I use. And that suddenly seems kind of odd.
Sara Dahmen (04:15):
We have spent so much time talking about the food itself, but we don't talk about where the chemical change happens and what it's made out of and who made it and where the materials come from. That was the crux of the very first conversations I started having when I started building an American cookware line, partially because everywhere I turned, the reaction, even from the foundry owners and the metal spinners that I was talking to was supportive, but skeptical.
Sara Dahmen (04:50):
Why are you doing this? You're going to be competing in price range against items made in China. And why would you invest in this? And I'm like, well, because someday it'll matter. Someday, people really, really, really are going to care about where it comes from or they won't have access to something in China. I wasn't trying to have a premonition, but more and more when, maybe I should stop talking because it comes true. But I want to be able to be very transparent and say, well, the mines are in this country, the mint is in Canada and then this gets shipped to Iowa and then they make it there.
Anne Strainchamps (05:30):
So it's those big sheets of copper.
Sara Dahmen (05:32):
Yes. So here is kind of, this is a standard piece.
Anne Strainchamps (05:36):
So, if you want to pick that up. That's heavier than I thought.
Sara Dahmen (05:40):
Anne Strainchamps (05:44):
So when you start, you're going to make a pot, let's say, how do you start? What's the first?
Sara Dahmen (05:50):
The first step is to create my pattern, which is a lot of painful math. Then I just start cutting my sheet metal with my stomp shears, which is another tool from the 1800s, that big piece over there and it's like a giant scissors. It will chop off your fingers.
Anne Strainchamps (06:05):
So you got into this through the history because you're a historical novelist, right?
Sara Dahmen (06:10):
Anne Strainchamps (06:10):
So how did writing historical novels lead you to discovering and teaching yourself the lost art of coppersmith?
Sara Dahmen (06:20):
It was not planned. I do like to research excessively before I start even writing my novels. Just because then I feel like I don't have to crosscheck my facts, it's osmosis. It almost feels like if I close my eyes and think too hard, I could fall sideways into the past. And I have very lucid dreams where I wake up and I have to like spend a day or two reminding myself that that actually didn't happen because it's so visceral. I'm in the kitchen, I know where everything is in these kitchens. This was the cook where they used, this is how it got fixed, this is who would fix it. All of those things. And I realize, well, no, one's really doing that anymore, we should do that again. Over time, without meaning at all to become a full-time coppersmith, that's what happened.
Anne Strainchamps (07:09):
Will you show me a little of like something you would do?
Sara Dahmen (07:13):
We can build something. We can just do some small cone here or if you want to, you're welcome to. First and foremost, if you were going to make a cup or a little pot or something like that, you'd have a piece, again, you'd cut it on the big stomp shears there, but you would run it through the rollers right behind you.
Anne Strainchamps (07:33):
So now we're putting it in this roller.
Sara Dahmen (07:35):
We're putting it the roller.
Anne Strainchamps (07:35):
Which is a little bit like a pasta machine.
Sara Dahmen (07:37):
It is. And you always are adjusting every step of the way around and around and around you go.
Anne Strainchamps (07:50):
What's your favorite metal?
Sara Dahmen (07:52):
Anne Strainchamps (07:53):
Sara Dahmen (07:54):
Because it's very beautiful, when it's shiny and new, it ages well, and you can do so much with it. You can make bronze and have weapons if you live in 1300 BC, like you can pour it if you melt it enough. It allows you to be a little bit more creative because it's so movable.
Anne Strainchamps (08:20):
So something like.
Sara Dahmen (08:22):
A little fish poacher.
Anne Strainchamps (08:23):
So what is this?
Sara Dahmen (08:25):
It's a fish poacher, it was hand built.
Anne Strainchamps (08:28):
And then lined with tin.
Sara Dahmen (08:29):
Lined with tin.
Anne Strainchamps (08:30):
Why is copper lined with tin? I guess I never really knew.
Sara Dahmen (08:33):
It's because copper is a reactive metal. When you're cooking with it at a certain temperature, you can actually, the way the copper interacts with your food and the proteins in your food, you can get sick.
Anne Strainchamps (08:47):
You can poison your... Yes great.
Sara Dahmen (08:47):
You can get sick. So tin is inert, so it doesn't react with food and it's actually kind of nature's teflon, it's nonstick.
Anne Strainchamps (08:53):
I didn't know that tin was non-stick.
Sara Dahmen (08:55):
Most people don't. And that's why the beauty of tin line copper, what I love about it'll never go in a landfill, it's always repairable. Whereas all of the other cookware out there eventually fails and has to go in a landfill. So I love the renewability of using the plain simple, basic metals. Copper's so soft. Now we get to hammer. But I do get people sometimes who come to me because they get a copper skillet and they use it like a cast iron skillet, and then they're tin melts on them and they go-
Anne Strainchamps (09:36):
It can actually melt.
Sara Dahmen (09:37):
It can because it melts at 450 degrees. And that gets reached really fast. And I get people coming to me and they go, "It melted." And I'm like, so you overheated it? "No, I don't think we did." I'm like, okay, it's a science fact that tin can only melt at 450 degrees, it didn't melt at 200 or 375. If it melted you overheated it. "No, we were very careful." If you've discovered magic tin, we should tell the world.
Anne Strainchamps (10:07):
It doesn't seem like it's necessarily that hard. But I think of coppersmithing as don't you need a lot of physical strength?
Sara Dahmen (10:15):
Yeah, this part is kind of the delicate stuff. When I'm tinning over a fire, you need to be able to hold pots anywhere that are a pound to 20 pounds over your head, stable. Well, it's got molten metal in it and then you wipe the metal out. So I'm very strong. I've had people who want to come and work for me, and after a day or two, I actually have sent them away and I've said go lift weights, in the shop.
Anne Strainchamps (10:44):
You're not strong enough to do this.
Sara Dahmen (10:46):
I mean, it really just becomes like, I'm like, okay, hammer these things, and they can do like one. We have 40 to do, keep going. Your hands have to be really strong and then your muscles, your upper body has to be really strong to handle it. I have my own weight room in my house and I lift weights five days a week and then I run another three days. It's an incredibly grueling job. Almost every time I'm in the shop, I get hurt, whether-
Anne Strainchamps (11:16):
How? I mean what?
Sara Dahmen (11:18):
A lot of times I ruin my hands or you put your hand in a pot and you get a huge burn because the pot is 600 degrees-
Anne Strainchamps (11:26):
Oh my God.
Sara Dahmen (11:26):
You forget to wear long sleeves, so you get a giant burn or your neck gets burned from the fire or you burn your hair off.
Anne Strainchamps (11:34):
Have you done all these things?
Sara Dahmen (11:35):
Anne Strainchamps (11:36):
What keeps you coming back to this?
Sara Dahmen (11:38):
I like the physicality of it, I think. And I like the knowledge that I'm keeping something alive that would otherwise be dead because I learned this trade by apprenticing myself to a metal smith, to Bob [Baldwin 00:11:53], West Bend. And I've been doing that since 2015. I don't get paid for that, that's years and years. So who wants to put in time for free to learn a trade? Now to me, I learned something that no one can ever take away from me. There's incredible value in that. I'm eyeballing. Here we go. We're going to use the stomp shears. Just don't put your fingers in. Is a giant scissors.
Anne Strainchamps (12:22):
Giant scissors but you just cut a sheet of metal.
Sara Dahmen (12:26):
I know, this is the skinny one. So I'm going to. All right.
Anne Strainchamps (12:33):
What's your favorite part of it?
Sara Dahmen (12:43):
I like the physical building once I've done the math. I like building something, whether that's a mug or a bowl or a cup or a sugar pan. To me, they're really fun. And I really like, tinning. Seeing like a finished beautiful pieces filled with like moonlight, because that's what it looks like, it's just shiny silver. It's just so cool and there's an art to it too. There's just a, it's a feel.
Anne Strainchamps (13:17):
How do you actually do it? You literally melt tin?
Sara Dahmen (13:22):
So that burner behind you right there, that becomes a 600 degree fire. I have to wear full body gear, a carbon canister gasp mask because the fumes are very poisonous. I wear a welding glove on one hand and nothing on the hand that actually touches the tin because I like being able to feel what I'm doing. And I don't know. I like the idea of being strong. I like the, for lack of a better word, the feminist kind of vibe of that because I'm stronger than my husband. He's taller than me, he's bigger than me, but I'm stronger than him. I want my kids to grow up saying, oh, healthy is strong. Healthy is powerful. Not healthy is skinny.
Anne Strainchamps (14:05):
Good for you. These are so beautiful. Look at these. How old are these?
Sara Dahmen (14:12):
1700s. Moment of truth, way too big.
Anne Strainchamps (14:20):
How is that possible?
Sara Dahmen (14:22):
See, this is why you do this.
Anne Strainchamps (14:26):
You want more hearing, here you go? I remember talking with a friend who was an artist a long time ago, who said the more machine, the more hand. Meaning the more we create technologies to fill our lives with products, the more people actually wind up craving handmade, hand built.
Sara Dahmen (14:51):
Yes. That's a really beautiful way of saying it. And I do think more and more people are turning inward and going, what would happen if the infrastructure that I assume is there is now gone? Can I exist? Having working knowledge of a couple of trades, you feel more secure. Like if I had to take my family and go live in a cave, I'm not worried.
Anne Strainchamps (15:14):
I mean, you must feel like hell yeah, we could head out there and build our log cabin and I'd make a living as a coppersmith.
Sara Dahmen (15:22):
I know. And I look at my husband and I go, what would you do?
Anne Strainchamps (15:32):
What's the difference between a hobby and a trade?
Sara Dahmen (15:37):
A trade is something that you learn and then whether or not you use it as a business or as a hobby, is totally up to you. So even though you might be only a weekend blacksmith, the fact that you know how to do that means you still have a trade, no one can take it away from you, it's buried in your sinus and your bones and it's just part of that hand knowledge.
Sara Dahmen (16:00):
There's power in that, that translates again to just self confidence. So many people talk about, that's something lacking in young kids who just aren't doing that anymore, not playing outside anymore, they don't have confidence anymore. So that is what is so exciting about seeing more and more people pick up these traits. Hopefully, that's going to translate to happier people and then the world would be happier place. Like Putin would probably be happier if he knew how to be a blacksmith.
Anne Strainchamps (16:29):
I mean, I guess I was wondering if you thought there was kind of an uptick of interest in trades and handcrafts because of the pandemic. I mean, I started having fantasies of, maybe I should take a building arts program because I don't want to be dependent on somebody else to build my house. Could I build a house? Which seems kind of ridiculous at my age, but then part did me thinks, I don't know, why not?
Sara Dahmen (16:55):
Well, and that question right there, if you ask yourself, why not? The next thing you should think is, well, I guess I should just do it then. Because if you don't have a real answer for why not, then the answer should just be well, yes, I guess I'm going to, why not? Why not do it? And good things always happen.
Anne Strainchamps (17:30):
Sara Dahmen is one of the only female coppersmiths in the country. She found at her cookware line house copper in 2015. She's written about the craft in fiction. Check out her novel, Tinsmith 1865, about a woman smith or read about Sarah's personal journey and the history of cookware in her new book, Copper, Iron and Clay. Coming up, how far would you go to meet a living legend?
Monroe Robinson (18:13):
So I chartered a flight to a lake, two lakes north of there, Telaquana Lake, maybe 40 miles north of where Dick lives. And then hiked from Telaquana Lake down to Turquoise Lake and crossed a river and then hiked down to Twin Lakes and crossed the Chilikadrotna River, and then hiked along the shore to meet Dick. Dick was bigger than life and I just wanted to meet him that way and just spent one night with him, sitting with Dick at his cabin and listened to his stories.
Anne Strainchamps (19:00):
Dick Proenneke spent 30 years living alone in the Alaskan wilderness in a cabin he built himself. Life doesn't get much more handcrafted than that. More after this. On To The Best Of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.
Dick Proenneke (19:46):
It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace. I was alone, just me and the animals. It was a great feeling. Free wants more to plan and do as I pleased. Beyond was all around me. My dream was a dream no longer. I suppose I was here because this was something I had to do. Not just dream about it, but do it. I suppose, too, I was here to test myself. Not that I had never done it before, but this time it was to be a more thorough and lasting examination.
Dick Proenneke (20:27):
What was I capable of that I didn't know yet? Could I truly enjoy my own company for an entire year? And was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me? I had seen its moods in late spring, summer and early fall, but what about the winter? Would I love the isolation then with its bone stabbing cold, its ghostly silence? At age 51, I intended to find out.
Anne Strainchamps (21:01):
That is the voice of Dick Proenneke from his classic PBS documentary Alone in the Wilderness. Dick moved to Twin Lakes, Alaska in 1968 and he built a tiny impeccably crafted log cabin by hand. He lived there alone for the next 30 years. It was incredibly isolated, incredibly cold, and he became a kind of living legend. After his death, the National Park Service wanted to preserve the cabin, but nothing lasts long in the Alaskan wilderness. Enter Monroe Robinson, a master craftsman, famous in woodworking circles for everything from fine furniture to a much admired handbuilt log bridge. Monroe took on the task of repairing Dick Proenneke's cabin. And then he decided to go a step further. And over the course of 19 summers, he painstakingly reproduced every single thing in it, down to the patina antique's ax. Monroe wrote a book about the experience called The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke. And Charles Monroe-Kane, who has his own roots in Alaska, wanted to know more about the man who inspired such devotion.
Monroe Robinson (22:08):
In 1965, he got molten lead splashed in his eyes through an accident working on heavy equipment and it left him blind for a while. And then it took years for the vision to come back in one eye. And as he was recuperating, he had a real epiphany that if he was ever able to see again, he wanted to live his life. He just decided then and there that that meant going out to Twin Lakes and building a little cabin for himself.
Monroe Robinson (22:41):
And so he had a dream of doing that and then carried through with it and it changed his life and he was living his adventure, his image of the good life, of the fulfilled life. And he was 51 years old at that time. He took photographs. He took movie film and he journaled every single day and it started out as an adventure, and then he became one with the wilderness out there. He went out there as a hunter and a meat eater and he killed a sheep, shot a sheep that first year for meat. And then after that first year, he never once again hunted game, he never even shot a ptarmigan or a grouse or hare.
Charles Monroe-Kane (23:32):
It's almost incredible to think about by living up there like that and not hunting and not eating meat, it just seems phenomenal to me. And then I start thinking about you. So the whole time I'm reading about Dick and I really enjoyed by the way you're editing of Dick's journals. Wow, what a person, what an American hero. And as I was reading that, I started thinking like, well, who's this guy? Why are you there? Why did you go to the cabin?
Monroe Robinson (23:54):
I actually met Dick just in 1982, 14 years after he moved there. And then every year or twice a year, sometimes every other year, we would exchange letters long, long, typical letter from Dick Proenneke. The bridge that I had built, I wrote a five page article for that, that came out in Fine Woodworking Magazine that talked about it. And I didn't really know until years later that Dick had written in his journals that that was the best piece of log work he had ever seen in his life.
Monroe Robinson (24:28):
And so John Branson became the historian for the park and he knew of my log work. And when Dick was no longer able to stay at his cab and he got too old, then John Branson called and asked if I would come up and consult with the park's service on what should happen to his cabin, the restorations and stuff. He thought that Dick Proenneke would want me to be the person doing that.
Monroe Robinson (24:54):
So I came up there first just to do the first summer's work, and I ended up meeting my future wife there. We met and then were married two years later, but we returned to Twin Lakes, although 19 summers. Initially out of that reverence for Dick and the wilderness and wildlife, but as the years went on, we got to know people. Some of them said, visiting Dick's place this isn't on my bucket list, this is my bucket list. Or they came out there because they knew this was the last year of their life and they wanted to see Dick's cabin. Or they arrived and were so choked up with emotion that they couldn't talk for 20 minutes. Or they brought a loved one's ashes out to have them left close to Dick's place.
Monroe Robinson (25:51):
People who visit out there have so much emotion and it's so important in their life coming out there to be in their presence. And then to have those people say how much more that experience was because K and I were out there and knew Dick and had our own reverence for that place.
Charles Monroe-Kane (26:15):
It's funny you talk about the people. I was very touched by a bunch of stories. You could tell Dick, he's not an introvert, he's about people, he's just happened to live alone in a cabin. But you talk about people, but there's also a lot of things up there. You live alone in for 30 years in the cabin in Alaska, you need some stuff, shovels to door hinges. I mean, he built everything. You not only restored some of that stuff that had got affected by the environment, you made replications. How did that process work? How do you redo a handle for a shovel the same way Dick would've done it? Because there's lots of ways to do a handle of a shovel.
Monroe Robinson (26:54):
Well, first off, I went out there and I realized all of Dick's things are sitting in this cabin just as he left them. And I knew about his film, I hadn't seen any of his film, but I knew of it. And I knew of his journals, even though I hadn't read any of those. And I saw the emotion of people coming out there and I thought, this is really just this world class experience for people and it needs to be preserved in a way that people can always touch Dick's life.
Monroe Robinson (27:29):
I didn't have any trouble matching Dick's log work. My sense of craft on this craftsman. Dick was a craftsman, but it wasn't the very most important thing in his life to do the very finest craftsmanship that he could do. So my work out there was to replicate Dick's work right down to the swing of the ax and the push of the saw and to leave Dick in every artifact that I touched. To be there with Dick as much as possible, there were so many evenings I would say to K that I got to know Dick a little better today. Dick is there still as much as I could have him be there.
Charles Monroe-Kane (28:16):
My understanding, correct me, if I'm wrong, a lot of his stuff, the tools and whatever you want to call them, they are gone, they're in a museum, right? And your replication is there. That's so interesting. Can I read something from the book that you wrote?
Monroe Robinson (28:31):
Charles Monroe-Kane (28:32):
For some reason, I found it very powerful. You wrote, replicating the shovel's nine inch metal branching fatigue crack to within one eighth of an inch was both challenging and rewarding. Every hardware fastener exactly matches Dick used and every empty rivet hole is exactly placed. My goal was to leave none of me in the reproduction, but everything I could of Dick, including the patina on the shovel's handle. Why?
Monroe Robinson (29:02):
I ultimately thought I'm the right person to do this.
Charles Monroe-Kane (29:06):
Monroe Robinson (29:07):
Other people could have that skill, but I didn't trust that somebody else would have the spirit to keep Dick there. And so I'm like, it's up to me to do this. A few of Dick's really precious things were sent to the archives the very first year that I was there, and so the cabin didn't have those things. But as years went by, more and more of Dick's things, the little chair on the beach, was starting to rot and it wasn't going to be there. The sled wasn't going to be there. So many things weren't going to be there because they were going to rot away. So rather than have them rot away, I did a minimal restoration for them so that they could be sent to the archives in Anchorage. But before they were sent out to the archives, then I made replications of each of those.
Charles Monroe-Kane (29:56):
It's just so beautiful to me. And I want to go back to you for a second because the romance of Dick, the romance of your work, and then in addition, you fall in love and get married. It's like, you must find that cabin magic. It must be incredible to you in your life.
Monroe Robinson (30:12):
The very most important thing, K did not come out there to join her husband and fill my life, it was two of us. And when we got married, I'm going to read just a little bit from K's vows to me. And it is, how was I so blessed to have found you? I have been searching all my life. What is it of your essence that I am drawn to? And to have found you at Twin Lakes, a most sacred and meaningful place for me, it is where our mutual love of wild spiritual places crossed, where our similar interest of risk taking and connecting with nature allowed us to meet and realize we loved being in each other's presence.
Monroe Robinson (31:03):
So, that was K's start. Those are the first words of her vows. And I had a private vow that I made when we got married. And that was that I would go to Twin Lakes for as many years as K wanted to go to Twin Lakes. So I knew then Twin Lakes was this very, very spiritual place for her. I lived my winters, every winter for the next season. The airplane would bank into the drainage of Twin Lakes and I would turn around and look at the smile on K's face and know I would get to hear her spirit sing another summer at Twin Lakes. So it was both of us being up there, that was it. It wasn't me or her, it was the two of us together.
Charles Monroe-Kane (31:57):
K uses a word in her vows and it's the word sacred. And you talked about spirituality. I mean, I don't know how to ask this in a atheist way. I mean, I'm not even sure how to ask the question. Is that hallowed ground? Has it achieved because of your efforts because of his efforts because of K's efforts because of the people that visit, has it become sacred ground?
Monroe Robinson (32:19):
Now that's interesting you ask that. I mean Twin Lakes is a sacred place without Dick Proenneke. But Twin Lakes, the connection that brought K and me to Twin Lakes and brought all these other visitors to twin lakes is Dick Proenneke. And it's this message that he has of living his dreams, living his life to the fullest. It may not be the image of living life to the fullest for a lot of individuals, K would end her tours out at woodshed. And she would say, "Which one of you would like to live alone in the wilderness for 31 years?" And it was very rare that somebody would raise their hand and say me, me, me, it did happen.
Monroe Robinson (33:10):
But people would say something like that Dick's life rekindles dreams that they had of their own life. Some of them would say, "I'm really happy with my life, I'm really proud of my family and I'm happy in my marriage. I wouldn't want to be out here alone, but I had dreams in my life that Dick's story rekindles for me and let's me revisit those dreams." Some people spoke of having dreams, but never live them. So they're attracted to Dick because Dick did live those dreams.
Charles Monroe-Kane (33:52):
We need stories like this in the modern age, we just do. And I appreciate your so many years of hard work and I really appreciate you telling the story as well. So thank you very much.
Monroe Robinson (34:02):
Well, it was very much an honor to be a part of your interview as it was a very big honor for K and I to spend those summers out at Twin Lakes.
Dick Proenneke (34:16):
Finally, back to the cabin building. I'm a better builder than I am a farmer anyway. 38 logs are in place and I am almost ready for the eve logs. I cut the openings for the big window, the two smaller ones and the opening for the door.
Anne Strainchamps (34:46):
That's Charles Monroe-Kane speaking with Monroe Robinson, author of The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke. Monroe Robinson spent 19 summers in Twin Lakes, Alaska, a place so remote, you can only get there by floatplane where he painstakingly reproduced the cabin tools and other handcrafted artifacts of the conservationist, Dick Proenneke. You can see pictures of Monroe working in Twin Lakes, we'll post them on our website at ttbook.org, along with a link to Dick's famous documentary called Alone in the Wilderness, became a PBS classic after it first aired in 2004. Feeling inspired yet to make something yourself? Meet Hollywood's favorite carpenter, actor, writer, and comedian, Nick Offerman.
Nick Offerman (35:40):
Closed on the money there, just a little fine tuning.
Steve Paulson (35:51):
You have this wood shop in LA. Do you have a favorite thing you like to make?
Nick Offerman (35:58):
It's really whatever's on the bench, whether it's a canoe or a cooking spoon. The magic of being able to turn a useless plank into an implement of use. Its value and its charisma has everything do with its usability rather than how much gingerbread you can carve on.
Steve Paulson (36:22):
You don't want to just look at it.
Nick Offerman (36:24):
Anne Strainchamps (36:27):
Nick Offerman may be a comedian, but he takes woodworking very, very seriously.
Nick Offerman (36:36):
So far it's working.
Anne Strainchamps (36:40):
Stick around. I'm Anne Strainchamps, and it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.
Speaker 12 (36:58):
Speaker 22 (36:59):
Nick Offerman (37:03):
I am Nick Offerman, actor, woodworker and craft enthusiast.
Amy Poehler (37:08):
And I am Amy Poehler, person who has absolutely no idea how you do the things that you do, but is very happy to be here.
Speaker 20 (37:14):
In a way, we're trying to make a TV show that would make you turn off your TV, a show that would inspire you to go and make something, inspire your kids to go make something.
Speaker 21 (37:23):
It is actually a very Ron Swanson thing, making a show to get people to stop watching TV.
Speaker 20 (37:28):
Speaker 21 (37:29):
We're going to bring it down from within. Let's keep that between us, by the way.
Anne Strainchamps (37:38):
That's a clip from Making It, the reality competition TV series that combines comedy with some pretty awesome handcraft. Co-host, Nick Offerman has a background in both. Comedy fans know him from Parks and Rec. Woodworkers might have heard of the LA based Offerman wood shop. But what you might not know is that Nick Offerman is also a series devotee of American writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry, the octogenarian Kentucky farmer and champion of simple living. A few years ago, Offerman produced a film about Wendell Berry's philosophy called Look & See. Steve Paulson wondered why the Hollywood star admires him so much.
Nick Offerman (38:18):
I've lived as a broke theater artist and I've lived as a well off Hollywood guy, sort of experiencing the spectrum of incomes, I've learned that sweeping a floor is every bit is satisfying if not more so than seeing your film play in a theater, because if your film makes it to a screen, a whole lot of people and a whole lot of budget had to come into that. But when you sweep that floor, that is your singular masterpiece.
Steve Paulson (38:49):
Are you serious about this? This is not just a line you're feeding me.
Nick Offerman (38:53):
No, I'm dead serious. I mean, it's the reason that I still maintain a wood shop in Los Angeles. I no longer need it and frankly have no time for it. It's foolish of me.
Steve Paulson (39:04):
But you make beautiful furniture, right?
Nick Offerman (39:07):
I do. I have six woodworkers there and they're doing most of the making these days, but I still love to go there and work and sweep. I mean, it's the same thing as doing the dishes. If you're lucky enough to sit down to a meal that's prepared in a home, let alone if some of the ingredients were grown at the home, that's an incredible gift that some people receive daily. And one way you can pay for it is to help with the dishes or at least understand and appreciate the value of homegrown produce.
Steve Paulson (39:41):
So you became a fan of Wendell Berry. Did you go on and read a lot of his books then?
Nick Offerman (39:45):
I did. I immediately started reading book after book, primarily his fiction for the first years. And pretty quickly I wrote him a letter introducing myself.
Steve Paulson (39:56):
Did he write back?
Nick Offerman (39:57):
Well, he did. I asked him if I could adapt one of his stories and he wrote back a very charming and friendly letter saying, no I couldn't. And he said, I'm not interested in seeing anybody's adaptation of my work, all of my fiction is of a piece. It's all sort of one huge pastiche he just continues to add to. And so he didn't want to see anybody's interpretation altering that in any way, which only made me respect him all the more.
Steve Paulson (40:32):
Well, it must have made you feel a little funny. I mean, here you are in the business of doing adaptations and working on screen and here was a guy who didn't want to show up or have his work shown up on screen.
Nick Offerman (40:44):
It is, but I got it immediately. I mean, and then I got onto his essays, which I appreciate his poetry. He's a three-headed benevolent monster.
Steve Paulson (40:56):
And he's a farmer too.
Nick Offerman (40:57):
He is. Once I got onto his essays and nonfiction stuff about him, I learned that he has an aversion to screens of every sort, let alone the electronic screens that we think of, he's never had a television and he doesn't even like a window, if he can help it, he likes to be on the porch because then he's getting the full experience. He likes to smell and hear.
Steve Paulson (41:23):
Well. And I remember reading years ago, he wrote an essay about how he writes everything by hand. And I think his wife, Tanya then types it. He got some flack for that. Oh, you got your wife to type up your work.
Nick Offerman (41:34):
Steve Paulson (41:35):
But again, there's sort of this irony here. I mean, you're famous for living out on screen and here's a guy who wants nothing to do with screens.
Nick Offerman (41:43):
And there's a lot to be said for that. I mean, it brings to mind the adage he lays out about how the amazing technology that we think is so wonderful for us and is in a lot of ways, is also terrible for us. For example, he talks about how to get to town, you used to have to walk or at best go at the speed of a horse. And when you did that, you could still remain aware of the height of the water in the creek and how your neighbor's garden was doing or how that other neighbor family, you could tell by the state of the Barnes paint, if he was still drinking or not. We're able to speed up with motor vehicles and such.
Nick Offerman (42:27):
Yes, we got to town faster, but we lost the benefit of all that information. And by now, very few of us know what kind of trees those are we're driving past. We can say, oh, those trees are pretty, but couldn't tell you if that was an Elm or a maple or deciduous or conifer.
Steve Paulson (42:44):
So you're really talking about kind of a home spun philosopher. You get his philosophy of what it means to live well through all of his writing, his poetry, his novels, his essays.
Nick Offerman (42:56):
I mean, it's replete with that stuff. His economy, as a writer, something I find very moving and now that I've, inexplicably, become a writer myself, it was not something I expected to happen. I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to reduce the number of words in my sentences to a Wendell Berry level. And that all comes from excluding all of those distractions from his life. He's able to have a singular focus and that's part of what makes his writing so effective.
Wendell Berry (43:33):
Even while I dreamed, I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake of the objective, the soil bulldozed, the rock blasted. Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now. I visited the offices where, for the sake of the objective, the planner's planned that blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories where the machines were made that would drive ever forward toward the objective. I saw the forest reduce to stumps and gullies, I saw the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley.
Steve Paulson (44:25):
So there's a new documentary out about Wendell Berry, you are a co-producer.
Nick Offerman (44:29):
Steve Paulson (44:30):
How did you get involved in this film?
Nick Offerman (44:32):
Well, I continued corresponding with him over the years. When he refused to let me adapt anything, then I tried to just get to come meet him. I would read interviews where people would say, well, it took me 10 years, but Wendell said, "Listen, I don't have time to do an interview, but if you want to come work with me on the farm, you can ask me questions while we're working."
Steve Paulson (44:54):
His farm in Kentucky.
Nick Offerman (44:55):
Yeah. So I immediately wrote him and said, listen, I'm well trained in the shovel, the ho, the ax, and I can haul many bales of hay. And he wrote back and said, you know I'm not doing a lot of manual farming anymore, but I enjoy our letters. So I kept trying to get at him just because he's my Shakespeare. And one of the wonderful headquarters of my film life is the City of Austin, Texas. I've been going to the South by Southwest film festival for many years and I have a lot of friends in town. And a mutual friend of me and Laura Dern, the filmmaker said, hey, my friend, Laura is making a documentary about Wendell. And I said, good Lord, please introduce me.
Nick Offerman (45:42):
So she did. And she had already completed most of the principle photography. And I said, listen, just, I'm so excited, first of all, that you're making this movie. And B, if there's anything at all I can do, I'll drive a truckload of cable. I mean, whatever it takes. And she said, "Well, with your visibility, you'll actually be very valuable to us if you came on as a cheerleader." And I said, great. So I immediately did started raising funds for post-production and they generously then made me a co-producer once I showed up and started sweeping.
Steve Paulson (46:18):
And you make an appearance in the film.
Nick Offerman (46:20):
Well, that came later. As she was cutting the film, there's this beautiful thing Wendell says where he yearns for an age of marriage in the sensibility of the way small farming communities used to operate. And now she points out that we've kind of come to an age of divorce where our society wants to take things apart a lot more than put them together. And he says, well, that's what artists do. They see two things that they think ought to go together and they put them together. He said the way you'll make this film is by looking at the pieces you've shot and figuring out how they go together. I took note that his first thought of fine art was a stool. And Laura said, "Would you mind making a stool and we'll shoot it and put it under him saying this in the movie." And we did. And it's just shots of my hands and tools.
Steve Paulson (47:16):
We never see your face.
Nick Offerman (47:17):
No. And so for all those reasons, I think it will turn out to be the peak of my career.
Steve Paulson (47:25):
Your moment with Wendell Berry.
Nick Offerman (47:26):
I'll tell you, sincerely, I have a hard time watching it without welling up because I just admire him so profoundly. And to, in any way, have my work associated with his, I can't imagine a greater honor.
Wendell Berry (47:44):
We all come from divorce. Now this is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart and you can't put it all back together again, what you do is the only thing that you can do, you take two things that ought to be together, and you put them back together. Two things, not all things. That's what we do. We are people who make things. If it's a stool or a film or a poem, or an essay or a novel or a musical composition, it's all about that, fitting it together.
Nick Offerman (48:26):
It's really interesting to consider myself perhaps a clumsy ambassador. He has the talents and the wisdom and the lifestyle to create what he creates, I don't. I live in Los Angeles, but I do have the sensibility to value his work the way I do and that I have the audience.
Steve Paulson (48:49):
But it seems that there's another connection here. I mean, you both celebrate craft, craftsmanship, making stuff by hand. I mean, you're a woodworker. You also, I assume that you think a lot about the craft of being an actor and he celebrates craft in his writing, his farming. It's kind of, I don't know, operal values, maybe.
Nick Offerman (49:09):
I suppose, I mean, that's the conundrum is convincing the new world that it should also be the new world values. One of my other great teachers is a Japanese artist named Shōzō Satō, who taught at the University of Illinois, where I went to theater school and he taught a curriculum of Zen arts. And I was always really taken with the notion that really every part of your life, you can choose to curate it in an artistic way. You don't have to settle for just what's on the shelf at the grocery store, or what's in the catalog, or what have you. If you don't like the tables that are available to you, you can make your own damn table. And that goes for everything. And since the industrial revolution, consumerism has been so successful that so much of our population has forgotten that we can make our own implement of use.
Anne Strainchamps (50:13):
Actor, humorist, and woodworker, Nick Offerman, talking with Steve Paulson. The documentary he produced about Wendell Berry, Look and See is available on Netflix. And there's a link on our website at ttbook.org.
Anne Strainchamps (50:37):
To The Best Of Our Knowledge is Handmade Radio and comes to you from a city of makers, Madison, Wisconsin, and the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio. Charles Monroe-Cane produced this hour with help from Angelo Bautista, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Mark Riechers, Joe Hartdke, Steve Paulson and me, Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening and good luck with whatever you make today.