Made by hand

Pointe de flèche – photo from Wikipedia

An enchanting history envelops each thing handmade, an aura that somehow connects us to the person who envisioned and crafted it. A pulse of the artisan’s life and energy is embodied in this handmade piece, and even though the artisan may be long dead and forgotten a ghostly trace of their spirit remains.

I can feel the human connection to this craftsman or craftswoman across the years, sometimes decades and sometimes centuries. To find a flint arrowhead is to soar back into prehistory and sense the intricate workmanship of the person that fashioned and finished it. Some handmade items are more crude, more functional than artistic, the wooden grip attached to a rusty iron hay hook exhumed on our farm for example, but the sense of connection to this hard working farmer, an immigrant from Norway 150 years ago, is no less strong.

I can feel the rough workmanship of the farmer, understand his rush to finish the handle to “good enough” so that he could get back to work haying on a scorching July afternoon. And I can sense the care taken by the Paleoindian articifer as he carefully chipped and flaked this stone arrowhead and lashed it to the shaft that would fly true to its target. I know a small moment of their lives, I can feel them doing these tasks, practicing their skills – whether roughhewn or delicate – as I rub these pieces between my thumb and fingers.

I can hear their voices: “This is my work, this is my life, this is my time on Earth, this is me.” That is what these things made by hand say.

Discoveries of other handmade things on our farm– a leather strap of horse harness, knives made from broken wagon springs, barn door hinge pins hammered from railroad spikes, a chert hand axe, shards of crockery, a child’s shoe, a wagon wheel spoke – set my mind spinning with questions about this tract of North Country land, how it looked during each of the successive eras of transition from woodland to prairie to woodland, and how it supported the lives of clans and families for thousands of years. They tell stories of mysteries that I can speculate about but cannot truly know.

This pen was turned and assembled by Jim Eckblad. It is made from the wood of Winged Burning Bush, an ornamental plant native to Asia; its leaves turn a brilliant red in autumn.

Handmade things are not only from the historical and prehistorical times of this place, they are also graces from the here and now. A newly crafted wooden box, a leather sheath for a folding knife, a drop-point hunting knife and its sheath, a braided leather dog lead, a beautifully turned wooden ballpoint pen, even my crudest tool – a 14-inch wooden rod to measure the longest length of firewood I can cut that will fit into my woodstove – all of these are functional, utilitarian, and graceful. In my eyes, they are graceful because they are practical and functional.

There are so few things made by hand in the era of machine manufacture, this half century of molded and stamped metal and extruded plastic. Are these machine-produced pieces stronger, more durable, efficient, ergonomic, convenient? I am told that they are.

But they are not alive. They do not have an aura or spirit. They do not possess the sense of grace of a thing handmade.


More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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