Friday, July 15, 2011
This is very historic wood, wood which was an integral part of the infrastructure needed to deliver food from farmer's fields on it's journey to our tables. Who can tell how many people were fed by the grains that washed over these boards? It was very important wood.
I realize all too well the daunting agenda the convention delegates have to tackle as I watch the live webstream of the debating. There are challenging issues to discuss. I think we as Christians need to go beyond the doors of our churches, beyond the comfortable confines of the community and fellowship in which we contain ourselves in our places of worship, our Lutheran schools, our bible camps. We need to be disciples in the world, going outward and participating fully in society with all of it's many struggles. We need to embrace issues of human suffering, social justice, and the environment. Of course we do this to some extent, but perhaps not enough.
It is with this in mind that my hope, my small hope, is that when people connect with the altar, as they run their hands over the contours of the top and the seeds embedded within it, they are able to see it not just as an instrument to assist worship or a construct of symbols, but that they can look at it like they would a sculpture or a painting and find their own meaning as it relates to their place in the world.
During the altar's construction I have spent a lot of time thinking about my ancestry's role in the noble task of growing food, and Saskatchewan's place in the agriculture of the world. My hope is that people will think about things such as the history of their food and from where their food comes. The world over people are hungry, people are obese, and our daily bread isn't as wholesome and nutritious as it used to be. Our food production system is more and more being controlled by the large multinationals and all levels of government. It is our responsibility to become aware, and to get involved in ways we are able.
This project was made possible largely by the vision of Katherine Soule Blaser, Rev. David Hunter and the entire worship committee of the ELCIC National Convention. I would like to thank them for the opportunity to work with such historic wood. Without their support and efforts this meaningful project would not have taken place. Also thanks to David Neufeld, Paul Blaser, Adolph Peters, Viktor Fast, all those who showed interest and gave words of encouragement, and of course my Crystal.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
I mentioned in an earlier post some of the design criteria for the altar. While working to meet those goals I have also tried to include some symbolism in the finished design. I've mentioned already the grains I glued into the altar top. Besides trying to better tell the story of this wood's working life, the seeds are a direct allusion to the bread.
I wanted the legs to be reminiscent of elevators themselves; tall, bold and uninterrupted in their climb to our living skies. Each of the legs are made up of six boards which acted as braces in the elevator's grain storage bins. They would have been horizontally placed to do their duty and several of the boards have eroded to almost nothing after seventy-five years of grain tumbling down over them. I have also left all the existing nails in the leg boards as an obvious reference to the cross.
If the sculpted contours of the altar's top are reminiscent of the gentle rolling hills and valleys of Saskatchewan farm country, then the supporting boards which connect the top to the legs - with their integral cross elements, are a metaphor for how our pioneers relied on their faith to survive and make a living off this land.
The altar is done now and installed in the convention space. My drive down to the Paris of the Prairies through several epic thunderstorms was a wee bit stressful but everything survived unscathed and things are in place to begin worship. When I get some better pictures of the finished altar, I will post them...
(1) Graeme Patterson is one of my favourite artists, and his 2007 Mendel Art Gallery exhibit "Woodrow" was a brilliant exploration of the Saskatchewan small farm town experience. If you have a minute, some of his other work is also an absolute delight – I recommend the Pierrre & Gerrard vignettes!
Saturday, July 9, 2011
"Most people think of Douglas Fir as junk wood, good enough only for roof trusses and plywood. But most people know only the lumberyard fir. What lies here, its sawdust drifting like motes of luminous honey in the air, is the pristine rain-forest fir: bright, diverse, beautiful." (1)
It is such wood that is certainly fit to become an altar, wood having served out it's calling of holding grains which have travelled onwards to feed the world. Based on a look at the tree rings and doing the math, these boards are from trees which have germinated nearly five-hundred years ago. Some of the wood in this altar was very possibly just starting to grow as Luther was posting his 95 theses.
As I finish up the legs the altar project is drawing to a close. I have been relying almost solely on hand tools, the wood being too irregular from the decades of grain-sculpting to go anywhere near the straightened precision of a power tool's angry sharp teeth. Approaching the fir with a bevy of specialized hand tools for working wood is the only way to proceed. One can never have enough tools however, and short of running out and buying all of these, (I'd love to) I get along with many of my old handplanes and saws. A few of these have even been in the family for three generations now. Like the worn-out hardworking fir of the Herschel grain elevator lying on my workbench, not all of these tools are perfect but they are certainly a joy to use when guided by my hands.
(1) Quote from "Grain of Truth: The Ancient Lessons of Craft", page 145. There are perhaps thousands of books published on the how of working wood – this is likely the only treatise on the why. A gorgeous book about the spirituality of craft and the creative process.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
But this destruction is not an inevitability as the so-called conventional "wisdom" would lull us into believing. This is not progress and I firmly believe that while we need to document these remaining elevators before it is too late, we can preserve some elevators into perpetuity (1) and not just for nostalgia's sake. We simply have to keep some elevators around forever. And we have no excuse not to - Norwegians for over 800 years have maintained such wonderful wooden structures as the Borgund stave church. What would Norway be without at least a few of these amazing and historic cathedrals?
I've always thought we should have at least a rough thousand-year plan and why not? (do we even have a five-year plan?) Previous governments wanted us to believe that doing away with the Crow Rate was a change that simply had to happen. They told us there was no choice. The effects are still rippling. Current governments would like us to believe that doing away with the Canadian Wheat Board also has to happen. This is progress. Sadly this is just another step in the Americanization of our grain-trading system, one piece in the much larger process of the continentalization of North America. It will not benefit the individual farmer but is simply designed to help the large grain trading corporations garner higher profits.
Well that's enough of my diatribe. Back to Jim Pearson's project. Jim was on CBC Radio Saskatchewan's Blue Sky program today. (he even mentioned the altar project!) Many people called in to recount their precious memories of elevators from days gone by. You can listen to today's program here. Something else Jim does is make card stock elevators as mementos. He has done many for people and will custom make an elevator from most any town. I couldn't resist ordering a few cardboard elevators from him for my office bookshelf. Jim has made me one of the Herschel sentinels as well as the Pool and old Elephant Brand elevators from my hometown of Nipawin.
1 - Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation has a great webpage with some fantastic resources, including an inventory of all remaining Saskatchewan elevators.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
In the photo you can see the remains of the Mendham, SK elevator. The triangular braces in the corners of the bins are what will be the altar legs. They were put there to keep the bins from bursting as their full load of grain would put great force on the outward walls. These boards are really amazing to look at - so many fascinating shapes to see; each sculpted in various states. Originally two boards were stacked one on top of another but after decades the top board has been so eroded by falling grain that in many cases it has disappeared completely.
Anyway the legs are glued up, the July sun is scorching and a Norwegian is wearing the maillot jaune. All in all a perfect summer day. Time to get out of town and see how the garden is doing. Later...
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Italian architect Aldo Rossi recently looked at American grain elevators and wrote:
The Great Plains of America are vast ... its villages turned inward as if time had stood still. These people [weren't] seeking America, but escaping Europe, and in [their] first wooden silos [was the] memory of [European] architecture. Over time the silos rose with ever greater assurance and created the landscape of the New World. In abandoning the problem of form they rediscovered architecture.
These grain elevators were built everywhere next to the new railways of the Prairies in the last century. They are the landmarks to our towns just as cathedrals located the towns of Europe.