Review: Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts

The Old English word "craeft" meant much more than the modern word "craft" usually does. Mental skill and virtue could be implied by it, and a sense of "power or skill in the context of knowledge, ability and a kind of learning." In Craeft, British archeologist and medieval historian Alexander Langlands (Henry Stephen's Book of the Farm) offers an entertaining and inspirational look at traditional skills that were part of ordinary English life for thousands of years, but were broadly abandoned with the advent of fossil fuels, mass production, plastics, pesticides and even cement. In the process, he says, we have literally lost touch with the world around us, and with the power and complex abilities of our own bodies.

Langlands has been part of several historical TV series on rural British life in various time periods. In Craeft, he performs many practical experiments on his rural English property, trying to replicate the results that field archeology and research pose in theory. His idealism and his love of the natural world and what we can learn to make of it are contagious. He deftly combines his hands-on experiences with historical knowledge in chapters on the skills of haymaking, pond making, pottery, dry stone wall building, spinning and weaving, tanning and leather work, draft animals, effective digging, and the many tools derived from stick and stones, among others. He learns to use a scythe, burns lime, grows long-stem straw to weave basket hives for keeping bees, and describes what he calls a life-altering experience of helping to thatch an ancient roof, which also meant identifying and collecting most of the raw materials in the woods and fields nearby. "Archaeology became so much more than just stuff in the ground. It became an exploration of what it was to be human."

Most of these old skills produce less than modern methods produce, but they do so more reliably and cheaply, says Langlands, and often more beautifully as well. They were developed in circular (instead of growth) economies, grounded in the cultivation of finite local natural resources, and their resilience and sustainability deserves new attention. "It seems we are finally coming back to this notion that making has a spiritual element to it, that making fits within a wider understanding of who we are and where we are going." This is an illuminating book on the pleasures of traditional work, and how we can rediscover that tactile world of skillful creation. --Sara Catterall

Shelf Talker: Anecdotes of practical experiments are combined with historical expertise in these essays on ancient skills of human life and how they can reconnect us with ourselves and the world.

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