Wheelwrights – the craftspeople who make wooden wheels for carts – are not much in demand in contemporary, mechanised, industrialised mass-production societies.
But consider this: to make a good wheel, the wheelwright needs to be deeply sensitive to three different domains:
The first is the forest. What kind of wood grows where, and when. The flow of the seasons, their rains and dry periods. The properties of each kind of wood, how it responds to cutting and shaping, what will happen to it as it dries and weathers, its capacity to bear load in different directions, the unique effect of knots in the grain, how it responds under pressure, and how all of this changes depending upon when in the season the wood is felled and when it is cut. A skilful wheelwright is attuned to all of this, able to tell just what is called for, and able to assess a piece of wood and just how to cut it well from its feel, its weight, its aroma, its colour.
The second is the domain of carts. Precisely how the wood is likely to be used. The specific demands called upon in being pulled by horses or donkeys or people, in driving over firm ground and muddy ground, with the sorts of loads and distributions to be carried.
And the third is people and culture. The wheelwright needs a deep understanding of the end-purposes for which people choose to use carts, and a similarly deep understanding of people in particular so that, when Arthur or Jenny or Miha or Danha ask for a wheel, it’s possible to respond to just what is called for that will meet their particular concerns, their intentions, and the commitments they’re in the midst of.
A deep attunement to all three domains is what enables the wheelwright to provide just what’s called for, just what meets the situation that calls for a new wheel, when a customer walks in.
In a mechanised, mass production culture all three of these kinds of attunement are easily obscured. We are blinded by the production of vast quantities of products that are all the same as one another, standardised, uniform, efficient to produce, but which can only respond in the most generalised of ways to each of us, to our situation, to what’s called for. We can easily come to think that the benefits of mass – the machines that can cut through any kind of wood whatever the grain, the standardisation of products that can be shipped quickly all over the world – are the only benefits worth looking out for.
But what we gain in efficiency we lose in artistry, and in mastery, and in our capacity to develop our own deep kind of attunement to place, people, and materials. We produce products and services that do their job well in one way, but pay little heed to the particular human worlds in which they will be used. The effect? Efficiency at the cost of responsiveness to the richness and aliveness of human life.
In some domains standardisation is vital. But there are many areas where we’re effectively insisting on a mass-produced response when attunement is what’s really called for.
More on this tomorrow.