The beauty of usefulness

Print More

(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange has been traveling again and found a museum full of useful objects as beautiful as Stradivarius violins.

(LANGE) I like beautiful things as much as anybody. The walls of my office are hung with Remington and Homer – the one suggesting the latent menace in every moment, the other the careless joy of living. Lovely things: the ornaments of consciousness. But far more interesting to me are utilitarian objects, built at first to perform a function, then refined and raised to an art form.

You can see it in early America. The first settlers pegged together rough furniture to serve their basic needs. Later, those with the talent for it began to specialize. And, eventually, Colonial American furniture makers achieved the grace of the European masters.

Recently, we were in Peterborough, Ontario, the canoeing capital of North America. There at the Canadian Canoe Museum we traced the development of the canoe from aboriginal forms to the specialized beauties that preceded the advent of synthetic materials. There are racing canoes, slender as arrows, and husky freighters descended from birch bark canoes over 36 feet long.

The first thing you see when you step into the lobby is a replica of the 12-meter fur trade canoes. They carried the voyageurs and their tons of goods far into the interior. At the start of each portage, they were unloaded. Their crews of eight to 12 men hoisted them into the air, and then four men, who must have been made of steel, muscled them over the bug-infested portage to the next navigable water.

We Americans visualize our natives traveling in canoes. But they didn’t; not nearly as much as those to the north. They didn’t have the water routes that spread all across Canada to the Rockies. And they never had birch in the same abundance. The Iroquois often used fir or elm bark, but they were rough, leaky and cumbersome. It was here, around the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, that the form reached its pinnacle and even became art.

There are over 600 canoes and kayaks here: cedar dugouts of the Tlingits, bark canoes of the Cree and Chipewayans and skin boats of the Inuit. An army of volunteers is restoring the boats not ready for exhibit. Native canoe builders are being encouraged to revive their art in the bush.

Now, if you’re a paddler, it’s impossible to pass each boat without imagining how it would handle. Some look cranky and tippy. There’s a 1923 Old Town that looks as though it’s just come through the factory door, and a gleaming torpedo deck cruiser that represents the pinnacle of the Peterborough Canoe Company’s 110 years of production. It’s being raffled so, of course, I bought a ticket. It’s awfully low in the water, like a kayak. If I should win it, I’ll never be able to get in and out of it without drowning. But what a way to go!

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

Comments are closed.