Harold Burnham

I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be linking here to a story in The Washington Post but

Great news! Harold Burnham has won a fellowship! It’s great to have something touching on the theme of Boats for difficult times appearing on a national stage, even if relegated to the Style section…

“You couldn’t make a living at building boats and I haven’t yet, but to me it’s not really about making a living. It’s about preserving the craft and the culture.”

Lost in the cognitive dissonances surrounding Harold Burnham’s appearance in The Washington Post, and receiving a prestigious national honor, is the universal application of Harold’s straightforward, unassuming understanding of reality. At a time when only those deep within distraction can have any doubt that we are all increasingly unable to “make a living.” Harold declares that such a concern is besides the point!

“It’s about preserving the craft and the culture.”

It’s a folk tale premise. The “unlearned,” rough-hewn country boy/man delivers solid truths to the desperately sophisticated, wins awards and accolades for his stirring example. He discovers that his fame was only a flash in the pan and the narrative returns to business-as-usual.

That won’t happen to Harold. Oh, Washington will forget him by nightfall, but Harold won’t be there to discover that fame is fleeting or to see the next contestant meet his fifteen minutes. He will be back on his schooner, in the bosom of his friends, with his experience and skills intact, none the worse for his junket; he will have his Craft to sustain him.

My hope is that the real lesson of Harold’s example gets through the noise to resonate with people who might have simply stumbled upon his story.

Dana Story, ancestor to the Dana Story mentioned in the article, once said something to this effect,

“The Story family has been building boats for three hundred years.”

This back in the 1890s,

“We lost money on every boat. Made up for it on volume.”

It’s a context that changes how we read Harold’s confession of economic crime. Harold’s boatbuilding is simply outside the money economy because, as Dana Story told us, Essex boatbuilding was always outside the money economy. The real punchline of Story’s joke is that the continuation of the Craft and the culture was the point. This was what made the profession “sustainable.” The fact that Harold is still working and living this notion more than a century later is worth our attention because it’s becoming increasingly clear that the growing impossibility of “making a living” is mostly a euphemism for someone else “making a killing.”

The history of boatbuilding in Essex is bound to the depletion of the forests and of the fisheries. But not perhaps in the ways common wisdom would have us believe. Building wooden boats did not deforest the East. The schooners fishing the banks did not bring the sacred Cod to the brink of extinction. Making money did both.

All too often, “wealth” is the end result of creating impoverishment – of ecosystems and of human lives – and concentrating the extracted riches in the hands of the powerful. Dana Story’s work was “unsuccessful” in that regard. Instead of clear-cutting to burn wood to make lime for building cities, or launching enormous floating factories to plow the sea bottom for fish-sticks and fertilizer, they worked with a frugality of purpose and a sense that the quality of one’s work was an end in itself.

For a long time, it would have been hard to imagine living like Harold and not thinking him a fool, even if a holy one. But that time is fading, and with that comes the question of where the real foolishness lay. Harold’s simple and strong example shows us how he answered the question. The lessons he gleaned from his heritage of Craft leave him with a clarity of purpose and cheerful perseverance which shines forth as an example to us all.

Congratulations Harold!

And clear sailing!





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s