Something that quietly becomes clear in Nancy Hiller’s newest book of essays (“Shop Tails,” now shipping) is a subtle underlying theme of worth. “Blue-collar” vs. “white.” Grades earned, degrees obtained and at which institution. Worth in the eye of friend, teacher, sibling, parent, boss, client, beholder. Critique. The worth of a commission. Representation in a shop. The worth of a stray. Staying, leaving and their reflection of your worth to self and others. The worth not of a house, but of a home. The worth of pets, even when problematic, and love, and life. The worth of good pudding. Self-worth.
“What I wanted, for 50 years, was to prove that people were wrong about me, to exceed their low expectations. When people mentally translated my work as a furniture maker to “She makes ‘furniture’ out of pallets or fruit crates and decorates her work with cut-outs of ducks and bunnies – you know, because that’s what women like,” I would show them my take on an Edwardian hallstand with a perfectly fitted door and drawer and a cornice of compound bevels. Anyone who assumed that, as a tradesperson, I would be less intellectually curious and articulate than someone who works in an office (any kind of office would do; this is a matter of longstanding prejudice against “manual” and “blue-collar” workers) would have to square that assumption with a growing body of published essays and books in which I brought my academic training in classical languages, history and ethics to bear on the social and economic significance of commonplace things such as kitchen furnishings. I did my best to illustrate the ways in which a house, typically thought of as “property,” could fulfill many of the roles we usually associate with a human partner. In response to the critics who might deride my ways of putting cabinets together, I would point out that there really are as many ways to build a cabinet as there are cabinetmakers, not to mention that the cabinets I build, however simple their construction, are far stronger than most that are commercially made.”
Last week one of my twin 11-year-old boys was outside when our dog, Io, found a squirrel, already hurt and hiding in a bush. He pulled it out proudly, carrying it by its tail. My son yelled at him to drop it. On its side, its big beautiful brown eye stared at us while it breathed ever-shallower breaths. My other son appeared, and we gathered a box and a towel. One boy bit his tongue, the other was indignant: “We can’t save him. It won’t work.” Two defense mechanisms that failed to stop silent tears. I thought, It is OK to be 11 and soft while simultaneously thinking how best to end a small animal’s life in order to end its palpable pain, knowing I couldn’t possibly actually do it. (The squirrel died on its own shortly after.)
I share this story because my sons’ recognition of the squirrel’s worth in that moment reminded me of something Nancy wrote to me, the day before this incident:
“Every time I think about ‘Shop Tails’ I am filled with delight at the thought that the stories of these animals, some of them strays, some wild, others abandoned to the shelter, get to be commemorated in a book – a beautifully produced hardbound book, with pictures. There’s something about this that I still don’t even quite grasp. It’s the opposite of the usual publishing world, where Important People are the only ones who get remembered or have their stories told. (Yes, thankfully that has been changing over the past 40 years, but I still see a distressingly overwhelming hangover from the middle of the 20th century and before.) There’s something wondrous about this noticing of the rejected and otherwise-un-notable, especially those who had short lives. And of course I’m aware that there’s a vast genre of books about animals, this one is by no means alone, etc. But still! Little Alfie with his explosive digestive problems and impossible William, pathologically jealous Henny, champion-of-gratefulness/gimp-boy Joey, the turkey vulture by the side of the road, and ‘Henry’ the mourning dove, all get their day, as do others. It’s a kind of triumph. Yeah, these stories are written from my perspective, not the animals’, but that’s a limitation we have to live with.”
There’s a shift taking place in the woodworking community, where more people than ever before are getting to see their worth in more welcoming environments Among them The Chairmaker’s Toolbox, a slew of Instagram feeds that show work by members of populations that have long been underrepresented by the majority of woodworking populations, the proliferation of scholarships for classes at woodworking schools that are now available to members of underrepresented populations and the “Gallery” in Fine Woodworking magazine.
It took Nancy more than half a century to come to terms with her own worth, both in the shop and out. In doing so, she has acknowledged the danger of being too dependent on outside forces – of people who express their approval, just as much as those who express their opposition. Consider the consequences this can have on representation in community, in craft – even in the personal work you do, in the choices you make about the tools you buy or the pieces you make. They’re huge.
“It suddenly felt deeply exhausting,” she writes. “I let my awareness of that exhaustion sink in. Whatever might happen with the course of my cancer, I was not going back to my old ways of living.”
This book is a celebration of not just the “otherwise un-notable,” but also of the notable who are just beginning to realize their worth. And in that, I imagine Nancy’s not alone.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl