A sturdy gentleman of German descent, Bodo Langen, guided our small class of five students through a memorable journey into woodworking that lead ultimately into the shaping of our creative souls. A dedicated Waldorf educator, he gave us insights into the pedagogy of this ancient art while facilitating our hands on experience in cutting, gouging, and carving wood. Often, over the sound of mallets tap-tap-tapping on gouges, he would speak in his resonant voice and say things like, "The inner part of the vessel is your soul life, as you shape the wood, you shape your Self."
In the two week course, in a workshop dedicated to woodworking and metalworking, with heavy wooden work tables set firmly in the middle of the room, shelves lined with gouges, planers, mallets, and cabinet scrapers, and several pieces of wood that would become bowls and lyres stacked on shelves against the walls, my project took shape, and I deepened an understanding of my own will force.
I was no stranger to the species of wood I worked with: poplar. A wonderful, tight grain with sweeping lines of beige and gray green, soft enough to carve, hard enough to retain its strength and form. Interestingly, I had originally picked out a board of alder, as I had not used it before. Perhaps intuitively, Bodo suggested I try the poplar. He did not know I use poplar in the wood puzzles and sprites I create through Syrendell. Somehow, I must be connected to the poplar so I gladly accepted Bodo's recommendation. Woodworking is all about the process. The end product, while satisfying to reach, is secondary to the woodworker's meditative and highly focused process of bringing the beauty out of the wood.
The journey began with a stroll through the olive orchard at Rudolf Steiner College, searching for the felled branches with the right amount of moisture to use: too wet and green, and the wood will shift in its form over time, too dry, and the wood is brittle and cracked. We returned to the wood shop, and one of the class used an olive branch for her project, the rest of us used wood of different species, some already cut into lumber. After cutting the wood to an approximate desired size, gouging begins.
The gouge is a sharp-tipped, curved metal blade with a wood handle. It can be struck with a mallet to remove larger pieces from the project. For more precise work, the handle is held in one hand, palm up, providing the forward motion, and the other hand is positioned on the metal blade to guide the sharp tip. Using the gouge represents the will force. The active pushing of the gouge, an extension of one's arm and physical being, symbolizes the force exerted to meet the need for the human being to shape the physical world. Concurrently, the other hand, as it guides the tip, acts as the will's thinking partner. The will is balanced in this elegant metaphor. Power and strength, tempered by conscious restraint and judgment.
The interior aspect of my bowl symbolizes my inner soul. The exterior aspect of the bowl symbolizes the outer world. The outer surface can also be regarded as the interface of the human with the environment. We had started working on our projects by first removing wood to shape the interior space, then moving on to work on the outside surface. Perhaps this represents the way the human should meet the world: consciously working on the inner life will reflect outwards to shape the outer life.
Translating all this wood wisdom to the Waldorf classroom, the young student at 12 to 14 years old has entered a developmental phase where he or she, in awakening to the separation of self and environment, must be active in the world to remain connected to it and to make a difference in it. Woodworking clearly is a way to experience the process of shaping the world. The exertion of the child's feeling, thinking, and willing Self, through the wood, has a lasting impression on the soul life of the child.
For those of you interested in incorporting the arts into your classroom or homeschool experience, check out Educating through Arts and Crafts, edited by Michael Martin. It is a compilation by craft artists and teachers of the pedagogy and techniques of working with wood through the middle school and high school years.