Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Gradual Stiffening as a Philosophy of Action
The experienced carpenter keeps going. He doesn’t have to keep stopping, because every action he performs, is calculated in such a way that some later action can put it right to the extent that it is imperfect now. What is critical here, is the sequence of events. The carpenter never takes a step which he cannot correct later; so he can keep working,confidently, steadily.The novice by comparison, spends a great deal of his time trying to figure out what todo. He does this essentially because he knows that an action he takes now may cause unretractable problems a little further down the line; and if he is not careful, he will find himself with a joint that requires the shortening of some crucial member - at a stage when it is too late to shorten that member. The fear of these kinds of mistakes forces him to spend hours trying to figure ahead: and it forces him to work as far as possible to exact drawings because they will guarantee that he avoids these kinds of mistakes.
The difference between the novice and the master is simply that the novice has not learnt, yet, how to do things in such a way that he can afford to make small mistakes. The master knows that the sequence of his actions will always allow him to cover his mistakes a little further down the line. It is this simple but essential knowledge which gives the work of a master carpenter its wonderful, smooth, relaxed, and almost unconcerned simplicity.
In a building we have exactly the same problem, only greatly magnified. Essentially, most modern construction has the character of the novice’s work, not of the master’s. The builders do not know how to be relaxed, how to deal with earlier mistakes by later detailing; they do not know the proper sequence of events; and they do not, usually, have a building system, or a construction process, which allows them to develop this kind of relaxed and casual wisdom. Instead, like the novice, they work exactly to finely detailed drawings; the building is extremely uptight as it gets made; any departure from the exact drawings is liable to cause severe problems, may perhaps make it necessary to pull out whole sections of the work.This novice-like and panic-stricken attention to detail has two very serious results.First, like the novice, the architects spend a great deal of time trying to work things out ahead of time, not smoothly building. Obviously, this costs money; and helps create these machine-like “perfect” buildings. Second, a vastly more serious consequence: the details control the whole. The beauty and subtlety of the plan in which patterns have held free sway over the design suddenly becomes tightened and destroyed because, in fear that details won’t work out, the details of connections, and components, are allowed to control the plan. As a result, rooms get to be slightly the wrong shape, windows go out of position, spaces between doors and walls get altered just enough to make them useless. In a word, the whole character of modern architecture, namely the control of larger space by piddling details of construction, takes over.”