Pootling around on the internet the other evening, looking for information about splitting logs, I stumbled on a surprising source: a series of films (some new, some very old) made in different parts of France on their country crafts. Log-splitting is there all right; the ancient art of the merrandier, the forester who renders a solid oak log into perfect slabs for conversion into, for example, barrel staves. Coopers are there, too: the ancestral barrel-makers who fashion a whole barrel from scratch by hand. Their tools alone are a study in practical evolution: planes, chisels, draw-knives, drills, clamps, mallets and the massive beetle so brilliantly called a ‘persuader’.
A barrel, when you think of it, is hardly an obvious container. Who thought of flexing planks and constraining them with hoops to keep them tight together and watertight? The Romans didn’t. They used heavy two-handled clay amphoras for anything you could pour, from wine to corn. It was the Gauls who invented the barrel: weight is no problem when you can roll it.
There are films on thatching, tiling, charcoal-burning, puddling clay and carving sabots (usually from logs of alder). There is the forgotten drama of using rivers for transporting timber, when labourers worked all day up to their thighs in their threadbare trousers, in ordinary shoes (and some with waistcoats and watch-chains) in the water, fishing logs out, stacking them, lashing them into rafts and braving rapids on them.
It is the direct physicality of all these crafts that makes them so familiar, yet so alarmingly remote from modern life. Limbs were limbs; strength was strength: you lifted, you pulled, you carried, you shoved. A pulley or a lever was the only mechanical advantage or way of increasing the force you could apply with your muscles. Your hands were your basic tools, vulnerable as they are. There are no gloves in these films; I flinch as I watch a blade coming down repeatedly within an inch of bare fingers. But that is how we got to where we are.