Sometimes, when everything has become all too much, when, for instance, the time-chomping, life-sucking specter of a new computer operating system rises and the dark sprites of incompatible programs flit into view, I turn to books that record past ways of doing things. Against the flux -- in practically the medical sense -- of technological innovation and marketing strategy, these works are a tonic, offering a vision of order and measure, and even of permanence, though just about everything described in them is gone.
"Who does not remember the joiner-made washing tray of wide yellow pine with splayed sides and ends?" asks Walter Rose in "The Village Carpenter" (New Amsterdam , paperback, $9.95). I don't, yet how agreeable the question is. First published in 1937, Rose's book looks back to an England in the time of the author's grandfather, a carpenter and founder of the family business, among whose products were those venerable washing trays. With the old man's death in 1893, his son, Rose's father, combined carpentry with what had been discrete trades, among them masonry, painting, and glazing. "Paint, putty and glass invaded the old workshop," observes Rose, "much to the disgust of the old joiners that remained." Indeed, with the breaking down of barriers, the prestige of the separate crafts diminished, a decline furthered by the introduction of such ready-made components as doors, sashes, moldings, varnishes, and stains.
"The Village Carpenter," then, is a reminiscence and record of 19th-century carpentry, its practitioners, methods, tools, materials, and its place in village life. The governing theme of the book, and the element that makes it so utterly satisfying, is fittingness: the fittingness of certain woods for certain purposes, of tools for their work, of different men for their occupations.
In the case of wood, each variety has its purposes, its gifts, its character, and its destiny -- and the experienced woodworker looks at each tree and sees where it belongs in the order of things. In addition to much else, Rose gives an absolutely thrilling account of the construction of a wooden pump made from two elm trees. He describes every step of the process, from choosing elm itself for the purpose, selecting the appropriate trees, boring the central hole with a 15-foot, two-man auger, fashioning the inner components of the pump, and continuing to the dramatic lowering of the top member onto the lower (slathered with boiling suet) and the final triumph of pumping water. This success "gave satisfaction of mind to its makers, who, in the well-made pump that would render good service to the farm for many years to come, saw their humble contribution to the welfare of mankind."
Essential to the carpenter's nature and what fits him to his craft is his jealous attachment and devoted attention to his tools, to those "mute servants waiting the moment of need." Understandably he is loath to lend his precious implements to another and, as Rose notes with a trace of umbrage, " for this simple reason the carpenter has often been credited with a churlishness that does not belong to his disposition." Certainly the carpenters one meets in these pages, if not the world, are cheerful and good.
It is in his depiction of different men and their capacities and talents that Rose creates something close to an idyll, a fantasy, in fact, of concord and fittingness, which made me a little ashamed of the pleasure I took in it. He writes of one worker, a huge, happy, powerful man not overly gifted in intellect, who paid calls on farms to repair gates, stiles, fences, mangers, and anything else. He owned his own cottage, had a sockful of money stored against the future, and his wife was content. He was, says Rose, "surely nature's child, one who had never unlearned the art of filling to perfection the little niche which had been provided for him by destiny." Rose's book gives heart's ease in its old-fashioned cadence of speech, abundance of material detail, and vision of a world where a landowner strolls his estate with a pocket of acorns to plant in likely spots -- "an admirable practice of simple patriotism."
It was with visions of oak trees in my head that I turned to Amy Stewart's "Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $23.95) -- only to have them replaced by images of poison roses. Stewart, whose previous book, "The Earth Moved," is a tremendous account of earthworms and their contributions and, alas, depredations, has found another subject whose blessings are mixed.
Stewart shows in stunning detail that every aspect of producing flowers for the cut-flower market has been abstracted into its elements. This includes labor and location, the breeding of varieties, generation, growing conditions and media, pest control, timing, harvesting, packaging and preservation, transportation, distribution, and marketing. " The cut flower trade," Stewart writes, "is all about this struggle between what is natural and unspoiled and what is mass produced and commercial." That struggle, such as it exists, is really confined now to image. Although Stewart presents a number of socially conscious producers of flowers -- growers who treat their workers well, don't pollute earth and water, and don't plunge their flowers into vats of fungicide before sending them off to poison us -- the picture is dismal. This is a trade that is ruthless in its use of disposable packaging and energy consumption, and that, if I may say so, appeals to a world that has lost any sense of proportion and fittingness. The appetite for a bunch of tulips in mid winter is, in my view, offensive to order and decency.
I found this book not only revelatory in a distressing way, but informative at every level, engaging in the pictures it gives of the people involved in the trade, and commendably fair-minded. It is not too early to start thinking about replacing the flowers you were going to distribute for Easter and Mother's Day with copies of this excellent book.
Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. Her column appears on alternate Sundays. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.