Old World, New School

By Jaye Lawrence

Their careers and avocations sound like a census list from a colonial village: beekeeper, herbalist, bookbinder, luthier, and tailor. But behind those old-world titles are a decidedly 21st-century group of Carls who infuse their time-honored practices with modern perspectives and methods.

Carls talk about how they’ve embraced old ways in modern times.

 

The Herbalist: Heather Borkowski ’02

Heather Borkowski ’02Herbs are a connection to the natural world, says Heather Borkowski, yet too often, modern life severs that connection. As an herbalist, educator, and wellness coach, Borkowski seeks to reestablish those links to nature, both for herself and for her clients.

“We’re inside so much, sitting at desks, staring at computer screens,” she says. “But humans need tactile experiences and connections with the cycles of the seasons. I love creating sensory experiences that bring joy, grounding, and wonder into your life.”

In studying the medicinal and therapeutic properties of plants, Borkowski takes her place in a long line of herbalists whose practice predates recorded history. Thousands of years ago, the Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, and Native Americans developed various forms of herbal medicine. Clay tablets dating from 3000 BCE recommend medicinal uses for myrrh, cypress, and opium poppies; an Egyptian papyrus (circa 1500 BCE) prescribes a paste of dates, acacia, and honey for birth control. Even today’s chewing-gum flavors owe their beginnings to ancient herbalism, which recommended mint for digestive health.

Borkowski is quick to clarify that she is not a medical practitioner: “I’m a guide and mentor. I use plants and the seasons to reconnect my clients to the natural world, and to their own bodies and spirits as well.”

What inspired your interest in herbalism?
I spent nearly a decade on small sustainable farms in Nova Scotia, Washington state, and the San Juan Islands. During that time, I spent hours in the field weeding, but as I learned more about herbs and wild edibles, I discovered that what we called weeds were actually filled with more nutrients and health-giving properties than the crops I was growing specifically for market. It’s empowering to learn that you can go out and gather the things you need to be well. I was already into healthy eating, but [studying herbs] took it to the next level. I wanted to educate people about seasonal eating and deepen their connection to food, beyond what they were seeing at the local farmers market. So I began studying with herbalists, including Rosemary Gladstar, who is often called the godmother of American herbalism for making the practice popular in the United States.

You majored in geology. Has your science background influenced your study of herbs?
Definitely. Herbalism is both an art and a science. My science background has made learning the botany, the plant constituents and body systems, and reading research papers much easier. I have found a path that feeds my love of the natural world and science while also nourishing my creative, intuitive, and sensory side.

What’s on your personal list of essential herbs?
I tend to work with herbs that are found commonly where I live. I also work with food, which is my favorite way to use herbs and certainly the most traditional method. Herbs work well when you consume small quantities every day as part of your normal diet. For example, in many European countries it is common to take bitters before a meal to prime the digestive system. Italian herbs, such as basil and oregano, are delicious, but they also have natural antiseptic and immune-enhancing properties, strengthening our body’s resistance to winter colds. Nourishing ourselves with herbs brings us back into sync with nature and with our bodies.
Here are the herbs that I always have on hand in my kitchen along with their common uses:

Herb Favorite Uses Properties
Thyme food antiseptic, respiratory, digestion
Elderberry syrup antiviral, immune boosting
Linden Flower tea calming and relaxing
Dandelion Root & Leaf food, tea bitter tonic, digestion, kidney, and liver
Nettle food, tea nutritive tonic
Yarrow tea, wound wash digestion, wound healing, diaphoretic
Calendula food, tea, infused oil lymphatic, digestion, wound remedy
Burdock food, tea digestion, skin, alterative
Cinnamon food, tea digestion, carminative
Ginger food, tea digestion, reduces nausea, circulation

 

The Woodworker: Stephen Mohring

Carleton art professor Stephen Mohring doesn’t draw a hard line between art and craft, but he recognizes that many academics do.

“Carleton is one of the only liberal arts schools that offers credit for courses on metals, jewelry, and woodworking,” says Mohring, whose course “Woodworking: The Table” has been offered since 2006. “Making a distinction between an art and a craft becomes divisive and artificial. It’s not one we make pedagogically at Carleton, and not something you see historically, either. In history, the painter was not elevated above the instrument maker.”

Mohring’s table course starts with a smaller project: building a container for a treasure. “It can be a real or a metaphorical treasure,” Mohring says. “Either way, the purpose is to get them thinking about wood in a way that is both conceptual and structural.”

In the fourth week of the term, they begin to build not just a table, but a “table with attitude.” Supportive. Comforting. Angry. Aggressive. Mohring doesn’t dictate the attitude, only that the piece must express one.

“From a teaching standpoint, what’s important is the opportunity to design an object that’s familiar, but now theirs,” he says. “Our students live in a world of mass-produced objects that feel predetermined. But in truth, every last thing around them is designed. It’s just that the designer is behind the curtain most of the time. This course opens that curtain.”

There’s also a ripple effect. Once students recognize that someone designed the everyday things they use, it gives them agency as designers and builders themselves.

“That agency allows you to challenge the mass production of the world, where humans no longer have a hand in anything,” Mohring says. “It’s very much about personal empowerment.”

The course brings students into a cycle of stewardship by involving them in preparation of lumber for future classes. “Good wood takes time to dry and season into lumber,” says Mohring, “so the curriculum calls for each class to prepare wood that will be ready for use by future classes in three years or more.”

With the acquisition of a portable bandsaw mill in 2006, Carleton’s woodworking program was able to turn  trees cut on campus into lumber for student projects. Trees removed to make way for building projects or as part of trail and prairie management in the Arboretum previously had been turned into mulch or firewood.

And what of the end result: the tables? “I continue to be amazed,” Mohring says. “In many ways, the tables speak for themselves when it comes to the students’ artistic evolution. Most had no prior furniture-building experience, and none had built anything close to the scale and complexity of a table. They will never take a table for granted again.”

 

The Bookbinder: Heather Stevick Bain ’10

In the conservation lab of the University of Iowa library, bookbinder Heather Bain is traveling back in time. Before her lies a history of Italy from the late 15th century. Its cover is nearly detached, with just one strip of fine binding holding it in place. With exquisite care, Bain lifts the cover away, revealing the book’s spine in its entirety. Inside she finds pieces of a completely different text, far older than the book itself.

“The spine is made of manuscript waste, which is common in old books,” says Bain. “This one is in remarkably good condition. You can actually read the text of this manuscript from two centuries before the book was bound.”

These rich layers of history and mystery are part of what attracted Bain to bookbinding, which she first explored at Carleton through a course on the history of the book. “Mondays and Wednesdays we met at the library in Special Collections,” Bain recalls. “But on Fridays, we met in Bouliou, where we got to do a little bookbinding by hand.”

After graduating from Carleton, Bain was accepted into a two-year bookbinding program at North Bennett Street School (NBSS) in Boston. There she learned the tools and techniques of the craft, recreating binding structures from medieval to modern in paper, cloth, and leather.

“The majority of modern books are case bindings,” Bain says. “You sew the textbook, and the cover is a separate piece that gets stuck on. But at NBSS, we recreated historical bindings from the early Coptic codices that you see around the fourth century.” These codices—which rapidly replaced the scroll—were constructed of stacked sections of paper, vellum, or papyrus, attached to a heavier cover with chain stitching or lacing across the spine.

Despite her passion for traditional books, Bain doesn’t look down on e-readers (although she doesn’t own one herself). Indeed, Bain believes that digital books might ultimately make people more appreciative of physical books. “E-readers make us more aware of the physical aspects of printed books,” she says. “Libraries have seen an increase in patrons’ use of special collections. And people who do fine bindings and special-edition bindings are seeing more interest in those, too,” she says. “When you give someone a print copy, you are saying, ‘I want this to be special. I want you to be able to hold it in your hands.’ ” And save it for generations to come.

 

The Luthier: Carter Ruff ’95

Carter Ruff ’95As an English major at Carleton, Carter Ruff once fancied himself a poet. Today, as a luthier, he works with wood rather than with words—but when you get him talking about his craft, he can still wax poetic.

“There’s something amazing and powerful about an object that was made by hand by someone who really cares,” says Ruff, who owns Subterranean Music Works in Bath, Maine. “Manufacturing has gotten so sophisticated that you can find almost everything online, and I suppose that’s wonderful in its own right. Yet there’s so little marvel in that. Something is lost without human interaction.”

Ruff has been crafting and repairing guitars and other stringed instruments full time since 2002, creating custom designs for professional musicians and avid amateurs alike. But his attraction to the art of building and repairing instruments extends back to childhood.

“I’ve always been a person who needs to make things,” he says. “When I was a kid, I took my toys apart to figure out how they worked. I had a little workshop in the basement where I made model rockets and railroads.”

Carter Ruff ’95Ruff learned to play the guitar while he was in high school, but true to form, he was as curious about the workmanship of the instrument as the music it could produce. After Carleton, he headed just down the road to the technical college in Red Wing, where he enrolled first in a violin repair and restoration program, then in a guitar-building course.

Crafting objects that please both the eye and the ear is a unique creative challenge. Ruff finds that matching the instruments to the musicians adds another layer of complexity. “I start by asking what sort of music they play, and what they want to get from the instrument,” he says. “I get a feel for their taste and what inspires them Carter Ruff ’95aesthetically. I also factor in ergonomics. If somebody has small hands or sore shoulders, I can adjust my design to address that.”

Choosing the right materials involves both aesthetics and acoustics. Many different woods can be used for a guitar’s body, but a much shorter list—primarily conifers—is appropriate for the soundboard, which needs a combination of high stiffness and low mass to be both structurally robust and acoustically responsive.  Exotic woods like mahogany or rosewood may be chosen for specific tonal qualities, as well as for embellishment, Ruff says. He also enjoys incorporating wood that has a story. When a church in his community burned down, he crafted a guitar from the salvaged pews and donated it to the congregation’s fund-raising auction. He is currently making a guitar almost entirely from wood harvested in Maine, where he has lived for many years.

“A musical instrument needs to inspire its user,” Ruff says. “It needs to invite the musician to use it, and to draw new things from it. I make tools for artists whose medium is air.”

 

The Tailor: Laurine Lewis ’79

You might say that sewing has been a common thread through Laurine Lewis’s life.

Her fascination with the craft started when she was a child playing with her grandmother’s Singer sewing machine. “It was an old treadle model, although it had been electrified,” Lewis says. “I loved playing with it, and soon I loved sewing, too.”

As she grew older, Lewis continued to embrace her hobby—first in her local 4-H club in Murdoch, Minnesota, and later in home economics classes. Sewing even factored into her college education, thanks to a scholarship from from Singer.

Lewis threw herself into the rigorous academic life of Carleton—and also kept on sewing, both for herself and for the theater department. “I made a doublet for Twelfth Night and a judge’s robes for The Crucible,” she recalls. “Sewing costumes was a sideline that helped keep me sane.”

After she graduated, Lewis worked for a law firm and considered attending law school, but a chance encounter set her on a path to entrepreneurship.

“I met two young women who’d started a tailoring business in Minneapolis,” she says. “They needed help and I happened to come along. We hit it off, and two years later I bought the shop.”

Three decades later, Sew Biz Tailoring is thriving, though it has weathered some ups and downs with the whimsies of fashion. “During the business casual trend and the dot-com boom, I nearly quit,” Lewis says. “Suddenly, people could make a fortune and never change out of their T-shirts and shorts!”

Her business also reflects the economy. “In good times, people buy new things and ask me to alter them,” she says. “In bad times, they bring in old things to be fixed or updated. A lot of tailors don’t want to touch repairs, which are picky and slow, but I like keeping things out of the waste stream. The other day a customer brought me a gabardine topcoat she had purchased at an estate sale for $60. It was a quality of wool and workmanship that you just don’t see anymore. I shortened it for her and now she has a beautiful classic coat that would cost $2,000 new.

“My mother used to say, ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.’ We can’t keep being so wasteful.”

 

The Beekeeper: Laura Saxton Heiman ’98

Laura Saxton Heiman ’98

Like most Carls, Laura Saxton Heiman considers herself a lifelong learner.

Unlike most Carls, Heiman owns a loom, two antique sock-knitting machines, three spinning wheels, four bread machines, a backyard chicken coop, and twenty beehives.

“These old skills have a beauty that is an antidote and balancer for modern times,” says Heiman. “I love learning them—and then I keep on doing them, because it is more fulfilling than just paying someone to make something for me.”

The bees are foremost on her mind on a recent summer day as she steers her pickup truck down a bumpy field road in Northfield, bound for one of her three beeyards (a collection of hives). Her business, Schoolhouse Apiary, is in full swing for the season. That means regular rounds of checking the bees’ health and production, extracting and filtering honey, and bottling honey to sell at Northfield’s weekly Riverwalk Market Fair. Each year her bees produce anywhere from 30 to 100 pounds of honey per hive, depending on weather,  bee health, and other factors. Heiman also sells beeswax candles, honey vinegar, and natural comb honey, which can be eaten as-is, comb and all—“like candy,” she says.

Why beekeeping? Heiman shrugs beneath her protective suit, a bulky white coverall elasticized at wrists and ankles. Her wide smile is visible through the veil that shields her face. “Bees are interesting,” she says. “Beekeeping gives me something else to talk about.”

Excerpts from Heiman’s online journal follow:

Diary of a Beekeeper

January 4: It’s package bee ordering time! Package bees, in my experience, are really the only way to go. Some people around here sell hives or “nucs” (small colonies created from larger ones), but I’ve never had luck with them.

April 28: It’s been a busy two days! The bee packages came in [from California] and we hived them all.

May 7: It’s one of those days when 40 pounds of sugar isn’t enough! The newly hived [bees] need to be fed sugar syrup until they’re established. The folks at the grocery store are used to me coming in and filling up my cart with bags of sugar.

June 10: No honey flow yet. The bees are building up their numbers, the world has turned green, the eagles and pheasants and deer and turkeys and ticks are all out in force, there’s even what seems like a lot of flowers—and yet no nectar flow. This is when I have to wait patiently, feed the bees syrup and pollen, dodge rainstorms, and keep waiting.

June 24: Big excitement here yesterday with a bee swarm! [When a hive gets too big, a new queen is spawned, forcing the old queen to seek new digs—with some of her old worker bees in tow. The worker bees stay clumped around the queen—creating a big, buzzing swarm of bees.] A neighbor reported a swarm about a mile from my beeyards. I zoomed over to check it out. It was a football-sized swarm, about six feet off the ground in a pine tree. We cut the branch, accidentally knocking half of the bees to the ground. Fortunately, the queen was still on the branch, so all the loose bees flew back to the swarm. I popped the branch into the hive box I had brought, gave them some drawn comb, put a lid on the box, and drove home.

July 5: We are finally seeing a strong honey flow!

July 7: I got stung today. On the toe. Insanely painful. I ran out of swear words.

July 22: Brought the honey supers  home and extracted them today—eight hours later, I have 75 pounds of liquid honey, most of it gorgeous light basswood, and 5 pounds of comb honey. I’ll return the empty supers to the bees tomorrow and hope they fill them right back up.

Follow more of Laura Heiman's beekeeping adventures at facebook.com/SchoolhouseApiary.

 

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