In One Hundred Years

In one hundred years

Thomas MacManus designed Quannapowatt in 1903, the photograph on which her plans are overlaid was taken in 2009.  In a short one hundred years the design of fishing vessels has atrophied. Vessels now are not only inherently unsafe, but go about hoovering up the remnants of the stocks on which we depend while exposing their crews to a mind-numbing backbreaking tedium in the most dangerous job. We’ve gone from the peak of three hundred years of evolution to floating boxes and this took just over fifty years of the last one hundred to accomplish. All this took place at the “height” of our greatest “Prosperity.” The current fleet is cobbled together. Once justly a proud lot of small-hold ownership and a meritocracy the remnant is owned either by large corporate interests or in deep debt to a far-off bank. Demoralized crews have no patience for anything beyond immediate economic solvency. They lack any sense of perspective that might lead them to question the effects their own attitudes have on their situation.

I condemn everything that led to this. This blame is not directed primarily at the “Fishing Industry;” but at the wide-spread world view that pushed it in this direction and caused so much havoc across the board. There are so many other examples of similar impoverishment over the last century. This is not a call for nostalgia, or some romantic appeal that fails to take “hard realities” into consideration. It is the opposite of that. The descent into unattainable and unsustainable fantasies has all been on the other side.

Those who work the current fleets are trying to make the best out of an impossible situation. To the extent that they tend to side with their oppressors against any attempts to tackle the underlying issues is not surprising. They are part of a wider culture where many people do the same thing on a variety of fronts at every opportunity. They bring whatever dignity and spirit there is left to the enterprise while they suffer its effects most directly. There’s little to prefer in the position of their erstwhile opponents. Micro-managing bureaucracies have done little more than make their lives miserable while documenting the slide to extinction after-the-fact.

Fishing is moribund. That’s not unusual today. We are surrounded by Zombie Industries. Many have had much more “talent” thrown at them than this relative backwater. I focus on their situation, because I’ve grown up and lived in the shadow of this debacle. If I had lived in Detroit….

This situation has many parallels with so many other failures of the twentieth century. From my experience living near the fisheries, and having studied its history for over thirty years; I find powerful lessons in this story, lessons that have been ignored.

Untangling the worldwide depletion of the ocean is much more complex than just pointing a finger at a fishery. The general turn to a wholesale industrial model in the sixties and seventies, and the opening up of the New England Fisheries to foreign factory ships, amounted to one of the major sell-outs of our time – though mostly ignored, since few have been aware of its history and consequences. Habitat destruction and pollution have been devastating. These factors have probably caused at least as much, if not more, damage to the sea’s over-all health. Try to think of a single major estuary system anywhere in the world that hasn’t been massively perturbed by “reclamation” and either urban or industrial development, or both. These the most productive lands on the planet have been wiped out and replaced by pavement, and oil, and chemical refineries worldwide.

I’ve used MacManus’ Quannapowatt as a symbol for this site. I find it embodies much of what I feel has been lost in our current perspective on design and its place in society. This design, the creation of an “amateur” designer who, as a fish dealer had a close knowledge of the demands of the task, and whose natural talent was “plugged into” a long established tradition of  people with building skills who wielded techniques developed over centuries atop roots that go back millennia. Howard Chapelle’s American Fishing Schooners, a book I’ve had by my side for thirty-five years, has been my Galapagos giving me a rich source of examples of the way the New England fishing schooner developed through an evolutionary process that unfolded over those three centuries. Quannapowatt arose at the very end of that development just as engines entered into wider use.

This fishery’s history has been a clear-cut example of what the corrosive effects of cheap energy wreak on a system that had been remarkably sustaining, one that had maintained a culture with tremendous integrity. These schooners, mere “tools” for an economic underclass to wrestle a modest livelihood from a wild and dangerous natural world, were arguably among the finest artifacts ever made. They met their elemental tasks with a sophistication and grace that’s rarely been matched. These were neither intentionally artistic, or spiritual, or civic monuments. They were the products of simple crafts fed by the most basic of industries and they were built for a pittance, considering their qualities and performance in one of the world’s most rigorous environments.

This edifice with all its cultural and procedural richness was abandoned and devolved to its present state in one long lifetime.  Everyone involved, with very few exceptions, eagerly walked away from this hard-won legacy and embraced the “something for nothing” of cheap energy. Along with this loss, we have had a concomitant degradation of biodiversity and marine biomass along with a cascading loss of cultural diversity. Basic skills and attitudes towards life were also abandoned. The modern fisherman shares the dangers his ancestors’ faced while having been robbed of much of the satisfaction available to those who came before him. The rest of us have only the tiniest glimmers of the depth and sheer majesty of physical experience that was once common to anyone who came into contact with these craft in their natural element.

There was a level of true pragmatism expressed in every aspect of their design, construction, and use that is completely lacking from anything in today’s consumer culture. This I see as a way into the discovery of a new path for design and its immersion within the fabric of a potentially viable culture to come.

This process will not be a return. That is never possible, and it’s debatable whether it would be worthwhile. We stand at the end of a decadent age proclaiming stubborn pride for its most grievous ills. Of necessity, we will need to develop something that never existed before. We have heavy and growing costs to deal with, resulting from the impacts we’ve hurled against the natural world. While we may be amazed at the hardship of wresting a living from the sea in 1903, that problem is now compounded by the collapse of the marine environment. We don’t have timber available in the quantity and quality they had, or with any possibility of establishing a sustainable harvest for a long time to come. Even the simple industries for iron-work and canvas, or high quality hand-tools, may well be beyond us as these industries have been dismantled, and existing industries cannot be easily re-tooled to take their place – even if the loss of cheap fuel didn’t significantly disrupt the potential for almost any industrial activity at all.

I pay homage to these schooners and give Quannapowatt pride-of-place on each post because it represents a touchstone for a way forward. The people involved in maintaining what tenuous connection we may still have to this era and its artifacts will be vitally important in the unpredictable evolution we face as we go forward into a world where “Something for Nothing” is no longer possible. Along with these skills, and the examples of what was once possible, we need to develop a new resilience of spirit and the will to imbue whatever we make with true value and give it all we can give. The days of sacrificing everything of value to an expedience of the least effort will soon be over. It’s up to us to see what replaces it.


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