The Boston Pops covers “Sleigh Ride” over the sound system as we cue the Christmas lights and evaluate how many hours we can work before we must have an egg nog latte. It’s December at the sail loft, and my ninth month as an apprentice. Like Santa’s sack growing heavy with gifts, I feel joy to see sailmaking skills fill my bag of tricks and I feel the weight of responsibility that knowledge carries.
“I used to think sails were just white triangles,” my boss told me one day.
I laughed because I thought that once, too. I imagine sails can be a bit like those Magic Eye images: You have to really look to see the dimension. Each edge of a sail and every part of its surface has subtle curves; convexity and concavity that is designed or the result of years of use.
At first, the experience of seeing a common object in a different way is thrilling. When I began to work with my hands, I would slide my fingers down an iron rail and almost feel the touch of the tradesman who had forged and installed it decades before. Even a sidewalk curb seemed haunted by those who cut it.
That initial thrill is tempered, however, the more you understand that common object. It is an experience that reminds me of a passage in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince,” in which the prince tames a fox:
“Men have forgotten this truth,” the fox said, “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
In other words, in learning a traditional trade, in “taming” the art of making sails, I have a responsibility to build sails that work well and are beautiful. For now, I am an apprentice and my teachers shield me from making grand mistakes. However, one day, what I construct might only have my name behind it. Perhaps then, I will have yet another responsibility, to pass that knowledge onward.
As the fox says, however, the effort is worth it:
“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life.”