During our Christmas visit to my husband’s family and the home where he grew up, we spent an afternoon rummaging through closets and sheds, stirring up dust and memories. Amongst the stowed-away treasures were his first “guitar,” carved by his grandpa from a piece of wood; the leather baseball mitt he donned every Saturday through years of Little League games; a fleet of toy cars; and about a half-a-dozen largish boxes of fishing tackle.
I had waited long to see the stores contained in these, having heard plenty of recollections of the friendly uncle who imparted a love of the fisherman’s craft to his little nephew, and of the hours they would spend together creating fanciful lures to snag legend-worthy fish. Here they all were: zara spooks hand-carved from wooden dowels, painted hues of acrylic green, red, and orange so vivid they glowed, and embellished with patterns of dots and stripes under a shiny coat of polyurethane; top-water poppers, painted like the first, but with a hollow scooped from one end to make them bubble out water when pulled by the reel; streamers for fly-fishing, with long strands of brightly-tinted fur and feathers bound together; and—my favorite— fanciful deer hair poppers, made by packing deer hair onto a plain fishing hook, then trimming and coaxing it into shapes of water-bugs or minnows or mice or more mythical creatures, fantastically colored and completed with googly-eyes.
Yet, aside from a few trusty lures bearing the scars of bite-marks and chipped paint, most were pristine, having lived out their days in the tackle box rather than the lake, and even now paraded out to be admired rather than put to work. For it’s true of all the crafts that capture human hands and imaginations: the ideas that ache to be enfleshed in the mind of one who loves his craft later or sooner outnumber the uses to be had for them.
It is the enduring problem of the hobbyist, the amateur, the one who makes things because he likes to. The fisherman needs only a handful of lures to bait his catches year by year; the lacemaker has only so many table-tops and chair-backs to strew with doilies; a home holds only a few beds over which the quilter can spread her patchwork; library shelves are stocked with books that some wordsmith burned to write, but few ever find to read. The carver of spoons, whittler of whistles, knitter, crocheter, butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker . . . all of these end up with closets full of things that, though lovingly made, molder away in over-abundance. And thus has it been since humans became makers in the first pages of the Pentateuch.
It appears, at first glance, like a petty tragedy. But in the face of the world’s great needs, it mounts almost to travesty: such cost of effort and insight, time and material poured out with no use and no return. Is the hobbyist a selfish spendthrift, the amateur a wishy-washy wastrel? Could not these things have been given to the poor?
Or—like perfume spilled on feet—do things poured out for love even require a use?
This, I think, is the grand secret spelled out by the crafter’s heaps of clutter: the love of making things is free, driven towards creation by joy rather than by need, for it imitates and acquaints us with the One who is the source of all creation and all love.
God made things because He liked to, not because He had to. He made more things than anyone but Himself could catalogue and admire. Even when a general cleaning-out of His things was required, He saved from the waters, two by two, precisely the things that ensured their self-proliferation. And to His chiefly treasured thing, the human race, He imparts His own free, joyful, superfluous urge to create.
Fitting it is that the poet, himself a craftsman of words, who admired the “gear and tackle and trim” of all trades extolled their beauty in a poem of praise to the One “who fathers-forth” “all things counter, original, spare, strange,” as the words of Hopkins’ inimitable “Pied Beauty” have it. For, in the end, to make things is to express love—and to impart the love of making is to direct that love to a person, whether in the uncle sharing with his nephew all his skill of tying flies, or in our Lord sharing with us His love of making. That human minds and human hands continually spill forth more artifacts than they can find use for testifies to their identity as subcreators, reflects the joyful extravagance of the original Creator, and links us in shared love to Him.