One sign that an aspect of village culture is vanishing is when an item stops being functional and becomes an artifact, or when a totally different function is imposed on it.
Log water pipes are a case to consider.
Not long ago forests were close to our village. Trees were large and available, and by available I mean that village people felt free to cut trees they needed. Water for home use came from a well that was dug at an auspicious location near the house. Water for fields came from irrigation canals and ditches. When gravity didn’t work to get water where it was needed for gardens or orchards the water was lifted from a stream either by a water wheel or by muscle power. The distances were short but occasionally bamboo or wooden conduits were needed.
One type of conduit was a log cut lengthwise and hollowed out. These log pipes were common farm items made by hand. Every village must have had several, perhaps scores of them. When rubber, metal and then plastic pipes became available along with motor-driven pumps the log conduits were usually abandoned, left to decay and to be re-discovered as a valuable resource decades later.
There was a long gap between the end of pre-industrial agriculture in North Thailand and the end of the forests. From about the 1850s until the 1950s lumber was Siam’s most important product for export and for foreign exchange. It took another 50 years to actually stop deforestation and get what is left of the forests protected.
In the decade before the year 2000 (using the international calendar) a transition took place that included turning the log pipes into tables. Aspects of this transformation are worth considering. There are insights to be gained about vanishing village culture.
When the forests were depleted and the government really began to clamp down on logging, wood working was still a major source of income for villagers. The money economy of village life depended on supplemental income. Wood workers began to recycle wood from old houses and from abandoned farm equipment.
There was a transitional time that is still going on between subsistence farming and a money economy. The phases can be described this way.
· Pre-mechanical village life was almost wholly spent on projects related to securing food, shelter and clothing. Power came from muscles of animals and people.
· The first phase of utilizing manufactured products and money involved the introduction of tools and textiles that were not locally made and could not always be obtained by barter. In effect, these purchases usually helped villagers produce whatever they needed more efficiently. This enabled them to produce more than they needed for the family to use, more baskets or more posts, for example.
· The second phase into a money economy involved the introduction of machinery. In North Thailand the steam era was largely by-passed; gas powered motors were the first wide-spread mechanization that revolutionized transportation and soon everything else. At this point every clan needed at least one money-earner. Farm animals were on the way out.
· The third phase is the one we are now in around here. Farming is an adjunct aspect of an extended family’s income. Two crops of rice are grown, one for consumption and one for sale. The cash crop can also be onions, garlic, soybeans or corn (maize). In other parts of the country different crops do better. Here in the hill country cash crops are strawberries, cabbage, cauliflower, and many sorts of vegetables and flowers as well as coffee and tea. A minority of family members work full time at agriculture; a majority of adult workers have full-time or part-time jobs in service work, commercial establishments, construction, or as teachers or other government positions.
· The post-agrarian era of village culture and life is not far off. Farms are becoming larger, owners more distant, and the work is far more mechanized.
So what does the conversion of log water pipes into dining room tables tell us about vanishing village culture?
We may gather that these products of the pre-mechanical era are no longer needed. The era of handmade equipment is over. Wooden farm implements are being disposed of or “recycled”. The first to go were ox carts. At one time every family had a cart and animals to pull it. Thai carts were icons of agriculture that differed from region to region. A wheelwright and blacksmith were necessary artisans for every few villages. Plows and pipes are now made of other things and must be bought and brought from far away.
The second thing these recycled water pipes signify is that fresh wood is in short supply. There must be a reason these things from yesteryear have renewed value. The end of forests is what has created a demand for these derelict pieces of wood as well as for stumps and roots of trees cut decades ago. “Junk” wood is now turned into new products.
A long-term observer would report that there was a time recycled farm implements were never used as furniture parts. That innovation involved two major steps: developing a market and shifting designs. Why was this effort necessary? One reason was that furniture makers and wood carvers needed to have a new product-line when freshly cut wood became scarce. Farm-home styles of décor were not an instant hit. The furniture was rough and crude, although that made it attractive in its own way. Farm-home décor falls in-between antique and modern. It is reminiscent of log-cabins and cowboys, but also of Northern Thai village life fast disappearing. (Never mind the fact that in village culture of the past furniture was hardly used at all). Furniture from old farm items (plow handles, ox yokes, fence posts, gates, rice barns, door panels and much more) was a specialty product line that required supportive accessories such as homespun cloth, rough cast eating utensils and stoneware dishes. Not coincidentally, such handmade items were also traditionally produced or could be adapted from items that were made by handcrafters here in the North. Once a whole range of products in the farm-home style was available the line began to take off. As a style it runs the risk of being a fad. Classical styles last, fads fade. But the supply of weathered log pipes and wagon wheels is limited. These products are filling in for the time being. If the log troughs and wagon wheels have to be manufactured to sustain the furniture style the price will rise. The initial attraction of farm-home style furniture being more affordable will be lost.
From a wider perspective these dining tables and lounge chairs made out of obsolete farm implements instead of raw lumber, are a reminder that the forests are gone, which is an environmental fact that has profound implications for the future of village culture. If water supplies change, agriculture changes. Rice farming takes a lot of water. If agriculture changes so does village culture. But if water disappears because the forests are gone (which is a grim possibility) village culture goes with it. Life beyond water piped from reservoirs would not be viable. Villages will not even be retained as commuter residences.
I am afraid that log tables are not only rustic, they are ominous.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.