Where Roy Underhill is From
I’ve always been hesitant to get to know my personal heroes because it’s usually a disappointment. They almost always turn out to be just like the rest of us. A bit vain. Self-conscious. Insecure. Troubled.
So when Roy Underhill of “The Woodwright’s Shop” invited me to stay with him at his converted mill in North Carolina while I taught at his school, I was delighted and dejected.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to hang out with Roy for six days? See where he lives? Get to chat about the crazy stuff that he’s done, learned and seen while host of his PBS show, which is in its 30th season? Me, I was a tad worried that the Roy Underhill in my head wouldn’t be the same guy after I saw him come down the stairs in a bathrobe and mussed (seriously mussed) hair.
After six days with Underhill I can say that my opinion of him has indeed changed. But how it changed was not what I expected.
This evening Underhill invited a bunch of the North Carolina woodworkers to come to his shop, buy me a beer and see some outtakes from the two episodes we shot during the weekend. The turn-out was great (I managed to drink only three beers, which is why I can still type right now).
As we all sat in the City Tap (the sweet bar behind “The Woodwright’s School”), Underhill said some things that brought his personality into focus. He told the story of when he was invited to be on a radio program with other guests that was titled “The Past, the Present and the Future.”
“They hired me to be the guy representing the past,” Underhill said, sounding a bit astonished. “I’m not the past. I’m all about the future. What I do is the future.”
That’s when the whole week came into focus. His program is not about the past at all. Nor is his school, nor are his books. Sure, they look like they are about the past because he is using vintage tools to make traditional woodwork. But he’s not seeking to explain the past so we can understand it. Instead, he is seeking only to influence the future course of human events.
“You don’t need to buy things,” Underhill said tonight at the bar. “You can make anything you need.”
And that is the real lesson Underhill has been trying to teach us for 30 years. And it is something that flows through the way he treats people (even people who don’t know Underhill from a hill in the ground). Yes, he looks like the rube on television sometimes, but inside beats the heart of a professor, a historian, a craftsman and an entertainer.
He structures his program so it moves fast , almost like you are being mugged , and is filled with messages that stretch back to the beginnings of civilization and stretch forward beyond our time here.
Will we merely consume the resources around us? Or will we build something that outlasts ourselves and everyone we know?
It is astounding that Underhill has managed to ask this question for 30 years and still remain optimistic, curious about the world and open to new ideas.
And that was the narcissistic revelation of the week , what will happen with my future? Will I become bitter, narrow, inflexible and guarded as I get older? Or will I become like Underhill?
– Christopher Schwarz
P.S. For your viewing pleasure, here are some of the pictures I took at Underhill’s mill.
The dam behind Underhill’s mill.
Rolling mills that were in the mill, plus odd round stuff.
A detail of a cotton press , an enormous sight by the stream. It looks like an iron Space Needle to me.