What makes a puzzle box?
Writing, for me, has always been a beast I've never felt I had a handle of. Though I love the way it can paint a picture, I'm never sure of the format, and how appropriate it is to my content. I guess it is the product of standardized testing and paper writing. I learned that there is a "prescribed" way to communicate information and that any other method is either superfluous, or subjective, alluding to its lack of academic credibility. It's taken me a while to understand that all writings are subjective. They embody the subjective, though hopefully informed, perspectives of the author regardless of how didactic and academic they sound. In this case, I am hoping to write as if i'm speaking to you, though in a much more calculated and edited way than I would if we were face to face. I am choosing to do this because I don't believe that academic, or research projects need to be stripped of their author's presence. With this article, along with all things, I implore your to look with a discerning eye. I am by no means an expert. I am humbly relaying my findings in hopes that you may find something worth gleaning.
October, 2017, I was in the midst of my senior degree project at RISD. I had begun fabricating and designing a few puzzle pieces. I managed a cabinet, a chair and a box. This is when I got the call for applications for the Wingate Fellowship from the Center for Craft Creativity and Design. I began designing the project for the fellowship and, though it wasn't at the forefront of my thoughts, I wanted to know what made a puzzle box: Where did they come from? How are they made? I proposed a combination of travel, learning and doing. When I received the good good news that I had been awarded the fellowship, I was floating. The dream of doing this adventure of a project was becoming a reality. Chronologically, summer of 2018, I traveled to Peter's Valley School of Craft on a partial scholarship from RISD to learn metal vessel forming and then to Anderson Ranch to take a puzzle making course with Kagen Sound. After a moment's rest, I took off to Japan where I met with a carpenter, a saw maker and a blacksmith. I went to museums, and even had a chance to hike in the rainforest on the island of Yakushima. It's only now, January 2019, my body settled in Providence, my studio work chugging along, that I can sit and write about my experience. I have a fair amount of video footage that I am working to edit and pull into a cohesive film, but until then, some images and writing will have to do. Now that you've been just about caught up to where we are today, sitting in my apartment, typing out a new page of my website, that we can dig into the meat of the question. What makes a puzzle box?
I love a good question. It's like a good puzzle. A good question has nuance. It has layers. The more parts of it you solve, the more questions it raises. The richness of a good question overflows the container that is itself. By this, I mean to say that by looking at this one question, and working at it, we also begin to pull back the veil of other areas of inquiry. I've thought long and hard about what makes a puzzle box and there seems to always be more. The sheer volume of connections is too much to sort through in any way I can rationalize. Chronologically, alphabetically, by color, no one way of sorting gets to the heart of the question. Sure maybe this is too deep of a philosophical dissection. I've found that by trying to break something down and analyze it, you risk also killing the magic of it. So, to preserve the life of this creature that lives in the realm of history and philosophy, I will refrain from this rhetorical vivisection and attempt to paint vignettes, relevant to the body of the experience. Maybe, by doing this, you will be able to piece together this puzzle for yourself in a way that maintains its vibrance and profound beauty.
The massive stump of a few-hundred year old "Sugi"(aka Japanese Cedar)
on Yakushima, Kagoshima, Japan
Don't all things always come back to nature? The life force that literally makes our existence here possible. As cliche as it may sound, I still believe that it's important to look at nature through the lens of a craft. Just how deeply does nature affect a craft? The unique ecosystem of Yakushima has found some sort of balance for thousands of years. The high rainfall and nutrient deficient soil means that the trees on the island grow incredibly slow. This results in cedar trees with very tight growth rings and a high resin content. The slow-growing trees end up producing lumber that is light, and waterproof. The stumps and fallen trunks of these trees are resistant to decay and disease so trees that have fallen hundreds of years ago can still be seen lying on the forest floor.
In the Edo Era (1600 - 1868), after being forced by the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the Shimazu clan was instructed to send Yaksugi lumber to Kyoto to satisfy a new building frenzy of Japan. Normally, a clan would pay with rice. Seeing that Yakushima's soil could not support rice patties, they paid with shingles made out of Yaksugi lumber. The lightweight and waterproof material became a very sought after roofing material. The logging of the forest cleared a majority of the old growth forest. In the forest today, you can see some of the massive trees that were avoided by the loggers. Those that were too knotted, too dense, or curved were avoided because they couldn't make good shingles. Some of these trees have been given the title Yakusugi. These Yakusugi are given the title when they are over 1,000 years old. Some of the older trees look as if they are floating over a pile of rocks. In these instances, the tree had outlived the rock it has originally grown upon. The stones fell apart, and kept breaking as the tree grew stronger over time. Some trees have scars that grew around axe cuts where, hundreds of years ago, someone tried to make test cut, found it too dense to cut through, and left it for an easier tree. It's said that if you leave your axe propped up on a tree for the night, and you come back the next day, and the axe has fallen, that a spirit is inhabiting the tree, and you should not cut it down. Being in the Shiratani Valley, surrounded by running water and petrified giants, spelled out, with punctuation, the narrative of the ground upon which we stood.
Today, Yaksugi lumber is very valuable to artisans and people who seek very beautiful, stable and essentially waterproof wooden goods. Legislation has been put in place to protect the forest, stating that there may be no logging of the forest. Previously, people could auction off lumber that fell naturally, but, at the time of my visit, the final auction had already taken place, and no more would be held for yaksugi lumber. Questions of forest preservation come up when trail guides need to take their guests into the forest. One specific area was up for debate whether to build a small bridge to help people cross a creek safely. But to do so, would obstruct a completely natural view of the waterway. At what point do we accept that there are places we cannot, or shouldn't go, and be okay with that?
The logging of ancient trees on Yakushima didn't occur without a catalyst. That catalyst came in the form of a small Chinese junker on the 23rd of September, 1543 (Lidin 1). The junker, thrashed by the waves and storms, needed repair, and sought it at the souther tip of the island Tanegashima. It was here, that the first guns were introduced to Japan. Two Portuguese traders sold their wares, and then their two guns to the lord of the island, Tanegashima Tokitaka (1528–79). The island of Tanegashima was blessed with iron sand on its shores, and when smelted, produced some of the finest metal in Japan. The exact science unknown at the time, the iron sand, "satestsu", contained magnetite, and trace amounts of titanium, manganese, calcium and vanadium. When smelted in a bloomers, the edges oxidized into some of the finest steels to exist. These shiny, oxidized bits near the edges are Tamahagne. The word came from "Tama" meaning round and precious like a gem, and "hagane" meaning steel. This steel was used in the Katanas and other tools when laminated steel developed in Japan.