Good stories are often built around a plot line of “the last one.” Something once grand and beautiful has dwindled, fallen out of favor, or disappeared from common knowledge, until there is only one left somewhere in the world (or universe). I think of The Last of the Mohicans, written almost 200 years ago by James Fenimore Cooper, or The Last Jedi, about which I shall say no more. The premise is compelling (whether or not the actual script manages to be) and I often find myself drawn into such tales. A young boy discovers he is the only remaining heir of a mythical kingdom and possesses strange powers? A computer programmer finds that he is the one long-awaited hero who will free the people from the deceits of their overlords? I’m there.
But these stories aren’t just fiction. As Joshua and I work through our authors’ manuscripts for Issue Twelve, we’ve been struck by the recurrence of that theme. One author went to a European town once famous for its vernacular chairmakers and found that there was only one man still practicing the craft. Another ventured to Japan to learn from a master how to construct traditional wooden fishing vessels and found the last such builder in existence. In Issue Eleven, I wrote about the Foxfire project, in which high school students from northern Georgia began documenting the handcrafts of the disappearing mountain culture there. This effort came not a moment too soon – as I wrote:
“…those involved in the magazine project began to recognize a growing urgency in their work. Foxfire was no longer simply an innovative means to teach English to high-school kids – it was becoming a vital task of cultural preservation, of saving something beautiful and valuable that was in danger of being lost forever.”
Those students managed to save a record of folk life that has inspired millions around the world, helping to create a revival of those once nearly extinct lifeways.
Last year, we introduced the M&T Craft Research Grant, with the aim of inspiring more of this kind of “rescue work.” One of our recipients, Agnes Chang, has recently traveled to Taiwan to document the last remaining wooden handplane makers there. We are looking forward to sharing her findings, and the work of other inspired researchers, within the pages of Mortise & Tenon. And a charge to our readers: Keep your eyes and ears open. That old man who lives up the road with the big collection of antique tools, or your great-aunt who (you recall) used to weave on a loom, might have a few secrets to share. You should stop by for a visit.