Sunday, December 17, 2017

Bows and Arrows, Sticks and Stones

I've been reading about primitive bow-making. Not the kind of bow one might use on a gift box (though my efforts in that area are certainly primitive enough), but bows that one might use to shoot arrows while hunting or for target practice. You know, bows of the sort that archers use.

Bows and arrows have been around for many thousands of years, of course, and with the introduction of fiberglass, and then the addition of pulleys, sighting mechanisms, carbon laminates, stabilizers, and other such paraphernalia, the technology of bows has advanced such that some modern compound bows look only vaguely like the bows carried by Native American and early European and Asian archers. To my eye, they don't look like bows at all.

This is Albina Nikolayevna Loginova, a Russian compound
archer. She is the current world archery champion in women's
compound archery. Her modern compound bow, simpler than
some, nonetheless looks pretty complicated. Image licensed
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Unported license
I'm much more interested in traditional bows, generally made of woodthough they can also be made of hornand sometimes adorned or enhanced with backings of sinew, silk, or rawhide. They seem simple, and somehow pure. (Primitive is, of course, the wrong word for it, laden as that term is with both ambiguity and potentially negative connotations. Traditional is the favored term, one that works well, since a given tradition can be pinpointed somewhat accurately in both time and place; thus, one can pattern a bow after those of the Klamath, Kiowa, Siletz, or Comanche tribes, and we can also classify a bow shape or construction according to when it was made.)

As a technologist of sorts, I've wondered what attracts me to these seemingly less technical endeavors; why, for instance, do I get such pleasure out of seeing a straightforward, simple design? It's not that I don't appreciate the complexity of a modern compound bow, I do—and in much the same way that I appreciate any other sophisticated design, whether in a motorcycle, a computer, a building, or a piece of software. Basically, I'm a sucker for good engineering of any sort. Sometimes that engineering is pretty complicated, but often—as in the case of a so-called primitive bow—it's quite simple, at least on the surface. (A good bowyer—for that is what we call someone who makes bows—can explain the many ways in which traditional bows are actually quite sophisticated. But, at least at first glance, they look to the eye disarmingly simple, even rudimentary.)

Simple can nonetheless be beautiful. This is a yew longbow.
It’s a selfbow, i.e., a bow carved from one piece of wood.
A medieval longbow had a range approaching 400 yards.
Image placed in the public domain by the photographer,
James Cram.
As with most of forms of engineering, a traditional bow results from the melding of art and craft and science; as with any good woodworker, a seasoned bowyer puts his skill and knowledge and sense of aesthetics to work creating something new, building something beautiful with his hands and his heart and his brain. It's hard not to like something like that.

And yet, there's an irony here, one that I thoroughly enjoy. I'm reading and learning about primitive archery and bowyery, but I'm doing it in a modern home; when my coffee cools as I read, I walk over to a microwave oven to reheat it. I sit in front of a flat-panel TV, streaming an Amazon movie (which I'm mostly ignoring) and read a book about “primitive” bow-making, but the book I’m reading is being displayed on my iPad; as my eyes tire (which they do, because I am old), I can enlarge the font or change the background color. If I run across a particularly interesting illustration, I click a few buttons andthanks to Wi-Fithe illustration prints out on a printer upstairs near my desk. Later on, I may take some notes in the Kindle app I'm using to read this book and drop them, along with snippets of the associated text from the book, into a OneNote or Evernote notebook. Come to think of it, if I ever decide to try my hand at this, I may begin by using a CAD/CAM program to lay out a basic design.

I wonder if there's a word or phrase that describes the use of sophisticated technology to create primitive artifacts. Can't think of the term right now, but the most obvious example that comes to mind is nuclear war

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