In an era when technology trumps nature, when robots assemble machines with precision no human can match, and when the stars that once guided man’s movement have been relegated to ornaments, Burnham studies the grain of twisted tree trunk through the lens of an ancient boat-builder.
“I’m not looking for straight pieces,” he says. “What I’m looking for is large pieces with natural curves in the wood, because those are the strongest. If that piece of wood has a particular sweep to it, I can adjust the boat to fit the piece of wood.”
The vessel into which he fit the final pieces last year sits in unlikely waters this week, in a Potomac River marina not far from the Library of Congress. Burnham was one of nine people, including an Okinawan dancer and teacher and a Passamaquoddy basketmaker, who Wednesday night received a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for accomplishment in folk and traditional arts. The winners each received $25,000.
With the help of several friends, he sailed the 58-foot schooner Ardelle down from Essex for the ceremony and a National Endowment for the Arts concert that will be broadcast live Thursday.
It is all intertwined — Harold Burnham and what his town has been for four centuries. That legacy and tradition were slipping away, until the evolution to obscurity collided with Burnham’s determination to preserve it.
Essex — north of Boston, south of Maine, near the legendary ports of Marblehead and Gloucester, from which men set to sea — always has been a place that built boats.
Stout seagoing boats, broad in the bow to shoulder aside the rugged seas of the North Atlantic in search of cod and halibut and to bring lobster and the men who fished for them home alive.
In the middle of the 19th century, Essex built a boat a week. Now there is just Burnham and a couple of pals, and hardly anyone alive anywhere builds boats as he does in the salt marsh, where ice-age glaciers deposited just enough stone and clay to defy the flooding river and support the weight of a wooden boat rising among the grasses.
A family heritage
It is said that the first boat constructed in Essex was built by a Burnham, at some uncertain date before 1668, when the town fathers put aside an acre of land by the river for boatbuilding. The oldest tombstone in the Old Burial Ground bears the name John Burnham, who passed in 1708, and the last is that of Eliza Burnham, who died in 1897.
“The Burnhams once made up an enormous proportion of the population — I can’t remember whether it was a third or a half,” said Burnham, 45. “The story of my direct family heritage is interwoven with the community. In a small community that goes back 400 years, anybody who goes back more than a couple of generations probably is related to one of a few families. But what makes it interesting is that the ties to shipbuilding are much deeper than my own personal family.”