Traditional boatbuilder earns national honor

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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, Harold Burnham studies the grain of twisted tree trunk through the lens of an ancient boatbuilder.

“I’m not looking for straight pieces,” he says in a new profile by The Washington Post. “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.

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