Catherina von Flensburg and the humility of giants

“As long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
— CS Lewis

In 1786, a Danish ship called the Catherina von Flensburg departed from St. Petersburg bound for the Italian port city of Genoa. It never finished its journey, instead sinking near Plymouth off the coast of England. (For those of you historically-sensitive types, the entire crew survived. You can breathe easy.) (Okay, that was entirely for my own benefit.) Its cargo holds were filled with reindeer leather which, through sheer nautical happenstance, was covered in mud and survived the 200-year submersion in salt water. When the wrack was discovered in the 1970s, the hides were sold to various craftsmen and today you can buy shoes, wallets, and belts made from 18th century Russian reindeer leather.

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I can’t fathom spending $5000 on a pair of shoes — I step in mud far too often — but if I were to do so, this would be the kind I would buy. They tell such an interesting story. I can think back to the hunters who pursued reindeer through the frigid tundra of Russia armed with spears and beards thick enough to make any hipster’s knees knock through his skinny jeans. I can think just as easily to the tanners whose techniques have been lost to history, another victim of the Bolshevik revolution. Or even the Italian artisans who never got their pelts: what purposes did they have in mind for them? The Divine Comedy bound in that leather? Were they making shoes of their own?

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When he speaks publicly, the great chef Thomas Keller likes to talk about the continuum that travels from the farmer, to the market, to the chef, to the diner. If he is serving a wine of a much older vintage, could it be that the feet that stomped the grapes have since stopped roaming this earth? To encounter Thomas Keller is to encounter his lamber Keith Martin, a man who gave up a career as a stock broker to become a farmer. (“The first time I walked into Edgar Miller’s barn,” Miller says, “it didn’t smell bad to me. It smelled good. Something locked into me and I knew I was in the right place.”) It is to encounter his mentor, Roland Henin. (Says Keller, “There was Zeus, and there was Roland, god of cooking.”) It is to see his brilliance in its proper context: a link in a chain, one step in a ceaselessly stumbling on.

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Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” Since we can see even further than Newton, isn’t this all the more reason to be humble? We are where we are because we are lucky enough to have been hoisted up here: The best thing we can hope for is to one day lift someone else so they can see further than we ever did. To that end, this is my prayer tonight, the same as the Apostle Peter: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies-in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

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