Over the last few years I've had both inclination and opportunity to get back to the woods. Between a friend's land in the Hudson Valley, and the parcel I share with my brothers in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, there's been a lot to do: felling, bucking, and splitting for campsite firewood; clearing stormfall and cleaning up trails; building camp benches from beech, trail-railings from hemlock, and using all of a downed eastern red cedar to make play-swords and bedframes and rings and who knows what else...
For all of this, I've tried to work by hand as much as possible — no power tools — using a German-made American-style felling axe for the big stuff, an all-purpose Swedish splitting axe for everything else, and some painstakingly restored tools from a local collector: broad axe, draw knife, chisels, brace, carpenter's saw, and more.
Aside from the obvious benefits — a cleared campsite, walkable trails, fireside furniture for a fourth generation to enjoy the woods — working by hand, alone in the forest, has been as close to meditation as I’m ever likely to get. Purposeful solitude is hard to come by these days, and I am lucky: it is an immense privilege to be able to work a piece of land, to attempt to build something, however long it might take. There is something, too, in this labor, that offers a notional connection to the 99 percent of humanity that lived and survived without putting the planet in peril, a reminder — both precious and stark — of what it is to work at a sustainable scale, for fuel, for shelter, and just about everything else.
But what to do with this reminder? I know the past will not save us. I know, too, that I am guilty of the same nostalgia that afflicts my generation, the endless looking backward for something to save us from our future. But as political remedies to ecological collapse feel further distant by the day (even simple admissions of the problem come with qualifications), perhaps there is some sustaining hopefulness — if not hope — in performing older ways of being.
To live in contiguity to nature rather than in conquest of it, to understand our responsibilities to the land and the generations to come... as aspirational virtues these seem self-evident. But walking through the forest with an axe, as you consider a stand of hemlock for cabin wood or ponder where to build a sugar shack near a cluster of maples, they feel true and possible.