Independent living depends on a healthy land

Hit and Miss #325

It’s been a good weekend—full of the right activities, in the right proportion. T and I are rewatching Ted Lasso for probably the fifth time while hosting her mom for a few days, and it’s one of those shining lights in gloomy November.

(Though November hasn’t been too gloomy this year, honestly—yesterday was so sunny and lovely, I got out for a long bike ride along the river and Canal paths. They ranged from snow and ice in the shady bits to stretches with so much salt I couldn’t avoid it, worried for my poor bike’s frame.)

Looking forward to wintering in the months ahead.

I’m just coming from book club, where we discussed Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow.

One of the contrasts it surfaces is between those who, in a time of significant disruption and change, have the knowledge, equipment, and experience to survive somewhat independently, and those who don’t.

In this case, much of this intra-community difference is due to colonialism: Canada’s anti-Indigenous policies forcibly displaced and separated people from their communities, traditions, and practices, sharply reducing the number of people with the ability to survive in the book’s remote, northern setting.

This, as one character memorably points out in the novel, is the real “apocalypse” or catastrophe in their people’s history, far greater than the day the lights went out. Forces greater than any individual—though undoubtedly pushed along and carried out by individuals—entirely reshaping a people’s lives, intently and intentionally reducing their sphere of independent action, their ability to support themselves.

A good book—looking forward to now diving in to the sequel.

I wrote “independently” when describing ”living off the land” in the context of Moon of the Crusted Snow, but, of course, it’s not truly independent: to live independently off the land requires the land; that land needs also to be healthy and sustainable in order to be sustaining.

These themes are explored in a recent interview between Nick Offerman and Ed Roberson, in which—in classic Offerman fashion—the conversation often comes back to Wendell Berry. Much of Berry’s work is a call to pay better attention to the land, to what we do to it. He rebuts the forces of industrial farming, capitalism greater than any individual farmer, that whittle away at sustainable, manageable farming practices in favour of short-term extraction.

Early on in that same interview, Offerman, describing Berry’s writing, boils it down to (something like) “look for good work around you, do it, and that’ll solve much of your trouble and worrying.” Advice that, at least sometimes, actually works!

Helen Rebanks shares similar thoughts in her recent book The Farmer’s Wife (summarized well in a book launch profile). It’s a celebration of the hard work—physical, mental, emotional—of keeping many lives going, of supporting family, friends, and a farm on top of it all.

As I write you from our living room / library while itching to return to my latest woodworking project, I’m reminded of Jack Cheng’s recent missive, reflecting on his own woodworking practice:

I have this idealized version of woodworking: you start out with only hand tools, get good with those, then pick up various electric tools and machines to automate the repetitive stuff, the things not pleasurable for you to do by hand. But even hand tools need sharpening and honing, with the requisite stones and guides and strops. As Paul Ford says, “the supply chain is fractal: Zoom in on your stuff and there’s more stuff, ad infinitum.”

Plus, this mode of paleo-carpentry (or medieval-carpentry?) is catnip for perfectionists; it can stifle projects and progress, keep you from doing, learning – making the mistakes required to learn. In practice, I’ve accrued a small collection of power tools because they were quickest way into projects without having to develop the sawfeel to make a square crosscut. Or because I’ve inherited them from friends and family and it’s hard to turn down free stuff. Or because that’s what the person in the YouTube video was using. I’ve added hand tools to my library, too, after the fact because the machines were overwhelmingly noisy, messy, and not-portable.

Library, yes, that’s the word. A workshop is personal library, prone to expansion and contraction. It compends ambition, with all its unbuilt birdhouses. From time to time it needs culling, ordering, to inspire anew. It’s never complete, but always perfect in its own way, for at any instant it reflects wholly all your past, present, and future selves.

Of course, I’m quick to realize the potential drawbacks of likening woodworking to a library, as I reflect on my penchant for buying books over reading them—but we’ll cast those similarities off for now!

Two quick links to wrap up:

All the best for the week ahead!