A Dying Breed

As I sit down to begin writing this, I lay in a hammock strung between two trees. It is old, this hammock: the previous owners replaced an even older one with it as a small gift when my family purchased this house some three years ago now, and despite the occasional frayed rope, we have felt no need to replace it yet. Outside of the occasional creak and a fair bit of moss that has worked its way into the fibrous sinews that crisscross seemingly haphazardly below my feet, down under my back, and up behind my head, this woven sling works just as well as it did the day I first sat upon it. More importantly though, it has become a fixture as a part of this small slice of nature as the trees that form the canopy above me.

Off to my left and a few yards into the woods, a tree stump nearly two feet wide sticks out of the ground. At one point, a sapling grew here; at another, a tree. By the time I had come upon this tree, however, it’s life had begun to flee from its limbs not unlike its own leaves did every autumn. Unlike its leaves though, this life would never return. And so I found this tree, dying a slow and silent death; and thus I decided, one day, to chop it down.

I walked out of my garage with a splitting axe in hand, because I did not yet have a chopping axe, but mostly out of ignorance: this heavy, sledgehammer of a tool was all that I knew to use. I crossed my yard with expectant determination, with my task laid out before me and towering some thirty feet above my head.

My first strike hit hard; the wide, flayed blade of my splitting axe, designed to split logs rather than fell trees, bit in, and bit deep. My next strike, the same. Gradually, as time ticked by, a pile of wood chips built up around my feet, interspersed with drops of sweat but — thankfully — no blood. I had no intention of pouring any blood or tears into this project.

Even if pressed today, I could not say how long it took me to chop through that tree. Minutes — unlikely; hours, perhaps, but as to how many, I could not say. I did succeed, though: that tree did fall.

How many people do you know that have ever swung an axe? Or, perhaps more appropriately given our day and age, how many people do you know that could start a chainsaw, much less use one effectively? Do not take my words as those of a crass braggart, seeking so desperately to set himself apart from others so as to point out their flaws in areas where he excels; I do have a point to make, and so in service of that, allow me to continue.

One Spring a number of years ago, at a house whose every room I still see with remarkable clarity given how briefly I lived there, my dad decided to put in a garden. Behind the sprawling ranch-style house, between a row of apple and pear trees on the left and a pond on the right, a sizable stretch of open grass extended from our back porch out until it ended rather abruptly at a wood line. With near-constant exposure to the sun and good irrigation down a slight decline towards the pond, it seemed like the perfect spot. Out of everything that we planted there though, the only produce I ever remember harvesting were potatoes, and I only recall doing that once. It strikes me as rather strange, then, that given an apparent lack of agricultural ability and drive to continue this admittedly difficult pursuit, that we planted such a large garden.

Looking back, this could not have been my family’s first foray into small-scale farming, because when he turned the soil in preparation of planting this garden, my dad used a tractor to do it. I could not say where it came from or how it even got there, but I remember sitting under a large oak tree watching him drive the large blue machine back and forth, digging deep furrows into the soft soil with each pass. After he finished, I raced my friend back and forth across that field until we could go no longer; and once we had finished, we had left our own set of footprint furrows crossing the machine-made ones in two wavy lines. “Break up the chunks”, my dad had said, and so we had.

Over the following weeks, we watered and weeded the garden with regularity. However, for me to claim a large role in this process would be to tell a great lie, for I hardly remember anything about that summer except running around in the woods. Given the chance now, I hope I would pay this plot of land a great deal more attention than I did at the time. Nevertheless, despite my role as an absentee farmer, this patch of tilled soil did yield a crop of potatoes, at least. I feel confident in saying that it also produced other vegetables, but as to what types, I could not say with any degree of certainty.

I remember kneeling in the dirt, loosening the soil around each plant’s stem, and unearthing ball after ball of white and brown potato; I tried wiping the dirt off with my hand, but it did not take long for this to spread more dirt than it removed. Before long, I began tossing these small bundles into a bucket as fast as I could pull them out of the ground.

Sitting here today, I cannot point to one single event as the genesis for my long-standing desire to have a farm. Perhaps it came about as a result of this experience, or maybe after a different encounter in another place at another time. For as long as I can remember, my aunt and uncle have lived on a farm; perhaps observing their lifestyle instilled within me a desire to emulate it. Regardless, the idea that one could increase one’s independence in this way to the point of complete self-reliance has fascinated me for a great while. And for a time, this was universally the case: America only recently shifted from an agrarian society to one based around cities and suburbs; prior to that shift, everyone shared the same attraction to self-reliance that farming offered. Yet despite the recency of this transition, how many people these days can plant a garden? How many can grow something? Perhaps more saliently, how many would even want to?

When I look back upon the five years since I joined the Boy Scouts of America, one backpacking trip stands out as the bar against which all other such adventures must be measured. In order to fully understand the significance of that excursion, however, I must explain its predecessor.

Shortly after I joined Troop 224 in Pembroke Pines, Florida, at the age of fourteen, my troop once again attempted to complete a 50 mile hike. Spread over a week and consisting of any combination of hiking, cycling, and canoeing, my troop had attempted this feat a number of times in the past to unsuccessful results. This time, however, by hiking with only light daypacks rather than fully-packed backpacks, and canoeing for a fair portion of the required distance, we managed to cover the necessary miles within our allotted time. Although I considered this a great accomplishment at the time, time’s inexorable march and the remove it afforded me from this event gradually allowed me to see that while we had technically met the activity’s requirements, our chosen course of action did not live up to my high expectations for a trip that ought to have been much more difficult. Even today, while I still feel proud to have accomplished this, I cannot, in good conscience, paint it as the strenuous physical trial that it was created to be. For this reason, and due to my love of hiking I discovered during my early years in Scouts, I agreed to go on another 50 mile hike a number of years later with my cousin’s troop.

Unlike my previous trip over the flatlands of Florida, this hike would take place in the mountains of Pennsylvania and Ohio, along a portion of the Appalachian Trail; whereas previously we were given the option to abstain from hiking every morning before leaving the base camp, this time around we planned to start in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands and camp somewhere along the trail at a different location every single night; unlike my Florida attempt, this trip would consist solely of hiking. Most importantly though, each and every one of us had to carry everything we needed for an entire week, including food, on our backs the entire time. We had the opportunity to refill our water bottles almost every night, but with that exception we were forced to become completely self-reliant as soon as we stepped out of our cars that Sunday afternoon.

In short, I had a blast. We walked up and down mountains, through forests, and even under a freeway for an entire week; I hated every step of it, and I loved this trip like I have no other both before or since. It was incredible, and full of experiences I will remember for the rest of my life. This is the outing to which I compare all other “backpacking” trips, and the reason that, in my mind, I have only ever gone on one: after a week on the Appalachian Trail, what could possibly compare? In my experience, very little.

The appeal of backpacking — for me personally, anyway — lies in its unique combination of demands requiring complete self-reliance, and offering in exchange something, unfortunately, much less tangible: that indescribable, triumphant feeling brought on at the top of a mountain when I can look for miles in every direction; the sense of awe when I come across an abandoned Firetower, climb to the top, and stand hundreds of feet in the air watching an Eagle fly by my window. These feelings, these senses, border on indescribable, and yet I have still endeavored to label them with a mixture of plain and flowery words in the hopes that by doing so you may grasp even a tenth of the wonder that this experience can inspire given the chance. And for those of you reading this, that is all fine and well: should these words implant within you this thirst for adventure, I will count this entire endeavor a success. But for everyone else, all those who will never read this and never spend enough time outdoors to take a hike, how many will ever experience these wondrous, formative events? My bet: all too few, and fewer every single day.

I started to write this partly put of nostalgia, for experiences I fear I and my successors may never have again as the desire to step outside, strap a pack on, chop a tree down, or even take on something so simple as planting a garden fade into oblivion; I wrote this because I feel as if I am the last of a dying breed, of a strain that reveled in hard work and getting their hands dirty. How many of my generation will ever even possess these desires, much less act on them? And that’s to say nothing of our successors, who have grown up and will continue to develop engrossed in artificial worlds thanks to the meteoric rise of personal computers over the last twenty or so years.

I spent the first twelve years of my life digging holes in the ground, climbing trees, and fishing every chance I could; my neighbor’s three sons can barely tear themselves away from Call of Duty long enough to play in their back yard. I played my fair share of video games, don’t get me wrong — ATV Off-road Fury 2 with my cousin, Super Smash Bros Melee and Toy Commander with my friends, and I spent hours tapping away at my GameBoy Advance successfully beating Pokemon numerous times — but I dreamed of being outside; I lived for it: for the long summer days in the woods, the cool fall evenings beside a bonfire, and those cold winter days trudging back up a long hill with a sled in tow. I enjoyed those digital distractions, but my true passion lay and continues to lie elsewhere.

Thankfully, I was able to weigh the benefits of both lifestyles at an early age and make an informed decision as to how I wished to live my life. And looking back on these nineteen years I have spent on this earth, I believe I chose correctly: my carpentry skills far surpass that of my ability to Minecraft, and thus far that disparity has served me remarkably well.

I don’t mean to sit here proclaiming that everyone should abandon their iPads at the altar of Mother Earth, but I do believe there is something to be said for trying another lifestyle before defaulting into the easy societal norm. If not for you, do it for your kids: only so many can live their entire lives tapping away at a keyboard, and only a small subset of those can lead a fulfilling life doing so. It never hurts to have a backup plan, and as sad as it makes me to cast the earth and all its majesty in such a light, that is the unfortunate place we have come to.

Spend some time outside; exercise; try something new; challenge yourself. I promise, you will not regret it — and maybe, someday, you just might be glad that you did. I know I am.