Wilderness and The Preservation of Work
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designated wilderness has paradoxically preserved methods of work that were once used in wide scale resource extraction. Such work connects us with not only the history of the frontier but also our industrial past.
The sheer quantity, literally miles of work, is daunting. If it were not for the enjoyment to be where the work is, wild country, I never would have started. The wilderness drew me into not only the natural history of central Idaho, but the cultural significance of the frontier and finally wilderness as home and workplace. It was only later that I came to appreciate the pace and tools for there own right. The benefits of conversation and bird song that, however hard working, mechanized operators are insulated from. Slow as it may seem in the moment at the end of a full day of hand work, the quantity is impressive.
The American system of designated wilderness has preserved methods of work as well as ecology. Antique saws and antiquated methods. The big wilderness of the west requires long stays to maintain remote paths Adding 20lbs of steel and hickory to a 9 day pack changes things. Helps the worker to slow down, makes your wilderness experience more of your base existence: workplace, dormitory, kitchen. There is a subtle change of experience to see largely recreational lands as a place of work, and those who feel this way love it no less.
The knowledge of the power of plain steel and hickory. The reminder of how most of this country was deforested, drained and cleared with hand tools and persistence alone. Just a kernel of perspective on work and how it and the simplest technologies cause massive environmental change. Wilderness is not often thought of as a place of work, true climbing up switchbacks with a full pack requires exertion, but it isn’t work. Building and maintaining those switchbacks is. Not many folks stop hiking to pick and shovel, even though it is great cross training.
I attended several so called primitive tools seminars; more experience impressed upon me how advanced in simplicity so much of the hand-tool pantheon is. One of the gifts of our designated wilderness, with its motorized exclusions is the preservation of now antiquated, but certainly not primitive methods of work. Crosscut saws, a precision technology, are the archetypal example. The list of preserved and practiced working arts goes on, to the truly primitive: the lever, the roller and the fulcrum. Each must be just so, several minutes required to find and cut just right lever pole, for instance. The impact of non-motorized work mandated by the government extends beyond wilderness boundaries. The wilderness system is probably responsible for keeping the skill of cross cut saw sharpening alive. A small economy exists patiently preserving proper tools and methods has endured with the wilderness act.
Looking at your environment on a human scale and influencing it on a human scale. The degree of planning and care required to solve a puzzle of fallen logs with the least work possible. The connection with ancestry that comes when no hydrocarbons work between you and the medium. The distinct feel of a truly sharp and geometrical edge and the ever present need for sharpness. The rediscovery of a simple trick that many must have known before. There are many aspects of culture preserved in wilderness. Some simply traveled through it and that as an experience shaped our national identity, but just as significantly, if not more so, was the experience of entering this wilderness to work.
Lumbering, placer mining, trapping. Or the simple act of cutting firewood. By hand. That is a chore. Not just trail crews do it or the occasional fire crew that manages to leave the chainsaw sheathed on a wilderness fire, but outfitters too who must cut cords of firewood for camp. Translating that hand labor to heat was once a universal experience or rural and frontier living. I no longer need to be in a wild place to derive enjoyment from hand tools. These items are beautiful in function and most of the time the timeless connection to Americas recent history make the extra work worth it. Such is one more way, through work, that wild lands and designated wilderness connect us with our past and provide perspective on the future.