Some three years ago, an Australian man named John Plant started filming his hobby of spending time in nature and learning to subsist without any tools. He posted his videos on Youtube as a kind of documentation of his progress and they served as a venue for a kind of education, though only in the most minimalist sense. Taken without context, its a strange, new genre of media that has found an audience––something pretty standard for the internet. (There are now countless channels on the internet where people have ripped off Plant's original premise.)
But I bring him up because I'm not entirely sure that this man and his hobby hasn't produced––quiet though it is––the most remarkable, socially critical and humanly rich piece of media that has been put together in recent years. In short, Plant has reminded us just how fabricated our world is, just how distant from our hands are the effects of their labor, and just how wide the chasm is between the world in which we live and the way we interact with it.
Consider an early video like this one where he creates a tool––a stone adze––for felling trees:
This is about as embellished as his videos get: there is text, an explanation of the sequence of time, and even notes for how to do things better if you were imitating his work at home. Most of these educational aspects fall out in later videos and they maintain a sparse, demonstration-like quality. But in the process he does something that basically no one does anymore: he makes a tool from scratch with no resources other than his own hands and the circumstances of his environment.
Now, especially for readers of this website, making a tool is not a completely unheard of proposition. Specialized tools, guides, and gates are common for woodworkers who come up with ways to complete specific projects. But think of all that you have if you are making a tool in a shop. You have all manner of other tools ready to hand. You have regularized lumber to pull from as well as a collection of scrap wood that resulted from coherent projects made by exacting tools. You have the conditions of a shop that allow you to plan and strategize. You have safety gear. You have information resources available to you. Here, by contrast, is a guy who has to look for a perfectly shaped piece of wood that is ALREADY suited to what he needs, which means he has to hope that some natural process happened many months or years ago to lead him to his materials. The then has to fashion the most rudimentary tools––none of which are more than sticks or rocks––in order to begin to shape things to his needs. And shape it he does, just as he shapes the world around him. Slowly, carefully, according to his needs and by virtue of his ingenuity, Plant showcases what it is to make the world by hand.
I've always believed that a maker is someone who experiences the world in a truer way than someone who is never moved to create. But the reality is that he world we live in is so built over with layers of technology that pile upon one another so much so that we have no baseline for what it is to confront the world as it actually is. Even when we touch something raw and primeval, we are often alienated from the world out of which is comes in some quintessential way. Plant has reminded us all about what work truly is when the effort that we exert is entirely ours and when the medium in our hands is the interconnected environment of which we are a part. You can sense it in the juxtaposition between the inevitable commercial Youtube plays before the sounds of nature take over. You can hear it in the birdcalls that are the only accompaniment for Plant's videos. Somewhere in the silence and the rhythms of Plant's movement and the ambient sound is a reminder of what it means to be a human being, and a reminder that to be a human being is, fundamentally, to make the world around us.