On my way from Grand Junction to Philadelphia by Amtrak last fall I met a gray-bearded Amishman while waiting for transfer at Union Station in Chicago. He introduced himself as a blacksmith, kept busy by the ever-growing demand for buggy parts. This led to an explanation of why Amish folk shun modern improvements like automobiles and cell phones. He said that sticking to the old ways promoted cohesion and harmony in the family and community, and most modern innovations did the opposite. He said that new ways and new inventions were often considered and sometimes adopted, but each congregation decided how far to go in that direction. It’s funny, but after all these years of meeting the Amish on buses and trains, or seeing their buggies rolling down rural roads, I’d never thought to ask why they choose to live the way they do. The blacksmith’s explanation was a good one. I’m sure it will do. I imagine it’s sufficient for most Amish people but I can’t help wondering if there’s more to it.
In my last column I talked about the bushcraft movement, and how I was spending some of my time in confinement watching bushcraft videos on YouTube. Since then I’ve seen more and thought more about the values they express. They’re really not far from the values practiced in Amish homes. The society that a modern bushcrafter comes from, and is still lives in, is the same as mine. It’s the same as yours. It’s not much like Amish society at all. If you asked a bushcrafter why they carry an axe around in the woods, or pitched a tarp for sleeping under instead of a nylon, fully bug proof tent, I doubt they’d say it is because tarps promote social cohesion. They might say something about harmony, but the harmony they’d be talking about is with nature, not a congregation.
I’m so happy some of these traditional methods of accessing nature are still around and gaining traction with a new generation. I’m so happy some are still going out in the woods despite of the lockdown, maybe even in answer to it. One bushcrafter with a camera and a YouTube channel went out for a night to sleep beneath a tarp and enjoy a late season snowstorm. He talked about how happy he was to get away from all the pandemic pandemonium and spend a little time again in the real world. While snowflakes brushed his camera lens and built up on the tarp overhead he made a toast with his “bushcraft Tom Collins,” “To the unrivaled human spirit to overcome adversities.”
A marine who calls himself “The Corporal,” slept a rainy night on (not under) a broken tree. Before the rain began he made dinner and talked about the forecast. “If it ain’t rainin’ it ain’t trainin’” was his catchline. He had a lot of those. He cooked a spectacular meal with a large baked potato stuffed high with bacon, sautéed onion, shredded cheese and sour cream, inspired by something he once had at Wendy’s, then proclaimed it “Outstanding!” Then came a bite into a raw onion as if it were an apple. “Take that coronavirus,” he said, then confided that this was his way of ensuring social distancing.
When it comes to defeating the virus with treatments and vaccines we’ll have scientists to thank. In the meantime we’re grateful for the selfless work of the doctors and nurses in our hospitals, aids at nursing homes working extra shifts, volunteers at food pantries, National Guardsmen, and many other front-liners I forgot to mention. But when it comes right down to it it’s the population at large that determines how well and how soon we dig ourselves out from all this. It’s not the disease I’m thinking of; it’s all the numerous knock-on effects of the virus. Over the coming months and years we’ll inevitably be dealing with the aftermath of Covid-19, not the epidemic but the measures taken to deal with it. Things may get ugly. We’re being tested. Some of that gung-ho, come-what-may, can-do attitude of folks like The Corporal will be crucial now and in the future. It has everything to do with what that future will look like.
In thinking about what binds the Amish world to the bushcrafter I believe the word is order. It’s a keen sense of order that drives one person to live outside modern consumerism and another to revive old ways of camping. In their own ways they manage to keep chaos at bay; the chaos inherent in the modern world exposed by a tiny viral germ.