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Being a Good Carrier

By Claire Wolfe

September 15, 2004

I'm building a trail behind Cabin Sweet Cabin.

As it happens, the Pyramid Man is building a trail behind his house, too.

My trail is short, but steep. It drops 200 feet in a zig-zagging few hundred yards, through nearly solid brush and thorns.

Pyramid Man's trail is a mile long and covers varied terrain. He lives 30 miles outside of Hardyville where there's lots of space.

I've got sucking mud to cross in my very few flat spots. Pryamid man has wide gullies to bridge.

I've been at this project a year and a half. Pyramid Man's nearly 20 years ahead of me.

And I'm tired and impatient, while Pyramid Man's still ecstatic about the aeolian harp he's going to place in the trees here and the sauna he's building there beside his trail.

The idea of anybody working 20 years on one project and still being joyfully enthused about it boggles my little mind. (I tend to have the attention span of a sub-normal five-year-old. Or perhaps a very bright chimp.)

The difference between the Pyramid Man and me, I think, is that ... well, to put it in his own words:

"I'm a good carrier."

He said that to me the other day as we sat inside a tiny copper pyramid beside a remote turn in his trail.

We'd been talking about occupations, avocations, and skills. We'd talked about being a good doctor or lecturer or mathematician or writer. And then into a gap in the conversation he dropped that:

"I'm a good carrier."

I laughed.

"What on earth is a good carrier? Do you mean you're good a lifting weights?" I asked. "Or at balancing things? Or that you have a special skill at hauling awkward objects? Or what?"

He thought about it. "I can carry small things a long time. I can carry those things longer and with less effort than most other people can."

The idea of "good carrying" being a skill akin to writing or practicing medicine still had me laughing. I had to tell him I wasn't laughing at him. More like, I was laughing with delight at the revelation that there was a new human talent to consider.

Pyramid Man is strong and graceful. He practices yoga. Works in physical therapy. Makes 100-mile bike rides. I could envision him hoisting a heavy backpack to his shoulders and striding along a trail as lightly as Legolas with his quiver on his back.

Pyramid Man did mean that kind of dogged physical carrying. But he also meant that he's almost infinitely patient in bearing burdens and solving problems, physical, mental, or spiritual.

This is one heck of a talent, whether you're building a trail or trying to build freedom in a relentlessly unfree world.

I'm not a good carrier, I realized.

Building a trail has forced me to explore becoming one, though I admit it's not a lesson I learn easily.

To be honest, my first inclination, as I stare down that long, long steep slope, is to build my trail The American Way. That is, to pay 15,000 bucks to a team of gardeners, carpenters, laborers, and artisans. They'll have the whole thing built in a month, complete with safety hand-rails, artfully designed benches, bridges, and the beautiful open-air camping pagoda I plan for that perfect mid-way spot that has the peek-a-boo valley view.

I'll wander down occasionally with a glass of lemonade in hand. I'll nod as the construction crew shows me the latest progress and ask them to move that curve six inches to the left. Then when they're finished, I'll sit on one of the stone benches they carted down that impossible hill (with a small statue of Kwan Yin off to one side of the clearing), and enjoy.

Only one thing stands between me and that plan (and no doubt you guessed exactly what it is): a complete absence of $15,000.

Plan B would be to fling myself into a frenzy of activity, in which I would try to complete the basic trail building before my notorious attention span gave out and my inner chimpanzee got attracted by some brighter bauble. But the scale and sheer physical demands of the project prohibit productive frenzy.

So life forces me to go slowly and do lots of carrying.

I did have help - and it's help I couldn't have done without. The Yard Guy - who seems to be everywhere in Hardy County at once this time of year - first plunged into the impenetrable brush, armed with brush-hog, chain saw, ho-dad, sweat, muscle, and a lifetime experience at forest trail-building. He opened the way. He followed my directions -- "Turn right at the big cedar, stay on this side of the twin pines" -- but how he even managed to see those markers while trapped in brush 10 feet high and sometimes standing in mud that sucked his shoes off, I marvel to imagine. Without him, I don't know that I'd ever have the guts to have made the first slash.

The Yard Guy must be a good carrier, too.

But now that he's cut the way through, it's up to me. Hundreds of wheelbarrows full of gravel to go ... each one guided haltingly down, down, down the hill. There's 130-pound me, trying to keep the barrow from skidding away and dragging me down the path. Struggling to keep from tipping out the load on curves and steps. Tediously trudging back up the slope. There will be dozens of 4x4s to haul down (or native logs to salvage) for footbridge runners. Hundreds of 2x6 planks to cut, drill, and haul for bridge decking. Buckets of fist-sized rocks to lug down to control erosion or improve drainage - and I do mean buckets, because about half-way down the trail becomes impassible to wheelbarrows. From there on, it's real, serious, sweat-dripping Carrying.

I have at least two more summers' labor, simply surfacing the trail and building bridges before I even get to the most rewarding parts of the project (that pagoda, that gentle Kwan Yin, and attempting to scoop out a tiny pond where there's currently only brown seepage).

So I learn to Carry.

One aspect of being a good carrier, I'm discovering, is thinking only in terms of what I'm going to achieve this day. In the next two hours, even. "I will cover 16 feet of trail with gravel. I'll trim that berry bramble back three feet. I'll haul just two more loads and then I'll have earned a break." Don't think about the six-inch deep mud 100 feet further down the trail. Don't think about the remaining 10 tons of gravel that have to go downhill 10 shovelfuls at a time.

What I discover as I go is predictable to anybody who's done his share of Carrying.

It turns out not to be hard. Not daunting.

At the end of the day, I'm deliriously satisfied if a few yards of surfaced trail stretch ahead of me, or if I've done a clever job crafting those three steps that wind down to the bridge.

I'm more deeply happy with 5 yards of my own progress on the trail than I would be with 100 yards of progress by a work crew.

And - like the guy who gets warmth out of firewood both when he burns it and when he cuts it - I get more enjoyment out of my trail than if I merely sloped down with that glass of lemonade now and then. At the end of the afternoon, I can sit there, dripping sweat, covered in dirt, and smiling. At the end of the evening, I can go to bed with the satisfaction of looking back on the day's work and the excitement of planning the next stage. At night, I sleep like a ... well, like somebody who earned her rest.

Maybe you know this is how it's got to be. But it continuously surprises me.

I worked for years under a mentor who pushed me through 20 hour days, paid me well (for the time), and constantly reminded me that, "If you make $25 per hour, then every hour you spend doing something yourself is $25 you've lost. It's foolish to do any work you can pay someone else to do cheaper." I had money then. I blew it all paying other people for stuff.

If the best workers in the county built me the best trail possible, I wouldn't enjoy it as much as I'm already enjoying this one.

Ten years from now, some new friend is bound to walk down that path and see the beautiful banks of ferns, the well-groomed trees, the rills of crystal water passing under the footbridges, and say, "You're so lucky to have land that's so beautiful"

They'll have no idea that the rills were once shoe-sucking mud holes, that the banks were once bare clay filled with twisted roots and barbs, that the garden-like clearings were nothing but heaps and tangles of broken, rotted vegetation. But I'll know. And I'll smile to think that, with a little help from my friends, and much practice at being a good Carrier, I created a tiny spot of perfection. With my own hands - and some stronger hands swinging a ho-dad - I made one half acre of the world more beautiful than it was when I was born. You can die happy, knowing you Carried a thing like that into being.

With thanks to M., the real-life Pyramid Man.




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