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Fly Fishing


on rainbow trout and baptism

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Fly Fishing


on rainbow trout and baptism

Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not just a hobby

After taking up fly fishing, I've tried to pinpoint exactly what draws me to the sport; for a while, I couldn't figure out if it was the art of it all, the way you prepare your flies with keen precision, the way every action to get your rig ready is a painstaking step, the way a perfect cast sends a loop into the air fairer than any french curve. I thought it might be the excitement of landing the next trout, like a drug, wanting just one more spine-tingling hit of cerebral ecstasy — equal parts heady and soul-felt.

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While each of these may be true, what I realized drew me to fly fishing is not fully evident to the casual observer, but only visible and felt after having partaken, and even then only after careful scrutiny of one's motives. It is different for many, I'm sure, but in essence, basically the same. 

Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.

— Henry David Thoreau

For me, the appeal lies in the spiritual, almost supernatural experience of fishing. It begins with the quiet drive into the mountains. The silent anticipation and blossoming wilderness, gradually increasing and taking over the landscape builds anticipation as you are transported from urban chaos to rural calmness. Once you're near the river, it is time to adorn yourself with the necessary accouterment and prepare your rod and reel with the chosen presentation. Each step here is ruined if it is rushed; one must painstakingly tie surgeon's, blood, and cinch knots in the minuteness of a hair's breadth — it is ceremonial, like the priest who dons his ephod and breastplate, silent in serenity and violent anticipation of the rites about to be partaken in.

The ritual

Then it is time to slowly enter the river, the first foot a test to see if the angler will be struck immediately smitten for trespassing into holy water. From then on, there is nothing else in the world besides the gentle swish and tick of the line looping the air, the almost undetectable white noise of the water molecules running over rock and branch, and the mental determination of finding where a fish might be hiding. One man described it as "playing chess with nature." 

You stand there, alone in the world and begin compiling your thoughts into two columns; things that matter, and things that don't matter. The first column gets shorter while the latter grows increasingly longer, until at last it is cast off quietly, undetected, into the water to wash downstream, never to be seen again. Like sins washed away by holy water, this is true baptism and renewal. This is cerebral and spiritual. This is why I go down to the river to pray.

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Carburetors


and the value of physical work

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Carburetors


and the value of physical work

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.
— Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

As with most of the hair-brained projects I take on, doing my own motorcycle repair is a hobby I've taken up to fill the void left by the lack of physical results manifested in my vocation. I grew up riding dirt bikes, so it was inevitable that I finally buy a motorcycle for the road, and it was always a dream of mine to own a vintage bike that I could do all modifications and maintenance on myself. I bought a 1975 Honda CB750, one of the bikes that's always been on my list to own (along with the Triumph Bonneville and the Norton Commando). It had already been restored and rebuilt into a cafe racer by an experienced mechanic, so there was no work to be done to get it in riding condition, which was a good opportunity to learn the ropes of riding on the road, and all the dangers associated therein without having to worry too much about the technical side of things, however, it wasn't long before I began to make modifications on my own, and run into a few issues inherent in riding a vintage bike.

Learning curve

The first mishap was that I ran out of gas one day. Not a major issue, and I was glad to have my dad come bail me out (not the first or the last time) but it was an issue that was incurred through the reality that the bike came with no fuel gauge (or speedometer, but that matter was quickly resolved). I realized that there was an assumption made with these vintage bikes that their owner would be the owner and exerciser of some level common sense, and that to keep the bike in working order, the owner would have to rely on their intuition and know-how, rather than a series of gauges, read-outs, and mechanics capitalizing on ignorance. (Early bikes didn't even come with a oil pump, the rider would have to push a bubble repeatedly to prime the engine.)

We have a generation of students that can answer questions on standardized tests and know factoids but they can't do anything. 

— Jim Aschwanden
Cultural Agricultural Teachers Association

So, in order to ride without incident, I found I would have to visually check various aspects of my bike every time I got on it. However, this did not stop the clutch cable from breaking. One day during a leisure ride through the local college campus, I pulled the clutch to shift gears, and found it discouragingly slack. The cable had broken, and I was about 5 or 6 miles from home. In this situation, I found I had to improvise, by running alongside the bike, popping it into gear, and not stopping until I got home, which was an impossible feat. Needless to say, there were a few times where I could be seen jogging down the road in a very undignified manner. I did make it, however, and replaced the cable post-haste.

I later ran into an issue with the engine running rich and one of the carb bowls leaking fuel when the petcock wasn't closed, so I realized it was about time I rebuilt the carburetors. This was one of more enlightening maintenance projects I've performed on the motorcycle, because the carburetor is the lifeblood of the engine, and the bike wouldn't run without some fine tuning here. I replaced the jets, the needles, the float pins, the floats, and the valves. The bike wasn't running rich anymore, but now it was all four carburetor bowls that were leaking. Profusely. After a bit of adjustment with the floats and float pins, I was back in business, with the satisfaction of the bike being in better working condition after I was done than before I started.

What I enjoyed the most about working on a carburetor, is that if there's a problem with the way it's running, you can just look at it, and assess the issue, and fix it through a little bit of ingenuity and problem solving. With a computer, if something is broken, you can't just take it apart and look at its innards to find the damage. There is nothing on the surface of an electronic device that would indicate a flaw, but with physical objects like a motorcycle carburetor, if you've got a will to fix it, and only slightly more knowledge, the problem is evident and offers itself up for a solution. However, there are never two problems with the same solution. Unlike a computer, it is impossible to diagnose an issue simply by running a series of pre-programmed tests and applying a pre-determined solution. Every problem in the physical world requires some measure of abstract thinking and improvisation. That's where the brain is truly engaged in critical thinking, and that's what truly keeps a mind refreshed.

The loss of real world skills

I've noticed quite a gap between the subject matter taught in schools and the skills useful for essential life. What I mean is, no teacher has ever instructed a student in the public education system in methods and techniques for sustaining primal life, disregarding inadvertent osmosis. We learn math, reading, writing, the sciences, anatomy, business dealings, stock markets, softwares, and all manner of intangible utilities, but if you were to take a student of the textbook and put him into an unfamiliar setting, he would be unable to provide for himself. Our hunting and gathering forefathers used tools, the hammer, the knife, the spear, and we have only the keyboard, the mouse, the pixel, and the email. Has the jungle changed? Undoubtedly it has, but the system of the survivalist nature hasn't.

It's not wrong that our young students learn arithmetic and science, but what is wrong is that we don't teach them to solve problems and arrive at their own conclusions, they are trained instead to memorize facts and answers. Reading is not based on phonetics, such as how the letter 'P' and the letter 'H' combine to make an 'F' sound. Students are taught to recognize whole words, and memorize a response to the combination of the building blocks, so that when these puzzle pieces are seen individually or in an unfamiliar arrangement, the reader is helpless to identify them or make any sense of their meaning. The same goes for arithmetic.

It is a popular method to "learn your times tables" in such a way that you must memorize the fact that 8 x 8 = 64, but no student truly understands why that is the case, nor is shown the mechanics of that reality or how many copies of 8 there really are in 64. They are meant to take someone's word on the matter, and if such a problem arises that doesn't match a previously memorized solution, or the memory fails, that student does not have the necessary equipment to solve the conundrum.

The key here is that we do not break down these scenarios into their essential parts and show students their inner workings. They are forced to take each situation as a whole at face value, so instead of learning how a carburetor disperses fuel into an engine to cause combustion to oscillate pistons to turn a gear to transfer power to a wheel, they are taught, "this is an engine, it makes a motorcycle go." so that anything that breaks or fails on any deeper level has delved down into the realm of mystery, and the subsequent solution is to replace the engine altogether out of ignorance.
 

More than a motorcycle

At this point, I hope it is clear I'm not talking merely about motorcycles, but about the egregious lack of problem solving skills that we are leaving our public school students with. They are taught to memorize answers so that they can pass tests, but as soon as a moving target is introduced with multiple variables, they are overwhelmed and they feel helpless to discern a solution. We are training our generations to run to google before they look to their own devices, and it's producing a workforce of non-starters and button pushers. They must be put into reliable situations with as few variables as possible and asked to perform menial tasks repeatedly so as not to allow for a possible error in judgement. And these workers will continue to produce mediocre, sub-par work and they will never innovate or find new ways or means. They will continue to operate in an expected pattern, fail to think abstractly, helpless drones, carrying out commands. We have created a generation of humans who have been programmed like computers, to carry out a set of commands to achieve expected results in one situation, with no skill for improvisation or common sense thinking.

Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month — the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this — or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers' penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?

— Henry David Thoreau

In this case, there is no reason why a computer or robot could not perform their tasks with equal, or even greater skill, even without the risk of possible failure, or the possibility of those pesky emotions getting in the way, or any of that morale to sustain. The era of John Henry is over, and the steam drill has won. Because the new John Henrys are trying to figure out how to hammer a nail without smashing their fingers or getting their hands dirty. The future belongs to those who swim against the current, who aren't afraid to get dirty. Problem solving skills don't appear on resumés anymore, and those who have them are outnumbered and frustrated by the hoard of drones who can't see why things should change.

We have created a generation of children who can't think for themselves, and it will lead to the demise of industry, and subsequently, the erosion of the economy and the country. We are mass-producing test takers in the name of convenience, and no child is left behind, even if it would help them in the long run. We pretend that every human's cognitive process is exactly the same and we teach them all according to the same die-cut system. The smarter ones are slowed down, they get bored, they act out in class, are diagnosed with ADHD, and then drugged into a barely lucid stupor so that they learn at the same pace as the slower children. We are solving for the lowest common denominator. The kids who learn at a slower pace are pushed through the system anyway so that a school maintains their spotless record and continues to receive grant money. These students are graduated into the world without any real knowledge whatsoever, or as often is the case, into the penal system. How can such a society as this, with a system so dysfunctional as this succeed? I submit that it cannot.

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Harper Creek


knowledge over posessions

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Harper Creek


knowledge over posessions

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.

—Henry David Thoreau

When I was in the the woods I discovered that I had forgotten my headlamp just as it was getting dark. I had no materials to build a torch, the ground was wet and birchwood scarce, so I pressed on by the light of the moon. I found it surprisingly effortless to carry on this way, and the miles I covered in the darkness were not only safe and rapidly overtaken; I found them surpassingly pleasant. The moon provided more than enough light to find my footing, but it was quite natural to carry on this way. My vision was not seared to the peripheral, and there was no sudden change in luminance as I turned my head.

The things we own end up owning us

I started thinking about the conveniences I had brought; whether I could manage without them. I began to reason that each thing in my pack could be substituted with things from nature, given the right knowledge and a bit of improvisation. It is only through the pursuit of comfort and convenience that we have manufactured these synthetic lives; each man substituting a shortcut for every challenge, in fact by his own ingenuity, but in the process, he loses something.

He loses a piece of his connection to that most sacred of eternal relationships — his own creation from the dust of the earth. He cheapens this union, selling his own birthright for convenience, and in turn, sacrificing his own humanity to avoid the very prospect of sacrifice. 

Thoreau points out that we create for ourselves a continuous summer all year long; so what difference does it make in the changing of the seasons — in spring time or harvest — if the apple grows in synthetic suns all year-round?

We have fallen out of rhythm with the earth, and it has cost us something of great value, and it has cost our respect for the earth. Much more dangerously, its creator — for we have made our own sun, our own rivers, our own soil, and we have made God in our own image.

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Poplar Chair


the benefit of doing things the hard way

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Poplar Chair


the benefit of doing things the hard way

A quarter life crisis

I graduated college in the winter of '07 at the age of eighteen, and immediately started my career as a graphic designer at an advertising agency. It was the job I dreamed of having throughout my time at university, a hip company with interesting clients, office in a restored paper mill in the heart of the big city; equal parts wooden exposed beams and modern steel, going to expensive awards parties and high profile meetings with banking executives. I was a member of the world of the mad men. Since then, I've had a few other jobs and freelance projects to fill in the cracks, but it was early on that I realized that something vital was lacking. There was something missing, like a hole in the middle of every piece of work I did, something I envied of other men. 

I began to realize early on that there was nothing tangible about my work. Sure, it could be printed, but every pixel I poured my intellect into was a series of ones and zeroes that was uploaded to a cold, emotionless computer somewhere in Texas, and after a matter of months, those bits and bytes would cease to exist. Deleted in a matter of milliseconds... disappearing into the ether without ceremony, to make virtual space for another arbitrary sequence of ones and zeroes. I could not touch this creation, only see a representation of it on screen, and even that is merely a vision of what does not truly exist in the physical world. Every creation of mine takes up no more space in the world than if it had never been created. It is simply a microscopic switch turned either on or off.

Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? What does architecture amount to in the experience of the mass of men? I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house. We belong to the community. It is not the tailor alone who is the ninth part of a man; it is as much the preacher, and the merchant, and the farmer. Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.

—Henry David Thoreau

This realization caused a deep feeling of emptiness in my chosen vocation, and prompted months of soul-searching and wrestling with this truth in my mind. How could I call this thing I do "work" when my hands are not calloused and there is nothing that exists in the world after a day of my toil that was not there before I began? How can I say that I'm doing a decent thing when the sole purpose of my career is to rearrange binary code in such a way that it persuades others to spend their money on things they don't need?

I began to envy the men who, at the end of their day, had produced a piece of furniture, like a table, that will take up residence in someone's house, dutifully serving its simple purpose, receiving dings, scrapes, and water stains as a symbol of gratitude for its service. I envied the craftsman who constructed a flight of stairs that, through simple physics and engineering, will offer its service in helping to carry a small sleeping child to her bedroom late at night, squeaking quietly like a fond lullaby, familiar and constant. 

There is an undeniable romance in physical work, molding materials, bending them to the will of the craftsman for a specific purpose. There is an intimacy in knowing each species of wood for its fitting use, hickory for an axe handle and its swift trauma, oak for the bedframe and its quiet longevity, pine for the dark-stained floors, dutifully bearing the wounds of a cast-iron kettle dropped in haste.

Getting down to business

The more I considered these things and the lack of longevity in my line of work, I set out to find my own place in the physical world, and I resolved to taste a morsel of that life I coveted. On Christmas day 2011, after gifts were opened and the smell of turkey and stuffing began to fill the house, I walked out into the woods behind the house with my axe, found a moderately sized poplar tree and chopped it down without much ceremony at all. I drug it in to the workshop, and set myself to work, cutting the tree into manageable lengths, splitting it into 4 inch by 4 inch sizes, each quadrant 4 feet long with rough wood on two sides, and a round circumference of bark on the opposite sides.

This is where the rough work ended and the hard work started. I put an old Woody Guthrie album on the record player and set to work with my hand plane, removing bark and excess wood, thoroughly enjoying the monotony of the task, listening to old folk songs and the constant scraping noise of sharp steel against soft wood. 

It gave me time to think about life and the value of working with my hands as the pile of wood chips under my boots grew thicker and deeper. I learned every grain of that old poplar tree with each stroke of the plane. I learned that this tree stripped better from one direction, but not the other. I learned which knots would take special care and attention, like strong-willed children.

Some of its branches were far apart where the year brought much rain and much growth between branch levels. Some of its branches were closer together when the rain was scarce and the growth small. I learned the story of the tree's life, grain by grain, knot by knot, chip by chip, and I knew this story was different than any other tree in the forest, like a fingerprint developed over years of rain and drought, sun and wind.

Before I began, I spent most days looking at the chairs I came in contact with, to know what kind of structure would support my weight and the weight of the wood. I developed an intimate relationship with almost every chair I met, looking above and below and all around to see how it was constructed. I found more respect for the craftsmen of some chairs than the craftsmen of others, but in the end, my eyes were opened to a world I never knew existed. I found the average of all these chairs, understood the way I would construct it and what would hold it together, and made a list of necessary lengths and breadths of lumber, and I fabricated all of these with only hand tools without the aid of gasoline nor electric. Each piece was carefully measured and lovingly coaxed into existence with nothing but my hands and a blade of steel. 

But man's capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.

—Henry David Thoreau

Doing things the hard way

As far as I was concerned, this was the only way to be true to the real spirit of my endeavor, the only way not to break the laws that I had set up for myself. The real enjoyment in crafting a work from wood is in the process, and to shorten that journey would be to cheat that process and defeat the purpose. The process was long and grueling sometimes, yes, but the sense of accomplishment I felt at the end was the true reward. I had birthed a physical and useful object into the world by my own hands, a chair that was once a tree and was now something that would stand the test of time as it provided service to anyone who sat in it. It was something that would not have existed had it not been for my involvement, and I was in command of the entire process. Not a single dimension of that lumber was molded by anyone else's hands but my own, and no other fingerprints touched its frame until it was transformed from tree to chair, and that was perhaps the greatest gift of all. I was able to intimately control the process that brings a living tree into submission and makes it into useable material... this is a relationship that not even the most avid woodworker experiences when he chooses his wood from the lumber aisle in the hardware store. 

 
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This was the true purpose of my mission. To set out to do something that I had never done before, and see if after I had put time and thought into it, if I could not do what I set my mind to. I believe that with enough effort and practice, we are able to do anything within our will, it is only when we give up believing that truth that we fail, but it is only in testing that truth that we learn what we are capable of, and come out stronger and more determined after having completed the task.

A Man needs to feel the rhythms of the earth; he needs to have in hand something real — The tiller of a boat, a set of reins, the roughness of rope, or simply a shovel. Can a man live all his days to keep his fingernails clean and trim? Is that what a boy dreams of?

—John Elderedge
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Alaska


the original wilderness

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Alaska


the original wilderness

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.

— Henry David Thoreau

I learned much while in Alaska. None greater, perhaps, than the realization of the great truths of the universe. Not any one in particular, though some were more practical; but more accurately that there are, and always will be, unsurpassable and unchangeable laws that govern the universe — and that none are above its influence.

As I hiked along the coast and fished for salmon, these laws became immediately practical in their application where they had gone unnoticed before; though they have been in authority since time began, carrying on in their autonomy, undiscerned by my eye.

The tide, for example, comes in and goes out daily, bringing in new tidings and creatures, all treasures from the deep. It goes out and exposes land — previously undetected which can provide a sure, but transient footing for an able traveler. When navigating the coastline, one is continually made aware of its effects. This phenomenon has been regularly occurring ever since the moon was put into orbit, and will continue as long as the earth remains, regardless of my location, vocation, will, or existence.

Another, even more exciting and noticeable phenomenon is the salmon's perennial journey from the sea, into the mouths of rivers and streams to find a safe hatchery for their young. They are compelled by some innate, unseen force that causes them to leave the place where they have lived for their entire lives, and they journey miles against all manner of torrential currents, and unspeakable peril to accomplish the task of continuing their ancient race. And then, once their task is done, they perish. They sacrifice their lives for the sake of the next generation, and not one defies this natural law, not one breaks rank or asks "Why?" — They are none the wiser.

 

How many generations of men have done what their fathers have done, who did what their fathers had done, in order that their children might live a better life, only for them to chase the same false dream? How many, I fear, have put to death their dreams of going against convention, or sacrificed their future, thinking it would provide their children with the future they themselves once thought attainable. And yet in doing so, they teach the next generation to ignore their instincts, give up on their dreams of becoming an astronaut or a pioneer, and do the responsible thing so that one day their children might live. Oh, what a suicidal cycle we breed! Our society puts to death every trace of life in our blood and tells us lies to placate us into slumber so that there can be none who break rank and go against convention.

How can we continue to follow the pattern of so many before us who have given up on their dreams to do the safe and comfortable thing, to lead lives free of danger or risk in quiet desperation? We over-insure our homes, belongings and lives, but we never do anything that might jeopardize that secure future at the expense of the taste of true life. 

If we never come close to losing our life, are we every truly living? It is in those moments where we taste death that we truly cherish this thing called life.

We are taught by great actions that the universe is the property of everyone in it. Every rational creature has all the nature for his dowry and estate. It is his, if he will. He may divest himself of it; he may creep into a corner, and abdicate his kingdom, as most men do, but he is entitled to the world by his constitution. In proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up the world into himself.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have traveled only a small portion of this terrestrial sphere, but I have seen much land unoccupied in it. Millions of acres untouched by human hand, or the sole of any shoe. And yet, I have seen thousands upon thousands of men crammed into smaller boroughs than what could comfortably roam a field mouse.

Not only does man seek to embed himself into such a small area, he strives day and night, almost to the breaking point, for such a quarter — and yet he still does not own his land, nor does he have a blade of grass for which he is not indebted to another. Each man mortgages the best hours of the morning to a superior man, so that he might one day reach the same level of prestige as the one who reigns over him. And yet, even that man is ruled by a still higher authority, and finds himself and his better hours equally as indebted, if not more so. Each man striving harder and finding himself worse off than before. Every notch in the society ladder is a setback in comparison of wealth. Once you have attained what you previously strived for, it is nothing to you, and you find yourself again at the bottom. And yet I have known the ease with which a man can make a simple living for himself. It is on no more than two fair sized fish a day that a man can sustain his holy fire. And a roof with walls no greater than ten feet apart is more than enough shelter if utilized correctly. Once these two basic necessities are acquired, along with a healthy pair of clothes, what more does a man need in this world?

To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.

— John Muir

He may then successfully acquire his share of the world, and those forfeited by men less inclined. He may suck the marrow out of life, and gather the world into himself through spacial means, as well as intellectual means, for to gather the intellectual properties of the world is far more precious. And within this simplified lifestyle, he has much time to do so.

The modern man must throw off the fat and chaff of his existence, and truly find what it is to survive in this world. I believe that in doing so, he will find what it means to truly live.