I love to spend time with my kids. My father was the same way. Often times he’d just say, “Come over here, Michael. Stand here and watch until I need your help.” He never needed my help, though. And I always knew it. But I was still glad to just stand there and watch.
Today I told my eleven year old daughter, Kasey to join me in the woods. “What for, Daddy?” she asked.
“I’m builiding a chair,” I said. “And I want you to come with me to cut the logs.”
Kasey only wanted to know if she could ride in the back of my truck.
While I cut the logs with a hand saw, I had Kasey stand next to me – and watch. When I was finished, Kasey helped me to load the truck and hopped in the back for the drive home. She was in charge of keeping the saw during the drive, and helped me to drag a couple of the smaller logs back to my workshop.
“Do you need anything else?” Kasey asked.
“Nope,” I said. “You can go now.”
“Okay, thanks for taking me, Daddy,” Kasey said with her beautiful smile.
“You’re welcome,” I replied.
Just arrived back home following three days of a wilderness course in which four boys, age 12-16, participated. Here are my thoughts as they are fresh from the experience.
The sight of our camp was on John’ Island in South Carolina, and after battling through traffic for nearly an hour as the early morning PGA crowd headed for the day’s round of golf, I finally pulled onto the dirt road that would take me to a private property called, “Sugah Cain.” My wilderness course is different than a “Survival” school because it focuses on skills and learning to integrate with nature seemlessly rather than simply trying to get through a tough spot. “Survival” always had a negative, almost defensive connotation to me. As I told the boys and their parents, “I want you to thrive not survive. Think of it like a would-be craftsman learing how to use tools before building furniture.
But this approach requires focus and attention to detail. And it requires patience.
On day one a 12 year old busted his arrow while trying to straighten it out. I had instructed them to take their river cane arrow shafts and carefully hold them over the heat of a flame before slowly bending it into shape, but as my wife Holly points out, kids today are rewarded for speed. It’s not their fault, it’s just the world in which they are growing up. That’s too bad. This kid went without his own arrow for the rest of camp because he tried to rush through something.
And to be clear, these aren’t at risk kids or anything like that. These are average kids, athletes, bright and from the middle class. My course isn’t a bootcamp and I don’t believe in a military approach to teaching (unless it is in fact the military). My class is intended to be fun – and it is – provided the kids pay attention and take their time. They also must leave all technology behind, including communication devices.
On day two the kids learned how to make glue by heating pine-sap in a clam shell and they continued to work on their arrows (the arrowless kid gathered firewood and found clamshells in a creek bed). They also learned how miserable things can get when they’e sloppy. A few dropped crumbs brings a swarm of flys and being disorganized leads to misplaced items: important items like bow strings that take two hours to twist from single strands of sinew. When one kid couldn’t find his bowstring I said nothing. I simply watched him stand around waiting to be rescued.
One of the other boys found the string twisted in the leaves and branches near their log seat and handed it back to its owner with a stern look as if to say,”stop wasting my time.”
My course is a process. There is very little satisfaction in the beginning – only skills that will lead to satisfaction. It’s the same way I teach fitness and wood-working. By day three all they have to show for their time in the woods is the ability to hand-twist bow strings, how to make glue from sap and deer droppings and how to start a fire without matches. All cool stuff, to be sure, but not enough to quench the needs of teenage boys. By day three however, it all begins to come together.
A guy named Curt Moore joined me for the last piece to the camp. It was an all-day and night event that culminated with sleeping in a homemade shelter. Curt is a wilderness expert whose nickname, “Montana” was earned from all the time he spent living in the Montana wilderness. His 5th great uncle is Daniel Boone and as my truck bounced along a dirt road leading us to where the boys were set up, I turned to “Montana”and chuckled. “I guess this stuff is in the blood for you.” He looked straight ahead at the grove of 300 year old oaks dripping with moss that swayed gently in the breeze. He paused for a while, contemplating the scene, and my question. “Yup,” he quipped, “it’s in the blood.” It was obvious to me that Curt “Montana” felt more at home among the tall grass and old oaks than he did as a furniture maker back on Sullivan’s Island. Driving through the woods, tall grass and old oaks was like going back home to him.
His 5th great uncle is Daniel Boone, afterall.
The first thing Montana showed the boys was his home-made bow. After they each took a turn shooting at a target with Montana’s Hickory masterpiece they began to understand why they had come here. They were going to make their own bows and as I explained, “Without the skills you’ve learned you can’t make a bow.” We headed into the woods to look for the perfect limbs from which a bow would be shaped. At first, the boys followed me single-file as I scanned the shaded landscape for the perfect tree. I turned towards them. “Stop following me,” I said sternly pointing towards the deep part of the woods. “Find your own bow.” The looks on their faces spoke volumes. It was a mixture of surprise and panic as they realized I wasn’t going to help them. The process took over three hours. Afterwards we set the limbs aside and began work on our shelter.
We chose a spot among a grove of about thiry old growth oaks, whose massive twisted limbs reached out like giant arms, casting shadows on the tall grass. The trees were draped with Spanish moss that hung to the ground and danced in the breeze, giving us much needed shelter from the hot sun. Off in the distance I could hear the rumble of storm clouds and made sure the boys understood the seriousness of the next order of business. They quickly went to work starting a fire then gathered material for their shelter. The two older boys, age fifteen and sixteen wielded the machete and hatchet while the two younger boys, age twelve and thirteen carried the material back from the woods. About an hour into the work the skies grew dark and it began to rain. Fifteen minutes later the boys moved with a sense of urgency as it started to pour. Before long they decided it was better to work barefoot than to slop around in soaked shoes.
The weather and the woods began to transform these modern day boys into real woodsmen. They no longer seemed out of place, as they moved with precision, focused and alive.
Neither Curt or I offered any advice as the boys figured it all out for themselves. My own son, age eight, stood by the fire to make sure it didn’t go out, while Curt and I began the framework for our structure. We chose to build an A-frame style hut using as our ridge beam a massive limb that grew out of an old oak that was at least two centuries old. It struck me that we probably weren’t the first men to use that old tree for some useful purpose. The boys found palm fronds for shingles and Curt and I chuckled when the younger boys instructed the older guys to cut the stems longer. They had figured out that it was difficult to weave the palm fronds into place with short stems so they took the initiative to correct the process.
Good for them.
It took over five hours to build the shelter, and after a brief time in which to reorganize, the boys got back to the business of bow and arrow making. They sat quietly by the fire, unspeaking, focused and patient. One of the boys knicked his leg just above his knee with a hatchet, causing him to bleed. The other boys noticed right away but said nothing. They simply turned back to their work, as did the boy with the hatchet. I offered no advice as the lesson had already been learned. Boys have been doing this sort of thing for thousands of years, and the soul of a boy is no different today. The truth is, I couldn’t pull them away from that fire with any temptation other than the promise that they could come back to it. They had no interest in cell phones, ipods, games or television.
They were making bows. And they were dirty from the swamp and woods.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon organizing our camp, making baskets, arrows, glue and gathering firewood before heading back to a pavillion on the property where we had a cookout with some of their parents. The moms and dads were anxious to see the camp so follwing a little showing off of bows and arrows, we jumped in a kabota and took them to the shelter. It nearly brought the adults to tears to see what their boys had built. It was getting dark so I allowed only a small window of time for the visit. Inside the hut a fire burned hot as the boys said goodbye then got back to work on their bows. I gently nudged the parents back into the Kabota and told them I’d join them in about an hour after the boys were settled. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be that big of a deal – a group of boys camping in the woods. But Curt and I both knew something that we didn’t share with the boys or their parents: the shelter would not hold up to the rain. It was strong, but it wasn’t built to keep out a heavy downpour. Curt and I could have easily remedied this but decided against it.
This was their shelter – not ours.
After the darkness settled in my son and I laid on the groud under the tall oak, looking up at the stars, listening to the distant thunder and to the chatter of boys, who in the flicker of the fire spoke in a rhythmic chant from inside their shelter.
“I like listening to the boys,” Michael Elijah said in a half-sleep as we lay there. My little guy was exhaused from his day in the woods and fresh air.
“Why do you like listening to the boys?” I asked Michael as his face lit up with each flash of lightning.
“It sounds like music,” he replied. “The boys talking sounds like music.”
I smiled at that. The two of us continued to listen to the boys, and to the frogs who were also preparing for the storm. Michael said the symphony of boys and frogs was putting him to sleep. “It’s better than the music I listen to at home,” he said.
After final instructions from Daniel Boone’s 5th great nephew on how to store the extra firewood and how to harden the tip of a hand-crafted spear, Michael and I got up and said goodbye to the boys. “Make sure you have enough firewood,” I said. “And when you think you have enough, double it.” Montana smiled, then jumped into the Kabota with Michael and I to leave the boys alone. This wasn’t a test on how to survive in the wilderness, and as I told the boys earlier in the camp, it wasn’t about learing how to survive some kind of apocolypse: it was a lesson in confidence and self-reliance. “I don’t want to survive in a post apocolyptic world,” I told the boys. “And I certainly don’t believe that life would be better living in the wilderness.”
The fact is, I love my modern world. I love that I can stop at the deli and grab a sandwich after my Saturday morning football game with the fellas. I love that I can sit on my couch with a bowl of popcorn and a beer to watch the game on my high def t.v. And I love the fact that I can call my mom whenever I feel like it from wherever I am in the world. But I also love that I can head into the woods with my son for a day or two of bow-making and fishing.
And it is nice to know that I can survive if I have to.
Back at the pavillion where we spent the night sleeping comfortably on foutons, I sat up for a time with a few of the parents, eating desert while their sons got ready for a storm. One of the moms paced nervously back and forth as the lightning began to flash and the patter of rain started to fall on the roof. I smiled and told her the kids would be fine.
She smiled back. “I can’t help it,” she said. “It feels natural to worry.”
“It is natural,” I said. “But you can’t rescue them.”
The mom shot me a curious glance. I then explained something very important about boys as the thunder roared outside. “Boys don’t want to be rescued,” I said. “But they’ll never turn it down, either, so we must be careful.” In other words, let them suffer and they’ll be glad for it – take their suffering away and they’ll accept it. But then they’ll hate you for it later. The truth about boys is that they want to be strong and resourceful but will take the easy way out if it’s offered. What made my grandfather’s generation so great was thay they were raised to save the world – not the other way around.
A brutal storm raged all night long as the rain and thunder never let up. I would have thought nothing less of the boys had they decided to head back for the safety of the pavillion – and I’d have thought nothing less of their parents if they drove out to get them. I went to bed that night lying next to my son, convinced that in the morning a group of soaked boys would be sprawled out on the floor near to us.
I awoke as the sun beamed through a small window next to our fouton, and looked out at the few remaining clouds as they made room for a perfect blue sky. I gave a quick glance towards the floor then panned the field off in the distance for any sign of the boys. Montana, perhaps more worried than he let on the night before was waiting for them half-way. When their shirtless, soaked bodies finally appeared through the shadows of oaks, I could see Montana following behind, honoring his students by allowing them to lead the way. They walked without speaking, exhausted but confident.
At breakfast I asked the boys to share their best experience of the camp. One of the older boys answered first. “When it rained last night.”
The others agreed.
“That’s funny,” I said. “That’s the part the worried us the most. Didn’t you get soaked?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “And the lightning got pretty bad.” He then looked around the room, and said something very important. “I was surprised that no one came out to get us.”
“Is that what you wanted?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I was just surprised, that’s all.”
“So why did you stay?” I asked.
“We had to keep the fire going,” he answered seriously. He then explained that they took turns watching it all night long.
With a very interested mom listening in, I then asked how he would have responded if someone came out to get them. “would you have packed up and come back to the pavillion?”
“Yes,” he said with a half smile. The rest of the boys agreed.
“Even if it would have ruined the best part?” I asked. “Even if that meant the fire would go out?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
“So are you glad we let you stay out there to get soaked in the storm?”
“Yup,” he grinned. “It would have ruined it to let the fire go out.”
As I drove away with Montana and my little guy, I turned towards the woods and the grove of old oaks, thinking about the fire and how important it had become during the storm.
Perhaps someday, long after I’m gone, those kids will have boys of their own, and they’ll sit around another fire, built in similar fashion, and they’ll be teaching their own kid something that they learned from Montana and Coach Bronco. As the smoke rises up through the trees they’ll tell the story about that night they spent in the storm – keeping the fire going. “You can never have enough wood,” they’ll say. “Gather what you think you’ll need then double it.”
Then, as a distant thunder rumbles and the sky grows dark, they’ll get up to walk away, leaving their sons to take over the fire – and to keep it burning bright.
I made this bamboo writing desk as a Christmas present for my ten year old daughter. It is made completely by hand with bamboo, pine, salvaged pallet from a construction site and boasts a hand0rubbed finish. There are no nails or screws in the entire piece. All joints are mortised by hand.
I have two orders for similar desks so if you’d like one for yourself or as a gift just send me a note. Price for this desk or similar is $1,600. A steal considering that it will last 300 plus years and will be handed down by one generation after another.
Below is another video on part of the process.
Chapter 1: Baseball
by Michael Elijah
I signed up for baseball and my dad is also the coach. I have to say, baseball is my sport. Now, one day my dad saw this video of a batting cage, so we went there. It’s called, ‘Frankie’s Fun Park’. Well, we didn’t get there right away because we got lost 2 times! So, we saw this little house with two ladies and chickens – it looked very old so it was scary until the ladies were just walking around in a big swamp of mud. Then my dad pulls over and says, “Hey, do you know where Frankie’s Fun Park’ is?” They gave us directions and we went there.
Frankie’s Fun Park is fun.
Here’s a workbench made entirely out of pine logs. There are no nails, screws or glue. Perfect for workshop, blacksmith shop, garden or crafting space.
I can still picture Holly mixing away. Her tanned shoulders and legs speckled with dried cement as I stood atop a scaffold waiting for the next bucket. This was eight years ago, while we were building the addition to our cabin – and our home at the time. Holly was pregnant with Michael and the girls were ages three and eight.
Five months into that pregnancy Holly never complained. She just mixed away, quietly, seriously, shielding her eyes from the sun as I shouted down instructions: “Just half a bucket this time! More water this time! A little less sand in the next one!”
Then she’d turn and mix away, first cracking open a fresh bag of mortar than shoveling the sand into a wheel barrel and adding water. When she was finished, Holly would fill up a 25 gal. bucket tied to a rope so I could haul it up to my perch some fifteen feet above. When the sixth month of her pregnancy arrived, Holly was still mixing away. I was near the top but not yet finished. We were living in just half the house, with the other half covered in tarps to keep out the rain. At night, we’d sit in a tiny room and have dinner sitting on wood crates. My dusty boots were still on my feet, ready to put in another couple of hours after the meal. I wanted to have the house ready for Michael’s arrival, so we did whatever it took. Rather than complain, Holly simply grabbed an old towel for my boots, then sat down next to me on our wood-crate make-shift bench. We’d eat whatever she could make over a fire because the addition included our kitchen – our not yet built kitchen.
And through all this Holly always managed a smile. She never complained about feeling poorly, the cement, the kitchen-less half-built home, the hot sun, the hard work, or even the fact that we had no electric for much of the time.
The fact is, Holly enjoyed every single minute of that time in our lives. She loved sending the girls off to school in the morning, mixing the cement, helping me work, being pregnant with Michael, getting the girls off the bus, and then cooking over a fire before helping them with their homework, while I continued to hack away at the roof and fireplace construction.
Through all of this I learned something valuable about Holly, something that I have been privileged to witness for the past sixteen years: she loves being a mom – and she loves being a wife.
I told Holly that I’d build another cabin one day – and that it would have a massive fireplace just like the last one. But I assured her that she wouldn’t have to mix the cement. I can’t recall her exact reply, but I can tell you that she didn’t smile. The truth is, Holly loves hard work, and she loves the feeling of the hot sun on her shoulders. She loves to build, to teach, to create, and to be with her family.
And I love her company.