No Tool Makers Here

Believe it or not there are days here when finding clean water can be a problem. Not “clean” so much as “clear.” November is notorious for this, because there can be a week or more when the shoreline is not a sharp division between land and water, but instead a jostling mass of ice-pans and slush ice, rolling and heaving and grating against the sand and clay of the lake bottom out in front of our home beach. The water, if a person can figure out a way to get to it, is probably not unhealthy to drink, but it looks like pale chocolate milk. “Too thick to navigate, too thin to cultivate” was the saying in flood time on big rivers like the Yukon and the Missouri.  

Faced with this the other day, and with drinking water getting low in the house, I came up with what I thought was a clever solution. We still don’t have much snow here so far this winter, and up until the other day the weather had been holding mild, just a little below freezing. I started up the four-wheel Honda ATV that we use for off-season dog training and general hauling, and I hitched on the trailer.  Our trailer is a gerry-rigged plywood box, bolted to an old car axle with two big tires gleaned from the junkyard in Yellowknife years ago. I grabbed eight or nine water pails, which are bright yellow plastic and came in here full of canola oil for the dogs, tossed them in the trailer, tied a chainsaw and an ear-muff hard-hat onto the front rack, threw an axe into the trailer for chopping ice, slung my gun over my shoulder in case this should turn out to be my lucky day for Mr. Moose (still at large, since you asked), and bounced off down the shore toward the river mouth, where I thought the water would be clear. Trailer squeaking and rattling, four-wheeler, chainsaw, empty pails, gun, axe. Lots of stuff.

With some stops to cut alder and deadfall, a detour out onto the shorefast ice, and some cutting and piling of more burn-slash, I finally reached the open beach at the river mouth. Shut off the machine. Feeling very clever and resourceful, I might add.  

The water there was as clear and clean as I had hoped it would be, the best water in the world. I dipped pail after pail, and snapped the lids into place. Had a good look around. Out at the riffle of fast water, across to the east bank where the muskox have often come down in recent years, and south where the big lake was a vast expanse of whitecaps and jostling ice pans. 

I looked at all my paraphenalia. Chuckled to myself, “Homo sapiens, the tool-making ape.” Snapped a photo, started the machine, slung on my weapon, and set off bouncing and squeaking with a couple hundred pounds of water splashing in the trailer.

As I drove home, a correction to that phrase came to me, and I have been mulling it over. We are only and always tool users now, not tool makers. There is not a soul on the planet who, even if given an entire lifetime (or five!), could fashion from scratch even a fraction of the modest array of gadgets I was calling on to help ease my simple water-hauling chore. Think of it: the smelting, the digging, the felling and milling, honing and machining, wiring and circuitry, pumping and refining, trucking and barging, on and on and on. 

People tend to use predictable adjectives to describe this odd outback life we have chosen here. On the list you can always count on self-reliant, resourceful, and independent. Which are all a crock! Stripped of the tenuous connections out and away from here, the lines of supply to tools and foods and fuels and so on, I wonder if we would last a year.  In two months or less, our life from day to day would already look a whole lot different, and it would only get more desperate (and dis-spirited) from there, to a drawn-out and miserable extinction. I kid you not.

A couple of years ago I wrote along these same lines here, also in November, in a post called Fuel Haul.  Tipping my hat, I wrote then, to all the workers and systems and legions of truly clever individuals — me not among them — upon whom we have depended to live this far-flung 34-year sham of “self-reliance.” I circle back to that theme now, after a year and a half in this grinding pandemic. The plague has, we can hope, at the very least forced many tool-using apes to sit up and smell their coffee, or their chai latte. Has it ever been more obvious that we are all in this together? That perhaps we can address big global problems with big global actions? And who, and what, were truly essential to you during quarantine and lockdown, as you huddled in front of your Zoom-meeting screen, working from home in your jammies? 

Okay, down off the soapbox again, pal.

I got home, with my water and all my gadgets. Toted pails up the steps and dumped them one by one into the tanks and barrels in the kitchen.  Had a celebratory sip of clear ice-cold water. Splashed some on my face. We all need that now and then.  Helps clear cherished delusions, like “self-reliance” and “clever” and “tool-maker.” 


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