I forged my own blade yesterday, from an unassuming piece of plain steel. With some expert instruction, I pounded it on an anvil, ground the blade down, fitted it with a brass hilt, polished and sharpened it. The handle is made out of native timber that was salvaged from a dismantled insane asylum.
I joked with others that I created an heirloom yesterday, but maybe I really did. It is totally unique and feels like a part of me already. A fine, simple tool like a solid knife bestows a certain joy on its owner: the joy of new capability.
Human beings, without outside help, do not have the capability to cut anything without chewing on it. Until people started borrowing the capabilities of objects around them (such as the sharp edges of rocks) certain fibers and materials were simply uncuttable! Try cutting steaks with your bare hands.
Today we use tools without even thinking about it. Without a doubt, you are at this moment surrounded by (and draped in) all sorts of tools, equipment and technology. There are probably at least a dozen items in operation right now that are making your moment much better than it would otherwise be: clothing, writing utensils, computers, chairs, clocks, desks and eyeglasses for starters. If we had to face even one day as the naked, possessionless creature Mother Nature made us, it would be one hell of a trial.
You are just a naked animal, plus stuff
It is humbling to remember that we modern people are essentially the same as people were 20,000 years ago, only we have a lot more stuff. I doubt we are much happier though. Most depictions of prehistoric people characterize them as bumbling thugs, yet we know that they were virtually the same animal as you and your friends. They had the same abilities of reason and discernment, the same capacity for intuition and compassion.
These individuals had to deal with this same volatile planet and its deadly extremes long before we learned to walk, let alone wield a frying pan or drive a car. But they did their daily rounds without the advantage of high technology, which you and I found ourselves born into haphazardly, without having earned it.
They had to contend with the same human dilemmas we do: angst, ethics, envy, fear, confusion, humiliation, low self-esteem. They must have done well, for the result of their ingenuity and aptitude is the modern society you see all around you today. They gave birth to us. Evidently, they found ways to handle things.
The joy of tools and things
Early people did have their tools, though they were few and simple. Yet they still greatly expanded the capacity of people to do their work. If your goal was to bring home as many blueberries as you could in a half-day, consider how much better you would be at it if you had a simple wicker basket at your disposal. Consider how difficult a task it would be if you didn’t.
An early man with a simple homemade hand axe and a crude sheepskin tunic would have been several times more formidable than his naked, empty-handed neighbor. A gang of hunters might manage to barehand a few fish from a stream, if they’re in the right place at the right time. The same gang, armed with spears, could fell a mammoth.
You could imagine how attached early people would have been to their tools, because facing life without them would make the struggle many times more difficult. With only a dozen or so possessions, a person’s attitude towards his ‘stuff’ would be quite different than we treat our stuff today. One would pick up his possessions as if they mattered, knowing they couldn’t be readily replaced. The loss of one tool would be a dramatic loss of capability. Lose your knife and suddenly everything is uncuttable again. Lose your basket and suddenly you can only carry a handful of blueberries. Lose your blanket and suddenly nightfall becomes deadly.
Imagine being charged with full responsibility for your own existence and future, with only your body and mind and whatever tools you are fortunate enough to have in your possession. Simple items such as shoes would be immensely important, because you’d be acutely aware of the great measures by which they make you more capable.
Well, even today, that is actually all we’re all doing: making do with the bodies and tools we have. We tend to lose sight of this simple truth though, and fall under some sort of post-industrial spell that convinces us life is more complicated than that.
There seems to be much more to consider these days. We’re eternally distracted by things happening off-stage: waiting bills, unread blogs, slumping economies, must-see TV that’s on later.
Perhaps there really is more to consider. The world seems to be quite complex. The information age given us endless trains of thought to pick up and play with. But if you were to hike out into the bush with only a few trusted items and an ironclad will to survive the night, suddenly everything would get a lot simpler. Your mind would gravitate away from your nation’s politics and earthquakes in far-off lands, and towards the rainclouds gathering on the horizon, the contents of your pack, and the trusty knife you made from steel and insane asylum. The world would appear to get smaller and more real, but it’s actually your awareness tightening around the hard reality unfolding right where you actually are — an unusual sensation for many of us spoiled, distracted urbanites.
The problem then, is not that the world is more advanced or more complex, but that our technological lives have made us become more accustomed to thinking about places we aren’t currently at, people we aren’t with, and things we are not doing. Mass production has brought affordable tools to everyone in excess. It has given us mass expectations, and minimal gratitude.
It is another stinging irony of being human: our affinity and aptitude for making tools has left us bored and underappreciative of them. Our lives are so full of stuff that they cease anymore to be things. Another depressing side-effect of mass production is that we accept such poor quality as the norm. We can have more stuff if we opt for the least expensive stuff — that which was churned out with the least pride and offers the least joy.
When it comes to tools and equipment, we are so hopelessly accustomed to wielding the incredible capabilities that they lend us, that we almost forget how little we can do without them. Our technology turns us all into superheroes. Armed only with what’s on my person at this moment, I can see in the dark, stand in the rain and stay dry and warm, speak across oceans, teleport written words to thousands of people, start a fire, tell time to the second, transport a liter of potable water with no risk of spillage, capture near-perfect moving and static images of any person, place or event I see, listen to music played by musicians who died before I was born, and if need be, cut to ribbons anyone who stands in my path.
Back home I’ve got even more superhero powers awaiting my return. Among the most powerful is a black, shiny machine that can accelerate my body and several hundred pounds of my possessions to over a hundred kilometers per hour, while I sit comfortably in an upholstered throne, dry and warm, listening to more dead musicians play music forty years ago at my command. I can cross nations without leaving my seat.
You and your tools
Almost every time I use a Bic lighter, I think about how much a prehistoric person would value such a device. They would kill for it. There is a memorable scene in Tom Hanks’ Castaway, (before the film collapses into a bizarre and transparent FedEx advertisement.) Upon the hero’s return to civilization after being alone and island-bound for four years, he plays idly with a fireplace lighter at a Christmas party. Dimly mesmerized, he swallows his bitterness towards the preoccupied crowd around him who could never appreciate their access to such a miracle, nor to any other.
Imagine then, how much joy and productivity a prehistoric human would derive from a flashlight, a plastic water bottle, or a steel-bladed knife. These humble items, flea-market junk to you and me, would be revered and worshiped by your stone-age relatives, because they would not have lost sight of who they are without them.
Throughout my travels, I’ve only carried a backpack (an extremely useful — no, indispensable — item in itself) full of clothing and maybe a dozen other tools: pencils, paper, a water bottle, a camera, some band-aids, a toothbrush and some reading material. That’s not to mention my laptop — an item of such incalculable, staggering power a caveman could not conceive of it.
How to recall your superpowers
As often as possible, return to the mindset of profound gratitude for the tools at your disposal. Chances are you don’t even think of most of them as tools: your shirts and pants, your stationery, your phone.
Here’s an exercise to get you into that mindset:
Close your eyes and imagine the prehistoric version of you. An uncanny clone: the same body, but without clothes or tools. He (or she, of course) has access to all your innate mental and physical capabilities, but none of the superpowers normally lent to you by technology.
Really put yourself in his shoes (or shoeless feet, rather.) You find yourself in the forest, a place of immense natural beauty, but also considerable danger. You are aware that night will come soon, bringing with it a menacing chill and impenetrable darkness. You know you must be resourceful and get busy immediately. There’s no cell phone, no 911.
Picture the physical reality of the setting: you are a graceful, potent, intelligent creature, but as with your ancestors, your powers do not extend beyond what Mother Nature gave you. It is a mild day, but you feel the breeze on the whole surface of your bare body. The thought of that alone would make most modern humans uncomfortable; the idea of no clothes, in any setting, is already nervewracking. Once upon a time there were no clothes.
But you’re naked and empty-handed — as you and every other person were at birth — and you know that your fate is up to you. So you must make do. You set out looking for water and food, and a sheltered place to spend the night.
So your prehistoric clone manages to make it through a few days like this. Perhaps he’s found a handy walking stick that could also double as a weapon. Through his resourcefulness and will, he’s survived a handful of near-disasters and his confidence is bolstered. Life is not especially comfortable, but he’s made it so far. Your industrious clone has made an adequate lean-to for shelter and found a reliable source of food.
Imagine then, your primitive clone comes across a rucksack in a clearing. It’s made of a tough, durable fiber (which you would know to be nylon.) Inside are a pound of beef jerky, a 1.5L bottle of Dasani, a Zippo, a North Face two-man tent, a pair of fine hiking boots, a pair of pants, a t-shirt, a fleece, and a Swiss Army knife.
Suddenly your clone is an indomitable superhero, worlds of capability beyond his or her natural self (and the competition), all with a few hundred dollars worth of simple gear. A naked, empty-handed human is already a force to be reckoned with, and tools multiply that power many times over.
Now, look around the room at everything you have working for you. Decent clothes, tools galore, a most importantly, a society that produces your food, lights your way, disposes of your waste and gives you a way to do just about everything you want.
We all live our daily lives in these states of immense personal power, yet it’s so common to feel like we don’t have enough to take on the world. Clearly we do, if generations of naked ancestors were able to pull off a worthwhile life.
So don’t forget, we live and work in situations of capability and luxury that most of history’s humans could not imagine. If you forget, pick up just about anything in your house and remember that a caveman might have killed for one. Enjoy your superpowers. Your only kryptonite is complacency.
Photos by David Cain and Steven Martin