Reid Bryant teaches a student at The Farm School how to use a portable sawmill. Photo by Susannah Bancroft.
When I was five, my father purchased the axe that accompanied us through the adventures that defined my boyhood. It was a Hudson Bay camp axe from Snow & Nealley, made in the classic style with a lightweight head and a slim, hickory handle. Even then, I knew deep down that this was a fine piece of north-woods craftsmanship, but through boyhood it was simply a delicious hazard.
My father conceded to teach me to use the axe, despite the fact that I was of an age and energy level that should certainly have made him decline. We’d go out back and I’d wail away at fallen logs for hours. But things got serious the day my dad let me fell the white cedar that grew beside our driveway.
It was an ugly, lanky tree, and way too close to the house, but it had a friendly lean and a narrow enough crown that my father, in response to my begging, let me “knock her down” with my little Snow & Nealley. Had he known the upshot of his consent he might well have felled the tree himself, for with the cathartic “whumppp” of that tree coming off her stump, I found my calling (and perhaps my financial downfall). I’ve spent the better part of my youth, and now my young adulthood, wandering the woods with similarly energetic children, and watching them joyfully “cut things down.” Looking back over the years and the stumps that pepper our thinning woodlot, I’ve got to say that the sight of children at work in the woods never loses its wonder.
I serve as a teacher and administrator at The Farm School in central Massachusetts. Among my responsibilities is the oversight of our nearly 300 acres of working forest, which the farm manages for cordwood, timber, and wildlife habitat. Nearly all of the work that takes place in our forest is performed by children and young adults. Two thousand children, primarily of middle-school age, spend a half-week at The Farm School each year, engaging in work that is essential for the survival of the farm. With a demand for forest products to house, heat, and at times feed both staff and students, there is more honest work in the forest than a couple thousand kids can accomplish in a year. My job is to let them try.
Bradley Teeter, our teamster, and I take groups of kids into our forest each day to turn trees into the things that we need. At our disposal are three working Belgians, a small band-saw mill, a hydraulic splitter, crosscut and bow saws, mauls and wedges, and a tiny sugar shack that houses what is perhaps the smallest commercially made evaporator. Day after day we follow the horses into the woods, share a brief safety overview, and put tools into the hands of children. By way of direction, we simply explain what we need from the forest and why, in the clean and linear terms that make sense to people of all ages. Hemlock boards are required to side the new chicken coop, so we spend the morning felling big hemlock, rotating in pairs to get the crosscut singing. Winter draws near and the cordwood pile that feeds the furnace is low, so we buck and split and stack. Pancakes for breakfast? All the more reason to slop buckets of sap back to the bulk tank by the sugar shack.
At the heart of the work we do is the assertion that people, young and old, find value in simple jobs well done. As an introduction to The Farm School, we often read Marge Piercy’s poem To Be Of Use which maintains that “the pitcher cries for water to carry, and a person for work that is real.” It continues to sadden and amaze me that the very word “work” conjures such contempt among some young people. Perhaps that is why I love my job so much, for to see a child joyfully pulling his end of the crosscut, or wiping down the harness leather with saddle soap after a long day’s skidding, is to witness “work” taking on new meaning. Though the work of the classroom certainly has its place, its abstraction rarely satisfies in the simple way that a tangible lesson can. When a child learns that he is capable of keeping himself warm, or handling a dangerous tool to great effect, or simply tending to the needs of someone or something bigger than himself, that child learns that he is powerful. Sadly, we rarely spend time reminding children that they are, indeed, capable of great big things.
Education falls flat when it fails to empower learners. At work in a woodlot, a child holds in his hands far more than a saw, or a peavey, or a splitting wedge. In a woodlot, a child holds the possibility of a new chicken coop, or chilly toes warmed twice: once by the work of the splitting and again after dinner gathered around the glowing stove. It is the very possibility of real impact that makes this work so compelling, both for me and for the children.
But beyond the possibility, there is something even greater, but harder to define, that a child at work is filled up with; it’s the gift that my father gave me, the gift of knowing that I, just a boy, was doing a grown-up job. I can’t rightly say why, but that is necessary, as necessary as the opportunity of a first tree felled, its branches moving across the sky as we all step back and yell, “CLEAR!” With the little percussion that rattles up through our boots when the tree touches down, something very real has been learned.
Reid Bryant is a teacher, farmer, and administrator at The Farm School in Athol, MA, which provides farm-based learning opportunities for children and adults. For more information about The Farm School programs, please visit the website www.farmschool.org, or call (978) 249-9944.