The drying in of the house went so fast that I remember clearly only two parts; one was the dull repetition of hammering nails into the plywood sheathing of the floor and roof. One nail every six inches on the edges, every eight inches where the plywood lay over a floor joist or roof rafter. The average small house requires over 50,000 nails. If the average nail takes five seconds to be placed and hammered in, a builder using a hammer spends seventy hours, or a week and a half, banging nails. (The pneumatic nail gun would soon do for house building what the sewing machine gun had done for sewing.) Whenever I regret that I have not personally changed the world or the nation or even my state, I think of nails in a house. No single nail does anything very important, but they must all be there. The vast masses of human beings contribute to the building of civilization as the pounders of nails contribute to the building of a house. We are necessary but unnoticed. A few people are noticed because, instead of building, they destroy. Only the very rare person changes the world with individual acts.
— Wallace Kaufman, Coming Out Of The Woods: The Solitary Life Of A Maverick Naturalist
This passage is fairly representative of what I loved about this book — the matter-of-fact, methodical, detailed descriptions of what is actually entailed by attempting to live romantic fantasies of the “simple” life, shading into broader stoic reflections by the time the paragraph finishes. This was another of those serendipitous discoveries I picked up with no expectations (or rather, one that the Lady of the House found and handed to me), but Kaufman is a fine writer, with a graduate degree from Oxford (though, as he amusingly relates early on, that did nothing to prevent him from getting “pinhooked” by a local yokel with a grade-school education when buying his land). The humor is frequent but understated. The steady loss of his romantic innocence isn’t played for cheap laughs, nor does he engage in the performative self-loathing of other “privileged” back-to-the-land types. He loves his small slice of the wilderness, but he has no sentimental illusions about the wild, as evidenced by his description of a raid by one bee colony on another (a pillage “as savage as a Viking raid or a Mongol invasion”), or his reflections on “wild” humans like Dahmer, Manson and the twentieth-century totalitarian leaders. I lost count of how many times his rhetorical ambles brought him around to deliver another deserved kick to Thoreau’s rump. But if humans are all too guilty of projecting their naive fantasies about universal harmony and easy living onto the natural world, we are also “the animal who cares about other animals,” the one “who is curious about other animals for the sake of knowledge.” We put out food and housing for them out of pleasure in their company and genuine desire to know their lives. “If there is ever a Judgment Day in which the lives of all species are judged, let this outreach count in our favor.” In a relentlessly cruel and bloodstained natural world, the emergence of such humble efforts might be the closest thing to a miracle we’ll ever know.