Letter of Recommendation: ‘Primitive Technology’
Somewhere in an unidentifiable patch of scrubby forest, a nameless man labors to make something — an ax, a forge, an entire hut — using only materials that he has collected from the surrounding wilderness. It’s a patient process. Working without tools means that every fire has to be started by hand, without matches, using a straight stick spun against another piece of wood, the ember gently edged into a handful of dry duff until it kindles. Chopping down a sapling means first flaking a stone into an adz, then hammering the adz into the trunk until the tree can be wrenched down.
This is the unlikely premise of the YouTube series “Primitive Technology.” By the time I started watching, my husband, Nick, had been talking about it for weeks. The videos were simple, he said, but strangely captivating, almost beautiful. Still, I never quite found time to take a look. One video, Nick told me, was entirely about making charcoal. Charcoal! How could I possibly want to watch that? Amazingly, it turned out that I did want to watch it. And so did a lot of people. (As of this writing, the charcoal segment has been viewed more than nine million times.)
The series’s popularity is all the more surprising given that the videos don’t actually try very hard to pull you in. Unlike most of the stuff thrown at us online (the narcissistic makeup tutorials, the angry news clips, the high-gloss cooking porn, the didactic home-repair instructionals), “Primitive Technology” doesn’t chatter at you or otherwise demand your attention. The videos are virtually silent, for one thing — no talking, no explaining — so the only sound is ambient: the rustle of leaves being gathered; the muffled sound of a sharp stone biting into green wood; the occasional clear piping of bird song.
Compared with most internet stars, the Man is also unusually reticent. He never gives his name. (I think of him simply as the Man.) And a close reading of the comments section reveals only that he lives in Queensland, Australia; that he built his first hut when he was 11; and that he used to make a living mowing lawns. His diffidence is oddly exhilarating. Shots often start midaction, so watching them feels a bit like playing detective. A scene might open with the Man gathering leaves, then cut to him chipping a hole through the center of a stick. In the absence of narration, we can only guess at where any of this is heading. Gradually, though, some sort of meaning emerges — and the process is oddly suspenseful. Watching the Man head into the forest to yank up some kind of tough, fibrous plant, you wonder: What’s he going to do with that? Later, when the plant has been stripped and woven into a cord that powers a surprisingly effective drill, the moment feels gratifying, like a small magic.
The cumulative effect of these moments can be staggering, especially with the most extraordinary projects — like the one in which the Man builds an entire wood-framed hut from scratch, complete with mud walls, a door and a window and elegant, Spanish-style clay roofing tiles that have been fired in a kiln, also built from scratch. I’ve watched the video half a dozen times now, and with each viewing I’m nearly overcome by some new intricacy: the cleverly perforated clay disk that becomes the floor of the kiln, suspending the leather-hard tiles neatly above the fire; the small tabs that allow the tiles to be hooked onto the roof beams, so they don’t slide out of place. Taken as a whole, the project seems mystifying, impossible. Seeing all the component steps only makes it exponentially more miraculous.
Of the 22 videos posted since “Primitive Technology” began in May 2015, the tiled hut remains the most popular, with more than 19 million views. But for all the virtuosic craftsmanship, the real draw, I think, is the absorbing peace of watching the Man work: the quiet focus as he weaves a basket from thin strips of palm leaves or patiently gathers flat stones to stack into a hearth. Barefoot and pale, he wears navy cargo shorts and no shirt, and doesn’t speak or look at the camera. We seem to be catching him unawares. As an approach, this comes as a surprising relief. Fans often describe the videos as meditative, or even therapeutic. (“Your videos are the most beautiful thing I have seen on the internet,” one person writes. “They make me feel serene. No talking and no rubbish — just plain, simple work.”) Watching them, especially amid the clamor of YouTube, can feel like leaving a crowded party and stepping out into the cool night air.
You could argue that “Primitive Technology” is just another case of living by proxy through the internet: Rather than actually doing the hard work of making an adz or digging clay out of a riverbank, we sit on our sofas and absorb it passively, as entertainment. No doubt that’s true. But the real joy of “Primitive Technology” isn’t that it won’t give us blisters, but that it gives us a refuge. In a time of exhausting demands on our attention — not least the enervating drama of the postelection news cycle — “Primitive Technology” acts as a quiet corrective, an escape from a surfeit of vanity and strife. The Man isn’t out for our attention. He’s more like the gruff neighbor who let you hang around his workshop when you were a kid, provided you didn’t talk too much. It’s a way to share, vicariously, the rewards of patience and focus. The companionable satisfaction of process.
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