“We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home.” Woodcraft, George Washington Sears
The above quote by George Washington Sear a/k/a Nessmuk has become one of the most popular catch phrases in the current bushcraft/woodcraft/wilderness living community. It is used almost as much as “Thriving in the wilderness”. In recent months it has come to a point where you can hardly talk to a person, or watch a YouTube video without having the phrase repeated over and over.
There are two observations about the phrase that I want to mention. One is regarding its current use, and the other is regarding the way it was used by Nessmuk.
So to start with, let’s look at how Nessmuk used the phrase in context, at least as I read it. Nessmuk, and several authors writing shortly after him seem to use the phrase “to smooth it” in order to counter what they perceived at the time as an escalating use of the phrase “to rough it”. It appears, at least as seen by Nessmuk and others at the time, that too many people were trying to prove their manhood, or appear tougher than everyone else by making their experience in the woods harder than it had to be. The best description I have seen of this approach is by Stewart Edward White: “We all know the type. He professes an inordinate scorn for comfort of all sorts. If you are out with him you soon discover that he has a vast pride in being able to sleep on cobblestones—and does so at the edge of yellow pines with their long needles. He eats badly cooked food. He stands—or perhaps I should say poses—indifferent to a downpour when every one else has sought shelter. In a cold climate he brings a single thin blanket. His slogan seems to be: "This is good enough for me!" with the unspoken conclusion, "if it isn't good enough for you fellows, you're pretty soft."’ Camp and Trail, Stewart Edward White
That being said, my first observation is that these days the phrase seems to have taken a completely different meaning. Very often it is used to justify carrying copious amounts of gear into the woods, from lawn chairs to barbeque grills, because “Nessmuk said to smooth it and not to rough it”. I think this interpretation completely misses the point Nessmuk was trying to make. The way I read it, his point was that all things being equal, one should not suffer unnecessarily just to make a point, or due to lack of skill. Making yourself uncomfortable on purpose or because you don’t know any better, doesn’t prove you are more of a man. That being said, I don’t think Nessmuk intended this statement to be used to justify staying in the parking lot rather than going into the woods, or carrying more gear to make up for lack of skill. After all, his goal was “to smooth it” with the minimal gear possible through the use of skills and smart gear selection.
Another strange use of the term that seems to be occurring these days is that it gets tossed around in perplexing situations where you are not sure exactly how the person is “smoothing it”. Someone goes into the woods, shoots a squirrel, and goes “Now I’m smoothing it.” What does that mean? Does that mean that you have secured sufficient food for yourself for the day and now you can relax? Does that mean that carrying a 7lb shotgun and shells was a better gear choice than bringing a 6oz Mountain House meal? Or, did you bring the Mountain House meal together with the shotgun and now you have a squirrel to add to it? Were you not “smoothing it” with the food you already had with you? Would you be “smoothing it” more if you didn’t have to drag the shotgun around but rather just ate the food you brought anyway? The uses of the phrase seem rampant and unclear. It seems to have become just a catch phrase for people who want to say they know what they are doing in the woods, whether it makes any sense or not.
The other observation is about the way Nessmuk himself used the phrase: “We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it.” When did he become the one who decided why we go into the woods? Maybe he goes into the woods to “make it as smooth, as restful and pleasurable as [he] can”, but not all of us do.
For example, under Nessmuk’s use of the phrase, there would be no reason for a person to go into the woods these days with a wool blanket. Why rough it by having to maintain a fire all night in order to stay warm when you can just get a sleeping bag for the same weight that will keep you toasty warm all night without having to get up every two hours to feed a fire, not to mention all of the work you would save by not having to gather so much fire wood. Well, the answer is that there are people who do not go into the woods with the only purpose of making it as smooth, restful and pleasurable as possible. There are people who like to experience the ways of the past, or to simply test themselves. Even though according to Nessmuk those people are roughing it unnecessarily, there is great value in what they do, and their woodsmanship and efforts are in no way improper, or unnecessary. It is precisely those people who go beyond their comfort levels, and push the boundaries of our abilities as woodsmen that make the greatest contributions to development of woodsmanship as a whole.
Nessmuk seems like one of those guys who would look at George Mallory and ask “Why climb Everest?'” Mallory would of course give his famous answer “Because it’s there”; an answer that someone who has to ask that type of question will never understand. Woodsmen rough it all the time. They do it by choice. They do it to recreate history, to test themselves, to develop better techniques, to explore places previously unreached. They do it because they see something in the wilderness that goes beyond relaxation and comfort.
So I say, woodsmanship does not begin and end with making your experience as smooth, restful and pleasurable as possible. Go ahead and rough it; push the boundaries; achieve goals previously unimaginable; test your limits; and come back with a better understanding of yourself and what you are made of, teaching the rest of us in the process. “Smoothing it” is as devoid of value as “roughing it”.