A Walden for the YouTube Age


Arts & Culture

Still from Primitive Technology.


Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Thwp. Thwp. Thwack. The sound of stone striking wood. Rustling leaves. A loud crack as a tree falls. A dry whirring of insects. Further off, a monkey shrieks. Shhpt. Shhpt. Water purls over stones in a brook; the heavy pitter-patter of rain taps the forest floor.

These are the sounds of primitive technology. Primitive Technology: an oxymoron, perhaps a logical impossibility, a collision of two buzzwords, and one of the most arresting (and unexpectedly popular) channels on YouTube.

Primitive Technology was created two years ago by a man in Queensland, Australia, who builds huts, weapons, and tools using only naturally occurring materials. In all of his five- to ten-minute videos, the man wears only navy blue shorts, rarely looks at the camera, and never speaks.

It’s a niche concept, to be sure. The channel does not focus on historically accurate building techniques. It does not offer explanatory tutorials. It will not even help you survive in the wilderness: the “fire sticks” with which he ignites tinder require at least twenty-four hours to prepare and look fiendishly hard to use. So why have the videos attracted millions of viewers? And what do viewers like myself seek when we watch the channel on loop? What do we get from it?

One answer is often floated. Amid the online flood of glossy DIY demonstrations, the paranoiac alarums of super-wealthy “preppers” (people preparing for an apocalyptic event), and the cynical commentary of survivalists, Primitive Technology offers something different: quiet. A few minutes of the channel can make you feel as though you are out in the Australian forest, breathing the sun-steeped, eucalyptus-tinged air, washed clean by rain. The slow precision with which the man undertakes each step of his projects—from finding materials to shaping his tools to assembling his finished structures—lends the videos a soothing sense of purpose. On the Internet, where lunacy sometimes seems to prevail, these videos bring a kind of meditative calm.

Take, for instance, Primitive Technology’s “Tiled Roof Hut” video, which has garnered over forty-four million views since it was uploaded in September 2015. The video opens with the channel’s familiar sounds. Thwack thwack thwack—a stone axe bites into slim trees for the hut’s frame. A silvery curtain of birdsong accompanies the slap of clay. There is the crackling of flame in a kiln, which the man builds to fire the roof tiles. In snippets of footage stitched seamlessly together, we watch 102 days of labor trimmed down to a brief video. Fourteen minutes later, a small, neat mud-walled hut has arisen as though from the forest floor, complete with a shingled tile roof, a swinging door of wood slats, and a Korean-style heated floor. A small resin-burning clay lamp hisses and pops inside. The structure looks startlingly, unmistakably like a house. One imagines Robinson Crusoe would gladly move in.

Still from Primitive Technology.

This quiet magic is indeed mesmerizing. But it is only part of the story.

In many ways Primitive Technology is in fact deftly attuned to the logic of the Internet. Witness the number of knockoff channels: Primitive Skills, Primitive Life, Survival Skills Primitive, et cetera. With his millions of subscribers, the channel’s creator earns a comfortable sum from YouTube. (In one of those tidy ironies of the Internet, his identity as thirty-something-year-old John Plant came to light after he complained to Facebook that users who posted his videos directly to the social media site were effectively robbing him of thousands of Australian dollars in YouTube views). Nor is this seeming contradiction so surprising. The channel’s carefully edited videos are streamlined, consistently and effectively branded, and even faintly humorous in their command of comic timing. Plant is adept at wielding both primitive and contemporary technology.

As one becomes aware of these incongruities, other questions bubble up. Plant lets us know that he lives a modern life, in a modern house. He has a college degree, and has been cutting lawns for a living while creating the world of Primitive Technology. He has access to power tools, safety matches—all sorts of equipment that would make his projects easier. Does he ever “cheat” offscreen? Toss aside his laborious “fire sticks” and use a pocket lighter? His signature navy blue shorts have large cargo pockets that could hide a tube of superglue, some string, a knife. (In a few videos one can see the telltale rectangular outline of a smartphone against the fabric, a small reminder that Plant is selling us an illusion). In keeping with the premise of his channel, Plant never uses his pockets to carry any of the materials he needs to build—he weaves baskets and fires clay pots for that—so why does he have pockets at all? More to the point, why do I care?

Musing on this last question has led me from “quiet” to a slightly different concept: purity. Purity is undoubtedly what draws me to the Primitive Technology channel, what governs my expectations for the videos, what soothes my mind as I watch. Plant’s ground rules for the videos—to use only naturally occurring materials found nearby, to strip life down to its essential elements, to remain silent—promise a pure encounter with the environment. The local, the natural: on our globalized, jeopardized planet, these are our imagined Edens, our nostalgias. But purity is rarely pure. The “natural world” itself has long since been permeated and altered by human influence. And the complexities, discolorations, peculiarities of this purity make Primitive Technology especially intriguing.

The problem is not new. Purity was troublesome even for that great promoter of simplicity, Henry David Thoreau. Over a hundred and fifty years ago, not far from where I sit as I write, Thoreau erected his hut at Walden Pond and began what he called his “experiment” in a “primitive and frontier life,” during which he penned the hundreds of notebook pages that went into Walden. These rough drafts were worked up, rearranged, sculpted into a masterpiece that gives one a sense of transparency at every turn, from the transcription of household expenses to the insistent immediacy of Thoreau’s first-person “I.” (Thoreau uses first-person pronouns nearly three thousand times in Walden, according to the scholar Leonard Neufeldt.) But Walden is of course a rhetorical performance, whose readers have at times rebelled against the sense that they’ve been duped. When one first learns that Thoreau was living on borrowed land (owned by his well-to-do friend, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson), that he visited Emerson for dinner, that he was surrounded by cultivated farmland, that he was not indeed surviving on a few beans scratched out of the wilderness, one is tempted to toss the book aside. The problem is not that Thoreau deceives us—what great writer does not?—but that he preaches simplicity and self-examination so noisily. Of course Thoreau knows he has not attained perfection: “If I knew so wise a man as could teach me purity,” he declares, “I would go to seek him forthwith.” Yet one cannot help raising an eyebrow at his rhetoric of purification.

Still from Primitive Technology.

Granted, Primitive Technology does not overtly deploy such rhetoric. Plant leaves his viewers with no doubts: he does not live in these huts, he builds them as a hobby, they are not meant for wilderness survival. He even lets you know how long the huts really took to build—months longer than the few minutes shown on camera. (How long the videos take to edit is perhaps the more salient question.) But the channel’s premise and execution nonetheless perform an alluring kind of purity. Plant uses only materials he can find near his building site. He wears only shorts, leaving the rest of his body—particularly his feet—exposed to the environment in which he’s working. He uses only tools that he has fashioned in previous videos, so that viewers can watch him create not just a series of huts but a small world. And because I know how he constructed his stone axe, his woven baskets, his mud kilns, I am willing to believe that, no, he does not “cheat” offscreen. The effect is magnetic.

Plant’s on-screen demeanor reinforces this impression. Because he almost never looks at the camera, it is easy to forget that the lens through which we are viewing him is the farthest thing imaginable from the mud, stones, and sticks with which he builds his huts. The channel is rooted in two kinds of magic: the raw earth and the mystifications of technology.

The Internet seems to revel in such cognitive dissonance. There is a certain pleasure in uncovering rhetorical sleights of hand, even when they shelter a beautiful illusion. Yet those sleights of hand need not undermine the value or wisdom or quiet one may find there. Thoreau is in earnest when he affirms the healing powers of his beloved Walden Pond. Witness how he imagines someone toiling in the city’s smog, spiritually refreshed by a glimpse of the rural pond:

The engineer does not forget at night … that he has beheld this vision of serenity and purity once at least during the day. Though seen but once, it helps to wash out … the engine’s soot.

Purity may be fraught, even dangerous—how many battles have been fought in its name? And in the end it may exist only as an idea, a promise of something beyond our fragile, compromised human society. Yet it is also aspirational, a testament to the spirit that seeks to transcend itself; and even the performance of purity—the literary mirage of sapphire waters, the perfectly primitive hut—can catch at that idea.


Marissa Grunes is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University, where she focuses on nineteenth-century American literature.